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Title: Neighbours on the Green; My Faithful Johnny
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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                              NEIGHBOURS

                             ON THE GREEN

                       [Illustration: colophon]



                              NEIGHBOURS

                             ON THE GREEN

                             MRS. OLIPHANT

                          ‘Old wives’ tales.’

                                London
                           MACMILLAN AND CO.
                             AND NEW YORK

                                 1889

                        _All Rights Reserved._

                    RICHARD CLAY AND SONS, LIMITED,
                          LONDON AND BUNGAY.



                               Inscribed

                        TO SEVERAL OLD FRIENDS,

           AND ESPECIALLY TO THE GALLANT SOLDIER AND WRITER,

                        General George Chesney,

             AND THE DISTINGUISHED CRITIC AND PHILOSOPHER,

                           Mr. R. H. Hutton,

                  WHO AT THE TIME THESE STORIES WERE

                      WRITTEN GAVE DISTINCTION TO

                              THE GREEN.



CONTENTS


                                                                    PAGE

MY NEIGHBOUR NELLY                                                     1

LADY DENZIL                                                           31

THE STOCKBROKER AT DINGLEWOOD                                         65

THE SCIENTIFIC GENTLEMAN                                              99

LADY ISABELLA                                                        148

AN ELDERLY ROMANCE                                                   182

MRS. MERRIDEW’S FORTUNE                                              207

THE BARLEY MOW                                                       237

MY FAITHFUL JOHNNY                                                   271



Neighbours on the Green



MY NEIGHBOUR NELLY



CHAPTER I


They were both my neighbours, of course: but to apportion one’s heart’s
love in equal shares according to the claims of justice is a very
different matter. I saw as much of one sister as the other. And Martha
was an excellent girl, quite honest and friendly and good; but as for
Ellen, there never could be any question about her. One did not even
think of discriminating which were her special good qualities. She was
Ellen, that was enough; or Nelly, which I prefer, for my part. We all
lived at Dinglefield Green in these old days. It is a model of a
village, in one sense of the word; not the kind of place, it is true, to
which the name is generally applied, but a village _orné_, as there are
cottages _ornés_. The real little hamlet, where the poor people lived,
was at a little distance, and gave us plenty of occupation and trouble.
But for Dinglefield Green proper, it was such a village as exists
chiefly in novels. The Green was the central point, a great triangular
breadth of soft grass, more like a small common than a village green,
with the prettiest houses round--houses inclosed in their own
grounds,--houses at the very least embosomed in pretty gardens, peeping
out from among the trees. None of us were very rich; nor was there
anything that could be called a ‘place’ in the circle of dwellings. But
I believe there was as much good blood and good connection among us as
are rarely to be found even in a much larger community. The great house
opposite, which was separated from the green by a ha-ha, and opened to
us only a pretty sweep of lawn, looking almost like a park, belonged to
Sir Thomas Denzil, whose pedigree, as everybody knows, is longer than
the Queen’s. Next to him was Mrs. Stoke’s pretty cottage who was--one of
the Stokes who have given their name to places all over the country:
the son is now General Stoke, a C.B., and I don’t know what besides: and
her daughter married Lord Leamington. Next to that--but it is needless
to give a directory of the place: probably our neighbours, in their
different habitations, may appear in their proper persons before my
story is done.

The sisters lived next to me; my house lay, as their father said,
athwart their bows. The Admiral was too much a gentleman to talk ship,
or shop, as the gentlemen call it, in ordinary conversation; but he did
say that my cottage lay athwart his bows; and the girls admitted that it
would have been unpleasant had it been anybody but me. I was then a
rather young widow, and having no children, did not want much of a
house. My cottage was very pretty. I think myself that there was not so
pretty a room in all the green as my drawing-room; but it was small. My
house stood with its gable-end to the green, and fronted the hedge which
was the boundary of Admiral Fortis’ grounds. His big gate and my small
one were close together. If the hedge had been cut down, I should have
commanded a full view of the lawn before his house, and the door; and
nobody could have gone out or come in without my inspection. They were
so friendly, that it was once proposed to cut it down, and give me and
my flowers more air; but we both reflected that we were mortal;
circumstances might change with both of us; I might die, and some one
else come to the cottage whose inspection might not be desirable; or the
Admiral might die, and his girls marry, and strangers come. In short,
the end of it was that the hedge remained; but instead of being a thick
holly wall, like the rest of my inclosure, it was a picturesque hedge of
hawthorn, which was very sweet in spring and a perfect mass of
convolvulus in autumn; and it had gaps in it and openings. Nelly herself
made a round cutting just opposite my window, and twined the honeysuckle
into a frame for it. I could see them through it as I sat at work. I
could see them at their croquet, and mounting their horses at the door,
and going out for their walks, and doing their capricious gardening.
Indeed it was Nelly only who ever attempted to work in the garden; the
other was afraid of her hands and her complexion, and a hundred things.
Nelly was not afraid of anything--not even of Mr. Nicholson, the
gardener, who filled me with awe and trembling. Perhaps you may say that
there was not much fear of her complexion. She was brown, to begin with;
but the prettiest brown--clear, with crimson flushes that went and came,
and changed her aspect every moment. Her eyes were the softest dark eyes
I ever saw; they did not penetrate or flash or sparkle, but glowed on
you with a warm lambent light. In winter, with her red cloak on, she was
the prettiest little figure; and the cold suited her, and made her glow
and bound about like a creature of air. As for Martha, she was a great
deal larger and whiter than her sister. I suppose, on the whole, she
was the prettier of the two, though she did not please me so well. They
were their father’s only children, and he was very fond of them. Their
mother had been dead so long that they had no recollection of her; and
the girls were not without those defects which girls brought up by a man
are so apt to have. They were rather disposed to think that anything
could be had for a little coaxing. Perhaps they had more confidence in
their own blandishments than is common with girls, and were more ready
to use them, knowing how powerless papa was against their arts. They
were badly educated, for the same reason. The Admiral was too fond of
them to part with them; and he was one of the men who fear reports and
rumours, and would not have a lady, not even a middle-aged governess, in
his house. He had expensive masters for his girls, and the girls did
what they pleased with those excellent gentlemen, and grew up with the
very smallest amount of education compatible with civilization. I rather
liked it, I confess, in Nelly, who was very bright, and asked about
everything, and jumped at an understanding of most things she heard of.
But it did not answer in Martha’s case, who was not bright, and was the
sort of girl who wanted to be taught music, for instance, properly, and
to practise six hours a day. Without being taught, and without
practising, the good girl (for Nelly, as she explained, had no taste for
music) thought it her duty to play to amuse her friends; and the result
was a trial to the temper of Dinglefield Green. We had some very good
musicians among us, and Martha heard them continually, but never was
enlightened as to the nature of her own performance; whereas Nelly knew
and grew crimson every time her sister approached the piano. But Nelly
was my favourite, as everybody knew; and perhaps, as a natural
consequence, I did her sister less than justice.

We led a very pleasant, neighbourly life in those days. Some of us were
richer, and some poorer; but we all visited each other. The bigger
houses asked the smaller ones to dinner, and did not disdain to pay a
return visit to tea. In the summer afternoons, if you crossed the Green
(and could hear anything for the noise the cricketers made) you would be
sure to hear, in one quarter or another, the click of the croquet balls,
and find all the young people of the place assembled over their game,
not without groups of the elder ones sitting round on the edge of the
well-mown lawns. When I settled there first, I was neither young nor
old, and there was a difficulty which party to class me with; but by
degrees I found my place among the mothers, or aunts, or general
guardians of the society; and by degrees my young neighbours came to be
appropriated to me as my particular charge. We walked home together, and
we went to parties together; and, of course, a little gossip got up
about the Admiral--gossip which was entirely without foundation, for I
detest second marriages, and indeed have had quite enough of it for my
part. But Nelly took a clinging to me--I don’t say a fancy, which would
be too light a word. She had never known a woman intimately
before--never one older than herself, to whom she was half a child and
half a companion. And she liked it, and so did I.

There was one absurd peculiarity about the two girls, which I shall
always think was the foundation of all the mischief. They never called
each other, nor were called, by their names. They were ‘the Sisters’ to
everybody. I suppose it was a fancy of their father’s--he called them
‘the Sisters’ always. They called each other Sister when they spoke to
or of each other. It annoyed me at first, and I made an attempt to
change the custom. But Martha disliked her name. She had been called
after her grandmother, and she thought it was a shame. ‘Martha and
Ellen!’ she said indignantly. ‘What could papa be thinking of? It sounds
like two old women in the alms-houses. And other girls have such pretty
names. If you call me Martha, Mrs. Mulgrave, I will never speak to you
again.’ When one thought of it, it was a hard case. I felt for her, for
my own name is Sarah, and I remember the trouble it was to me when I was
a girl; and the general use and wont of course overcame me at last. They
were called ‘the Sisters’ everywhere on the Green. I believe some of us
did not even know their proper names. I said mischief might come of it,
and they laughed at me; but there came a time when Nelly, at least,
laughed at me no more.

It was in the early summer that young Llewellyn came to stay with the
Denzils at their great house opposite. He was a distant cousin of
theirs, which was a warrant that his family was all that could be
desired. And he had a nice little property in Wales, which had come to
him unexpectedly on the death of an elder brother. And, to crown all, he
was a sailor, having gone into the navy when he was a second son. Of
course, being a naval man, it was but natural that he should be brought
to the Admiral first of all. And he very soon got to be very intimate in
the house; and indeed, for that matter, in every house on the Green. I
believe it is natural to sailors to have that hearty, cordial way. He
came to see me, though I had no particular attraction for him, as
cheerfully as if I had been a girl, or alas! had girls of my own.
Perhaps it was the opening in the hedge that pleased him. He would sit
and look--but he did not speak to me of the sisters, more’s the pity. He
was shy of that subject. I could see he was in real earnest, as the
children say, by his shyness about the girls. He would begin to say
something, and then rush on to another subject, and come back again half
an hour after to the identical point he had started from. But I suppose
it never occurred to him that I had any skill to fathom that. He went
with them on all their picnics, and was at all their parties; and he
rode with them, riding very well for a sailor. The rides are beautiful
round Dinglefield. There is a royal park close at hand, where you can
lose yourself in grassy glades and alleys without number. I had even
been tempted to put myself on my old pony, and wander about with them on
the springy turf under the trees; though, as for their canterings and
gallopings, and the way in which Nelly’s horse kicked its heels about
when it got excited, they were always alarming to me. But it was a
pleasant life. There is something in that moment of existence when the
two who are to go together through life see each other first, and are
mysteriously attracted towards each other, and forswear their own ideal
and all their dreams, and mate themselves, under some secret compulsion
which they do not understand--I say there is something in such a moment
which throws a charm over life to all their surroundings. Though it be
all over for us; though perhaps we may have been in our own persons
thoroughly disenchanted, or may even have grown bitter in our sense of
the difference between reality and romance, still the progress of an
incipient wooing gives a zest to our pleasure. There is something in the
air, some magical influence, some glamour, radiating from the hero and
the heroine. When everything is settled, and the wedding looms in sight,
fairyland melts away, and the lovers are no more interesting than any
other pair. It is perhaps the uncertainty, the chance of disaster; the
sense that one may take flight or offence, or that some rival may come
in, or a hundred things happen to dissipate the rising tenderness. There
is the excitement of a drama about it--a drama subject to the curious
contradictions of actual existence, and utterly regardless of all the
unities. I thought I could see the little sister, who was my pet and
favourite, gradually grouping thus with young Llewellyn. They got
together somehow, whatever the arrangements of the party might be. They
might drive to the Dingle, which was our favourite spot, in different
carriages, with different parties, and at different times; but they were
always to be found together under the trees when everybody had arrived.
Perhaps they did not yet know it themselves; but other people began to
smile, and Lady Denzil, I could see, was watching Nelly. She had other
views, I imagine, for her young cousin since he came to the estate.
Nelly, too, once had very different views. I knew what her ideal was.
It, or rather he, was a blonde young giant, six feet tall at least, with
blue eyes, and curling golden hair. He was to farm his own land, and
live a country life, and be of no profession; and he was to be pure
Saxon, to counterbalance a little defect in Nelly’s race, or rather, as
she supposed, in her complexion, occasioned by the fact that her mother
was of Spanish blood. Such was her ideal, as she had often confided to
me. It was funny to see how this gigantic and glorious vision melted out
of her mind. Llewellyn was not very tall; he was almost as dark as
Nelly; he was a sailor, and he was a Welshman. What did it matter? One
can change one’s ideal so easily when one is under twenty. Perhaps in
his imagination he had loved a milk-white maiden too.

Lady Denzil however watched, having, as I shall always believe, other
intentions in her mind for Llewellyn, though she had no daughter of her
own; and I am sure it was her influence which hurried him away the last
day, without taking leave of any of us. She kept back the telegram which
summoned him to join his ship, until there was just time to get the
train. And so he had to rush away, taking off his hat to us, and almost
getting out of the window of the carriage in his eagerness, when he saw
us at the Admiral’s door, as he dashed past to the station.

‘Good-bye, for the moment,’ he shouted; ‘I hope I am coming back.’ And I
could see, by the colour in Nelly’s cheek, that their eyes had met, and
understood each other. Her sister bowed and smiled very graciously, and
chattered about a hundred things.

‘I wonder why he is going in such a hurry? I wonder what he means about
coming back?’ said Martha. ‘I am sure I am very sorry he is gone. He was
very nice, and always ready for anything. What a bore a ship is! I
remember when papa was like that--always rushing away. Don’t you,
Sister?--but you were too young.’

‘I remember hearing people talk of it,’ said Nelly with a sigh.

She was _rêveuse_, clouded over, everything that it was natural to be
under the circumstances. She would not trust herself to say he was nice.
It was I who had to answer, and keep up the conversation for her. For my
own part, I confess I was vexed that he had gone so soon--that he had
gone without an explanation. These things are far better to be settled
out of hand. A man has to go away when his duty calls; but nobody can
make sure when he may come back, or what he may find when he comes back.
I was sorry, for I knew a hundred things might happen to detain, or keep
him silent; and Nelly’s heart was caught, I could see. She had been
quite unsuspecting, unfearing; and it was gone ere she understood what
she was doing. My heart quaked a little for her; not with any fear of
the result, but only with a certain throbbing of experience and anxiety
that springs therefrom. Experience does not produce hope in the things
of this world. It lays one’s heart open to suspicions and fears which
never trouble the innocent. It was not because of anything I had seen in
Llewellyn; but because I had seen a great deal of the world, and things
in general. This was why I kissed her with a little extra meaning, and
told her to lie down on the sofa when she got home.

‘You have not been looking your best for some days,’ I said. ‘You are
not a giantess, nor so robust as you pretend to be. You must take care
of yourself.’ And Nelly, though she made no reply, kissed me in her
clinging way in return.

Some weeks passed after that without any particular incident. Things
went on in their usual way, and though we were all sorry that Llewellyn
was gone, we made no particular moan over him after the first. It was
very rarely that a day passed on which I did not see the sisters; but
the weather was beginning to get cold, and one Friday there was a fog
which prevented me from going out. Ours is a low country, with a great
many trees, and the river is not far off; and when there is a fog, it is
very dreary and overwhelming. It closes in over the Green, so that you
cannot see an inch before you; and the damp creeps into your very bones:
though it was only the end of October, the trees hung invisible over our
heads in heavy masses, now and then dropping a faded leaf out of the fog
in a ghostly, silent way: and the chill went to one’s heart. I had a new
book, for which I was very thankful, and my fire burned brightly, and I
did not stir out of doors all day. I confess it surprised me a little
that the girls did not come in to me in the evening, as they had a way
of doing, with their red cloaks round them, and the hoods over their
heads, like Red Riding Hood. But I took it for granted they had some
friends from town, or something pleasant on hand; though I had not heard
any carriage driving up. As for seeing, that was impossible. Next
morning, by a pleasant change, was bright, sunny, and frosty. For the
first time that season, the hedges and gardens, and even the Green
itself, was crisp and white with hoar-frost, which, of course, did not
last, but gave us warning of winter. When I went out, I met Nelly just
leaving her own door. She was in her red cloak, with her dress tucked
up, and the little black hat with the red feather, which was always so
becoming to her. But either it was not becoming that day, or there was
something the matter with the child. I don’t remember whether I have
said that she had large eyes--eyes that, when she was thinner than
usual, or ill, looked out of proportion to the size of her face. They
had this effect upon me that day. One did not seem to see Nelly at all;
but only a big pair of wistful, soft eyes looking at one, with shadowy
lines round them. I was alarmed, to tell the truth, whenever I saw her.
Either something had happened, or the child was ill.

‘Good morning, my dear,’ I said, ‘I did not see you all yesterday, and
it feels like a year. Were you coming to me now?’

‘No,’ said Nelly--and even in the sound of her voice there was something
changed--‘it is so long since I have been in the village. I had settled
to go down there this morning, and take poor Mary Jackson some warm
socks we have been knitting for the babies. It is so cold to-day.’

‘I thought you never felt the cold,’ said I, as one does without
thinking. ‘You are always as merry as a cricket in the winter weather,
when we are all shivering. You know you never feel the cold.’

‘No,’ said Nelly again. ‘I suppose it is only the first chill’--and she
gave me a strange little sick smile, and suddenly looked down and
stooped to pick up something. I saw in a moment there was nothing to
pick up. Could it be that there were tears in her eyes, which she wanted
to hide? ‘But I must go now,’ she went on hurriedly. ‘Oh, no, don’t
think of coming with me; it is too cold, and I shall have to walk fast,
I am in such a hurry. Good-bye.’

I could do nothing but stand and stare after her when she had gone on.
What did it mean? Nelly was not given to taking fancies, or losing her
temper--at least not in this way. She walked away so rapidly that she
seemed to vanish out of my sight, and never once looked round or turned
aside for anything. The surprise was so great that I actually forgot
where I was going. It could not be for nothing that she had changed like
this. I went back to my own door, and then I came out again and opened
the Admiral’s gate. Probably Martha was at home, and would know what was
the matter. As I was going in, Martha met me coming out. She was in her
red cloak, like Nelly, and she had a letter in her hand. When she saw me
she laughed, and blushed a little. ‘Will you come with me to the post,
Mrs. Mulgrave?’ she said. ‘Sister would not wait for me; and when one
has an important letter to post----’ Martha went on, holding it up to
me, and laughing and blushing again.

‘What makes it so very important?’ said I; and I confess that I tried
very hard to make out the address.

‘Oh, didn’t she tell you?’ said Martha. ‘What a funny girl she is! If it
had been me I should have rushed all over the Green, and told everybody.
It is--can’t you guess?’

And she held out to me the letter in her hand. It was addressed to
‘Captain Llewellyn, H.M.S. _Spitfire_, Portsmouth.’ I looked at it, and
I looked at her, and wonder took possession of me. The address was in
Martha’s handwriting. It was she who was going to post it; it was she
who, conscious and triumphant, giggling a little and blushing a little,
stood waiting for my congratulations. I looked at her aghast, and my
tongue failed me. ‘I don’t know what it means,’ I said, gasping. ‘I
can’t guess. Is it you who have been writing to Captain Llewellyn, or is
it Nelly, or who is it? Can there have been any mistake?’

Martha was offended, as indeed she had reason to be. ‘There is no
mistake,’ she said indignantly. ‘It is a very strange sort of thing to
say, when any friend, any acquaintance even, would have congratulated
me. And you who know us so well! Captain Llewellyn has asked me to marry
him--that is all. I thought you might have found out what was coming.
But you have no eyes for anybody but Sister. You never think of me.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said I, faltering; ‘I was so much taken by
surprise. I am sure I wish you every happiness, Martha. Nobody can be
more anxious for your welfare than I am--’ and here I stopped short in
my confusion, choked by the words, and not knowing what to say.

‘Yes, I am sure of that,’ said Martha affectionately, stopping at the
gate to give me a kiss. ‘I said so to Sister this morning. I said I am
sure Mrs. Mulgrave will be pleased. But are you _really_ so much
surprised? Did you never think this was how it was to be?’

‘No,’ I said, trembling in spite of myself; ‘I never thought of it. I
thought indeed--but that makes no difference now.’

‘What did you think?’ said Martha; and then her private sense of pride
and pleasure surmounted everything else. ‘Well, you see it is so,’ she
said, with a beaming smile. ‘He kept his own counsel, you see. I should
not have thought he was so sly--should you? I dare say he thinks he
showed it more than he did; for he says I must have seen how it was from
the first day.’

And she stood before me so beaming, so dimpling over with smiles and
pleasure, that my heart sank within me. Could it be a mistake, or was it
I--ah! how little it mattered for me--was it my poor Nelly who had been
deceived?

‘And did you?’ I said, looking into her face, ‘did you see it from the
first day?’

‘Well, n-no,’ said Martha, hesitating; and then she resumed with a
laugh, ‘That shows you how sly he must have been. I don’t think I ever
suspected such a thing; but then, to be sure, I never thought much about
him, you know.’

A little gleam of comfort came into my heart as she spoke. ‘Oh, then,’ I
said, relieved, ‘there is no occasion for congratulations after all.’

‘Why is there no occasion for congratulations?’ said Martha. ‘Of course
there is occasion. I wanted Sister to run in and tell you last night,
but she wouldn’t; and I rather wanted you to tell me what I should say,
or, rather, how I should say it; but I managed it after all by myself. I
suppose one always can if one tries. It comes by nature, people say.’
And Martha laughed again, and blushed, and cast a proud glance on the
letter she held in her hand.

‘But if you never had thought of him yesterday,’ said I, ‘you can’t have
accepted him to-day.’

‘Why not?’ said Martha, with a toss of her pretty head--and she was
pretty, especially in that moment of excitement. I could not refuse to
see it. It was a mere piece of pink-and-white prettiness, instead of my
little nut-brown maid, with her soft eyes, and her bright varied gleams
of feeling and intelligence. But then you can never calculate on what a
man may think in respect to a girl. Men are such fools; I mean where
women are concerned.

‘Why not?’ said Martha, with a laugh. ‘I don’t mean I am frantically in
love with him, you know. How could I be, when I never knew he cared for
me? But I always said he was very nice; and then it is so suitable. And
I don’t care for anybody else. It would be very foolish of me to refuse
him without any reason. Of course,’ said Martha, looking down upon her
letter, ‘I shall think of him very differently now.’

What could I say? I was at my wits’ end. I walked on by her side to the
post-office in a maze of confusion and doubt. I could have snatched the
letter out of her hand, and torn it into a hundred pieces; but that
would have done little good; and how could I tell if it was a mistake
after all? He might have sought Nelly for her sister’s sake. He might
have been such a fool, such a dolt, as to prefer Martha. All this time
he might but have been making his advances to her covertly--under shield
as it were of the gay bright creature who was too young and too
simple-hearted to understand such devices. Oh, my little nut-brown maid!
no wonder her eyes were so large and shadowy, her pretty cheeks so
colourless! I could have cried with vexation and despair as I went along
step for step with the other on the quiet country road. Though she was
so far from being bright, Martha at last was struck by my silence. It
took her a considerable time to find it out, for naturally her own
thoughts were many, and her mind was fully pre-occupied; but she did
perceive it at last.

‘I don’t think you seem to like it, Mrs. Mulgrave,’ she said; ‘not so
much as I thought you would. You were the very first person I thought
of; I was coming to tell you when I met you. And I thought you would
sympathize with me and be so pleased to hear----’

‘My dear,’ said I, ‘I am pleased to hear--anything that is for your
happiness; but then I am so much surprised. It was not what I looked
for. And then, good heavens! if it should turn out to be some
mistake----’

‘Mrs. Mulgrave,’ said Martha angrily, ‘I don’t know what you can mean.
This is the second time you have talked of a mistake. What mistake could
there be? I suppose Captain Llewellyn knows what he is doing: unless you
want to be unkind and cross. And what have I done that you should be so
disagreeable to me?’

‘Oh, my dear child!’ I cried in despair, ‘I don’t know what I mean; I
thought once--there was Major Frost, you know----’

‘Oh, is it that?’ said Martha, restored to perfect good-humour; ‘poor
Major Frost! But of course if he did not choose to come forward in time,
he could not expect me to wait for him. You may make your mind quite
easy if that is all.’

‘And then,’ I said, taking a little courage, ‘Captain Llewellyn paid
Nelly a good deal of attention. He might have thought----’

‘Yes,’ said Martha, ‘to be sure; and I never once suspected that he
meant it for me all the time.’

I ask anybody who is competent to judge, could I have said any more? I
walked to the post-office with her, and I saw the letter put in. And an
hour afterwards I saw the mail-cart rattling past with the bags, and
knew it had set out to its destination. He would get it next morning,
and the two lives would be bound for ever and ever. The wrong two?--or
was it only we, Nelly and I, who had made the mistake? Had it been
Martha he sought all the time?



CHAPTER II


The news soon became known to everybody on the Green, and great surprise
was excited by it. Everybody, I think, spoke to me on the subject. They
said, ‘If it had been the other sister!’ Even Lady Denzil went so far as
to say this, when, after having called at the Admiral’s to offer her
congratulations, she came in to see me. ‘I do not pretend that I like
the marriage,’ she said, with a little solemnity. ‘There were claims
upon him nearer home. It is not every man that is at liberty to choose
for himself; but if it had been the little one I could have understood
it.’ I hope nobody spoke like this to Nelly; she kept up a great deal
too well to satisfy me. She was in the very centre of all the flutter
that such an event makes in a small society like ours, and she knew
people were watching her; but she never betrayed herself. She had lost
her colour somehow--everybody remarked that; and the proud little girl
got up a succession of maladies, and said she had influenza and
indigestion, and I know not what, that nobody might suspect any other
cause. Sometimes I caught her for one instant off her guard, but it was
a thing that happened very rarely. Two or three times I met her going
off by herself for a long walk, and she would not have my company when I
offered to go with her. ‘I walk so fast,’ she said, ‘and then it is too
far for you.’ Once I even saw her in the spot to which all our walks
tended--the Dingle, which was our favourite haunt. It was a glorious
autumn, and the fine weather lasted long--much longer than usual. Up to
the middle of November there were still masses of gorgeous foliage on
the trees, and the sky was as blue--not as Italy, for Italy is soft and
languorous and melting--but as an English sky without clouds, full of
sunshine, yet clear, with a premonitory touch of frost, can be. The
trees in the Dingle are no common trees; they are giant beeches,
big-boled, heavily-clothed giants, that redden and crisp and hold their
own until the latest moment; and that mount up upon heights, and descend
into hollows, and open up here and there into gleams of the fair plain
around, growing misty in the distance as if it were sea. The great point
in the landscape is a royal castle, the noblest dwelling-place I ever
saw. We who live so near are learned in the different points of view; we
know where to catch it shining like a fairy stronghold in the white hazy
country, or stretching out in gray profile upon its height, or setting
itself--here the great donjon, there a flanking tower--in frames of
leafy branches. I had left my little carriage and my stout old pony on
the road, and had wandered up alone to have my last peep before winter
set in, when suddenly I saw Nelly before me. She was walking up and down
on the soft yielding mossy grass, carpeted with beech-mast and
pine-needles; sometimes stopping to gaze blankly at the view--at the
great plain whitening off to the horizon, and the castle rising in the
midst. I knew what the view was, but I saw also that she did not see it.
Her face was all drawn together, small and shrunken up. There were deep
shadowy lines round her eyes; and as for the eyes themselves, it was
them and not Nelly that I saw. They were dilated, almost exaggerated,
unlike anything I ever saw before. She had come out here to be alone,
poor child! I crept away as best I could through the brown crackling
ferns. If she heard anything probably she thought it was some woodland
creature that could not spy upon her. But I don’t believe she heard
anything, nor saw anything; and I was no spy upon her, dear heart!

The nearest we ever came to conversation on the subject was once when I
was telling her about a girl I once knew, whose story had been a very
sad one. She had pledged her heart and her life to a foolish young
fellow, who was very fond of her, and then was very fond of somebody
else; and would have been fond of her again, periodically, to any number
of times. She had borne it as long as she could, and then she had broken
down; and it had been a relief to her, poor girl, to come and cry her
heart out to me.

‘It has never been my way, Nelly,’ I said, ‘but it seems to ease the
heart when it can speak. I don’t think that I could have spoken to any
one, had it been me.’

‘And as for me,’ cried Nelly, ‘if I should ever be like that--and if any
one, even you, were so much as to look at me as if you knew, I think I
should die!’

This was before the lamp was lighted; and in the dark, I think she put
up a hand to wipe off something from her eyelash. But you may be sure I
took care not to look. I tried to put all speculation out of my eyes
whenever I looked at her afterwards. My poor Nelly! in the very
extravagance of her pride was there not an appeal, and piteous throwing
of herself upon my forbearance? I thought there was, and it went to my
heart.

The next thing, of course, was that Llewellyn announced himself as
coming to visit his betrothed. He was to come at Christmas, not being
able to leave his ship before. And then it was to be settled when the
marriage should take place. I confess that I listened to all this with a
very bad grace. Any reference to the marriage put me out of temper. He
wrote to her regularly and very often, and Martha used to read his
letters complacently before us all, and communicate little bits out of
them, and spend half her mornings writing her replies. She was not a
ready writer, and it really was hard work to her, and improved her
education--at least in the mechanical matters of writing and spelling.
But I wonder what sort of rubbish it was she wrote to him, and what he
thought of it. Was it possible he could suppose it was my Nelly who
wrote all those commonplaces, or was the mistake on my part, not on his?
As time went on, I came to think, more and more, that the latter was
the case. We had been deceived, Nelly and I. And Martha and Llewellyn
were two lovers worthy of each other. I fear I was not very charitable
to him in my thoughts.

But I could not help being very nervous the day of his arrival. It was a
bleak wintry day, Christmas Eve, but not what people call Christmas
weather. It rarely is Christmas weather at Christmas. The sky hung low
and leaden over our bare trees, and of course there were no cricketers
now on the Green, nor sound of croquet balls, to enliven the stillness.
I could not rest at home. We had not been informed what train Captain
Llewellyn was to come by, and my mind was in such a disturbed state,
that I kept coming and going, all day long, on one errand or another,
lingering about the road. I don’t myself know what I meant by it; nor
could I have explained it to anybody. Sometimes I thought, if I should
meet him first, I would speak and make sure. Sometimes I fancied that I
could read in his face, at the first look, what it all meant. But,
anyhow, I did not meet him. I thought all the trains were in when I went
to the Admiral’s in the afternoon, at five o’clock--that is, all the
trains that could arrive before dinner, for we were two miles from the
station. Martha and her father were in the drawing-room when I entered.
There was a bright fire, but the candles were not lighted; I suppose,
out of reluctance to shut up the house, and close all the windows,
before the visitor came. Martha was sitting by the fire looking very gay
and bright, and a little excited. She told me Nelly had been all day in
the church, helping with the decorations, and that she was to stay at
the rectory to dinner, as there was a Christmas-tree for the
school-children to be got ready. ‘I dare say she thought we should not
want her this first evening,’ Martha said with a little laugh; and such
was the bitterness and unreasonableness of my heart that I was
speechless with exasperation; which was nonsense, for of course she had
a right to the society of her betrothed. While we were sitting thus over
the fire, all at once there came a sound of wheels, and the dog-cart
from the little inn at Dinglefield Station came rattling up. Martha gave
a little cry, and ran to the drawing-room door. I know I should have
gone away, but I did not. I stood behind in the ruddy gloom, and saw her
rush into Llewellyn’s arms. And he kissed her. And the next moment they
were back in the room beside us, she chatting about his journey, and
looking up in his face, and showing her satisfaction and delight, as it
was quite natural she should do. It seemed to me that he did not make
very much reply; but the room was dark, and his arrival was sudden, and
there was a certain confusion about everything. The Admiral came
forward, and shook hands with him, and so did I; and instead of looking
as if he wished us a hundred miles off, Llewellyn kept peering into the
corners, as if he wanted another greeting. Then he came to the fire, and
stood before it, making the room all the darker with his shadow; and
after we had all asked him if he had felt the cold on his journey, there
did not seem very much to say. I don’t know how the others felt, but I
know my heart began to beat wildly. Martha was in an unnatural state of
excitement. She drew a great comfortable easy-chair to the fire for him.
‘Dear Ellis, sit down,’ she said, laying her hand softly on his arm. The
touch seemed to wake him up out of a kind of reverie. He took her hand,
and held it for a moment, and then let it fall.

‘You are far too kind,’ he said, ‘to take so much trouble for me. A
thousand thanks. Where is--your sister? She knew I was to come by this
train.’

‘No, I don’t think Sister knew,’ said Martha; ‘that was my little
secret. I would not tell them what train you were coming by. She is
helping with the church decorations. She will see you to-morrow, you
know. I wish they would bring the tea: papa, will you ring?--Oh, papa
has gone away. Wait a minute, Ellis dear, and I will run and make them
bring it immediately. It will warm you better than anything else. I
sha’n’t be a moment gone.’

The moment she had left us poor Llewellyn turned to me. Notwithstanding
the ruddy firelight, I could see he was quite haggard with the awful
suspicion that must have flashed upon him. ‘Mrs. Mulgrave!’ he cried
hurriedly, holding out his hands, ‘for God’s sake, tell me, what does
this mean?’

‘It means that you have come to see your betrothed, Captain Llewellyn,’
said I; ‘she has just gone out of the room. You made your choice, and I
hope you did not expect to have both the sisters. Martha stayed to
receive you, as was right and natural. You could not expect the same
from Nelly. She thought neither of you would want a third to-night.’

I was so angry that I said all this in a breath. I know I ought to be
ashamed of myself, but I did it; I don’t think however that he heard
half. He covered his face with his hands and gave a groan, which seemed
to me to echo all through the house; and I had to add on to what I was
saying, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, restrain yourself,’ I cried, without
even taking breath; ‘now it is too late!’

And then Martha came in, excited and joyous, half dancing with high
spirits. I could have groaned too and hid my face from the light as he
did, poor fellow! but she went up to him and drew down his hands
playfully and said, ‘I am here, Ellis, you needn’t cover your eyes.’ He
did not answer her with a compliment or a caress, as perhaps she
expected; and Martha looked at me where I was standing by the side of
the fire. I knew she thought I was the restraining influence that closed
his mouth and subdued his joy--and what could I do?--I went away: I
could be of no use to him, poor boy! He must face it now as best he
could. I went away, and as soon as I got safely into my own house sat
down and cried. Not that crying would do any good; but when everything
is going wrong, and everybody is on the way to ruin and you see how it
is, and know how to mend it, and yet cannot, dare not, put forth a hand,
what can any one do but sit down and cry?

But I could not rest in my quiet, comfortable, lonely house, and know
that those poor young hearts were being wrung, and keep still and take
no notice. I had my cup of tea, and I put on my warm cloak and hood and
went across the Green, though it was wet and slippery, to the
school-room, where I knew Nelly would be. She was in the midst of a heap
of toys and paper-flags and little tapers, dressing up the
Christmas-tree. There were three or four girls altogether, and Nelly was
the busiest of all. Her little hands were pricked and scratched with the
points of the holly and the sharp needles of the little fir-tree on
which she was working. Poor child! I wish it had been her hands only
that were wounded. The others had gloves on, but Nelly had taken hers
off, either because she found the pain of the pricks good for her, or
because of some emblematical meaning in it. ‘I can’t work in gloves,’
she said carelessly, ‘and it doesn’t hurt so much when you are used to
it.’ When I saw her I could not but think of the pictures of Indians
tied to the stake, with arrows flying at them from all quarters. I am
aware St. Sebastian was killed in the same way--but I did not think of
him.

‘I wish you would come with me, Nelly,’ I said; ‘you know Christmas Eve
is never very merry to me. There is no dinner, but you shall have
something with your tea.’

‘I am going to the rectory,’ said Nelly. She did not venture to look at
me, and she spoke very quick, with a kind of catch in her breath. ‘I
promised--and there is a great deal to do yet. When Christmas is not
merry it is best to try and forget it is Christmas. If I were to go with
you, you would talk to me, and that would make you feel everything the
more.’

‘I would not talk--you may trust me, Nelly,’ I said eagerly. In my
excitement I was for one minute off my guard.

She gave me one look and then turned away, and began arranging the flags
and pricking her poor little soft fingers. ‘Talking does not matter to
me,’ she said in her careless way. Her pride was something that filled
me with consternation. She would not yield, not if she had been cut in
little pieces. Her heart was being torn out of her very breast, and she
was ready to look her executioners in the face and cheer them on.

I don’t know how they all got through that evening. Nelly, I know, went
home late and went to her own room at once, as being tired. It was poor
Llewellyn that was the most to be pitied. I could not get him out of my
mind. I sat and thought and thought over it till I could scarcely rest.
Would he have the courage to emancipate himself and tell the truth? Or
would the dreadful coil of circumstances in which he had got involved
overcome him and subdue his spirit? I asked myself this question till it
made me sick and faint. How was he to turn upon the girl who was
hanging on him so proud and pleased and confident, and say that he had
never cared for her and never sought her? There are men who would have
the nerve to do that; but my poor simple, tender-hearted sailor--who
would not hurt a fly, and who had no warning nor preparation for the
fate that was coming on him--I could not hope that he would be so brave.

I saw by my first glance next morning at church that he had not been
brave. He was seated by Martha’s side, looking pale and haggard and
stern; such a contrast to her lively and demonstrative happiness. Nelly
was at the other end of the pew under her father’s shadow. I don’t know
what she had done to herself--either it was excitement, or in her pride
she had had recourse to artificial aids. She had recovered her colour as
if by a miracle. I am afraid that I did not pay so much attention to the
service as I ought to have done. My whole thoughts were bent upon the
Admiral’s seat, where there were two people quite serene and
comfortable, and two in the depths of misery and despair. There were
moments when I felt as if I could have got up in church and protested
against it in the sight of God. One feels as if one could do that: but
one keeps still and does nothing all the same.

In the afternoon Llewellyn came to see me. He would have done it anyhow,
I feel sure, for he had a good heart. But there was a stronger reason
still that Christmas Day. He did not say much to me when he came. He
walked about my drawing-room and looked at all the ornaments on the
tables, and opened the books, and examined my Christmas presents. Then
he came and sat down beside me before the fire. He tried to talk, and
then he broke off and leant his face between his hands. It was again a
gray, dark, sunless day; and it was all the darker in my room because of
the verandah over the windows, which makes it so pleasant in summer. I
could see his profile darkly before me as he made an attempt at
conversation, not looking at me, but staring into the fire; and then,
all at once, his shoulders went up, and his face disappeared in the
shadow of his hands. He stared into the fire still, under that shelter;
but he felt himself safe from my inspection, poor fellow!

‘I ought to beg your pardon,’ he said, suddenly, concentrating all his
attention upon the glowing embers, ‘for speaking as I did--last
night----’

‘There was nothing to pardon,’ said I. And then we came to an
embarrassed pause, for I did not know which was best--to speak, or to be
silent.

‘I know I was very abrupt,’ he said, ‘I was rude. I hope you will
forgive me. It was the surprise.’ And then he gave vent to something
between a cry and a groan. ‘What is to become of us all, good God!’ he
muttered. It was all I could do to hear him, and the exclamation did not
sound to me profane.

‘Captain Llewellyn,’ I said, ‘I don’t know whether I ought to say
anything, or whether I should hold my tongue. I understand it all; and I
feel for you with all my heart.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said; ‘it doesn’t matter. Feeling is of no use.
But there is one thing you could tell me. She--you know--I can’t call
her by any name--I don’t seem to know her name--Just tell me one thing,
and I’ll try and bear it. Did she mind? Does she think me----? Good
heavens! what does it matter what any one thinks? If you are sure it did
not hurt her, I--don’t mind.’

‘N--no,’ said I; but I don’t think he got any comfort from my tone. ‘You
may be sure it will not hurt her,’ I went on, summoning up all my pride.
‘She is not the sort of girl to let it hurt her.’ I spoke indignantly,
for I did not know what was coming. He seized my hand, poor boy, and
wrung it till I could have screamed; and then he broke down, as a man
does when he has come to the last point of wretchedness: two or three
hoarse sobs burst from him. ‘God bless her!’ he cried.

I was wound up to such a pitch that I could not sit still. I got up and
grasped his shoulder. In my excitement I did not know what I was doing.

‘Are you going to bear it?’ I said. ‘Do you mean to let it go on? It is
a lie; and are you going to set it up for the truth? Oh, Captain
Llewellyn! is it possible that you mean to let it go on?’

Then he gave me one sorrowful look, and shook his head. ‘I have accepted
it,’ he said. ‘It is too late. You said so last night.’

I knew I had said so; but things somehow looked different now. ‘I would
speak to Martha herself,’ said I. And I saw he shuddered at her name. ‘I
would speak to her father. The Admiral is sensible and kind. He will
know what to do.’

‘He will think I mean to insult them,’ said Llewellyn, shaking his head.
‘I have done harm enough. How was I to know? But never mind--never mind.
It is my own doing, and I must bear it.’ Then he rose up suddenly, and
turned to me with a wan kind of smile. ‘I cannot afford to indulge
myself with talk,’ he said. ‘Good-bye, and thanks. I don’t feel as if I
cared much now what happened. The only thing is, I can’t stay here.’

‘But you must stay a week--you must stay over Christmas,’ I cried, as he
stood holding my hand.

‘Yes,’ he said with a sigh. ‘I must get through to-night. If you’d keep
her out of the way, Mrs. Mulgrave, it would be the kindest thing you
could do. I can’t look at her. It kills me. But I’ll be summoned by
telegram to-morrow,’ he added, with a kind of desperate satisfaction. ‘I
wrote this morning.’ And then he shook hands with me hurriedly, and went
away.

I had very little trouble to keep Nelly--poor Nelly!--out of his way.
She made me go up-stairs with her after dinner (I always dined there on
Christmas) to show me the presents she had got, and the things she had
prepared for her pensioners in the village. We made a great pet of the
village, we people who lived on the Green, and, I fear, rather spoiled
it. There were things for the babies, and things for the old women,
which were to be bestowed next day when they all came to the school-room
for the Christmas-tree. She never mentioned Llewellyn to me, nor Martha,
nor referred to the domestic event which, in other circumstances, would
have occupied her mind above all. I almost wonder it did not occur to
her that to speak of, and show an interest in, her sister’s engagement
was quite a necessary part of her own self-defence. Either it was too
much, and she could not, or it did not enter into her mind. She never
took any notice of it, at least to me. She never so much as mentioned
his name. They never looked at each other, nor addressed each other,
though I could see that every look and movement of one was visible to
the other. Nelly kept me up-stairs until it was time for me to go home.
She came running out with me, with her red cloak round her, when the
Admiral marched to the gate to see me home, as he made a rule of doing.
She stood at the gate, in the foggy, wintry darkness, to wait for him
until he came back from my door. And I waited on my own threshold, and
saw them going back--Nelly, poor child, clinging fast to her father’s
arm. My heart ached; and yet not so much even for her as for the other.
What was he doing indoors, left alone with the girl he was engaged to,
and did not love?

Next morning, to the astonishment and dismay of everybody but myself,
Captain Llewellyn was summoned back to his ship by telegraph. Martha was
more excited about it than I should have supposed possible. It was so
hard upon poor dear Ellis, she said, before they had been able to
arrange anything, or even to talk of anything. She had not the slightest
doubt of him. His wretched looks, and his hesitation and coldness, had
taught nothing to Martha. If she was perhaps disappointed at first by
his want of ardour, the disappointment had soon passed. It was his way;
he was not the sort of man to make a fuss. By this means she quite
accounted for it to herself. For my own part, I cannot say that I was
satisfied with his conduct. If he had put a stop to it boldly--if he had
said at once it was all a mistake--then, whatever had come of it, I
could have supported and sympathized with him; but it made an end of
Captain Llewellyn, as a man, in my estimation, when he thus ran away. I
was vexed, and I was sorry; and yet I cannot say I was surprised.

He wrote afterwards to say it was important business, and that he had no
hope of being able to come back. And then he wrote that he had been
transferred to another ship just put into commission, and had to sail at
once. He could not even come to wish his betrothed good-bye. He assured
her it could not be for long, as their orders were only for the
Mediterranean; but it was a curious reversal of all their former ideas.
‘He must retire,’ Martha said, when she had told me this news with
tears. ‘The idea of a man with a good property of his own being ordered
about like that! Papa says things have changed since his days; he never
heard of anything so arbitrary. After all he said about our marriage
taking place first, to think that he should have to go away now, without
a moment to say good-bye!’

And she cried and dried her eyes, while I sat by and felt myself a
conspirator, and was very uncomfortable. Nelly was present too. She sat
working in the window, with her head turned away from us, and took no
part in the conversation. Perhaps it was a relief; perhaps--and this was
what she herself thought--it would have been better to have got it over
at once. Anyhow, at this present juncture, she sat apart, and took no
apparent notice of what we said.

‘And Nelly never says a word,’ sobbed Martha. ‘She has no sympathy. I
think she hates poor dear Ellis. She scarcely looked at him when he was
here. And she won’t say she is sorry now.’

‘When everybody is sorry what does it matter if I say it or not?’ said
Nelly, casting one rapid glance from her work. She never was so fond of
her work before. Now she had become all at once a model girl: she never
was idle for a moment; one kind of occupation or another was constantly
in her hands. She sat at her knitting, while Martha, disappointed and
vexed, cried and folded up her letter. I don’t know whether an inkling
of the truth had come to Nelly’s mind. Sometimes I thought so. When the
time approached which Llewellyn had indicated as the probable period of
his return, she herself proposed that she should go on a visit to her
godmother in Devonshire. It was spring then, and she had a cough; and
there were very good reasons why she should go. The only one that
opposed it was Martha. ‘It will look so unkind to dear Ellis,’ she said;
‘as if you would rather not meet him. At Christmas you were out all the
time. And if she dislikes him, Mrs. Mulgrave, she ought to try to get
over it. Don’t you think so? It is unkind to go away.’

‘She does not dislike him,’ said I. ‘But she wants a change, my dear.’
And so we all said. The Admiral, good man, did not understand it at all.
He saw that something was wrong. ‘There is something on the little one’s
mind,’ he said to me. ‘I hoped she would have taken you into her
confidence. I can’t tell what is wrong with her, for my part.’

‘She wants a change,’ said I. ‘She has never said anything to me.’

It was quite true; she had never said a word to me. I might have
betrayed Llewellyn, but I could not betray Nelly. She had kept her own
counsel. While the Admiral was talking to me, I cannot describe how
strong the temptation was upon me to tell him all the story. But I dared
not. It was a thing from which the boldest might have shrunk. And though
everybody on the Green had begun to wonder vaguely, and the Admiral
himself was a little uneasy, Martha never suspected anything amiss. She
cried a little when ‘poor Ellis’ wrote to say his return was again
postponed; but it was for his disappointment she cried. Half an hour
after she was quite serene and cheerful again, looking forward to the
time when he should arrive eventually. ‘For he must come some time, you
know; they can’t keep him away for ever,’ she said; until one did not
know whether to be impatient with her serenity, or touched by it, and
could not make up one’s mind whether it was stupidity or faith.



CHAPTER III


Nelly paid her visit to her godmother, and came back; and spring wore
into summer, and the trees were all in full foliage again in the Dingle,
and the cricketers had returned to the Green; but still Captain
Llewellyn was unaccountably detained. Nelly had come home looking much
better than when she went away. His name still disturbed her composure I
could see; though I don’t suppose a stranger who knew nothing of the
circumstances would have found it out. And when Martha threatened us
with a visit from him, her sister shrank up into herself; but otherwise
Nelly was much improved. She recovered her cheerful ways; she became the
soul of all our friendly parties again. I said to myself that I had been
a truer prophet than I had the least hope of; and that she was not the
sort of girl to let herself be crushed in any such way. But she never
spoke to me of her sister’s marriage, nor of her sister’s betrothed. I
mentioned the matter one day when we were alone, cruelly and of set
purpose to see what she would say. ‘When your sister is married, and
when you are married,’ I said, ‘it will be very dull both for the
Admiral and me.’

‘I shall never marry,’ said Nelly, with a sudden closing up and veiling
of all her brightness which was more expressive than words. ‘I don’t
know about Sister; but you need not weave any such visions for me.’

‘All girls say so till their time comes,’ said I, with an attempt to be
playful; ‘but why do you say you don’t know about Martha? she must be
married before long, of course?’

‘I suppose so,’ said Nelly, and then she stopped short; she would not
add another word; but afterwards, when we were all together, she broke
out suddenly--Martha’s conversation at this period was very much
occupied with her marriage. I suppose it was quite natural. In my young
days girls were shy of talking much on that subject, but things are
changed now. Martha talked of it continually: of when dear Ellis would
come; of his probable desire that the wedding should take place at once;
of her determination to have two months at least to prepare her
trousseau; of where they should go after the marriage. She discussed
everything, without the smallest idea, poor girl, of what was passing in
the minds of the listeners. At last, after hearing a great deal of this
for a long time, Nelly suddenly burst forth--

‘How strange it would be after all, if we were to turn out a couple of
old maids,’ she cried, ‘and never to marry at all. The two old sisters!
with chairs on each side of the fire, and great authorities in the
village. How droll it would be!--and not so very unlikely after all.’

‘Speak for yourself,’ cried Martha indignantly. ‘It is very unlikely so
far as I am concerned. I am as good as married already. As for you, you
can do what you please----’

‘Yes, I can do what I please,’ said Nelly, with a curious ring in her
voice; and then she added, ‘But I should not wonder if we were both old
maids after all.’

‘She is very queer,’ Martha said to me when her sister had left the
room, in an aggrieved tone. ‘She does not mean it, of course; but I
don’t like it, Mrs. Mulgrave. It does not seem lucky. Why should she
take it into her head about our being old maids? I am as good as married
now.’

‘Yes,’ I said vaguely. I could not give any assent more cordial. And
then she resumed her anticipations. But I saw in a moment what Nelly
meant. This was how she thought it was to end. It was a romantic girl’s
notion, but happily she was too young to think how unlikely it was. No
doubt she saw a vision of the two maiden sisters, and of one who would
be their devoted friend, but who could never marry either. That was the
explanation she had put in her heart upon his abrupt departure and his
many delays. He had made a fatal mistake, and its consequences were to
last all his life. They were all three, all their lives long, to
continue in the same mind. He could never marry either of them; and
neither of them, none of the three, were ever to be tempted to marry
another. And thus, in a pathetic climax of faithfulness and delicate
self-sacrifice, they were to grow old and die. Nelly was no longer
miserable when she had framed this ideal in her mind. It seemed to her
the most natural solution of the difficulty. The romance, instead of
ending in a prosaic marriage, was to last all their lives. And the
eldest of them, Llewellyn himself, was but seven-and-twenty! Poor Nelly
thought it the most likely thing in the world.

If she had consulted me, I could have told her of something much more
likely--something which very soon dawned upon the minds of most people
at Dinglefield Green. It was that a certain regiment had come back to
the barracks which were not very far from our neighbourhood. Before
Captain Llewellyn made his appearance among us, there had been a Major
Frost who had ‘paid attention’ to Martha; and he did not seem at all
disinclined to pay attention to her now that he had come back. Though he
was told of her engagement, the information seemed to have very little
effect upon him. He came over perpetually, and was always at hand to
ride, or walk, or drive, or flirt, as the young ladies felt disposed.
Before he had been back a fortnight it seemed to me that Martha had
begun to talk less about dear Ellis. By degrees she came the length of
confessing that dear Ellis wrote very seldom. I had found out that fact
for myself, but she had never made any reference to it before. I watched
her with an interest which surpassed every other interest in my life at
that moment. I forgot even Nelly, and took no notice of her in
comparison. The elder sister absorbed me altogether. By degrees she gave
up talking of her marriage, and of her wedding-dress, and where they
were to live; and she began to talk of Major Frost. He seemed always to
be telling her something which she had to repeat; and he told her very
private details, with which she could have nothing to do. He told her
that he was much better off than when he was last at the Green. Somebody
had died and had left him a great deal of money. He was thinking of
leaving the army, and buying a place in our county, if possible. He
asked Martha’s advice where he should go. ‘It is odd that he should tell
you all this,’ I said to her one day, when she was re-confiding to me a
great many of Major Frost’s personal affairs; and though she was not
usually very quick of apprehension, something called upon Martha’s cheek
the shadow of a blush.

‘I think it is quite natural,’ she said; ‘we are such old friends; and
then he knows I am engaged. I always thought he was very nice--didn’t
you? I don’t think he will ever marry,’ Martha added, with a certain
pathos. ‘He says he could never have married but one woman; and he can’t
have her now. He was poor when he was last here you know.’

‘And who was the woman he could have married?’ said I.

‘Oh, of course I did not ask him,’ said Martha with modest
consciousness. ‘Poor fellow! it would have been cruel to ask him. It is
hard that he should have got his money just after I---- I mean after she
was engaged.’

‘It is hard that money should always be at the bottom of everything,’
said I. And though it was the wish nearest to my heart that Martha
should forget and give up Llewellyn, still I was angry with her for what
she said. But that made no difference. She was not bright enough to know
that her faith was wavering. She went on walking and talking with Major
Frost, and boring us all with him and his confidences, till I, for one,
was sick of his very name. But she meant no treachery; she never even
thought of deserting her betrothed. Had any accident happened to bring
him uppermost, she would have gone back to dear Ellis all the same. She
was not faithless nor fickle, nor anything that was wicked: she was
chiefly stupid, or, rather, I stolid. And to think the two were sisters!
The Admiral was not very quick-sighted, but evidently he had begun to
notice how things were going. He came to me one afternoon to consult me
when both the girls were out. I suppose they were at croquet somewhere.
We elders found that afternoon hour, when they were busy with the balls
and mallets, a very handy time for consulting about anything which they
were not intended to know.

‘I think I ought to write to Llewellyn,’ he said. ‘Things are in a very
unsatisfactory state. I am not satisfied that he was obliged to go away
as he said. I think he might have come to see her had he tried. I have
been consulting the little one about it, and she thinks with me.’

‘What does she think?’ I asked with breathless interest, to the
Admiral’s surprise.

‘She thinks with me that things are in an unsatisfactory state,’ he said
calmly; ‘that it would be far better to have it settled and over, one
way or another. She is a very sensible little woman. I was just about to
write to Llewellyn, but I thought it best to ask you first what your
opinion was.’

Should I speak and tell him all? Had I any right to tell him? The
thought passed through my mind quick as lightning. I made a longer pause
than I ought to have done; and then all I could find to say was:

‘I think I should let things take their course if I were you.’

‘What does that mean?’ said the Admiral quickly. ‘Take their course! I
think it is my duty to write to him and let things be settled out of
hand.’

It was with this intention he left me. But he did not write, for the
very next morning there came a letter from Llewellyn, not to Martha, but
to her father, telling him that he was coming home. The ship had been
paid off quite unexpectedly I heard afterwards. And I suppose that
unless he had been courageous enough to give the true explanation of his
conduct he had no resource but to come back. It was a curious, abrupt
sort of letter. The young man’s conscience, I think, had pricked him for
his cowardice in running away; and either he had wound himself up to the
point of carrying out his engagement in desperation, or else he was
coming to tell his story and ask for his release. I heard of it
immediately from the Admiral himself, who was evidently not quite at
ease in his mind on the subject. And a short time afterwards Martha came
in, dragging her sister with her, full of the news.

‘I could scarcely get her to come,’ Martha said. ‘I can’t think what she
always wants running after those village people. And when we have just
got the news that Ellis is coming home!’

‘Yes, I heard,’ said I. ‘I suppose I ought to congratulate you. Do you
expect him soon? Does he say anything about----?’

‘Oh, his letter was to papa,’ said Martha, interrupting my very
hesitating and embarrassed speech; for my eyes were on Nelly, and I saw
in a moment that her whole expression had changed. ‘He could not be
expected to say anything particular to papa, but I suppose it must be
very soon. I don’t think he will want to wait now he is free.’

‘I shall be very glad when it is all over,’ said Nelly, to my great
surprise. It was the first time I had heard her make any comment on the
subject. ‘It will make so much fuss and worry. It is very entertaining
to them, I suppose, but it is rather tiresome to us. Mrs. Mulgrave, I am
going to see Molly Jackson; I can hear all about the _trousseau_ at
home, you know.’

‘Nelly!’ said I, as I kissed her; and I could not restrain a warning
look. She flushed up, poor child, to her hair, but turned away with a
sick impatience that went to my heart.

‘If you had the worry of it night and day as I shall have!’ she said
under her breath, with an impatient sigh. And then she went away.

I knew all that was in her heart as well as if she had told me. She had
lost her temper and patience as well as her peace of mind. It is hard to
keep serene under a repeated pressure. She did it the first time, but
she was not equal to it the second. She had no excuse to go away now.
She had to look forward to everything, and hear it all discussed, and go
through it in anticipation. She had to receive him as his future sister;
to be the witness of everything, always on the spot; a part of the
bridal pageant, the first and closest spectator. And it was very hard to
bear. As for Martha, she sat serene in a chair which she had herself
worked for me, turning her fair countenance to the light. She saw
nothing strange in Nelly’s temper, nor in anything that happened to her.
She sat waiting till I had taken my seat again, quite ready to go into
the question of the _trousseau_. The sight of her placidity made me
desperate. Suddenly there came before me the haggard looks of poor
Llewellyn, and the pale exasperation and heart-sickness of my bright
little Nelly’s face. And then I looked at Martha, who was sitting,
serene and cheerful, just in the same spot and the same attitude in
which, a few days before, she had told me of Major Frost. She had left
off Major Frost now and come back to her trousseau. What did it matter
to her which of them it was? As for giving her pain or humiliating her,
how much or how long would she feel it? I became desperate. I fastened
the door when I closed it after Nelly that nobody might interrupt us,
and then I came and sat down opposite to my victim. Martha was utterly
unconscious still. It never occurred to her to notice how people were
looking, nor to guess what was in anybody’s mind.

‘You are quite pleased,’ said I, making my first assault very gently,
‘that Captain Llewellyn is coming home?’

‘Pleased!’ said Martha. ‘Of course I am pleased. What odd people you all
are! Anybody might see that it is pleasanter to be settled and know what
one is doing. I wish you would come up to town with me some day, Mrs.
Mulgrave, and help me with my things.’

‘My dear,’ said I, ‘in the first place, there is something more
important than your things; there is Major Frost. What do you mean to do
with him?’

‘I--with him?’ said Martha, opening her eyes. ‘He always knew I was
engaged. Of course I am very sorry for him; but if he did not choose to
come forward in time, he could not expect that one was to wait.’

‘And is that how you mean to leave him,’ said I severely, ‘after all the
encouragement you have given him? Every day, for a month past, I have
expected to hear you say that you had made a mistake about Captain
Llewellyn, and that it was the Major you liked best.’

‘Oh, fancy _me_ doing such a thing!’ cried Martha, really roused, ‘after
being engaged to Ellis a whole year. If he had come forward at the
proper time perhaps---- But to make a change when everything was
settled! You never could have believed it of _me_!’

‘If you like the other better, it is never too late to make a change,’
said I, carried away by my motive, which was good, and justified a
little stretch of ethics. ‘You will be doing a dreadful injury to poor
Captain Llewellyn if you marry him and like another man best.’

Martha looked at me with a little simper of self-satisfaction. ‘I think
I know my duty,’ she said. ‘I am engaged. I don’t see that anything else
is of any consequence. Of course the gentleman I am engaged to is the
one I shall like best.’

‘Do you mean that you are engaged to him because you like him best?’
said I. ‘Martha, take care. You may be preparing great bitterness for
yourself. I have no motive but your good.’ This was not true, but still
it is a thing that everybody says; and I was so much excited that I had
to stop to take breath. ‘You may never have it in your power to make a
choice again,’ I said with solemnity. ‘You ought to pause and think
seriously which of the two you love. You cannot love them both. It is
the most serious question you will ever have to settle in your life.’

Martha looked at me with a calm surprise which drove me wild. ‘Dear Mrs.
Mulgrave,’ she said, ‘I don’t know what you mean. I am engaged to
Ellis--and Major Frost has never proposed even. He may have been only
flirting, for anything I can tell; and how foolish it would be to give
up the one without any real hold on the other! but of course it is
nonsense altogether. Why, Ellis is coming back on purpose; and as Major
Frost did not come forward in time, I don’t see how he can complain.’

All this she said with the most perfect placidity, sitting opposite the
window, lifting her serene countenance to the light. It was a practical
concern to Martha. It did not so much matter which it was; but to
interfere with a thing fully arranged and settled, because of any mere
question of liking! I was not by a very long way so cool as she was.
Everything seemed to me to depend upon this last throw, and I felt
myself suddenly bold to put it to the touch. It was not my business, to
be sure; but to think of those two young creatures torn asunder and made
miserable! It was not even Nelly I was thinking of. Nelly would be
free; she was young; she would not have her heartbreak always kept
before her, and time would heal her wounds. But poor Llewellyn was bound
and fettered. He could not escape nor forget. It was for him I made my
last attempt.

‘Martha, I have something still more serious to say to you,’ I said. ‘Do
you remember, when you told me of Captain Llewellyn’s proposal first, I
asked you if it was not a mistake?’

‘Yes, I remember very well,’ said Martha. ‘It was just like you. I never
knew any one who asked such odd questions. I should have been angry had
it been any one but you.’

‘Perhaps you will be angry now,’ I said. ‘I know you will be vexed, but
I can’t help it. Oh, my dear, you must listen to me! It is not only your
happiness that is concerned, but that of others. Martha, I have every
reason to think that it was a mistake. Don’t smile; I am in earnest. It
was a mistake. Can’t you see yourself how little heart he puts into it?
Martha, my dear, it is no slight to you. You told me you had never
thought of him before he wrote to you. And it was not you he meant to
write to. What can I say to convince you? It is true; it is not merely
my idea. It was all a mistake.’

‘Mrs. Mulgrave,’ said Martha, a little moved out of her composure, ‘I am
not angry. I might be; but I am sure you don’t mean it. It is one of the
fancies you take into your head. How could it be a mistake? It was me he
wrote to, not anybody else. Of course I was not fond of him before; but
when a man asks you to marry him, how is it possible there can be any
mistake?’

‘Oh, Martha,’ I said, wringing my hands, ‘let me tell you all; only hear
me, and don’t be vexed. Did you never notice all that summer how he
followed Nelly about? Try and remember. He was always by her side;
wherever we went those two were together. Ask anybody; ask Lady Denzil;
ask your father. Oh, my dear child, I don’t want to hurt your feelings!
I want to save you from something you will be very sorry for. I want you
to be happy. Can’t you see what I mean without any more explanations
from me?’

Martha had, notwithstanding her composure, grown pale. Her placid looks
had changed a little. ‘I see it is something about Sister,’ she said.
‘Because you like her best, you think everybody else must like her best
too. I wonder why it is that you are so unkind to me!’

As she spoke she cried a little, and turned her shoulder towards me,
instead of her face.

‘Not unkind,’ I said, ‘oh, not unkind; I am speaking only because I love
you all.’

‘You have never loved _me_,’ said Martha, weeping freely; ‘never, though
I have been so fond of you. And now you want to make me ridiculous and
miserable. How can I tell what you mean? What has Sister to do with it?
Ellis was civil to her for--for my sake. It was me he proposed to. How
can I tell what you are all plotting in your hearts? When people write
letters to me, and ask me to marry them, am I not to believe what they
say?’

‘When he wrote, he thought Nelly was the eldest,’ I said. ‘You know what
I have always told you about your names. He wrote to her, and it came to
you. Martha, believe me, it is not one of my fancies; it is true.’

‘How do you know it is true?’ she cried, with a natural outburst of
anger and indignation. ‘How do you dare to come and say all this now?
Insulting Ellis, and Sister, and me! Oh, I wish I had never known you! I
wish I had never, never come into this house! I wish----’

Her voice died away in a storm of sobs and tears. She cried like a
child--as a baby cries, violently, with temper, and not with grief. She
was not capable of Nelly’s suppressed passion and misery; neither did
the blow strike deep enough for that; and she had no pride to restrain
her. She cried noisily, turning her shoulder to me, making her eyes red
and her cheeks blurred. When I got up and went to her, she repulsed me;
I had nothing to do but sit down again, and wait till the passion had
worn itself out. And there she sat sobbing, crushing her pretty hat, and
disfiguring her pretty face, with the bright light falling upon her, and
revealing every heave of her shoulders. By degrees the paroxysm
subsided; she dried her eyes, poor child, and put up her hair, which had
got into disorder, with hasty and agitated hands. Then she turned her
flushed, tear-stained face upon me. It was almost prettier than usual in
this childish passion.

‘I don’t believe you!’ she cried. ‘I don’t believe it one bit! You only
want to vex me. Oh, I wish I had never known you. I wish I might never
see you again--you, and--all the rest! I wish I were dead! But I shall
tell papa, Mrs. Mulgrave, and I know what he will think of you.’

‘Martha, I am very sorry----’ I began, but Martha had rushed to the
door.

‘I don’t want to hear any more!’ she said. ‘I know everything you can
say. You are fond of Sister, and want her to have everything. And you
always hated me!’

With these words she rushed out, shutting not only the door of the room
behind her in her wrath, but the door of the house, which stood always
open. She left me, I avow, in a state of very great agitation. I had not
expected her to take it in this way. And it had been a great strain upon
my nerves to speak at all. I trembled all over, and as soon as she was
gone I cried too, from mere nervousness and agitation, not to speak of
the terrible thought that weighed on my mind--had I done harm or good?
What would the others say if they knew? Would they bless or curse me?
Had I interfered out of season? Had I been officious? Heaven knows! The
result only could show.

Most people know what a strange feeling it is when one has thus
estranged, or parted in anger from, a daily and intimate companion; how
one sits in a vague fever of excitement, thinking it over--wondering
what else one could have said; wondering if the offended friend will
come or send, or give any sign of reconciliation; wondering what one
ought to do. I was so shaken by it altogether that I was good for
nothing but lying down on the sofa. When my maid came to look for me,
she was utterly dismayed by my appearance. ‘Them young ladies are too
much for you, ma’am,’ she said indignantly. ‘It’s as bad as daughters of
your own.’ I think that little speech was the last touch that was wanted
to make me break down. As bad as daughters of my own! but not as good;
very different. When I thought how those girls would cling round their
father, it was more than I could bear. Not that I envied him. But I was
ready to do more for them than he was; to risk their very love in order
to serve them; and how different was their affection for me!

All day long I stayed indoors, recovering slowly, but feeling very
miserable. Nobody came near me. The girls, who were generally flitting
out and in twenty times in a day, never appeared again. The very door
which Martha shut in her passion remained closed all day. When it came
to be evening, I could bear it no longer; I could not let the sun go
down upon such a quarrel; I was so lonely I could not afford to be
proud. I drew my shawl round me, though I was still trembling, and went
softly in at the Admiral’s gate. It was dusk, and everything was very
sweet. It had been a lovely autumn day, very warm for the season, and
the twilight lingered as if it were loth to make an end. I thought the
girls would probably be in the drawing-room by themselves, and that I
might invent some excuse for sending Nelly away, and try to make my
peace with her sister. I did not love Martha as I loved Nelly, but I was
fond of her all the same, as one is fond of a girl one has seen grow up,
and watched over from day to day; and I could not bear that she should
be estranged from me. When I went in however Nelly was all alone. She
was sitting in a low chair by the fire, for they always had a fire
earlier than other people. She was sitting over it with her face resting
in her hands, almost crouching towards the friendly blaze. And yet it
was a warm evening, very warm for the time of the year. She started when
she heard my step, and turned round and for the moment I saw that I was
not welcome to Nelly either. Her thoughts had been better company: or
was it possible that Martha could have told her? I did not think however
that this could be the case, when she drew forward my favourite chair
for me, and we began to talk. Nelly had not passed through any crisis
such as that which Martha and I had made for ourselves. She told me her
sister had a headache, and had been lying down before dinner, but that
now she had gone out for a little air.

‘Only in the garden,’ Nelly said. And then she added, ‘Major Frost is
here. He is with her--and I don’t think he ought to come so
often--now----’

‘Major Frost!’ I said, and my heart began to beat; I don’t know what I
feared or hoped, for at this moment the Admiral came in from the
dining-room, and joined us, and we got into ordinary conversation. What
a strange thing ordinary conversation is! We sat in the dark, with only
the firelight making rosy gleams about the room, and wavering in the
great mirror over the mantelpiece, where we were all dimly
reflected--and talked about every sort of indifferent subject. But I
wonder if Nelly was thinking of what she was saying? or if her heart was
away, like mine, hovering over the heads of these two in the garden, or
with poor Llewellyn, who was creeping home an unwilling bridegroom? Even
the Admiral, I believe, had something on his mind different from all our
chit-chat. For my own part I sat well back in my corner, with my heart
thumping so against my breast that it affected my breathing. I had to
speak in gasps, making up the shortest sentences I could think of. And
we talked about public affairs, and what was likely to be the result of
the new measures; and the Admiral, who was a man of the old school,
shook his head, and declared I was a great deal too much of an optimist,
and thought more hopefully than reasonably of the national affairs.
Heaven help me! I was thinking of nothing at that moment but of Martha
and Major Frost.

Then there was a little stir outside in the hall. The firelight, and the
darkness, and the suspense, and my own feelings generally, recalled to
my mind so strongly the evening on which Llewellyn arrived, that I
should not have been surprised had he walked in, when the door opened.
But it was only Martha who came in. The firelight caught her as she
entered, and showed me for one brief moment a different creature from
the Martha I had parted with that morning in sobs and storms. I don’t
know what she wore; but I know that she was more elaborately dressed
than usual, and had sparkling ornaments about her, which caught the
light. I almost think, though I never could be sure, that it was her
poor mother’s diamond brooch which she had put on, though they were
alone. She came in lightly, with something of the triumphant air I had
noticed in her a year ago, before Captain Llewellyn’s Christmas visit.
It was evident at all events that my remonstrance had not broken her
spirit. I could see her give a little glance to my corner, and I know
that she saw I was there.

‘Are you here, papa?’ she said. ‘You always sit, like crows, in the
dark, and nobody can see you.’ Then she drew a chair into the circle.
She took no notice of me or any one, but placed herself directly in the
light of the fire.

‘Yes, my dear,’ said her father. ‘I am glad you have come in. It begins
to get cold.’

‘We did not feel it cold,’ said Martha, and then she laughed--a short
little disconnected laugh, which indicated some disturbance of her calm;
then she went on, with a tendency to short and broken sentences, like
myself--‘Papa,’ she said, ‘I may as well tell you at once. When the
Major was here last he was poor, and could not speak--now he’s well
off. And he wants me to marry him. I like him better than--Ellis
Llewellyn. I always--liked him better--and he loves _me_!’

Upon which Martha burst into tears.

If I were to try to describe the consternation produced by this
unlooked-for speech, I should only prolong my story without making it
more clear. The want of light heightened it, and confused us all doubly.
If a bomb had burst in the peaceful place I don’t think it could have
produced a greater commotion. It was only the Admiral however who could
say a word, and of course he was the proper person. Martha very soon
came out of her tears to reply to him. He was angry, he was bewildered,
he was wild for the moment. What was he to say to Llewellyn? What did
she mean? How did Major Frost dare----? I confess that I was crying in
my corner--I could not help it. When the Admiral began to storm, I put
my hand on his arm, and made him come to me, and whispered a word in his
ear. Then the good man subsided into a bewildered silence. And after a
while he went to the library, where Major Frost was waiting to know his
fate.

It is unnecessary to follow out the story further. Llewellyn, poor
fellow, had to wait a long time after all before Nelly would look at
him. I never knew such a proud little creature. And she never would own
to me that any spark of human feeling had been in her during that
painful year. They were a proud family altogether. Martha met me ever
after with her old affectionateness and composure--never asked pardon,
nor said I was right, but at the same time never resented nor betrayed
my interference. I believe she forgot it even, with the happy facility
that belonged to her nature, and has not an idea now that it was
anything but the influence of love and preference which made her cast
off Llewellyn and choose Major Frost.

Sometimes however in the gray of the summer evenings, or the long, long
winter nights, I think I might just as well have let things alone. There
are two bright households the more in the world, no doubt. But the
Admiral and I are both dull enough sometimes, now the girls are gone. He
comes, and sits with me, which is always company, and it is not his
fault I have not changed my residence and my lonely condition. But I say
to him, why should we change, and give the world occasion to laugh, and
make a talk of us at our age? Things are very well as they are. I
believe we are better company to each other living next door, than if we
were more closely allied; and our neighbours know us too well to make
any talk about our friendship. But still it often happens, even when we
are together,--in the still evenings, and in the firelight, and when all
the world is abroad of summer nights--that we both of us lament a little
in the silence, and feel that it is very dull without the girls.



LADY DENZIL



CHAPTER I


The Denzils were the chief people at Dinglefield Green. Their house was
by much the most considerable-looking house, and the grounds were
beautiful. I say the most considerable-looking, for my own impression is
that Dinglewood, which was afterwards bought by the stockbroker whose
coming convulsed the whole Green, was in reality larger than the Lodge;
but the Lodge, when Sir Thomas Denzil was in it, was all the same the
centre of everything. It was like Windsor Castle to us neighbours, or
perhaps in reality it was more what her Majesty’s actual royal
habitation is to the dwellers within her castle gates. We were the poor
knights, the canons, the musical and ecclesiastical people who cluster
about that mingled stronghold of the State and Church--but to the Lodge
was it given to bestow distinction upon us. Those of us who visited Lady
Denzil entered into all the privileges of rank; those who did not
receive that honour fell into the cold shade--and a very uncomfortable
shade it must have been. I speak, you will say, at my ease; for my
people had known the Denzils ages before, and Sir Thomas most kindly
sent his wife to call, almost before I had settled down into my cottage;
but I remember how very sore Mrs. Wood felt about it, though it
surprised me at the time. ‘I have been here five years, and have met
them everywhere, but she has never found the way to my door. Not that I
care in the least,’ she said, with a flush on her cheek. She was a
clergyman’s widow, and very sensitive about her ‘position,’ poor
thing--and almost found fault with me, as if I was to blame for having
known the Denzils in my youth.

Lady Denzil, who had so much weight among us, was a very small
personage. She would have been tiny and insignificant had she not been
so stately and imposing. I don’t know how she did it. She was some way
over sixty at the time I speak of. Whatever the fashion was, she always
wore long flowing dresses which swept the ground for a yard behind her,
and cloaks ample and graceful: always large, always full, and always
made of black silk. Even in winter, though her carriage would be piled
with heaps of furs, she wore upon her little majestic person nothing
but silk. Such silk!--you should have touched it to know what it was.
The very sound of it, as it rustled softly after her over the summer
lawn or the winter carpet, was totally different from the _frôlement_ of
ordinary robes. Some people said she had it made for herself expressly
at Lyons. I don’t know how that might be, but I know I never saw
anything like it. I believe she had every variety in her wardrobe that
heart of woman could desire: Indian shawls worth a fortune I _know_ were
among her possessions; but she never wore anything but that matchless
silk--long dresses of it, and long, large, ample cloaks to correspond.
Her hair was quite white, like silver. She had the brightest dark eyes,
shining out from under brows which were curved and lined as finely as
when she was eighteen. Her colour was as fresh as a rose. I think there
never was a more lovely old lady. Eighteen, indeed! It has its charms,
that pleasant age. It is sweet to the eye, especially of man. Perhaps a
woman, who has oftenest to lecture the creature, instead of falling down
to worship, may not see so well the witchery which lies in the period;
but find me any face of eighteen that could match Lady Denzil’s. It had
wrinkles, yes; but these were crossed by lines of thought, and lighted
up by that soft breath of experience and forbearance which comes only
with the years. Lady Denzil’s eyes saw things that other eyes could not
see. She knew by instinct when things were amiss. You could tell it by
the charitable absence of all questioning, by a calm taking for granted
the most unlikely explanations. Some people supposed they deceived her,
but they never deceived her. And some people spoke of her extraordinary
insight, and eyes that could see through a millstone. I believe her eyes
were clear; but it was experience, only experience--long knowledge of
the world, acquaintance with herself and human nature, and all the
chances that befall us on our way through this life. That it was, and
not any mere intuition or sharpness that put insight into Lady Denzil’s
eyes.

The curious thing however was that she had never had any troubles of her
own. She had lived with Sir Thomas in the Lodge since a period dating
far beyond my knowledge. It was a thing which was never mentioned among
us, chiefly, I have no doubt, because of her beautiful manners and
stately look, though it came to be spoken of afterwards, as such things
will; but the truth is, that nobody knew very clearly who Lady Denzil
was. Sir Thomas’s first wife was from Lancashire, of one of the best old
families in the county, and it was not an unusual thing for new comers
to get confused about this, and identify the present Lady Denzil with
her predecessor; but I am not aware that any one really knew the rights
of it or could tell who she was. I have heard the mistake made, and I
remember distinctly the gracious and unsatisfactory way with which she
put it aside. ‘The first Lady Denzil was a Lancashire woman,’ she said;
‘she was one of the Tunstalls of Abbotts Tunstall, and a very beautiful
and charming person.’ This was all; she did not add, as anybody else
would have done, Loamshire or Blankshire is my county. It was very
unsatisfactory, but it was fine all the same--and closed everybody’s
mouth. There were always some connections on the Denzil side staying at
the Lodge at the end of the year. No one could be kinder than she was to
all Sir Thomas’s young connections. But nobody belonging to Lady Denzil
was ever seen among us. I don’t think it was remarked at the time, but
it came to be noted afterwards, and it certainly was very strange.

I never saw more perfect devotion than that which old Sir Thomas showed
to his wife. He was about ten years older than she--a hale, handsome old
man, nearly seventy. Had he been twenty-five and she eighteen he could
not have been more tender, more careful of her. Often have I looked at
her and wondered, with the peaceful life she led, with the love and
reverence and tender care which surrounded her, how she had ever come to
know the darker side of life, and understand other people’s feelings. No
trouble seemed ever to have come near her. She put down her dainty
little foot only to walk over soft carpets or through bright gardens;
she never went anywhere where those long silken robes might not sweep,
safe even from the summer dust, which all the rest of us have to brave
by times. Lady Denzil never braved it. I have seen her sometimes--very
seldom--with her dress gathered up in her arms in great billows, on the
sheltered sunny lime-walk which was at one side of the Lodge, taking a
little gentle exercise; but this was quite an unusual circumstance, and
meant that the roads were too heavy or too slippery for her horses. On
these rare occasions Sir Thomas would be at her side, like a courtly old
gallant as he was. He was as deferential to his wife as if she had been
a princess and he dependent on her favour: and at the same time there
was a grace of old love in his reverence which was like a poem. It was a
curious little paradise that one looked into over the ha-ha across the
verdant lawns that encircled the Lodge. The two were old and childless,
and sometimes solitary; but I don’t think, though they opened their
house liberally to kith, kin, and connections, that they ever felt less
lonely than when they were alone. Two, where the two are one, is enough.
To be sure the two in Eden were young. Yet it does but confer a certain
tender pathos upon that companionship when they are old. I thought of
the purest romance I knew, of the softest creations of poetry, when I
used to see old Sir Thomas in the lime-walk with his old wife.

But I was sorry she had not called on poor Mrs. Wood. It would have been
of real consequence to that good woman if Lady Denzil had called. She
was only a clergyman’s widow, and a clergyman’s widow may be anything,
as everybody knows: she may be such a person as will be an acquisition
anywhere, or she may be quite the reverse. It was because Mrs. Wood
belonged to this indefinite class that Lady Denzil’s visit would have
been of such use. Her position was doubtful, poor soul! She was very
respectable and very good in her way, and her daughters were nice girls;
but there was nothing in themselves individually to raise them out of
mediocrity. I took the liberty to say so one day when I was at the
Lodge: but Lady Denzil did not see it somehow; and what could I do? And
on the other hand it was gall and wormwood to poor Mrs. Wood every time
she saw the carriage with the two bays stop at my door.

‘I saw Lady Denzil here to-day,’ she would say. ‘You ought to feel
yourself honoured. I must say I don’t see why people should give in to
her so. In my poor husband’s time the duchess never came into the parish
without calling. It need not be any object to me to be noticed by a bit
of a baronet’s wife.’

‘No, indeed!’ said I, being a coward and afraid to stand to my guns; ‘I
am sure you need not mind. And she is old, poor lady--and I am an old
friend--and indeed I don’t know that Lady Denzil professes to visit,’ I
went on faltering, with a sense of getting deeper and deeper into the
mud.

‘Oh, pray don’t say so to spare my feelings,’ said Mrs. Wood with
asperity. ‘It is nothing to me whether she calls or not, but you must
know, Mrs. Mulgrave, that Lady Denzil does make a point of calling on
every one she thinks worth her while. I am sure she is quite at liberty
to do as she pleases so far as I am concerned.’ Here she stopped and
relieved herself, drawing a long breath and fanning with her
handkerchief her cheeks, which were crimson. ‘But if I were to say I was
connected with the peerage, or to talk about the titled people I do
know,’ she added with a look of spite, ‘she would very soon find out
where I lived: oh, trust her for that!’

‘I think you must have taken up a mistaken idea,’ I said, meekly. I had
not courage enough to stand up in my friend’s defence. Not that I am
exactly a coward by nature, but Mrs. Wood was rather a difficult person
to deal with; and I was sorry in the present instance, and felt that the
grievance was a real one. ‘I don’t think Lady Denzil cares very much
about the peerage. She is an old woman and has her fancies, I suppose.’

‘Oh, you are a favourite!’ said Mrs. Wood, tossing her head, as if it
were my fault. ‘You have the _entrées_, and we are spiteful who are left
out, you know,’ she added with pretended playfulness. It was a very
affected little laugh however to which she gave utterance, and her
cheeks flamed crimson. I was very sorry--I did not know what to say to
make things smooth again. If I had been Lady Denzil’s keeper, I should
have taken her to call at Rose Cottage next day. But I was not Lady
Denzil’s keeper. It was great kindness of her to visit me: how could I
force her against her will to visit other people? A woman of Mrs. Wood’s
age, who surely could not have got so far through the world without a
little understanding of how things are managed, ought to have known
that it could do her very little good to quarrel with me.

And then the girls would come to me when there was anything going on at
the Lodge. ‘We met the Miss Llewellyns the other day,’ Adelaide said on
one occasion. ‘We thought them very nice. They are staying with Lady
Denzil, you know. I wish you would make Lady Denzil call on mamma, Mrs.
Mulgrave. It is so hard to come and settle in a place and be shut out
from all the best parties. Until you have been at the Lodge you are
considered nobody on the Green.’

‘The Lodge can’t make us different from what we are,’ said Nora, the
other sister, who was of a different temper. ‘I should be ashamed to
think it mattered whether Lady Denzil called or not.’

‘But it does matter a great deal when they are going to give a ball,’
said Adelaide very solemnly. ‘The best balls going, some of the officers
told me; and everybody will be there--except Nora and me,’ said the poor
girl. ‘Oh, Mrs. Mulgrave, I wish you would make Lady Denzil call!’

‘But, my dear, I can’t make Lady Denzil do anything,’ I said; ‘I have no
power over her. She comes to see me sometimes, but we are not intimate,
and I have no influence. She comes because my people knew the Denzils
long ago. She has her own ways. I could not make her do one thing or
another. It is wrong to speak so to me.’

‘But you could if you would try,’ said Adelaide; as she spoke, we could
hear the sound of the croquet balls from the Lodge, and voices and
laughter. We were all three walking along the road, under shelter of the
trees. She gave such a wistful look when she heard them, that it went to
my heart. It was not a very serious trouble, it is true. But still to
feel one’s self shut out from anything, is hard when one is twenty. I
had to hurry past the gate, to restrain the inclination I had to brave
everything, and take them in with me, as my friends, to join the croquet
party. I know very well what would have happened had I done so. Lady
Denzil would have been perfectly sweet and gracious, and sent them away
delighted with her; but she would never have crossed my threshold again.
And what good would that have done them? The fact was, they had nothing
particular to recommend them; no special qualities of their own to make
up for their want of birth and connection; and this being the case what
could any one say?

It gave one a very different impression of Lady Denzil, to see how she
behaved when poor Mrs. Stoke was in such trouble about her youngest boy.
I had been with her calling, and Mrs. Stoke had told us a whole long
story about him; how good-hearted he was, and how generous, spending his
money upon everybody. It was a very hard matter for me to keep my
countenance, for of course I knew Everard Stoke, and what kind of boy he
was. But Lady Denzil took it all with the greatest attention and
sympathy. I could not but speak of it when we came out. ‘Poor Mrs.
Stoke!’ said I, ‘it is strange how she can deceive herself so--and she
must have known we knew better. You who have seen poor Everard grow up,
Lady Denzil----’

‘Yes, my dear,’ she said, ‘you are right; and yet, do you know, I think
you are wrong too? She is not deceived. She knows a great deal better
than we do. But then she is on the other side of the scene, and she sees
into the boy’s heart a little. I hope she sees into his heart.’

‘I fear it is a very bad heart; I should not think it was any pleasure
to look into it,’ said I in my haste. Lady Denzil gave me a soft,
half-reproachful look. ‘Well,’ she said, and gave a sigh, ‘it has always
been one of my great fancies, that God was more merciful than man,
because He saw fully what was in all our hearts--what we meant, poor
creatures that we are, not what we did. We so seldom have any confidence
in Him for that. We think He will forgive and save, but we don’t think
He understands, and sees everything, and knows that nothing is so bad as
it seems. Perhaps it is dangerous doctrine; at least the vicar would
think so, I fear.’

‘In the case of Everard Stoke,’ said I stupidly, coming back to the
starting point.

‘My dear,’ said Lady Denzil with a little impatience, ‘the older one
grows, the less one feels inclined to judge any one. Indeed when one
grows quite old,’ she went on after a pause, smiling a little, as if it
were at the thought that she, whom no doubt she could remember so
thoughtless and young, _was_ quite old, ‘one comes to judge not at all.
Poor Everard, he never was a good boy--but I dare say his mother knows
him best, and he is better than is thought.’

‘At least it was a comfort to her to see you look as if you believed
her,’ said I, not quite entering into the argument. Lady Denzil took no
notice of this speech. It was a beautiful bright day, and it was but a
step from Mrs. Stoke’s cottage to the Lodge gates, which we were just
about entering. But at that moment there was a little party of soldiers
marching along the high-road, at right angles from where we stood. It is
not far from the Green to the barracks, and their red coats were not
uncommon features in the landscape. These men however were marching in a
business-like way, not lingering on the road: and among them was a man
in a shooting-coat, handcuffed, poor fellow! It was a deserter they were
taking back to the punishment that awaited him. I made some meaningless
exclamation or other, and stood still, looking after them for a moment.
Then I suppose my interest failed as they went on, at their rapid,
steady pace, turning their backs upon us. I came back to Lady Denzil, my
passing distraction over; but when I looked at her, there was something
in her face that struck me with the deepest wonder. She had not come
back to me. She was standing absorbed, watching them; the colour all
gone out of her soft old cheeks, and the saddest, wistful, longing gaze
in her eyes. It was not pity--it was something mightier, more intense.
She did not breathe or move, but stood gazing, gazing after them. When
they had disappeared, she came to herself; her hands, which had been
clasped tightly, fell loose at her sides; she gave a long deep sigh, and
then she became conscious of my eyes upon her, and the colour came back
with a rush to her face.

‘I am always interested about soldiers,’ she said faintly, turning as
she spoke to open the gate. That was all the notice she took of it. But
the incident struck me more than my account of it may seem to justify.
If such a thing had been possible as that the deserter might have been
her husband or her brother, one could have understood it. Had I seen
such a look on Mrs. Stoke’s face, I should have known it was Everard.
But here was Lady Denzil, a contented childless woman, without anybody
to disturb her peace. Sympathy must indeed have become perfect, before
such a wistfulness could come into any woman’s eyes.

Often since I have recalled that scene to my mind, and wondered over it;
the quick march of the soldiers on the road; the man in the midst with
death environing him all round, and most likely despair in his heart;
and that one face looking on, wistful as love, sad as death--and yet
with no cause either for her sadness or her love. It did not last long,
it is true; but it was one of the strangest scenes I ever witnessed in
my life.

It even appeared to me next day as if Lady Denzil had been a little
shaken, either by her visit to Mrs. Stoke, or by this strange little
episode which nobody knew of. She had taken to me, which I confess I
felt as a great compliment; and Sir Thomas came in to ask me to go to
her next afternoon. ‘My lady has a headache,’ he said in a quaint way he
had of speaking of her: I think he would have liked to call her my queen
or my princess. When he said ‘my lady’ there was something chivalric,
something romantic in his very tone. When I went into the drawing-room
at the Lodge the great green blind was drawn over the window on the west
side, and the trees gave the same green effect to the daylight, at the
other end. The east windows looked out upon the lime-walk, and the light
came in softly, green and shadowy, through the silken leaves. She was
lying on the sofa, which was not usual with her. As soon as I entered
the room she called me to come and sit by her--and of course she did not
say a word about yesterday. We went on talking for an hour and more,
about the trees, and the sunset; about what news there was; girls going
to be married, and babies coming, and other such domestic incidents. And
sometimes the conversation would languish for a moment, and I did think
once there was something strange in her eyes, when she looked at me, as
if she had something to tell and was looking into my face to see whether
she might or might not do it. But it never went any further; we began
to speak of Molly Jackson, and that was an interminable subject. Molly
was a widow in the village, and she gave us all a great deal of trouble.
She had a quantity of little children, to whom the people on the Green
were very kind, and she was a good-natured soft soul, always falling
into some scrape or other. This time was the worst of all; it was when
the talk got up about Thomas Short. People said that Molly was going to
marry him. It would have been very foolish for them both, of course. He
was poor and he was getting old, and would rather have hindered than
helped her with her children. We gentlefolks may, or may not, be
sentimental about our own concerns; but we see things in their true
light when they take place among our poor neighbours. As for the two
being a comfort to each other we never entered into that question; there
were more important matters concerned.

‘I don’t know what would become of the poor children,’ said I. ‘The man
would never put up with them, and indeed it could not be expected; and
they have no friends to go to. But I don’t think Molly would be so
wicked; she may be a fool but she has a mother’s heart.’

Lady Denzil gave a faint smile and turned on her sofa as if something
hurt her; she did not answer me all at once--and as I sat for a minute
silent in that soft obscurity, Molly Jackson, I acknowledge, went out of
my head. Then all at once when I had gone on to something else, she
spoke; and her return to the subject startled me, I could not have told
how.

‘There are different ways of touching a mother’s heart,’ she said; ‘she
might think it would be for their good; I don’t think it could be, for
my part; I don’t think it ever is; a woman is deceived, or she deceives
herself; and then when it is too late----’

‘What is too late?’ said Sir Thomas behind us. He had come in at the
great window, and we had not noticed. I thought Lady Denzil gave a
little start, but there was no sign of it in her face.

‘We were talking of Molly Jackson,’ she said. ‘Nothing is ever too late
here, thanks to your precise habits, you old soldier. Molly must be
talked to, Mrs. Mulgrave,’ she said, turning to me.

‘Oh, yes, she will be talked to,’ said I; ‘I know the rector and his
wife have both called; and last time I saw her, Mrs. Wood----’

‘You are not one of the universal advisers,’ said Lady Denzil, patting
my arm with her white hand. It was no virtue on my part, but she spoke
as if she meant it for a compliment. And then we had to tell the whole
story over again to Sir Thomas, who was very fond of a little gossip
like all the gentlemen, but had to have everything explained to him, and
never knew what was coming next. He chuckled and laughed as men do over
it. ‘Old fool!’ he said. ‘A woman with half-a-dozen children.’ It was
not Molly but Thomas Short that he thought would be a fool; and on our
side, it is true that we had not been thinking of him.

Molly Jackson has not much to do with this story, but yet it may be as
well to say that she listened to reason, and did not do anything so
absurd. It was a relief to all our minds when Thomas went to live in
Langham parish the spring after, and married somebody there. I believe
it was a girl out of the workhouse, who might have been his daughter,
and led him a very sad life. But still in respect to Molly it was a
relief to our minds. I hope she was of the same way of thinking. I know
for one thing that she lost her temper, the only time I ever saw her do
it--and was very indignant about the young wife. ‘Old fool!’ she said,
and again it was Thomas that was meant. We had a way of talking a good
deal about the village folks, and we all did a great deal for
them--perhaps, on the whole, we did too much. When anything happened to
be wanting among them, instead of making an effort to get it for
themselves, it was always the ladies on the Green they came to. And, of
course, we interfered in our turn.



CHAPTER II


It was in the spring of the following year that little Mary first came
to the Lodge. Sir Thomas had been absent for some time, on business,
Lady Denzil said, and it was he who brought the child home. It is all
impressed on my mind by the fact that I was there when they arrived. He
was not expected until the evening, and I had gone to spend an hour with
Lady Denzil in the afternoon. It was a bright spring day, as warm as
summer; one of those sweet surprises that come upon us in England in
intervals between the gray east wind and the rain. The sunshine had
called out a perfect crowd of golden crocuses along the borders. They
had all blown out quite suddenly, as if it had been an actual voice that
called them, and God’s innocent creatures had rushed forth to answer to
their names. And there were heaps of violets about the Lodge which made
the air sweet. And there is something in that first exquisite touch of
spring which moves all hearts. Lady Denzil had come out with me to the
lawn. I thought she was quieter than usual, with the air of a woman
listening for something. Everything was very still, and yet in the
sunshine one felt as if one could hear the buds unfolding, the young
grass and leaflets thrilling with their new life. But it did not seem to
me that Lady Denzil was listening to these. I said, ‘Do you expect Sir
Thomas now?’ with a kind of vague curiosity; and she looked in my face
with a sudden quick glance of something like suspicion which I could not
understand.

‘Do I look as if I expected something?’ she said. ‘Yes--I expect some
news that probably I shall not like. But it does not matter, my dear. It
is nothing that affects me.’

She said these words with a smile that was rather dreary to see. It was
not like Lady Denzil. It was like saying, ‘So long as it does not affect
me you know I don’t care,’--which was so very, very far from my opinion
of her. I did not know what to answer. Her tone somehow disturbed the
spring feeling, and the harmony of the flowers.

‘I wish Sir Thomas had been here on such a lovely day,’ she said, after
a while; ‘he enjoys it so. Peace is very pleasant, my dear, when you are
old. You don’t quite appreciate it yet, as we do.’ And then she paused
again and seemed to listen, and permitted herself the faintest little
sigh.

‘I think I am older than you are, Lady Denzil,’ I said.

Then she laughed in her natural soft way. ‘I dare say you are,’ she
said. ‘That is the difference between your restless middle age and our
_oldness_. You feel old because you feel young. That’s how it is;
whereas, being really old, we can afford to be young again--sometimes,’
she added softly. The last word was said under her breath. I don’t
suppose she thought I heard it; but I did, being very quick of hearing,
and very fond of her, and feeling there was something underneath which I
did not know.

Just then there came the sound of wheels upon the road, and Lady Denzil
started slightly. ‘You have put it into my head that Sir Thomas might
come by the three o’clock train,’ she said. ‘It would be about time for
it now.’ She had scarcely stopped speaking and we had just turned
towards the gate, when a carriage entered. I saw at once it was one of
the common flys that are to be had at the station, and that it was Sir
Thomas who put his head out at the window. A moment after it stopped. He
had seen Lady Denzil on the lawn. He got out with that slight hesitation
which betrays an old man; and then he turned and lifted something out of
the carriage. For the first moment one could not tell what it was--he
made a long stride on to the soft greensward, with his eyes fixed upon
Lady Denzil, and then he put down the child on the lawn. ‘Go to that
lady,’ he said. For my part I stood and stared, knowing nothing of the
feelings that might lie underneath. The child stood still with her
little serious face and looked at us both for a moment, and then she
walked steadily up to Lady Denzil, who had not moved. I was quite
unprepared for what followed. Lady Denzil fell down on her knees on the
grass--she took the child to her, into her arms, close to her breast.
All at once she fell into a passion of tears. And yet that does not
express what I saw. It was silent; there were no cries nor sobs, such as
a young woman might have uttered. The tears fell as if they had been
pent up all her life, as if all her life she had been waiting for this
moment: while Sir Thomas stood looking on, half sad, half satisfied. It
seemed a revelation to him as it was to me. All this time when she had
looked so serene and had been so sweet, had she been carrying those
tears in her heart! I think that must have been what was passing through
Sir Thomas’s mind. I had stood and stared, as one does when one is
unexpectedly made the spectator of a crisis in another life. When I came
to myself I was ashamed of spying as it were upon Lady Denzil’s
feelings. I hastened away, shaking hands with Sir Thomas as I passed
him. And so entirely was his mind absorbed in the scene before him, that
I scarcely think he knew who I was.

After this it may be supposed I took a very great interest in little
Mary. At first I was embarrassed and did not quite know what to
do--whether I should go back next day and ask for the child, and give
Lady Denzil an opportunity of getting over any confusion she might feel
at the recollection that I had been present--or whether I should stay
away; but it turned out that Lady Denzil was not half so sensitive as I
was on the subject. I stayed away for one whole day thinking about
little else--and the next day I went, lest they should think it strange.
It seemed quite curious to me to be received as if nothing had happened.
There was no appearance of anything out of the ordinary course. When I
went in Lady Denzil held out her hand to me as usual without rising from
her chair. ‘What has become of you?’ she said, and made me sit down by
her, as she always did. After we had talked a while she rang the bell.
‘I have something to show you,’ she said smiling. And then little Mary
came in, in her little brown holland overall, as if it was the most
natural thing in the world. She was the most lovely child I ever saw. I
know when I say this that everybody will immediately think of a
golden-haired, blue-eyed darling. But she was not of that description.
Her hair was brown--not dark, but of the shade which grows dark with
years; and it was very fine silky hair, not frizzy and rough as is the
fashion now-a-days. Her eyes were brown too, of that tender wistful kind
which are out of fashion like the hair. Every look the child gave was an
appeal. There are some children’s eyes that look at you with perfect
trust, believing in everybody; and these are sweet eyes. But little
Mary’s were sweeter still, for they told you she believed in _you_.
‘Take care of me: be good to me--I trust you,’ was what they said; ‘not
everybody, but you.’ This was the expression in them; and I never knew
anybody who could resist that look. Then she had the true child’s beauty
of a lovely complexion, pure red and white. She came up to me and looked
at me with those tender serious eyes, and then slid her soft little hand
into mine. Even when I had ceased talking to her and petting her, she
never took her eyes away from my face. It was the creature’s way of
judging of the new people among whom she had been brought--for she was
only about six, too young to draw much insight from words. I was glad to
bend my head over her, to kiss her sweet little face and smooth her
pretty hair by way of hiding a certain embarrassment I felt. But I was
the only one of the three that was embarrassed. Lady Denzil sat and
looked at the child with eyes that seemed to run over with content. ‘She
is going to stay with me, and take care of me,’ she said, with a smile
of absolute happiness; ‘are not you, little Mary?’

‘Yes, my lady,’ said the little thing, turning, serious as a judge, to
the old lady. I could not help giving a little start as I looked from
one to the other, and saw the two pair of eyes meet. Lady Denzil was
sixty, and little Mary was but six; but it was the same face; I felt
quite confused after I had made this discovery, and sat silent and heard
them talk to each other. Even in the little voice there was a certain
trill which was like Lady Denzil’s. Then the whole scene rushed before
me. Lady Denzil on her knees, her tears pouring forth and the child
clasped in her arms. What did it mean? My lady was childless--and even
had it been otherwise, that baby never could have been _her_ child--who
was she? I was so bewildered and surprised that it took from me the very
power of speech.

After this strange introduction the child settled down as an inmate of
the Lodge, and was seen and admired by everybody. And every one
discovered the resemblance. The neighbours on the Green all found it
out, and as there was no reason we knew of why she should not be Lady
Denzil’s relation, we all stated our opinion plainly--except perhaps
myself. I had seen more than the rest, though that was almost nothing. I
had a feeling that there was an unknown story beneath, and somehow I had
not the courage to say to Lady Denzil as I sat there alone with her, and
had her perhaps at a disadvantage. ‘How like the child is to you!’ But
other people were not so cowardly. Not long after, two or three of us
met at the Lodge, at the hour of afternoon tea, which was an invention
of the time which Lady Denzil had taken to very kindly. Among the rest
was young Mrs. Plymley, who was not precisely one of us. She was one of
the Herons of Marshfield, and she and her husband had taken Willowbrook
for the summer. She was a pleasant little woman, but she was fond of
talking--nobody could deny that. And she had children of her own, and
made a great fuss over little Mary the moment she saw her. The child was
too much a little lady to be disagreeable, but I could see she did not
like to be lifted up on a stranger’s knee, and admired and chattered
over. ‘I wish my Ada was half as pretty,’ Mrs. Plymley said; ‘but Ada is
so like her poor dear papa,’ and here she pretended to sigh. ‘I am so
fond of pretty children. It is hard upon me to have mine so plain. Oh,
you little darling! Mary what? you have only told me half your name.
Lady Denzil, one can see in a moment she belongs to you.’

Lady Denzil at the moment was pouring out tea. All at once the silver
teapot in her hand seemed to give a jerk, as if it were a living
creature, and some great big boiling drops fell on her black dress. It
was only for a single second, and she had presence of mind to set it
down, and smile and say she was awkward, and it was nothing. ‘My arm is
always shaky when I hold anything heavy,’ she said; ‘ever since I had
the rheumatism in it. Then she turned to Mrs. Plymley, whose injudicious
suggestion we had all forgotten in our fright. Perhaps Lady Denzil had
lost her self-possession a little. Perhaps it was only that she thought
it best to reply at once, so that everybody might hear. ‘Belongs to
me?’ she said with her clear voice. And somehow we all felt immediately
that something silly and uncalled for had been said.

‘I mean your side of the house,’ said poor Mrs. Plymley abashed. She was
young and nervous, and felt, like all the rest of us, that she was for
the moment the culprit at the bar.

‘She belongs to neither side of the house,’ said Lady Denzil, with even
unnecessary distinctness. ‘Sir Thomas knows her people, and in his
kindness he thought a change would be good for her. She is
no--connection; nothing at all to us.’

‘Oh, I am sure I beg your pardon,’ said Mrs. Plymley; and she let little
Mary slide down from her lap, and looked very uncomfortable. None of us
indeed were at our ease, for we had all been saying it in private. Only
little Mary, standing in the middle, looked wistfully round upon us,
questioning, yet undisturbed. And Lady Denzil, too, stood and looked. At
that moment the likeness was stronger than ever.

‘It is very droll,’ said Mrs. Damerel, the rector’s wife, whose eye was
caught by it, like mine. ‘She is very like you, Lady Denzil; I never saw
an incidental likeness so strong.’

‘Poor little Mary! do you think she is like me?’ said Lady Denzil with a
curious quiver in her voice; and she bent over the child all at once and
kissed her. Sir Thomas had been at the other end of the room, quite out
of hearing. I don’t know by what magnetism he could have known that
something agitating was going on--I did not even see him approach or
look; but all at once, just as his wife betrayed that strange thrill of
feeling, Sir Thomas was at her elbow. He touched her arm quite lightly
as he stood by her side.

‘I should like some tea,’ he said.

She stood up and looked at him for a moment as if she did not
understand. And then she turned to the tea-table with something like a
blush of shame on her face. Then he drew forward a chair and sat down by
Mrs. Plymley and began to talk. He was a very good talker when he
pleased, and in two seconds we had all wandered away to our several
subjects, and were in full conversation again. But it was some time
before Lady Denzil took any part in it. She was a long while pouring out
those cups of tea. Little Mary, as if moved by some unconscious touch of
sympathy, stole away with her doll into a corner. It was as if the two
had been made out of the same material and thrilled to the same
touch--they both turned their backs upon us for the moment. I don’t
suppose anybody but myself noticed this; and to be sure it was simply
because I had seen the meeting between them, and knew there was
something in it more than the ordinary visit to the parents’ friends of
a little delicate child.

Besides, the child never looked like a little visitor; she had brought
no maid with her, and she spoke very rarely of her home. I don’t know
how she might be dressed under those brown holland overalls, but these
were the only outside garb she ever wore. I don’t mean to say they were
ugly or wanting in neatness; they were such things as the children at
the Rectory wore in summer when they lived in the garden and the fields.
But they did not look suitable for the atmosphere of the Lodge. By and
by however these outer garments disappeared. The little creature
blossomed out as it were out of her brown husk, and put forth new
flowers. After the first few weeks she wore nothing but dainty white
frocks, rich with needlework. I recognized Lady Denzil’s taste in
everything she put on. It was clear that her little wardrobe was being
silently renewed, and every pretty thing which a child of her age could
fitly wear was being added to it. This could never have been done to a
little visitor who had come for change of air. Then a maid was got for
her, whom Lady Denzil was very particular about; and no one ever spoke
of the time when little Mary should be going away. By degrees she grew
to belong to the place, to be associated with everything in it. When you
approached the house, which had always been so silent, perhaps it was a
burst of sweet childish laughter that met your ears; perhaps a little
song, or the pleasant sound of her little feet on the gravel in the
sunny lime-walk. The servants were all utterly under her sway. They
spoke of little Miss Mary as they might have spoken of a little princess
whose word was law. As for Sir Thomas, I think he was the first subject
in her realm. She took to patronizing and ordering him about before she
had been a month at the Lodge. ‘Sir Thomas,’ she would say in her clear
little voice, ‘come and walk;’ and the old gentleman would get up and go
out with her, and hold wonderful conversations, as we could see, looking
after them from the window. Lady Denzil did not seem either to pet her,
or to devote herself to her, as all the rest of the house did. But there
was something in her face when she looked at the child which passes
description. It was a sort of ineffable content and satisfaction, as if
she had all that heart could desire and asked no more. Little Mary
watched her eye whenever they were together with a curious sympathy more
extraordinary still. She seemed to know by intuition when my lady wanted
her. ‘’Es, my lady,’ the child would say, watching with her sweet eyes.
It was the only little divergence she made from correctness of speech,
and somehow it pleased my ear. I suppose she said ‘My Lady’ because Sir
Thomas did, and that I liked too. To an old lady like Lady Denzil it is
such a pretty title; I fell into it myself without being aware.



CHAPTER III


Thus the world went softly on, till the roses of June had come instead
of the spring crocuses. Everything went on softly at the Green. True,
there was a tragedy now and then, even among us, like that sad affair
of Everard Stoke; and sometimes a very troublesome complication, going
near to break some hearts, like that of Nelly Fortis--but for the most
part we were quiet enough. And that was a very quiet time. Little Mary
had grown the pet of the Green before June. The little Damerels, who
were nice children enough, were not to be compared with her; and then
there were so many of them, whereas Mary was all alone like a little
star. We all petted her--but she was one of the children whom it is
impossible to spoil. She was never pert or disagreeable, like little
Agatha Damerel. She had her little childish fits of temper by times, but
was always sorry and always sweet, with her soft appealing eyes--a
little woman, but never knowing or forward, like so many children
now-a-days. She was still but a baby, poor darling, not more than seven
years old, when that dreadful scene broke in upon our quietness which I
have now to tell.

It was June, and there was a large party on the lawn before the Lodge.
As long as the season lasted, while there were quantities of people in
town, Lady Denzil often had these parties. We were all there of course;
everybody on the Green whom she visited--(and I used to be very sorry
for Mrs. Wood and her daughters when one of them was going to take
place). We were in the habit of meeting continually in the same way, to
see the young people play croquet and amuse themselves; and there was
perhaps a little monotony in it. But Lady Denzil always took care to
have some variety. There would be a fine lady or two from town, bringing
with her a whiff of all the grandeurs and gaieties we had no particular
share in, and setting an example to the girls in their dress and
accessories. I never was extravagant in my dress, nor encouraged such a
thing--I think no true lady ever does--but a real fashionable perfect
toilette is generally so complete, and charming, and harmonious, that it
is good for one to see it now and then, especially for girls, though of
course ignorant persons and men don’t understand why. And then there
were a few gentlemen--with all the gossip of the clubs, and town talk,
which made a very pleasant change to us. It was an unusually brilliant
party that day. There was the young Countess of Berkhampstead, who was a
great beauty and had married so strangely; people said the Earl was not
very right in his head, and told the oddest stories about him. Poor
thing, I fear she could not help herself--but she was the loveliest
creature imaginable, and very nice then, though she went wrong
afterwards. She sat by Lady Denzil’s side on the sofa, which was placed
just before the great bank of roses. It was pretty to see them together:
the lovely young lady, with her fits of gaiety and pretty languid
stillnesses, letting us all admire her as if she felt what a pleasure it
was to us; and the lovely old lady, so serene, so fair, so kind. I don’t
know, for my part, which was the more beautiful. There were other fine
ladies besides Lady Berkhampstead, and, as I have just said, it was a
very brilliant party. There never was a more glorious day; the sky was a
delight to look at, and the rich full foliage of the trees clustered out
against the blue, as if they leant caressingly upon the soft air around
them. The breath of the roses went everywhere, and behind Lady Denzil’s
sofa they threw themselves up into space--great globes of burning
crimson, and delicate blush, and creamy white. They were very rich in
roses at the Lodge--I remember one wall quite covered with the _Gloire
de Dijon_--but that is a digression. It was a broad lawn, and left room
for several sets of croquet players, besides all the other people. The
house was on a higher level at one side, the grounds and woods behind,
and in front over the ha-ha we had a pretty glimpse of the Green, where
cricket was being played, and the distant houses on the other side. It
was like fairy-land, with just a peep of the outer world, by which we
kept hold upon the fact that we were human, and must trudge away
presently to our little houses. On the grass before Lady Denzil little
Mary was sitting, a little white figure, with a brilliant picture-book
which somebody had brought her. She was seated sideways, half facing to
Lady Denzil, half to the house, and giving everybody from time to time a
look from her tender eyes. Her white frock which blazed in the sunshine
was the highest light in the picture, as a painter would have said, and
gave it a kind of centre. I was not playing croquet, and there came a
moment when I was doing nothing particular, and therefore had time to
remark upon the scene around me. As I raised my eyes, my attention was
all at once attracted by a strange figure, quite alien to the group
below, which stood on the approach to the house. The house, as I have
said, was on a higher level, and consequently the road which approached
it was higher too, on the summit of the bank which sloped down towards
the lawn. A woman stood above gazing at us. At first it seemed to me
that she was one of the servants: she had a cotton gown on, and a straw
bonnet, and a little black silk cloak. I could not say that she was
shabby or wretched-looking, but her appearance was a strange contrast to
the pretty crowd on the lawn. She seemed to have been arrested on her
way to the door by the sound of voices, and stood there looking down
upon us--a strange, tall, threatening figure, which awoke, I could not
tell how, a certain terror in my mind. By degrees it seemed to me that
her gaze fixed upon little Mary--and I felt more frightened still;
though what harm could any one do to the child with so many anxious
protectors looking on? However people were intent upon their games, or
their talks, or their companions, and nobody saw her but myself. At last
I got so much alarmed that I left my seat to tell Sir Thomas of her. I
had just made one step towards him, when all at once, with a strange
cry, the woman darted down the bank. It was at little Mary she flew: she
rushed down upon her like a tempest, and seized the child, crushing up
her pretty white frock and her dear little figure violently in her
arms. I cried out too in my fright--for I thought she was mad--and
various people sprang from their chairs, one of the last to be roused
being Lady Denzil, who was talking very earnestly to Lady Berkhampstead.
The woman gave a great loud passionate outcry as she seized upon little
Mary. And the child cried out too, one single word which in a moment
transfixed me where I stood, and caught Lady Denzil’s ear like the sound
of a trumpet. It was a cry almost like a moan, full of terror and dismay
and repugnance; and yet it was one of the sweetest words that ever falls
on human ears. The sound stopped everything, even the croquet, and
called Sir Thomas forward from the other end of the lawn. The one word
that Mary uttered, that filled us all with such horror and
consternation, was ‘Mamma!’

‘Yes, my darling,’ cried the woman, holding her close, crumpling, even
crushing her up in her arms. ‘They took you from me when I wasn’t
myself! Did I know where they were going to bring you? Here! Oh, yes, I
see it all now. Don’t touch my child! don’t interfere with my
child!--she sha’n’t stay here another day. Her father would curse her if
he knew she was here.’

‘Oh, please set me down,’ said little Mary. ‘Oh, mamma, please don’t
hurt me. Oh, my lady!’ cried the poor child, appealing to her
protectress. Lady Denzil got up tottering as she heard this cry. She
came forward with every particle of colour gone from her face. She was
so agitated her lips could scarcely form the words; but she had the
courage to lay her hand upon the woman’s arm,--

‘Set her down,’ she said. ‘If you have any claim--set her down--it shall
be seen into. Sir Thomas----’

The stranger turned upon her. She was a woman about five-and-thirty,
strong and bold and vigorous. I don’t deny she was a handsome woman. She
had big blazing black eyes, and a complexion perhaps a little heightened
by her walk in the heat. She turned upon Lady Denzil, shaking off her
hand, crushing little Mary still closer in one arm, and raising the
other with a wild theatrical gesture.

‘You!’ she cried; ‘if I were to tell her father she was with you, he
would curse her. How dare you look me in the face--a woman that’s come
after her child! you that gave up your own flesh and blood. Ay! You may
stare at her, all you fine folks. There’s the woman that sold her son to
marry her master. She’s got her grandeur, and all she bid for; and she
left her boy to be brought up in the streets, and go for a common
soldier. And she’s never set eyes on him, never since he was two years
old; and now she’s come and stole my little Mary from me!’

Before this speech was half spoken every soul in the place had crowded
round to hear. No one thought how rude it was. Utter consternation was
in everybody’s look. As for Lady Denzil, she stood like a statue, as
white as marble, in the same spot, hearing it all. She did not move.
She was like an image set down there, capable of no individual action.
She stood and gazed, and heard it all, and saw us all listening. I
cannot tell what dreadful pangs were rending her heart; put she stood
like a dead woman in the sunshine, neither contradicting her accuser nor
making even one gesture in her own defence.

Then Sir Thomas, on whom there had surely been some spell, came forward,
dividing the crowd, and took the stranger by the arm. ‘Set down the
child,’ he said in a shaking voice. ‘Set her down. How dare _you_ speak
of a mother’s rights? Did you ever do anything for her? Set down the
child, woman! You have no business here.’

‘I never forsook my own flesh and blood,’ cried the enraged creature,
letting poor little Mary almost fall down out of her arms, but keeping
fast hold of her. ‘I’ve a better right here than any of these strangers.
I’m her son’s wife. She’s little Mary’s grandmother, though she’ll deny
it. She’s that kind of woman that would deny to her last breath. I know
she would. She’s the child’s grandmother. She’s my mother-in-law. She’s
never seen her son since he was two years old. If he hears the very name
of mother he curses and swears. Let me alone, I have come for my child!
And I’ve come to give that woman her due!’

‘Go!’ cried Sir Thomas. His voice was awful. He would not touch her, for
he was a gentleman; but the sound of his voice made my very knees bend
and tremble. ‘Go!’ he said--‘not a word more.’ He was so overcome at
last that he put his hand on her shoulder and pushed her away, and
wildly beckoned to the servants, who were standing listening too. The
woman grasped little Mary by her dress. She crushed up the child’s
pretty white cape in her hot hand and dragged her along with her. But
she obeyed. She dared not resist his voice; and she had done all the
harm it was possible to do.

‘I’ll go,’ she said. ‘None of you had better touch me. I’m twice as
strong as you, though you’re a man. But I’ll go. She knows what I think
of her now; and you all know what she is!’ she cried, raising her voice.
‘To marry that old man, she deserted her child at two years old, and
never set eyes on him more. That’s Lady Denzil. Now you all know, ladies
and gentlemen; and I’ll go.’

All this time Lady Denzil never stirred; but when the woman moved away,
dragging little Mary with her, all at once my lady stretched out her
hands and gave a wild cry. ‘The child!’ she cried; ‘the child!’ And then
the little thing turned to her with that strange sympathy we had all
noticed. I don’t know how she twitched herself out of her mother’s
excited, passionate grasp, but she rushed back and threw herself at Lady
Denzil’s feet, and clutched hold of her dress. My lady, who had not
moved nor spoken except those two words--who was old and capable of no
such exertion, stooped over her and lifted her up. I never saw such a
sight. She was as pale as if she had been dead. She had received such a
shock as might well have killed her. Notwithstanding, this is what she
did. She lifted up the child in her arms, broke away from us who were
surrounding her, mounted the steep bank like a girl, with her treasure
clasped close to her bosom, and before any one knew, before there was
time to speak, or even almost think, had disappeared with her into the
house. The woman would have rushed at her, sprung upon her, if she had
not been held fast. It may easily be imagined what a scene it was when
the mistress of the feast disappeared, and a family secret so
extraordinary was thus tossed to public discussion. The house door rang
after Lady Denzil, as she rushed in, with a sound like a cannon shot.
The stranger stood struggling in the midst of a group of men, visitors
and servants, some of whom were trying to persuade, some to force her
away. Sir Thomas stood by himself, with his old pale hands piteously
clasped together, and his head bent. He was overwhelmed by shame and
trouble, and the shock of this frightful scene. He did not seem able for
the first moment to face any one, to lift his eyes to the disturbed and
fluttering crowd, who were so strangely in the way. And we all stood
about thunderstruck, staring in each other’s faces, not knowing what to
do or to say. Lady Berkhampstead, with the instinct of a great lady, was
the first to recover herself. She turned to me, I scarcely know why, nor
could she have told why. ‘I know my carriage is waiting,’ she said, ‘and
I could not think of disturbing dear Lady Denzil to say good-bye. Will
you tell her how sorry I am to go away without seeing her?’ They all
came crowding round me with almost the same words, as soon as she had
set the example. And presently Sir Thomas roused up as it were from his
stupor. And for the next few minutes there was nothing but shaking of
hands, and the rolling up of carriages, and an attempt on the part of
everybody to smile and look as if nothing had happened. ‘So long as it
does not make dear Lady Denzil ill,’ one of the ladies said. ‘This is
one of the dangers of living so close upon the road. It might have
happened to any of us,’ said another. ‘Of course the creature is mad;
she should be shut up somewhere.’ They said such words with the natural
impulse of saying anything to break the terrible impression of the
scene; but they were all almost as much shocked and shaken as the
principals in it. I never saw such a collection of pale faces as those
that went from the Lodge that afternoon. I was left last of all. Somehow
the woman who had made so dreadful a disturbance had disappeared without
anybody knowing where. Sir Thomas and I were left alone on the lawn,
which ten minutes ago--I don’t think it was longer--had been so gay and
so crowded. So far as I was myself concerned, that was the most trying
moment of all. Everybody had spoken to me as if I belonged to the house,
but in reality I did not belong to the house; and I felt like a spy as I
stood with Sir Thomas all alone. And what was worse, he felt it too,
and looked at me with the forced painful smile he had put on for the
others, as if he felt I was just like them, and it was also needful for
me.

‘I beg your pardon for staying,’ I said, ‘don’t you think I could be of
any use? Lady Denzil perhaps----’

Sir Thomas took my hand and shook it in an imperative way. ‘No, no,’ he
said with his set smile. He even turned me towards the gate and touched
my shoulder with his agitated hand--half no doubt, because he knew I
meant kindly--but half to send me away.

‘She might like me to do something,’ I said piteously. But all that Sir
Thomas did was to wring my hand and pat my shoulder, and say, ‘No, no.’
I was obliged to follow the rest with an aching heart. As I went out one
of the servants came after me. It was a man who had been long in the
family, and knew a great deal about the Denzils. He came to tell me he
was very much frightened about the woman, who had disappeared nobody
could tell how. ‘I’m afraid she’s hiding about somewhere,’ he said, ‘to
come again.’ And then he glanced round to see that nobody was by, and
looked into my face. ‘All that about my lady is true,’ he said--‘true as
gospel. I’ve knowed it this forty years.’

‘They’ve been very kind to you, Wellman,’ I said indignantly--‘for
shame! to think you should turn upon your good mistress now.’

‘Turn upon her!’ said Wellman; ‘not if I was to be torn in little bits;
but being such a friend of the family, I thought it might be a
satisfaction to you, ma’am, to know as it was true.’

If anything could have made my heart more heavy I think it would have
been that. He thought it would be a satisfaction to me to know! And
after the first moment of pity was past, were there not some people to
whom it would be a satisfaction to know? who would tell it all over and
gloat upon it, and say to each other that pride went before a fall? My
heart was almost bursting as I crossed the Green in the blazing
afternoon sunshine, and saw the cricketers still playing as if nothing
had happened. Ah me! was this what brought such sad indulgent experience
to Lady Denzil’s eyes?--was this what made her know by instinct when
anything was wrong in a house? I could not think at first what a
terrible accusation it was that had been brought against her. I thought
only of her look, of her desperate snatch at the child, of her rush up
the steep bank with little Mary in her arms. She could scarcely have
lifted the child under ordinary circumstances--what wild despair, what
longing must have stimulated her to such an effort! I put down my veil
to cover my tears. Dear Lady Denzil! how sweet she was, how tender, how
considerate of everybody. Blame never crossed her lips. I cannot
describe the poignant aching sense of her suffering that grew upon me
till I reached my own house. When I was there, out of sight of
everybody, I sat down and cried bitterly. And then gradually, by degrees
it broke upon me what it was that had happened--what the misery was, and
the shame.

She must have done it forty years ago, as Wellman said, when she was
quite young, and no doubt ignorant of the awful thing she was doing. She
had done it, and she had held by it ever since--had given her child up
at two years old, and had never seen him again. Good Lord! could any
woman do that and live? Her child, two years old. My mind seemed to grow
bewildered going over and over that fact: for evidently it was a fact.
Her child--her own son.

And for forty years! To keep it all up and stand by it, and never to
flinch or falter. If it is difficult to keep to a good purpose for so
long, what can it be to keep by an evil one? How could she do it? Then a
hundred little words she had said came rushing into my mind. And that
look--the look she cast after the deserter on the road! I understood it
all now. Her heart had been longing for him all the time. She had loved
her child more than other mothers love, every day of all that time.

Poor Lady Denzil! dear Lady Denzil! this was the end of all my
reasonings on the matter. I went over it again and again, but I never
came to any ending but this:--The thing was dreadful; but she was not
dreadful. There was no change in her. I did not realize any guilt on her
part. My heart only bled for the long anguish she had suffered, and for
the shock she was suffering from now.

But before evening on this very same day my house was filled with people
discussing the whole story. No one had heard any more than I had heard:
but by this time a thousand versions of the story were afloat. Some
people said she had gone astray when she was young, and had been cast
off by her family, and that Sir Thomas had rescued her; and there were
whispers that such stories were not so rare, if we knew all: a vile echo
that always breathes after a real tragedy. And some said she was of no
family, but had been the former Lady Denzil’s maid; some thought it was
Sir Thomas’s own son that had been thus cast away; some said he had been
left on the streets and no provision made for him. My neighbours went
into a hundred details. Old Mr. Clifford thought it was a bad story
indeed; and the rector shook his head, and said that for a person in
Lady Denzil’s position such a scandal was dreadful; it was such an
example to the lower classes. Mrs. Damerel was still more depressed. She
said she would not be surprised at anything Molly Jackson could do after
this. As for Mrs. Wood, who came late in the evening, all agape to
inquire into the news, there was something like a malicious satisfaction
in her face, I lost all patience when she appeared. I had compelled
myself to bear what the others said, but I would not put up with her.

‘Lady Denzil is my dear friend,’ I broke out, not without tears; ‘a
great trouble has come upon her. A madwoman has been brought against her
with an incredible story; and when a story is incredible people always
believe it. If you want to hear any more, go to other people who were
present. I can’t tell you anything, and if I must say so, I won’t.’

‘Good gracious, Mrs. Mulgrave, don’t go out of your senses!’ said my
visitor. ‘If Lady Denzil has done something dreadful, that does not
affect you!’

‘But it does affect me,’ I said, ‘infinitely; it clouds over heaven and
earth; it changes--Never mind, I cannot tell you anything about it. If
you are anxious to hear, you must go to some one else than me.’

‘Well, I am very glad I was not there,’ said Mrs. Wood, ‘with my
innocent girls. I am very glad now I never made any attempt to make
friends with her, though you know how often you urged me to do it. I am
quite happy to think I did not yield to you now.’

I had no spirit to contradict this monstrous piece of pretence. I was
glad to get rid of her anyhow; for though I might feel myself for an
instant supported by my indignation, the blow had gone to my heart, and
I had no strength to struggle against it. The thought of all that Lady
Denzil might be suffering confused me with a dull sense of pain. And yet
things were not then at their worst with my lady. Next morning it was
found that little Mary had been stolen away.



CHAPTER IV


That was a dreadful morning on the Green. After the lovely weather we
had been having, all the winds and all the fiends seemed to have been
unchained. It blew a hurricane during the night, and next day the Green
was covered with great branches of trees which had been torn off and
scattered about like wreck on a seashore. After this came rain; it
poured as if the windows of heaven were opened, when Sir Thomas himself
stepped in upon me like a ghost, as I sat at my solitary breakfast.
These twenty-four hours had passed over him like so many years. He was
haggard and ashy pale, and feeble. His very mind seemed to be confused.
‘We have lost the child,’ he said to me, with a voice from which all
modulation and softness had gone. ‘Will you come and see my wife?’

‘Lost! little Mary?’ I cried.

And then all his courage gave way; he sat down speechless, with his lips
quivering, and bitter tears in his worn old eyes. Then he got up
restless and shaking. ‘Come to my wife,’ he said. There was not another
word exchanged between us. I put on my cloak with the hood over my head,
and went with him on the moment. As we crossed the Green a sort of
procession arrived, two or three great vans packed with people, with
music and flags, which proceeded to discharge their contents at the
‘Barley-Mow’ under the soaking rain. They had come for a day’s pleasure,
poor creatures, and this was the sort of day they got. The sight of them
is so associated in my mind with that miserable moment, that I don’t
think I could forget it were I to live a hundred years. It seemed to
join on somehow to the tragical breaking-up of the party on the day
before. There was nothing wrong now but in the elements; yet it chimed
in with its little sermon on the vanity of all things. My lady was in
her own room when I entered the Lodge. The shock had struck her down,
but she was not calm enough, or weak enough to go to bed. She lay on a
sofa in her dressing-gown; she was utterly pale, not a touch of her
sweet colour left, and her hands shook as she held them out to me. She
held them out, and looked up in my face with appealing eyes, which put
me in mind of little Mary’s. And then, when I stooped down over her in
the impulse of the moment to kiss her, she pressed my hands so in hers,
that frail and thin as her fingers were, I almost cried out with pain.
Mrs. Florentine, her old maid, stood close by the head of her mistress’s
sofa. She stood looking on very grave and steady, without any surprise,
as if she knew it all.

For a few minutes Lady Denzil could not speak. And when she did, her
words came out with a burst, all at once. ‘Did he tell you?’ she said.
‘I thought you would help me. You have nobody to keep you back; neither
husband nor---- I said I was sure of you.’

‘Dear Lady Denzil,’ I said, ‘if I can do anything--to the utmost of my
strength----’

She held my hand fast, and looked at me as if she would look me through
and through. ‘That was what I said--that was what I said!’ she cried;
‘you _can_ do what your heart says; you can bring her back to me; my
child, my little child! I never had but a little child--never that I
knew!’

‘I will do whatever you tell me,’ I said, trying to soothe her; ‘but oh!
don’t wear yourself out. You will be ill if you give way.’

I said this, I suppose, because everybody says it when any one is in
trouble. I don’t know any better reason. ‘That’s what I’m always telling
my lady, ma’am,’ said Mrs. Florentine; ‘but she pays no heed to me.’

Lady Denzil gave us both a faint little smile. She knew too much not to
know how entirely a matter of conventional routine it was that we should
say this to her. She made a pause, and then she took my hand once more.

‘I ought to tell you,’ she said--‘it is all true--every word. Florentine
knows everything, from the first to the last. I was a poor soldier’s
widow, and I was destitute. I was too young to know what I was doing,
and I was pretty, they said, and there were men that would have taken
advantage of my simplicity. But Sir Thomas was never like that. I
married him to buy a livelihood for my child; and he was very good to
me. When he married me, I was a forlorn young creature, with nothing to
give my helpless baby. I gave up my child, Florentine knows; and yet
every day, every year of his life, I’ve followed him in my heart. If he
had been living in my sight, I could not have known more of him. What I
say is every word true, Florentine will tell you. I want you,’ grasping
my hand tightly, ‘to tell everything to _him_.’

‘To him!’ said I, with a gasp of astonishment, not knowing what she
meant.

‘Yes,’ said Lady Denzil, holding my hand fast, ‘to my boy--I want you to
see my boy. Tell him there has never been a day I have not followed him
in my heart. All his wilfulness I have felt was my fault. I have prayed
God on my knees to lay the blame on me. That day when I saw the
deserter--I want you to tell him everything. I want you to ask him to
give me back the child.’

I gave a cry of astonishment; an exclamation which I could not restrain.
‘Can you expect it?’ I said.

‘Ah, yes, I expect it,’ said Lady Denzil; ‘not that I have any right--I
expect it from his heart. Florentine will tell you everything. It is she
who has watched over him. We never talked of anything else, she and I;
never a day all these forty years but I have figured to myself what my
darling was doing; I say my darling,’ she cried as with a sharp pang,
with a sudden gush of tears, ‘and he is a man and a soldier, and in
prison. Think of that, and think of all I have had to bear!’

I could not make any answer. I could only press her hand with a dumb
sympathy. As for Mrs. Florentine, she stood with her eyes cast down, and
smoothed the chintz cover with her hand, taking no part by look or word.
The story was no surprise to her. She knew everything about it; she was
a chief actor in it; she had no need to show any sympathy. The union
between her mistress and herself was deeper than that.

‘When he married this woman, I was ready to believe it would be for his
good,’ said my lady, when she had recovered herself. ‘I thought it was
somehow giving him back what I had taken from him. I sent her presents
secretly. He has been very, very wilful; and Sir Thomas was so good to
him! He took his mother from him; but he gave him money, education,
everything a young man wants. There are many young men,’ said Lady
Denzil pathetically, ‘who think but little of their mothers--’ and then
she made a pause. ‘There was young Clifford, for example,’ she added,
‘and the rector’s brother who ran away--their mothers broke their
hearts, but the boys did not care much. I have suffered in everything he
suffered by; but yet if he had been here, perhaps he would not have
cared for me.’

‘That is not possible,’ I said, not seeing what she meant.

‘Oh, it is possible, very possible,’ she said. ‘I have seen it times
without number. I have tried to take a little comfort from it. If it
had been a girl, I would never, never have given her up; but a boy----
That was what I thought. I don’t defend myself. Let him be the judge--I
want him to be the judge. That woman is a wicked woman; she has
disgraced him and left him; she will bring my child up to ruin. Ask him
to give me back my poor little child.’

‘I will do what I can,’ I said, faltering. I was pledged; yet how was I
to do it? My courage failed me as I sat by her dismayed and received my
commission. When she heard the tremulous sound of my voice, she turned
round to me and held my hand close in hers once more.

‘You can do everything,’ she said. Her voice had suddenly grown hoarse.
She was at such a supreme height of emotion, that the sight of her
frightened me. I kissed her; I soothed her; I promised to do whatever
she would. And then she became impatient that I should set out. She was
not aware of the rain or the storm. She was too much absorbed in her
trouble even to hear the furious wail of the wind and the blast of rain
against the windows: but had I been in her case she would have done as
much for me. Before Florentine followed me with my cloak, I had made up
my mind not to lose any more time. It was from her I got all the
details: the poor fellow’s name, and where he was, and all about him. He
had been very wild, Florentine said. Sir Thomas had done everything for
him; but he had not been grateful, and had behaved very badly. His wife
was an abandoned woman, wicked and shameless; and he too had taken to
evil courses. He had strained Sir Thomas’s patience to the utmost time
after time. And then he had enlisted. His regiment was in the Tower, and
he was under confinement there for insubordination. Such was the brief
story. ‘Many a time I’ve thought, ma’am,’ said Mrs. Florentine, ‘if my
lady did but know him as she was a-breaking of her heart for! If he’d
been at home he’d have killed her. But all she knows is that he’s her
child--to love, and nothing more.’

‘The Tower is a long way from our railway,’ I said; ‘but it does not
much matter in a cab.’

‘Law, ma’am, you’re never going to-day?’ said Florentine. But I had no
intention of arguing the question with her. I went into the library to
Sir Thomas to bid him good-bye. And he too was amazed when I told him.
He took my hand as his wife had done, and shook it, and looked pitifully
into my face. ‘It is I who ought to go,’ he said. But he knew as well as
I did that it was impossible for him to go. He ordered the carriage to
come round for me, and brought me wine--some wonderful old wine he had
in his cellar, which I knew no difference in from the commonest sherry.
But it pleased him, I suppose, to think he had given me his best. And
before I went away, he gave me much more information about the
unfortunate man I was going to see. ‘He is not bad at heart,’ said Sir
Thomas; ‘I don’t think he is bad at heart; but his wife is a wicked
woman.’ And when I was going away, he stooped his gray aged countenance
over me, and kissed me solemnly on the forehead. When I found myself
driving along the wet roads, with the rain sweeping so in the horses’
faces that it was all the half-blinded coachman could do to keep them
going against the wind, I was so bewildered by my own position that I
felt stupid for the moment. I was going to the Tower to see Sergeant
Gray, in confinement for disrespect to his superior officer--going to
persuade him to exert himself to take his child from his wife’s custody,
and give her to his mother, whom he did not know! I had not even heard
how it was that little Mary had been stolen away. I had taken that for
granted, in face of the immediate call upon me. I had indeed been swept
up as it were by the strong wind of emotion, and carried away and thrust
forward into a position I could not understand. Then I recognized the
truth of Lady Denzil’s words. I had nobody to restrain me: no husband at
home to find fault with anything I might do; nobody to wonder, or fret,
or be annoyed by the burden I had taken upon me. The recollection made
my heart swell a little, not with pleasure. And yet it was very true.
Poor Mr. Mulgrave, had he been living, was a man who would have been
sure to find fault. It is dreary to think of one’s self as of so little
importance to any one; but perhaps one ought to think more than one
does, that if the position is a dreary one, it has its benefits too. One
is free to do what one pleases. I could answer to myself; I had no one
else to answer to. At such a moment there was an advantage in that.

At the station I met the rector, who was going to town by the same
train. ‘Bless my soul, Mrs. Mulgrave,’ he said, ‘what a dreadful day you
have chosen for travelling. I thought there was no one afloat on the
world but me.’

‘There was no choice, Mr. Damerel,’ I said. ‘I am going about business
which cannot be put off.’

He was very kind: he got my ticket for me, and put me into a carriage,
and did not insist that I should talk to him on the way up. He talked
enough himself it is true, but he was satisfied when I said yes and no.
Just before we got to town however he returned to my errand. ‘If your
business is anything I can do for you,’ he said, ‘if there is anything
that a man could look after better than a lady--you know how glad I
should be to be of any use.’

‘Thank you,’ I said. My feelings were not mirthful, but yet I could have
burst out laughing. I wonder if there is really any business that a man
can do better than a lady, when it happens to be _her_ business and not
his? I have never got much help in that way from the men that have
belonged to me. And to think of putting my delicate, desperate business
into Mr. Damerel’s soft, clerical hands, that had no bone in them! He
got me a cab, which was something--though to be sure a porter would have
done it quite as well--and opened his eyes to their utmost width when
he heard me tell the coachman to go to the Tower.

What a drive it was! our thirty miles of railway was nothing to it:
through all those damp, dreary, glistening London streets--streets
narrow and drearily vicious; streets still more drearily respectable;
desert lines of warehouses and offices; crowded thoroughfares with
dreary vehicles in a lock, and dreary people crowding about surmounted
with umbrellas--miles upon miles, streets upon streets, from Paddington
to the Tower. I think it was the first drive of the kind I ever took,
and if you can suppose me wrapped up in my waterproof cloak, a little
excited about the unknown man I was going to see; trying to form my
sentences, what I was to say; pondering how I should bring in my
arguments best; wondering where I should have to go to find the mother
and the child. Poor little Mary! after the little gleam of love and of
luxury that had opened upon her, to be snatched off into the dreary
world of poverty, with a violent mother whom it was evident she feared!
And poor mother too! She might be violent and yet might love her child;
she might be wicked and yet might love her child. To go and snatch the
little creature back, at all hazards, was an act which to the popular
mind would always look like a much higher strain of virtue than dear
Lady Denzil’s abandonment. I could not defend Lady Denzil, even to
myself; and what could I say for her to her son, who knew her not?

At least an hour was lost before I got admittance to Sergeant Gray. As
it happened, by a fortunate chance, Robert Seymour was colonel of the
regiment, and came to my assistance. But for that I might have failed
altogether. Robert was greatly amazed by the request I made him, but of
course he did what I wanted. He told me Sergeant Gray was not in prison,
but simply confined to his quarters, and that he was a very strange sort
of man. ‘I should like to know what you can want with him,’ he said.
‘Yes, of course, I am dreadfully curious--men are--you know it is our
weakness. You may as well tell me what you want with Gray.’

‘It is nothing to laugh about,’ said I; ‘it is more tragic than comical.
I have a message to him from his mother. And there is not a moment to
lose.’

‘I understand,’ said Robert, ‘I am to take myself off. Here is the door;
but you must tell me anything you know about him when you have seen him.
He is the strangest fellow in the regiment. I never can make him out.’

And in two minutes more I was face to face with Sergeant Gray.

He must have been like his father. There was not a feature in his face
which recalled Lady Denzil’s. He was an immensely tall, powerful man,
with strong chestnut brown hair, and vigour and life in every line of
his great frame. I expected to find a prisoner partially sentimental;
and I found a big man in undress marching freely about his room, with a
long pipe by the fire, and his beer and glasses on the table. I had
expected a refined man, bearing traces of gentleman written on him, and
the fine tastes that became Lady Denzil’s son. There _was_ something
about him, when one came to look at him a second time--but what was it?
Traces of dissipation, a look of bravado, an instant standing to his
arms in self-defence, whatever I might have come to accuse him of; and
the insufferable coxcomb air which comes naturally to the meanest member
of the household troops. Such was the rapid impression I formed as I
went in. He took off his cap with an air of amazement yet assurance, but
put it on again immediately. I stood trembling before this big,
irreverent, unknown man. If the door had been open I think I should have
run away. But as it was I had no resource.

‘Mr. Gray,’ I said all at once, half from cowardice, half to get it
over, ‘I have come to you--from your mother.’

The man actually staggered as he stood before me--he fell back and gazed
at me as if I had been a ghost. ‘From my--mother?’ he said, and his lips
seemed to refuse articulation. His surprise vanquished him; which was
more than with my individual forces I could have hoped to do.

‘From your mother,’ I repeated. ‘I have come direct from her, where she
is lying ill and much shaken. She has told me all her story--and I love
her dearly--that is why she sent me to you.’

All the time I was speaking he stood still and stared at me; but when I
stopped, he appeared gradually to come to himself. He brought forward,
from where it stood against the wall, very deliberately, another chair,
and sitting down looked at me intently. ‘If she has told you all her
story,’ he said, ‘you will know how little inducement I have to listen
to anything she may say.’

‘Yes,’ said I, feeling not a fictitious but a real passion swelling up
into my throat, ‘she has told me everything, more than you can know. She
has told me how for forty years--is it forty years?--she has watched
over you in secret, spent her days in thinking of you, and her nights in
praying for you. Ah, don’t smile! if you had seen her pale and broken in
all her pride, lying trembling and telling me this, it would have
touched your heart.’

And I could see that it did touch his heart, being so new and unusual to
him. He was not a cynical, over-educated man, accustomed to such
appeals, and to believe them nonsense. And it touched him, being so
unexpected. Then he made a little effort to recover himself, and the
natural bravado of his character and profession. ‘In all her pride!’ he
said bitterly. ‘Yes, that’s very well said; she liked her pride better
than me.’

‘She liked your life better than you,’ said I--and heaven forgive me if
I spoke like a sophist--‘and your comfort. To secure bread to you and
education she made that vow. When she had once made it, she had to keep
it. But I tell you what she told me not three hours ago. “There has
never been a day I have not followed him in my heart.” That is what she
said. She and her old maid who used to see you and watch over you talked
of nothing else. Fancy! you a young man growing up, taking your own way,
going against the wishes of your best friends; and your mother, who
dared not go to you, watching you from far off, weeping over you,
praying on her knees, thinking of nothing else, talking of nothing else
when she was alone and dared do it. At other times she had to go into
the world to please her husband, to act as if you had no existence. And
all the time she was thinking of nothing but you in her heart.’

He had got up before I came so far. He was unquestionably moved; his
step got quicker and quicker. He made impatient gestures with his hands
as if to put my voice away. But all the same he listened to me greedily.
When I had done--and I got so excited that I was compelled to be done,
for tears came into my throat and choked me--he turned to me with his
face strongly swept by winds of feeling. ‘Who told you?’ he cried
abruptly. ‘Why do you come to disturb me? I was thinking nothing about
my circumstances. I was thinking how I could best be jolly in such a
position. What do I know about anybody who may choose to call herself my
mother? Probably I never had a mother. I can do nothing for her, and she
can do nothing for me.’

‘You can do something for her,’ I cried. ‘She sent me to you to beg it
of you. Sir Thomas saw how your wife was living. He saw she should not
have a little girl to ruin. He brought away the child. I was there when
he came home. Your mother knew in a moment who it was, though he never
said a word. She rushed to her, and fell on her knees, and cried as if
her heart would break. She thought God had sent the child. Little Mary
is so like her, so like her! You cannot think how beautiful it was to
see them together. Look! if you don’t know what your mother is, look at
that face.’

He had stood as if stupefied, staring at me. When I mentioned his wife
he had made an angry gesture; but his heart melted altogether when I
came to little Mary. I had brought Lady Denzil’s photograph with me,
thinking it might touch his heart, and now I thrust it into his hand
before he knew what I meant. He gave one glance at it, and then he fell
back into his chair, and gazed and gazed, as if he had lost himself. He
was not prepared. He had been wilful--perhaps wicked--but his heart had
not got hardened like that of a man of the world. It had been outside
evils he had done, outside influences that had moved him. When anything
struck deep at his heart he had no armour to resist the blow. He went
back upon his chair with a stride, hiding from me, or trying to hide,
that he was obliged to do it to keep himself steady; he knitted his
brows over the little picture as if it was hard to see it. But he might
have spared himself the trouble. I saw how it was. One does not live in
the world and learn men’s ways for nought: I knew his eyes were filling
with tears; I knew that sob was climbing up into his throat; and I did
not say a word more. It was a lovely little photograph. The sun is often
so kind to old women. It was my lady with all the softness of her white
hair, with her gracious looks, her indulgent, benign eyes. And those
eyes were little Mary’s eyes. They went straight into the poor fellow’s
heart. After he had struggled as long as he could, the sob actually
broke out. Then he straightened himself up all at once, and looked at me
fiercely; but I knew better than to pretend to hear him.

‘This is nothing to the purpose,’ he said; and then he stopped, and
nature burst forth. ‘Why did she cast me upon the world? Why did she
give me up? You are a good woman, and you are her friend. Why did she
cast me away?’

I shook my head, it was all I could do. I was crying, and I could not
articulate. ‘God knows!’ I gasped through my tears. And he got up and
went to the window, and turning his back on me, held up the little
picture to the light. I watched no longer what he was doing. Nature was
working her own way in his heart.

When he turned round at last, he came up to me and held out his hand.
‘Thank you,’ he said, in a way that, for the first time, reminded me of
Lady Denzil. ‘You have made me think less harshly about my mother. What
is it she wants me to do?’

He did not put down the photograph, or give it back to me, but held it
closely in his hand, which gave me courage. And then I entered upon my
story. When I told him how his wife had insulted his mother, his face
grew purple. I gave him every detail: how little Mary clung to my lady;
how frightened she was of the passionate claimant who seized her. When I
repeated her little cry, ‘My lady!’ a curious gleam passed over his
face. He interrupted me at that point. ‘Who is my lady?’ he said, with a
strange consciousness. The only answer I made was to point at the
photograph. It made the most curious impression on him. Evidently he had
not even known his mother’s name. Almost, I think, the title threw a new
light for him upon all the circumstances. There are people who will say
that this was from a mean feeling; but it was from no mean feeling. He
saw by this fact what a gulf she had put between herself and him. He saw
a certain reason in the separation which, if she had been a woman of
different position, could not have existed. And there is no man living
who is not susceptible to the world’s opinion of the people he is
interested in. He changed almost imperceptibly--unawares. He heard all
the rest of my story in grave silence. I told him what my lady had
said--that he was to be the judge; and henceforward it was with the
seriousness of a judge that he sat and listened. He heard me out every
word, and then he sat and seemed to turn it over in his mind. So far as
I was concerned, that was the hardest moment of all. His face was stern
in its composure. He was reflecting, putting this and that together.
His mother was standing at the bar before him. And what should I do, did
he decide against her? Thus I sat waiting and trembling. When he opened
his lips my heart jumped to my mouth. How foolish it was! That was not
what he had been thinking of. Instead of his mother at the bar, it was
his own life he had been turning over in his mind. It all came forth
with a burst when he began to speak: the chances he had lost; the misery
that had come upon him; the shame of the woman who bore his name; and
his poor little desolate child. Then the man forgot himself, and swore a
great oath. ‘As soon as I am free I will go and get her, and send her
to---- my lady!’ he said, with abrupt, half-hysterical vehemence. And
then he rose suddenly and went to the window, and turned his back on me
again.

I was overcome. I did not expect it so soon, or so fully. I could have
thrown myself upon his neck, poor fellow, and wept. Was he the one to
bear the penalties of all? sinned against by his mother in his
childhood, and more dreadfully by his wife in his maturity. What had he
done that the closest of earthly ties should thus be made a torment to
him? When I had come to myself I rose and went after him, trembling.
‘Mr. Gray,’ I said, ‘is there nothing that can be done for you?’

‘I don’t want anything to be done for me,’ he cried abruptly. The
question piqued his pride. ‘Tell her she shall see yet that I understand
the sacrifice she has made,’ he said. If he spoke ironically or in
honesty I cannot tell; when his mouth had once been opened the stream
came so fast. ‘I want to go away, that is all,’ he said, with a certain
heat, almost anger; ‘anywhere--I don’t care where--to the Mauritius, if
they like, where that fever is. No fear that I should die. I have been
brought up like a gentleman--it is quite true. And yet I am here. What
was the use? My father was a common soldier. She---- but it’s no good
talking; I am no credit to anybody now. If I could get drafted into
another regiment, and go--to India or anywhere--you should see a
difference. I swear you should see a difference!’ his voice rose high in
these last words, then he paused. ‘But she is old,’ he said, sinking his
voice; ‘ten years--I couldn’t _do_ in less than ten years. She’ll never
be living then, to see what a man can do.’

‘She is a woman that would make shift to live, somehow, to see her son
come back,’ I cried. ‘Give her little Mary, and try.’

‘She shall have little Mary, by God!’ cried the excited man; and then he
broke down, and wept. I cannot describe this scene any more. I grasped
his hand when I left him, feeling as if he were my brother; he had his
mother’s picture held fast and hidden in his other hand. If that dear
touch of natural love had come to him before! But God knows! perhaps he
was only ready and open to it then.

But he could not tell me where to find the child. I had to be content
with his promise that when he was free he would restore her to us. I
went out from him as much shaken as if I had gone through an illness,
and stole out, not to see Robert Seymour, whom I was not equal to
meeting just at that moment. But the end of my mission was nearer than I
thought. When I got outside there was a group of excited people about
the gateway, close to which my cab was waiting me. They were discussing
something which had just happened, and which evidently had left a great
commotion behind. Among the crowd was a group of soldiers’ wives, who
shook their heads, and talked it over to each other with lowered voices.
‘It’s well for her she was took bad here, and never got nigh to him,’
one of them said. ‘He’d have killed her, I know he would! It’s well for
her she never got in to tempt that man to her death.’

‘It was brazen of her to come nigh him at all,’ said another, ‘and him
so proud. She always was a shameless one. What my heart bleeds for is
that poor little child.’

‘Where is the child?’ asked a third. ‘It would be well for her, poor
innocent, if the Lord was to take her too.’

I was standing stupefied, listening to them, when I heard a little cry,
and the grasp of something at my dress. The cry was so feeble, and the
grasp so light, that I might never have noticed it but for those women.
I turned round, and the whole world swam round me for a moment. I did
what Lady Denzil did--I staggered forward and fell on my knees, though
this was not the soft green grass, but a stony London pavement, and
clasped little Mary tight with a vehemence that would have frightened
any other child; but she was not frightened. The little creature was
drenched with the pitiless rain. She had been tied up in an old shawl,
to hide the miserable, pretty white frock, now clogged with mud and
soaked with water. Her little hat was glued to her head with the floods
to which she had been exposed. I lifted my treasure wildly in my arms,
as soon as I had any strength to do it, and rushed with her to my
carriage. I felt like a thief triumphant; and yet it was no theft. But
my eagerness aroused the suspicions of the soldiers’ wives who had been
standing by. They explained to me that the child was Sergeant Gray’s
child; that her mother had been took very bad in a fit, and had been
carried off to the hospital; and that I, a stranger, had no right to
interfere. I don’t know what hurried explanation I made to them; but I
know that at last I satisfied their fears, and with little Mary in my
arms actually drove away.

It was true, though I never could believe it. I got her as easily as if
it had been the most natural thing in the world. I could not believe it,
even when I held her fast and drew from her her little story. She had
been taken away early, very early in the morning, when she had run to
the door as soon as she was up to satisfy herself that it rained. No
doubt the wretched mother had hung about the grounds all night in the
storm and rain to get at the child. She had snatched up little Mary in
her arms, and rushed out with her before any one was aware. The child
had been dragged along the dreary roads in the rain. If the woman had
really loved her, if it had been the passion of a tender mother, and not
of a revengeful creature, she never would have subjected the child to
this. She was wet to the skin, with pools in her little boots, and the
water streaming from her dress. I took her to a friend’s house and got
dry clothes to put upon her. The unhappy mother had, no doubt, been out
all night exposed to the storm. She was mad with rage and misery and
fatigue, and probably did not feel her danger at the moment; but just as
she reached the Tower to claim, building upon a common opposition to one
object, her husband’s support, had fallen down senseless on his very
threshold as it were. Nothing indeed but madness could have led her to
the man whom she had disgraced. When the surrounding bystanders saw that
nothing was to be done for her, and that she would not come out of her
faint, they had her carried in alarm to the hospital. Such was the
abrupt conclusion of the tale. Had I known I need not have given myself
the trouble of seeing Sergeant Gray--but that, at least, was a thing
which I could not find in my heart to regret.

When I took her back Lady Denzil held me in her arms, held me fast, and
looked into my face, even before she listened to little Mary’s call. She
wanted me to tell her of her child--her own child--and I was so weak
that I could not speak to her. I fell crying on her tender old bosom,
like a fool, and had to be comforted, as if it could be anything to
me--in comparison. I don’t know afterwards what I said to her, but she
understood all I meant. As for Sir Thomas he was too happy to ask any
questions. The child had wound herself into his very heart. He sat with
little Mary in his arms all that evening. He would scarcely allow her to
be taken to bed. He went up with his heavy old step to see her sleeping
safe once more under his roof, and made Wellman, with a pistol, sleep in
a little room below. But little Mary was safe enough now. Her father was
confined in his barrack room, with my lady’s photograph in his hands,
and a host of unknown softenings and compunctions in his heart. Her
mother was raving wildly in the hospital on the bed from which she was
never to rise. I don’t know that any one concerned, except myself,
thought of this strange cluster of divers fortunes, of tragic mystery
and suffering, all hanging about the little angel-vision of that child.
Sin, shame, misery, every kind of horror and distress, and little Mary
the centre of all; how strange it was!--how terrible and smiling and
wretched is life!

It is not to be supposed that such a frightful convulsion and earthquake
could pass over and leave no sign. Little Mary was very ill after her
exposure, and the shadow of death fell on the Lodge. Perhaps that
circumstance softened a little the storm of animadversion that rose up
in the neighbourhood. For six months after, Lady Denzil, who had been
our centre of society, was never seen out of her own gates. Then they
went away, and were absent a whole year. It was the most curious change
to everybody on the Green. For three months no one talked on any other
subject, and the wildest stories were told: stories with just so much
truth in them as to make them doubly wild. It was found out somehow that
that wretched woman had died, and then there were accounts current that
she had died in the grounds at the Lodge--on the road--in the
workhouse--everywhere but the real place, which was in the hospital,
where every indulgence and every comfort that she was capable of
receiving had been given to her, Sir Thomas himself going to town on
purpose to see that it was so. And then it was said that it was she who
was Lady Denzil’s child. It was a terrible moment, and one which left
its mark upon everybody concerned. Sergeant Gray lost his rank, but got
his wish and was drafted into another regiment going to India. I saw him
again, I and poor old Mrs. Florentine.

But he did not see his mother. They were neither of them able for such a
trial. ‘I will come back in ten years,’ he said to me. I do not know if
he will. I don’t know if Lady Denzil will live so long. But I believe if
she does that then for the first time she will see her son.

They returned to the Lodge two years ago, and the neighbourhood now,
instead of gossiping, is very curious to know whether Lady Denzil ever
means to go into society again. Everybody calls, and admires little
Mary--how she has grown, and what a charming little princess she is; and
they all remind my lady, with tender reproach, of those parties they
enjoyed so much. ‘Are we never to have any more, dear Lady Denzil?’ Lucy
Stoke asked the other day, kneeling at my lady’s side, and caressing her
soft old ivory-white hand. My lady--to whom her tender old beauty, her
understanding of everybody’s trouble, even the rose-tint in her cheek,
have come back again--made no answer, but only kissed pretty Lucy. I
don’t know if she will give any more parties; but she means to live the
ten years.

As for Sir Thomas he was never so happy in his life before. He follows
little Mary about like an old gray tender knight worshipping the fairy
creature. Sometimes I look on and cannot believe my eyes. The wretched
guilty mother is dead long ago, and nobody remembers her very existence.
The poor soldier has worked himself up to a commission, and may be high
in rank before he comes back. If Lady Denzil had been the most tender
and devoted of mothers, could things have turned out better? Is this
world all a phantasmagoria and chaos of dreams and chances? One’s brain
reels when Providence thus contradicts all the laws of life. Is it
because God sees deeper and ‘understands,’ as my lady is so fond of
saying? It might well be that He had a different way of judging from
ours, seeing well and seeing always what we mean in our hearts.



THE STOCKBROKER AT DINGLEWOOD



CHAPTER I


Those who saw Dinglewood only after the improvements had been made could
scarcely be able to form to themselves any idea of what it was before
the Greshams came. I call them improvements because everybody used the
word; but I cannot say I thought the house improved. It was an
old-fashioned red-brick house, nothing to speak of architecturally--in
the style of Kensington Palace and Kew, and the rest of those old homely
royal houses. The drawing-room opened its tall narrow windows upon a
little terrace, which was very green and grassy, and pleasant. I should
be sorry to undertake to say why it was called Dinglewood. Mr. Coventry
made very merry over the name when he had it. He used to say it was
because there were no trees; but that was not strictly the case. It was
quite open and bare, it is true, towards the river, which we could not
see from the Green; but there was a little grove of trees which
interposed between us and the house, as if to shut out Dinglewood from
the vulgarity of neighbours. It was a popular house in a quiet way when
the Coventrys were there. They did not give parties, or pretend to take
much trouble in the way of society, for Lady Sarah was always delicate;
but when we were tired with our view on the Green, and our lawns and
trees, we were always welcome on the Dinglewood terrace, where the old
people were constantly to be found sitting out in the summer afternoons,
Lady Sarah on her sofa, and Mr. Coventry with the newspapers and his
great dog. The lawn went sloping down towards the river, which lay still
and white under the sunshine, with a little green island, and a little
gray house making a centre to the picture. As long as the sloping bank
was lawn it was closely cut and kept like velvet; but when it became
field these niceties stopped, and Lady Sarah’s pet Alderney stood up to
her knees in the cool clover. There was an old mulberry-tree close to
the wall of the house, which shaded the sofa; and a gloomy yew on the
other side did the same thing for Mr. Coventry, though he was an old
Indian and a salamander, and could bear any amount of sunshine. Lady
Sarah’s perpetual occupation was knitting. She knitted all sorts of
bright-coloured things in brilliant German wool with big ivory pins,
and her husband used to read the news to her. They read all the debates
together, stopping every now and then to exchange their sentiments. Lady
Sarah would say with her brisk little voice, ‘He might have made a
better point there. I don’t see that he proves his case. I don’t agree
with that;’ and Mr. Coventry would stop and lay down the paper on his
knees, and discuss it leisurely. There was no reason why they should not
do it at their leisure. The best part of the summer days were spent thus
by the old couple; and the sunshine lay warm and still round them, and
the leaves rustled softly, and the cool grass kept growing under their
peaceful old feet. These feet tread mortal soil no longer, and all this
has nothing in the world to do with my story. But it was a pretty sight
in its way. They were not rich, and the furniture and carpets were very
faded, and everything very different from what it came to be afterwards;
yet we were all very fond of Mr. Coventry and his old wife, and the
old-fashioned house was appropriate to them. I like to think of them
even now.

We were all anxious, of course, after Mr. Coventry’s death, to know who
would buy the house (Lady Sarah could not bear it after he was gone, and
indeed lived only a year after him); and when it was known that young
Mr. Gresham was the purchaser, it made quite a sensation on the Green.
He was the son of old Gresham, who had bought Bishop’s Hope, a noble
place at Cookesley, about a dozen miles off, but had made all his
fortune as a stockbroker, and, they say, not even the best kind of that.
His son had succeeded him in business, and had lately married somebody
in his own class. He was a nice-looking young fellow enough, and had
been brought up at Eton, to be sure, like so many of those people’s
sons; but still one felt that it was bringing in a new element to the
Green. If his wife had been, as so often happens, a gentlewoman, it
would have made things comparatively easy. But she was only the daughter
of a mercantile man like himself, and there was great discussion among
us as to what we should do when they came. Some families made up their
minds at once not to call; and some, on the other hand, declared that
such rich people were sure to _fêter_ the whole county, and that
everybody would go to them. ‘If they had only been a _little_ rich, it
would never have answered; but they are frightfully rich, and, of
course, we must all go down on our knees,’ Lottie Stoke said. She was
the most eager of all to know them; for her youth was passing away, and
she was not likely to marry, and the Stokes were poor. I confess I was
curious myself to see how things would turn out.

Their first step however was one which took us all by surprise. Young
Gresham dashed over in his Yankee waggon from Cookesley to go over the
house, and the same day a charming barouche made the tour of the Green,
with a very pretty young woman in it, and a lovely little girl, and a
matchless tiny Skye terrier--all going to inspect Dinglewood. The arms
on the carriage were quartered to the last possibility of quartering,
as if they had come through generations of heiresses and gentlemen of
coat-armour, and the footman was powdered and dazzling to behold.
Altogether it was by far the finest equipage that had been seen in these
parts for a long time. Not to speak of Lady Denzil’s, or the other great
people about, her Majesty’s own carriage, that she drives about the
neighbourhood in, was not to be compared to it. Its emblazoned panels
brushed against the privet hedges in poor old Lady Sarah’s drive, which
was only wide enough for her little pony-carriage, and I have no doubt
were scratched and spoiled; but the next thing we heard about Dinglewood
was that a flood of workmen had come down upon it, and that everything
was to be changed. Young Mrs. Gresham liked the situation, but the house
was _far_ too small for her. My maid told me a new dining-room and
drawing-room, with bed-rooms over, were to be added, and already the
people had set to work. We all looked on thunderstruck while these
‘improvements’ were going on: he had a right to do it, no doubt, as he
had bought it, but still it did seem a great piece of presumption. The
pretty terrace was all cut up, and the poor old mulberry-tree perished
in the changes, though it is true that they had the sense not to spoil
the view. They added two wings to the old house, with one sumptuous room
in each. Poor Lady Sarah’s drawing-room, which was good enough for her,
these millionaires made into a billiard-room, and put them all _en
suite_, making a passage thus between their two new wings. I don’t deny,
as I have already said, that they had a perfect right to do it; but all
the same it was very odd to us.

And then heaps of new furniture came down from town; the waggons that
brought it made quite a procession along the road. All this grandeur and
display had a bad effect upon the neighbourhood. It really looked as if
these new people were already crowing over us, whose carpets and
hangings were a little faded and out of fashion. There was a general
movement of indignation on the Green. All this expense might be well
enough, for those who could afford it, in a town-house, people said, but
in the country it was vulgar and stupid. Everything was gilded and
ornamented and expensive in the new Dinglewood; Turkey carpets all over
the house, and rich silk curtains and immense mirrors. Then after a
while ‘the family’ arrived. They came with such a flutter of fine
carriages as had never been seen before among us. The drive had been
widened, down which Lady Sarah’s old gray pony used to jog so
comfortably, and there was nothing to be seen all day long but smooth,
shining panels and high-stepping horses whisking in and out. In the
first place there was Mr. Gresham’s Yankee waggon, with a wicked-looking
beast in it, which went like the wind. Then there would be a cosy
brougham carrying Mrs. Gresham to Shoreton shopping, or taking out the
nurse and baby for an airing; and after lunch came the pretty open
carriage with the armorial bearings and the men in powder. We were too
indignant to look round at first when these vehicles passed; but custom
does a great deal, and one’s feelings soften in spite of one’s self. Of
all the people on the Green, Lottie Stoke was the one who did most for
the new people. ‘I mean to make mamma call,’ she said: and she even made
a round of visits for the purpose of saying it. ‘Why shouldn’t we all
call on them? I think it is mean to object to them for being rich. It
looks as if we were ashamed of being poor; and they are sure to have
quantities of people from town, and to enjoy themselves--people as good
as we are, Mrs. Mulgrave: they are not so particular in London.’

‘My dear Lottie,’ said I, ‘I have no doubt the Greshams themselves are
quite as good as we are. That is not the question. There are social
differences, you know.’

‘Oh, yes! I know,’ cried Lottie; ‘I have heard of them all my life, but
I don’t see what the better we are, for all our nicety; and I mean to
make mamma call.’

She was not so good as her word however, for Mrs. Stoke was a timid
woman, and waited to see what the people would do. And in the meantime
the Greshams themselves, independent of their fine house and their showy
carriages, presented themselves as it were before us for approval. They
walked to church on Sunday without any show, which made quite a
revulsion in their favour; and she was very pretty and sweet-looking,
and he was so like a gentleman that you could never have told the
difference. And the end of it all was, that one fine morning Lady
Denzil, without saying a word to any one, called; and after that,
everybody on the Green.

I do not pretend to say that there was not a little air of newness about
these young people. They were like their house, a little too bright, too
costly, too luxurious. Mrs. Gresham gave herself now and then pretty
little airs of wealth, which, to do her justice, were more in the way of
kindness to others than display for herself. There was a kind of
munificence about her which made one smile, and yet made one grow red
and hot and just a little angry. It might not have mattered if she had
been a princess, but it did not answer with a stockbroker’s wife. She
was so anxious to supply you with anything or everything you wanted.
‘Let me send it,’ she would say in a lavish way, whenever there was any
shortcoming, and opened her pretty mouth and stared with all her pretty
eyes when her offers were declined. She wanted that delicate sense of
other people’s pride, which a true great lady always has. She did not
understand why one would rather have one’s own homely maid to wait, than
borrow her powdered slave; and would rather walk than be taken up in her
fine carriage. This bewildered her, poor little woman. She thought it
was unkind of me in particular. ‘You can’t _really_ prefer to drive
along in the dust in your little low carriage,’ she said, with a curious
want of perception that my pony carriage was my own. This was the only
defect I found in her, and it was a failing which leant to virtue’s
side. Her husband was more a man of the world, but he too had money
written all over him. They were dreadfully rich, and even in their
freest moment they could not get rid of it--and they were young and
open-hearted, and anxious to make everybody happy. They had people down
from town as Lottie prophesied--fashionable people sometimes, and clever
people, and rich people. We met all kinds of radicals, and artists, and
authors, and great travellers at Dinglewood. The Greshams were rather
proud of their literary acquaintances indeed, which was surprising to
us. I have seen old Sir Thomas look very queer when he was told he was
going to meet So-and-So, who had written some famous book. ‘Who is the
fellow?’ he said privately to me with a comical look, for he was not
very literary in his tastes;--neither were the Greshams for that matter:
but then, having no real rank, they appreciated a little distinction,
howsoever it came; whereas the second cousin of any poor lord or good
old decayed family was more to the most of us than Shakespeare himself
or Raphael; though of course it would have been our duty to ourselves to
be very civil to either of those gentlemen had we met them at dinner
anywhere on the Green.

But there was no doubt that this new lively household, all astir with
new interests, new faces, talk and movement, and pleasant extravagance,
woke us all up. They were so rich that they took the lead in many
things, in spite of all that could be done to the contrary. None of us
could afford so many parties. The Greshams had always something on hand.
Instead of our old routine of dinners and croquet-parties, and perhaps
two or three dances a year for the young people, there was an endless
variety now at Dinglewood; and even if we elders could have resisted
Mrs. Gresham’s pretty winning ways on her own account, it would have
been wicked to neglect the advantage for our children. Of course this
did not apply to me, who have no children; but I was never disposed to
stand very much on my dignity, and I liked the young couple. They were
so fond of each other, and so good-looking, and so happy, and so
ready--too ready--to share their advantages with everybody. Mrs. Gresham
sent her man over with I don’t know how much champagne the morning of
the day when they were all coming to play croquet on my little lawn, and
he wanted to know, with his mistress’s love, whether he should come to
help, or if there was anything else I wanted. I had entertained my
friends in my quiet way before she was born, and I did not like it.
Lottie Stoke happened to be with me when the message arrived, and took
the reasonable view, as she had got into the way of doing where the
Greshams were concerned.

‘Why should not they send you champagne?’ she said. ‘They are as rich as
Crœsus, though I am sure I don’t know much about him; and you are a
lady living by yourself, and can’t be expected to think of all these
things.’

‘My dear Lottie,’ said I--and I confess I was angry--‘if you are not
content with what I can give you, you need not come to me. The Greshams
can stay away if they like. Champagne in the afternoon when you are
playing croquet! It is just like those _nouveaux riches_. They would
think it still finer, I have no doubt, if they could drink pearls, like
Cleopatra. Champagne!’

‘They must have meant it for Cup, you know,’ said Lottie, a little
abashed.

‘I don’t care what they meant it for,’ said I. ‘You shall have cups of
tea; and I am very angry and affronted. I wonder how they think we got
on before they came!’

And then I sat down and wrote a little note, which I fear was terribly
polite, and sent it and the baskets back with John Thomas, while Lottie
went and looked at all the pictures as if she had never seen them
before, and hummed little airs under her breath. She had taken up these
Greshams in the most curious way. Not that she was an unreasonable
partisan; she could see their faults like the rest of us, but she was
always ready to make excuses for them. ‘They don’t know any better,’ she
would say softly when she was driven to the very extremity of her
special pleading. And she said this when I had finished my note and was
just sending it away.

‘But why don’t they know better?’ said I; ‘they have had the same
education as other people. He was at Eton where a boy should learn how
to behave himself, even if he does not learn anything else. And she went
to one of the fashionable schools--as good a school as any of you ever
went to.’

‘We were never at any school at all,’ said Lottie with a little
bitterness. ‘We were always much too poor. We have never learned
anything, we poor girls; whereas Ada Gresham has learned everything,’
she added with a little laugh.

It was quite true. Poor little Mrs. Gresham was overflowing with
accomplishments. There never was such an education as she had received.
She had gone to lectures, and studied thorough bass, and knew all about
chemistry, and could sympathize with her husband, as the newspapers say,
and enter into all his pursuits. How fine it sounds in the newspapers!
Though I was angry, I could not but laugh too--a young woman wanted an
elaborate education indeed to be fit to be young Gresham’s wife.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘after all, I don’t suppose she means to be impertinent,
Lottie, and I like her. I don’t think her education has done her much
harm. Nobody could teach her to understand other people’s feelings; and
to be rich like that must be a temptation.’

‘I should like to have such a temptation,’ said Lottie, with a sudden
sparkle in her eyes. ‘Fancy there are four Greshams, and they are all as
rich. The girl is married, you know, to a railway man; and, by the by,’
she went on suddenly after a pause, ‘they tell me one of the brothers is
coming here to-day.’

She said this in an accidental sort of way, but I could see there was
nothing accidental about it. She drew her breath hard, poor girl, and a
little feverish colour got up in her cheeks. It is common to talk of
girls looking out for husbands, and even hunting that important quarry.
But when now and then in desperate cases such a thing does actually come
before one’s eyes, it is anything but an amusing sight. The Stokes were
as poor as the Greshams were rich. Everard had ruined himself, and
half-killed everybody belonging to him only the year before; and now
poor Lottie saw a terrible chance before her, and rose to it with a kind
of tragic valour. I read her whole meaning and resolution in her face,
as she said, with an attempt at a smile, these simple-sounding words;
and an absolute pang of pity went through me. Poor Lottie!--it was a
chance, for her family and for herself--even for poor Everard, whom they
all clung to, though he had gone so far astray. What a change it would
make in their situation and prospects, and everything about them! You
may say it was an ignoble foundation to build family comfort upon. I do
not defend it in any way; but when I saw what Lottie meant, my heart
ached for her. It did not seem to me ridiculous or base, but tragic and
terrible; though to be sure in all likelihood there is nobody who will
think so but me.

Before Lottie left me, Mrs. Gresham came rushing over in her pretty
summer dress, with her curls and ribbons fluttering in the breeze. She
came to ask me why I had been so unkind, and to plead and remonstrate.
‘We have so much, we don’t know what to do with it,’ she said; ‘Harry is
always finding out some new vintage or other, and the cellars are
overflowing. Why would not you use some of it? We have so much of
everything we don’t know what to do.’

‘I would rather not, thanks,’ I said, feeling myself flush; ‘what a
lovely day it is. Where are you going for your drive? The woods will be
delicious to-day.’

‘Oh, I have so much of the woods,’ cried Mrs. Gresham. ‘I thought of
going towards Estcott to make some calls. But, dear Mrs. Mulgrave, about
the Champagne?’

‘It is a little too early for the heath,’ said Lottie, steadily looking
our visitor in the face. ‘It is always cold there. What they call
bracing, you know; but I don’t care about being braced, the wind goes
through and through one, even on a sunny day.’

‘It is because you are so thin,’ said Mrs. Gresham; ‘I never feel the
cold for my part; but I shall not drive at all to-day--I forgot--I shall
go and fetch Harry from the station, and come to you, Mrs. Mulgrave: and
you will not be cross, but let me send back John Thomas with--’

‘My dear, I am going to give you some tea,’ said I, ‘and my maids can
manage beautifully; the sight of a gorgeous creature like John Thomas
distracts them; they can do nothing but stare at his plush and his
powder. We shall be very glad to have Mr. Gresham and you.’

‘But--’ she began eagerly. Then she caught Lottie’s look, who had made
some sign to her, and stopped short, staring at me with her blue eyes.
She could not make it out, and no hint short of positive demonstration
could have shown her that she had gone too far. She stopped in obedience
to Lottie’s sign, but stared at me all the same. Her prosperity, her
wealth, her habit of overcoming everything that looked in the least like
a difficulty, had taken even a woman’s instinct from her. She gazed at
me, and by degrees her cheeks grew red: she saw she had made a mistake
somehow, but even up to that moment could not tell what it was.

‘Harry’s brother is coming with him,’ she said, a little subdued; ‘may I
bring him? He is the eldest, but he is not married yet. He is such a man
of the world. Of course he might have married when he liked, as early as
we did, there was nothing to prevent him: but he got into a fashionable
set first, and then he got among the artists. He is quite what they call
a Bohemian you know. He paints beautifully--Harry always consults Gerald
before buying any pictures; I don’t know what he does with all his
money, for he keeps up no establishment, and no horses nor anything. I
tell him sometimes he is an old miser, but I am sure I have no reason to
say so, for he gives me beautiful presents. I should so like to bring
him here.’

‘Yes, bring him by all means,’ said I; but I could not help giving a
little sigh as I looked at Lottie, who was listening eagerly. When she
saw me look at her, her face flamed scarlet, and she went in great haste
to the window to hide it from Mrs. Gresham. She saw I had found her out,
and did not know what compassion was in my heart. She gave a wistful
glance up into my face as she went away. ‘Don’t despise me!’ it said.
Poor Lottie! as if it ever could be lawful to do evil that good might
come! They went away together, the poor girl and the rich, happy young
wife. Lottie was a little the older of the two, and yet she was not old,
and they were both pretty young women. They laid their heads together
and talked earnestly as girls do, as they went out of my gate, and
nobody could have dreamed that their light feet were entangled in any
web of tragedy. The sight of the two who were so unlike, and the thought
of the future which might bring them into close connection made me
melancholy, I could not have told why.



CHAPTER II


We did not miss the Champagne-cup that afternoon; indeed I do not
approve of such beverages for young people, and never sanction anything
but tea before dinner. The Dinglewood people were doing their best to
introduce these foolish extravagances among us, but I for one would not
give in. Young Gresham, though he took some tea, drew his wife aside
the moment after, and I heard him question her.

‘It was not my fault, Harry,’ she cried, not knowing I was so near. ‘She
sent it all back, and Lottie said I had hurt her feelings. I did not
know what to do. She would not even have John Thomas to wait.’

‘Nonsense!’ said Harry Gresham; ‘you should have insisted. We ought not
to let her go to any expense. I don’t suppose she has a shilling more
than she wants for her own affairs.’

‘But I could not help it,’ said his wife.

I don’t know what Lottie had said to her, but she was evidently a little
frightened. As for Harry, I think he would have liked to leave a
bank-note for me on one of the tables. People have told me since that it
was a very bad sign, and that it is only when people are getting
reckless about money that they think of throwing it away in presents;
but I cannot say I have had much experience of that weakness. The new
brother who had come with them was a very different kind of man. I
cannot say I took to him at first. He was not a wealthy, simple-minded,
lavish creature like his brother. He was more like other people. Harry
Gresham was red and white, like a girl, inclining to be stout, though he
was not above thirty, and with the manners which are, or were, supposed
to be specially English--downright and straightforward. Gerald was a few
years older, a little taller, bronzed with the sun, and bearing the
indescribable look of a man who has mixed much with the world. I looked
at Lottie Stoke when I made my first observations upon the stranger, and
saw that she too was looking at him with a strange expression, half of
repugnance, half of wistfulness in her eyes. Lottie had not done her
duty in the way of marrying, as she ought to have done, in her early
youth. She had refused very good offers, as her mother was too apt to
tell with a little bitterness. Now at last, when things were going so
badly with the family, she had made up her mind to try; but when she did
so she expected a second Harry Gresham, and not this man of the world.
She looked at him as a martyr might look standing on the edge of a
precipice, gathering up her strength for the plunge, shrinking yet
daring. My party was quite dull for the first hour because of this pause
which Lottie made on the brink, for she was always the soul of
everything. When I saw her all at once rise up from the chair where she
had been sitting obstinately beside old Mrs. Beresford, and go up to
Mrs. Gresham, who was standing aside with her brother-in-law looking on,
I knew she had made up her mind at last, and taken the plunge. An
experienced rich young man of the nineteenth century! I thought to
myself she might spare her pains.

Just at that moment I saw the gorgeous figure of John Thomas appear at
the end of my lawn, and a sudden flush of anger came over me. I got up
to see what he wanted, thinking they had sent him back again
notwithstanding my refusal. But just before I reached him I perceived
that his errand was to his master, to whom he gave a telegram. Mr.
Gresham tore it open at my side. He ran his eye over the message, and
muttered something between his teeth, and grew red all over in
indignation or trouble. Then, seeing me, he turned round, with an
effort, with one of his broad smiles.

‘Business even in the midst of pleasure,’ he said. ‘Is it not too bad?’

‘If it is only business--’ said I. Whenever I see one of those telegraph
papers, it makes my heart beat. I always think somebody is ill or dead.

‘_Only_ business, by Jove!’ said Harry. His voice was quite subdued, but
he laughed--a laugh which sounded strange and not very natural. Then he
gave himself a sort of shake, and thrust the thing into his pocket, and
offered me his arm, to lead me back to my place. ‘By the by,’ he said,
‘I am going to quarrel with you, Mrs. Mulgrave. When we are so near why
don’t you let us be of some use to you? It would give the greatest
pleasure both to Ada and me.’

‘Oh, thanks; but indeed I don’t want any help,’ I cried, abruptly coming
to a sudden stop before Lady Denzil’s chair.

‘You are so proud,’ he said with a smile, and so left me to plunge into
the midst of the game, where they were clamouring for him. He played all
the rest of the afternoon, entering into everything with the greatest
spirit; and yet I felt a little disturbed. Whether it was for Lottie, or
whether it was for Harry Gresham I could not well explain to myself; a
feeling came over me like the feeling with which one sometimes wakes in
the morning without any reason for it--an uneasy restless sense that
something somehow was going wrong.

The Greshams were the last of my party to go away, and I went to the
gate with them, as I had a way of doing, and lingered there for a few
minutes in the slanting evening light. It was nearly seven o’clock, but
they did not dine till eight, and were in no hurry. She wore a very
pretty dress--one of those soft pale grays which soil if you look hard
at them--and had gathered the long train over her arm like a figure in a
picture; for though she was not very refined, Ada Gresham was not a
vulgar woman to trail her dress over a dusty road. She had taken her
husband’s arm as they went along the sandy brown pathway, and Gerald on
the other side carried her parasol and leant towards her to talk. As I
looked at them I could not but think of the strange differences of life:
how some people have to get through the world by themselves as best they
may, and some have care and love and protection on every side of them.
These two would have kept the very wind from blowing upon Ada; they were
ready to shield her from every pain, to carry her in their arms over any
thorns that might come in her way. The sunshine slanted sideways upon
them as they went along, throwing fantastic broken shadows of the three
figures on the hedgerow, and shining right into my eyes. I think I can
see her now leaning on her husband’s arm, looking up to his brother,
with the pretty sweep of the gray silk over her arm, the white
embroidered skirts beneath, and the soft rose-ribbons that caught the
light. Poor Ada! I have other pictures of her, beside this one, in my
memory now.

Next day we had a little discussion upon the new brother, in the
afternoon when my visitors looked in upon me. We did not confine
ourselves to that one subject. We diverged, for instance, to Mrs.
Gresham’s toilette, which was so pretty. Lottie Stoke had got a new
bonnet for the occasion; but she had made it herself, and though she was
very clever, she was not equal to Elise.

‘Fancy having all one’s things made by Elise!’ cried Lucy the little
sister, with a rapture of anticipation. ‘If ever I am married, nobody
else shall dress _me_.’

‘Then you had better think no more of curates,’ said some malicious
critic, and Lucy blushed. It was not her fault if the curates amused
her. They were mice clearly intended by Providence for fun and torture.
She was but sixteen and meant no harm, and what else could the kitten
do?

Then a great controversy arose among the girls as to the claims of the
new brother to be called handsome. The question was hotly discussed on
both sides, Lottie alone taking no part in the debate. She sat by very
quietly, with none of her usual animation. Nor did she interpose when
the Gresham lineage and connection--the little cockney papa who was like
a shabby little miser, the mother who was large and affable and
splendid, a kind of grand duchess in a mercantile way--were taken in
hand. Lottie could give little sketches of them all when she so pleased;
but she did not please that day.

‘This new one does not look like a nobody,’ said one of my visitors. ‘He
might be the Honourable Gerald for his looks. He is fifty times better
than Mr. Gresham, though Mr. Gresham is very nice too.’

‘And he has such a lovely name!’ cried Lucy. ‘Gerald Gresham! Any girl I
ever heard of would marry him just for his name.’

‘They have all nice names,’ said the first speaker, who was young too,
and attached a certain weight to this particular. ‘They don’t sound like
mere rich people. They might be of a good old family to judge by their
names.’

‘Yes; she is Ada,’ said Lucy, reflectively, ‘and he is Harry, and the
little boy’s name is Percy. But Gerald is the darling! Gerald is the one
for me!’

The window was open at the time, and the child was talking incautiously
loud, so that I was not much surprised, for my part, when a peal of
laughter from outside followed this speech, and Ada, with her
brother-in-law in attendance, appeared under the veranda. Of course
Lucy was covered with confusion; but her blushes became the little
creature, and gave her a certain shy grace which was very pretty to
behold. As for Lottie, I think the contrast made her paler. Looking at
her beautiful refined head against the light, nobody could help admiring
it; but she was not round and dimpled and rosy like her little sister.
After a while Gerald Gresham managed to get into the corner where Lottie
was, to talk to her; but his eyes sought the younger creature all the
same. A man has it all his own way when there is but one in the room. He
was gracious to all the girls, like a civilized English sultan; but they
were used to that, poor things, and took it very good-naturedly.

‘It is not his fault if he is the only man in the place,’ said Lucy; and
she was not displeased, though her cheeks burned more hotly than ever
when he took advantage of her incautious speech.

‘I must not let you forget that it is Gerald who is the darling,’ he
said laughing. Of course it was quite natural, and meant nothing, and
perhaps no one there but Lottie and myself thought anything of this
talk; but it touched her, poor girl, with a certain mortification, and
had a curious effect upon me. I could not keep myself from thinking,
Would it be Lucy after all? After her sister had made up her mind in
desperation; after she had screwed her courage to the last fatal point;
after she had consciously committed herself and compromised her maiden
up-rightness, would it be Lucy who would win the prize without an
effort? I cannot describe the effect it had upon me. It made me burn
with indignation to think that Lottie Stoke was putting forth all her
powers to attract this stranger--this man who was rich, and could buy
her if he pleased; and, at the same time, his looks at Lucy filled me
with the strangest sense of disappointment. I ought to have been glad
that such humiliating efforts failed of success, and yet I was not. I
hated them, and yet I could not bear to think they would be in vain.

‘And Harry has gone to town again to-day,’ said Ada, with a pout of her
pretty mouth, ‘though he promised to stay and take me up the river. They
make his life wretched with those telegrams and things. I ask him, What
is the good of going on like this, when we have plenty of money? And
then he tells me I am a little fool and don’t understand.’

‘I always feel sure something dreadful has happened whenever I see a
telegram,’ said Mrs. Stoke.

‘Oh, we are quite used to them: they are only about business,’ said Ada,
taking off her hat and smoothing back, along with a twist of her pretty
hair, the slightest half visible pucker of care from her smooth young
brow.

‘Only business!’ said Gerald. They were the same words Harry had said
the day before, and they struck me somehow. When he caught my eye he
laughed, and added something about the strange ideas ladies had. ‘As if
any accident, or death, or burial could be half so important as
business,’ he said, with the half sneer which we all use as a disguise
to our thoughts. And some of the little party exclaimed, and some
laughed with him. To be sure, a man in business, like Harry Gresham, or
a man of the world, like his brother, must be less startled by such
communications than such quiet country people as we were. That was easy
enough to see.

That same night, when I came across from the Lodge, where I had been
spending the evening, Dinglewood stood blazing out against the sky with
all its windows lighted up. Sir Thomas, who was walking across the Green
with me, as it was so fine a night, saw me turn my head that way and
looked too. The whole house had the air of being lighted up for an
illumination. It always had; it revealed itself, its different floors,
and even the use of its different rooms to all the world by its lights.
The Greshams were the kind of people who have every new improvement that
money can procure. They made gas for themselves, and lighted up the
entire house, in that curious mercantile, millionaire way which you
never see in a real great house. Sir Thomas’s look followed mine, and he
shook his gray head a little.

‘I hope no harm will come of it,’ he said; ‘they are going very fast
over there, Mrs. Mulgrave. I hope they are able to keep it up.’

‘Able!’ said I, ‘they are frightfully rich;’ and I felt half aggrieved
by the very supposition.

‘Yes,’ said Sir Thomas, ‘they would need to be rich. For a little while
that may do; but I don’t think any man in business can be rich enough to
stand that sort of thing for a long time together.’

‘Oh, they can bear it, no doubt,’ I said, impatient of Sir Thomas’s
old-fashioned ways. ‘Of course it was very different in the Coventrys’
time.’

‘Ah, in the Coventrys’ time,’ said Sir Thomas regretfully; ‘one does not
often get such neighbours as the Coventrys. Take care of that stone. And
now, here we are at your door.’

‘Good-night!’ said I, ‘and many thanks;’ but I stood outside a little in
the balmy evening air, as Sir Thomas went home across the Green. I could
not see Dinglewood from my door, and the Lodge, which was opposite,
glimmered in a very different way, with faint candles in Lady Denzil’s
chamber, and some of the servants’ sleeping rooms, and the soft white
lamp-light in the windows below; domestic and necessary lights, not like
the blaze in the new house. Sir Thomas plodded quietly home, with his
gray head bent and his hands behind him under his coat, in the musing
tranquillity of old age; and a certain superstitious feeling came over
me. It was my gaze at the illuminated house which made him say those
uncomfortable words. I felt as if I had attracted to the Greshams, poor
children, in their gaiety and heedlessness, the eye of some sleeping
Fate.



CHAPTER III


I have often been impatient in reading books, to find the story go on
from one party to another, from one ball to another, as if life had
nothing more important in it. But sometimes no doubt it does happen so.
The life of the Greshams was made up of balls and parties; they were
never alone; Dinglewood blazed out to the skies every evening, and the
carriages flashed out and in, and one kind of merry-making or another
went on all day. Lottie Stoke was there continually, and there grew up a
curious friendship, half strife, half accord, between Gerald and
herself. He had nothing to do with the business as it turned out, and
consequently was not half so rich as his brother. But still he was very
well off. I don’t know what it is about people in business which gives
them a kind of primitive character: they are less sophisticated than the
rest of us, though possibly not more simple. The Greshams took a simple
pleasure in pleasure for itself, without making it a mere medium for
other things, as most of us do. They were fond of company, fond of
dancing, delighted with picnics, and even with croquet, without any
ulterior motive, like children. They were fond even of their wealth,
which gave them so many pretty and so many pleasant things. They enjoyed
it with all their hearts, and took an innocent, foolish delight in it,
which spiteful people set down to purse-pride; but which in reality was
more like the open satisfaction of children in their dear possessions.
Gerald was a very different being: I never saw him without feeling that
his visit was not a mere visit, but had some motive in it. Before Lottie
roused him to talk and battle with her, he would look on at their great
parties with a curious, anxious, dissatisfied air, as if he suspected or
feared something. I think poor Lottie went further than she meant to go:
she grew interested herself, when she had meant only to interest him,
and was more excited by his presence than he was by hers. They carried
on a kind of perpetual duel, very amusing to the spectators: and there
was no doubt that he liked it. But he liked Lucy’s funny little shy
speeches too; and he had some interest more absorbing, more serious than
either, which made his face very grave when the two girls were not
there. Harry Gresham had sometimes the air of getting impatient of his
brother’s presence. Now and then they passed my house walking together,
and not enjoying their walk, according to appearances. Once as I stood
at my gate I heard Harry say sharply, ‘In any case Ada has her
settlement,’ with a defiant air. And Gerald’s face was full of
remonstrance and expostulation. I could not help taking a great interest
in these young people, and feeling a little anxious at the general
aspect of affairs.

Things were in this state when the ball was given on Mrs. Gresham’s
birthday. I had nobody to take charge of for a wonder, and nothing to do
but look on. The entire suite of rooms was thrown open, ablaze with
light and sweet with flowers. There were great banks of geraniums in
every corner where they could be piled, and the whole neighbourhood had
been ravaged for roses. The room in which I took refuge was the smallest
of all, which had been old Lady Sarah’s boudoir in old times, and was a
little removed from the dancing, and cooler than the rest. It had one
little projecting window, not large enough to be called a bay, which
looked out upon the terrace just above the spot where the old couple
used to sit in the summer days. It was open, and the moon streamed in,
making a curious contrast with the floods of artificial light. Looking
out from it, you could see the Thames, like a silver ribbon, at the
bottom or the slope, and the little island and the little house gleaming
out white, with intense black shadows. Lottie Stoke came up to me while
I stood at the window, and looked out over my shoulder. ‘It looks like
the ghost of the river and the ghost of the island,’ she said, putting
her pretty arm round my waist with an agitated grasp. ‘I almost think we
are all ghosts too.’

‘A curious moment to think so,’ said Gerald Gresham. My back was turned
to them, so that I did not see him, but there sounded something like a
thrill of excitement in the half laugh of his voice.

‘Not curious at all,’ said Lottie: ‘how many of us are really here do
you think? I know where Mrs. Mulgrave is. She is outside on the terrace
with old Lady Sarah, listening to the old people’s talk, though I am
holding her fast all the same. We are in all sorts of places the real
halves of us, but our doubles do the dancing and the laughing, and eat
the ices quite as well. It is chilly to be a ghost,’ said Lottie with a
laugh; ‘come in from the window, I am sure there is a draught there.’

‘There is no draught,’ said Gerald; ‘you are afraid of being obliged to
go into particulars, that is all.’

‘I am not in the least afraid,’ said Lottie. ‘There is Mrs. Damerel. She
is in the nursery at the rectory, though you think you have her here.
She is counting Agatha’s curl-papers to see if there is the right
number, for children are never properly attended to when the mother’s
eye is wanting. I don’t know where you are, Mr. Gerald Gresham; that
would be too delicate an inquiry. But look, your brother has gone upon
‘Change, though he is in the middle of his guests. He looks as like
business as if he had all the Reduced Consols on his mind; he looks as
if---- good heavens!’

Lottie stopped, and her tone was so full of alarm and astonishment, that
I turned suddenly round to look too, in a fright. Harry Gresham was
standing at the door; he had a yellow envelope in his hand, another of
those terrible telegrams which are always bringing misery. He had turned
round unawares facing us, and facing the stream of people who were
always coming and going. I never saw in all my life so ghastly a face.
It showed the more that he was so ruddy and cheerful by nature. In a
moment every tinge of colour had disappeared from it. His mouth was
drawn down, his blue eyes looked awful, shrinking back as it were among
the haggard lines of the eyelids. The sight of him struck Lottie dumb,
and came upon me like a touch of horror. But Gerald, it was evident, was
not taken by surprise. Some crisis which he had been looking for had
come at last.

‘He has had some bad news,’ he said; ‘excuse me, my mother is ill--it
must be that;’ and he went through the stream of guests, fording the
current as it were with noiseless rapidity. As for Lottie, she drew me
back into the recess of the window and clung to me and cried--but not
for Harry Gresham. Her nerves were at the highest strain, and broke down
under this last touch; that was all.

‘I knew something was going to happen,’ she said. ‘I felt it in the air;
but I never thought it was coming upon _them_.’

‘It must be his mother,’ I said, though I did not think so. ‘Hush,
Lottie! Don’t frighten _her_, poor child.’

Lottie was used to restraining herself, and the tears relieved her. She
dried her eyes and gave me a nervous hug as she loosed her arm from my
waist.

‘I cannot stand this any longer,’ she said; ‘I must go and dance, or
something. I know there is trouble coming, and if I sit quiet I shall
make a fool of myself. But you will help them if you can,’ she cried in
my ear. Alas! what could I do?

By the time she left me the brothers had disappeared, and after half an
hour’s waiting, as nothing seemed to come of it, and as the heat
increased I went to the window again. The moon had gone off the house,
but still shone white and full on the lawn like a great sheet of silvery
gauze, bound and outlined by the blackest shadow. My mind had gone away
from that temporary interruption. I was not thinking about the Greshams
at all, when all at once I heard a rustle under the window. When I
looked down two figures were standing there in the shadow. I thought at
first they were robbers, perhaps murderers, waiting to waylay some one.
All my self-command could not restrain a faint exclamation. There seemed
a little struggle going on between the two. ‘You don’t know her,’ said
the one; ‘why should you trust her?’ ‘She is safer than the servants,’
said the other, ‘and she is fond of poor Ada.’ If my senses had not been
quickened by excitement and alarm I should never have heard what they
said. Then something white was held up to me in a hand that trembled.

‘Give it to Ada--when you can,’ said Harry Gresham in a quick,
breathless, imperative voice.

I took the bit of paper and clutched it in my hand, not knowing what I
did, and then stood stupefied, and saw them glide down in the dark
shadow of the house towards the river. Where were they going? What had
happened? This could be no sudden summons to a mother’s death-bed. They
went cautiously in the darkness the two brothers, keeping among the
trees; leaning out of the window as far as I could, I saw Gerald’s
slighter figure and poor Harry’s portly one emerge into the moonlight
close to the river, just upon the public road. Then I felt some one pull
me on the other side. It was Lottie who had come back, excited, to ask
if I had found out anything.

‘I thought you were going to stretch out of the window altogether,’ she
said, with a half-suspicious glance; and I held my bit of paper tight,
with my fan in my other hand.

‘I was looking at the moon,’ I said. ‘It is a lovely night. I am sorry
it has gone off the house. And then the rooms are so hot inside.’

‘I should like to walk on the terrace,’ said Lottie, ‘but my cavalier
has left me. I was engaged to him for this dance, and he has never come
to claim it. Where has he gone?’

‘I suppose he must have left the room,’ I said. ‘I suppose it is their
mother who is ill; perhaps they have slipped out quietly not to disturb
the guests. If that is the case, you should go and stand by Mrs.
Gresham, Lottie. She will want your help.’

‘But they never would be so unkind as to steal away like this and leave
everything to Ada!’ cried Lottie. ‘Never! Harry Gresham would not do it
for twenty mothers. As for Gerald, I dare say _any_ excuse--’

And here she stopped short, poor girl, with an air of exasperation, and
looked ready to cry again.

‘Never mind,’ I said; ‘go to Mrs. Gresham. Don’t say anything, Lottie,
but stand by her. She may want it, for anything we know.’

‘As you stood by us,’ said Lottie affectionately; and then she added
with a sigh and a faint little smile, ‘But it never could be so bad as
that with them.’

I did not make her any reply. I was faint and giddy with fear and
excitement; and just then, of course, Admiral Fortis’s brother, a hazy
old gentleman, who was there on a visit, and _havered_ for hours
together, whenever he could get a listener, hobbled up to me. He had got
me into a corner as it were, and built entrenchments round me before I
knew, and then he began his longest story of how his brother had been
appointed to the _Bellerophon_, and how it was his interest that did it.
The thing had happened half a century before, and the Admiral had not
been at sea at all for half that time, and here was a present tragedy
going on beside us, and the message of fate crushed up with my fan in my
hand. Lottie Stoke made her appearance in the doorway several times,
casting appealing looks at me. Once she beckoned, and pointed
energetically to the drawing-room in which poor little Mrs. Gresham was.
But when I got time to think, as I did while the old man was talking, I
thought it was best, on the whole, to defer giving my letter, whatever
it was. It could not be anything trifling or temporary which made the
master of the house steal away in the darkness. I have had a good many
things put into my hands to manage, but I don’t think I ever had
anything so difficult as this. For I did not know, and could not divine,
what the sudden misfortune was which I had to conceal from the world.
All this time Mr. Fortis went on complacently with his talk about the
old salt-water lords who were dead and gone. He stood over me, and was
very animated; and I had to look up to him, and nod and smile, and
pretend to listen. What ghosts we were, as Lottie said! My head began to
swim at last as Mr. Fortis’s words buzzed in my ear. ’“_My lord,” I
said, “my brother’s services--not to speak of my own family
influence--_”’ This formed a kind of chorus to it, and came in again and
again. He was only in the middle of his narrative when Lottie came up,
making her way through all obstacles. She was trembling, too, with
excitement which had less foundation than mine.

‘I can’t find Mr. Gresham anywhere,’ she whispered. ‘He is not in any of
the rooms; none of the servants have seen him, and it is time for
supper. What are we to do?’

‘Is Ada alarmed?’ said I.

‘No; she is such a child,’ said Lottie. ‘But she is beginning to wonder.
Come and say something to her. Come and do something. Don’t sit for ever
listening to that tiresome old man. I shall go crazy if you do not come;
and she dancing as if nothing had happened!’

Mr. Fortis had waited patiently while this whispering went on. When I
turned to him again he went on the same as ever. ‘This was all to the
senior sea-lord, you understand, Mrs. Mulgrave. As for the other--’

‘I hope you will tell me the rest another time,’ I said, like a
hypocrite. ‘I must go to Mrs. Gresham. Lottie has come to fetch me. I am
so sorry--’

‘Don’t say anything about it,’ said Mr. Fortis. ‘I shall find an
opportunity,’ and he offered me his arm. I had to walk with him looking
quite at my ease through all those pretty groups, one and another
calling to me as I passed. ‘Oh, please tell me if my wreath is all
right,’ Nelly Fortis whispered, drawing me from her uncle. ‘Mrs.
Mulgrave, will you look if I am torn?’ cried another. Then pair after
pair of dancers came whirling along, making progress dangerous. Such a
sight at any time, when one is past the age at which one takes a
personal interest in it, is apt to suggest a variety of thoughts; but at
this moment! Lottie hovered about me, a kind of _avant-coureur_,
clearing the way for me. There was something amazing to me in her
excitement, especially as, just at the moment when she was labouring to
open a way for me, Ada Gresham went flying past, her blue eyes shining,
her cheeks more like roses than ever. She gave me a smiling little nod
as her white dress swept over my dark one, and was gone to the opposite
end of the room before I could say a word. Lottie drew her breath hard
at the sight. Her sigh sounded shrill as it breathed past me. ‘Baby!’
she whispered. ‘Doll!’ And then the tears came to her eyes. I was
startled beyond description by her looks. Had she come to _care for_
Gerald in the midst of that worldly dreadful scheme of hers? or what did
her agitation mean?

It was time for supper however, and the elders of the party began to
look for it; and there were a good many people wondering and inquiring
where was Mr. Gresham? where were the brothers? Young ladies stood with
injured faces, who had been engaged to dance with Harry or Gerald; and
Ada herself, when her waltz was over, began to look about anxiously. By
this time I had got rid of Mr. Fortis, and made up my mind what to do. I
went up to her and stopped her just as she was asking one of the
gentlemen had he seen her husband?--where was Harry? I kept Harry’s bit
of paper fast in my hand. I felt by instinct that to give her that would
only make matters worse. I made up the best little story I could about
old Mrs. Gresham’s illness.

‘They both went off quite quietly, not to disturb the party,’ I said. ‘I
was to put off telling you as long as I could, my dear, not to spoil
your pleasure. They could not help themselves. They were very much put
out at the thought of leaving you. But Sir Thomas will take Mr.
Gresham’s place; and you know they were obliged to go.’

Tears sprang to poor Ada’s eyes. ‘Oh, how unkind of Harry,’ she cried,
‘to go without telling me. As if I should have kept on dancing had I
known. I don’t understand it at all--to tell you, and go without a word
to me!’

‘My dear, he would not spoil your pleasure,’ I said; ‘and it would have
been so awkward to send all these people away. And you know she may get
better after all.’

‘That is true,’ said easy-minded Ada. ‘It _would_ have been awkward
breaking up the party. But it is odd about mamma. She was quite well
yesterday. She was to have been here to-night.’

‘Oh, it must have been something sudden,’ I cried, at the end of my
invention. ‘Shall I call Sir Thomas? What can I do to be a help to you?
You must be Mr. and Mrs. Gresham both in one for to-night.’

Ada put her laced handkerchief up to her eyes and smiled a little faint
smile. ‘Will _you_ tell Sir Thomas?’ she said. ‘I feel so bewildered I
don’t know what to do.’

Then I commenced another progress in search of Sir Thomas, Lottie Stoke
still hovering about me as pale as a spirit. She took my arm as we went
on. ‘Was that all a story?’ she whispered in my ear, clasping my arm
tightly with her hands. I made her no answer; I dared not venture even
to let her see my face. I went and told the same story very
circumstantially over again to Sir Thomas. I hope it was not a great
sin; indeed it might be quite true for anything I could tell. It was
the only natural way of accounting for their mysterious absence; and
everybody was extremely sorry, of course, and behaved as well as
possible. Old Mrs. Gresham was scarcely known at Dinglewood, and Ada, it
was evident, was not very profoundly affected after the first minute by
the news, so that, on the whole, the supper-table was lively enough, and
the very young people even strayed into the dancing-room after it. But
of course we knew better than that when trouble had come to the house.
It was not much above one o’clock in the morning when they were all
gone. I pretended to go too, shaking off Lottie Stoke as best I could,
and keeping out of sight in a corner while they all streamed away. On
the whole, I think public opinion was in favour of Harry Gresham’s quiet
departure without making any disturbance. ‘He was a very good son,’
people said: and then some of them speculated if the poor lady died, how
Harry and his wife would manage to live in the quietness which family
affliction demanded. ‘They will bore each other to death,’ said a lively
young man. ‘Oh, they are devoted to each other!’ cried a young lady. Not
a suspicion entered any one’s mind. The explanation was quite
satisfactory to everybody but Lottie Stoke; but then she had seen Harry
Gresham’s face.

When I had made quite sure that every one was gone, I stole back quietly
into the blazing deserted rooms. Had I ever been disposed to moralize
over the scene of a concluded feast, it certainly would not have been at
that moment. Yet there was something pathetic in the look of the
place--brilliant as day, with masses of flowers everywhere, and that air
of lavish wealth, prodigality, luxury--and to feel that one carried in
one’s hand something that might turn it into the scene of a tragedy, and
wind up its bright story with the darkest conclusion. My heart beat loud
as I went in. My poor little victim was still in the dancing-room--the
largest and brightest of all. She had thrown herself down on a sofa,
with her arms flung over her head like a tired child. Tears were
stealing down her pretty cheeks. Her mouth was pouting and melancholy.
When she saw me she rose with a sudden start, half annoyed, half
pleased, to have some one to pour out her troubles upon. ‘I can’t help
crying,’ she said. ‘I don’t mean to blame Harry; but it was unkind of
him to go away without saying a word to me. We never, never parted in
that way before;’ and from tears the poor little woman fell into
sobs--grievous, innocent sobs, all about nothing, that broke one’s
heart.

‘I have come to tell you something,’ I said, ‘though I don’t know myself
what it is. I am afraid it is something worse than you think. I said
_that_ because your brother-in-law said it; but I don’t believe it is
anything about Mrs. Gresham. Your husband put this into my hand through
the window as he went away. Take courage, dear. You want all your
courage--you must keep up for the sake of the children, Ada!’

I babbled on, not knowing what words I used, and she stared at me with
bewildered eyes. ‘Into your hand through the window!’ she said. She
could not understand. She looked at the paper as if it were a charm.
Then she opened it slowly, half afraid, half stupefied. Its meaning did
not seem to penetrate her mind at first. After a while she gave a loud
sudden shriek, and turned her despairing eyes on me. Her cry was so
piercing and sudden that it rang through the house and startled every
one. She was on the verge of hysterics, and incapable of understanding
what was said to her, but the sight of the servants rushing to the door
to ask what was the matter brought her to herself. She made a brave
effort and recovered something like composure, while I sent them away;
and then she held out to me the letter which she had clutched in her
hand. It was written in pencil, and some words were illegible. This was
what Harry said:--

     ‘Something unexpected has happened to me, my darling. I am obliged
     to leave you without time even to say good-bye. You will know all
     about it only too soon. It is ruin, Ada--and it is my own
     fault--but I never meant to defraud any man. God knows I never
     meant it. Try and keep up your heart, dear; I believe it will blow
     over, and you will be able to join me. I will write to you as soon
     as I am safe. You have your settlement. Don’t let anybody persuade
     you to tamper with your settlement. My father will take care of
     that. Why should you and the children share my ruin? Forgive me,
     dearest, for the trouble I have brought on you. I dare not pause to
     think of it. Gerald is with me. If they come after me, say I have
     gone to Bishop’s Hope.’

‘What does it mean?’ cried poor Ada close to my ear. ‘Oh, tell me, you
are our friend! What does it mean?’

‘God knows,’ I said. My own mind could not take it in, still less could
I express the vague horrors that floated across me. We sat together with
the lights blazing round us, the grand piano open, the musicians’ stands
still in their places. Ada was dressed like a queen of fairies, or of
flowers: her gown was white, covered with showers of rosebuds; and she
had a crown of natural roses in her bright hair. I don’t know how it was
that her dress and appearance suddenly impressed themselves on me at
that moment. It was the horror of the contrast, I suppose. She looked me
piteously in the face, giving up all attempt at thought for her own
part, seeking the explanation from me. ‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘Why has
he gone away? Who is coming after him? Oh, my Harry! my Harry!’ the poor
young creature moaned. What could I say? I took her in my arms and
kissed her. I could do no more.

At this moment there came a loud knocking at the door. The house had
fallen into deadly stillness, and at that hour of the night, and in the
state we were, the sound was horrible. It rang through the place as if
it had been uninhabited, waking echoes everywhere. Ada’s very lips grew
white--she clasped her small hands over mine holding me fast. ‘It is
some one who has forgotten something,’ I said, but my agitation was so
great that I felt a difficulty in speaking. We sat and listened in
frightful suspense while the door was opened and the sound of voices
reached us. It was not Harry who had come back; it was not any one
belonging to the place. Suddenly Ada rushed to the door with a flash of
momentary petulance which simulated strength. ‘If it is any one for Mr.
Gresham, bring him in here,’ she cried imperiously. I hurried after her
and took her hand. It was like touching an electric machine. She was so
strung to the highest pitch that only to touch her made me thrill and
vibrate all over. And then the two men--two homely black
figures--startled even in spite of their acquaintance with strange
sights, came hesitatingly forward into the blazing light to confront the
flower-crowned, jewelled, dazzling creature, made up of rose and lily,
and diamond and pearl. They stood thunderstruck before her,
notwithstanding the assurance of their trade. Probably they had never in
their lives seen such an apparition before. The foremost of the two took
off his hat with a look of deprecation. I do not think Ada had the least
idea who they were. They were her husband’s enemies, endowed with a
certain dignity by that fact. But I knew in a moment, by instinct, that
they must be London detectives in search of him, and that the very worst
possibility of my fears had come true.

I cannot tell what we said to these men or they to us; they were not
harsh nor unfeeling; they were even startled and awe-struck in their
rough way, and stepped across the room cautiously, as if afraid of
hurting something. We had to take them over all the house, through the
rooms in which not a single light had been extinguished. To see us in
our ball dresses, amid all that silent useless blaze of light, leading
these men about, must have been a dreadful sight. For my part, though my
share in it was nothing, I felt my limbs shake under me when we had gone
over all the rooms below. But Ada took them all over the house. They
asked her questions and she answered them in her simplicity. Crime might
have fled out of that honest, joyous home, but it was innocence, candid
and open, with nothing to conceal, which dwelt there. I had to interfere
at last and tell them we would answer no more questions; and then they
comforted and encouraged us in their way. ‘With this fine house and all
these pretty things you’ll have a good bit of money yet,’ said the
superior of the two; ‘and if Mr. Gresham was to pay up, they might come
to terms.’

‘Then is it debt?’ cried I, with a sudden bound of hope.

The man gave a short laugh. ‘It’s debt to the law,’ he said. ‘It’s
felony, and that’s bad; but if you could give us a bit of a clue to
where he is, and this young lady would see ’em and try, why it mightn’t
be so bad after all. Folks often lets a gentleman go when they won’t let
a common man.’

‘Would money do it?’ cried poor Ada; ‘and I have my settlement. Oh, I
will give you anything, everything I have, if you’ll let my poor Harry
go.’

‘We haven’t got him yet, ma’am,’ said the man. ‘If you can find us any
clue----’

And it was then I interfered; I could not permit them to go on with
their cunning questions to poor Ada. When they went away she sank down
on a sofa near that open window in the boudoir from which I had seen
Harry disappear. The window had grown by this time ‘a glimmering
square,’ full of the blue light of early dawn. The birds began to chirp
and stir in the trees; the air which had been so soft and refreshing
grew chill, and made us shiver in our light dresses; the roses in Ada’s
hair began to fade and shed their petals silently over her white
shoulders. As long as the men were present she had been perfectly
self-possessed; now suddenly she burst into a wild torrent of tears.
‘Oh, Harry, my Harry, where is he? Why did not he take me with him?’ she
cried. I cannot say any more, though I think every particular of that
dreadful night is burned in on my memory. Such a night had never
occurred in my recollection before.

Then I got Ada to go to bed, and kept off from her the sleepy, insolent
man in powder who came to know if he was to sit up for master. ‘Your
master has gone to Bishop’s Hope,’ I said, ‘and will not return
to-night.’ The fellow received what I said with a sneer. He knew as
well, or perhaps better than we did, what had happened. Everybody would
know it next day. The happy house had toppled down like a house of
cards. Nothing was left but the helpless young wife, the unconscious
babies, to fight their battle with the world. There are moments when the
sense of a new day begun is positive pain. When poor Ada fell into a
troubled sleep, I wrapped myself up and opened the window and let in the
fresh morning air. Looking out over the country, I felt as if I could
see everything. There was no charitable shadow now to hide a flying
figure: every eye would be upon him, every creature spying his flight.
Where was Harry? When I looked at the girl asleep--she was but a girl,
notwithstanding her babies--and thought of the horror she would wake to,
it made my heart sick. And her mother was dead. There seemed no one to
stand by her in her trouble but a stranger like me.



CHAPTER IV


When Ada woke however, instead of being, as I was, more hopeless, she
was almost sanguine. ‘There is my money, you know,’ she said. ‘After
all, so long as it is only money--I will go and see them, as the men
said, and they will come to terms. So long as we are together, what do I
mind whether we have a large house or a little one? And Harry himself
speaks of my settlement. Don’t cry. I was frightened last night; but now
I see what to do. Will you come up to town with me by the twelve o’clock
train? And you shall see all will come right.’

I had not the heart to say a word. I went home, and changed that
wretched evening dress which I had worn all through the night. It was a
comfort to throw it off and cast it away from me; and I never wore it
again; the very sight of it made me ill ever after. I found Ada almost
in high spirits with the strength of her determination and certainty
that she was going to redeem her husband and make all right, when I went
back. Just before noon however, when she was putting on her bonnet to
start, a carriage swept up to the door. I was at the window of the
dining-room when it came in sight, waiting for the brougham to convey us
to the station. And the rector and his wife were coming up the avenue
with ‘kind inquiries,’ in full belief that old Mrs. Gresham was dying,
and that the house was ‘in affliction.’ No wonder they started and
stared at the sight. It was old Mrs. Gresham herself, in her pink
ribbons, fresh and full and splendid, in robust health, and all the
colours of the rainbow, who came dashing up with her stately bays, to
the door.

I had only time to realize that all our little attempts to keep up
appearances were destroyed for ever when the old people came in; for
Harry’s father had come too, though no one ever noticed him in presence
of his wife. Mrs. Gresham came in smiling and gracious, in her usual
affable and rather overwhelming way. She would have dismissed me
majestically before she went to her daughter-in-law, but I was in
reality too obtuse, by reason of fatigue and excitement, to understand
what she meant. When she went to Ada the old man remained with me. He
was not an attractive old man, and I had scarcely spoken to him before.
He walked about the room looking at everything, while I sat by the
window. If he had been an auctioneer valuing the furniture, he could not
have been more particular in his investigations. He examined the
handsome oak furniture, which was the envy of the Green, the immense
mirrors, the great china vases, the pictures on the walls, as if making
a mental calculation. Then he came and stood by me, and began to talk.
‘In my time young people were not so extravagant,’ he said. ‘There are
thousands of pounds, I believe, sunk in this house.’

‘Mr. Gresham had a great deal of taste,’ I said faltering.

‘Taste! Nonsense. You mean waste,’ said the old man, sitting down
astride on a carved chair, and looking at me across the back of it. ‘But
I admit the things have their value--they’ll sell. Of course you know
Harry has got into a mess?’ he went on. ‘Women think they can hush up
these things; but that’s impossible. He has behaved like an idiot, and
he must take the consequences. Fortunately the family is provided for.
Her friends need not be concerned in that respect.’

‘I am very glad,’ said I, as it was necessary to say something.

‘So am I,’ said old Mr. Gresham. ‘I suppose they would have come upon
_me_ if that had not been the case. It’s a bad business; but it is not
so bad as it might have been. I can’t make out how a son of mine should
have been such an ass. But they all go so fast in these days. I suppose
you had a very grand ball last night? A ball!’ he repeated, with a sort
of snort. I don’t know if there was any fatherly feeling at all in the
man, but if there was he hid it under this mask of harshness and
contempt.

‘Will not Mr. Gresham return?’ I asked foolishly; but my mind was too
much worn out to have full control of what I said.

The old man gave a shrug, and glanced at me with a mixture of scorn and
suspicion. ‘I can’t say what may happen in the future,’ he said dryly.
‘I should advise him not. But Ada can live where she likes--and she will
not be badly off.’

Old Mrs. Gresham stayed a long time up-stairs with her daughter-in-law;
so long that my patience almost deserted me. Mr. Gresham went off, after
sitting silent opposite to me for some time, to look over the house,
which was a relief; and no doubt I might have gone too, for we were far
too late for the train. But I was too anxious to go away. When the two
came down the old lady was just as cheerful and overwhelming as usual,
though poor Ada was deadly pale. Mrs. Gresham came in with her rich,
bustling, prosperous look, and shook hands with me over again. ‘I am
sure I beg your pardon,’ she said; ‘I had so much to say to Ada. We have
not met for a whole month; and poor child, they gave her such a fright
last night. My dear, don’t you mean to give us some luncheon? Grandpapa
never takes lunch; you need not wait for him, but I am quite hungry
after my long drive.’

Then poor Ada rose and rang the bell; she was trembling so that she
tottered as she moved. I saw that her lips were dry, and she could
scarcely speak. She gave her orders so indistinctly that the man could
not hear her. ‘Luncheon!’ cried the old lady in her imperious way.
‘Can’t you hear what Mrs. Gresham says? Lunch directly--and tell my
people to be at the door in an hour. Ada, a man who stared in my face
like that, and pretended not to understand, should not stay another day
in my house; you are a great deal too easy. So your ball was interrupted
last night, Mrs. Mulgrave,’ she went on with a laugh, ‘and the blame
laid on me. Oh, those boys! I hope the good people hereabouts will not
take offence. I will never forgive them, though, for giving Ada such a
fright, poor child. She thought I was dying, I suppose; and it was only
one of Gerald’s sporting scrapes. Some horse was being tampered with,
and he would have lost thousands if they had not rushed off; so they
made out I was dying, the wretched boys. Ha, ha! I don’t look much like
dying to-day.’

‘No, indeed,’ was all I could say. As for Ada she never opened her white
lips, except to breathe in little gasps like a woman in a fever. The old
lady had all the weight of the conversation to bear; and indeed she was
talking not for our benefit, but for that of the servants, who were
bringing the luncheon. She looked so rich and assured of herself that I
think they were staggered in their certainty of misfortune and believed
her for the moment. The young footman, who had just been asking me
privately to speak a word for him to secure him another place, gave me a
stealthy imploring look, begging me as it were not to betray him. The
old gentleman was out, going over the house and grounds, but Mrs.
Gresham ate a very good luncheon and continued her large and ample talk.
‘They sent me a message this morning,’ she said, as she ate, ‘and
ordered me to come over and make their excuses and set things right.
Just like boys! Give me some sherry, John Thomas. I shall scold them
well, I promise you, when they come back--upsetting poor Ada’s nerves,
and turning the house upside down like this. I don’t know what Ada would
have done without you, Mrs. Mulgrave; and I hear you had their
stable-men, trainers, or whatever they call them, to puzzle you too.’

‘Yes,’ I said, struck dumb with wonder. Was this all an invention, or
was she herself deceived? Poor Ada sat with her eyes cast down, and
never spoke except in monosyllables; she could scarcely raise to her
lips the wine which her mother-in-law made her swallow. I could not but
admire the energy and determination of the woman. But at the same time
she bewildered me, as she sat eating and drinking, with her elbow on the
table and her rich lace mantle sweeping over the white tablecloth,
conversing in this confident way. To meet her eyes, which had not a
shade of timidity or doubt about them, and see her evident comfort and
enjoyment, and believe she was telling a downright lie, was almost more
than was possible. ‘I did not know Mr. Gerald was a racing man,’ I
faltered, not knowing what to say.

‘Oh, yes, he is on the turf,’ said Mrs. Gresham, shrugging her
shoulders; ‘he is on everything that don’t pay. That boy has been a
nuisance all his life. Not that there is anything bad about him; but
he’s fashionable, you know, and we are known to be rich, and everybody
gives him his own way; and Harry’s such a good brother----’ said the
rash woman all at once, to show how much at her ease she was. But this
was taking a step too much. Ada could bear it no longer. There was a
sudden sound of choking sobs, and then she sprang from the table. The
strain had gone too far.

‘I hear baby crying; I must go to baby,’ she sobbed; and rushed from the
room without any regard to appearances. Even Mrs. Gresham,
self-possessed as she was, had gone too far for her own strength. Her
lip quivered in spite of herself. She looked steadily down, and crumbled
the bread before her in her strong agitated fingers. Then she gave a
little laugh, which was not much less significant than tears.

‘Poor little Ada,’ she said, ‘she can’t bear to be crossed. She has had
such a happy life, when anything goes contrairy it puts her out.’
Perhaps it was the quivering of her own lip that brought back her
vernacular. And then we began to discuss the ball as if nothing had
happened. Her husband came in while we were talking, and shrugged his
shoulders and muttered disapprobation, but she took no notice. She must
have been aware that I knew all; and yet she thought she could bewilder
me still.

I went home shortly after, grieved and disgusted and sick at heart,
remembering all the wicked stories people tell of mercantile dishonesty,
of false bankruptcies, and downright robberies, and the culprits who
escape and live in wealth and comfort abroad. This was how it was to be
in the case of Harry Gresham. His wife had her settlement, and would go
to him, and they would be rich, and well off, though he had as good as
stolen his neighbour’s property and squandered it away. Of course I did
not know all the particulars then; and I had got to be fond of these
young people. I knew very well that Harry was not wicked, and that his
little wife was both innocent and good. When one reads such stories in
the papers, one says, ‘Wretches!’ and thinks no more of it. But these
two were not wretches, and I was fond of them, and it made me sick at
heart. I went up-stairs and shut myself into my own room, not being able
to see visitors or to hear all the comment that, without doubt, was
going on. But it did not mend matters when I saw from my window Mrs.
Gresham driving past, lying back in her carriage, sweeping along swift
as two superb horses could carry her, with her little old husband in the
corner by her side, and a smile on her face, ready to wave her hand in
gracious recognition of any one she knew. She was like a queen coming
among us, rather than the mother of a man who had fled in darkness and
shame. I never despised poor Mrs. Stoke or thought less of her for
Everard’s downfall, but I felt scorn and disgust rise in my heart when
these people passed my door; though Mrs. Gresham, too, was her son’s
champion in her own worldly way.

Some hours later Ada sent me a few anxious pleading words, begging me to
go to her. I found her in the avenue, concealing herself among the
trees; though it was a warm summer day she was cold and shivering. I do
not know any word that can express her pallor. It was not the whiteness
of death, but of agonized and miserable life, palpitating in every nerve
and straining every faculty.

‘Hush!’ she said. ‘Don’t go to the house--I can’t bear it--I am watching
for him--here!’

‘Is he coming back?’ I cried in terror.

‘I do not know; I can’t tell where he is, or where he is going!’ cried
poor Ada, grasping my arm; ‘but if he should come back he would be
taken. The house is watched. Did you not see that old man sitting under
the hedge? There are people everywhere about watching for my Harry; and
they tell me I am to stay quiet and take no notice. I think I will
die--I wish I could die!’

‘No, my darling!’ I said, crying over her. ‘Tell me what it is? Did they
bring you no comfort? He will not come back to be taken. There is no
fear. Did they not tell you what it means?’

‘They told me,’ cried Ada, with a violent colour flushing over her face,
‘that I was to keep my money to myself, and not to pay back
that--that--what he has taken! It is true; he has taken some money that
was not his, and lost it; but he meant to pay it back again, Mrs.
Mulgrave. We were so rich; he knew he could pay it all back. And now he
has lost everything and can’t pay it. And they will put him in prison.
Oh, I wish he had died! I wish we had all died!’ cried Ada, ‘rather than
this--rather than to feel what I do to-day!’

‘My dear,’ I cried, ‘don’t say so; we cannot die when we please. It is a
terrible misfortune; but when he did not mean it--’

Great tears rushed to Ada’s eyes. ‘He did not mean _that_,’ she said;
‘but I think he meant me to keep my money and live on it. Oh, what shall
I do! They say I will be wicked if I give it up. I will work for him
with all my heart. But I cannot go on living like this, and keep what is
not mine. If your husband had done it, Mrs. Mulgrave--don’t be angry
with me--would not you have sold the cottage and given up everything?
And what am I to do?’

‘You must come in and rest,’ I said. ‘Never mind what they said to you.
You must do what is right, Ada, and Gerald will stand by you. He will
know how to do it. Come in now and rest.’

‘Ah, Gerald!’ cried the poor child, and then she leant on my shoulder
and cried. The moment she heard even the name of one man whom she could
trust her strength broke down. ‘Gerald will know how to do it,’ she said
faintly, as I led her in, and tried to smile at me. It was a gleam of
comfort in the darkness.

I cannot describe the period of terrible suspense that followed. I
stayed with her, making no pretence of going back to my own house;
though when the story came to be in the newspapers all my friends wrote
letters to me and disapproved of my conduct. I did not care; one knows
one’s own duties better than one’s friends do. The day after the ball
hosts of cards, and civil messages, and ‘kind inquiries’ had poured upon
Ada; but after that they totally stopped. Not a carriage nor a visitor
came near the house for the three last days. The world fell away from us
and left the poor young creature to bear her burden alone. In the midst
or all this real suffering there was one little incident which affected
my temper more than all the rest. Old Thomas Lee, an old man from the
village, who used to carry little wares about in a basket, and made his
living by it, had taken his place under the hedge close to the gates of
Dinglewood, and sat there watching all day long. Of course he was paid
to do it, and he was very poor. But I don’t think the money he has
earned so has done him much good. I have never given a penny or a
penny’s worth to old Lee since that time. Many a sixpence poor Harry had
tossed at him as he passed in his Yankee waggon every morning to the
station. I had no patience with the wretched old spy. He had the
assurance to take off his hat to me when I went into the house he was
watching, and I confess that it was with a struggle, no later back than
last winter, when the season was at its coldest, that I consented to
give him a little help for his children’s sake.

It was nearly a week before we got any letters, and all these long days
we watched and waited, glad when every night fell, trembling when every
morning rose; watching at the windows, at the gates, everywhere that a
peep could be had of the white, blinding, vacant road. Every time the
postman went round the Green our hearts grew faint with anxiety: once or
twice when the telegraph boy appeared, even I, though I was but a
spectator, felt the life die out of my heart. But at last this period of
dreadful uncertainty came to a close. It was in the morning by the first
post that the letters came. They were under cover to me, and I took them
to Ada’s room while she was still sleeping the restless sleep of
exhaustion. She sprang up in a moment and caught at her husband’s letter
as if it had been a revelation from heaven. The happiest news in the
world could not have been more eagerly received. He was safe. He had put
the Channel between him and his pursuers. There was no need for further
watching. The relief in itself was a positive happiness. Ten days ago it
would have been heart-rending to think of Harry Gresham as an escaped
criminal, as an exile, for whom return was impossible; disgraced,
nameless, and without hope. To-day the news was joyful news; he was
safe, if nothing more.

Then for the first time Ada indulged in the luxury of tears--tears that
came in floods, like those thunder-showers which ease the hearts of the
young. She threw herself on my neck and kissed me again and again. ‘I
should have died but for you: I had no mamma of my own to go to,’ she
sobbed like a baby. Perhaps the thing that made these childish words go
so to my heart was that I had no child.

Of course I expected, and everybody will expect, that after this
excitement she should have fallen ill. But she did not. On the contrary,
she came down-stairs with me and ate (almost for the first time) and
smiled, and played with her children, while I stood by with the feeling
that I ought to have a brain fever myself if Ada would not see what was
expected of her. But as the day ran on she became grave, and ever
graver. She said little, and it was mostly about Gerald; how he must
come home and manage everything; how she was determined to take no
rest, to listen to no argument, till the money was paid. I went home to
my own house that evening, and she made no opposition. I said good-night
to her in the nursery, where she was sitting close by her little girl’s
bed. She was crying, poor child, but I did not wonder at that; and nurse
was a kind woman, and very attentive to her little mistress. I went
round to the terrace and out by the garden, without having any
particular reason for it. But before I reached the gate some one came
tripping after me, and looking round I saw it was Ada, wrapped in a
great waterproof cloak. She was going to walk home with me, she said. I
resisted her coming, but it was in vain. It was a warm, balmy night, and
I could not understand why she should have put on her great cloak. But
as soon as she was safe in my little drawing-room, her secret came out.
Then she opened her mantle with a smile. On one of her arms hung a
bundle; on the other rested her sleeping baby. She laughed at my amaze,
and then she cried. ‘I am going to Harry,’ she said; and held her child
closer, and dried her eyes and sat immovable, ready to listen to
anything I chose to say. Heaven knows I said everything I could think
of--of the folly of it, of her foolhardiness; that she was totally
unable for the task she was putting on herself; that Harry had Gerald,
and could do without her. All which she listened to with a smile,
impenetrable, and not to be moved. When I had come to an end of my
arguments, she stretched out to me the arm on which the bundle hung, and
drew me close to her and kissed me again. ‘You are going to give me some
biscuits and a little flask of wine,’ she said, ‘to put in my pocket. I
have one of the housekeeper’s old-fashioned pockets, which is of some
use. And then you must say “God bless you,” and let me go.’

‘God bless you, my poor child,’ I said, overcome; ‘but you must not go;
little Ada too--’

Then her eyes filled with tears. ‘My pretty darling!’ she said; ‘but
grandmamma will take her to Bishop’s Hope. It is only baby that cannot
live without his mother. Baby and Harry. What is Gerald? I know he wants
_me_.’

‘But he can wait,’ I cried; ‘and you so young, so delicate, so unused to
any trouble!’

‘I can carry my child perfectly,’ said Ada. ‘I never was delicate. There
is a train at eleven down to Southampton, I found it out in the book:
and after that I know my way. I am a very good traveller,’ she said with
a smile, ‘and Gerald must come to settle everything. Give me the
biscuits, dear Mrs. Mulgrave, and kiss me and let me go.’

And it had to be so, though I pleaded with her till I was hoarse. When
the moment came, I put on my cloak too and walked with her, late as it
was, a mile off to the new station, which both she and I had thought too
far for walking in the cheerful daylight. I carried the bundle, while
she carried the baby, and we looked like two homely country women
trudging home. She drew her hood over her head while she got her
ticket, and I waited outside. Then in the dark I kissed her for the last
time. I could not speak, nor did she. She took the bundle from me,
grasping my hand with her soft fingers almost as a man might have done;
and we kissed each other with anguish, like people who part for ever.
And I have never seen her again.

As I came back, frightened and miserable, all by myself along the
moonlit road, I had to pass the Stokes’ cottage. Lottie was leaning out
of the window, though it was now nearly midnight, with her face, all
pallid in the moon, turned towards Dinglewood. I could scarcely keep
myself from calling to her. She did not know what we had been doing, yet
her heart had been with us that night.



CHAPTER V


I will not describe the tumult that arose when it was discovered. The
servants rushed over to me in a body, and I suggested that they should
send for Mrs. Gresham, and that great lady came, in all her splendour,
and took little Ada away, and gave everybody ‘notice.’ Then great bills
of the auction covered the pillars at the gate, and strangers came in
heaps to see the place. In a month everything had melted away like a
tale that is told. The Greshams, and their wealth, and their liberality,
and their good-nature fell out of the very recollection of the people on
the Green, along with the damask and the gilding and the flowers, the
fine carriages and the powdered footmen. Everything connected with them
disappeared. The new tenant altered the house a second time, and
everything that could recall the handsome young couple and their lavish
ways was cleared away. Of course there was nothing else talked of for a
long time after. Everybody had his or her account of the whole business.
Some said poor Harry met his pursuers in the field close to the river,
and that Gerald and he fought with them, and left them all but dead in
the grass; some said that Ada and I defended the house, and would not
let them in; and there were countless romances about the escape and
Ada’s secret following after. The imagination of my neighbours made many
a fancy sketch of that last scene; but never hit upon anything so
touching as my last glimpse of her, with her baby under her cloak, going
into the train. I held my peace, and let them talk. She had been as my
own child for about a week, just a week of our lives; before that she
was a common acquaintance, after it a stranger; but I could not let any
vulgar tongues meddle with our relationship or her story in that sacred
time.

And after a while the tale fell into oblivion, as every story does if we
can but wait long enough. People forgot about the Greshams; sometimes a
stranger would observe the name of Mr. Gresham, of Bishop’s Hope, in
some list of county charities, and would ask if he was a Gresham of
Greshambury, or if he was any connection of the man who ran away. Of
course, at the time, it was in all the newspapers. He had taken money
that somebody had trusted him with and used it in his speculations. Of
course he meant to pay it back; but then a great crash came. The men say
there was no excuse for him, and I can see that there is no excuse; but
he never meant it, poor Harry! And then the papers were full of further
incidents, which were more unusual than Harry’s sin or his flight. The
_Times_ devoted a leading article to it which everybody read, holding
Mrs. Gresham up to the applause of the world. Ada gave up her settlement
and all her own fortune, and ‘one of his brothers,’ the papers said,
came forward, too, and most of the money was paid back. But Harry, poor
fellow, disappeared. He was as if he had gone down at sea. His name and
every sign of his life went out of knowledge--waves of forgetfulness,
desertion, exile closed over them. And at Dinglewood they were never
either seen or heard of again.

As long as it continued to be in the papers, Lottie Stoke kept in a very
excited state. She came to me for ever, finding out every word that was
printed about it, dwelling on everything. That evening when the article
appeared about Mrs. Gresham’s heroic abandonment of her fortune, and
about ‘one of his brothers,’ Lottie came with her eyes lighted up like
windows in an illumination, and her whole frame trembling with
excitement. She read it all to me, and listened to my comments, and
clasped my hand in hers when I cried out, ‘That must be Gerald!’ She sat
on the footstool, holding the paper, and gazed up into my face with her
eyes like lamps. ‘Then I do not mind!’ she cried, and buried her face in
her hands and sobbed aloud. And I did not ask her what she meant--I had
not the heart.

It was quite years after before I heard anything more of the Greshams,
and then it was by way of Lottie Stoke that the news came. She had grown
thinner and more worn year by year. She had not had the spirits to go
out, and they were so poor that they could have no society at home. And
by degrees Lottie came to be considered a little old, which is a
dreadful business for an unmarried girl when her people are so poor.
Mrs. Stoke did not upbraid her; but still, it may be guessed what her
feelings were. But, fortunately, as Lottie sank into the background,
Lucy came to the front. She was pretty, and fresh, and gay, and more
popular than her sister had ever been. And, by and by, she did fulfil
the grand object of existence, and married well. When Lucy told me of
her engagement she was very angry with her sister.

‘She says, how can I do it? She asks me if I have forgotten Gerald
Gresham?’ cried Lucy. ‘As if I ever cared for Gerald Gresham; or as if
anybody would marry him after---- I shall think she cared for him
herself if she keeps going on.’

‘Lucy!’ said Lottie, flushing crimson under her hollow eyes. Lucy, for
her part, was as bright as happiness, indignation, high health, and
undiminished spirits could make her. But, for my part, I liked her
sister best.

‘Well!’ she said, ‘and I do think it. You _would_ lecture me about him
when we were only having a little fun. As if I ever cared for him. And I
don’t believe,’ cried Lucy courageously, ‘that he ever cared for me.’

Her sister kissed her, though she had been so angry. ‘Don’t let us
quarrel now when we are going to part,’ she said, with a strange quiver
in her voice. Perhaps the child was right; perhaps he had never cared
for her, though Lottie and I both thought he did. He cared for neither
of them, probably; and there was no chance that he would ever come back
to Dinglewood, or show himself where his family had been so disgraced.
But yet Lottie brightened up a little after that day, I can scarcely
tell why.

Some time after she went on a visit to London in the season; and it was
very hard work for her, I know, to get some dresses to go in, for she
never would have any of Lucy’s presents. She was six weeks away, and she
came back looking a different creature. The very first morning after her
return she came over to me, glowing with something to tell. ‘Who do you
think I met?’ she said with a soft flush trembling over her face. Her
look brought one name irresistibly to my mind. But I would not re-open
that old business; I shook my head, and said I did not know.

‘Why, Gerald Gresham!’ she cried. ‘It is true, Mrs. Mulgrave; he is
painting pictures now--painting, you understand, not for his pleasure,
but like a trade. And he told me about Ada and poor Harry. They have
gone to America. It has changed him very much, even his looks; and
instead of being rich, he is poor.’

‘Ah,’ I said, ’“one of his brothers.” You always said it was Gerald;’
but I was not prepared for what was to come next.

‘Did not I?’ cried Lottie, triumphant; ‘I knew it all the time.’ And
then she paused a little, and sat silent, in a happy brooding over
something that was to come. ‘And I think she was right,’ said Lottie
softly. ‘He had not been thinking of Lucy; it was not Lucy for whom he
cared.’

I took her hands into my own, perceiving what she meant; and then all at
once Lottie fell a crying, but not for sorrow.

‘That was how I always deceived myself,’ she said. ‘It was so base of me
at first; I wanted to marry him because he was rich. And then I thought
it was Lucy he liked; she was so young and so pretty--’ Then she made a
long pause, and put my hands upon her hot cheeks and covered herself
with them. ‘Your hands are so cool,’ she said, ‘and so soft and kind. I
am going to marry him now, Mrs. Mulgrave, and he is poor.’

This is a kind of postscript to the story, but still it is so connected
with it that it is impossible to tell the one without the other. We were
much agitated about this marriage on the Green. If Gerald Gresham had
been rich, it would have been a different matter. But a stockbroker’s
son, with disgrace in the family, and poor. I don’t know any one who was
not sorry for Mrs. Stoke under this unexpected blow. But I was not sorry
for Lottie. Gerald, naturally, is not fond of coming to the Green, but I
see them sometimes in London, and I think they suit each other. He tells
me of poor Ada every time I see him. And I believe old Mr. Gresham is
very indignant at Harry’s want of spirit in not beginning again, and at
Ada for giving up her settlement, and at Gerald for expending his money
to help them--‘A pack of fools,’ says the old man. But of course they
will all, even the shipwrecked family in America, get something from him
when he dies. As for the mother, I met her once at Lottie’s door,
getting into her fine carriage with the bays, and she was very affable
to me. In her opinion it was all Ada’s fault. ‘What can a man do with an
extravagant wife who spends all his money before it is made?’ she said
as she got into her carriage; and I found it a little hard to keep my
temper. But the Greshams and their story, and all the brief splendours
of Dinglewood are almost forgotten by this time by everybody on the
Green.



THE SCIENTIFIC GENTLEMAN



PART I



CHAPTER I


There were a great variety of houses on the Green; some of them handsome
and wealthy, some very old-fashioned, some even which might be called
tumbledown. The two worst and smallest of these were at the lower end of
the Green, not far from the ‘Barleymow.’ It must not be supposed however
that they were unpleasantly affected by the neighbourhood of the
‘Barleymow.’ They were withdrawn from contact with it quite as much as
we were, who lived at the other end; and though they were small and out
of repair, and might even look mouldy and damp to a careless passer-by,
they were still houses for gentlefolk, where nobody need have been
ashamed to live. They were built partly of wood and partly of
whitewashed brick, and each stood in the midst of a very luxuriant
garden. At the time Mr. Reinhardt, of whom I am going to speak, came to
East Cottage, as it was called, the place had been very much neglected;
the trees and bushes grew wildly all over the garden; the flower-beds
had gone to ruin; the kitchen-garden was a desert, with only a dreary
cabbage or great long straggling onion-plant run to seed showing among
the gooseberries and currants, which looked like the copsewood in a
forest. It is miserable to see a place go to destruction like this, and
I could not but reflect often how many poor people there were without a
roof to shelter them, while this house was going to ruin for want of an
inhabitant. ‘My dear lady, that is communism, rank communism,’ the
Admiral said to me when I ventured to express my sentiments aloud; but I
confess I never could see it.

The house belonged to Mr. Falkland, who was a distant relation of Lord
Goodwin’s, and lived chiefly in London. He was a young man, and a
barrister, living, I suppose, in chambers, as most of them do; but I
wondered he did not furnish the place and keep it in order, if it had
been only for the pleasure of coming down with his friends from Saturday
to Monday, to spend Sunday in the country. When I suggested this, young
Robert Lloyd, Mrs. Damerel’s brother, took it upon him to laugh.

‘There is nothing to do here,’ he said. ‘If it were near the river, for
boating, it would be a different matter, or even if there was a stream
to fish in; but a fellow has nothing to do here, and why should Falkland
come to bore himself to death?’ Thus the young man ended with a sigh for
himself, though he had begun with a laugh at me.

‘If he is so afraid to be bored himself,’ said I--for I was rather angry
to hear our pretty village so lightly spoken of--‘I am sure he must know
quantities of people who would not be bored. Young barristers marry
sometimes, I suppose, imprudently, like other young people----’

‘Curates, for instance,’ said Robert, who was a saucy boy.

‘Curates, and young officers, and all sorts of foolish people,’ said I;
‘and think what a comfort that little house would be to a poor young
couple with babies! Oh no, I do not like to see such a waste; a house
going to rack and ruin for want of some one to live in it, and so many
people famishing for want of fresh air, and the country. Don’t say any
more, for it hurts me to see it. I wish it were mine to do what I liked
with it only for a year.’

‘Communism, rank communism,’ said the Admiral. But if that is communism,
then I am a communist, and I don’t deny it. I would not waste a
Christian dwelling-place any more than I would throw away good honest
wholesome bread.

However this state of things came to an end one spring, a good many
years ago. Workmen came and began to put East Cottage in order. We all
took the greatest interest in the work. It was quite a place to go to
for our afternoon walks, and sometimes as many as three and four parties
would meet there among the shavings and the pails of plaster and
whitewash. It was being very thoroughly done up. We consulted each other
and gave our opinions about all the papers, as if it mattered whether we
liked them or not. The Green thought well of the new tenant’s taste on
the whole, though some of us had doubts about the decoration of the
drawing-room, which was rather a dark little room by nature. The paper
for it was terribly artistic. It was one of those new designs which I
always think are too mediæval for a private house--groups of five or six
daisies tied together, with long stalks detached and distinct, and all
the hair on their heads standing on end, so to speak; but we who
objected had a conviction that it was only our ignorance, and merely
whispered to each other in corners, that we were not quite sure--that
perhaps it was just a little---- but the people who knew better thought
it showed very fine taste indeed.

It was some time before we found out who the new tenant was. He did not
come down until after everything had been arranged and ready for some
weeks. Then we found out that he was a Mr. Reinhardt, a gentleman who
was well-known, people said, in scientific circles. He was of German
extraction, we supposed, by his name, and as for his connections, or
where he came from, nobody knew anything about them. An old housekeeper
was the first person who made her appearance, and then came an old
man-servant; both of them looked the very models of respectability, but
I do not think, for my own part, that the sight of them gave me a very
pleasant feeling about their master. They chilled you only to look at
them. The woman had a suspicious, watchful look, her eyes seemed to be
always on the nearest corner looking for some one, and she had an air of
resolution which I should not have liked to struggle against. The man
was not quite so alarming, for he was older and rather feeble on his
legs. One felt that there must be some weakness in his character to
justify the little deviousness that would now and then appear in his
steps. These two people attracted our notice in the interval of waiting
for their master. The man’s name was White--an innocent, feeble sort of
name, but highly respectable--and he called the woman something which
sounded like Missis Sarah; but whether it was her Christian name or her
surname we never could make out.

It was on a Monday evening, and I had gone to dine at the Lodge with Sir
Thomas and Lady Denzil, when the first certain news of the new tenant of
East Cottage reached us. The gentlemen, of course, had been the first to
hear it. Somehow, though it is taken for granted that women are the
great traffickers in gossip, it is the men who always start the subject.
When they came into the drawing-room after dinner they gave us the
information, which they had already been discussing among themselves
over their wine.

‘Mr. Reinhardt has arrived,’ Sir Thomas said to Lady Denzil; and we all
asked, ‘When?’

‘He came yesterday, I believe,’ said Sir Thomas.

‘Yesterday! Why, yesterday was Sunday,’ cried some one; and though we
are, as a community, tolerably free from prejudice, we were all somewhat
shocked; and there was a pause.

‘I believe Sunday is considered the most lucky day for everything
abroad,’ said Lady Denzil, after that interval; ‘for beginning a
journey, and no doubt for entering a house. And as he is of German
extraction----’

‘He does not look like a German,’ said Robert Lloyd; ‘he is quite an old
fellow--about fifty, I should say--and dark, not fair.’

At this speech the most of us laughed; for an old fellow of fifty seemed
absurd to us, who were that age, or more; but Robert, at twenty, had no
doubt on the subject.

‘Well,’ he said, half offended, ‘I could not have said a young fellow,
could I? He stoops, he is awfully thin, like an old magician, and
shabbily dressed, and----’

‘You must have examined him from head to foot, Robert.’

‘A fellow can’t help seeing,’ said Robert, ‘when he looks; and I thought
you all wanted to know.’

Then we had a discussion as to what notice should be taken of the new
comer. We did not know whether he was married or not, and,
consequently, could not go fully into the question; but the aspect of
the house and the looks of the servants were much against it. For my own
part, I felt convinced he was not married; and, so far as we ladies were
concerned, the question was thus made sufficiently easy. But the
gentlemen felt the weight proportionably heavy on their shoulders.

‘I never knew any one of the name of Reinhardt,’ Sir Thomas said with a
musing air.

‘Probably he will have brought letters from somebody,’ the Admiral
suggested: and that was a wonderful comfort to all the men.

Of course he must have letters from somebody; he must know some one who
knew Sir Thomas, or Mr. Damerel, or the Admiral, or General Perronet, or
the Lloyds. Surely the world was not so large as to make it possible
that the new comer did not know some one who knew one of the people on
the Green. As for being a scientific notability, or even a literary
character, I am afraid that would not have done much for him in
Dinglefield. If he had been cousin to poor Lord Glyndon, who was next to
an idiot, it would have been of a great deal more service to him. I do
not say that we were right; I think there are other things which ought
to be taken into consideration; but, without arguing about it, there is
no doubt that so it was.

The Green generally kept a watchful eye for some time on the East
Cottage. There were no other servants except those two whom we had
already seen. Sometimes the gardener, who kept all the little gardens
about in order--‘doing for’ ladies like myself, for instance, who could
not afford to keep a gardener--was called in to assist at East Cottage;
and I believe (of course I could not question him on the subject; I
heard this through one of the maids) that he was very jocular about the
man-servant, who was a real man-of-all-work, doing everything you could
think of, from helping to cook, down to digging in the garden. Our
gardener opened his mouth and uttered a great laugh when he spoke of
him. He held the opinion common to a great many of his class, that to
undertake too much was a positive injury to others. A servant who kept
to his own work, and thought it was ‘not his place’ to interfere with
anything beyond it, or lend a helping hand in matters beyond his own
immediate calling, was Matthew’s model of what a servant ought to be,
and a man who pretended to be a butler, and was a Jack-of-all-trades,
was a contemptible object to our gardener: ‘taking the bread out o’
other folks’s mouths,’ he said. He thought the man at the East Cottage
was a foreigner, and altogether had a very poor opinion of him. But
however what was a great deal worse was the fact that neither the
man-servant, nor the woman, nor the master, appeared to care for our
notice, or in any way took the place they ought to have done in our
little community. They had their things down from London; they either
did their washing ‘within themselves’ or sent it also away to a
distance; they made no friends, and sought none. Mr. Reinhardt brought
no letters of introduction. Sometimes--but rarely--he might be seen of
an evening walking towards the Dell, with an umbrella over his head to
shield him from the setting sun, but he never looked at anybody whom he
met, or showed the least inclination to cultivate acquaintance, even
with a child or a dog. And the worst of all was that he certainly never
went to church. We were very regular church-goers on the Green. Some of
us preferred sometimes to go to a little church in the woods, which was
intended for the scattered population of our forest district, and was
very pretty and sweet in the midst of the great trees, instead of to the
parish. But to one or other everybody went once every Sunday at least.
It was quite a pretty sight on Sunday morning to see everybody turning
out--families all together, and lonely folk like myself, who scarcely
could feel lonely when there was such a feeling of harmony and
friendliness about. The young people set off walking generally a little
while before us; but most of the elder people drove, for it was a good
long way. And though some rigid persons thought it was wrong on the
Sunday, yet the nice carriages and horses looked pleasant, and the
servants always had time to come to church; and an old lady like Lady
Denzil, for instance, must have stayed at home altogether if she had not
been allowed to drive. I think a distinction should be made in such
cases. But when all the houses thus opened their doors and poured forth
their inhabitants, it may be supposed how strange it looked that one
house should never open and no figure ever come from it to join the
Sunday stream. Even the housekeeper, so far as we could ascertain, never
had a Sunday out. They lived within those walls, within the trees that
were now so tidy and trim. One morning when I had a cold, and was
reading the service by myself in my own room, I had a glimpse of the
master of the house. It was a summer day, very soft and blue, and full
of sunshine. You know what I mean when I say blue--the sky seemed to
stoop nearer to the earth, the earth hushed itself and looked up all
still and gentle to the sky. There were no clouds above, and nobody
moving below; nothing but a little thrill and flicker of leaves, a faint
rustle of the grass, and the birds singing with a softer note, as if
they too knew it was Sunday. My room is in the front of the house, and
overlooks all the Green. The window was open, and the click of a latch
sounding in the stillness made me lift my head without thinking from the
lesson I was reading. It was Mr. Reinhardt, who had come out of his
cottage. He came to the garden gate and stood for a moment looking out.
I was not near enough to see his face, but in every line of his spare,
stooping figure there was suspicion and doubt. He looked to the right
and to the left with a curious prying eagerness, as if he expected to
see some one coming. And then he came out altogether, and began to walk
up and down, up and down. The stillness was so great that, though he
walked very softly, the sound of his steps on the gravel of the road
reached me from time to time. I stopped in my reading to watch him, in
spite of myself. Every time he turned he looked about him in the same
suspicious, curious way. Was he waiting for some one? Was he looking out
for a visitor? or was he (the thought sprang into my mind all at once)
insane perhaps, and had escaped from his keepers in the cottage? This
thought made my heart jump, but a little reflection calmed me, for he
had not the least appearance of insanity. The little jar now and then of
his foot when he turned kept me in excitement; I felt it impossible to
keep from watching him. When I found how abstracted my mind was getting,
I changed my place that I might not be tempted to look out any more,
feeling that it was wrong to yield to this curiosity; and when I had
finished my reading the first carriage--the Denzils’ carriage--was
coming gleaming along the distant road in the sunshine, coming back from
church, and the lonely figure was gone. I did not know whether he had
gone in again or had extended his walk. But I felt somehow all that day,
though you will say with very little reason, that I knew something more
about our strange neighbour than most people did on the Green.



CHAPTER II


This seclusion and isolation of East Cottage did not however last very
long. Before the summer was over Sir Thomas, who, though he stood on his
dignity sometimes, was very kind at bottom, began to feel compunctious
about his solitary neighbour: now and then he would say something which
betrayed this. ‘It worries me to think there is some one there who has
been taken no notice of by anybody,’ he would say. ‘Of course it is his
own fault--entirely his own fault.’ The next time one met him he would
return to the subject. ‘What a lovely day! Everybody seems to be
out-of-doors--except at East Cottage, where they have the blinds drawn
down.’ This would be said with a pucker of vexation and annoyance about
his mouth. He was angry with the stranger, and sorry, and did not know
what to do. And I for one knew what would follow. But we were all very
curious when we heard that Sir Thomas had actually called. The Stokes
came running in to tell me one afternoon. ‘Oh, fancy, Mrs. Mulgrave, Sir
Thomas has called!’ cried Lucy. ‘And he has been admitted, which is
still greater fun,’ said Robert Lloyd, who was with them. I may say in
passing that this was before Robert had passed his examination, when he
was an idle young man at home, trying hard to persuade Lucy Stoke that
he and she were in love with each other. Their parents, of course, would
never have permitted such a thing for a moment, and fortunately there
turned out to be nothing in it; but at present this was the chief
occupation of Robert’s life.

‘I am very glad,’ said I. ‘I knew Sir Thomas never would be happy till
he had done it.’

‘And oh, you don’t know what funny stories there are about,’ said Lucy.
‘They say he killed his wife, and that he is always thinking he sees her
ghost. I wonder if it is true? They say he can never be left alone or in
the dark; he is so frightened. I met him yesterday, and it made me jump.
I never saw a man who killed his wife before.’

‘But who says he killed his wife?’

‘Oh, everybody; we heard it from Matthew the gardener, and I think he
heard it at the “Barleymow,” and it is all over the place. Fancy Sir
Thomas calling on such a person! for I suppose,’ said Lucy, ‘though you
are so very superior, you men, and may beat us, and all that, it is not
made law yet that you may kill your wives.’

‘It might just as well be the law: for I am sure there are many other
things quite as bad,’ said Lottie, while Robert, who had been appealed
to, whispered some answer which made Lucy laugh. ‘Poor man, I wonder if
she was a very bad woman, and if she haunts him. How disappointed he
must have been to find he could not get rid of her even that way!’

‘Lottie, my dear, here is Sir Thomas coming; don’t talk so much
nonsense,’ said I hurriedly.

I am afraid however that Sir Thomas rather liked the nonsense. He had
not the feeling of responsibility in encouraging girls to run on, that
most women have. He thought it was amusing, as men generally do, and
never paused to think how bad it was for the girls. But to-day he was
too full of his own story to care much for theirs. He came in with dusty
boots, which was quite against his principles, and stretched his long
spare limbs out on the beautiful rug which the Stokes had worked for me
in a way that went to my heart. That showed how very much pre-occupied
he was; for Sir Thomas was never inconsiderate about such matters.

‘Well,’ he said, pushing his thin white hair off his forehead, and
stretching out his legs as if he were quite worn out, ‘there is one
piece of work well over. I have had a good many tough jobs in my life,
but I don’t know that I ever had a worse.’

‘Oh, tell us what happened. Is he mad? Has he shut himself in? Has he
hurt you?’ cried the Stokes.

Sir Thomas smiled upon this nonsense as if it had been perfectly
reasonable, and the best sense in the world.

‘Hurt me! well, not quite: he was not likely to try that. He is a little
mite of a man, who could not hurt a fly. And besides,’ added Sir Thomas,
correcting himself, ‘he is a gentleman. I have no reason to doubt he is
a perfect gentleman. He conducts himself quite as--as all the rest of us
do. No, it was the difficulty of getting in that bewildered me.’

‘Was there a difficulty in getting in?’

‘You shall hear. The servant looked as if he would faint when he saw
me. “Mr. Reinhardt at home?” Oh! he could not quite say; if I would wait
he would go and ask. So I waited in the hall,’ said Sir Thomas with a
smile. ‘Well, yes, it was odd, of course; but such an experience now and
then is not bad for one. It shows you, you know, of how little
importance you are the moment you get beyond the circle of people who
know you. I think really it is salutary, you know, if you come to
that--and amusing,’ he added, this time with a little laugh.

‘Oh, but what a shame: how shocking! how horrid! You, Sir Thomas, whom
everybody knows!’

‘That is just what makes it so instructive,’ he said. ‘I must have stood
in the hall a quarter of an hour: allowing for the tediousness of
waiting, I should say certainly a quarter of an hour; and then the man
came back and asked me, what do you think? if I had come of my own
accord, or if some one had sent me! It was ludicrous,’ said Sir Thomas
with a half laugh; ‘but if you will think of it, it was rather
irritating. I am afraid I lost my temper a little. I said, “I am Sir
Thomas Denzil. I live at the Lodge, and I have come to call upon your
master,” in a tone which made the old fool of a man shake, and then some
one else appeared at the top of the stairs. It was Mr. Reinhardt, who
had heard my voice.’

‘What did he say for himself?’ I asked.

‘It was not his fault,’ said Sir Thomas; ‘he knew nothing of it. He is a
very well-informed man, Mrs. Mulgrave. He is quite able to enter into
conversation on any subject. He was very glad to see me. He is a sort of
recluse, it is easy to perceive, but quite a proper person; very
well-informed, one whom it was a pleasure to converse with, I assure
you. He made a thousand apologies. He said something about unfortunate
circumstances, and a disagreeable visitor, as an excuse for his man; but
whether the disagreeable visitor was some one who had been there or who
was expected----’

‘Oh, I know,’ cried Lucy Stoke, with excitement. ‘It was his wife’s
ghost.’

Sir Thomas stopped short aghast, and looked at me to ask if the child
had gone mad.

‘How could they think Sir Thomas was the wife’s ghost?’ cried Lottie,
‘you little goose! and besides, most likely it is not true.’

‘What is not true?’ asked Sir Thomas in dismay.

‘Oh, they say he killed her,’ said Lucy, ‘and that she haunts him. They
say his man sleeps in his room, and the housekeeper just outside. He
cannot be left by himself for a moment: and I do not wonder he should be
frightened if he has killed his wife.’

‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ said Sir Thomas, raising his voice. ‘Nonsense!’ he
was quite angry. He had taken up the man and felt responsible for him,
‘My dear child, I think you are going out of your little wits,’ he
cried. ‘Killed his wife! why, the man is a thorough gentleman. A most
well-informed man, and knows my friend Sir Septimus Dash, who is the
head of the British Association. Why, why, Lucy! you take away my
breath.’

‘It was not I who said it,’ cried Lucy. ‘It is all over the
Green--everybody knows. They say she disappeared all at once, and never
was heard of more; and then there used to be sounds like somebody crying
and moaning; and then he got so frightened, he never would go anywhere,
nor look any one in the face. Oh! only suppose; how strange it would be
to have a haunted house on the Green. If I had anybody to go with me I
should like to walk down to East Cottage at midnight.’

‘Let me go with you,’ whispered Robert; but fortunately I heard him, and
gave Lucy a look. She was a silly little girl certainly, but not so bad
as that.

‘This is really very great nonsense,’ said Sir Thomas. ‘A haunted house
at this time of day! Mrs. Mulgrave, I hope you will use all your
influence to put down this story if it exists. I give you my word, Mr.
Reinhardt is quite an addition to our society, and knows Sir Septimus
Dash. A really well-bred, well-informed man. I am quite shocked, I
assure you. Lucy, I hope you will not spread this ridiculous story. I
shall ask your mother what she thinks. Poor man! no wonder he looked
uncomfortable, if there is already such a rumour abroad.’

‘Then he did look uncomfortable?’ said Lottie.

‘No, I can’t say he did. No; I don’t mean uncomfortable,’ said Sir
Thomas, seeing he had committed himself. ‘I mean---- it is absurd
altogether. A charming man; one whom you will all like immensely. I
think Lady Denzil must have returned from her drive. We are to see you
all to-morrow, I believe, in the afternoon? Now, Lucy, no more gossip;
leave that to the old women, my dear.’

‘Sir Thomas does not know what to make of it,’ said Lottie, as we
watched him cross the Green. ‘He has gone to my lady to have his mind
made up whether he ought to pay any attention to it or not.’

‘And my lady will say not,’ said I; ‘fortunately we are all sure of
that. Lady Denzil will not let anybody be condemned without a hearing.
And, Lucy, I think Sir Thomas gave you very good advice; when you are
old it will be time enough to amuse yourself with spreading stories,
especially such dreadful stories as this.’

Lucy took offence at what I said, and went away pouting--comforted by
Robert Lloyd, and very indignant with me. Lottie stayed for a moment
behind her to tell me that it was really quite true, and that the report
had gone all over the Green, and everybody was talking of it. No one
knew quite where it had come from, but it was already known to all the
world at Dinglewood, and a very unpleasant report it was.

However time went on, and no more was heard of this. In a little place
like Dinglewood, as soon as everybody has heard a story, a pause ensues.
We cannot go on indefinitely propagating it, and renewing our own faith
in it. When we all know it, and nothing new can be said on the subject,
we are stopped short; and unless there are new facts to comment upon, or
some new light thrown upon the affair, it is almost sure to die away, as
a matter of course. This was the case in respect to the report about Mr.
Reinhardt. We got no more information, and we could not go on talking
about the old story for ever. We exhausted it, and grew tired of it, and
let it drop; and thus, by degrees, we got used to him, and became
acquainted with him, more or less.

The other gentlemen called, one by one, after Sir Thomas. Mr. Reinhardt
was asked, timidly, to one or two dinner-parties, and declined, which we
thought at first showed, on the whole, good taste on his part. But he
became quite friendly when we met him on the road, and would stop to
talk, and showed no moroseness, nor fear of any one. He had what was
generally pronounced to be a refined face--the features high and clear,
with a kind of ivory paleness, and keen eyes, which were very sharp to
note everything. He was, as Sir Thomas said, very well-informed. There
seemed to be nothing that you could talk about that he did not know; and
in science, the gentlemen said he was a perfect mine of knowledge. I am
not sure however that they were very good judges, for I don’t think
either Sir Thomas or the Admiral knew much about science. One thing
however which made some of us still doubtful about him was the fact that
he never talked of _people_. When a name was mentioned in conversation
he never said, ‘Oh, I know him very well--I knew his father--a cousin of
his was a great friend of mine,’ as most people do. All the expression
went out of his face as soon as we came to this kind of talk; and it may
be supposed how very much at a loss most people were in consequence for
subjects to talk about. But this, though it was strange, was not any
sort of proof that he had done anything wicked. It might be--and the
most of us thought it was--an evidence that he had not lived in society.
‘He knows my friend, Sir Septimus Dash,’ Sir Thomas always said in his
favour; but then, of course, Sir Septimus was a public personage, and
Mr. Reinhardt might have made his acquaintance at some public place. But
still, a man may be of no family, and out of society, and yet not have
murdered his wife. After a while we began to think, indeed, that whether
he had killed her or not, it was just as well there was no wife in the
question--‘Just as well,’ Mrs. Perronet said, who was great in matters
of society. ‘A man whom nobody knows does not matter; but what should we
have done with a woman?’

‘He must have killed her on purpose to save us the trouble,’ said
Lottie. But the General’s wife was quite in earnest, and did not see the
joke.



CHAPTER III


It is a good thing, on the whole, to have a house with a mystery about
it in one’s immediate neighbourhood. Gradually we ceased to believe that
Mr. Reinhardt had anything criminal about him. But it was quite certain
that there was a mystery--that we knew nothing about him, neither where
he came from, nor what his family was. For one thing, he had certainly
no occupation: therefore, of course, he must be sufficiently well off to
do without that: and he had no relations--no one who ever came to see
him, nor of whom he talked; and though the men who called upon him had
been admitted, they were never asked to go back, nor had one of us
ladies ever crossed his threshold. It would seem indeed that he had made
a rule against admitting ladies, for when Mrs. Damerel herself called to
speak of the soup-kitchen, old White came and spoke to her at the gate,
and trembled very much, and begged her a hundred pardons, but
nevertheless would not let her in--a thing which made her very
indignant. Thus the house became to us all a mysterious house, and, on
the whole, I think we rather liked it. The mystery did no harm, and it
certainly amused us, and kept our interest alive.

Thus the summer passed, and Dinglefield had got used to the Scientific
Gentleman. That was the name he generally went by. When strangers came
to the Green, and had it all described to them--Sir Thomas here, the
Admiral there, the General at the other side, and so on, we always gave
a little special description of Mr. Reinhardt.

‘He is a Fellow of the Royal Society,’ one would say, not knowing much
what that meant. ‘He belongs to the British Association,’ said another.
‘He is a great scientific light.’ We began even to feel a little proud
of him. Even I myself, on the nights when I did not sleep well, used to
feel quite pleased, when I looked out, to see the Scientific Gentleman’s
light still burning. He was sitting up there, no doubt, pondering things
that were much beyond our comprehension--and it made us proud to think
that, on the Green, there was some one who was going over the abstrusest
questions in the dead of the night.

It was about six months after his arrival when, one evening, for some
special reason, I forget what, I went to Mrs. Stoke’s to tea. She lives
a little way down the lane, on the other side of the ‘Barleymow.’ It is
not often that she asks any one even to tea. As a rule, people generally
ask her and her daughters, for we are all very well aware of her
circumstances; but on this particular night, I was there for some reason
or other. It was October, and the nights had begun to be cold; but there
was a full moon, and at ten o’clock it was as light as day. This was why
I would not let them send any one home with me. I must say I have never
understood how middle-aged women like myself can have a pretty young
maid-servant sent for them, knowing very well that the girl must walk
one way alone, and that, if there is any danger at all, a young woman of
twenty is more in the way of it, than one who might be her mother. I
remember going to the door to look out, and protesting that I was not
the least nervous--nor was I. I knew all the roads as well as I knew my
own garden, and everybody round about knew me. The way was not at all
lonely. To be sure, there were not many people walking about; but then
there were houses all along--and lastly, it was light as day. The moon
was shining in that lavish sort of way which she only has when she is at
the full. The houses amid their trees stood whitened over, held fast by
the light as the wedding-guest was held by the eye of the Ancient
Mariner. The shadows were as black as the light was white. There was a
certain solemnity about it, so full of light, and yet so colourless.
After I had left the house, and had come out--I and my shadow--into the
full whiteness, it made an impression upon me which I could scarcely
resist. My first idea when I glanced back was that my own shadow was
some one stealing after me. That gave me a shake for a moment, though I
laughed at myself. The lights of the ‘Barleymow’ neutralized this solemn
feeling, and I went on, thinking to myself what a good story it would be
for my neighbours--my own shadow! I did not cross the Green, as I
generally did, partly from a vague feeling that, though it was so light
and so safe, there was a certain company in being close to the
houses--not that I was the least afraid, or that indeed there was any
occasion to fear, but just for company’s sake. By this time, I think it
must have been very nearly eleven o’clock, which is a late hour for
Dinglefield. All the houses seemed shut up for the night. Looking up the
Green, the effect of the sleeping place, with the moon shining on the
pale gables and ends of houses, and all the trees in black, and the
white stretch of space in the centre, looking as if it had been clean
swept by the moonlight of every obstacle, had the strangest effect. I
was not in the least afraid. What should I be afraid of, so close to my
own door? But still I felt a little shiver run over me--a something
involuntary, which I could not help, like that little thrill of the
nerves, which makes people say that some one is walking over your grave.

And all at once in the great stillness and quiet I heard a sound quite
near. It was very soft at first, not much louder than a sigh. I hurried
on for a few steps frightened, I could not tell why, and then, disgusted
with myself, I stopped to listen. Yes, now it came again, louder this
time; and then I turned round to look where it came from. It was the
sound of some one moaning either in sorrow or in pain; a soft,
interrupted moan, now and then stopping short with a kind of sob. My
heart began to beat, but I said to myself, it is some one in trouble,
and I can’t run away. The sound came from the side of East Cottage,
just where the little railing in front ended; and, after a long look, I
began to see that there was some one there. What I made out was the
outline of a figure seated on the ground with knees drawn up, and
looking so thin that they almost came to a point. It was straight up
against the railing, and so overshadowed by the lilac-bushes that the
outline of the knees, black, but whitened over as it were with a
sprinkling of snow or silver, was all that could be made out. It was
like something dimly seen in a picture, not like flesh and blood. It
gave me the strangest sensation to see this something, this shrouded
semblance of a human figure, at Mr. Reinhardt’s door. All the stories
that had been told of him came back to my mind. His wife! I would have
kept the recollection out of my mind if I could, but it came without any
will of mine. I turned and went on as fast as ever I could. I should
have run like a frightened child had I followed my own instinctive
feeling. My heart beat, my feet rang upon the gravel; and then I stopped
short, hating myself. How silly and weak I was! It might be some poor
creature, some tramp or wandering wretch, who had sunk down there in
sickness or weariness, while I in my cowardice passed by on the other
side frightened lest it should be a ghost. I do not know to this day how
it was that I forced myself to turn and go back, but I did. Oh! what a
moaning, wailing sound it was; not loud, but the very cry of desolation.
I felt as I went, though my heart beat so, that such a moaning could
only come from a living creature, one who had a body full of weariness
and pain, as well as a suffering soul.

I turned back and went up to the thing with those sharp-pointed knees;
then I saw the hands clasped round the knees, and the hopeless head
bowed down upon them, all black and silvered over like something cut out
of ebony. I even saw, or thought I saw, amid the flickering of the
heavens above and the shadows below, a faint rocking in the miserable
figure;--that mechanical, unconscious rocking which is one of the
primitive ways of showing pain. I went up, all trembling as I was, and
asked ‘What is the matter?’ with a voice as tremulous. There was no
answer; only the moaning went on, and the movement became more
perceptible. Fortunately, my terror died away when I saw this. The human
sound and action, that were like what everybody does, brought me back at
once out of all supernatural dread. It was a woman, and she was unhappy.
I dismissed the other thought--or rather, it left me unawares.

This gave me a great deal of courage. I repeated my question; and then,
as there was no answer, went up and touched her softly. The figure rose
with a spring in a moment, before I could think what she was going to
do. She put out one of her hands, and pushed me off.

‘Ah! have I brought you out at last?’ she cried wildly; and then stopped
short and stared at me; while I stared, too, feeling, whoever it might
be she had expected, that I was not the person. Her movement was so
sudden, that I shrank back in terror, fearing once more I could not tell
what. She was a very tall, slight woman, with a cloak tightly wrapped
about her. In the confusion of the moment I could remark nothing more.

‘Are you ill?’ I said, faltering. ‘My good woman, I--I don’t want to
harm you; I heard you moaning, and I--thought you were ill----’

She seized me by the arm, making my very teeth chatter. The grasp was
bony and hard like the hand of a skeleton.

‘Are you from that house? Are you from him?’ she cried, pointing behind
her with her other hand. ‘Bid him come out to me himself; bid him come
out and go down on his knees before I’ll give in to enter his door. Oh!
I’ve not come here for nought--I’ve not come here for nought! I’ve come
with all my wrongs that he’s done me. Tell him to come out himself; it
is his part.’

Her voice grew hoarse with the passion that was in it, and yet it was a
voice that had been sweet.

I put up my hand, pleading with her, trying to get a hearing, but she
held me fast by the arm.

‘I have not come from that house,’ I said. ‘You frighten me. I--I live
close by. I was passing and heard you moan. Is there anything the
matter? Can I be--of any use?’

I said this very doubtfully, for I was afraid of the strange figure, and
the passionate speech.

Then she let go her hold all at once. She looked at me and then all
round. There was not another creature visible except, behind me, I
suppose, the open door and lights of the ‘Barleymow.’ She might have
done almost what she would to me had she been disposed;--at least, at
the moment that was how I felt.

‘You live close by?’ she said, putting her hand upon her heart, which
was panting and heaving with her passion.

‘Yes. Are you--staying in the neighbourhood? Have you--lost your way?’

I said this in my bewilderment, not knowing what the words were which
came from my lips. Then the poor creature leaned back upon the wall and
gasped and sobbed. I could not make out at first whether it was emotion
or want of breath.

‘Yes, I’ve lost my way,’ she said; ‘not here, but in life; I’ve lost my
way in life, and I’ll never find it again. Oh! I’m ill--I’m very ill. If
you are a good Christian, as you seem, take me in somewhere and let me
lie down till the spasm’s past; I feel it coming on now.’

‘What is it?’ I asked.

She put her hand upon her heart and panted and gasped for breath. Poor
wretch! At that moment I heard behind me the locking of the door at the
‘Barleymow.’ I know I ought to have called out to them to wait, but I
had not my wits about me as one ought to have.

‘Have you no home?’ I asked; ‘nowhere to go to? You must live
somewhere. I will go with you and take you home.’

‘Home!’ she cried. ‘It is here or in the churchyard, nowhere else--here
or in the churchyard. Take me to one or the other, good woman, for
Christ’s sake: I don’t care which--to my husband’s house or to the
churchyard--for Christ’s sake.’

For Christ’s sake! You may blame me, but what could I do? Could any of
you refuse if you were asked in that name? You may say any one can use
such words--any vagabond, any wretch--and, of course, it is true; but
could you resist the plea--you who are neither a wretch nor a
vagabond?--I know you could not, any more than me.

‘Lean upon me,’ I said; ‘take my arm; try if you can walk. Oh! I don’t
know who you are or what you are, but when you ask for Christ’s sake,
you know, He sees into your heart. If you have any place that I can take
you to, tell me; you must know it is difficult to take a stranger into
one’s house like this. Tell me if you have not some room--some place
where you can be taken care of; I will give you what you want all the
same.’

We were going on all this time, walking slowly towards my house; she was
gasping, holding one hand to her heart and with the other leaning
heavily on me. When I made this appeal to her she stopped and turned
half round, waving her hand towards the house we were leaving behind us.

‘If that is Mr. Reinhardt’s house,’ she said, ‘take me there if you
will. I am--his wife. He’ll leave me to die--on the doorstep--most
likely; and be glad. I haven’t strength--to--say any more.’

‘His wife!’ I cried in my dismay.

‘Lord have mercy upon us!’ cried the panting creature. ‘Ay! that’s the
truth.’

What could I do? She was scarcely able to totter along, panting and
breathless. It was her heart. Poor soul! how could any one tell what she
might have had to suffer? I took her, though with trembling--what could
I do else?--to my own house.



CHAPTER IV


I cannot attempt to describe what my feelings were when I went into my
own house with that strange woman. Though it was a very short way, we
took a long time to get there. She had disease of the heart evidently,
and one of the paroxysms had come on.

‘I shall be better by and by,’ she said to me, gasping as she leaned on
my arm.

My mind was in such a confusion that I did not know what I was doing.
She might be only a tramp, a thief, a vagabond. As for what she had said
of being Mr. Reinhardt’s wife--my head swam, I could neither understand
nor explain to myself how this had come about. But, whether she was good
or bad, I could not help myself; I was committed to it. Every house on
the Green was closed and silent. The shutters were all put up at the
‘Barleymow,’ and silence reigned. No, thank Heaven! in the Admiral’s
window there were still lights, so that if anything happened I could
call him to my aid. He was my nearest neighbour, and the sight of his
lighted window gave me confidence.

My maid gave a little shriek when she opened the door, and this too
roused me. I said, ‘Mary, this--lady is ill; she will lie down on the
sofa in the drawing-room while we get ready the west room. You will not
mind the trouble, I am sure, when you see how ill she is.’

This I said to smooth matters, for it is not to be supposed that Mary,
who was already yawning at my late return, should be quite pleased at
being sent off to make up a bed and prepare a room unexpectedly as it
were in the middle of the night. And I was glad also to send her away,
for I saw her give a wondering look at the poor creature’s clothes,
which were dusty and soiled. She had been sitting on the dusty earth by
Mr. Reinhardt’s cottage, and it was not wonderful if her clothes showed
marks of it. I made her lie down on the sofa, and got her some wine.
Poor forlorn creature! The rest seemed to be life however to her. She
sank back upon the soft cushions, and her heavy breathing softened
almost immediately. I left her there (though, I confess, not without a
slight sensation of fear), and went to the west room to help Mary. It
was a room we seldom used, at the end of a long passage, and therefore
the one best fitted to put a stranger, about whom I knew nothing, in.
Mary did not say anything, but I could feel that she disapproved of me
in every pat she gave to the fresh sheets and pillows. And I was
conciliatory, as one so often is to one’s servants. I drew a little
picture of how I had found the ‘poor lady’ panting for breath and unable
to walk--of how weak and how thin she was--and what a terrible thing to
have heart-disease, which came on with any exertion--and how anxious her
friends must be.

All this Mary listened to in grim silence, patting now and then the
bedclothes with her hand, as if making a protest against all I said. At
length, when I had exhausted my eloquence, and began to grow a little
angry, Mary cleared her throat and replied,

‘Please, ma’am, I know it ain’t my place to speak----’

‘Oh! you can say what you please, Mary, so long as it is not unkind to
your neighbours,’ said I.

‘I never set eyes on the--lady--before, so she can’t be a neighbour of
mine,’ said Mary; ‘but she’s been seen about the Green days and days.
I’ve seen her myself a-haunting East Cottage, where that poor gentleman
lives.’

‘You said this moment that you never set eyes on her before.’

‘Not to know her, ma’am,’ said Mary; ‘it’s different. I saw her to-day
walking up and down like a ghost, and I wouldn’t have given sixpence
for all she had on her. It ain’t my place to speak, but one as you don’t
know, and as may have a gang ready to murder us all in our beds----
Mother was in service in London when she was young, and oh! to hear the
tales she knows. Pretending to be ill is the commonest trick of all,
mother says, and then they get took in, and then, when all’s still----’

‘It is very kind of you, I am sure, to instruct me by your mother’s
experiences,’ said I, feeling very angry. ‘Now you can go to bed if you
please, and lock your door, and then you will be safe. I shall not want
you any more to-night.’

‘Oh! but please, ma’am. I don’t want to leave you by yourself--please, I
don’t!’ cried Mary, with the ready tears coming to her eyes.

However I sent her away. I was angry, and perhaps unreasonable, as
people generally are when they are angry; though, when Mary went to bed,
I confess it was not altogether with an easy mind that I found myself
alone with the stranger in the silent house. It is always a comfort to
know that there is some one within reach. I went back softly to the
drawing-room: she was still lying on the sofa, quite motionless and
quiet, no longer panting as she had done. When I looked at her closely I
saw that she had dropped asleep. The light of the lamp was full on her
face, and yet she had dropped asleep, being, as I suppose, completely
worn out. I saw her face then for the first time, and it startled me. It
was not a face which you could describe by any of the lighter words of
admiration as pretty or handsome. It was simply the most beautiful face
I ever saw in my life. It was pale and worn, and looked almost like
death lying back in that attitude of utter weakness on the velvet
cushions; and, though the eyes were closed, and the effect of them lost,
it was impossible to believe that the loveliest eyes in the world could
have made her more beautiful. She had dark hair, wavy and slightly
curling upon the forehead; her eyelashes were very long and dark, and
curled upwards; her features, I think, must have been perfect; and the
look of pain had gone from her face; she was as serene as if she had
been dead.

I was very much startled by this: so much so that for the moment I sank
down upon a chair, overcome by confusion and surprise, and did not even
shade the lamp, as I had intended to do. You may wonder that I should be
so much surprised, but then you must remember that great beauty is not
common anywhere, and that to pick it out of the ditch as it were, and
find it thus in the person of one who might be a mere vagabond and
vagrant for aught you could tell, was very strange and startling. It
took away my breath; and then, the figure which belonged to this face
formed so strange a contrast with it. I know, as everybody else does,
that beauty is but skin-deep; that it is no sign of excellence, or of
mental or moral superiority in any way; that it is accidental and
independent of the character of its possessor as money is, or anything
else you are born to: I know all this perfectly well; and yet I feel, as
I suppose everybody else does, that great beauty is out of place in
squalid surroundings. When I saw the worn and dusty dress, the cloak
tightly drawn across her breast, the worn shoes that peeped out from
below her skirt, I felt ashamed. It was absurd, but such was my feeling;
I felt ashamed of my good gown and lace, and fresh ribbons. To think
that I, and hundreds like me, should deck ourselves, and leave this
creature in her dusty gown! My suspicions went out of my mind in a
moment. Instead of the uneasy doubt whether perhaps she might have
accomplices (it made me blush to think I had dreamt of such a thing)
waiting outside, I began to feel indignant with everybody that she could
be in such a plight. Reinhardt’s wife! How did he dare, that mean,
insignificant man, to marry such a creature, and to be cruel to her
after he had married her! I started up and removed the lamp, shading her
face, and I took my shawl, which was my best shawl, an Indian one, and
really handsome, and covered her with it. I did it--I can’t tell
why--with a feeling that I was making her a little compensation. Then I
opened one of the windows to let in the air, for the night was sultry;
and then I put myself into my favourite chair, and leant back my head,
and made myself as comfortable as I could to watch her till she woke. I
should have thought this a great hardship a little while before, but I
did not think it a hardship now. I had become her partisan, her
protector, her servant, in a moment, and all for no reason except the
form of her features, the look of that sleeping face. I acknowledge that
it was absurd, but still I know you would have done the same had you
been in my place. I suspected her no more, had no doubts in my mind, and
was not the least annoyed that Mary had gone to bed. It seemed to me as
if her beauty established an immediate relationship between us, somehow,
and made it natural that I, or any one else who might happen to be in
the way, should give up our own convenience for her. It was her beauty
that did it, nothing else, not her great want and solitude, not even the
name by which she had adjured me;--her beauty, nothing more. I do not
defend myself for having fallen prostrate before this primitive power; I
could not help it, but I don’t attempt to excuse myself.

I must have dozed in my chair, for I woke suddenly, dreaming that some
one was standing over me and staring at me--a kind of nightmare. I
started with a little cry, and for the first moment I was bewildered,
and could not think how I had got there. Then all at once I saw her, and
the mystery was solved. She had woke too, and lay on her side on the
sofa, looking intently at me with a gaze which renewed my first
impression of terror. She had not moved, she lay in the same attitude of
exhaustion and grateful repose, with her head thrown back upon the
cushions. There was only this difference--that whereas she had then
been unconscious in sleep, she was now awake, and so vividly, intensely
conscious that her look seemed an active influence. I felt that she was
doing something to me by gazing at me so. She had woke me no doubt by
that look. She made me restless now, so that I could not keep still. I
rose up, and made a step or two towards her.

‘Are you better? I hope you are better,’ I said.

Still she did not move, but said calmly, without any attempt at
explanation: ‘Are you watching me from kindness or because you were
afraid I should do some harm?’

She was not grateful: the sight of me woke no kindly feeling in her: and
I was wounded in spite of myself.

‘Neither,’ said I; ‘you fell asleep, and I preferred staying here to
waking you; but it is almost morning and the oil is nearly burnt out in
the lamp. There is a room ready for you; will you come with me now?’

‘I am very comfortable,’ she said; ‘I have not been so comfortable for a
very long time. I have not been well off. I have had to lie on hard beds
and eat poor fare, whilst all the time those who had a right to take
care of me----’

‘Don’t think of that now,’ I said. ‘You will feel better if you are
undressed. Come now and go to bed.’

She kept her position, without taking any notice of what I said.

‘I have a long story to tell you--a long story,’ she went on. ‘When you
hear it you will change your mind about some things. Oh, how pleasant it
is to be in a nice handsome _lady’s_ room again! How pleasant a carpet
is, and pictures on the walls! I have not been used to them for a long
time. I suppose he has every kind of thing, everything that is pleasant;
and, if he could, he would have liked to see me die at his door. That is
what he wants. It would be a pleasure to him to look out some morning
and see me lying like a piece of rubbish under the wall. He would have
me thrown upon the dust-heap, I believe, or taken off by the scavengers
as rubbish. Yes, that is what he would like, if he could.’

‘Oh, don’t think so,’ I cried. ‘He cannot be so cruel. He has not a
cruel face.’

Upon this she sat up, with the passion rising in her eyes.

‘How can you tell?--you were never married to him!’ she said. ‘He never
cast you off, never abandoned you, never----’ Her excitement grew so
great that she now rose up on her feet, and clenched her hand and shook
it as if at some one in the distance. ‘Oh, no!’ she cried; ‘no one knows
him but me!’

‘Oh, if you would go to bed!’ I said. ‘Indeed I must insist: you will
tell me your story in the morning. Come, you must not talk any more
to-night.’

I did not get her disposed of so easily as this, but after a while she
did allow herself to be persuaded. My mind had changed about her again,
but I was too tired now to be frightened. I put her into the west room.
And oh! how glad I was to lie down in my bed, though I had a stranger in
the house whom I knew nothing of, and though it only wanted about an
hour of day!



CHAPTER V


When I got up, about two hours after, I was in a very uncomfortable
state of mind, not knowing in the least what I ought to do. Daylight is
a great matter to be sure, and consoles one in one’s perplexity; but yet
daylight means the visits of one’s friends, and inquiries into all that
one has done and means to do. I could not have such an inmate in my
house without people knowing it. I was thrusting myself as it were into
a family quarrel which I knew nothing of--I, one of the most peaceable
people--!

When I went down-stairs the drawing-room was still as I had left it, and
the sofa and its cushions were all marked with dust where my poor
visitor had lain down. I believe, though Mary is a good girl on the
whole, that there was a little spite in all this to show me my own
enormity. A decanter of wine was left on the table too, with the glass
which had been used last night. It gave the most miserable, squalid look
to the room, or at least I thought so. Then Mary appeared with her broom
and dustpan, severely disapproving, and I was swept away, like the dust,
and took refuge in the garden, which was hazy and dewy, and rather cold
on this October morning. The trees were all changing colour, the
mignonette stalks were long and straggling, there was nothing in the
beds but asters and dahlias and some other autumn flowers. And the
monthly rose on the porch looked pale, as if it felt the coming frost. I
went to the gate and looked out upon the Green with a pang of
discomfort. What would everybody think? There were not many people about
except the tradespeople going for orders and the servants at their work.
East Cottage looked more human than usual in the hazy autumn morning
sun. The windows were all open, and White was sweeping the fallen leaves
carefully away from the door. I even saw Mr. Reinhardt in his
dressing-gown come out to speak to him. My heart beat wildly and I drew
back at the sight. As if Mr. Reinhardt was anything to me! But I was
restless and uncomfortable and could not compose myself. When I went in
I could not sit down and breakfast by myself as I usually did. I wanted
to see how my lodger was, and yet I did not want to disturb her. At last
I went to the door of the west room and listened. When I heard signs of
movement inside I knocked and went in. She was still in bed; she was
lying half-smothered up in the fine linen and downy pillows. On the bed
there was an eiderdown coverlet covered with crimson silk, and she had
stretched out her arm over it and was grasping it with her hand. She
greeted me with a smile which lighted up her beautiful face like
sunshine.

‘Oh, yes, I am better--I am quite well,’ she said. ‘I am so happy to be
here.’

She did not put out her hand, or offer any thanks or salutations, and it
seemed to me that this was good taste. I was pleased with her for not
being too grateful or affectionate. I believe if she had been very
grateful and affectionate I should have thought that was best. For again
the charm came over me--a charm doubled by her smile. How beautiful she
was! The warm nest she was lying in, and the pleasure and comfort she
evidently felt in being there, had brought a little colour to her
cheeks--just a very little--but that became her beauty best. She was
younger than I thought. I had supposed her to be over thirty last night,
now she looked five or six-and-twenty, in the very height and fulness of
her bloom.

‘Shall I send you some breakfast?’ I said.

‘Oh, please! I suppose you don’t know how nice it is to lie in a soft
bed like this, to feel the nice linen and the silk, and to be waited
upon? You have always been just so, and never known the difference? Ah!
what a difference it is.’

‘I have been very poor in my time,’ said I.

‘Have you? I should not have thought it. But never so poor as me. Let me
have my breakfast please--tea with cream in it. May I have some cream?
and--anything--whatever you please; for I am hungry; but tea with
cream.’

‘Surely,’ I said; ‘it is being prepared for you now.’

And then I stood looking at her, wondering. I knew nothing of her, not
even her name, and yet I stood in the most familiar relation to her,
like a mother to a child. Her smile quite warmed and brightened me, as
she lay there in such childish enjoyment. How strange it was. And it
seemed to me that everything had gone out of her mind except the
delightful novelty of her surroundings. She forgot that she was a
stranger in a strange house, and all the suspicious, unpleasant
circumstances. When Mary came in with the tray she positively laughed
with pleasure, and jumped up in bed, raising herself as lightly as a
child.

‘You must have a shawl to put round your shoulders,’ I said.

‘Oh, let me have the beautiful one you put over me last night. What a
beauty it was! Let me have that,’ she cried.

Mary gave me a warning look. But I was indignant with Mary. I went and
fetched it almost with tears in my eyes. Poor soul! poor child! like a
baby admiring it because it was pretty. I put it round her, though it
was my best; and with my cashmere about her shoulders, and her beautiful
face all lighted up with pleasure, she was like a picture. I am sure the
Sleeping Beauty could not have been more lovely when she started from
her hundred years’ sleep.

I went back to the dining-room and took my own breakfast quite
exhilarated. My perplexities floated away. I too felt like a child with
a new toy. If I had but had a daughter like that, I said to myself--what
a sweet companion, what a delight in one’s life! But then daughters will
marry; and to think of such a one, bound to a cruel husband, who
quarrelled with her, deserted her--Oh, what cruel stuff men are made of!
What pretext could he have for conduct so monstrous? She was as sweet as
a flower, and more beautiful than any woman I ever saw; and to leave her
sitting in the dust at his closed door! I could scarcely keep still; my
indignation was so great. The bloodless wretch! without ruth, or heart,
or even common charity. One has heard such tales of men wrapped up in
some cold intellectual pursuit; how they get to forget everything, and
despise love and duty, and all that is worth living for, for their
miserable science. They would rather be fellows of a learned society
than heads of happy houses; rather make some foolish discovery to be
written down in the papers, than live a good life and look after their
own. I have even known cases--certainly nothing so bad as this--but
cases in which a man for his art, or his learning, or something, has
driven his wife into miserable solitude, or still more miserable
society. Yes, I have known such cases: and the curious thing is, that it
is always the weak men, whose researches can be of use to no mortal
being, who neglect everything for science. The great men are great
enough to be men and philosophers too. All this I said in my heart with
a contempt for our scientific gentleman which I did not disguise to
myself. I finished my breakfast quickly, longing to go back to my guest,
when all at once Martha and Nelly, the Admiral’s daughters, came running
in, as they had a way of doing. They were great favourites of mine, or,
at least, Nelly was--but I was annoyed more than I could tell to see
them now.

‘We came in to ask if you were quite well,’ said Nelly. ‘Papa frightened
us all with the strangest story. He insists that you came home quite
late, leaning on Mary’s arm, and was sure you must have been ill. You
can’t think how positive he is, and what a story he made out. He saw you
from his window coming along the road, so he says; and now I look at
you, Mrs. Mulgrave, you are a little pale.’

‘It was not I, you can tell the Admiral,’ I said. ‘I wonder his sharp
eyes were deceived. It was a--friend--I have staying with me.’

‘A friend you have staying with you? Fancy, Nelly! and we not to know.’

‘She came quite late--yesterday,’ said I. ‘She is in--very poor health.
She has come to be--quiet. Poor thing, I had to give her my arm.’

‘But I thought you were at the Stokes’ last night?’ said Martha.

‘So I was; but when I came back it was such a lovely night; you should
have been out, Nelly, you who are so fond of moonlight. I never saw the
Green look more beautiful. I could hardly make up my mind to come in.’

Dear, dear, dear! I wonder if all our fibs are really kept an account
of? As I went on romancing I felt a little shiver run over me. But what
could I do?

Nelly gave me a look. She was wiser than her sister, who took everything
in a matter-of-fact way. She gave me a kiss, and said, ‘We had better go
and satisfy papa. He was quite anxious.’

Nelly knew me best, and she did not believe me. But what story could I
make up to Lady Denzil, for instance, whose eyes went through and
through me, and saw everything I thought?

Then I went back to my charge. She had finished her breakfast, but she
would not part with the shawl. She was sitting up in bed, stroking and
patting it with her hand.

‘It is so lovely,’ she said, ‘I can’t give it up just yet. I like myself
so much better when I have it on. Oh! I should be so much more proud of
myself than I am if I lived like this. I should feel as if I were so
much better. And don’t ask me, please! I can’t--I can’t get up to put
myself in those dusty hideous clothes.’

‘They are not dusty now,’ I said, and a faint little sense of difficulty
crossed my mind. She was taking everything for granted, as if she
belonged to me, and had come on a visit. I think if I had offered to
give her my Indian cashmere and all the best things I had she would not
have been surprised.

She made no answer to this. She continued patting and caressing the
shawl, laying down her beautiful cheek on her shoulder for the pleasure
of feeling it. It was very senseless, very foolish, and yet it was such
pretty play that I was more pleased than vexed. I sat down by her,
watching her movements. They were so graceful always--nothing harsh, or
rough, or unpleasant to the eye, and all so natural--like the movements
of a child.

I don’t know how long I sat and watched her--almost as pleased as she
was. It was only when time went on, and when I knew I was liable to
interruption, that I roused myself up. I tried to lead her into serious
conversation. ‘You look a great deal better,’ I said, ‘than I could have
hoped to see you last night.’

‘Better than last night? Indeed, I should think so. Please, don’t speak
of it. Last night was darkness, and this is light.’

‘Yes, but---- I fear I must speak of it. I should like to know how you
got there, and if some one perhaps ought to be written to--some one who
may be anxious about you.’

‘Nobody is anxious about me.’

‘Indeed I am sure you must be mistaken,’ I said. ‘I am sure you have
friends, and then---- I don’t want to trouble you, but you must remember
I don’t know your name.’

She threw back the shawl off her shoulders all at once, and sat up
erect.

‘My name is Mrs. Reinhardt: I told you,’ she said, ‘and I hope you don’t
doubt my word.’

It was impossible to look in her face, and say to her, ‘I don’t know
anything about you. How can I tell whether your word is to be trusted or
not?’ This was true, but I could not say it.

I faltered, ‘You were ill last night, and we were both excited and
confused. I wish very much you would tell me now once again. I think you
said you would.’

‘Oh, I suppose I did,’ she said, throwing the shawl away, and nestling
down once more among the pillows. A look of irritation came over her
face. ‘It is so tiresome,’ she said, ‘always having to explain. I felt
so comfortable just now, as if I had got over that.’

There was an aggrieved tone in her voice, and she looked as if, out of
her temporary pleasure and comfort, she had been brought back to painful
reality in an unkind and uncalled-for way. I felt guilty before her. Her
face said plainly, ‘I was at ease, and all for your satisfaction, for no
reason at all, you have driven me back again into trouble.’ I cannot
describe how uncomfortable I felt.

‘If I am to be of any use to you,’ I said apologetically, ‘you must see
that I ought to know. It is not that I wish to disturb you.’

‘Everybody says that,’ she murmured, with an angry pull at the
bedclothes; and then, all at once, in a moment, she brightened up, and
met my look with a smile. My relief was immense.

‘I am a cross thing,’ she said; ‘don’t you think so? But it was so nice
to be comfortable. I felt as it I should like to forget it all, and be
happy. I felt good---- But never mind; you cannot help it. I must go
back to all the mud, and dirt, and misery, and tell you everything.
Don’t look distressed, for it is not your fault.’

Every word she said seemed to convince me more and more that it was my
fault. I could scarcely keep from begging her pardon. How cruel I had
been! And yet, and yet---- My head swam, what with the dim consciousness
in my mind of the true state of affairs, and the sense of her view of
the question, which had impressed itself so strongly upon me since I
came into the room. Which was the right view I could not tell for the
moment, and bewilderment filled my mind. I could only stare at her, and
wait for what she pleased to say.



PART II



CHAPTER VI


After my visitor had got over her little fit of passion I took up my
shawl--my good shawl, which she had flung from her--and put it away; and
then I sat down by the bedside to hear her story. She had begun to
think; her face had changed again. Her bewildered sort of feeling (which
I could not understand, but yet which seemed so natural) that she had
got over all that was disagreeable, passed away, and her life came back
to her, as it were. She remembered herself, and her past, which I did
not know. She did not speak for some time, while I sat there waiting.
She kept twitching at the clothes, and moving about restlessly from side
to side. The look of content and comfort which had filled up the thin
outline of her beautiful face, and given it for the moment the roundness
of youth, disappeared. At last she looked up at me almost angrily as I
sat waiting.

‘Oh, you are so calm,’ she said. ‘You take it all so quietly. You don’t
know what it is to have your heart broken, and your character destroyed,
and yourself driven mad. To see you so calm makes me wild. If I am to
tell you my story I must get up; I must be my own self again; I must put
on my filthy clothes.’

‘They are not filthy now. There are some clean things, if you like to
use them,’ I said softly; but I was very glad she should get up. I left
her to do so with an easier mind, and had the fire made up in the
dining-room that she might not be in the way of visitors. It was a long
time before she came, and when she at last made her appearance I found
she had again wrapped herself in my Indian shawl. To tell the truth, I
did not like it. I gave a slight start when I saw her, but I could not
take it from her shoulders. She had put on her old black gown, which had
been carefully brushed and the clean cuffs and collar I had put out for
her, and had dressed her hair in a fashionable way. She was dressed as
poorly as a woman could be, and yet it appeared she had all the pads and
cushions, which young women were then so foolish as to wear, for her
hair. She was tall, and very slight, as I had remarked last night, but
my shawl about her shoulders took away the angularity from her figure,
and made it dignified and noble. To find fault with such a splendid
creature for borrowing a shawl! I could as soon have remonstrated with
the Queen herself.

‘This is not the pretty room you brought me to last night,’ she said.

‘No; this is the dining-room. I thought it would be quieter and
pleasanter for you, in case any one should call.’

‘Ah! yes, that was very considerate for my feelings,’ she said, ‘but I
am used to it, I am always thrust into a corner now. It did not use to
be so before that man came and ruined me. Whereabouts is it that he
lives?’

‘You can see the house from the window,’ said I.

Then she went to the window and looked out. She shook her clenched fist
at the cottage; her face grew dark like a sky covered by a
thunder-cloud. She came back and seated herself in front of me, wrapping
herself close in my shawl.

‘When I married him I was as beautiful as the day. That was what they
all said,’ she began. ‘I was nineteen, and the artists used to go on
their knees to me to sit to them. I might have married anybody. I don’t
know why it was that I took him, I must have been mad; twenty years
older than me at the least, and nothing to recommend him. Of course he
was rich. Ah! and I was so young, and thought money could buy
everything, and that it would last for ever. We had a house in town and
a house in the country, and he gave me a lovely phaeton for the park,
and we had a carriage and pair. It was very nice at first. He was always
a curious man, never satisfied, but we did very well at first. He was
not a man to make a woman happy, but still I got on well enough till he
sent me away.’

‘He sent you away!’

‘Yes. Oh! that was nothing; that got to be quite common. When he thought
I was enjoying myself, all at once he would say, “Pack up your things;
we shall go to the country to-morrow;” always when I was enjoying
myself.’

‘But if he went with you, that was not sending you away.’

‘Then it was taking me away--which is much the same--from all I cared
for; and he did not always go with me. The last two times I was sent by
myself as if I had been a prisoner. And then, at last, after years and
years of oppression, he turned me out of the house,’ she said--‘turned
me out! He dared to do it. Oh! only think how I hated him. He said every
insult to me a man could say, and he turned me out of his house, and
bade me never come back. One day I was there the mistress of all, with
everything heart could desire, and the next day I was turned out,
without a penny, without a home, still so pretty as I was, and at my
age!’

‘Oh! that was terrible,’ I cried, moved more by her rising passion than
by her words--‘that was dreadful. How could he do it? But you went to
your friends--?’

‘I had no friends. My people were all dead, and I did not know much
about them when they were living. He separated me from everybody, and he
told lies of me--lies right and left. He had made up his mind to destroy
me,’ she cried, bursting into sobs. ‘Oh! what a devil he is! Everything
I could desire one day, and the next turned out!’

Looking at her where she sat, something came into my throat which choked
me and kept me from speaking: and yet I felt that I must make an effort.

‘Without any--cause?’ I faltered with a mixture of confusion and pain.

‘Cause?’

‘I mean, did not he allege something--say something? He must have given
some--excuse--for himself.’

She looked at me very composedly, not angry, as I had feared.

‘Cause? excuse?’ she repeated. ‘Of course he said it was my fault.’

She kept her eyes on me when she said this; no guilty colour was on her
face, no flush even of shame at the thought of having been slandered.
She was a great deal calmer than I was; indeed I was not calm at all,
but disturbed beyond the power of expression, not knowing what to think.

‘He is very clever,’ she went on. ‘I am clever myself, in a kind of a
way, but not a match for him. Men have education, you see. They are
trained what to do; but I was so handsome that nobody thought I required
any training. If I had been as clever as he is, ah! he would not have
found it so easy. He drove me into a trap, and then he shut me down
fast. That is four years ago. Fancy, four years without anything,
wandering about, none of the comforts I was used to! I wonder how I gave
in at the time: it was because he had broken my spirit. But I am
different now; I have made up my mind, until he behaves to me as he
ought, I will give him no peace, no grace!’

‘But you must not be revengeful,’ I said, knowing less and less what to
say. ‘And if you were not happy together before, I am afraid you would
not be so now.’

She did not make any answer; a vague sort of smile flitted over her
face, then she gave a little shiver as of cold, and wrapped the shawl
closer. ‘A shawl suits me,’ she said, ‘especially since I am so thin. Do
you think a woman loses as much as they say by being thin? It is my
heart-disease. When it comes on it is very bad, though afterwards I feel
just as well as usual. But it must tell on one’s looks. Could you tell
that I was thin by my face?’

‘No,’ I said, and I did not add, though it was on my lips, ‘O woman, one
could not tell by your face that you were not an angel or a queen. And
what are you? What are you?’ Alas! she was not an angel, I feared.

A little while longer she sat musing in silence. How little she had told
me after all. How much more she must know in that world within herself
to which she had now retired. At length she turned to me, her face
lighted up with the most radiant smile. ‘Shall I be a great trouble to
you?’ she asked. ‘Am I taking up anybody’s room?’

She spoke as a favourite friend might speak who had arrived suddenly,
and did not quite know what your arrangements were, though she was
confident nothing could make her coming a burden to you. She took away
my breath.

‘N--no,’ I said; and then I took courage and added: ‘But your friends
will be expecting you--the people where you live: and you are better
now----’

I could not, had my life depended on it, have said more.

‘Oh, they will not mind much,’ she said. ‘I don’t live anywhere in
particular. When one thinks that one’s own husband, the man who is bound
to support one, has a home, and is close at hand, how do you think one
can stay in a miserable lodging! But he does not care: he will sit there
doing his horrible problems, and what is it to him if I were to die at
his door! He would be glad. Yes, he would be glad. He would have me
carted away as rubbish. He cares for nothing but his books and his
experiments. I have sat at his door a whole night begging him to take me
in, begging out of the cold and the snow, and his light has burnt
steady, and he has gone on with his work, and then he has gone to bed
and taken no notice. Oh, my God! I should have let him in had he been a
cat or a dog.’

‘Oh, surely, surely you must be mistaken,’ I cried.

‘I am not mistaken. I heard the window open; he looked down at me, and
then he went away. I know he knew me: and so he did last night. He knew
I was there; and he had a fire lighted in the room where he works. So he
knew it was cold, too; and I his wife, his lawful wedded wife, sitting
out in the chill. Some time or other he thinks it will be too much for
me, and I shall die, and he will be free.’

‘It is too dreadful to think of,’ said I. ‘I don’t think he could have
known that you were there.’

She smiled without making any further reply. She held out her thin hands
to the fire with a little nervous shiver. They would have been beautiful
hands had they not been so thin, almost transparent. She wore but one
ring, her wedding-ring; and that was so wide that it was secured to her
finger with a silk thread. I suppose she perceived that I looked at it.
She held it up to me with a smile.

‘See,’ she said, ‘how worn it is. But I have never put it off my finger;
never gone by another name, or done anything to forfeit my rights.
Whatever he may say against me, he cannot say that.’

At this moment she espied a chair in a corner which looked more
comfortable than the one she was seated in, and rose and wheeled it to
the fire. She said no ‘By’r leave’ to me, but did it as if she had been
at home; there was something so natural and simple in this that I did
not know how to object to it, but yet--I have had many a troublesome
responsibility thrown upon me by strangers, but I was never so
embarrassed or perplexed in my life. She drew the easy chair to the
fire, she found a footstool and put her feet on it, basking in the
warmth. She had my velvet slippers on her feet, my Indian shawl round
her shoulders, and here she was settled and comfortable--for how long? I
dared not even guess. A sick sort of consciousness came upon me that she
had established herself and meant to stay.

After a while, during which I sat and watched, sitting bolt upright on
my chair and gazing with a consternation and bewilderment which I cannot
express upon her graceful attitude as she reclined back, wooing every
kind of comfort, she suddenly drew her chair a little nearer to me and
put her hand upon my knee.

‘Look here,’ she said hurriedly, ‘you must see him for me. If any one
could move him to do his duty it would be you. You must see him, and
tell him I am--willing to go back. Perhaps he may not listen to you at
first, but if you keep your temper and persevere----’

‘I?’ said I, dismayed.

‘Yes, indeed, who else? only you could do it. And if you are patient
with him and keep your temper--the great thing with him is to keep your
temper--I never could do it, but you could. It would not be difficult to
you. You have not got that sort of a nature, one can see it in your
face.’

‘But you mistake me, I--I could not take it upon myself,’ I gasped.

‘Not when I ask you? You might feel you were not equal to it, I allow.
But when _I_ ask you? Oh, yes, you can do it. It is not so very hard,
only to keep your temper, and to take no denial--no denial! Make him say
he will not be so unkind any more. Oh, how tired it makes me even to
think of it!’ she cried, suddenly putting up her hands to her face.
‘Please don’t ask me any more, but do it--do it! I know you can.’

And then she sat and rocked herself gently with her hands clasped over
her face. This explanation had been too much for her, and somehow I felt
that I was blamable, that it was my fault. I sat by her in a kind of
dream, wondering what had happened to me. Was I under a spell? I did not
seem able to move a step or raise a hand to throw off this burden from
me. And the curious thing was that she never thanked me, never
expressed, nor apparently felt, any sort of gratitude to me, but simply
signified her will, and took my acquiescence as a right.



CHAPTER VII


I cannot tell how I got through that day: she got through it very
comfortably, I think. In the evening she asked me to go into the pretty
room she had been in last night.

‘I am so fond of what is pretty,’ she said; ‘I like everything that is
nice and pleasant. I never would sit in any but the best rooms in the
house if I had a house like this.’

‘But--someone might come in,’ I said. ‘To be sure the time for callers
is over, but still my neighbours are very intimate with me, and some one
might come in.’

‘Well?’ she said, looking up in my face. ‘If they do, I don’t mind. You
may have objections perhaps, but I have none. I don’t mind.’

‘Oh! if you don’t mind,’ I said in my consternation; and I took up the
cushion she had placed in her chair, and carried it humbly for her,
while she made her way to the drawing-room.

I think I was scarcely in possession of my senses. I was dazed. The
whole position was so extraordinary. I was ashamed to think of any one
coming in and finding her there: not because I was ashamed of _her_, but
for my own sake. What was I to say to anybody? How was I to explain
myself? I had taken her in without knowing anything of her, and she had
taken possession of my house. Fortunately, no one came that night. She
placed herself on the sofa, where she had lain in her wretchedness the
night before. She stretched herself out upon it, lying back with an air
of absolute enjoyment. She had got a book--a novel--which she was
reading, not taking very much notice of me; but now and then she would
pause to say a word. I think had any one seen us seated together that
evening, without knowing anything of the circumstances, he would have
decided that she was the lady of the house and I her humble and rather
stupid companion. But I was more than rather stupid--I felt like a fool;
and that in nothing more than this--that I could not for my life tell
what to do.

‘Nobody is coming to-night, I suppose?’ she said at last, putting down
her book.

‘No, I suppose not.’

‘I thought from what you said you had always some one coming; and I like
seeing people; I should like of all things to see some of the people
here. Do you think if they saw me it would make any difference----? Oh,
I can’t tell you exactly what I mean. I mean--but it is so very
unpleasant to be always obliged to explain;’ and then she yawned: and
then she said: ‘I am so tired; I think I shall go to bed. Hush! was not
that some one at the door?’

‘It is my next neighbour going home,’ I said.

‘Does Reinhardt know the people about here?’

‘He has not gone into society at all; but many of them know him to speak
to,’ said I.

‘Ah! that is always the way; you hide me out of sight, and you send word
to your people not to come; but everybody is quite ready to make friends
with him. Oh! I am so tired--I am tired of everything; life is so dull,
so monotonous, always the same thing over, no pleasure, no amusement.’

‘I live a very dull, quiet life,’ I said, as firmly as I could; ‘I
cannot expect it to suit you; and perhaps to-morrow you will be able to
make arrangements to go to your own home.’

‘Ah!’ she said, giving a curious little cry. She looked at me, catching
her breath; and then she cried, ‘My own home!--my own home! That is at
the cottage yonder; you will open the door for me, and take me back
there----’

‘But how can I? Be reasonable,’ I said. ‘I scarcely know--your husband;
I don’t know--you; how can I mediate between you? I don’t know anything
of the circumstances. There must have been some cause for all this.
Indeed it will be a great deal better to go home and get some one to
interfere who knows all.’

‘Don’t you believe in feelings?’ she said suddenly. ‘I do. The first
time I saw Reinhardt I had the feeling I ought not to have anything to
do with him, and I neglected it. When I saw you, it went through and
through me like an arrow: ‘This is the person to do it. And I always
trust my feelings. I am sure that you can do it, and no one else.’

‘Indeed--indeed you are mistaken.’

‘Oh! I am so tired,’ she cried again. ‘Let me go to bed. I can’t argue
to-night; I am so dreadfully tired.’

This was her way of getting over a difficulty, and what could I do? I
could not stop her from going to bed; I could not turn her out of my
house. I went to the door of the west room with her, more embarrassed
and uncomfortable than could be described. She turned round and waved
her hand to me as she shut the door. The light of the candle which she
held shone upon her pale, beautiful face. She had my shawl still round
her. I, too, had a candle in my hand, and as I strayed back through the
long passage I am sure I looked like a ghost. Bewilderment was in my
soul. Had I taken a burden on my shoulders for life? Was I never to be
free again? Never alone as I used to be? It had only lasted one day; but
there seemed no reason why it should ever come to an end.

Then I went back and sat over the fire in the drawing-room, till it died
away into white ashes, trying to decide what I should do. To consult
somebody was of course my first thought; but whom could I consult? There
was not one creature on the Green who would not blame me, who would not
be shocked at my foolishness. I did not dare even to confess it to Lady
Denzil. I must keep her concealed till I could persuade her to go away.
And to think she should have been disappointed that nobody came! Good
heavens! if anybody did come and see her, what should I do? Looming up
before my imagination, in spite of all my resistance to it, came a
picture of a possible interview with Mr. Reinhardt. It drove me half
wild with fear to think of such a thing, and yet I felt as one sometimes
does, that out of mere terror I should be driven to do it, if I could
not persuade her to go away. That was my only hope, and I felt already
what a forlorn hope it was.

And thus another day passed, and another night. She was quite
well-behaved, and sometimes her beauty overwhelmed me so that I felt I
could do anything for her; and sometimes her strange calmness and
matter-of-course way of taking everything filled me with irritation.
She never looked or spoke as if she were obliged to me, neither did she
ever imply, by anything she said or did, that she meant to go away. She
would stand for a long time by the window, gazing at the East Cottage;
she even stepped out into the garden through the drawing-room window,
and went and stood at the gate, looking out, though I called her back,
and trembled lest she should be seen (and, of course, she was seen); but
the answer she gave me when I objected put a stop to the controversy.

‘You are afraid to let people see me,’ she said; ‘but I don’t mind.
There is nothing to be ashamed of in looking at Reinhardt’s house. If
any one calls, it is quite the same to me. Indeed I would rather be seen
than otherwise. I think it is right that people should see me.’

To this I made no answer, for my heart was growing faint. And then she
turned, and seized my arm--it was in the garden.

‘Oh!’ she said, ‘listen to me. When are you going to see him? Are you
going to-day?’

As she spoke the sound of footsteps quite close to us made me start. I
had my back to the gate, and she was standing close to the verandah, so
that she saw who was coming though I could not. She dropped my arm
instantly; she subdued her voice; she put on a smile; and then she
half-turned, and began to gather some rosebuds from the great monthly
rose, with the air of one who is waiting to be called forward.

‘Oh, Mrs. Mulgrave! we have found you at last,’ said a voice in my ear,
and, turning round, I saw the Stokes--Lottie and Lucy, and their brother
Everard, a short way behind, following them on to the lawn.

‘At last?’ I said.

‘Yes, and I think we have a very good right to complain. Why, you have
shut yourself up for two whole days. The Green is in a commotion about
it,’ said Lottie, as she kissed me; and she threw a quick glance at the
stranger, whom she did not know, and asked me, ‘Who is that?’ with her
eyes.

‘And somebody said you had visitors, but we would not believe it,’ Lucy
began, open-mouthed.

‘And so she has--one visitor, at least,’ said my guest, turning round,
with her hand full of roses. Then she stopped short, and a look, which
was half alarm, crept over her face. Everard Stoke was coming up behind.

‘How do you do, Mrs. Mulgrave?’ he said in his languid way. ‘It is not
my fault if I came in unceremoniously. It’s the girls who are to blame.’

‘There is no one to blame,’ said I, turning round, and holding out my
hand to him.

But even in the moment of my turning round a change had come over him.
He gave a slight start, and he looked straight over my shoulder at my
companion. I said to myself that perhaps they knew each other, and
forgave him his rudeness. But the next moment he went on hastily, ‘We
must not stay now. Lottie, I have just remembered something I promised
to do for my mother. I have just thought of it. Mrs. Mulgrave will
excuse me. Come away quick, please.’

‘Why, we have but just arrived!’ said Lucy, full of a girl’s resistance.

‘Come!’ her brother said; and before I could speak he had swept them
away again, leaving me in greater consternation than ever. My companion
had turned back, and was busy again among the roses, gathering them. I
had not even her to respond to my look of wonder. What was the meaning
of it? Could they have known each other, Everard and she?

‘Your friends are gone very soon,’ she said without turning to me; ‘it
is rather strange; but I suppose they are strange people. Oh! how sweet
these roses are--I never thought such pale roses could be so sweet.’

I made her no answer, and, what was strangest of all, she did not seem
to expect it, for immediately after she went back into the drawing-room,
and the next minute I heard her voice singing as if on the way to her
own room. The more I thought of it the more strange it seemed.

That night she began to question me about my neighbours on the Green,
and somehow managed to bring the conversation to the people who had
called.

‘I thought I knew the man’s face; I must have met him out,’ she said,
looking at me steadily.

Everard Stoke did not bear a good character on the Green. To have known
him was no recommendation to any one; and this encounter did not
increase my happiness. But after that first evening it did not disturb
her. Next day went on like the previous one. I told the servants not to
admit any visitors, and I felt as if I must be going mad. I could think
only of one subject, my imagination could bring forward but one picture
before me, and that was of a meeting with Mr. Reinhardt, which I kept
going over in my mind. I said to myself, ‘I could not do it--I could not
do it,’ with an angry vehemence, and yet I seemed to see just how he
would look, and to hear what we were to say. It seemed to be the only
outlet out of this impossible position in which I stood.



CHAPTER VIII


‘Lady Denzil says she must see you, please, ma’am,’ said Mary at my room
door.

It had lasted for a week and I was downright ill. She would not go away;
when I represented to her that I could not go on keeping her, that she
must go to her own home, wherever that was, she either moaned that she
had no home, or that I must open a way for her back to her husband. She
was quite unmoved by my attempts to dislodge her. I told her I had
people coming, and she assured me she did not mind, that there was
plenty of room in the house, and that, if I wished it, she would change
into a smaller chamber. This drove me almost out of my senses, I could
not turn her out by force. I dared not face the criticisms of my
neighbours: I shut myself up. I got a headache which never left me, and
the result was, that I was quite ill. I had been lying down in my own
room to try to get a little quiet and respite from the pain in my head;
and I was impatient in my trouble, and felt disposed to turn my back on
all the world.

‘I cannot see her,’ I said impatiently. ‘I am not well enough to see any
one.’

‘Please, ma’am, is that what I am to say?’ asked Mary.

Then I recollected myself. Lady Denzil was my close friend and
counsellor. I had been admitted into the secret places of her life, and
she knew me in every aspect of mine. I would not send such a reply to my
old friend. I rose from my sofa and went stumbling to the door, feeling
more miserable than I can say. ‘Tell her I have a very bad headache,
Mary. I will try to see her to-morrow. Give her my love, and say that I
could not talk to-day, nor explain anything. If she will please leave it
till to-morrow!--’

‘Please, ma’am,’ said Mary, earnestly, ‘I think it would be a deal
better if you could make up your mind to see my lady to-day.’

‘I cannot do it--I cannot do it!’ I said. ‘If you but knew how my head
aches! Give her my dear love, but I must keep quiet. If you tell her
that, she will understand.’

‘If you won’t give no other answer, ma’am--’ said Mary, disapprovingly;
and I had lost my wits so completely that I actually locked the door
when she went down-stairs, in case some one should force the way. I went
back to my sofa and lay down again. I had closed the shutters, I don’t
know why--not that the light hurt me, but because I did not feel able to
bear anything. I never lost my head in the same way before. I was
irritable to such a degree that I could not bear any one to speak to
me--this was, I suppose, because I felt that nobody would approve of me,
and was ashamed of myself and my weakness. While I lay thus, _she_ began
to sing down-stairs; she had a pretty voice; there was a quaver in it,
which was in reality a defect, but did not appear so when she sang. Her
voice, I felt sure, could be heard half over the Green, and Lady Denzil
would be sure to hear it, and what would they think of me? They would
think she was a relation, somebody belonging to me, whom I had motive
for hiding. No one would believe that she was a mere stranger whom I
knew nothing of.

I kept as much away from her as I could during the day, and in the
evening, when I came down-stairs, I managed to steal out by myself for
a walk. I thought the fresh air would do me good, and, as all the people
were at dinner, I was not likely to meet any one. When I felt myself
outside and free, I stood still for a moment, and in my weakness three
or four different impulses came upon me. In the first place I had a
temptation to run away. It seems absurd to write it, but my feeling of
nervous irritation was so great that I actually entertained for a moment
the idea of abandoning my own house because this strange woman had taken
possession of it. And then I thought of rushing to Lady Denzil, whom I
had not long before sent away from my door, and entreating her to come
and save me. When I had made but a few steps from my own gate a nervous
terror made me pause again, and, turning round suddenly, I almost ran
against some one coming in the opposite direction. I made a
half-conscious clutch at him when I saw who it was, and then tried to
hurry past in the fluctuations of my despair. But he stopped, struck, I
suppose, by the strangeness of my looks.

‘Can I do anything for you?’ he asked.

‘Oh, yes--everything!’ I gasped forth, not knowing what I said.

‘I! That is strange--that is very strange! but if it should be so!--Will
you lean upon my arm, Mrs. Mulgrave? you are very much agitated.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I am very much agitated, but I will not lean upon you,
for perhaps you will think I am your enemy--though I don’t mean to be
anybody’s enemy, Heaven knows.’

‘Ah!’ he said. This little cry came from him unawares, and he fell back
a step, and his face, which was like ivory, took a yellower pale tint. I
do not mean that I observed this in my agitation at the moment, but I
felt it. His countenance changed. He already divined what it was.

‘I am very sure of that--that you mean only to be kind to all the
world,’ he said. He had a slight foreign accent, a roll of the _r_ which
is not in an English voice, and he spoke very deliberately, like one to
whom English was an acquired language. I think this struck me now for
the first time.

Then we paused and looked at each other--he on his guard; I, trembling
in every limb trying to remember what I had said in my imaginary
interviews with him, and feeling as if my very mind had gone. I made a
despairing attempt to collect myself, to state her case in the best
possible way, but I might as well have tried any impossible feat of
athletics. I could not do it.

‘There is a lady,’ I faltered, ‘in my house.’

A kind of smile crossed his face at the first words. He gave a nod as if
to say, ‘I know it;’ but again a change came over him when I finished my
sentence.

‘In your house!’

‘Yes, in my house,’ I went on, finding myself at last wound up to
speech. ‘I found her on Friday last at your door--seated in the dust,
almost dying.’

Here he stopped, making an incredulous movement--a shrug of the
shoulders, an elevation of the eyebrows.

‘It is true,’ I said: ‘she has heart-disease: she could scarcely walk
the little distance to my house. Had you seen her, as I did, panting,
gasping for very breath----’

‘I should have thought it a fiction,’ he said, bitterly, ‘and I know her
best.’

‘It was no fiction. Oh, you may have had your wrongs. I say nothing to
the contrary,’ I cried: ‘for anything I can tell, you may have been
deeply wronged; but she is so beautiful, and so young, and loves
pleasure and luxury so----’

I think he heard only the half of what I said, and that struck him like
an unexpected arrow. He turned from me and walked a few steps away, and
then came back again. ‘So beautiful and so young,’ he cried. ‘Who should
know that so well as I?--who should know that so well as I?’

‘You know it, and still you let her sit at your door all through the
lonely night? I would not let a tramp shiver at mine if I could help it.
You let her perish within reach of you. You condemn her at her age, with
her lovely face, unheard----’

He put out his hand to stop me. He was as much agitated as I was. ‘Her
lovely face,’ he said to himself,--‘oh, her lovely face!’ That was the
point at which I touched him. It woke recollections in him which were
more eloquent than anything I could say.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘think of it.’ I do not know by what inspiration I laid
hold upon this feature of the story--her beauty; perhaps because it was
the real explanation of the power she had acquired over me.

But in a minute more he had overcome his agitation; he came to a sudden
pause in front of me and looked at me in the face, though there were
signs of a conflict in his. ‘It is vain to attempt to move me,’ he said,
hoarsely. ‘I do not know why you should take it in hand, or why you
should try to attain your object in this way. I did not expect it from
such as you. Her lovely face--does that make her good or true or fit for
a man’s wife?’

‘No doubt it was for that you married her,’ said I, with an impulse I
could not restrain.

He turned away from me again; he made a few hasty steps and then he came
back. ‘I do not choose to discuss my own history with a stranger,’ he
said; and then softening into politeness: ‘You said I could do something
for you. What can I do?’

This question suddenly brought me to a standstill, for even in my
perplexity and confusion, and the state of semi-despair I had been
thrown into by my visitor, a vestige of reason still remained in my
mind. After all he must know her and his own concerns better than I
could. His question seemed to stop my breath. ‘She is in my house,’ I
said.

‘You are too charitable, Mrs. Mulgrave,’ he answered harshly. His voice
sounded loud and sharp to me after the subdued tone in which we had been
speaking, for we were the only two living creatures visible on the
Green. Everything was quiet around us, and the night beginning to fall.

‘I did not mean to be charitable,’ I said, feeling that there was,
without any consciousness of mine, a tone of apology in my voice. ‘I did
not expect--what has happened. I meant her to leave me--next day.’

‘She will never leave you as long as you will keep her and give her all
she wants,’ he said, in the same sharp, harsh voice.

‘Then Heaven help me!’ I cried, in my confusion, ‘what am I to do?’

He seized my arm, so that he hurt me, in what seemed a sudden access of
passion. ‘It will teach you not to thrust yourself into other people’s
concerns, or meddle with what does not concern you,’ he said. He had
come quite close to me, and his face was flushed with passion. I think
it was the only time I was ever so spoken to in my life. The effect was
bewildering, but I was more surprised than afraid. In short, the curious
shock of this unexpected rage, the rude, sudden touch, the angry voice,
brought me to myself.

‘I think you forget yourself, Mr. Reinhardt,’ I said.

Then he dropped my arm as if the touch burned him, and turned away, and
shook, as I could see, with the effort to control himself. His passion
calmed me, but it swept over him like a storm. He muttered something at
length, hurriedly, in which there was the word ‘pardon,’ as if he were
forced most unwillingly to say it, and then he turned round upon me
again: ‘I may have forgotten myself, as you say; but you force me to
face a subject I would give the world to forget, and in the only way
that makes it unavoidable. Good heavens! your amiability, and your
Christianity, and all that, force me to take up again what I had put
from me for ever. And you look for politeness, too!’

I did not make any answer: what was the use? At bottom, I did blame
myself; I should not have interfered; I should have been firm enough and
strong enough to take her to her home, wherever it was: I did not stand
upon my defence. I let him say what he would; and I cannot tell how long
this went on. I suppose the interval was not nearly so long as it seemed
to me. He stood before me, and he smiled and frowned, and ground his
teeth and discharged, as it were, bitter sentences at me. Englishmen can
be brutal enough, but no Englishman, I think, would have done it in this
way. He seemed to take a pleasure in saying everything that was most
disagreeable. When he scowled at me I could bear it, but when he smiled
and affected politeness I grew so angry that I could have struck him.
Poor wretch! perhaps there was some justification for him after all.

‘Because you are a woman!’ he cried. ‘A woman!--what it is to be a
woman! It gives you a right to set every power of hell in motion, and
always to be spared the consequences; to upset every arrangement of the
world, and disturb the quiet, and put your fingers into every mess, and
always to be held blameless. That is your right. Oh, I like those
women’s rights! I should have knocked down the man who had interfered as
you have done; but, because you are a woman, I must come out of my
quiet, I must derange my life, to save you from your folly. God in
heaven! was that what those creatures, those slaves, those toys were
made for? To interfere--for ever to interfere--and to be spared the
consequences at any cost to us?’

I don’t know how I bore it all. I got tired after a while of the mere
physical effort of standing to listen to him. I did not try to answer at
first, and after the torrent began I could not, he spoke so fast and so
vehemently. But at length I turned from him, and walked slowly, as well
as I was able, to my own door. He paused for a moment as if in surprise,
and then turned and walked on with me, talking and gesticulating.
‘Nothing else would have disturbed me,’ he said; ‘I had made my
arrangements. How was I to tell that a fool, a woman,--would thrust
herself into it, and put it on my honour as a gentleman to free her?
What has honour to do with it? Why should I trouble more for a woman--an
old woman--than for a man? Bah! Ah, I will be rude; yes, I am rude; it
is a pleasure--it is a compensation. You are plain; you are old. You
have lost what charms. Therefore, what right have you to be considered?
Why should you not bear your own folly? Why should I interfere?’

‘Pray make yourself quite easy about me,’ I said, roused in my turn. ‘I
did not appeal to you on my account, and anything you can do for me
would be dearly purchased by submitting to this violence. Go your own
way, and leave me to manage my own concerns.’

He stopped, bewildered; and then he asked with confusion, ‘What do you
call your own concerns?’

‘Nothing that can any way affect you,’ I said, and in my passion I went
in at my own gate and closed it upon him. I stood on one side defying
him, and he stood on the other with confusion and amazement on his face.

‘You do not wish my help any more?’

‘No more. I shall act for myself, without thought of you,’ I said. He
stood and gazed at me for a moment, and then suddenly he turned round
and left me. I looked after him as he walked rapidly away, and I confess
that, notwithstanding my indignation and pride, my heart sank. He was
the only creature who could help me, and I had driven him away. I had
taken once more upon myself the task which it had made me half frantic
to think of. My heart fell. I looked back upon my house, which had been
such a haven of quietness and rest for so many years, and felt that the
Eden was spoiled--that it was no longer my paradise. And yet I had
rejected the only help! I was very forlorn, standing there with my hand
upon my gate under the chilly October stars, having thrust all my
friends from me, and refused even the only possible deliverance. ‘I
cannot allow myself to be insulted,’ I said to myself, trying to get
some comfort from my pride, but that was cold consolation. I turned
round to go in, sighing and ready to sink with fatigue and trouble; and
then I suddenly heard moans coming from the house, and Mary calling and
beckoning from the open door.



CHAPTER IX


‘Oh, ma’am, the poor lady’s took bad--the poor dear lady’s took very
bad!’ This was Mary’s cry as she hurried me in. The windows were all
wide open to give her air. She was lying on the sofa gasping for breath,
her mouth and her eyes open, two hectic circles of red upon her cheeks,
and that wildly anxious look upon her face which always accompanies a
struggle for breath. I did not feel at all sure that she was not dying.
I called out to my cook to run instantly for the doctor. Both the women
had been in the room running about as she gave them wild orders, opening
the windows one after another, fetching her fans, eau-de-cologne, water,
wine--as one thing after another occurred to her. She stretched out her
hands to me as I came in, and grasped and pulled me to her; she said
something which I could not make out in her gasping, broken voice, and I
nodded my head and pretended to understand, saying, ‘Yes, yes,’ to calm
her--‘Yes, yes.’ It did not seem to matter what one said or promised at
such a moment. For some time, every gasp looked to me as if it must be
her last. I bathed her forehead with eau-de-cologne, I wetted her lips
with wine; I had hard ado not to cry out, too, in sympathy with her
distress. I shut down now one window, now another, fearing the cold for
her, and then opening them again, in obedience to her gestures to give
her air. I seem to see and to feel now, as I recall it, the room so
unlike itself, with the cold night air blowing through and through it,
and the great squares of blackness and night, with a bit of sky in one,
which broke confusedly the familiar walls, and made it doubtful to my
bewildered and excited mind whether I was out of doors or in--whether
the chairs and sofa and the lamp on the table had been transported into
the garden, or the garden had invaded the house. The wind made me
shiver; the flame of the lamp wavered even within its protecting glass;
darkness and mystery breathed in; and, in the centre absorbing all
thoughts, was this struggle between, as I thought, death and life. I
cannot tell how time passed, or how long we were in this suspense; but
it seemed to me that half the night must have been over before the
doctor came, in evening dress, with huge white wristbands, as if he were
going to perform an operation. Notwithstanding the anxiety I was in,
this fantastic idea flashed across my mind: for his cuffs were always
too long and white. But it was a relief beyond description when he came:
the responsibility, at least, seemed to be taken off my shoulders. I had
scarcely permitted myself to hope before that the paroxysm was already
beginning to subside; but now it became evident to me; and Dr. Houghton
gave her something, which at once relieved her. I sat down beside the
sofa, feeling half stupefied with the sensation of relief, and watched
her breathing gradually grow calmer, and the struggle abate. I think my
own brain had given way slightly under the tension. It seemed to me that
the room behind me was full of people whispering and flitting about, and
that all kinds of echoes and murmurs of voices were coming in at the
open windows. I suppose it was only my own maids, and Susan from the
Admiral’s next door who had come to see what was the matter; but the
strange sensation of being almost in the open air, and the worn-out
state in which I was, produced this effect. I could not move however to
put a stop to it. I could do nothing but sit still and watch. And thus
the scene of the first evening, when I brought this strange inmate home
to my house, reproduced itself, with another bewildering effect, before
my eyes. She was no longer dusty and miserable; her poor black dress was
neat and covered by my shawl; her hair had been elaborately dressed,
and, though a little disordered, still showed how carefully it had been
arranged; but otherwise, the attitude, the look, were exactly the same.
Her head was thrown back in utter exhaustion upon the dark velvet
pillow, which showed it in relief, like a white cameo on the dark
background of the _pietra dura_. Her eyes were softly closed, and her
lips. The doctor, who had gone away to write a prescription, was struck
by her wonderful beauty, as I had been that night. He started in his
surprise when he came back and saw how she had dropped asleep. He drew
me aside in his amazement; the discovery flashed upon him all in a
moment, as it had done on me. When a woman is very ill, when one’s mind
is full of anxiety for her, her beauty is the last thing one thinks of.
So that the sudden sight of her confounded him. ‘How beautiful she is!’
he said in my ear with a certain agitation; and though I am only a
woman, I had been agitated, too, when I found it out.

It was just when the doctor had said this that my eye was suddenly
caught by a strange figure at one of the open windows. It stepped on to
the sill, dark against the blackness without, and there paused a moment.
Had this occurred at any other time I should, no doubt, have been very
much frightened, I should have rushed to the window and demanded to know
what he wanted, with terror and indignation; but to-night I took it as a
matter of course. I did not even move, but kept still by the side of my
patient’s sofa and looked at him: and when he came in it seemed to me
the most natural thing in the world. He entered with a sudden, impetuous
movement as if something had pushed him forward. He advanced into the
middle of the room--into the little circle round the sofa. It was Mr.
Reinhardt. He had never been in my house before, or in any house on the
Green, and Dr. Houghton looked at him and looked at me with positive
consternation. For my part, I gave him no greeting. I did not say a
word. It seemed natural that he should come, that was all.

There was a curious sort of smile upon his face; he was wound up to some
course of action or other. What he thought of doing I cannot tell. His
face looked as if he had come with the intention of taking her by the
shoulders and turning her out. I don’t know why I thought so, but there
was a certain mixture of fierceness, and contempt, and impatience in his
look which suggested the idea. ‘I have come to put a stop to all this. I
shall not put up with it for a moment longer.’ Though he did not speak a
word, this seemed to sound in my ears, somehow, as if he had said it in
his mind. But when he came to the sofa and saw her laid out in that dead
sleep, her face white as marble, the blue veins visible on her closed
eyelids, the breath faintly coming and going, he came to a sudden pause.
I think for the first moment he thought she was dead. He gave a short
cry, and then turned to me wildly, as if I were responsible. ‘You have
killed her,’ he said. He was in that state of suppressed passion in
which anything might happen. He would have railed at her had he found
her conscious, he would have railed at me if I would have let him: he
was half mad.

‘Tell him,’ I said, turning to the doctor. Dr. Houghton was a man of the
world, and tried very hard not to look surprised. He put his hand upon
Mr. Reinhardt’s shoulder to draw him away: but he would not be drawn
away. He stood fast there, with his brows contracted and his eyes fixed
on the sleeping face: he listened to the doctor’s explanations without
moving or looking up. He said not a word further to any one, but drew a
chair in front of the sofa and sat down there with his eyes fixed upon
her. Oh, what thoughts must have been going through his mind. The woman
whom he had loved--I do not doubt passionately in his way--whom he had
married, whom he had cast away from him! And there she lay before him
unconscious, unaware of his presence, beautiful as when she had been
his, like a creature seen in a dream.

‘He had better be got to go away before she wakes,’ Dr. Houghton said in
my ear. ‘Do you think you can make one more exertion, Mrs. Mulgrave, and
send him away? Can you hear what I am saying? She will be in a very weak
state, and any excitement might be dangerous. I don’t know what
connection there is between them, but can’t you send him away? Who is
this next?’

This time it was a very timid figure at the window, a halting, furtive
old man peeping in. And somehow this, too, seemed quite natural to me. I
felt that I knew everything that happened as if I had planned it all
beforehand. ‘It is his servant come to look for him,’ said I. And the
doctor went to the window with impatience and pulled poor old White in,
and shut it down.

‘The draught goes through and through one,’ he said, with a shiver. It
was quite true; I was trembling with cold where I sat by the sleeping
woman’s side; but it had not occurred to me to shut the window;
everything seemed unchangeable, as if we had nothing to do with it
except to accept whatever happened. When White came in he looked round
him with great astonishment, and made me a very humble, frightened bow,
while he whispered and explained to the doctor how it was he had taken
the liberty. Then he gradually approached his master;--but when he saw
the figure on the sofa consternation swallowed up all his other
sentiments. He flung his arms above his head and uttered a stifled cry,
and then he rushed at his master with a sudden vehemence which showed
how deeply the sight had moved him. He put his hand upon Mr. Reinhardt’s
shoulder and shook him gently.

‘Sir, sir!’ he cried; then stooped to his ear and whispered, ‘Master;
Mr. Reinhardt; master!’ Reinhardt took no notice of the old man, he sat
absorbed with his eyes fixed on that marble, beautiful face. ‘Oh, sir,
come with me! Oh! come with me, my dear master!’ said the old man. ‘You
know what I’m saying is for your good--you know it’s for your good. It’s
getting late, sir, time for the house to be shut up. Oh, Mr.
Reinhardt--sir, come away with me! come with me--do!’

Mr. Reinhardt pushed him impatiently away, but did not answer a word; he
never removed his eyes from her for a moment. They seemed to me to grow
like Charon’s eyes, like circles of fire, while he gazed at her. Was it
in wrath--was it in love?

‘Mrs. Mulgrave, ma’am,’ cried White, turning to me, but always in a
voice which was scarcely above a whisper, ‘Oh, speak to him! It ain’t
for his good to sit and stare at her like that. I know what comes of it.
If he sits like that and looks to her it’ll all begin over again. He
ain’t a man that can stand it, he ain’t indeed. Oh, my lady, if you’ll
be a friend to him, speak and make him go.’

‘Ah!’ said a soft, sighing voice. ‘Ah! old White!’ We all started as if
a shell had fallen among us: and yet it was not wonderful that she
should wake with all this conversation going on by her bed--and besides
she had slept a long time, more than an hour. She had not changed her
position in the least, all she had done was to open her eyes. I don’t
know whether it was simply her supreme yet indolent self-estimation
which kept her from paying us the compliment of making any movement on
our account, or if it was from some consciousness that her beauty could
not be shown to greater advantage. But certainly she did not move. She
only opened her eyes, and said, ‘Ah, old White!’

But oh, to see how the man started, who was nearer to her than White! It
was as if a ball or a sword-stroke had gone through him. He sprang from
his chair, and then he checked himself and drew it close and sat down
again. He glanced round upon us all as if he would have cleared not only
the chamber but the world of us, had it been possible, and then he leant
over her and said sternly, ‘There are others here besides White.’

‘Ah!’ Either she was afraid of him or pretended to be; she clutched at
my sleeve with her hand, she shrank back a little, but still did not
change her attitude nor raise herself so as to see his face.

‘I am here,’ he went on, his voice trembling with passion. ‘I whom you
have hunted, whose life you have poisoned. Oh, woman! you dare not look
at me nor speak to me, but you wrong me behind my back. You whisper
tales of me wherever I go. Here I had a moment’s peace and you have
ruined it. Tell these people the truth once in your life. Is it I that
am in the wrong or you?’

A frightened look had stolen over her face, her eyebrows contracted as
with fear. Her eyes became full of tears, and the corners of her
beautiful mouth quivered. Heaven forgive me! I asked myself was it all
feigning, or had she something kinder and better in her which I had
never seen till now? But those eyes, which were like great cups of light
filled with dew, once more turned to him. She remained immovable,
looking up to his face, when he repeated hoarsely, ‘You or I, which is
in the wrong?’

She answered with a shiver which ran all over her, ‘I.’ Her voice was
like a sigh. I did not know what his wrongs might be, but whatever they
were, at that moment there could be no doubt about it. He, a hard,
unsympathetic, inhuman soul, it must be he that was in the wrong, not
she, though she confessed it so sweetly; and if this effect was produced
upon me, what should it be upon him?

Mr. Reinhardt shook like a leaf in the wind. He had not expected this.
It was a surprise to him. He had expected to be blamed. It startled him
so, that for the moment he was silent, gazing at her. But old White was
not silent. ‘Oh! master, master, come away, come home,’ he pleaded,
wringing his hands; and then he came and touched my shoulder and cried
like a child. ‘Speak to him, send him away!’ he cried. ‘It is for his
own good. If she speaks to him like that, if she keeps her temper, it is
all over; it will have all to be begun again.’

Reinhardt made a long pause. He looked as if he were gathering up his
strength to speak again, and when he did so, it was with the fictitious
heat of a man whose heart is melting. ‘How dare you say “I,”’ he said,
‘when you do not mean it?--when all your life you have said otherwise?
You have reproached me, stirred up my friends against me, kept your own
sins in the background and published mine. You have done this for
years, and now is it a new art you are trying? Do not think you can
deceive me,’ he cried, getting up in his agitation; ‘it is impossible. I
am not such a credulous fool.’

She kept her eyes on the ceiling, not looking at him; the moisture in
them seemed to swell, but did not overflow. ‘I may not change then?’ she
said, very low. ‘I may not see that I am wrong? I am not to be permitted
to repent?’

He turned from her and began to pace up and down the room; he plucked at
his waistcoat and cravat as though they choked him. More than once he
returned to the sofa as if with something to say, but went away again.
When White approached, he was pushed away with impatience, and once with
such force that he span round as he was driven back. This last repulse
seemed to convince him. ‘Be a fool, then, if you will, sir,’ he said
sharply, and withdrew altogether into a corner, where he watched the
scene. I do not think Reinhardt even saw this or anything else. He was
walking up and down hastily like a man out of his mind, struggling, one
could not but see, with a hundred demons, and tempting his fate.

He came back again however in his tumultuous uncertainty, and bent over
her once more. ‘Talk of repentance--talk of change,’ he cried bitterly.
‘How often have you pretended as much? Do you hear me, woman?’ (bending
down so close that his breath must have touched her)--‘how often have
you done it? how often have you pretended? Oh, false, false as death!’

She put her hand upon his shoulder, almost on his neck. He broke away
from her with a hoarse cry; he made another wild march round the room.
Then he came back.

‘Julia,’ he cried, ‘Julia, Julia, Julia! Mine!’

She lay still as a tiger that is going to spring. He fell on his knees
beside her, weeping, storming in his passion. Good Lord! was it my
doing? was I responsible? White gave me a furious look, and rushed out
of the room. The husband and wife were reconciled.



CHAPTER X


This is about the end of the story so far as I am concerned. He spent
the night there by her sofa, kissing her dress and her hands, and
watching her in a transport of passion and perhaps delight. For the last
I would not answer. It must have been at best a troubled joy; and a
man’s infatuation for a beautiful face is not what I call love, though
it is often a very tragic and terrible passion. He took her away in the
morning, but not to his own house. They went straight from mine to
London, that great receptacle of everybody’s misery and happiness. I saw
them both before they left, though only for a moment. She was still
lying on the sofa as when I left her, and the half disorder of her
hair, the exhaustion in her face, seemed rather to enhance her beauty.
Any one else would have looked jaded and worn out, but a faint flush of
triumph and satisfaction had stolen over her (partly perhaps produced by
her weakness) and woke the marble into life. She stretched out her hand
to me carelessly as I went in. She said with a smile, ‘You see my
feeling was right. I always trust my feelings. I knew you were the
person to do it, and you have done it. I felt it whenever I saw your
face.’

‘I hope it will be lasting, and that you may be happy,’ I said,
faltering, not knowing what tone to take.

‘Oh, yes, it is to be hoped so. He is going to take me to London,’ she
answered carelessly. ‘I am quite sorry to leave your nice house,
everything has been so comfortable. It is small and it is plain, but you
know how to make yourself comfortable. I suppose when one has lived so
long one naturally does.’

This was all her thanks to me. The husband took the matter in a
different way. They had a fire lighted and coffee taken to them in the
drawing-room (which was left in the saddest confusion after all the
disturbance of the night); and it was when the carriage he had ordered
was at the door, and she had gone to make herself ready, that he came to
me. I was in the dining-room with my breakfast on the table, which I was
too much worn out to take. His face was very strange; it was full of
suppressed excitement, with a wild, strained look about the eyes, and a
certain air of heat and haste, though his colour was like ivory as
usual. ‘I have to thank you,’ he said to me, very stiffly, ‘and if I
said anything amiss in my surprise last night, I hope you will forgive
it. I can only thank you now; nothing else is possible. But I must add,
I hope we shall never meet again.’

‘I assure you, if we do, it shall not be with my will,’ said I, feeling
very angry as I think I had a right to be.

He bowed, but made no reply; not because words failed him. I felt that
he would have liked nothing better than to have fallen upon me and
metaphorically torn me to pieces. He had been overcome by his own heart
or passions, and had taken her back, but he hated me for having drawn
him to do so. He saw the tragic folly of the step he was taking. There
was a gloom in his excitement such as I cannot describe. He had no
strength to resist her, but she was hateful to him even while he adored
her. And doubly hateful, without any counter-balancing attraction, was
I, who had as it were betrayed him to his fate.

‘I trust your wife and you will be happy--now,’ I said, trying to speak
firmly. He interrupted me with a hoarse laugh.

‘My wife!’

‘Is she not your wife?’ I said in alarm.

He laughed again, even more hoarsely, with a sharp tone in the sound.
‘What do you call a woman who is taken back after--everything? Who is
taken back because---- What is she, do you suppose? What is he, the
everlasting dupe and fool! Don’t speak to me any more.’ He hurried away
from me, and then turned round again at the door. ‘I spoke a little
wildly perhaps,’ he said, with a smile, which was more disagreeable than
his rage, ‘without due thought for Mrs. Reinhardt’s reputation. Make
yourself quite easy--she is my wife.’

That was the last I saw of them. I was too much offended to go to the
door to see them leave the house, but it is impossible to describe the
relief with which I listened to the wheels ringing along the road as
they went away. Was it really true?--was this nightmare removed from me,
and my house my own again? I did not know whether to laugh or to cry. I
fell down on my knees and made some sort of confused thanksgiving. It
seemed to me as if I had been in this horrible bondage half my life.

Mary came in about half-an-hour after to take away the breakfast things.
I had swallowed a cup of tea, but I had not been able to eat. Mary was
still disapproving, but quieter than at first; she shook her head over
the untouched food. ‘We’ll be having you ill next, ma’am,’ she said,
with an evident feeling that cook and she would in that case have good
reason to complain; and then, after a pause, she added severely, ‘I
don’t know if you knew, ma’am, as the lady is gone off in your best
shawl?’

‘My shawl!’ I had thought no more of it: but this sudden news took away
my breath.

‘She was always fond of it,’ said Mary grimly. ‘She liked the best of
everything did that lady; and she couldn’t make up her mind to take it
off when she went away.’

Though I was so confounded and confused, I made an effort to keep up
appearances still. ‘She will send it back, of course, as soon as she
gets--home,’ I said; ‘as soon as she gets--her own things.’

‘I am sure I hope so, ma’am,’ said Mary, carrying off her tray. Her tone
was not one to inspire hope in the listener, and I confess that for the
rest of the morning my shawl held a very large place in my thoughts. It
was the most valuable piece of personal property I possessed. When I
used to take it out and wrap it round me, it was always with a certain
pride. It was the kind of wrap which dignifies any dress. ‘With that
handsome shawl, it does not matter what else you wear,’ Mrs. Stoke was
in the habit of saying to me; and though Mrs. Stoke was not a great
authority in most matters, she knew what she was saying on this point. I
said to myself, ‘Of course she will send it back,’ but I had a very
chill sensation of doubt about my heart.

All the morning I sat still over the fire, with a longing to go and talk
to some one. For more than a week now, I had not exchanged a word with
my neighbours, and this was terrible to a person like me, living
surrounded by so many whose lives had come to be a part of mine. But I
had not the courage to take the initiative. I cannot tell how I longed
for some one to come, for the ice to be broken. And it was only natural
that people should be surprised and offended, and even have learned to
distrust me. For who could they suppose I was hiding away like
that--some mysterious sinner belonging to myself--some one I had a
special interest in? And then she had been recognized by Everard Stoke!

At about twelve o’clock my quietness was disturbed by the sound of some
one coming; my heart began to beat and my face to flush, but it was only
old White with his fellow-servant, Mississarah, as he called her,
pronouncing the two words as if they were one. Their visit put me in
possession of the whole miserable story. It was like a tale of
enchantment all through. The man had been a mature man of forty or more,
buried in science and learning, when he first saw the beautiful creature
who since seemed to have been the curse of his life. She was an
innkeeper’s daughter, untaught and unrefined. He had tried to educate
her, married her, done everything that a man mad with love could do to
make her a lady--nay, to make her a decorous woman--but he had failed
and over again failed. They did not tell me, and I did not wish to hear,
what special sins she had done against him. I suppose she had done
everything that a wicked wife could do. She had been put into honourable
retirement with the hope of recovery again and again. Then she had been
sent away in anger. But every time the unfortunate husband had fallen
under her personal influence--the influence of her beauty--she had been
taken back.

‘She hates him,’ poor White said, almost crying, ‘but he can’t resist
her. He’s mad, ma’am, mad, that’s what it is. He could kill hisself for
giving in, but he can’t help hisself. We’ve had to watch him night and
day as he shouldn’t hear her nor see her, for when her money’s done she
always comes back to him. He’ll kill her some day or kill hisself.
Mississarah knows as I’m speaking true.’

‘As true as the Bible,’ said Mississarah; but she was softer than he
towards the wife. ‘He was too wise and too good for her, ma’am,’ she
said, ‘a fool and a wise man can’t walk together--it’s hard on the wise
man, but maybe it’s a bit hard too on the fool. Folks don’t make
themselves. She mightn’t have been so bad----’

‘Oh, go along; go along, Mississarah, do,’ said White. ‘We’ll have to go
off from here where all was quiet and nice, and start again without
knowing no more than Adam. But he’ll kill her, some day, you’ll see, or
he’ll kill hisself.’

Mississarah was a north-country woman, and had a little feeling that her
master was a foreigner, and therefore necessarily more or less guilty;
but White was half a foreigner himself and totally devoted to his
master. When they had poured forth their sorrows to me, they went away
disconsolate, and their fears about leaving East Cottage were so soon
justified that I never saw them more.

And then came my melancholy luncheon, which was set on the table for me,
and which I loathed the sight of. To escape from it I went into the
drawing-room, from which all traces of last night’s confusion were gone.
I was so miserable, and lonely, and weary that I think I dropped asleep
over the fire. I had been up almost all night, and there seemed nothing
so comfortable in all the world as forgetting one’s very existence and
being able to get to sleep.

I woke with the murmur of voices in my ears. Lady Denzil was sitting by
me holding my hand. She gave me a kiss, and whispered to me in her soft
voice,--‘We know all about it--we know all about it, my dear,’ patting
me softly with her kind hand. I’m afraid I broke down and cried like a
child. I am growing old myself, to be sure, but Lady Denzil, thank
Heaven, might have been even my mother--and if you consider all the
agitation, all the disturbance I had come through!

I think everybody on the Green called that day, and each visitor was
more kind than the other. ‘I shall always consider it a special
providence, however, that none of us called or were introduced to her,’
Mrs. General Perronet said solemnly. But she was the only one who made
any allusion to the terrible guest I had been hiding in my house. They
took me out to get the air--they made me walk to the Dell to see the
autumn colour on the trees. They carried me off to dine at the Lodge,
and brought me home with a body-guard. ‘You are not fit to be trusted to
walk home by yourself,’ Lottie Stoke said, giving me her arm. In short,
the Green received me back with acclamations, as if I had been a
returned Prodigal, and I found that I could laugh over the new and most
unexpected _rôle_, which I thus found myself filling, as soon as the
next day.

Some time after, I received my shawl in a rough parcel, sent by railway.
It was torn in two or three places by the pins it had been fastened
with, and had several small stains upon it. It was sent without a word,
without any apologies, with Mrs. Reinhardt’s compliments written outside
the brown paper cover, in a coarse hand. And that was the only direct
communication I ever had with my strange guest. Before Christmas however
there was a paragraph in some of the papers that L. Reinhardt, Esq., had
volunteered to accompany an expedition going to Africa in order to make
some scientific observations. There was a great crowded, enthusiastic
meeting of the Geographical Society, in which his wonderful devotion was
dwelt on and the sacrifice he was making to the interests of science.
And he was even mentioned in the House of Commons, where some great
personage took it upon him to say that in the arrangement of the
expedition the greatest assistance had been received from Mr. Reinhardt,
who, himself a man of wealth and leisure, had generously devoted his
energies to it, and smoothed away a great many of the difficulties in
the way--a good work for which science and his country would alike be
grateful to him, said the orator. Oh, me! oh, me! I looked up in Lady
Denzil’s face as Sir Thomas read out these words to us. Sir Thomas took
it quite calmly, and was rather pleased indeed that Mr. Reinhardt, by
getting himself publicly thanked in the House of Commons, had justified
the impulse which prompted himself, Sir Thomas Denzil, head as it were
of society on the Green, to call upon him. But my lady laid her soft old
hand on mine, and her eyes filled with tears. ‘Do not let us blame him,
my dear,--do not let us blame him,’ she said to me when we were alone.
She had known what temptation was.



LADY ISABELLA



CHAPTER I


There was one house in our neighbourhood which was perfect and above
criticism. I do not mean to say that it was a great house; but the very
sight of it was enough to make you feel almost bitter if you were poor,
and much pleased and approving if you were well-off. Naturally it was
the very next house to Mrs. Merridew’s, who had heaps of children and a
small income, and could not have things so very nice as might have been
wished. Mrs. Spencer and Lady Isabella lived within sight of her, with
but two holly-hedges between; the hedge on the side of the Merridews’
house was bristly and untidy, but on the other side it was trimmed and
clipped till it looked like a barrier-wall of dark green Utrecht velvet;
and inside that inclosure everything was in perfection; the lawn was
mown every other day; there was never an obtrusive daisy on it, and no
fallen leaf presumed to lie for half an hour. The flower-beds which
surrounded it were more brilliant than any I ever saw--not mere vulgar
geraniums and calceolarias, but a continual variety, and always such
masses of colour. Inside everything was just as perfect. They had such
good servants, always the best trained of their class; such soft
carpets, upon which no step ever sounded harsh; and Mrs. Spencer’s ferns
were the wonder of the neighbourhood; and the flowers in the two
drawing-rooms were always just at the point of perfection, with never a
yellow leaf or a faded blossom. We poorer people sometimes tried to
console ourselves by telling each other that such luxury was monotonous.
‘Nothing ever grows and nothing ever fades,’ said Lottie Stoke, ‘but
always one eternal beautifulness; I should not like it if it were I. I
should like to watch them budding, and pick off the first faded leaves.’
This Lottie said with confidence, though she was notoriously indifferent
to such cares, and declared, on other occasions, that she could not be
troubled with flowers, they required so much looking after; but poor
little Janet Merridew used to shake her head and groan with an innocent
envy that would bring the tears to her eyes; not that she wished to
take anything from her neighbours, but she loved beautiful things so
much, and they were so far out of her reach.

Mrs. Spencer and Lady Isabella lived together in this beautiful house;
they were two friends so intimately allied, that I was in the habit of
saying they were more like man and wife than anything else. It was a
wonder to us all at Dinglefield how they managed their money matters in
respect to housekeeping. Many a little attempt I have seen to find this
out, and heard many a speculation; whether the house was Mrs. Spencer’s,
whether Lady Isabella only paid for her board, which of them was at the
expense of the carriage, or whether they kept a rigid account of all
their expenditure and divided it at the end of the year, as some
thought--nobody could make out. When they first came to Dinglefield it
was universally prophesied that it would not last. ‘Depend upon it,
these arrangements never answer,’ was the opinion of old Mr. Lloyd, who
was Mrs. Damerel’s father, and lived with them at the rectory. ‘They
will quarrel in three months,’ the Admiral said, who was not very
favourable to ladies. But when seven years had come and gone, Mrs.
Spencer and Lady Isabella still lived together and had not quarrelled.
By this time Lady Isabella, who was really quite young when they came,
must have been nearly five-and-thirty, and people had made up their
minds she would not marry now, so that the likelihood was, as it had
lasted so long, it would last all their lives. They did not, at the
first glance, look like people likely to suit each other. Mrs. Spencer
was a woman overflowing with activity; she was thin, she could not have
been anything else, so energetic was she, always in motion, setting
everybody right. She was shortsighted, or said she was shortsighted, so
far as the outer world was concerned, but in her own house, and in all
that involved her own affairs, she had the eye of a lynx; nothing
escaped her. It was she who kept everything in such beautiful order, and
made the lawns and the flowers the wonder of the neighbourhood. Lady
Isabella’s part was the passive one; she enjoyed it. She did not worry
her friend by pretending to take any trouble. She was full ten years
younger than Mrs. Spencer, inclining to be stout, pretty, but undeniably
inactive. I am afraid she was a little indolent, or, perhaps, in such
close and constant contact with her friend’s more active nature, Lady
Isabella had found it expedient to seem more indolent than she was. She
left all the burdens of life on Mrs. Spencer’s shoulders. Except the one
habitual walk in the day, which it was said Mrs. Spencer compelled her
to take, lest she should grow fat, we at Dinglefield only saw Lady
Isabella in her favourite easy-chair in the drawing-room, or her
favourite garden-bench on the lawn. Indolent--but not so perfectly
good-tempered as indolent people usually are, and fond of saying sharp
things without perhaps always considering the feelings of others. Indeed
she seemed to live on such a pinnacle of ease and wealth and comfort,
that she must have found it difficult to enter into the feelings of such
as were harassed, or careworn, or poor. She had a way of begging
everybody not to make a fuss when anything happened; and I am afraid
most of us thought that a selfish regard for her own comfort lay at the
bottom of this love of tranquillity. I don’t think now that we were
quite right in our opinion of her. She had to go through a great deal of
fuss whether she liked it or not; and I remember now that when she
uttered her favourite sentiment she used to give a glance, half-comic,
half-pathetic, to where Mrs. Spencer was. But she bore with Mrs.
Spencer’s ‘ways’ as a wife bears with her husband. Mrs. Spencer had all
the worry and trouble, such as it was. Plenty of money is a great
sweetener of such cares; but still, to be sure, it was easy for Lady
Isabella to sit and laugh and adjure everybody not to make a fuss, when
she herself had no trouble about anything, never had even to scold a
servant, or turn an unsatisfactory retainer away.

We were never very intimate, they and I; but it happened, one autumn
evening, that I went in to call rather out of the regular order of calls
which we exchanged punctiliously. When I say we were not intimate, I
only mean that there was no personal and individual attraction between
us. Of course we knew each other very well, and met twice or thrice
every week, as people do at Dinglefield. I had been calling upon Mrs.
Merridew, and I cannot tell what fascination one found--coming out of
that full house, which was as tidy as she could make it, but not, alas!
as tidy as it might have been--in the next house, which was so wonderful
a contrast, where the regions of mere tidiness were overpast, and good
order had grown into beauty and grace. I suppose it was the contrast. I
found myself going in at the other gate almost before I knew it; and
there I found Lady Isabella alone, seated in the twilight, for it was
growing dark, in her favourite corner, not very far from the fire. She
was not doing anything; and as I went in, I fancied, to my great
surprise, that something like the ghost of a sigh came to greet me just
half a moment in advance of Lady Isabella’s laugh. She had a way of
laughing, which was not disagreeable when one came to know her, though
at first people were apt to think that she was laughing at them.

‘Mrs. Spen is out,’ she said, ‘and I am quite fatigued, for I have been
standing at my window watching the Merridew babies in their garden. They
look like nice little fat puppies among the grass; but it must be damp
for them at this time of the year.’

‘Poor little things! there are so many of them that they get hardy; they
are not used to being looked after very much. Some people’s children
would be killed by it,’ said I.

‘How lucky for the little Merridews that they are not those people’s
children!’ said Lady Isabella; ‘and I think they must like it, for it is
a great bore being looked after too much.’ As she spoke she leant back
in her chair with something that sounded like another sigh. ‘I was
rather fond of babies once,’ she added, with a laugh which quickly
followed the sigh. ‘Absurd, was it not? but don’t say a word, or Mrs.
Spen will turn me out.’

‘It would take more than that to part you two,’ said I.

‘Well, I suppose it would. I think sometimes it would take a great deal.
Mrs. Mulgrave, do you know I have been turning it over in my mind
whether I could ask you to do something for me or not? and I think I
have decided that I will--that is not to say that you are to do it, you
know, unless you please.’

‘I think most likely I shall please--unless it is something very unlike
you,’ said I.

‘Well, it is unlike me,’ said Lady Isabella; and though I could not make
out her face in the least, I felt sure, by the sound of her voice, and a
certain movement she made, and an odd little laugh that accompanied her
words, that she was blushing violently in the dark. ‘At least, it is
very unlike anything you know of me. You might not think it, perhaps,’
she went on, with again that little constrained laugh, ‘but do you know
I was young once?’

‘My dear, I think you are young still,’ said I.

‘Oh dear, no; that is quite out of the question. When a woman is over
thirty, she ought to give up all such ideas,’ said Lady Isabella, with
an amount of explanatoriness which I did not understand; and she began
to fold hems in her handkerchief in a nervous way. ‘When a woman is
thirty, she may just as well be fifty at once for any difference it
makes.’

‘I don’t think even fifty is anything so very dreadful,’ said I. ‘One’s
ideas change as one gets older; but twenty years make a wonderful
difference, whatever you may think.’

‘Perhaps, for some things,’ she said hastily. ‘And you must know, Mrs.
Mulgrave, in that fabulous time when I was young other marvels existed.
They always do in the fabulous period in all histories; and there was
once somebody who was--or at least he said he was--in love with me.
There, the murder is out,’ she said, pushing her chair a little further
back into the dark corner; and, to my amazement, her voice was full of
agitation, as if she had been telling me the secret of her life.

‘My dear Lady Isabella,’ I said, ‘do you really expect me to be
surprised at that?’

‘Well, no, perhaps not,’ she said, with another laugh. ‘Not at the
simple fact. They say every woman has such a thing happen to her some
time in her life. Do you think that is true?’

‘The people in the newspapers say it can’t be true,’ said I,
‘now-a-days: though I don t think I ever knew a woman who had not----’

‘Mrs. Spen will be back directly,’ cried Lady Isabella, hastily, ‘and I
don’t want her to know. I need not tell you that it all came to nothing,
for you can see that; but, Mrs. Mulgrave, now comes the funny part of
it. His regiment is coming to the barracks, and he will be within five
miles of us. Is it not odd?’

‘I don’t think it is at all odd,’ said I. ‘I dare say it is just in the
natural order. If it will be painful to you to meet him, Lady
Isabella----’

‘That is the funniest of all,’ she said. ‘It will not be in the least
painful to me to meet him. On the contrary, I want to meet him. It is
very droll, but I do. I should so like to see what he looks like now,
and if his temper is improved, and a hundred things. Besides, his sister
used to be a great friend of mine; and when we broke it off I lost
Augusta too. I want so much to know about her. Indeed, that is my chief
reason,’ she went on faltering, ‘for wishing to meet him.’ The words
were scarcely spoken when she burst into a little peal of laughter.
‘What a stupid I am,’ she cried, ‘trying to take you in. No, Mrs.
Mulgrave, let me be honest; it is not for Augusta I want to see him. I
should so like just to make sure--you know--if I was a very great fool,
or if he was worth thinking of after all. Now,’ with a little sigh,
‘when one is perfectly dispassionate--and cool----’

‘To be sure,’ said I, glad that it was dark, and she could not see me
smile; ‘and now that we have settled all that, tell me what I am to do.’

‘You are so very kind,’ she said; and then went off again in that
agitated laugh. ‘I am betraying myself frightfully; but I am sure you
will understand me, Mrs. Mulgrave, and not think anything absurd. You
are sure to get acquainted with him, you know; and if you would ask him
to the cottage--and ask us to meet him---- Good heavens! what a fool you
must think me,’ she cried: ‘but I should like it, I confess.’

‘But, my dear, I never give dinners,’ I said; ‘and to ask a man, a
strange man, to tea----’

‘He would be sure to come--to you,’ she said very quickly, as if her
breath had failed her.

‘But, my dear, you are just as likely as I am--more likely--to meet him
at other houses. It would be impossible otherwise. Not that I should
mind asking him--though it is so odd to ask a man to tea.’

‘Hush!’ she said, suddenly leaning forward and grasping my arm. ‘Mrs.
Spen has told Lady Denzil--she meant it for kindness--so we shall not be
asked to meet him. And I do wish it, just for once. Hush, here she is
coming. I don’t want her to know.’

‘Then, my dear, I will do it,’ said I, grasping her hand. It trembled
and was hot, and she grasped mine again in an agitated, impetuous way.
Could this be Lady Isabella, who was always so calm and self-possessed?
I was rather afraid of her in general, for she had the name of being
satirical; and this was entirely a new light on her character. But just
then Mrs. Spencer came in, and scolded us for sitting in the dark, and
rang for lights; and then no more could be said.

It was curious to look at the two when the lamp came. Mrs. Spencer
seated herself on her side of the fire, like the husband coming in from
his day’s work. She was a clever woman, but she was matter-of-fact, and
notwithstanding the long years they had lived together, was never quite
sure what was the meaning of her friend’s jibes and jests. It was this
as much as anything that gave a sort of conjugal character to their
relationship. Friends who were merely friends, and were so different,
would, one was inclined to suppose, have got rid of each other years
ago. But these two clung together in spite of all their differences, as
if there were some bond between them which they had to make the best of.
Mrs. Spencer began talking the moment she came in.

‘I met Mrs. Damerel on the Green and she was asking for you, Isabella;
in short, she was quite surprised to see me out alone. “I thought Lady
Isabella always walked once a day at least,” she said. “And so she
pretends to do,” said I. And I told her what I said to you before I went
out about your health. Depend upon it your health will suffer. A young
woman at your age getting into these chimney-corner ways! Mrs. Mulgrave,
don’t you agree with me that it is very wrong?’

‘Don’t scold me, please,’ said Lady Isabella, out of her corner; ‘if you
both fall upon me, I am rather nervous to-night, and I know I shall
cry.’

At this Mrs. Spencer laughed; just as a husband would have done, taking
it for the merest nonsense; yet somehow propitiated, for there was an
inference of superior wisdom, importance, goodness on his--I mean
her--part, such as mollifies the marital mind. No one could have been
more utterly bewildered than she, had she known that what her friend
said was literally true. Lady Isabella had drawn a little screen between
her and the fire, which sheltered her also from the modest light of the
lamp; and I felt by the sound of her voice, that though, no doubt, she
could restrain herself, it would have been a relief to her to have shed
the tears which made her eyes hot and painful. She would have laughed,
probably, while she was shedding them, but that makes no difference.

‘You don’t do enough, and Lady Denzil does too much,’ said Mrs. Spencer.
‘She surprises _me_, and I think I am as active as most people. I can’t
tell why she does it, I am sure. She is an old woman; it can’t be any
pleasure to her. There is a dinner-party there to-night, and another on
Saturday; and on Monday the dance for those young Fieldings that are
staying there--enough to kill a stronger woman. But these little,
fragile beings get through so much. She keeps up through it all and
never looks a pin the worse.’

‘Are you going there to-night?’ said I. I had scarcely said it when I
saw a little flutter behind the screen, and felt it was a foolish
question. But it was too late.

‘No,’ said Mrs. Spencer, pointedly; and she looked straight at Lady
Isabella’s screen with a distinctness of intimation that this abstinence
was on her account, which would have puzzled me much but for the
previous explanation I had had. Words would have been much less
emphatic. She nodded her head a great many times, and she gave me a look
which promised further information. She was fond of her companion, and I
am sure would have sheltered her from pain at almost any cost to
herself; but yet she enjoyed the mystery, and the story which lay below.
‘All the officers from the barracks will be there,’ she added, after a
pause. ‘There is a Captain Fielding, an empty-headed--but they are all
empty-headed. I don’t care much about soldiers in an ordinary way, and I
dislike guardsmen. So does Isabella.’

And then there followed one of those embarrassing pauses which come
against one’s will when there is any secret undercurrent which everybody
knows and nobody mentions. Lady Isabella sat perfectly silent, and I,
who ought to have come to the rescue,--I, after running wildly in my
mind over every topic of conversation possible,--at last rose to take my
leave, not finding anything to say.

‘Are you going, Mrs. Mulgrave?’ said Lady Isabella. ‘I will go to the
door with you. I must show you the new flowers in the hall.’

‘Good gracious, something must be going to happen,’ said Mrs. Spencer,
‘when Isabella volunteers to show you flowers. Don’t catch cold in the
draught; but it is too dark: you can’t possibly see any colour in them
now.’

‘Never mind,’ said Lady Isabella in an undertone; and she hurried out
leading the way,--a thing I had never seen her do before. She made no
pretence about the flowers when we got out to the hall. It was quite
dark, and of course I could see nothing. She grasped my hand in a
nervous, agitated way. She was trembling,--she, who was always so steady
and calm. It was partly from cold, to be sure, but then the cold was
caused by emotion. ‘His name is Colonel Brentford,’ she whispered in my
ear; and then ran up-stairs suddenly, leaving me to open the door for
myself. I have received a great many confidences in my life, but seldom
any so strange as this. I did not know whether to laugh or to be sorry,
as I walked home thinking over it. Lady Isabella was the last person in
the world to be involved in any romance; and yet this was romantic
enough. And it was so difficult to make out how I could perform my part
in it. Ask a guardsman, a strange colonel, a _man_, to tea! I could not
but reflect how foolish I was, always undertaking things that were so
difficult to perform. But I was pledged to do it, and I could not go
back.



CHAPTER II


I was to dine at Sir Thomas Denzil’s that same evening, and so no doubt
would Mrs. Spencer and Lady Isabella have done, but for that obstacle
which the elder lady had set up and in which the younger seemed
determined to foil her. I dressed to go out, with my heart beating a
little quicker than usual. For myself, as may be supposed, the officers
from the barracks were not very much to me; but the undertaking with
which I suddenly found myself burdened was very serious, and made me
nervous in spite of myself; and then the man’s very name was strange to
me. I thought over all my acquaintances, and everybody I had ever known;
but I could not remember any one of the name of Brentford. There were
the Brentwoods of Northam, and the Bentleys, and a great many names came
up to my mind which sounded like it at the first glance; but I could not
recollect a single Brentford among all my acquaintance. ‘I wonder who
his mother was?’ I said to myself; for, to be sure, there might be a
means of getting at him in that way; but it was impossible to find out
at so short a notice. I almost felt as if I were a designing woman when
I went into Lady Denzil’s drawing-room--and so I was, though I did not
want to marry any of those unconscious warriors either personally or by
proxy. Little did Lady Denzil suspect, as I went up to her--trying to
look as innocent as possible--and little did the men of war think, of my
evil projects, as they looked blandly at me, and set me down as that
harmless and uninteresting being--an old lady. The one who took me in to
dinner was an elderly, sober-looking, quiet gentleman. He was a Major
Somebody, and I don’t think he was so fine as the others. I drew breath
when I had seated myself under his wing. It was a comfort to me to have
escaped the young ones, who never forgive you, when they have to take
you in to dinner, for not being young and pretty. This was a man who had
no pretensions above me--a man, probably, with a wife of his own and a
large family, whom one could speak to freely and ask questions of. But
before I would go so far, I made what private inspection I could. It was
quite evident to me where the gap was which Mrs. Spencer and Lady
Isabella ought to have filled. It had been hastily filled up by Lottie
and Lucy Stoke, who were very much more to the taste of the guardsmen, I
don’t doubt, than if they had been their own grandmothers, ladies of
county influence and majesty. Lucy, whose blue eyes were dancing in her
head with mingled fright and delight to find herself in such a grand
party, sat by a handsome dark man, to whom my eyes returned a great many
times. He looked the kind of man whom a woman might be faithful to for
years. Could it be _him?_ He was amused with Lucy’s excitement and her
fright; perhaps he was flattered by it as men so often are. After a
little while, I could see he took great pains to make himself agreeable;
and I felt quite angry and jealous, though I am sure I could not have
told why.

‘Perhaps you recognize him?’ my companion said to me, as he caught me
watching this pair across the table. ‘He is one of the Elliots. His
father had a place once in this neighbourhood. I am sure you must
recollect his face.’

‘No, indeed,’ said I, denying by instinct. ‘That gentleman opposite--is
his name Elliot? I was looking at the young lady by him. She is a little
friend of mine, and I am petrified to find her here. I did not think she
was out.’

‘That is why she likes it so well, I suppose,’ said the Major with a
little sigh.

‘I am afraid you don’t enjoy it much,’ said I. ‘Pray forgive me for
being so very stupid. I should like to know which of these gentlemen is
Colonel Brentford. I have heard his name--I should like to know which is
he.’

‘He is sitting beside Lady Denzil,’ said my companion shortly; and he
said no more. His brevity startled me. I think Colonel Brentford from
that moment began to lose in my opinion. I grew more and more frightened
by the thought of what I had undertaken to do. I began to think it was a
great pity Lady Isabella, a sensible woman, should waste a thought upon
this soldier--and all for no reason in the world but that my Major
announced curtly, ‘He is sitting beside Lady Denzil,’ without adding a
word to say, ‘I like him,’ or ‘He is a very nice fellow,’ or anything
agreeable. I concluded he must be a bear or a brute, or something
utterly frivolous and uninteresting. It never occurred to me that it
might be my Major and not the unknown Colonel who was to blame. And I
had pledged myself to ask such a man as this to tea!

We had gone back to the drawing-room before I got what I could call a
good look at him; and then I was even more disappointed to find that he
was as far from looking a brute or a bear as he was from looking a hero.
There was nothing remarkable about him; he was neither handsome nor
ugly; he was neither young nor old. He stood and talked a long time to
Lady Denzil, and his voice was pleasant, but the talk was about
nothing--it was neither stupid nor clever. He was a man of negatives it
seemed. I was dreadfully disappointed for Lady Isabella’s sake. I could
not help figuring to myself what her feelings would be. No doubt he had
been young when they had known each other, and youth has often a
deceiving glitter about it, which never comes to anything. Chance threw
my Major in my way again at that advanced period of the evening. He said
to me, ‘We have a long drive and the night is chilly, and I wish I could
get my young fellows into motion. These proceedings don’t always agree
with the taste of a man at my time of life; and my wife is always
fidgety when I am out late--it is her way.’

‘Mrs. Bellinger is not here to-night?’ I said.

‘No, we are quite new to the place, and Lady Denzil has not had time to
call yet: my wife, I am sure, would be delighted if you would go and see
her. She is rather delicate, and far from her friends. Colonel Brentford
is the only one----’ And here he stopped short with an abruptness that
made me hate Colonel Brentford and repent my temerity more and more.

‘I am so sorry you don’t seem to have a favourable opinion of him,’ I
said; ‘not that I know him, but I have heard some friends of mine----
Oh, I am sure you did not mean to say a word against him----’

‘Against him!’ said the Major, stammering; ‘why, he is my best friend!
He is the kindest fellow I know! He goes and sits with my wife when
nobody else thinks of her. I don’t want to find fault with any one; but
Brentford--he is the man I am most grateful to in all the world!’

‘Oh, I beg your pardon!’ I cried. Good heavens! what a very bad manner
the man must have had to give one such a false idea. ‘I shall do myself
the pleasure of calling on Mrs. Bellinger early next week,’ I said;
after all, it did not seem so insane to ask a man who was in the habit
of going to sit with an invalid lady. And then a kind of inspiration
stole into my mind. Afternoon tea! that was the thing; not an evening
party, with all its horrors--which every man hates.

I don’t know what Lady Denzil could think of me that evening; but I
stayed until everybody had gone, with a determination to hear something
more about him. I think she was surprised; but then she is one of those
women who understand you, even when they don’t in the least know what
you mean. That seems foolish, but it is quite true. She saw I had a
motive, and she forgave me, though she was tired, and Sir Thomas looked
surprised.

‘The fly has never come back for me,’ I said. ‘I must ask you to let
George walk across the Green with me. I have got my big shawl, and I
don’t mind the cold.’

‘Wait a little now they have all gone, and let us have a talk,’ said
Lady Denzil. What a blessing it is to have to do with a woman who
understands!

‘Our new friends are very much like all the others, I think,’ said I.
‘Captain Fielding seems nice. Is he brother or cousin to those pretty
girls?’

‘Brother, or I should not have him here,’ said Lady Denzil; ‘I have no
confidence in cousins. Colonel Brentford looks sensible. I should not
have thought him likely to do anything so foolish as that business you
know. I suppose Mrs. Spencer must have told you.’

‘No,’ I said, with a little thrill running through me; for, of course,
it was something about Lady Isabella that was meant--and I was actually
an agent employed in the matter, and knew, and yet did not know.

‘Lady Isabella and he were once engaged to be married,’ said Lady
Denzil, speaking low. ‘Don’t mention this, unless Mrs. Spencer tells
you; but she is sure to tell you. And they quarrelled about some silly
trifle. Mrs. Spencer says he flew into a passion, and that Lady Isabella
had to give him up on account of his temper. He does not look like it,
does he? Mrs. Spencer is most anxious that they should not meet.’

‘Do you think it is right to prevent people meeting, if they wish it?’
said I; ‘perhaps Lady Isabella might think differently.’

‘It is best never to interfere,’ said Lady Denzil; ‘that is my
principle--unless I am sure I can be of real use. Are you going now? You
must wrap up well, for the night is rather cold.’

‘So my Major thought,’ I said to myself, as I went across the Green; and
I could not but smile at the thought of the poor gentleman buttoning up
his great-coat as he drove with all those wild young fellows on their
drag. Very likely he felt they might upset him at any moment driving
through the dark--and it was a very dark night. My sympathies were much
attracted by this good man. He had to give in to them a great deal, and
put up with their foolish ways. I could not help wondering whether he
had ever had such a commission given to him as mine; and then I
reflected that Lady Isabella was not even young to be humoured and have
her fancies given in to. The Colonel looked a sensible, commonplace sort
of man, with whom nobody had any right to quarrel. And perhaps Mrs.
Spencer was right in doing her utmost to keep them apart. Perhaps Mrs.
Spencer was right; but then, on the other hand, Lady Isabella was old
enough to know her own mind and decide for herself. Such were the
various thoughts that passed through my mind as I took that little walk
through the dark with George behind me. It was a perplexing business
altogether. But that I should be mixed up in it! I could not but take
myself to task, and ask myself what call had I to be thus mixed up with
every sort of foolish business--a woman of my age?

I saw Lady Isabella two days after. She came running in quite early,
before luncheon, to my extreme surprise, and gave me a wistful look of
inquiry which went to my very heart. She could not say anything however,
for the Fielding girls were with me, talking of nothing but the dance
which Lady Denzil was going to give for them. They assailed Lady
Isabella directly, the moment she entered.

‘Oh, why are not you coming on Monday? Oh, Lady Isabella, do change your
mind and come. It will be such a pretty dance. And all the officers are
coming, so that there will be no want of partners. Lady Denzil says she
always asks more men than ladies. Oh, Lady Isabella, do come!’

‘That is very wise of Lady Denzil,’ said Lady Isabella; ‘but I wonder
how the extra men like it. No; I don’t think I shall go. I shall see
all the officers, perhaps, another time.’ And with that she gave me
another look which made me tremble, holding me to my word.

‘Perhaps you don’t dance,’ said Emma Fielding. ‘Oh, it is such a pity
you won’t come.’

‘My husband won’t let me,’ said Lady Isabella; ‘and, by the by, she will
be waiting for me now. I had something to ask, but never mind, another
time will do.’

She asked the question all the same with her eyes. She looked at me
almost sternly, inquiring, as plainly as words, ‘Have you done it? Is my
commission fulfilled?’ which I could only answer by a deprecating,
humble look, begging her as it were to have patience with me. She shook
her head slightly as she shook hands with me, and smiled, and then she
sighed. That was the worst of all. I read a reproach in the sound of
that sigh.

‘What does she mean by her husband?’ said Edith Fielding. ‘Is she
married, and does she call her husband “she”? Isn’t she very queer? That
sort of person always bewilders me.’

I could not help saying, ‘I dare say she does,’ with a certain
irritation. As if it were within the bounds of possibility that
creatures like these should understand Lady Isabella. And yet, alas! if
she were entering into the lists with them, how could she ever stand
against them? She, five-and-thirty, and a little stout; they, eighteen
and nineteen. Is there a man in the world that would not turn to the
young ones, and leave the mature woman? That was the question I asked
myself. I don’t think I am cynical; I have not a bad opinion of my
fellow-creatures in general; but still there are some matters which one
knows beforehand. The first thing to be done however was to make
acquaintance with Colonel Brentford as soon as possible. I had promised
to go to the dance, to take Lottie and Lucy Stoke; but then he would be
dancing; he would not want to stand in a corner and talk to an old woman
like me. Lady Isabella, at five-and-thirty, had given up dancing; but
this man, though he was nearly five years older, of course did not think
of giving it up. Most likely he felt himself on the level of the
Fieldings and Stokes and the other girls, not on that of his old love.
Men and women are so different. But, at all events, I would do nothing
before Monday: and in the meantime, I had promised to go and call on
Major Bellinger’s invalid wife. There had been something about him that
pleased me. Not that he was attractive; but he had the look of a man who
was not always at his ease, who had cares and perplexities in his life,
and perhaps could not always make both ends meet. I always recognize
that look. I am not very rich now, and never will be; but I once was
poor, quite poor, and I know the look of it, and it goes to my heart.

Accordingly, the first day I was at liberty I drove into Royalborough to
see Mrs. Bellinger. They were in a little house--one of the houses which
people take for the purpose of letting them to the officers. It was
opposite to a tall church, a three-storied house, with two rooms on each
floor all the way up. There was a little oblong strip of garden in front
and another oblong strip behind; and everything about it gave evidence
that it was let furnished. But the little garden was rather pretty, and
there was a virginian creeper hanging in rich red wreaths upon the
walls. The drawing-room was the front room on the ground-floor. When I
was shown in, it seemed to me that I interrupted the prettiest domestic
scene. A lady, who looked very fragile and weak, though not ill, lay on
a sofa in the room. Of course, she was Mrs. Bellinger. She was about
forty, perhaps,--not much older than Lady Isabella. She had a lovely
invalid complexion, a soft, delicate flush which came and went with
every movement; her hair was beginning to get gray, and was partially
covered by a cap. She looked very weak, very worn, very sweet and
smiling, and cheerful. Near her, on a low chair, sat a gentleman with a
book in his hand. He had been reading aloud, and had just stopped when I
came to the door; and in front of him, at a little distance, seated on a
stool, just by her mother’s feet, sat a girl of seventeen or so, with
her head bent over her work. This was Edith, the Major’s favourite
child, the only one at home. And the gentleman who had been reading
aloud was Colonel Brentford, the man about whom my mind had been busy
night and day.

I took the chair that was given me, and I began to talk, but all the
freedom and ease were taken out of me. I felt as if I had received a
blow. Poor Lady Isabella! I had already perceived that to put herself in
competition with the young girls would be a hopeless notion indeed; but
it was no longer the girls in general, some of whom were empty-headed
enough, but Edith Bellinger in particular. Poor Lady Isabella! If she
saw him once like this, I said to myself, she would not wish to see him
again!

‘My husband told me you were going to be so good,’ said the invalid. ‘He
told me how kind you had been, asking for me. I am really quite well for
me, and I am sure I could do a great deal more if they would but let me.
Hush, Edie! I am dreadfully petted and spoiled, Mrs. Mulgrave. They make
a baby of me, and Colonel Brentford is so kind as to come and read----’

‘It is very good of him, I am sure,’ I said mechanically; and then,
without knowing what I was doing, I looked at Edith. She was quite
unconscious of any meaning in my look. She smiled at me in return with
all the sweet composure yet shyness of a child. Would he be equally
unconscious? I raised my eyes and looked steadily at him. He bore my
scrutiny very well indeed. I knew there was an angry flush on my face
which I could not quite conceal, and an eager look of inquiry. It
puzzled him, there was no doubt. A vague sort of wonder came into his
eyes, and he smiled too. What could the old woman mean? I am sure he was
thinking. Edith was very pretty, but then a great many girls are
pretty. What was particular about her was her sweet look, which moved me
even though I was so hostile to her. One saw she was ready to run
anywhere, to do anything, at the least little glance from her mother.
She was mending stockings--the homeliest work--and she looked such a
serviceable, useful creature--so different from those Fielding girls,
who thought of nothing but the dance. To be sure, the stockings and the
useful look were much more likely to please me than to attract a
guardsman; but I did not think of that in my sudden jealousy of her.
Poor, poor Lady Isabella!

And he did not go away, as he would have done had this been a chance
visit. He kept his place, and joined in the conversation as if he
belonged to the house. When I asked Mrs. Bellinger to come and see me,
he seconded me quite eagerly. He was sure she was able, he said; while
Edith put her pretty head on one side, and looked very wise and very
doubtful.

‘Oh, Colonel Brentford, please don’t be so rash--please don’t!’ said
Edith. ‘It is very, very kind of Mrs. Mulgrave, but we must think it
over first--we must indeed.’

‘I will send my pony,’ said I; ‘he is the steadiest little fellow, and
it is such a pretty drive. The weather is so mild that I am sure it
would do you good.’

‘Now, Edith, please let me go,’ said the invalid. ‘Do not be such a
little hard-hearted inexorable--Colonel Brentford is the kindest of you
all. He is ready to let me have a little indulgence, and so is the
Major, Mrs. Mulgrave; but Edith is the most odious little tyrant----’

‘Mamma dear, it is for your good,’ said Edith with the deepest gravity;
and the mother and the friend looked at each other and laughed. How
pretty it was to see her shaking her young head, looking so serious, so
judicious, so full of care! ‘No wonder if he is fond of her,’ I said to
myself. I felt my own heart melting; but, all the same, I steeled it
against her, feeling that I was on the other side.

‘And I am sure,’ I said with an effort--for it seemed almost like
encouraging him--‘I shall be very glad to see Colonel Brentford too; if
you will take the trouble to come so far for a cup of tea?’

He said it would give him the greatest pleasure, with a cordiality that
made me cross, and got up and took his leave, shaking hands with me in
his friendliness. Why was he so friendly, I wonder? When he was gone,
Mrs. Bellinger launched into his praises.

‘You must not think it is only me he is good to,’ she said; ‘he is kind
to everybody. People laugh at the guardsmen, and make fun of them; but
if they only knew George Brentford! Because they see him everywhere in
society, they think he is just as frivolous as the rest. But if they
knew what kind of places he goes to when nobody sees him--as we do,
Edith?’

‘Yes, mamma,’ said Edith, as calm as any cabbage. The mother was quite
moved by her gratitude and enthusiasm, but the daughter took it all very
quietly. ‘He means to be very kind, but he is rash,’ said the little
wise woman; ‘he gives the boys knives and things, though he knows they
always cut themselves. He thinks so much more of pleasing people than of
what is right. If Mrs. Mulgrave would leave it open, mamma dear, and
then we could see how you are.’

This was how it was finally decided; indeed, before I left, even after
that first visit, I could see that things were generally decided as
Edith thought best. They were to come on Saturday--the Saturday before
the ball--if Mrs. Bellinger was well enough; and Colonel Brentford was
to come too. I asked myself all the way back what Lady Isabella would
think of the arrangement. That was not how she expected to meet him. She
had wanted to see her old love--a man whom (I could not but feel) she
had never quite put out of her heart--perhaps only to prove herself,
perhaps to try if any lingerings of the old tenderness remained in him.
And now that it was arranged, and she was really to see him, it was in
company of a young bright creature who, there could be little doubt, was
all to him that Lady Isabella had ever been. What a shock and bitter
dispelling of all dreams for her! but yet, perhaps, to do that at once
and at a blow was kindest after all.



CHAPTER III


As I drove home, strangely enough, I met the ladies on their afternoon
walk. Mrs. Spencer was in advance as usual, talking rapidly and with
animation, while Lady Isabella lagged a step behind, pausing to look at
the ripe brambles and the beautiful ruddy autumn leaves.

‘Just look what a bit of colour,’ she was saying when I came up; but
Mrs. Spencer’s mind, it was evident, was full of other things.

‘I wonder how you can care for such nonsense,’ she said; ‘I never saw
any one so unexcitable. After me fussing myself into a fever, to
preserve you from this annoyance! and I knew it would be too much for
you----’

‘Hush!’ said Lady Isabella, emphatically, and then Mrs. Spencer
perceived the pony carriage for the first time, and restrained herself.
She changed her tone in a moment, and came up to me with her alert step
when I drew the pony up.

‘What a nice afternoon for a drive,’ she said; ‘have you been at
Royalborough?--is there anything going on? I have dragged Isabella out
for a walk, as usual much against her will.’

‘I have been to make a call,’ I said, ‘on a poor invalid, the wife of
Major Bellinger.’

‘Oh, yes! I know, I know,’ said Mrs. Spencer; ‘he is to be the
barrack-master. He rose from the ranks, I think, or something--very
poor, and a large family. I know quite what sort of person she would be.
The kind of woman that has been pretty, and has quite broken down with
children and trouble--I know. It was very good of you; quite like
yourself.’

‘If it was very good of me, I have met with a speedy reward,’ said I,
‘for I have quite fallen in love with her--and her daughter. They are
coming to me on Saturday--if Mrs. Bellinger is able--for afternoon tea.’

‘I know exactly the kind of person,’ said Mrs. Spencer, nodding her
head. ‘Ah, my dear Mrs. Mulgrave, you are always so good, and so----’

‘Easily taken in,’ she was going to say, but I suppose I looked very
grave, for she stopped.

‘Is the daughter pretty, too?’ said Lady Isabella: a flush had come upon
her face, and she looked at me intently, waiting, I could see, for a
sign. She understood that this had something to do with the commission
she had given me. And I was so foolish as to think she had divined my
thoughts, and had fixed upon Edith, by instinct, as an obstacle in her
way.

‘Never mind the daughter,’ I said hastily, ‘but do come on Saturday
afternoon, and see if I am not justified in liking the mother. I dare
say they are not very rich, but they are not unpleasantly poor, or, if
they are, they don’t make a show of it; and a little society, I am sure,
would do her all the good in the world.’

This time Lady Isabella looked so intently at me, that I ventured to
give the smallest little nod just to show her that I meant her to come.
She took it up in a moment. Her face brightened all over. She made me a
little gesture of thanks and satisfaction. And she put on instantly her
old laughing, lively, satirical air.

‘Of course we shall come,’ she said, ‘even if this lady were not sick
and poor. These qualities are great temptations to us, you are aware;
but even if she were just like other people we should come.’

‘Well, Isabella!’ said Mrs. Spencer, ‘you who are so unwilling to go
anywhere!’ but of course she could not help adding a civil acceptance of
my invitation; and so that matter was settled more easily than I could
have hoped.

I saw them the next day--once more by accident. We were both calling at
the same house, and Lady Isabella seized the opportunity to speak to me.
She drew me apart into a corner, on pretence of showing me something.
‘Look here,’ she said, with a flush on her face, ‘tell me, do you think
me a fool--or worse? That is about my own opinion of myself.’

‘No,’ I said, ‘indeed I don’t. I think you are doing what is quite
right. This is not a matter which concerns other people, that you should
be guided by them, but yourself.’

‘Oh, it does not concern any one very much,’ she said, with a forced
laugh. ‘I am not so foolish as to think _that_. It is a mere piece of
curiosity--folly. The fact is, one does not grow wise as one grows old,
though of course one ought. And--he is--really to be there on Saturday?
Despise me, laugh at me, make fun of me!--I deserve it, I know.’

‘He is really to come--I hope.’ I said it faltering, with a sense of
fright at my own temerity: and Lady Isabella gave me a doubtful,
half-suspicious look as she left me. Now that it had come so near I grew
alarmed, and doubted much whether I should have meddled. It is very
troublesome having to do with other people’s affairs. It spoiled my rest
that night, and my comfort all day. I almost prayed that Saturday might
be wet, that Mrs. Bellinger might not be able to come. But, alas!
Saturday morning was the brightest, loveliest autumn morning, all
wrapped in a lovely golden haze, warm and soft as summer, yet subdued
and chastened and sweet as summer in its heyday never is: and the first
post brought me a note from Edith, saying that her mamma felt so well,
and was so anxious to come. Accordingly, I had to make up my mind to it.
I sent the pony carriage off by twelve o’clock, that the pony might have
a rest before he came back, and I got out my best china, and had my
little lawn carefully swept clean of faded leaves, and my flower-beds
trimmed a little. They were rather untidy with the mignonette, which had
begun to grow bushy, but then it was very sweet; and the asters and red
geraniums looked quite gay and bright. My monthly rose, too, was covered
with flowers. I am very fond of monthly roses; they are so sweet and so
pathetic in autumn, remonstrating always, and wondering why summer
should be past; or at least that is the impression they convey to me. I
know some women who are just like them, women who have a great deal to
bear, and cannot help feeling surprised that so much should be laid upon
them; yet who keep on flowering and blossoming in spite of all,
brightening the world and keeping the air sweet, not for any reason, but
because they can’t help it. My visitor who was coming was, I think,
something of that kind.

The first of the party to arrive were Major Bellinger and Colonel
Brentford; they had walked over, and the Major was very eloquent about
my kindness to his wife. ‘Nothing could possibly do her so much good,’
he said. ‘I don’t know how to thank you, Mrs. Mulgrave. Brentford says
he made up his mind she must go the very first minute, whether she could
or not--he said he was so sure you would do her good.’

‘I am very glad Colonel Brentford had such a favourable opinion of me,’
I said.

Then I stopped short, feeling very much embarrassed. If Lady Isabella
had only come in _then_, before the ladies arrived--but, of course, she
did not. She came only after Mrs. Bellinger was established on the sofa,
and Edith had taken off her hat. They looked quite a family party, I
could not but feel. Colonel Brentford, probably, was very nearly as old
as the Major himself, and quite as old as the Major’s wife; but then he
had the unmarried look which of itself seems a kind of guarantee of
youth, and his face was quite free of that cloud of care which was more
or less upon both their faces. He was standing outside the open window
with Edith when Mrs. Spencer and Lady Isabella came in. He did not see
them. He was getting some of the monthly roses for her, which were high
up upon the verandah. It was so high that it was very seldom we were
able to get the flowers; but he was a tall man, and he managed it. Lady
Isabella perceived him at once, and I saw a little shiver run over her.
She gave Mrs. Bellinger, poor soul, but a very stiff salutation, and sat
down on a chair near the window. She did not notice the girl. She had
not thought of Edith, and no sort of suspicion as yet had been roused in
her. She sat down quietly, and waited until he should come in.

How strange it was!--all bright full sunshine, no shadow or mystery to
favour the romance; the Bellingers and Mrs. Spencer talking in the most
ordinary way; the Colonel outside, pulling down the branch of pale
roses; and Edith smiling, shaking off some dewdrops that had fallen from
them upon her pretty hair. All so ordinary, so calm, so peaceable--but
Lady Isabella seated there, silent, waiting--and I looking on with a
chill at my very heart. He was a long time before he came in--talking to
Edith was pleasant out in that verandah, with all the brilliant sunshine
about, and the russet trees so sweet in the afternoon haze.

‘You shall have some,’ he said; ‘but we must give some to your mother
first.’

And then he came in with the branch in his hand. I don’t know whether
some sense of suppressed excitement in the air struck him as he paused
in the window, but he did stand still there, and looked round him with
an inquiring look. He had not left so many people in the room as were in
it now, and he was surprised. He looked at me, and then I suppose my
agitated glance directed him, in spite of myself, to Lady Isabella. He
gave a perceptible start when he saw her, and smothered an exclamation.
He recognized her instantly. His face flushed, and the branch of roses
in his hand trembled. All this took place quite unobserved by anybody
but me, and, perhaps, Edith, outside the window, who was coming in after
him, and now stood on tiptoe, trying to see what was going on and
wondering. Lady Isabella looked up at him with a face so uncertain in
its expression that my terror was great. Was she angry? Was she going to
betray herself, and show the nervous irritability which possessed her?
She was very pale--white to her lips; and he so flushed and startled.
She looked up at him, and then her lips parted and she smiled.

‘I think _I_ should like one of the roses,’ she said.

Colonel Brentford did not say a word. He made her a bow, and with a
trembling hand (how it did tremble!--it made me shake with sympathy to
see it) he detached a spray from the great branch, which was all pink
with roses, and gave it to her; and then he went away into the furthest
corner, throwing down his roses on a table as he passed, and stared out
of the window. To him the meeting was quite unexpected, I
suppose--something utterly startling and sudden. The talk went on all
the same. Edith, surprised, came in, and stood with her back to the open
window, looking after him in a state of bewilderment. He had gone in
smiling, to give her mother the flowers; and now he was standing with
his back to us, the flowers cast down anywhere. As for Lady Isabella,
she had buried her face in her roses, and sat quite silent, taking no
notice of any one. Such was this meeting, which I had brought about. And
all the time I had to talk to Major Bellinger, and look as if I were
attending to what he said.

‘Does Edith sing?’ I asked in desperation. ‘I am so glad! Do sing us
something, my dear--oh, anything--and the simpler the better. How nice
it is of you not to want your music! My piano is not in very good order,
I play so seldom now; but it will not matter much to your young fresh
voice.’

I said this, not knowing what I was saying, and hurried her to the
piano, thinking, if she sang ever so badly, it still would be a blessed
relief amid all this agitation and excitement.

‘I only sing to mamma,’ said Edith. ‘I will try if you wish it; but papa
does not care for my singing--and Colonel Brentford hates it,’ she
added, raising her voice.

There was a little spite, a little pique, in what Edith said. She was
confounded by his sudden withdrawal, and anxious to call him back and
punish him. This however was not the effect her words produced. Colonel
Brentford took no notice, and kept his back towards us; but on another
member of our little company the effect was startling enough.

‘Colonel Brentford!’ said Mrs. Spencer with a little shriek; and her
nice comfortable commonplace talk with Mrs. Bellinger came to an end at
once. She got up and came to me, and drew me into another corner. ‘For
Heaven’s sake,’ she said, ‘tell me, what did the girl mean? Colonel
Brentford! He is the one man in all the world whom we must not meet.
That is not him surely at the window? Oh, good heavens! what is to be
done? I wanted to tell you, but I never had an opportunity. Mrs.
Mulgrave, he was once engaged to Isabella. They had a quarrel, and it
nearly cost her her life. I think I would almost have given mine to
preserve her from this trial. Has she seen him?--Oh, my poor dear! my
poor dear!’

Let anybody imagine what was the scene presented in my drawing-room now.
Colonel Brentford at the other end, with his back to us all, gazing out
at the window: Major Bellinger at one side of the room, and his wife at
the other, suddenly deserted by the people they had been respectively
talking to, looking across at each other with raised eyebrows and
questioning looks. Edith, confused and half-offended, stood before the
closed piano, where I had led her; and Mrs. Spencer holding me by the
arm in the opposite corner to that occupied by Colonel Brentford, was
discoursing close to my ear with excited looks and voluble utterance.
And these people were strangers to me, not like familiar friends, who
could wait for an explanation. I could only whisper in Mrs. Spencer’s
ear, ‘For heaven’s sake, do not let us make a scene now--let us keep
everything as quiet as possible now!’

Just then Lady Isabella suddenly rose from her seat, and sat down beside
Mrs. Bellinger, and began to talk to her. I could not quite hear how she
began, but I made out by instinct, I suppose, what she was saying:

‘I cannot ask Mrs. Mulgrave to introduce me, for I see she is occupied;
but I know who you are, and you must let me introduce myself. I am Lady
Isabella Morton, and I live here with a great friend of mine. Colonel
Brentford and I used to know each other long ago----’

‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Bellinger, drawing her breath quickly; ‘I think I have
heard----’

‘He was startled to see me,’ said Lady Isabella. ‘Of course, he did not
expect--but we are always meeting people we don’t expect. Your daughter
is going to sing. Hush! please hush! I want to hear it,’ she cried,
raising her hand with a little sign to the Major, who looked as though
he might be going to talk. Every word she said was audible through the
room, her voice was so clear and full.

Colonel Brentford turned round slowly. He turned almost as if he were a
man upon a pedestal, which some pivot had the power to move. Either it
was her voice which attracted him, or he had heard what she said, or
perhaps he was recovering from the shock of the first meeting.

It was at this moment that Edith began to sing. I do not know what her
feelings were, or if she cared anything about it; but certainly all the
rest of the party, with the exception of her father and mother, were
excited to such a strange degree, that I felt as if some positive
explosion must occur. How is it that fire and air, and all sorts of
senseless things, cause explosions, and that human feeling does not?
Edith’s girlish, fresh voice, rising out of the midst of all this
electrified one. It was a pretty voice singing one of the ordinary
foolish songs, which are all alike--a voice without the least passion or
even sentiment in it, sweet, fresh, guiltless of any feeling. Lady
Isabella leaned back in her chair, and listened with a faint smile upon
her face; Colonel Brentford stood undecided between her and the piano,
sometimes making a half-movement towards the singer, but turning his
eyes the other way; while Mrs. Spencer, on the other side of the room,
sat with her hands clasped, and gazed at her friend. The two Bellingers
listened as people listen to the singing of their child; a soft little
complacent smile was on the mother’s face. When Edith approached a
false note, or when she was a little out in her time, Mrs. Bellinger
gave a quick glance round to see if anybody noticed it, and blushed, as
it were, under her breath. The Major kept time softly with his finger;
and we--listened with our hearts thumping in our ears, bewildered by the
pleasant little song in its inconceivable calm, and yet glad of the
moment’s breathing time.

‘Thank you, my dear,’ said I, when the song was done; and we all said
‘Thanks’ with more or less fervour, while the parents, innocent people,
looked on well pleased.

And then I went to Edith at the piano, and asked all about her music,
what masters she had had, and a thousand other trifles, not hearing what
she answered me. But I did hear something else. I heard Colonel
Brentford speak to Lady Isabella, and took in every word. There was
nothing remarkable about it; but he spoke low, as if his words meant
more than met the ear.

‘I knew you were living here,’ was all he said.

‘Oh, I suppose so,’ said Lady Isabella. She had been quite calm before,
but I knew by her voice she was flurried now. And then there followed
that little agitated laugh, which in the last few days I had learnt to
know. ‘Most people know where everybody lives,’ she added, with an
attempt at indifference. ‘I too knew that your regiment was here.’

‘But I did not expect to see you just then,’ he went on. ‘And that
rose---- Pardon me if I was rude. I was taken altogether by surprise.’

‘That I should ask you for a rose?’ she said, holding it up. ‘It is but
a poor little thing, as these late flowers always are. Not much scent,
and less colour, but sweet, because it is over--almost a thing of the
past.’

‘I was taken altogether by surprise,’ said Colonel Brentford.

He did not make any reply to her. He was not clever, as she was. He
repeated his little phrase of confused no-meaning, and his voice
trembled. And while he was saying all this, Edith was telling me that
she had had a few--only a very few--lessons from Herrmannstadt, but her
mamma hoped that if they stayed at Royalborough, she might be able to
have some from Dr. Delvey or Miss de la Pluie.

‘If, my dear?’ said I. ‘I thought it was quite settled that you were to
stay!’ And then her answer became unintelligible to me; for my ears were
intent upon what was going on behind us, and instead of listening to
Edith, I heard only Colonel Brentford’s feet shuffling uneasily upon the
carpet, and Mrs. Spencer asking Lady Isabella if she did not think it
was time to go.

‘But you have not had any tea,’ said I, rushing to the front: though,
indeed, I was not at all sure that I wished them to stay.

‘We never take any tea,’ said Mrs. Spencer, unblushingly; though she
knew that I knew she was the greatest afternoon tea-drinker in all
Dinglefield; ‘and we have to call upon old Mrs. Lloyd, who is quite ill.
Did you know she was ill? We must not neglect the sick and the old, you
know, even for the pleasantest society. Isabella, my dear!’

Colonel Brentford went after us to the door. He looked at them
wistfully, watching their movements, until he saw that Mrs. Spencer had
a cloak over her arm. Then he came forward with a certain heavy
alacrity.

‘Let me carry it for you,’ he said.

‘Oh, thanks! We are not going far; don’t take the trouble. I would not
for the world take you from your friends,’ cried Mrs. Spencer wildly.

‘It is no trouble, if you will let me,’ he said.

He had taken the cloak out of her astonished hand, and Lady Isabella, in
the meantime, with a smile on her face, had walked on in advance. Even
I, though I felt so much agitated that I could have cried, could not but
laugh to see Mrs. Spencer’s look of utter discomfiture as she turned
from my door, attended by this man whom she so feared. I stood and
watched them as they went away, with a mingled feeling of relief and
anxiety and wonder. Thus it was over. Was it over? Could this be a
beginning or an end?

When I went back to the Bellingers they were consulting together, and I
fear were not quite well pleased. The Major and his daughter drew back
as I entered, but I saw it on their faces.

‘I hope you will pardon me,’ I said, ‘for leaving you alone. My friends
are gone, and Colonel Brentford has kindly walked with them to carry
something. Now I know you must want some tea.’

‘Indeed, mamma is a great deal too tired,’ said Edith, who naturally was
most nettled, ‘I am sure we ought to go home.’

‘I think she is over-tired,’ said the Major doubtfully.

He did not want to be dragged away so suddenly; but yet he was a little
surprised. Mrs. Bellinger, for her part, did not say anything, but she
looked pale, and my heart smote me. And then there appeared a line of
anxiety, which I had not noticed before, between her eyes.

‘It is only that she wants some tea,’ said I; and the Stokes coming in
at the moment, to my infinite satisfaction, made a diversion, and
brought things back to the ordinary channel of talk. And then they
challenged the Major and Edith to croquet, for which all the hoops and
things were set out on the lawn. Mrs. Bellinger and I began to talk when
they went away: and presently Colonel Brentford came back and sat
silently by us for five minutes--then went out to the croquet-players. A
little silence fell upon us, as the sound of the voices grew merrier
outside. It may be thought a stupid game now-a-days, but it is pretty to
look at, when one is safe and out of it; and we two ladies sat in the
cool room and watched the players, no doubt with grave thoughts enough.
Colonel Brentford took Edith in hand at once. He showed her how to
play, advised her, followed her, was always by her side. What did it
mean? Was he glad that his old love had passed away like a dream, and
left him free to indulge in this new one--to throw himself into this
younger, brighter existence? Neither of us spoke, and I wondered whether
we were both busy with the same thought.

At length Mrs. Bellinger broke the silence.

‘I feel so anxious about our Colonel,’ she said; ‘he is so good and so
nice. And your friends came by chance, quite by chance, Mrs. Mulgrave?
How strange it is? Do you know that there was once---- But of course you
know. Oh, I hope this meeting will be for good, and not for harm.’

‘For harm!’ I said, with words that did not quite express my thoughts.
‘They are both staid, sober people, not likely to go back to any
youthful nonsense. How could it do harm?’

Mrs. Bellinger shook her head. There was a cloud upon her face.

‘We shall see in time,’ she said, in a melancholy, prophetic way, and
sighed again.

To whom could it be that she apprehended harm? Not to Lady Isabella,
whom she did not know. Was it to the child then, or to _him_?



CHAPTER IV


Next day I had a number of visitors. Mrs. Spencer had made it so well
known in Dinglefield that nobody was to invite Lady Isabella to meet the
new officers, that my unexampled temerity startled the whole
neighbourhood. ‘Of course they have met, notwithstanding all our
precautions--and fancy, at Mrs. Mulgrave’s! She was almost the only
person Mrs. Spencer had not told,’ my neighbours said; for the place is
so small, that of course everybody knows what everybody else is doing on
the Green. The Stokes were the first to call, and they were full of it.

‘Fancy not telling us that Lady Isabella had been here?’ cried Lottie.
‘You must have known there was something, or you would have told us. And
what did you mean by it? Did you think they ought to have another
chance; or did you think----? Oh, I do so wish you would tell me what
you meant!’

‘Another chance, indeed!’ said Lucy. ‘As if Colonel Brentford--a
handsome man, and just a nice age--would look twice at that old thing!’

‘He is a good deal older than the old thing,’ said I; ‘and it is a poor
account of both men and women, Lucy, if everything is to give way to
mere youth. You yourself will not be seventeen always. You should
remember that.’

‘Well, but then I shall be married,’ said Lucy; ‘and I sha’n’t mind if
nobody pays me any attention. I shall have my husband and my children of
course; but an old maid----’

‘Be quiet, Lucy,’ said her sister angrily. ‘If you girls only knew how
to hold your tongues, then you might have a chance; but please tell me,
Mrs. Mulgrave--you won’t say you did not mean anything, for of course
you knew----?’

‘I don’t intend to say anything about it, my dear; and here is Mrs.
Spencer coming, if you would like to make any further inquiries,’ I
said. I was quite glad to see her, to get rid of their questionings.
Mrs. Spencer was very much flurried and disturbed, out of breath both of
mind and body.

‘Oh, my dear Mrs. Mulgrave, what an unfortunate business!’ she said, the
moment the girls were gone. ‘I have nobody but myself to blame, for I
never told you. I thought as you did not give many parties--and then I
know you don’t care much for those dancing sort of men: and how was I to
suppose he would be thrown upon your hands like this? It has upset me
so,’ she said, turning to me, with her eyes full of tears; ‘I have not
slept all night.’

Her distress was a great deal too genuine to be smiled at. ‘I am so
sorry,’ I said; ‘but, after all, I do not think it is serious. It did
not seem to disturb her much.’

‘Ah, that is because she does not show it,’ said Mrs. Spencer. ‘She is
so unselfish. You might stab her to the heart and she would never say a
word, if there was any one near who could be made unhappy by it. She
would not let _me_ see, for she knows it would make me wretched. And I
_am_ quite wretched about her. If this were to bring up old feelings!
And you know she nearly died of it--at the time.’

The tears came dropping down on poor Mrs. Spencer’s thin nose. It was
too thin, almost sharp in outline, but such tears softened all its
asperity away. I could not help thinking of those dreadful French
proverbs, which are so remorseless and yet so true; about ‘_l’un qui
aime, et l’autre qui se laisse aimer_;’ about ‘_l’un qui baise et
l’autre qui tend la joue_.’ Is it always so in this world? I could have
beaten myself for having interfered at all in the matter. Why should
anybody ever interfere? Life is hard enough without any assistance to
make it worse.

Lady Isabella herself came in late, when, fortunately, I was alone; and
she was in a very different mood. She came in, and gave a curious,
humorous glance round the room, and then sat down in the chair by the
window, where she had sat the day before, and asked Colonel Brentford
for that rose.

‘Is it possible it has been and is over,’ she said, in her mocking way;
‘that great, wonderful event, to which I looked forward so much? It
happened just here: and yet the place is exactly the same. How funny it
is when one remembers that it has happened, and yet feels one’s self
exactly like what one was before----’

‘You are not sorry, then?’ I cried, not knowing what to say.

‘Sorry? oh, no,’ she said with momentary fervour: and then blushed
scarlet. ‘On the contrary, I am very glad. It proved to me---- I got
all I wanted. I am quite pleased with myself. I can’t have been such a
fool after all; for--he is not clever, you know--but he is a man a woman
need not be ashamed to have been in love with: and that is saying a
great deal.’

‘And is it only a “have been?”’ said I; for after all when one had taken
so much trouble it was hard that nothing should come of it. I felt as if
I had taken a great deal of trouble, and all in vain.

‘Indeed, I should hope so!’ cried Lady Isabella, getting up and drawing
her shawl round her hastily. ‘You surely did not think that I meant
anything more. I am in a great hurry, I have only a few minutes to
spare; and thanks to you, good friend, I have had my whim, and I am
satisfied. I don’t feel at all ashamed of having been fond of
him--once.’

And with these words she ran away, silencing all questions. Was this
indeed all? Was it a mere whim? To tell the truth, when I tried to put
myself in her position, it seemed to me much wiser of Lady Isabella to
let it end so. She was very well off and comfortable: she had come to an
age when one likes to have one’s own way, and does not care to adopt the
habits of others; and what an immense _bouleversement_ it would make if
she should marry and break up that pleasant house, and throw herself
upon the chances of married life, abandoning Mrs. Spencer, who was as
good as married to her, and who, no doubt, calculated on her society all
her life. I said to myself--if I were Lady Isabella! And then there was
the great chance, the almost certainty that he would never attempt to
carry it any farther. He was a young-looking man, and no doubt (though
it is very odd to me how they can do it) he felt himself rather on the
level of a girl of twenty than of a woman of thirty-five. He had been a
good deal startled and touched by the meeting, which was not wonderful:
but he had returned to Edith’s side all the same; and, no doubt, that
was where he would stay. Edith was very young, and her parents were
poor, and the best thing for her would be to marry a man who was able to
take care of her, and make her very comfortable, and to whom, in return,
she would be entirely devoted. Edith could consent to be swallowed up in
him altogether, and to have no life but that of her husband; and except
by means of a husband who was well off the poor child never was likely
to do anything for herself or her family, but would have to live a life
of hard struggling with poverty and premature acquaintance with care.
This was of course the point of view from which the matter should be
regarded. To Lady Isabella Colonel Brentford’s means or position were
unnecessary. She was very well off, very fully established in the world
without him. And she could not be swallowed up in him, and renounce
everything that was her own to become his wife. She was an independent
being, with a great many independent ways and habits. It was better for
him, better for her, better for Edith that nothing should come of this
meeting; and yet--how foolish one is about such matters: what vain
fancies come into one’s head!

Everything sank into its ordinary calm however from that day. I did not
see Mrs. Spencer and Lady Isabella for a week after, and then they were
exactly as they had always been. Lady Isabella made no remark to me of
any kind on the subject, but Mrs. Spencer took me aside to give me her
opinion. ‘I am so glad to tell you,’ she said, ‘that your little
inadvertence has done no harm. Oh, I forgot: it was not an inadvertence
on your part, but my own fault for not telling you. It has done no harm,
I am so glad to say. Isabella seems to have quite settled down again. I
don’t believe she has given him another thought. Of course it was a
shock just at the moment. But you must not blame yourself, indeed you
must not. Probably she would have met him somewhere sooner or later. I
really feel quite glad that it is over; and it has done her no harm.’

This was all I gained by my exertions; and I made a resolution that I
would certainly never be persuaded to do anything of the kind again.
For, indeed, it had complicated my relations with various people. What
could I do, for instance, about the Bellingers? In the meantime I simply
dropped them, after having rushed into such an appearance of intimacy.
If anybody else had done it, I should have been indignant; but how could
I help myself? I could not have Edith in my house and see him wooing
her, after having taken such an interest in the other side. I could not
insult Lady Isabella by letting that go on under her very eyes. And
though I wondered sometimes what the respectable Major would think, and
whether poor dear Mrs. Bellinger would be wounded, I had not the
fortitude to continue the acquaintance. I simply dropped them: it was
the only thing I could do.

And then the winter came on all at once, which was a sort of excuse.
There was a week or two of very bad weather and I caught cold, and was
very glad of it, for, of course, nobody could expect me to drive to
Royalborough in my little open carriage with a bad cold, through the
rain and wind. A very dreary interval of dead quiet to me, and miserable
weather, followed this little burst of excitement. I felt sore about it
altogether, as a matter in which I had somehow been to blame, and which
was a complete failure--to say the least. One day when I had been out
for half an hour’s walk in the middle of the day, Colonel Brentford
called; but the card which I found on my table was the only
enlightenment this brought me, and my cold kept me away from all the
society on the Green for six weeks, during which time I had no
information on the subject. Sometimes, as usual, I saw Lady Isabella,
but there was no change in her. She had quite settled down again, was
the same as ever, and Mrs. Spencer had ceased to keep any watch upon
her. And so it was all over, as a tale that is told.

The first time I was out after my influenza was at Lady Denzil’s,
where, to my surprise, I found Edith Bellinger. She scarcely looked at
me, and it was with some difficulty I got our slender thread of
acquaintance renewed. Her mother, she thanked me, was better; her father
was quite well; they had been sorry to hear of my cold; yes, of course
it was a long way to drive. Such was the fashion of Edith’s talk; and I
acknowledged to myself that it was perfectly just.

‘Your mamma must think it very strange that I have never gone to see her
again,’ I was beginning to say, feeling uncomfortable and guilty.

‘I don’t suppose she has thought about it,’ Edith said hastily; and then
she stopped short and blushed. ‘I beg your pardon, I did not mean to be
rude.’

‘You are quite right,’ I said--‘not in being rude, but in feeling as you
do. I seem to have been very capricious and unfriendly; but I have been
ill; and you do not look quite so well yourself as when I saw you last.’

‘Oh, I am well enough,’ said the girl; and then those quick youthful
tears of self-compassion which lie so near the surface came rushing to
her eyes. ‘It is nothing, I--I am not very strong; and Lady Denzil, who
is always kind, has asked me here for change of air.’

‘Poor child,’ I said, ‘tell me what is the matter?’ But I was not to
learn at this moment at least. Colonel Brentford, whom I had not seen
till now, came forward and bent over her.

‘They are going to sing something, and they want you to take a part. I
have come for you,’ he said.

He looked down upon her quite tenderly, and held out his hand to help
her to rise. Yes, of course, that was how it must have ended. It was all
settled, of that I could have no doubt. I looked at them with, I fear, a
look that had some pain and some pity in it, as they left me; and when I
withdrew my eyes from them, my look met Lady Isabella’s, who was seated
at the other side of the room. She had her usual half-mocking,
half-kindly smile on her lips, but it looked to me set and immovable, as
if she had been painted so and could not change; and she was
pale--surely she was pale. It troubled me sadly, and all the more that I
dared not say a word to any one, dared not even make any manifestation
of sympathy to herself. She had chosen to renew her old acquaintance
with him, had chosen to break down the barrier which sympathizing
friends had raised round her, and to meet him with all freedom as if he
were totally indifferent to her. This had been her own choice; and now,
to be sure, she had to look on, and see all there might be to be seen.

But he was very civil to me when he chanced to be thrown near me. He
said, in a much more friendly tone than poor Edith’s, that Mrs.
Bellinger had been sorry to hear of my cold; that he hoped I should soon
be able to go and see her; and when I said that Edith did not look
strong, he shook his head. ‘She is rather wilful, and does not know her
own mind,’ he said, and I thought he sighed. Was it that she could not
make up her mind to accept him? Was it---- But speculation was quite
useless, and there was no information to be got out of his face.

A little after this I went to see Mrs. Bellinger, but was coldly
received. Edith was not quite well, she said; she had been doing too
much, and had gone away for a thorough change. Colonel Brentford? Oh, he
had gone to visit his brother Sir Charles Brentford, in Devonshire.
Edith was in Devonshire, too--at Torquay.

‘They are a little afraid of her lungs,’ Mrs. Bellinger said. ‘Oh, not
I; I don’t think there is very much the matter; but still they are
afraid--and of course it is better to prevent than to cure.’

It seemed to me a heartless way for a mother to speak, and I was
discouraged by my reception. When I came away I made up my mind not to
take any further trouble about the matter. Perhaps I had been mistaken
in them at first, or perhaps---- but then, to be sure, I had another
motive, and that existed no longer. It was my fault more than theirs.

I heard no more of the Bellingers nor much more of Colonel Brentford for
a long time after this. He, to be sure, went and came, as the other
officers did, to one house and another, and I met him from time to time,
and exchanged three words with him, but no more. And Lady Isabella made
no reference whatever to that agitating moment when I, too, had a share
in her personal history. Even Mrs. Spencer seemed to have forgotten all
about it. Their house was more exquisite than ever that winter. They had
built a new conservatory, which opened from the ante-room, and was full
of the most bright, beautiful flowers--forced, artificial things to be
sure they were, blooming long before their season, but still very lovely
to look at in those winter days. The large drawing-room and the
ante-room, and the conservatory at the end of all, were as warm and
fragrant and soft and delicious as if they had been fairy-land--the
temperature so equable, everything so soft to tread on, to sit on, to
look at. It was a little drawing-room paradise--an Eden, with Turkey
carpets instead of turf, and the flowers all in pots instead of growing
free. And here Lady Isabella would sit, with that touch of mockery in
her laugh, with little gibes at most people and most things, not quite
so friendly or gentle as they once were. Now and then, I have thought,
she cast a wistful glance at the door; now and then her spirits were
fitful, her face paler than usual--but she had never been more lively or
more bright.

It was past Christmas, and already a pale glimmer of spring was in the
air, when this little episode showed signs of coming to its conclusion.
I remember the day quite distinctly--a pale day in the beginning of
February, when everything was quite destitute of colour. The sky was
gray and so was the grass, and the skeletons of the trees stood bleak
against the dulness. It was the kind of afternoon when one is glad to
hear any news, good or bad--anything that will quicken the blood a
little, and restore to the nervous system something like its usual tone.

This stimulus was supplied by the entrance to the house of our two
neighbours Lucy Stoke--very important, and bursting with the dignity of
a secret. She kept it in painfully for the first two minutes, moved
chiefly by her reverential admiration for the fine furniture, the
beautiful room, the atmosphere of splendour about her. But I was there,
unfortunately, of whom Lucy was not afraid. It was to me, accordingly,
that the revelation burst forth.

‘Oh, Mrs. Mulgrave,’ she said, ‘you know her! Who do you think I met
going down to Lady Denzil’s, in a white bonnet,--though it’s such a
dismal day--and a blue dress--quite light blue--the dress she went away
in, I should think?’

‘A bride, I suppose,’ I said; ‘but whom?--I don’t remember any recent
bride.’

‘Oh, yes, I _know_ you know her! Young Mrs. Brentford--Edith Bellinger
that was.’

‘Edith Bellinger!’ I cried, with a sudden pang. It was nothing to me. I
had no reason to suppose it was anything to anybody, but yet----

‘It must have been the dress she went away in,’ said Lucy: ‘blue trimmed
with bands of satin and fringe, and a white bonnet with blue flowers. It
was very becoming. But fancy, only three weeks married, and coming to
see Lady Denzil alone!’

‘And so she is Mrs. Brentford,’ said Mrs. Spencer, in a tone of genuine
satisfaction. She would have suffered herself to be cut in little pieces
for Lady Isabella, she would have done anything for her--but she was
glad, unfeignedly thankful and relieved, to feel that this danger was
past.

And Lucy, well pleased, ran on for ten minutes or more. It felt like ten
hours. When she went away at last, Mrs. Spencer went with her to the
door, to hear further particulars. All this time Lady Isabella had never
said a word. She was in the shade, and her face was not very distinctly
visible. When they left the room, she rose all at once, pulling herself
up by the arms of her chair. Such a change had come upon her face that I
was frightened. Every vestige of colour had left her cheek; her lip was
parched, and tightly drawn across her teeth. She laughed as she got up
from the chair.

‘We were all wishing for something to stir us up,’ she said; ‘but I
never hoped for anything so exciting as Mrs. Brentford’s blue dress.’

‘Where are you going?’ I said, in sudden terror.

‘Up-stairs--only up-stairs. Where should I go?’ she said, with that
short hard laugh. ‘Tell Mrs. Spencer--something. I have gone to
fetch--Mrs. Brentford’s blue dress.’

Oh, how that laugh pained me! I would rather, a thousand times rather,
have heard her cry. She went away like a ghost, without any noise; and
Mrs. Spencer, full of thanksgiving, came back.

‘Where is Isabella? Oh, Mrs. Mulgrave, I can’t tell you what a relief
this news is,’ she said. ‘I have always been so dreadfully afraid. Of
course, anything that was for her happiness I would have put up with;
but this would not have been for her happiness. She is no longer young,
you know--her habits are all formed--and, even though she was fond of
him once, how could she have taken up a man’s ways, and adapted herself?
It would never have done--it would never have done! I am so thankful he
is married, and that danger past.’

For my part, I could not make any answer. Perhaps Mrs. Spencer was
right--perhaps, in the long run, it would be better so; but, in the
meantime, I could not forget Lady Isabella’s face. I went home, feeling
I cannot tell how sad. It was all so perfectly natural and to be
expected. The hardest things in this world are the things that are to be
expected. Of course, I had felt sure when I saw them together that it
was the little girl who would be the victor in any such struggle. And
Lady Isabella had not attempted any struggle. She had stood aside and
looked on; though, perhaps, she had hoped that the old love would have
counted for something in the man’s heart. But I said to myself that I
had always known better. What was old love, with all its associations,
in comparison with the little peachy cheek and childish ways of a girl
of seventeen? I despised the man for it, of course; but I thought it
natural all the same.



CHAPTER V


I was sitting next day by myself, with my mind full of these thoughts,
when I was suddenly roused by a shadow which flitted across the light,
and then by the sound of some one knocking at the window which opened
into my garden. I looked up hurriedly, and saw Lady Isabella. She was
very pale, yet looked breathless, as if she had been running. She made
me a hasty, imperative gesture to open, and when I had done so, came in
without suffering me to shut the window. ‘Mrs. Mulgrave,’ she said,
panting between the words, ‘I have a very strange--request--to make. I
want to speak with--some one--for ten minutes--alone. May
we--come--here? I have nothing to conceal--from you. It is _him_;--he
has something--to say to me--for the last time.’

‘Lady Isabella----’ I said.

‘Don’t--say anything. It is strange--I know--but it must be; for the
last time.’

She did not seem able to stand for another moment. She sank down into
the nearest chair, making a great effort to command herself. ‘Dear Mrs.
Mulgrave--please call him,’ she cried faintly: ‘he is there. It will
only be for ten minutes--there is something to explain.’

I went out into the garden, and called him. He looked as much agitated
as she did, and I went round the house, and through the kitchen-door
with a sense of bewilderment which I could not put into words. Edith
Bellinger’s bridegroom! What could he have to explain? What right had he
to seek her, to make any private communication? I felt indignant with
him, and impatient with her. Then I went into the dining-room and
waited. My dining-room windows command the road, and along this I could
see Mrs. Spencer walking in her quick, alert way. She was coming towards
my house, in search, probably, of her companion. There was something
absurd in the whole business, and yet the faces of the two I had just
left were too tragical to allow any flippancy on the part of the
spectator. Mrs. Spencer came direct to my door as I supposed, and I had
to step out and stop the maid, who was about to usher her into the
drawing-room where those two were. Mrs. Spencer was a little excited
too.

‘Have you seen Isabella?’ she said. ‘She was only about half-a-dozen
yards behind me, round the corner at the Lodge; and when I turned to
look for her she was gone. She could not have dropped into the earth you
know, and I know she would never have gone to the Lodge. Is she here? It
has given me quite a turn, as the maids say. She cannot have vanished
altogether, like a fairy. She was too substantial for that.’

‘She will be here directly,’ said I; ‘she is speaking to some one in the
other room.’

‘Speaking--to some one! You look very strange, Mrs. Mulgrave, and
Isabella has been looking very strange. Who is she speaking to? I am her
nearest friend and I ought to know.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘you ought to know, that is certain--but wait, only wait,
ten minutes--that was the time she said.’

And then we two sat and looked at each other, not knowing what to think.
I knew scarcely more than she did, but the little that I knew made me
only the more anxious. If his wife should hear of it--if Lady Isabella
were to betray herself, compromise herself! And then what was the good
of it all? No explanation could annul a fact, and the less explanation
the better between a married man and his former love. This feeling made
me wretched as the time went on. Time seems so doubly long when one is
waiting, and especially when one is waiting for the result of some
private, secret, mysterious interview. The house was so quiet, the maids
moving about the kitchen, the chirp of the sparrows outside, the
drip--drip of a shower, which was just over, from the leaves. All these
sounds made the silence deeper, especially as there was no sound from
that mysterious room.

‘The ten minutes are long past,’ said Mrs. Spencer. ‘I don’t understand
what all this mystery can mean. It is more like an hour, I think.’

‘Oh, do you think so?’ said I, though I fully agreed with her. ‘When one
is waiting time looks so long. She will be here directly. I hear her
now--that was her voice.’

And so it certainly was. But everything became silent again the next
instant. It was a sharp exclamation, sudden and high; and then we heard
no more.

‘I cannot wait any longer,’ said Mrs. Spencer. ‘I don’t know what this
can mean; I must have an explanation. Mrs. Mulgrave, if you will not
come with me, I will go myself to Isabella. I don’t understand what she
can mean.’

‘I will go,’ said I; and we rose at the same moment and hurried to the
door. But we had not time to open it when a sudden sound was audible,
which arrested us both. The door of the other room was opened, voices
came towards us--two voices, and then a laugh. Was it Lady Isabella’s
laugh? Mrs. Spencer drew near me and pinched my arm violently. ‘Is it
Isabella? What, oh, what can it mean?’ she said with a look of terror.
And then the door was thrown suddenly open, driving us back as we stood
in our consternation within.

It was Lady Isabella who stood before us, and yet it was not the Lady
Isabella I had ever known. When Mrs. Spencer saw her she gave a
suppressed groan and sat down suddenly on the nearest chair. This Lady
Isabella was leaning on Colonel Brentford’s arm. Her face was flushed
and rosy; her eyes shining like stars, yet full of tears; dimples I had
never seen before were in her cheeks and about her mouth. She was
radiant, she was young, she was running over with joy and happiness. In
her joy and triumph she did not notice, I suppose, the sudden despair of
her friend. ‘I have come to tell you,’ she said hastily, ‘he never meant
it. It is all over. Oh, do you understand? All this cloud that has
lasted for ten years, that has come between us and the skies--it is all
over, all over. He never meant it. Do you understand?’

Mrs. Spencer stood up tottering, looking like a ghost. ‘Isabella! I
thought you had forgotten him. I thought it was this that was all over.
I thought you were content.’

Lady Isabella gave her a look of that supreme happiness which is not
considerate of other people’s feelings. ‘I am content now,’ she said,
clasping her hands upon Colonel Brentford’s arm, ‘more than content.’

Mrs. Spencer answered with a bitter cry. ‘Then I am nothing to her,
nothing to her!’ she said.

It was at this moment that I interfered. I could keep silence no longer.
I put myself between the two who were so happy and the one who was so
miserable. ‘Before another word is said I must have this explained to
me,’ I said. ‘He is Edith Bellinger’s husband. And this is my house----’

He interrupted me hurriedly: ‘I am no one’s husband but hers,’ he said.
‘You have been mistaken. Edith Bellinger has married my brother. There
is no woman to me in the world but Isabella--never has been--never could
be, though I lived a hundred years.’

‘And it is you who have brought us together,’ cried Lady Isabella,
suddenly throwing her arms round me. ‘God bless you for it! I should
never have known, it would never have been possible but for you.’

And he came to me and took both my hands. ‘God bless you for it, I say
too! We might have been two forlorn creatures all our lives but for
you.’

I was overwhelmed with their thanks, with the surprise, and the shock.
If I had done anything to bring this about I had done it in ignorance;
but they surrounded me so with their joy and their gratitude, and the
excitement of the revolution which had happened in them, that it was
some minutes before I could think of anything else. And there was so
much to be explained. But when I recovered myself so far as to look
round and think of the other who did not share in their joy, I found she
was gone. She had disappeared while they were thanking me, while I was
expressing my wonder and my good wishes. None of us had either heard or
seen her departure, but she was gone.

‘Was Mrs. Spencer to blame?’ I asked with some anxiety when the tumult
had subsided a little, and they had seated themselves like ordinary
mortals and begun to accustom themselves to their delight. ‘Had she
anything to do with the quarrel between you?’

‘Nothing at all,’ said Lady Isabella. ‘She never saw George till she saw
him in your house.’

‘When you asked me for that rose--’ said he. ‘The rose you used to be so
fond of; and I felt as if the skies had opened----’

‘You turned your back upon me all the same,’ she said with the laugh
that had suddenly become so joyous. They had forgotten everything but
themselves and the new story of their reconciliation: which I suppose
the old story of their estrangement thus recalled and reconsidered made
doubly sweet.

‘But about Mrs. Spencer?’ I said.

‘Poor Mrs. Spen! She had got to be fond of me. She thought we were to
spend all our lives together,’ said Lady Isabella with momentary
gravity; and then the smile crept once more about the corners of her
mouth, and the dimples which had been hidden all these years disclosed
themselves, and her face warmed into sunshine as she turned to him. This
was my fate whenever I tried to bring back the conversation to Mrs.
Spencer, who, poor soul, had disappeared like a shadow before that
sunshine. I was glad for their sakes to see them so happy; but still I
could not but feel that it was hard to have given your life and love for
years and to be rewarded at the end by that ‘poor Mrs. Spen.’

The news made a great commotion through all Dinglefield, and Mrs.
Spencer did not make so much difficulty about it as I fancied she would.
The marriage was from her house, and she took a great deal of trouble,
and no mother could have been more careful and tender about a bride. But
she made no fuss, poor soul--she had not the heart; and though I don’t
like fuss, I missed it in this case, and felt that it was a sign how
deep the blow had gone. Even Lady Isabella, pre-occupied as she was,
felt it. She had not realized it perhaps--few people do. We are all in
the habit of laughing at the idea of friendships so close and exacting,
especially when they exist between women. But to Mrs. Spencer it was as
if life itself had gone from her. Her companion had gone from her, the
creature she loved best. Next to a man’s wife deserting him, or a
woman’s husband, I know nothing more hard. Her pretty house, her
flowers, her perfect comfort and grace of life palled upon her. She had
kept them up chiefly, I think, for the young woman who, she had thought,
poor soul, was wedded to her for life. Perhaps it was a foolish thought,
perhaps it might be a little selfish to try to keep Colonel Brentford
away. I suppose to be married is the happiest; but still I was very,
very sorry, grieved more than I can say, for the woman who was forsaken;
though she was only forsaken by another woman and not by a man.

However that, I fear, is a sentiment in which I should find few
sympathizers. The Brentfords took a place in the neighbourhood, and I
believe Lady Isabella was a very happy wife. As for poor little Edith
Bellinger, she had married the Colonel’s elder brother, Sir Charles, and
was Lady Brentford, to her great astonishment and that of everybody
about. It had been her doubt and reluctance, poor child, to marry a man
older than her father, which had made her ill. I think her mother missed
her almost as much as Mrs. Spencer missed Lady Isabella. For every new
tie that is made in this world some old ties must be broken. But what
does that matter? Is it not the course of nature and the way of the
world?



AN ELDERLY ROMANCE



CHAPTER I


There is a house in Dinglefield, standing withdrawn in a mass of
shrubbery, and overshadowed by some fine trees, which has been called by
the name of Brothers-and-Sisters for a longer time than any one in the
village can recollect. It presents to the outside world who peep at it
over the palings, between the openings which have been carefully cut to
afford to its inmates pleasant glimpses of the lower part of the Green,
on which the cricket matches are played, the aspect of a somewhat low
white house, with no apparent entrance, and a great number of chimneys
of different heights, chimneys which I suppose suggested to some wag the
unequal stature of a family of children, and thus procured the house its
popular name. In the map or the estate on which Dinglefield stands it is
called Bonport House, and this is how the General’s letters, I need not
say, are addressed. But yet the common name sticks, all the more because
of the character of the family which now inhabits that hospitable place.
It is literally a house of brothers and sisters. General Stamford, the
head of the family, is a hale and ruddy old warrior of sixty, who has
seen a great deal of service, and who has been knocked about, battered,
and beaten from the age of sixteen until now: sent to every unfavourable
place where a soldier without money or influence has to go, and engaged
in every fierce little war in which it has been the pleasure of England
to indulge, without any consideration for the feelings of her fighting
men. He has been at Bermuda; he has been on the Gold Coast; he has
braved all the fevers and fought all the savages within our ken; and
outliving all this, has settled down with his sisters and brother in our
village, one of the most peaceable yet the most active of men. It is for
this last reason that General George (as we have all got to call him,
partly because there are other generals about, and to say General
Stamford every time you mention a man in a neighbourhood like ours is
fatiguing--and partly for kindness) has so many things on his hands. He
is one of the directors of our railway; he is on several boards in town,
where he goes almost every day punctual as clockwork, brushed to
perfection, and driven to the station by Miss Stamford in the
pony-carriage, which always takes him there, and always meets him when
he comes back. Miss Stamford is the eldest sister of all. She is very
like her brother, and there never was such a tender brotherly sisterly
union as between these two old people. They have known each other so
long, longer than any husband and wife. They have the recollections of
the nursery quite fresh in their minds, as if it were yesterday--when it
was always Ursula who found George’s books for him, and gave him good
advice, and most of her pocket-money, and looked after his linen when he
was at home, and his pets when he went away. Miss Stamford knows all the
occurrences of her brother’s chequered life better than he does himself,
and recollects everything, and knows all his friends, even if she never
saw them, and can recall to him the exact relationship between the young
man who comes to him with an introduction, and old Burton who was killed
by his side among the Maoris; or Percival who died of the yellow fever
at Barbadoes. She is his remembrancer, his counsellor, half his heart,
and a good part of his mind; and indeed there is nobody among us who
ever thinks of the one without thinking of the other. What she was doing
with herself all those years when George was fighting on the outskirts
of civilization, or sweltering in the tropics, none of us know, but some
of us wonder now and then. Did nothing ever happen to Miss Stamford on
her own account? Has all her life been only a reflection of her
brother’s? But this is what nobody can tell.

The next member of the family in due succession is Mrs. St. Clair, who
is the second sister, and who has been so long a widow that she has
forgotten that this is not the normal condition of women. I don’t think,
for my part, that she remembers much about her husband, though he did
exist, I have every reason to believe. Her married life was a little
episode, but the family is all her idea of ordinary existence. That
little sip of matrimony however has made her different from the rest. I
cannot quite tell how. There is a tone that is more mellow; she is a
little more--stout, if I may use such a word: her outlines are a little
fuller, both of mind and body. Miss Stamford takes care of the house and
the General, but Mrs. St. Clair takes care of the parish. She is the
Rector’s lay curate, and a most efficient one. It is she who watches
over, not only the poor, but the district visitors, and even the
curates, whose juvenile importance she makes very light of, keeping down
all rampant sacerdotalism. When a young man comes into a parish full of
very fine ideas of priestly state and dignity, and fortified besides by
all the talk in the newspapers about adoring ladies and worked slippers,
it is hard for him to find himself confronted by a lively middle-aged
woman who has no particular respect for him, and knows all his kind, and
all their little ways. Mrs. St. Clair was of the greatest use to us all
in this particular. She kept us from innovations. Our excellent Rector
has not a very strong will, and how far he might have been induced to
go in respect to vestments, or candles, or even Gregorians, it would be
hard to say, but for Mrs. St. Clair, who kept the young men down.
Everybody who has ever been at Dinglefield has met her about the roads,
with her gray hair neatly braided, and her soft brown eyes smiling, yet
seeing everything, and a basket in her hand. She always had the basket;
and the basket, if it had been examined, would have been found always to
contain something which was to do somebody good.

Miss Sophy, the third sister, was much younger than the others, and she
was one of those who are always young. Nothing had changed much with her
since she was eighteen. She lived quite the same sort of life as she had
done then, and wore the same kind of dresses; and felt, I believe, very
much the same. Life had never progressed into a second chapter with her,
and she felt no need of a second chapter. She did little commissions for
everybody, and carried little messages, and played croquet, and went out
to tea, and performed her little pieces on the piano with undiminished
and undiminishing satisfaction. She was as kind, as sweet, and as
innocent as any girl need be; and, in short, she was a girl--but of
forty-five. The reader may think this is a sneer; but nobody ever
thought of sneering at Miss Sophy; that malign amusement found no
encouragement in her simplicity. You smiled at her, perhaps, then
blushed for yourself, abashed at your own heartlessness in finding
anything absurd in a creature so guileless and true. She had no
particular _rôle_ of her own in the family, except to be kind to
everybody, and to do what everybody wished, as far as a merely mortal
sister could. If there was one thing that she thought especially her
duty and privilege, it was to look after the faith and morals of the
other brother, who occasionally formed part of the household. He was a
barrister, an old bachelor like the rest, who had chambers in town and
came when he pleased to Brothers-and-Sisters. He spent the Sundays
there, and Miss Sophy took him to church. She would have made him say
the Collect if she could; and, indeed, always questioned him about his
opinions, and argued with him on the Sunday afternoons upon the points
on which he was astray. And when I add that Mr. Charles was a clever
lawyer and a man of the world, and astray upon a great many points, it
will be seen that Sophy had her hands full. She argued herself into
palpitations and headaches, but I fear her arguments were less potent
than her intention. This energetic effort to keep Charles right in
theology was, so far as any one knew, the only duty exclusively hers.

These delightful people were only a small part of the family to which
they belonged. Behind them was a bodyguard of married brothers and
sisters, a sort of milky way of family plenitude, from which arose an
army of nephews and nieces who were always looming about, sure to come
down upon us in force when anything was going on. There were always men
to be had for a dance, and actors for theatricals on application to the
Stamfords. ‘Tell me how many you want and give me two or three days’
notice,’ Mrs. St. Clair would say, and then Sophy would write the
letters, and after a while the air of Dinglefield would be thick with
nephews. There was room for an untold number of them in the old,
many-chimneyed house. When it was the time for garden parties, or when
there was a bazaar for some charity, it was the turn of the nieces, who
came like the swallows, with a skimming of wings, and a chirping and
chattering of pleasant voices. It was astonishing how soon we got to
know them all, discriminating Sophy Humphreys from Sophy Thistlethwaite,
and both from Sophy Stamford number one, called Soff, or Henry’s Sophy,
to distinguish her from Sophy Stamford number two, who was called Fia,
or William’s Sophy. Sophy was the pet name of the race; the mother’s
name from whom they all sprang.

And it would be difficult to give any stranger an idea of the addition
they were to our limited society at Dinglefield. Go when you would the
genial house was always open, a pleasant party always to be found on the
lawn in summer, by the drawing-room fire in winter. They had their
anxieties and sorrows like other people, no doubt; but not so many as
other people: for the time was over with them for personal pangs and
trouble; and when one nephew out of twenty goes a little wrong, or one
niece (also out of twenty) makes a bad marriage, the pang is not so keen
or so lasting as when it is a son or a daughter who has broken down. And
this was the worst that could now befall the house. It was a house made
for the comfort and succour of every aching heart or troubled mind
within its range. There was nothing they would not do for their
neighbours and friends; how much more for their relations. General
George lent his kindly ear, a little, just a little, hard of hearing
(but no, not hard of anything, the word is unworthy to be used in his
connection), to every request. He would do his best to place your son,
or invest your money; or order early salmon or turbot for you when you
were going to have a dinner-party. I should not have liked to ask Mr.
Charles Stamford to order my fish, but I have no doubt he too would have
done it, had he been asked; and as for the sisters, they would, as the
poor people said, put their hand to anything.

One day Sophy came into my cottage with an air of some excitement to
tell me that George had sent a telegram, and was bringing down a large
party of his fellow-directors to dinner. ‘Will you come, dear Mrs.
Mulgrave? Fancy! how shall we ever entertain these twelve business
gentlemen?’ said Sophy in a flutter. ‘If only some of the girls had been
here. Not that the girls would have cared for these old creatures. But
the worst is that Ursula herself is away. She went up to town this
morning to see her great friend, Mrs. Biddulph. And though she will be
back for dinner, all the responsibility will be upon Frances and me. I
must run away now this moment to James the gardener, to see how many
strawberries he can give us. Don’t you think it was tiresome of George
to bring down so many upon us without warning? It is just like him: no,
he is not tiresome--never! he is a darling! But sometimes he does a
tiresome thing.’

And Sophy tripped away, light-footed, light-hearted, with no greater
thought than the strawberries. She was still as slim as a girl, and
there was about her all the eagerness and breathless mixture of fright
and pleasure which are natural at eighteen. She _was_ eighteen,
spiritually speaking. I watched her tripping along in her light summer
dress, and smiled; I could not help it. I saw her again three times that
day, and, indeed, I saw Mrs. St. Clair too, who was equally full of
business. ‘Twelve men!’ Mrs. St. Clair cried. ‘Is it not a nuisance? I
can’t think how George could do it. They have a nice bit of villainy in
hand; they are going to cut up all our pretty view, and take away the
poor people’s gardens; and then they expect us to give them dinner!’

‘Did Sophy get the strawberries?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes; more than they deserve. But you are coming, and you shall
see.’ She went on, waving her hand, too busy to talk. A dinner of twelve
gentlemen, when you have made no arrangements, and provided nothing but
what was needed for the family, is a serious matter in a country place,
especially when the real housekeeper is out of the way.



CHAPTER II


All this time Miss Stamford knew nothing of what was going on. She had
gone up to town early in the morning, and she had spent the day with her
friend, who was ailing; and in the afternoon she had missed the usual
dinner train by which General George always travelled, coming by the
next one, which was about half an hour later. She came down in the same
carriage with a gentleman who, she afterwards admitted, attracted her
attention at once. He was a tall man--well, not young,
certainly--oldish, elderly, ‘about the same age as other people’--with a
long face, like Don Quixote. She remarked him; and he remarked her,
apparently, showing her several little politenesses: opening and
shutting the window, &c. He was very like Don Quixote. This was the
chief remark Miss Stamford made.

She was a little late for dinner, having been taken entirely by surprise
by the great preparations she found on her return. She had left
everything in the ordinary quiet, no company expected, and had ordered
the usual dinner for the family before she went away; and the sight of
Williams the greengrocer, and Jones the verger, both in grand official
costume, on duty in her own hall when she got back, astonished her.

‘Company, ma’am, as the General has brought home from town, unexpected,’
Williams said, as he opened the door. Their own homely butler, Simms,
had been promoted to the rank of major-domo for the moment, and was a
very great personage with two men under him. Miss Stamford changed her
dress as quickly as possible, but dinner had begun before she got
down-stairs. Mrs. St. Clair had taken the head of the table, and Ursula
slid quietly into the vacant place which had been left for her. She
nodded to me across the table as she sat down. She had not even put on
her best cap, and her gown was anything but new. And it did not seem to
me that Ursula Stamford was by any means looking her best. She was a
little prim in appearance, though so liberal and generous in heart; and
she looked sixty, while to my knowledge she was only fifty-seven. You
will say that was not a difference which mattered much; but I assure you
we think a great deal of a year or two up here among the snows of life.
She sat down so quietly that the gentleman on one side did not at first
notice that the place was taken by his side, and she occupied herself
with the other, whom she happened to know. There was a great deal of
talk going on at the table. Mrs. St. Clair had picked up a few ladies in
haste to make the balance a little more even. Mrs. Stokes had sent Lucy,
who was going to be married, and Miss Woodroff had come from the
Rectory, and Mrs. Sommerville, the young widow who was living with her
brother, the curate. There were seven of us altogether to thirteen
gentlemen, for, by way of making the table a little more crowded,
Charles Stamford had thought proper to come, though it was not his day.
And we all talked as if our lives were at stake. The younger ones were
much amused to be on duty thus, to be called upon to take care of the
old gentlemen, and the rest of us understood the obligation we were
under to talk, and worked resolutely at the conversation. For my part, I
did very well, I had quite a pleasant neighbour; and, indeed, I have
found that a great many of the City gentlemen are very pleasant to talk
to. He told me all about the new railway it was intended to make, and
scarcely laughed at all when I declared myself an enemy to new
railroads, in our neighbourhood, at least.

‘Why should you cut up our pleasant, smiling country?’ I said. ‘We have
all the railways we want, and more. I do not say anything against what
is necessary; but why make gashes across the country when it is not
wanted----’

‘Gashes--I don’t think they are gashes,’ said my neighbour. ‘When I saw
the white steam flying along the valley just now, I thought it very
picturesque. I allow I do not like it too near; but Dinglefield is as
safe as if it were in Paradise. No railway will climb your peaceable
heights. If there was question however of a railway into Paradise
itself, there is the man who would do it,’ he said, looking across the
table. ‘I am a mere innocent myself. I do what other people tell me: but
there is the dangerous man. I hope, for your sake, that he will give his
word against this, for he would survey the moon if he thought it likely
to answer.’

I peeped between the little thickets of flowers with which Sophy had
covered the table, and looked at the man thus pointed out to me. He was
sitting by Ursula Stamford, but he was not talking to her--she, as I
have said, was occupied by her other neighbour at her right hand. He was
an old man, not far from seventy, according to appearance, with
snow-white hair, but a beard still almost black, a combination which is
always striking. His features were fine, his dark eyes deeply sunk under
eyebrows still dark like his beard. There was a gentleman on the other
side of him whom he did not seem to care to talk to, and he was sitting,
scarcely speaking, his face in repose.

‘Do you mean that handsome old man?’ I said.

‘Old,’ said my companion, slightly startled; he was about the same age
himself if I had thought of it. ‘Well, I suppose he is old,’ he added,
with a little laugh. ‘You should talk to him. I don’t know a more
interesting man; and, as I tell you, he is the man to whom, if there was
a railway to be made to the moon, everybody would turn. If he took the
Channel tunnel in hand he would carry it through.’

‘But that must be impossible,’ said I. ‘I hate the crossing; but I would
not trust myself in a tunnel under the sea, not for---- But you are
laughing--it is impossible----’

‘Impossible!--not in the very least--ask _him_. I think myself he’s too
speculative. But there is one thing certain. If Oakley took it up, it
would go through. He’d do it. He is a man who does not believe in
difficulties. There might be a great catastrophe next day, but one way
or other he’d drive it through.’

I am a very quiet person myself, therefore it stands to reason that I
should like a man who drives things through. Besides, he was a handsome
old man. I looked at him again behind the flowers, while my companion
went on talking, and I saw something which interested me. Miss Stamford
came to a pause in her conversation with the man at her right hand, and
she seized the opportunity to turn to the man on her left. At the first
sound of her voice his abstract countenance lighted up. He turned
hastily round with a look of recognition. How could he know Ursula
Stamford, I said to myself? His face lighted up with a gleam of
intelligence and pleasure, and something which, not knowing any other
word, I can only call sweetness. He turned quite round to her, and began
to talk with an interest and warmth which roused my immediate sympathy.
I seemed to be looking on at an interesting scene in the theatre, seen
from so great a distance that it was only the dumb-show which made it
intelligible. And my neighbour carried on his discourse all the time.

‘He has sprung from nothing,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if he ever had a
father. He began in the humblest way. The first time I heard of him was
about thirty years ago, when he was struggling into business. He was not
what you would call a young man then. (You ladies are hard upon age--you
don’t like it talked about when it concerns yourselves, but you stamp us
down as old men without a bit of fellow-feeling----)’

Here I interrupted my instructor. ‘I thought it was a weakness of ours
only to dislike to be called old. I thought men were superior to such a
little vanity--as to so many others.’

‘You are satirical now. You think we are not superior to any vanity, and
I shouldn’t wonder if you were right. I was saying old Oakley was not a
young man to start with. He was a sort of an engineer, self-taught, all
self-taught, and he was trying to get into business as a contractor.
Mrs. Mulgrave,’ said my companion solemnly, ‘have you any idea what that
man is worth now? I thought so, as you didn’t seem impressed. He is
worth more than a million, that is the fact--he is made of money; losses
don’t seem to touch him. I do not suppose,’ my friend added, with awe in
his voice, ‘that he knows how much he has.’

This information did not excite me as he expected, but I looked again
between the geraniums at Mr. Oakley. I am afraid his handsome head
interested me more than his fortune. ‘And there are so many people who
have nothing at all!’ I said; ‘but to look at him he might be a
philosopher without a penny.’

‘That is just like you ladies--you would think more of him if he were a
philosopher without a penny. What an extraordinary mistake!’ cried my
companion, ‘as if money were not a power, quite as interesting and a
great deal more tangible than philosophy.’

His countenance flushed and changed. He was an enthusiast for money. I
have met many such among General George’s City friends: not in the
sordid way we think of, but really as a great power.

When Mrs. St. Clair gave the sign to go away, I was quite sorry to break
off this conversation, which was so much more interesting than the
ordinary kind of talk. It was a beautiful June evening, and, instead of
going into the drawing-room, we all went out upon the lawn where Simms
had laid down the great lion-skin, of which they are all so proud, and
some rugs which the General brought from India; for it is unnecessary to
say that we elder people were a little afraid of the dew on the grass.
But nobody could have taken cold on such a night. The borders were all
red and white with roses standing out against the deep green of the
shrubberies behind, and the colours seemed to repeat themselves in the
sky, which was all one flush of rose above the blue, deepening into
crimson as it descended, and burning like fire between the trees on the
horizon line. Dinglefield stands high, with the broad Thames valley
lying at its feet, of which you could get glimpses through the cuttings
on the western side, if your eyes were not dazzled with all that blaze
of gold. Miss Stamford was tired with her day in town, and established
herself at once in her favourite basket-chair on the lawn. She sat there
tranquil and happy while the rest walked about; her presence, her smile,
the rest that seemed to breathe about her, gave stability and meaning to
the whole place. She was only an old maid according to the vulgar, but
you could not look at her without feeling sure that where she was, there
was a home. I don’t know that it had ever occurred to me to think so
much about Ursula Stamford before. There was something in the air which
affected me, though I did not know how. We could see the lighted windows
of the dining-room, and hear the sound of the voices and laughter,
though at a distance; and we all laughed too in sympathy, though we did
not know what the jokes were. It was very pleasant and friendly, and
rather droll. None of us had any particular desire to be joined by the
gentlemen. We had done our duty by them, talked our very best to them,
and flattered ourselves that it had all gone off very well; but though
we were glad they were enjoying themselves, now that our part of the
entertainment was over, we were not very sorry to think that they must
all go away shortly by the last train. And no heart among us, I am safe
to say, beat one pulsation the quicker when they came out upon the lawn,
some of them slightly flushed with the laughter and the good cheer, to
take their coffee, and their leave. It had grown almost dark by that
time, and the white waistcoats (for they were in their morning dress,
and most of them wore white waistcoats) made a great show in the half
light. The greater part of them thanked us all for the delightful
evening, not being quite clear which were, and which were not, the
ladies of the house, but determined to fulfil all the duties of
politeness. We walked with them to the gate to see them go, and shook
hands with them all, though we did not know their names. I recollect the
whole scene as clearly as a picture, though I knew at the time no reason
why I should remember it: the dining-room brightly lighted, the table
with all its fruit and flowers, and the vacant chairs pushed away,
standing in all manner of groups: the drawing-room much more dim, just
showing a glimmer of newly-lighted candles: the table on the lawn with
Miss Stamford’s white cap and half visible figure close to it: and all
the rest of us standing about telling each other how well it had gone
off, and listening to the voices of the gentlemen getting fainter and
fainter as they streamed off behind the shrubberies along the road to
the station. If any one had told us what changes would come from that
visit! But how could any one have guessed the changes that were to come?

It was not the next day, but the day after that I met General George in
the afternoon coming from the station. It was at least two hours before
his usual time, and he was walking. The sight of him gave me a little
shock. Something, I thought, must have happened. I ran over in my mind,
as one naturally does, as I went up to him, the things that were most
possible. There were nephews scattered about over all the world. Could
it be that there was bad news of George Thistlethwaite in Ceylon, or
Bertie Stamford at the Cape? or was it pleasanter intelligence from
young Mrs. Thurston (_née_ Ursula Humphreys) or Lucy Thistlethwaite, or
one of the Lincolnshire girls? but that (I said to myself) would not be
enough to bring the General home so much sooner than usual. When he came
nearer however my mind became easier. He did not look unhappy, he looked
puzzled, and now and then a gleam like laughter came over his face. When
he saw me he came forward with an air of pleasure.

‘You are the very person I wanted to see--if you will let me, I will
walk home with you; but let us go the back way,’ said General George to
my intense surprise, ‘for I don’t want to see my sisters till I have
taken your advice.’

‘My advice! before you see your sisters, before you tell _Ursula_!’ I
cried, and then the General laughed and frowned, and looked angry and
amused all in one. ‘That is just where my difficulty lies,’ he said. A
difficulty about Ursula! it took away my breath.

‘You will not believe it,’ he said, ‘but it is quite true. Charles came
to me this morning with the absurdest question. He came to ask me who it
was that sat next Mr. Oakley at dinner at Bonport on Tuesday--eh? what,
did you notice anything?’ he asked abruptly, for I had not been able to
restrain a little exclamation. I have never boasted of my penetration,
but from that moment I seemed to know exactly what he was going to say.

‘I know who sat next Mr. Oakley at dinner,’ I said.

‘Ursula, wasn’t it? we laid our heads together, and from all we could
make out--he went to Charles first to find out who it was, and Charles,
of course, made up his mind that it must have been one of the young
ladies that had made such an impression. He proposed first Miss Woodroff
and then the young widow: but no, no. Oakley said it was not a young
lady. It was a lady whose hair was turning gray, who wore a cap, and
used a double eye-glass. At last the conviction forced itself upon me.
By Jove! it was Ursula--_Ursula_ the man was thinking of! We both burst
out laughing in his face---- But afterwards,’ the General added gloomily
with a flush of displeasure, ‘afterwards--I feel furious, Mrs. Mulgrave,
though I may not show it; and that is why I have come first to you.

‘What did he want?’ I said, though I allow there was some hypocrisy in
my question.

‘What did he want?--you may well ask. He is a man of sixty-five, older
than I am. He wants--to marry my sister,’ said the General, with a half
suppressed outcry of rage--‘a man who has risen from the ranks--a
stranger--a--a confounded---- I beg you ten thousand pardons, Mrs.
Mulgrave; he wants to pay his addresses, if you please, to Ursula! God
bless us all--did you ever hear such a thing? I feel much more like
cursing than blessing, to tell the truth.’

‘But, General, he is very rich--richer than any one ever was before.’

‘Ah, you have got bitten too,’ he said, with a tone almost of disgust.
‘That is what Charles says; but what is his money to me? What is it to
any of us, Mrs. Mulgrave? You would not upset all the order of your life
and change your habits, and give up your own ways for a million of
money, would you? After all, when you have enough to be comfortable,
what does money matter? Even the most extravagant of women can’t put
more than a certain number of yards of stuff into her dress. When you
have enough, what does it matter whether the over-plus is counted by
hundreds or by thousands?’ said the General, with magnanimous but
new-born indifference. If he cared so little about it, why should he go
to the City every day, I could not help saying to myself; and, indeed,
it came to my lips before I knew.

‘If we all thought that,’ I said, ‘it would save a great deal of
trouble. Perhaps you would not then have had these twelve gentlemen down
to dinner and made all the mischief, General.’

General George laughed. ‘Perhaps I shouldn’t,’ he said, ‘but that is
different. It is not for the money, but the occupation. Mrs. Mulgrave;
and of course when one has money invested one wants to make something by
it. However my opinion is that it would be much better to say nothing
about this folly to Ursula. To be sure,’ he added with a look of
half-defiant assurance which he belied by a suspicious glance of inquiry
at me,’ it might amuse her; but it could have no other effect. I don’t
see why I should take any notice to Ursula.’

‘But Mr. Oakley--will he be satisfied?’

‘Old Oakley? Upon my word, I don’t see why I should consider him or what
will satisfy him,’ said the General, growing red; but he was uneasy. He
paused, then turned to me again. ‘If you were in my position, what
should you do?’

‘I should tell her, and let her judge; after all, it is she who must
decide.’

‘Decide--judge! you speak,’ cried General George, ‘as if it were
possible--as if it might be within the bounds of---- Bah! do you suppose
that Ursula--_Ursula!_ my sister--would, could hesitate one moment?’

‘No.’ I said ‘no,’ half because I really thought so, but half because he
was so much excited, and it was necessary to calm him. ‘I do not suppose
she would; but still, a woman should be told when a man---- It is the
greatest compliment he can pay her, and it is always flattering even
when it is impossible!’

‘Flattering--a compliment! What can you be thinking of?’ the General
cried in high disdain; ‘that an old fellow like that should propose to
appropriate and take possession of--a lady! I don’t say my sister, which
of course is the sting of it,’ he said with a laugh, calming down again,
‘but any lady----’

‘Dear General, forgive me,’ I said; ‘you always talk, you gentlemen, of
marriage as the end of every woman’s ambition, and you are always ready
to jibe at those who have not attained that great end. Then how, when
this elevation is in her power, do you venture to think of keeping her
in ignorance of it?’

He turned round upon me almost with violence. ‘Elevation!’ he cried;
then perceiving, I suppose, by something in my eyes what I meant,
laughed more uneasily than ever. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘we may say silly
things, I allow we all say silly things; but when you come to that--to
speak of elevation for my sister from any offer, or that she should
think it a compliment!--God bless us all!--there are a great many
foolish things that one says, but you know better than to take it all
for gospel. Of course when one speaks of women one does not think of----
By Jove, I am only getting deeper. Don’t hit a man when he is down, but
be serious, and give me your advice.’

‘One does not think of one’s own sisters,’ said I, for I did not mean to
spare him, ‘only of other people’s sisters, or of those who have nobody
to stand up for them; but I will not be ungenerous, General I will give
you my advice. Tell Ursula, and let her judge for herself.’

‘Judge!--she can have but one opinion. But that is what Charlie says. I
suppose the two of you must be right,’ said the General grudgingly. He
walked on by my side in silence, cutting down the weeds by the roadside
ferociously with his stick; then repeated with a still more churlish
assent, ‘I suppose what you two people of the world say must be right.’

I smiled within myself to be called a woman of the world; but one must
not take the words of an angry man to heart. When he came to the turn of
the road which led to Brothers-and-Sisters he muttered something about
getting it over, and took off his hat and left me without another word.
Poor General George! Under all his pretences at anger he was in a great
fright. Either he believed his own careless talk, and thought that a
husband was too fine a thing for any woman to refuse, or else---- But I
need not discuss the vague feeling of insecurity which had begun to
creep over him. For my part, I did not feel alarmed. I had more
confidence in Ursula’s faithfulness than he had. At the same time, the
crisis was exciting, and I thought the time very long until the evening
began to darken, and I felt myself at liberty--dinner being over--to run
over the corner of the Green which lay between us, as I often did in the
evening, and see what Ursula said.



CHAPTER III


The family party was on the lawn as usual; Miss Stamford seated in her
own chair with her knitting and her feet upon the lion-skin; while Mrs.
St. Clair beside her, with a basket full of bright scraps, had been
dressing dolls for a bazaar. Sophy was cutting off the withered roses
with a large pair of garden scissors; all their occupations were quite
as usual. But there was an aspect about the family which was not usual.
In the distance the General’s step was audible pacing about; and there
was an odour of his cigar in the air; all as peaceful, as homelike as it
always was; but yet a something in the atmosphere which had not been
there yesterday. As I came up with my shawl over my head, the General
tossed his cigar away and came nearer, and Sophia put down the basket
with the dead roses, and Mrs. St. Clair got up to get me a chair. The
only one that had not changed in the least was Ursula, who raised her
head and her eyes and gave me a friendly nod as she always did. She went
on with her knitting without any intermission. It is work which does not
demand attention, nor so much light as doll-dressing. They were all very
glad to see me--more glad even than on ordinary occasions: for it was
clear that the situation was highly _tendu_, as the French say, and that
a new-comer was a relief.

‘What a beautiful evening!’ we all said together, and then stopped
abashed, as people do who have rushed into the same commonplace speech.

Then Ursula added, ‘Of course, that is the first thing we must say to
each other. I think there never was such a summer--so bright, so steady,
one fine day after another. Here is a fortnight, or nearly so, that we
have not had one drop of rain.’

‘Quite wonderful,’ said I. ‘The hay, I hear, is a sight to see. A day or
two more, and we shall all begin to pray for rain. We are never content
whatever we have.’

‘A little variety is always pleasant,’ Mrs. St. Clair said. Meanwhile,
while we talked about the weather, the General hung about over our
little group like a storm-cloud. He did not say anything, but he looked
tempestuous; he, who was always so calm. Presently he turned away, and
went off to say something to Simms, who appeared just then with a note
or a message.

‘I suppose,’ said Mrs. St. Clair, turning to me, ‘_you_ know all about
it. George told us that he had met you, and told you----’

‘Yes, he told me;’ but I did not know what to say; they all wore a look
of agitation, except Ursula, who was as calm as usual--more calm than
usual, I should have said; but, no doubt, that was only in comparison
with the agitation of the rest.

‘And I suppose you think like the rest, that I will jump at a husband
the moment one is offered to me,’ said Miss Stamford with a smile.

‘We don’t think so, Ursula. We know it is not the first time. It is only
George that is so frightened, poor fellow.’

‘Why should he be so frightened?’ Miss Stamford cried. ‘No; it is not
the first time. I may take that little credit to myself. I might have my
head turned, perhaps, if it had been the first time. But, after all, it
is not so much to brag of. I suppose he wants somebody to take care of
him when he gets old and feeble; but he ought to have somebody younger
than me.’

Sixty-five is not what you would call young; but it was odd how we all
were of opinion that Mr. Oakley’s time for being old and feeble was
still a good way off, a thing to come. I acknowledged that I shared this
weakness. We were all about the same age, and it did not occur to us
that we were already old.

‘He shows his sense,’ said I, taking the part of the absent to whom
nobody did any justice, ‘as well as his good taste. Poor man, though he
is so rich, I am very sorry for him. I wish Ursula had met him twenty
years ago when there would have been no harm----’

‘No harm! do you know that he is a nobody--a man self-made?’ said Mrs.
St. Clair; ‘not a match for Ursula Stamford if he had been ever so
young!’

‘But you did not think of that in Fia’s case,’ said Sophy; ‘he was rich
and you never said a word. You thought it quite reasonable. ‘What do his
grandfathers matter to us?’ you said. I am not sure myself whether it
does or not; but you said so, you know; and George proposed the bride
and bridegroom at the wedding, and everybody was pleased. Now this Mr.
Oakley is a very nice man, whatever you say, for I had a good deal of
talk with him myself; and if Ursula chose----’

‘You should not interfere,’ said Mrs. St. Clair; ‘you are always
sentimental. Of course, if there is so much as a thought of a marriage,
Sophy is always in favour of it; but to think of Ursula at her time of
life!’

‘You all talk very much at your ease about Ursula,’ said Miss Stamford.
‘I suppose Ursula may have a word, a little share in it, for herself.
The way my family consult over me’--she said, turning to me with a
slight blush and laugh. ‘I think George might have held his tongue; that
would have been the more satisfactory way.’

‘It was my fault,’ I cried hurriedly: ‘he told me that he thought it
would be best not to tell you. You must forgive me, Ursula, if I gave
him bad advice; I thought you ought to know.’

Before I had half said this, I saw I had made a mistake; but one must
finish one’s sentence, however foolish it may be. Ursula suspended her
knitting for a moment and looked at me with calm amazement.

‘Not tell _me_!’ she said. ‘Why should he have kept it from _me_?’

The emphasis was very slight, but it meant a great deal. It never
occurred to her that a thing which concerned her so closely should have
been kept from herself; the question was why should we know; and I
confess I felt very much ashamed of having any say in it, when I met the
calm, astonished look of her eyes.

‘It is getting a little chilly,’ she said, rising up. ‘I think it is
time to go indoors.’

We all followed her quite humbly, and the General came stalking after
us, more like a thunder-cloud than ever. He had been talking to poor
Simms in a voice which was not pleasant, and he appeared at the
drawings-room window by which we all entered with the large lion-skin in
his arms.

‘I can’t have this left out all night in those heavy dews,’ he said. I
do not think I ever saw those signs of suppressed irritation, which are
too common in families, among the Stamfords before.

Next morning General George came in for a moment before I had
breakfasted, to tell me for my satisfaction that all was right. His face
was quite clear again. ‘I was a little cross last night. I fear you may
have supposed that I for a moment doubted my sister. Not a moment, Mrs.
Mulgrave. I have got to give him his answer, poor old fellow. I can’t
help feeling a little sorry for him all the same. What bad luck for the
poor old beggar! Of all the women there to hit upon the one who was
simply hopeless! Some men always have that sort of fate.’

‘He showed his taste,’ said I; ‘but I heard he was the luckiest man in
the world, General; that he always succeeded in everything; that however
wild the project was, he was the man to carry it through.’

I said this partly in malice, I am bound to admit, and I was very
successful. The General’s face clouded over again: he set his teeth. ‘He
shall not succeed this time;’ and he said something more in his
moustache, some stronger words which I was not intended to hear. It was
all over then, this odd little episode. I stood and watched him from my
door half relieved, half wondering. Was it all over? I did not feel so
satisfied or so certain as General George.

A few days of perfect quiet ensued. When a week passed we all felt
really satisfied. It was over then? Mr. Oakley had accepted his refusal.
To be sure one did not see what else he could have done, though I
confess that I had not expected it for my part. However, on the Sunday
morning the moment I looked across to the Stamfords’ pew after getting
settled in my own, it seemed to me that I could see indications of a new
event. Both Mrs. St. Clair and Sophy were looking at me when I raised my
head; they could not restrain themselves. They gave me anxious,
significant glances with little hardly perceptible signs of the head and
hand. When the service was over, and we were going out, Sophy was at my
side in a moment. We were not actually out of church when I felt her arm
slide into mine and a whisper in my ear. ‘She has got a letter!’ Sophy
said, all in a tremble of eagerness. Mrs. St. Clair came up on the other
side as soon as we were clear of the stream of people. ‘It is getting
really serious,’ she said; ‘he will not take a refusal. It is quite
absurd, and George is dreadfully angry. _He_ is just as absurd on the
other side.’

‘And what does Ursula say?’

‘Oh, Ursula does not say anything. Of course we could not help knowing
about the letter. It was very long and very much in earnest----’

‘Oh, quite impassioned!’ cried Sophy. She had not encountered anything
so exciting for years. She was pale with interest and emotion, shaking
her head in intense seriousness. ‘He says that he appeals to her sense
of justice not to condemn him without a hearing. It is quite beautiful.
I am sure he is a nice man.’

‘And then, you know, there is the other side of the question,’ said Mrs.
St. Clair seriously. ‘I did not quite understand when we spoke of it
last. Charlie says he is immensely rich--not just ordinarily comfortable
like so many people, but a true millionnaire. That changes the aspect of
the matter a little, don’t you think? Not that I am a mercenary person,
still less Ursula; but when you come to think of it, wealth to that
extent is something to be considered. Just fancy the good she might do,’
cried the sensible sister, ‘and the number of young people we have
looking to us! I do think it is not exactly right to ignore that side of
the question.’

‘Charlie thinks it is quite wrong,’ said Sophy, shaking her head.

The General had not even stopped to say ‘Good morning’ outside the
church door as he usually did. It was his brother Charles who was with
Ursula. The General walked straight home, without looking to the right
hand or the left. I felt a great sympathy for him. It was he that would
feel it most _if anything happened_; and he was the only one of the
family who had that fantastic delicacy of sentiment which some of us
feel for those we love, so that the merest touch of anything that could
be called ridicule, seemed sacrilege and desecration to him.

I must not attempt to go in detail into all that followed. Miss Stamford
wrote a very beautiful letter (they all told me) to her antiquated
lover, telling him how sorry she was to be the cause of any annoyance to
him, and hoping that the vexation would be but temporary, as indeed she
felt sure it must be--but that his proposals were quite out of the
question. This, of course, was what every woman would have said in the
circumstances. But neither did Mr. Oakley take this for an answer. There
was another letter by return of post in which they said he implored her
to believe that nothing about the matter was temporary--that it was a
question of life and death to him; that now was his only chance of
happiness. Happiness! for a man of sixty-five! For my part I could not
help laughing, but it was no laughing matter for the household at
Brothers-and-Sisters. A few days after this I met Mr. Oakley himself on
his way to the house. He recognized me at once, but naturally he did not
know who I was. He took me for one of the family, and came up to me
carrying his hat in his hand. He was a very handsome old man. His hair
was snow-white, a mass of it rising up in waves from his forehead, with
eyebrows still black and strongly marked, and the finest brilliant dark
eyes. I said to myself mentally: ‘If it had been I, I should have given
in at once.’ And his manners were beautiful--not the manners of
society--the deferential respect of a man who knows women chiefly
through books, and does not understand the free and easy modern way of
treating us. He kept his hat in his hand as he stood and spoke. ‘I do
not know,’ he said, ‘if I have the honour of speaking to a sister of
Miss Stamford’s, but I know I met you there.’

‘Not a sister, but a very affectionate friend,’ I said. His face lighted
up instantly; he almost loved me for saying so. ‘Then if that is the
case we ought to be friends too,’ he said. I was so much interested that
I turned and walked with him, regardless of prudence. What would the
Stamfords say if they saw me thus identifying myself with the cause of
their assailant? but the interest of this strange little romance carried
me away.

‘I must see her,’ he said. ‘Don’t you think I have a right to see her?
They need not surely grudge me one opportunity of pleading my own cause.
No, indeed, I don’t blame them. If I had such a treasure--nay,’ he went
on with a smile, ‘_when_ I have that treasure, I will guard it from
every wind that blows. I don’t wonder at their precautions. But Stamford
does not treat me with generosity; he does not trust to my honour: that
is why I adopt his own tactics. I must try to effect an entrance while
he is away.’

‘I don’t think Ursula will have you, Mr. Oakley,’ I said.

‘Perhaps not; but that remains to be seen. She has never seen me--that
is, she has never seen the real John Oakley, only a director of her
brother’s company, two different persons, Mrs. Mulgrave, if you will
allow me to say so.’

‘But she saw you before she knew you were a director. She travelled with
you. You were the gentleman like Don Quixote----’

How foolish I was! Of course I ought not to have said it. I felt that
before the words were out of my mouth. Such encouragement as this was
enough to counterbalance any number of severities. ‘Ah! I am like Don
Quixote, am I?’ he said; and once more, and more brightly than ever, his
handsome old face blazed into the brightest expression. Poor Mr. Oakley!
I threw myself heart and soul into his faction after this; for indeed,
as I afterwards heard, he had not at all a pleasant ‘time,’ as the
Americans say, that afternoon. When he sent in his name at
Brothers-and-Sisters he was told that the ladies were out, and, though
he waited, all that he managed to obtain was a hurried interview with
Mrs. St. Clair, who conveyed to him Ursula’s entreaty that he would
accept her answer as final, and not ask to see her. Sophy told me after
(she must have hidden herself somewhere, for nobody but Frances was
supposed to be present) that his behaviour was beautiful. He bowed to
the ground, she said, and declared that no one could be so much
interested as he was in observing Miss Stamford’s slightest wish; that
he would not for the world intrude upon her, but wait her pleasure
another time. Mrs. St. Clair’s heart softened too, and she did not
protest, as perhaps she ought to have done, against this ‘other time.’
He passed by my cottage as he went away, and I do not deny that I was in
my little garden looking out, ‘I have had no luck,’ he said, shaking his
head, but still with a smile, ‘no luck to-day; but another time I shall
succeed better.’

I ran to the gate, I felt so much interested. ‘Do you really think, Mr.
Oakley,’ I said, ‘that it is worth your while to persevere?’

‘Worth my while?’ he said; ‘certainly it is worth my while: for I am in
no hurry. I can bide my time.’

Bide his time at sixty-five! I stood and looked at him as long as he was
in sight. There is nothing like courage for securing the sympathy of the
bystanders.

After this the excitement ran very high both in the house of the
Stamfords and in the community in general. We all took sides: and while
General George made himself more and more disagreeable, and we all
watched and spied her every action, Ursula was subjected all the time to
a ceaseless assault from the other side. Letters poured upon her;
beautiful baskets of flowers arrived suddenly, secretly, so that no one
knew how they came. After a while, when the autumn commenced, there came
hampers of game and of fruit, all in the same anonymous, magnificent
way. And then the clever old man found out a still more effectual way of
siege. The Stamfords had always nephews who wanted appointments or who
required to be pushed. For instance, there was young Charley, of the
Inner Temple, sadly in want of a brief: when lo! all at once, briefs
began to tumble down from heaven upon the young man. In a week he had
more business than he knew what to do with. And Willie Thistlethwaite
had a living offered to him; and Cecil, whom they were so anxious to
place with an engineer, though the premium was so serious a matter,
suddenly found a place open to him with no premium at all. I believe in
my heart that it was Mr. Charles Stamford who helped the old lover to
recommend himself in this effectual, quiet way; for how should he have
found out all the nephews without help? But as one of these mysterious
benefits after another happened to the distant members of the family,
the feeling rose stronger and stronger among all their friends. We set
down everything, from the flowers to the living, unhesitatingly to Mr.
Oakley; and at last public sentiment on the Green got to such a pitch
that whereas people had laughed at the whole matter at first as little
more than a joke, everybody now grew indignant, and protested that
Ursula Stamford ought to be cut and sent to Coventry if she did not
marry Don Quixote. I don’t know who had betrayed this description which
she had herself given of him. But everybody now called him Don Quixote,
and the whole community took his cause to heart. While this feeling rose
outside, a wave of the same sentiment, but still more powerful, got up
within. Mr. Charles spoke out and declared (as, indeed, he had done from
the first) that to neglect such an opportunity of strengthening the
family influence would be a mere flying in the face of Providence; and
then something still more extraordinary happened. Frances herself--who
looked upon all married ladies in the light of prospective widows, and
regarded the one state only as a preparation for the other--Frances
herself suddenly threw off her allegiance to the General and went over
boldly to the other side. Sophy had been Mr. Oakley’s champion all
along. They began to turn upon Ursula, to accuse her of behaving badly
to her unwearied suitor--they accused her of playing fast and loose, of
amusing herself with his devotion. They raised a family outcry against
her, and brought down all the married sisters and the distant brothers
upon her, with a storm of disapproving letters. ‘The man that has
provided for my Cecil,’ one indignant lady wrote, ‘surely, _surely_,
deserves better at _my_ sister’s hands;’ and ‘I really think, my dear
Ursula, that any petty objections of your own should yield before the
evident advantage to the family,’ was what the eldest brother of all,
the father of the young barrister, said. On the other side, with gloom
on his face, and a sneer upon his lip (where it was so completely out of
place), and a bitter jibe now and then about the falsity and weakness of
women, General George stood all alone, and kept a jealous watch upon
her. His love for his favourite sister seemed to have turned to gall. He
would have none of her usual services; he no longer consulted her about
anything--no longer told her what he was going to do. It is to be
supposed that by this cruel method the General intended to prove to his
sister how much kinder and better a master he was than any other she
could aspire to; but if this was the case, he took a very curious way of
showing his superiority. And Ursula stood between these two parties, her
home and her life becoming more and more unbearable every day.

At last she took a sudden resolution. Sophy ran over to tell me of it
late one September evening. There were tears in Sophy’s eyes, and she
was full of awe. ‘Ursula has made up her mind, she said, almost below
her breath. ‘It is all over, Mrs. Mulgrave. She has written him a
_terrible_ letter--it is quite beautiful, but it is something terrible
at the same time; and she is going off _abroad_ to-morrow. She says she
cannot bear it any longer; she says we are killing her. She says she
must make an end of it, and that she will go away. Poor Mr. Oakley!’
Sophy said, and cried. As for me, I also felt deeply impressed and a
little awe-stricken, but I had a lingering faith in Don Quixote
notwithstanding all.



CHAPTER IV


There had been very little time left for preparations, and hardly any
one, Sophy told me, was aware they were going away. Except myself, no
one of the neighbours knew. All the arrangements were hastily made.
Ursula wanted to be gone if possible before Mr. Oakley could take any
further step. I went over early next morning to see if I could be of any
use. Ursula was in her room, doing her packing. To see her in her old
black silk with her simple little cap covering her gray hair, and to
think she was being driven from her home by the importunities of a
too-ardent lover, struck me as more ridiculous than it had ever done
before. She saw it herself, and laughed as she stood for a moment before
the long glass, in which she had caught a glimpse of herself.

‘I am a pretty sort of figure for all this nonsense,’ she said,
permitting herself for the first time an honest laugh on the subject;
but then her face clouded once more. ‘The truth is,’ she said, ‘it would
all be mere nonsense, but for George. It is he that takes it so much to
heart.’

‘Indeed,’ said I. ‘I think it is not at all nice of the General; and I
don’t think it would be nonsense in any case. There is some one else I
acknowledge, Ursula, that I think of more than the General.’

She did not say anything more. Her face paled, then grew red again, and
she went on with her packing. It is needless to say that I was of no
manner of use. I got rid of a little of my own excitement by going, that
was all. I went again in the evening to see the last of them. It was a
lovely September evening. There had been a wonderfully fine sunset, and
the whole horizon was still flaming, the trees standing out almost black
in their deep greenness, though touched with points of yellow, against
the broad lines of crimson and wide openings of wistful green blueness
in the sky. The days were already growing short. There is no time of the
year at which one gets so much good of the sunset. As I went across the
corner of the Green the gables and irregular chimneys of the old house
stood up among the heavy foliage against the lower band of colour where
the green and blue died into yellow the ‘daffodil sky’ of the poet. They
too looked black against that light, and there was a wistful look, I
thought, about the whole place, protesting dumbly against its
abandonment. Why should people go away from such a pleasant and peaceful
place to wander over the world? There was a solitary blackbird singing
clear and loud, filling the whole air with his song. I wonder if that
song is really much less beautiful than the nightingale’s. I was
thinking how blank and cold the house would be when they were all gone.
The chimneys and gables already looked so cold, smokeless, fireless,
appealing against the glare of the summer, which carried away the
dwellers inside, and extinguished the cheerful fire of home. As I went
in I saw the fly from the ‘Barleymow’ creeping along towards the house
to carry the luggage to the station. The old white horse came along
quite reluctantly, as if he did not like the errand. I suppose all that
his slow pace meant was that he had gone through a long day’s work, and
was tired; but it is so natural to convey a little of one’s own feelings
to everything, even the chimneys of the old house. There was nobody
down-stairs when I went in. Simms told me in a dolorous tone that Miss
Stamford was putting on her bonnet.

‘And I don’t like it, ma’am--I don’t like it--going away like this, just
when the country’s at its nicest. If it was the General for his bit of
sport, his shooting, or that, I wouldn’t mind,’ said Simms; ‘but what
call have the ladies got away from home? They’ll go a-catching fevers or
something, see if they don’t. It’s tempting Providence.’

‘I hope not, Simms,’ said I; but Simms took no comfort from my hoping.
He shook his head and he uttered a groan as he set a chair for me in the
centre of the drawing-room. No more cosy corners, the man seemed to
say--no more low seats and pleasant talk--an uncompromising chair in the
middle of the room, and a business object. These were all of which the
old drawing-room would be capable when the ladies were away. I set down
Simms along with the house itself, protesting with all its chimneys, and
the old white horse lumbering reluctantly along to fetch the luggage,
and the blackbird remonstrating loudly among the trees. They were all
opposed to Ursula’s departure, and so was I.

The door opened, and Sophy came in more despondent than all of these
sundry personages and things put together. ‘They are rather late--the
boxes are just being put on to the fly. Will you come out here and bid
her good-bye?’ said Sophy, who was limp with crying. I never could tell
whether it was imagination or a real quickening of my senses, but at
that moment, as I rose to follow Sophy, I heard as clearly as I ever
heard it in my life the galloping of horses on the dry, dusty summer
road. I heard it as distinctly as I hear now the soft dropping of the
rain, a sound as different as possible from all the other sounds I had
been hearing--horses galloping at their very best, a whip cracking, the
sound of a frantic energy of haste. Then I went out into the hall,
following Sophy. It must have been imagination, for with all these lawns
and shrubberies round, one could not, you may well believe, hear passing
carriages like that. Ursula was standing at the foot of the stairs in
her travelling dress. It was a large, long hall, more oblong than
square, into which all the rooms opened; the drawing-room was opposite
the outer door, and the General’s room (the library as it was called)
was further back nearer the stairs. He was inside, but the door was
open. Ursula stood outside talking to the cook, who was to be a kind of
housekeeper while they were away. ‘Don’t trouble Miss Sophy except when
you are perplexed yourself. On ordinary occasions you will do quite
nicely, I am sure; you will do everything that is wanted,’ she was
saying in her kind, cheerful voice, for Ursula did not show any
appearance of regret, though all of us who were staying behind were
melancholy. The men were hoisting up the trunks with which the hall was
encumbered on the top of the fly, which was visible with its old white
horse standing tired and pensive at the open door. And Mrs. St. Clair
appeared behind her sister, slowly coming down-stairs with a cloak over
her arm and a bag in her hand. There was nothing left but to say
good-bye and wish them a good journey and a speedy return.

But all at once in a moment there was a change. The horses I had been
dreaming of, or had heard in a dream, drew up with a whirlwind of sound
at the gate. Then something darted across the unencumbered light beyond
the fly and came between the old white horse and the door. I think
he--for to use any neutral expressions about _him_ from the first moment
at which he showed himself would be impossible--I think he lifted his
hand to the men who were putting up the trunks to arrest them; at all
events they stopped and scratched their heads and opened their mouths,
and stood staring at him, as did Sophy and I, altogether confounded, yet
with sudden elation in our hearts. He stepped past us all as lightly as
any young paladin of twenty, taking off his hat. His white hair seemed
all in a moment to light up everything, to quicken the place. Ursula was
the last to see him. She was still talking quite calmly to the cook,
though even Mrs. St. Clair on the stairs had seen the new incident, and
had dropped her cloak in amazement. He went straight up to her, without
a pause, without drawing breath. I am sure we all held ours in
spellbound anxiety and attention. When Ursula saw him standing by her
side she started as if she had been shot--she made a hasty step back and
looked at him, catching her breath too with sudden alarm. But he had the
air of perfect self-command.

‘Miss Stamford,’ he said, ‘will you grant me half an hour’s interview
before you go?’

For the first time Ursula lost her self-possession; she fluttered and
trembled like a girl, and could not speak for a moment. Then she
stammered out, ‘I hope you will excuse me. We shall be--late for the
train.’

‘Half an hour?’ he said; ‘I only ask half an hour--only hear me, Miss
Stamford, hear what I have got to say. I will not detain you more than
half an hour.’

Ursula looked round her helplessly. Whether she saw us standing gazing
at her I cannot tell, or if she was conscious that the General behind
her had come out to the door, and was standing there petrified, staring
like the rest of us. She looked round vaguely, as if asking aid from the
world in general. And whether her impetuous old lover took her hand and
drew it within his arm, or if she accepted his arm, I cannot say. But
the next thing of which we were aware was that they passed us, the two
together, arm in arm, into the drawing-room. He had noted the open door
with his quick eye, and there he led her trembling past us. Next moment
it closed upon the momentous interview, and the chief actors in this
strange scene disappeared. We were left all gazing at each other--Sophy
and I at one side of the hall, Mrs. St. Clair on the stairs, where she
stood as if turned to stone, her cloak fallen from her arm; and the
General at the door of his room with a face like a thunder-cloud, black
and terrible. We stared at each other speechless, the central object at
which we had all been gazing withdrawn suddenly from us. There were some
servants also of the party, Simms standing over Miss Stamford’s box, the
address of which he affected to be scanning, and the cabman scratching
his head. We all looked at each other with ludicrous, blank faces. It
was the General who was the first to speak. He took no notice of us. He
stepped out from his door into the middle of the hall, and pointed
imperiously to the box. ‘Take all that folly away,’ he said harshly, and
with another long step strode out of the house and disappeared.

He did not come back till late that night, when all thoughts of the
train had long departed from everybody’s head. Before that time need I
say it was all settled? I had always been doubtful myself about Ursula.
She had been afraid of making a joke of herself by a late marriage. She
had shrunk, perhaps, too, at her time of life, from all the novelty and
the change; but even at fifty-seven a woman retains her imagination, and
it had been captivated in spite of herself by the bit of strange romance
thus oddly introduced into her life. Is any one ever old enough to be
insensible to the pleasure of being singled out and pursued with
something that looked like real passion? I do not suppose so; Ursula had
been alarmed by the softening of her own feelings; she had been
remorseful and conscience-stricken about her secret treachery to her
brother. In short, I had felt all along that she must have had very
little confidence in herself when she was driven to the expedient of
running away.

They would not let me go, though I felt myself out of place at such a
moment, so that I had my share in the excitement as I had in the
suspense. And after all the struggle and the suspense it is
inconceivable how easy and natural the settlement of the matter seemed,
and what a relief it was that it should be decided.

As soon as the first commotion was over Mrs. Douglas came to me, took
my hands in hers, and led me out by the open window. ‘George!’ she said
to me with a little gasp. ‘What shall we do about George? How will _he_
take it? And if he comes in upon us all without any preparation, what
will happen? I don’t know what to do.’

‘He must know what has happened,’ said I; ‘he saw there was only one
thing that could happen. He must know what he has to expect.’

Mrs. St. Clair clasped her hands together. What with the excitement and
the pleasure and the pain the tears stood in her eyes. ‘Ursula was
always his favourite sister,’ she said; ‘how will he take it? and where
is he?--wandering about, making himself wretched this melancholy night.’

It was not in reality a melancholy night. It was dark, and the colour
had gone out of the sky, which looked of a deep wintry blue between the
black tree-tops which swayed in the wind. Mrs. St. Clair shivered a
little, partly from the contrast with the bright room inside, partly
from anxiety. ‘Where can he be?--where can he be wandering?’ she said.
We had both the same idea--that he must have gone into the woods and be
wandering about there in wild resentment and distress. ‘And we must not
stay out here or Mr. Oakley will think something is wrong, and Ursula
will be unhappy,’ she said with a sigh.

It was then I proposed that I should stay outside to break the news to
the General when he appeared--a proposal which, after a while, Mrs.
Douglas was compelled to accept, though she protested--for after all, my
absence would not be remarked, and it was easy to say that I had gone
home, as I meant to do. But I cannot say that the post was a pleasant
one. I walked about for some time in front of the house, and then I came
and sat down in the porch ‘for company.’ There was nothing, as I have
said, specially melancholy about the night, but the contrast of the
scene within and this without struck the imagination. When a door opened
the voices within came with a kind of triumph into the darkness where
the disappointed and solitary brother was wandering: and so absorbed was
I in thoughts of General George and his downfall that I almost missed
the subject of them, who came suddenly round the corner of the house
when I was not looking for him. It was he who perceived me, rather than
I who was on the watch for him. ‘You here, Mrs. Mulgrave!’ he said in
amazement. I believe he thought, as I started to my feet, that I had
been asleep.

‘General!’ I cried then in my confusion. ‘Stop here a moment, do not go
in. I have something to say to you.’

He laughed--which was a sound so unexpected that it bewildered me. ‘My
kind friend,’ he said, ‘have you stayed here to break the news to me?
But it is unnecessary--from the moment I saw Oakley arrive I knew how it
must be. Ursula has been going--she has been going. I have seen it for
three or four weeks past.’

‘And, General! thank Heaven you are not angry, you are taking it in a
Christian way.’

He laughed again--a sort of angry laugh. ‘Am I taking it in a Christian
way? I am glad you think so, Mrs. Mulgrave. When a thing cannot be cured
it must be endured, you know. I am out of court--I have no ground to
stand upon, and he is master of the field. I don’t mean to make her
unhappy whatever happens. Is he here still?’

‘Yes,’ I said trembling. He offered me his arm precisely as Mr. Oakley
had offered his to Ursula. ‘Then we’ll go and join them,’ he said.

This was how it all ended. There was not a speck on his boots or the
least trace of disorder. Instead of roaming the woods in despair, as we
thought, he had been quietly drinking Lady Denzil’s delightful tea and
playing chess with Sir Thomas. They had seen nothing unusual about him,
we heard afterwards, and never knew that he ought to have been starting
for the Continent when he walked in that evening, warmly welcomed to
tea--which shows what sentimental estimates we women form about the
feelings of men.

The marriage took place very soon after. Mr. Oakley bought Hillhead, the
finest place in the neighbourhood, very soon after; he was so rich that
he bought a house whenever he found one that pleased him, as I might buy
an old blue china pot. The one was a much greater extravagance to me
than the other was to him. And they lived very happy ever after, and
nobody, so far as I know, has ever had occasion to regret this love at
first sight at sixty--this elderly romance.



MRS. MERRIDEW’S FORTUNE



CHAPTER I


There are two houses in my neighbourhood which illustrate so curiously
two phases of life, that everybody on the Green, as well as myself, has
been led into the habit of classing them together. The first reason of
this of course is, that they stand together; the second, that they are
as unlike in every way as it is possible to conceive. They are about the
same size, with the same aspect, the same green circle of garden
surrounding them; and yet as dissimilar as if they had been brought out
of two different worlds. They are not on the Green, though they are
undeniably a part of Dinglefield, but stand on the Mercot Road, a broad
country road with a verdant border of turf and fine trees shadowing over
the hedgerows. The Merridews live in the one, and in the other are Mrs.
Spencer and Lady Isabella. The house of the two ladies, which has been
already described, is as perfect in all its arrangements as if it were a
palace: a silent, soft, fragrant, dainty place, surrounded by lawns like
velvet; full of flowers in perfect bloom, the finest kinds, succeeding
each other as the seasons change. Even in autumn, when the winds are
blowing, you never see a fallen leaf about, or the least symptom of
untidiness. They have enough servants for everything that is wanted, and
the servants are as perfect as the flowers--noiseless maids and
soft-voiced men. Everything goes like machinery, with an infallible
regularity; but like machinery oiled and deadened, which emits no creak
nor groan. This is one of the things upon which Mrs. Spencer specially
prides herself.

And just across two green luxuriant hedges, over a lawn which is not
like velvet, you come to the Merridews’. It is possible if you passed it
on a summer day that, notwithstanding the amazing superiority of the
other, you would pause longer, and be more amused with a glance into the
enclosure of the latter house. The lawn is not the least like velvet;
probably it has not been mown for three weeks at least, and the daisies
are irrepressible. But there, tumbled down in the midst of it, are a
bunch of little children in pinafores--‘_all_ the little ones,’ as Janet
Merridew, the eldest daughter, expresses herself, with a certain soft
exasperation. I would rather not undertake to number them or record
their names, but there they are, a knot of rosy, round-limbed,
bright-eyed, living things, some dark and some fair, with an amazing
impartiality; but all chattering as best they can in nursery language,
with rings of baby laughter, and baby quarrels, and musings of infinite
solemnity. Once tumbled out here, where no harm can come to them, nobody
takes any notice of the little ones. Nurse, sitting by serenely under a
tree, works all the morning through, and there is so much going on
indoors to occupy the rest.

Mr. and Mrs. Merridew, I need not add, had a large family--so large that
their house overflowed, and when the big boys were at home from school,
was scarcely habitable. Janet, indeed, did not hesitate to express her
sentiments very plainly on the subject. She was just sixteen, and a good
child, but full of the restless longing for something, she did not know
what, and visionary discontent with her surroundings, which is not
uncommon at her age. She had a way of paying me visits, especially
during the holidays, and speaking more frankly on domestic subjects than
was at all expedient. She would come in, in summer, with a tap on the
glass which always startled me, through the open window, and sink down
on a sofa and utter a long sigh of relief. ‘Oh, Mrs. Mulgrave!’ she
would say, ‘what a good thing you never had any children!’ taking off,
as she spoke, the large hat which it was one of her grievances to be
compelled to wear.

‘Is that because you have too many at home?’ I said.

‘Oh, yes, far too many; fancy, ten! Why should poor papa be burdened
with ten of us? and so little money to keep us all on. And then a house
gets so untidy with so many about. Mamma does all she can, and I do all
I can; but how is it possible to keep it in order? When I look across
the hedges to Mrs. Spencer and Lady Isabella’s and see everything so
nice and so neat I could die of envy. And you are always so shady, and
so cool, and so pleasant here.’

‘It is easy to be neat and nice when there is nobody to put things out
of order,’ said I; ‘but when you are as old as I am, Janet, you will get
to think that one may buy one’s neatness too dear.’

‘Oh, I delight in it!’ cried the girl. ‘I should like to have everything
nice, like you; all the books and papers just where one wants them, and
paper-knives on every table, and ink in the ink-bottles, and no dust
anywhere. You are not so dreadfully particular as Mrs. Spencer and Lady
Isabella. I think I should like to see some litter on the carpet or on
the lawn now and then for a change. But oh, if you could only see our
house! And then our things are so shabby: the drawing-room carpet is all
faded with the sun, and mamma will never have the blinds properly
pulled down. And Selina, the housemaid, has so much to do. When I scold
her, mamma always stops me, and bids me recollect we can’t be as nice as
you other people, were we to try ever so much. There is so much to do in
our house. And then those dreadful big boys!’

‘My dear,’ said I, ‘ring the bell, and we will have some tea; and you
can tell Jane to bring you some of that strawberry jam you are so fond
of--and forget the boys.’

‘As if one could!’ said Janet, ‘when they are all over the place--into
one’s very room, if one did not mind; their boots always either dusty or
muddy, and oh, the noise they make! Mamma won’t make them dress in the
evenings, as I am sure she should. How are they ever to learn to behave
like Christians, Mrs. Mulgrave, if they are not obliged to dress and
come into the drawing-room at night?’

‘I dare say they would run out again and spoil their evening clothes, my
dear,’ I said.

‘That is just what mamma says,’ cried Janet; ‘but isn’t it dreadful to
have always to consider everything like that? Poor mamma, too--often I
am quite angry, and then I think--perhaps she would like a house like
Mrs. Spencer and Lady Isabella’s as well as I should, if we had money
enough. I suppose in a nice big house with heaps of maids and heaps of
money, and everything kept tidy for you, one would not mind even the big
boys.’

‘I think under those circumstances most people would be glad to have
them,’ said I.

‘I don’t understand how anybody can like boys,’ said Janet, with
reflective yet contemptuous emphasis. ‘A baby-boy is different. When
they are just the age of little Harry, I adore them; but those great
long-legged creatures, in their big boots! And yet, when they’re nicely
dressed in their evening things,’ she went on, suddenly changing her
tone, ‘and with a flower in their coats--Jack has actually got an
evening coat, Mrs. Mulgrave, he is so tall for his age--they look quite
nice; they look such gentlemen,’ Janet concluded, with a little sisterly
enthusiasm. ‘Oh, how dreadful it is to be so poor!’

‘I am sure you are very fond of them all the same,’ said I, ‘and would
break your heart if anything should happen to them.’

‘Oh, well, of course, now they are there one would not wish anything to
happen,’ said Janet. ‘What did you say I was to tell Jane, Mrs.
Mulgrave, about the tea? There now! Selina has never the time to be as
nice as that--and Richards, you know, our man---- Don’t you think,
really, it would be better to have a nice clean parlour-maid than a man
that looks like a cobbler? Mrs. Spencer and Lady Isabella are always
going on about servants,--that you should send them away directly when
they do anything wrong. But, you know, it makes a great difference
having a separate servant for everything. Mamma always says, “They are
good to the children, Janet,” or, “They are so useful and don’t mind
what they do.” We put up with Selina because, though she’s not a good
housemaid, she is quite willing to help in the nursery; and we put up
with nurse because she gets through so much sewing; and even the
cook---- Oh, dear, dear! it is so disagreeable. I wish I were--anybody
but myself.’

Just at this moment my maid ushered in Mrs. Merridew, hastily attired in
a hat she wore in the garden, and a light shawl wrapped round her. There
was an anxious look in her face, which indeed was not very unusual
there. She was a little flushed, either by walking in the sunshine or by
something on her mind.

‘You here, Janet,’ she said, when she had shaken hands with me, ‘when
you promised me to practise an hour after luncheon? Go, my dear, and do
it now.’

‘It is so hot. I never can play in the middle of the day; and oh, mamma,
please it is so pleasant here,’ pleaded Janet, nestling herself close
into the corner of the sofa.

‘Let her stay till we have had some tea,’ I said. ‘I know she likes my
strawberry jam.’

Mrs. Merridew consented, but with a sigh; and then it was that I saw
clearly she must have something on her mind. She did not smile, as
usual, with the indulgent mother’s smile, half disapproving, yet
unwilling to thwart the child. On the contrary, there was a little
constraint in her air as she sat down, and Janet’s enjoyment of the jam
vexed her, and brought a little wrinkle to her brow. ‘One would think
you had not eaten anything all day,’ she said with a vexed tone, and
evidently was impatient of her daughter’s presence, and wished her away.

‘Nothing so nice as this,’ said Janet, with the frank satisfaction of
her age; and she went on eating her bread and jam quite composedly,
until Mrs. Merridew’s patience was exhausted.

‘I cannot have you stay any longer,’ she said at length. ‘Go and
practise now, while there is no one in the house.’

‘Oh, mamma!’ said Janet, beginning to expostulate; but was stopped short
by a look in her mother’s eye. Then she gathered herself up reluctantly,
and left the paradise of my little tea-table with the jam. She went out
pouting, trailing her great hat after her; and had to be stopped as she
stepped into the blazing sunshine, and commanded to put it on. ‘It is
only a step,’ said the provoking girl, pouting more and more. And poor
Mrs. Merridew looked so worried, and heated, and uncomfortable as she
went out and said a few energetic words to her naughty child. Poor soul!
Ten different wills to manage and keep in subjection to her own, besides
all the other cares she had upon her shoulders. And that big girl who
should have been a help to her, standing pouting and disobedient between
the piano she did not care for, and the jam she loved.--Sometimes such a
little altercation gives one a glimpse into an entire life.

‘She is such a child,’ Mrs. Merridew said, coming in with an apologetic,
anxious smile on her face. She had been fretted and vexed, and yet she
would not show it to lessen my opinion of her girl. Then she sank down
wearily into that corner of the sofa from which Janet had been so
unwillingly expelled. ‘The truth is, I wanted to speak to you,’ she
said, ‘and could not while she was here. Poor Janet! I am afraid I was
cross, but I could not help it. Something has occurred to-day which has
put me out.’

‘I hope it is something I can help you in,’ I said.

‘That is why I have come: you are always so kind; but it is a strange
thing I am going to ask you this time,’ she said, with a wistful glance
at me. ‘I want to go to town for a day on business of my own; and I want
it to be supposed that it is business of yours.’

The fact was, it did startle me for the moment--and then I reflected
like lightning, so quick was the process (I say this that nobody may
think my first feeling hard), what kind of woman she was, and how
impossible that she should want to do anything that one need be ashamed
of. ‘That is very simple,’ I said.

Then she rose hastily, and came up to me and gave me a sudden kiss,
though she was not a demonstrative woman. ‘You are always so
understanding,’ she said, with the tears in her eyes; and thus I was
committed to stand by her, whatever her difficulty might be.

‘But you sha’n’t do it in the dark,’ she went on; ‘I am going to tell
you all about it. I don’t want Mr. Merridew to know, and in our house it
is quite impossible to keep anything secret. He is on circuit now; but
he would hear of “the day mamma went to town” before he had been five
minutes in the house. And so I want you to go with me, you dear soul,
and to let me say I went with you.’

‘That is quite simple,’ I said again; but I did feel that I should like
to know what the object of the expedition was.

‘It is a long story,’ she said, ‘and I must go back and tell you ever so
much about myself before you will understand. I have had the most
dreadful temptation put before me to-day. Oh, such a temptation!
resisting it is like tearing one’s heart in two; and yet I know I ought
to resist. Think of our large family, and poor Charles’s many
disappointments, and then, dear Mrs. Mulgrave, read that.’

It was a letter written on a large square sheet of thin paper which she
thrust into my hand: one of those letters one knows a mile off, and
recognizes as lawyers’ letters, painful or pleasant, as the case may be;
but more painful than pleasant generally. I read it, and you may judge
of my astonishment to find that it ran thus:--

     ‘DEAR MADAM,--We have the pleasure to inform you that our late
     client, Mr. John Babington, deceased on the 10th of May last, has
     appointed you by his will his residuary legatee. After all his
     special bequests are paid, including an annuity of a hundred a year
     to his mother, with remainder to Miss Babington, his only surviving
     sister, there will remain a sum of about £10,000, at present
     excellently invested on landed security, and bearing interest at
     four and a half per cent. By Mr. Babington’s desire, precautions
     have been taken to bind it strictly to your separate use, so that
     you may dispose of it by will or otherwise, according to your
     pleasure, for which purpose we have accepted the office of your
     trustees, and will be happy to enter fully into the subject, and
     put you in possession of all details, as soon as you can favour us
     with a private interview.

‘We are, madam,

‘Your obedient servants,

‘FOGEY, FEATHERHEAD & DOWN.’



‘A temptation!’ I cried; ‘but, my dear, it is a fortune; and it is
delightful: it will make you quite comfortable. Why, it will be nearly
five hundred a year.’

I feel always safe in the way of calculating interest when it is
anything approaching five per cent.; five per cent. is so easily
counted. This great news took away my breath.

But Mrs. Merridew shook her head. ‘It looks so at the first glance,’ she
said; ‘but when you hear my story you will think differently.’ And then
she made a little uncomfortable pause. ‘I don’t know whether you ever
guessed it,’ she added, looking down, and doubling a new hem upon her
handkerchief, ‘but I was not Charles’s equal when we married: perhaps
you may have heard----?

Of course I had heard: but the expression of her countenance was such
that I put on a look of great amazement, and pretended to be much
astonished, which I could see was a comfort to her mind.

‘I am glad of that,’ she said, ‘for you know--I could not speak so
plainly to you if I did not feel that, though you are so quiet now, you
must have seen a great deal of the world--you know what a man is. He may
be capable of marrying you, if he loves you, whatever your condition
is--but afterwards he does not like people to know. I don’t mean I was
his inferior in education, or anything of that sort,’ she added, looking
up at me with a sudden uneasy blush.

‘You need not tell me that,’ I said; and then another uneasiness took
possession of her, lest I should think less highly than was right of her
husband.

‘Poor Charles!’ she said; ‘it is scarcely fair to judge him as he is
now. We have had so many cares and disappointments, and he has had to
deny himself so many things--and you may say, Here is his wife, whom he
has been so good to, plotting to take away from him what might give him
a little ease. But oh, dear Mrs. Mulgrave, you must hear before you
judge!’

‘I do not judge,’ I said; ‘I am sure you must have some very good
reason; tell me what it is.’

Then she paused, and gave a long sigh. She must have been about forty, I
think, a comely, simple woman, not in any way a heroine of romance; and
yet she was as interesting to me as if she had been only half the age,
and deep in some pretty crisis of romantic distress. I don’t object to
the love stories either: but middle age has its romances too.

‘When I was a girl,’ said Mrs. Merridew, ‘I went to the Babingtons as
Ellen’s governess. She was about fifteen and I was not more than twenty,
and I believe people thought me pretty. You will laugh at me, but I
declare I have always been so busy all my life, that I have never had
any time to think whether it was true: but one thing I know, that I was
a very good governess. I often wish,’ she added, pausing, with a half
comic look amid her trouble, ‘that I could find as good a governess as I
was for the girls. There was one brother, John, and one other sister,
Matilda; and Mr. Merridew was one of the visitors at the house, and was
supposed to be paying _her_ attention. I never could see it, for my
part, and Charles declares he never had any such idea; but _they_
thought so, I know. It is quite a long story. John had just come home
from the University, and was pretending to read for the bar, and was
always about the house; and the end was that he fell in love with me.’

‘Of course,’ said I.

‘I don’t know that it was of course. I was so very shy, and dreaded the
sound of my own voice; but he used to come after us everywhere by way of
talking to Ellen, and so got to know me. Poor John! he was the nicest,
faithful fellow--the sort of man one would trust everything to, and
believe in and respect, and be fond of--but not love. Of course Charles
was there too. It went on for about a year, such a curious, confused,
pleasant, painful---- I cannot describe it to you--but you know what I
mean. The Babingtons had always been kind to me; of course they were
angry when they found out about John, but then when they knew I would
not marry him, they were kinder than ever, and said I had behaved so
very well about it. I was a very lonely poor girl; my mother was dead,
and I had nowhere to go; and instead of sending me away, Mrs. Babington
sent _him_ away--her own son, which was very good of her you know. To be
sure I was a good governess, and they never suspected Charles of coming
for me, nor did I. Suddenly, all at once, without the least warning, he
found me by myself one day, and told me. I was a little shocked,
thinking of Matilda Babington! but then he declared he had meant
nothing. And so---- When the Babingtons heard of it, they were all
furious; even Ellen, my pupil, turned against me. They sent me away as
if I had done something wicked. It was very, very hard upon me; but yet
I scarcely wonder, now I think of it. That was why we married so early
and so imprudently. Mrs. Mulgrave, I dare say you have often wondered
why it was?’

I had to put on such looks of wonder and satisfied curiosity as I could;
for the truth was, I had known the outlines of the story for years, just
as every one knows the outlines of every one else’s story; especially
such parts of it as people might like to be concealed. I cannot
understand how anybody, at least in society, or on the verge of society,
can for a moment hope to have any secrets. Charles Merridew was a cousin
of Mr. Justice Merridew, and very well connected, and of course it was
known that he married a governess; which was one reason why people were
so shy of them at first when they came to the Green.

‘I begin to perceive now why this letter should be a temptation to you,’
I said; ‘you think Mr. Merridew would not like----’

‘Oh, it is not that,’ she said. ‘Poor Charles! I don’t think he would
mind. The world is so hard, and one makes so little head against it. No,
it is because of Mrs. Babington. I heard she lost all her money some
years ago, and was dependent on her son. And what can she do on a
hundred a year? A hundred a year! Only think of it, for an old lady
always accustomed to have her own way. It is horribly unjust, you know,
to take it from her, his mother, who was always so good to him; and to
give it to me, whom he has not seen for nearly twenty years, and who
gave him a sore heart when he did know me. I could not take advantage of
it. It is a great temptation, but it would be a great sin. And that is
why,’ she added, with a sudden flush on her face, looking at me, ‘I
should rather--manage it myself--under cover of you--and--not let
Charles know.’

She looked at me, and held me with her eye, demanding of me that I
should understand her, and yet defying me to think any the worse of
Charles. She was afraid of her husband--afraid that he would clutch at
the money without any consideration of the wrong--afraid to trust him
with the decision. She would have me understand her without words, and
yet she would not have me blame Mr. Merridew. She insisted on the one
and defied me to the other; an inconsistent, unreasonable woman! But I
did my best to look as if I saw, and yet did not see.

‘Then you want to see the lawyers?’ I said.

‘I want to see Mrs. Babington,’ was her answer. ‘I must go to them and
explain. They are proud people, and probably would resist--or they may
be otherwise provided for. If that was the case I should not hesitate to
take it. Oh, Mrs. Mulgrave, when I look at all the children, and Janet
there murmuring and grumbling, don’t you think it wrings my heart to put
away this chance of comfort? And poor Charles working himself out. But
it could not bring a blessing. It would bring a curse; I cannot take the
bread out of the mouth of the old woman who was good to me, even to put
it into that of my own child.’

And here two tears fell out of Mrs. Merridew’s eyes. At her age people
do not weep abundantly. She gave a little start as they fell, and
brushed them off her dress, with, I don’t doubt, a sensation of shame.
She to cry like a baby, who had so much to do! She left shortly after,
with an engagement to meet me at the station for the twelve o’clock
train next day. I was going to town on business, and had asked her to go
with me--this was what was to be said to all the world. I explained
myself elaborately that very evening to Mrs. Spencer and Lady Isabella,
when I met them taking their walk after dinner.

‘Mrs. Merridew is so kind as to go with me,’ I said; ‘she knows so much
more about business than I do.’ And I made up my mind that I would go to
the Bank and leave my book to be made up, that it might not be quite
untrue.

‘Fancy Mrs. Mulgrave having any business!’ said Lady Isabella. ‘Why
don’t you write to some man, and make him do it, instead of all the
trouble of going to town?’

‘But Mrs. Merridew is going with me, my dear,’ I said; and nobody
doubted that the barrister’s wife, with so much experience as she had,
and so many things to do, would be an efficient help to me in my little
affairs.



CHAPTER II


The house we went to was a house in St. John’s Wood. Everybody knows the
kind of place. A garden wall, with lilacs and laburnums, all out of
blossom by this time, and beginning to look brown and dusty, waving over
it; inside, a little bright suburban garden, full of scarlet geraniums,
divided by a white line of pavement, dazzlingly clean, from the door in
the wall to the door of the house; and a stand full of more scarlet
geraniums in the little square hall. Mrs. Merridew became very much
agitated as we approached. It was all that I could do to keep her up
when we had rung the bell at the door. I think she would have turned and
gone back even then had it been possible, but, fortunately, we were
admitted without delay.

We were shown into a pretty shady drawing-room, full of old furniture,
which looked like the remnants of something greater, and at which she
gazed with eyes of almost wild recognition, unconsciously pressing my
arm, which she still held. Everything surrounding her woke afresh the
tumult of recollections. She was not able to speak when the maid asked
our names, and I was about to give them simply, and had already named my
own, when she pressed my arm closer to her, and interposed all at once--

‘Say two ladies from the country anxious to speak with her about
business. She might not--know--our names.’

‘Is it business about the house, ma’am?’ said the maid with some
eagerness.

‘Yes, yes; it is about the house,’ said Mrs. Merridew, hastily. And then
the door closed, and we sat waiting, listening to the soft, subdued
sounds in the quiet house, and the rustle of the leaves in the garden.
‘She must be going to let it,’ my companion said hoarsely; and then rose
from the chair on which she had placed herself, and began to move about
the room with agitation, looking at everything, touching the things with
her hands, with now and then a stifled exclamation. ‘There is where we
used to sit, Ellen and I,’ she said, standing by a sofa, before which a
small table was placed, ‘when there was company in the evenings. And
there Matilda--oh, what ghosts there are about! Matilda is married,
thank Heaven! but if Ellen comes, I shall never be able to face her. Oh,
Mrs. Mulgrave, if you would but speak for me!’

At this moment the door was opened. Mrs. Merridew shrank back
instinctively, and sat down, resting her hand on the table she had just
pointed out to me. The new-comer was a tall, full figure, in deep
mourning, a handsome woman of five-and-thirty, or thereabouts, with
bright hair, which looked all the brighter from comparison with the
black depths of her dress, and a colourless, clear complexion. All the
colour about her was in her hair. Though she had no appearance of
unhealthiness, her very lips were pale, and she came in with a noiseless
quiet dignity, and the air of one who felt she had pain to encounter,
yet felt able to bear it.

‘Pardon me for keeping you waiting,’ she said; and then, with a somewhat
startled glance, ‘I understood you wanted to see--the house.’

My companion was trembling violently; and I cleared my throat, and tried
to clear up my ideas (which was less easy) to say something in reply.
But before I had stammered out half-a-dozen words Mrs. Merridew rose,
and made one or two unsteady steps towards the stranger.

‘Ellen,’ she cried, ‘don’t you know me?’ and stopped there, standing in
the centre of the room, holding out appealing hands.

Miss Babington’s face changed in the strangest way. I could see that she
recognized her in a moment, and then that she pretended to herself not
to recognize her. There was the first startled, vivid, indignant glance,
and then a voluntary mist came over her eyes. She gazed at the agitated
woman with an obstinately blank gaze, and then turned to me with a
little bow.

‘Your friend has the advantage of me,’ she said; ‘but you were saying
something? I should be glad, if that was what you wanted, to show you
over the house.’

It would be hard to imagine a more difficult position than that in which
I found myself; seated between two people who were thus strangely
connected with each other by bonds of mutual injury, and appealed to for
something meaningless and tranquillizing, to make the intercourse
possible. I did the best I could on the spur of the moment.

‘It is not so much the house,’ I said, ‘though, if you wish to let it, I
have a friend who is looking for a house; but I think there was some
other business Mrs. Merridew had; something to say----’

‘Mrs. Merridew!’ said Miss Babington, suffering the light once more to
come into her eyes; and then she gave her an indignant look. ‘I think
this might have been spared us at least.’

‘Ellen,’ said Mrs. Merridew, speaking very low and humbly--‘Ellen, I
have never done anything to you to make you so hard against me. If I
injured your sister, it was unwittingly. She is better off than I am
now. You were once fond of me, as I was of you. Why should you have
turned so completely against me? I have come in desperation to ask a
hearing from you, and from your mother, Ellen. God knows I mean nothing
but good. And oh, what have I ever done?--what harm?’

Miss Babington had seated herself, still preserving her air of dignity,
but without an invitation by look or gesture to her visitor to be
seated; and in the silent room, all so dainty and so sweet with flowers,
with the old furniture in it, which reminded her of the past, the
culprit of twenty years ago stood pleading between one of those whom she
was supposed to have wronged and myself, a most ignorant and uneasy
spectator. Twenty years ago! In the meantime youth had passed, and the
hard burdens of middle age had come doubled and manifold upon her
shoulders. Had she done nothing in the meantime that would tell more
heavily against her than that girlish inadvertence of the past? Yet here
she stood--not knowing, I believe, for the moment, whether she was the
young governess in her first trouble, or the mother of all those
children, acquainted with troubles so much more bitter--among the ghosts
of the past.

‘I would much rather not discuss the question,’ said Miss Babington,
still seated, and struggling hard to preserve her calm. ‘All the grief
and vexation we have owed to you in this house cannot be summed up in a
moment. The only policy, I think, is to be silent. Your very presence
here is an offence to us. What else could it be?’

‘I should never have come,’ said Mrs. Merridew, moved by a natural prick
of resentment, ‘but for what I have just heard---- I should never have
returned to ask for pardon where I had done no wrong--had it not been
for this--this that I feel to be unjust. Your poor brother John----’

‘Stop!’ cried the other, her reserve failing. ‘Stop, oh! stop, you cruel
woman! He was nothing to you but a toy to be played with--but he was my
brother, my only brother; and you have made him an undutiful son in his
very grave.’

The tears were in her eyes, her colourless face had flushed, her soft
voice was raised; and Mrs. Merridew, still standing, listened to her
with looks as agitated--when all at once the door was again opened
softly. The aspect of affairs changed in a moment. To my utter
amazement, Mrs. Merridew, who was standing with her face to the door,
made a quick, imperative, familiar gesture to her antagonist, and
looked towards an easy-chair which stood near the open window. Miss
Babington rose quickly to her feet, and composed herself into a sudden
appearance of calm.

‘Mamma,’ she said, going forward to meet the old lady, who came slowly
in; ‘here are some ladies come upon business. This is--Mrs. Merridew.’
She said the name very low, as Mrs. Babington made her way to her chair,
and Mrs. Merridew sank trembling into her seat, unable, I think, to bear
up longer. The old lady seated herself before she spoke. She was a
little old woman, with a pretty, softly-coloured old face, and had the
air of having been petted and cared for all her life. The sudden change
of her daughter’s manner; the accumulation of every kind of convenience
and prettiness, as I now remarked, round that chair; the careful way in
which it had been placed out of the sun and the draught, yet in the air
and in sight of the garden, told a whole history of themselves. And now
Mrs. Merridew’s passionate sense that the alienation of the son’s
fortune from the mother was a thing impossible, was made clear to me at
once.

‘Whom did you say, Ellen?’ said the old lady, when she was comfortably
settled in her chair. ‘Mrs.----? I never catch names. I hope you have
explained to the ladies that I am rather infirm, and can’t stand. What
did you say was your friend’s name, my dear?’

Her friend’s name! Ellen Babington’s face lightened all over as with a
pale light of indignation.

‘I said--Mrs. Merridew,’ she repeated, with a little emphasis on the
name. Then there was a pause; and the culprit who was at the bar
trembled visibly, and hid her face in her hands.

‘Mrs. Merridew!---- Do you mean----? Turn me round, Ellen, and let me
look at her,’ said the old lady with a curious catching of her breath.

It was a change which could not be done in a moment. While the daughter
turned the mother’s chair, poor Mrs. Merridew must have gone through the
torture of an age; her hands trembled, in which she had hidden herself.
But as the chair creaked and turned slowly round, and all was silent
again, she raised her white face, and uncovered herself, as it were, to
meet the inquisitor’s eye. It might have been a different woman, so
changed was she: her eyes withdrawn into caves, the lines of her mouth
drawn down, two hollows clearly marked in her cheeks, and every particle
of her usual colour gone. She looked up appalled and overcome,
confronting, but not meeting, the keen, critical look which old Mrs.
Babington fixed upon her; and then there was again a pause; and the
leaves fluttered outside, and the white curtains within, and a gay
child’s voice, passing in the road without, suddenly fell among us like
a bird.

‘Ah!’ said the old lady, ‘that creature! Do you mean to tell me, Ellen,
that she has had the assurance to come here? Now look at her and tell
me what a man’s sense is worth. That woman’s face turned my poor boy’s
head, and drove Charles Merridew out of his wits. Only look at her: is
there anything there to turn anybody’s head now? She has lost her figure
too; to be sure that is not so wonderful, for she is forty if she is a
day. But there are you, my dear, as straight as a rush, and your sister
Matilda as well. So that is Janet Singleton, our governess: I wonder
what Charles thinks of his bargain now? I never saw a woman so gone off.
Oh, Ellen, Ellen, why didn’t she come and show herself, such a figure as
she is, before my poor dear boy was taken from us? My poor boy! And to
think he should have gone to his grave in such a delusion! Ellen, I
would rather now that you sent her away.’

‘Oh, mamma, don’t speak like this,’ cried Ellen, red with shame and
distress; ‘what does it matter about her figure? if that were all!--but
she is going away.’

‘Yes, yes, send her away,’ said the old lady. ‘You liked her once, but I
don’t suppose even you can think there could be any intercourse now. My
son left all his money to her,’ she added, turning to me--past his
mother and his sister. You will admit that was a strange thing to do. I
don’t know who the other lady is, Ellen, but I conclude she is a friend
of yours. He left everything past us, everything but some poor pittance.
Perhaps you may know some one who wants a house in this neighbourhood?
It is a very nice little house, and much better furnished than most. I
should be very glad to let it, now that I can’t afford to occupy it
myself, by the year.’

‘Mamma, the other lady is with Mrs. Merridew,’ said Ellen; ‘I do not
know her----’ and she cast a glance at me, almost appealing to my pity.
I rose up, not knowing what to do.

‘Perhaps, my dear,’ I said, I confess with timidity, ‘we had better go
away.’

‘Unless you will stay to luncheon,’ said the old lady. ‘But I forgot--I
don’t want to look at that woman any more, Ellen. She has done us enough
of harm to satisfy any one. Turn me round again to my usual place, and
send her away.’

Mrs. Merridew had risen to her feet too. She had regained her senses
after the first frightful shock. She was still ghastly pale, but she was
herself. She went up firmly and swiftly to the old lady, put Ellen aside
by a movement which she was unconscious of in her agitation, and
replaced the chair in its former place with the air of one to whom such
an office was habitual. ‘You used to say I always did it best,’ she
said. ‘Oh, is it possible you can have forgotten everything! Did not I
give him up when you asked me, and do you think I will take his money
now? Oh, never, never! It ought to be yours, and it shall be. Oh, take
it back, and forgive me, and say, “God bless you” once again.’

‘Eh, what was that you said? Ellen, what does she say?’ said the old
woman. ‘I have always heard the Merridews were very poor. Poor John’s
fortune will be a godsend to them. Go away! I suppose you mean to mock
me after all the rest you have done. I don’t understand what you say.’

Yet she looked up with a certain eagerness on her pretty old face--a
certain sharp look of greed and longing came into the blue eyes, which
retained their colour as pure as that of youth. Her daughter towered
above her, pale with emotion, but still indignant, yielding not a jot.

‘Mamma, pay no attention,’ she said; ‘Mrs. Merridew may pity us, but
what is that? surely we can take back nothing from her hands.’

‘Pity! I don’t see how Janet Merridew can pity _me_. But I should like,’
Mrs. Babington went on, with a little tremble of eagerness, ‘to know at
least what she means.’

‘This is what I mean,’ said Mrs. Merridew, sinking on her knees by the
old lady’s chair: ‘that I will not take your money. It _is_ your money.
We are poor, as you say; but we can struggle on as we have done for
twenty years; and poor John’s money is yours, and not mine. It is not
mine. I will not take it. It must have been some mistake. If he had
known what he was doing he never would have left it to any one but you.’

‘So I think myself,’ said the old lady, musing; and then was silent,
taking no notice of any one--looking into the air.

‘Mamma,’ said Ellen, behind her chair, ‘I can work for you, and Matilda
will help us. It cannot be. It may be kind of--her--but it cannot,
cannot be. Are we to take charity?--to live on charity? Mamma, she has
no right to disturb you.’

‘She is not disturbing me, my dear,’ said the old lady; ‘on the
contrary. Whatever I might think of her, she used to be a girl of sense.
And Matilda always carried things with a very high hand, and I never was
fond of her husband. But I am very fond of my house,’ she added, after a
pause; ‘it is such a nice house, Ellen. I think I should die if we were
to leave it. I shall die very soon, most likely, and be a burden on
nobody; but still, Ellen, if she meant it, you know----’

‘Mamma, what does it matter what she means? you never can think of
accepting charity. It will break my heart.’

‘That is all very well to say,’ said Mrs. Babington. ‘But I have lived a
great deal longer than you have done, my dear, and I know that hearts
are not broken so easily. It would break my heart to leave my nice
house. Janet, come here, and look me in the face. I don’t think you were
true to us in the old times. Matilda did carry things with a very high
hand. I told her so at the time, and I have often told her so since; but
I don’t think you were true to us, all the same.’

‘I did not know--I did not mean----’ faltered Mrs. Merridew, leaning
her head on the arm of the old lady’s chair.

It was clear to me that the story had two sides, and that my friend was
perhaps not so innocent as she had made herself out to be. But there was
something very pitiful in the comparison between the passion of anxiety
in her half-hidden face, and the calm of the old woman who was thus
deciding on her fate.

‘My dear, I am afraid you knew,’ said Mrs. Babington. ‘You accepted my
poor boy, and then, when I spoke to you, you gave him up, and took
Charles Merridew instead. If I had not interfered, perhaps it would have
been better; though, to be sure, I don’t know what we should have done
with a heap of children. And as for poor John’s money, you know you have
no more real right to it, no more than that other lady, who never saw
him in her life.’

‘She has the best possible right to it, mamma--he left it to her,’ said
Ellen anxiously, over her shoulder. ‘Oh, why did you come here to vex
us, when we were not interfering with you? I beg of you not to trouble
my mother any more, but go away.’

Then there was a moment of hesitation. Mrs. Merridew rose slowly from
her knees. She turned round to me, not looking me in the face. She said,
in a hoarse voice, ‘Let us go,’ and made a step towards the door. She
was shaking as if she had a fever; but she was glad. Was that possible?
She had delivered her conscience--and now might not she go and keep the
money which would make her children happy? But she could not look me in
the face. She moved as slowly as a funeral. And yet she would have
flown, if she could, to get safely away.

‘Janet, my dear,’ said the old lady, ‘come back, and let us end our
talk.’

Mrs. Merridew stopped short, with a start, as if a shot had arrested
her. This time she looked me full in the face. Her momentary hope was
over, and now she felt for the first time the poignancy of the sacrifice
which it had been her own will to make.

‘Come back, Janet,’ said Mrs. Babington. ‘As you say, it is not your
money. Nothing could make it your money. You were always right-feeling
when you were not aggravated. I am much obliged to you, my dear. Come
and sit down here, and tell me all about yourself. Now poor John is
dead,’ she went on, falling suddenly into soft weeping, like a child,
‘we ought to be friends. To think he should die before me, and I should
be heir to my own boy--isn’t it sad? And such a fine young fellow as he
was! You remember when he came back from the University? What a nice
colour he had! And always so straight and slim, like a rush. All my
children have a good carriage. You have lost your figure, Janet; and you
used to have a nice little figure. When a girl is so round and plump,
she is apt to get stout as she gets older. Look at Ellen, how nice she
is. But then, to be sure, children make a difference. Sit down by me
here, and tell me how many you have. And, Ellen, send word to the
house-agent, and tell him we don’t want now to let the house; and tell
Parker to get luncheon ready a little earlier. You must want something,
if you have come from the country. Where are you living now? and how is
Charles Merridew? Dear, dear, to think I should not have seen either of
you for nearly twenty years!’

‘But, mamma, surely, surely,’ cried Ellen Babington, ‘you don’t think
things can be settled like this?’

‘Don’t speak nonsense, Ellen; everything _is_ settled,’ said the old
lady. ‘You know I always had the greatest confidence in Janet’s good
sense. Now, my dear, hold your tongue. A girl like you has no right to
meddle. I always manage my own business. Go and look after
luncheon--that is your affair.’

I do not remember ever to have seen a more curious group in my life.
There was the old lady in the centre, quite calm, and sweet, and
pleasant. A tear was still lingering on her eyelash; but it represented
nothing more than a child’s transitory grief, and underneath there was
nothing but smiles, and satisfaction, and content. She looked so pretty,
so pleased, so glad to find that her comforts were not to be impaired,
and yet took it all so lightly, as a matter of course, as completely
unconscious of the struggle going on in the mind of her benefactress as
if she had been a creature from a different world. As for Mrs. Merridew,
she stood speechless, choked by feelings that were too bitter and
conflicting for words. I am sure that all the advantages this money
could have procured for her children were surging up before her as she
stood and listened. She held her hands helplessly half stretched out, as
if something had been taken out of them. Her eyes were blank with
thinking, seeing nothing that we saw, but a whole world of the
invisible. Her breast heaved with a breath half drawn, which seemed
suspended half way, as if dismay and disappointment hindered its
completion. It was all over then--her sacrifice made and accepted, and
no more about it; and herself sent back to the monotonous struggle of
life. On the other side of the pretty old lady stood Ellen Babington,
pale and miserable, struggling with shame and pride, casting sudden
glances at Mrs. Merridew, and then appealing looks at me, who had
nothing to do with it.

‘Tell her, oh, tell her it can’t be!’ she cried at last, coming to me.
‘Tell her the lawyers will not permit it. It cannot be.’

And Mrs. Merridew, too, gave me one pitiful look--not repenting, but
yet---- Then she went forward, and laid her hand upon the old lady’s
hand, which was like ivory, with all the veins delicately carved upon
it.

‘Say, God bless us, at least. Say, “God bless you and your children,”
once before I go.’

‘To be sure,’ said the old lady cheerfully. ‘God bless you, my dear, and
all the children. Matilda has no children, you know. I should like to
see them, if you think it would not be too much for me. But you are not
going, Janet, when it is the first time we have met for nearly twenty
years?’

‘I must go,’ said Mrs. Merridew.

She could not trust herself to speak, I could see. She put down her face
and kissed the ivory hand, and then she turned and went past me to the
door, without another word. I think she had forgotten my very existence.
When she had reached the door she turned round suddenly, and fixed her
eyes upon Ellen. She was going away, having given them back their
living, without so much acknowledgment as if she had brought a nosegay.
There was in her look a mute remonstrance and appeal and protest. Ellen
Babington trembled all over; her lips quivered as if with words which
pride or pain would not permit her to say; but she held, with both hands
immovable, to the back of her mother’s chair, who, for her part, was
kissing her hand to the departing visitor. ‘Good-bye; come and see us
soon again,’ the old lady was saying cheerfully. And Ellen gazed, and
trembled, and said nothing. Thus this strangest of visits came to an
end.

She had forgotten me, as I thought; but when I came to her side and my
arm was within her reach, she clutched at it and tottered so that it was
all I could do to support her. I was very thankful to get her into the
cab, for I thought she would have fainted on the way. But yet she roused
herself when I told the man to drive back to the station.

‘We must go to the lawyer’s first,’ she said; and then we turned and
drove through the busy London streets, towards the City. The clerks
looked nearly baked in the office when we reached it, and the crowd
crowded on, indiscriminate and monotonous. One feels one has no right to
go to such a place and take any of the air away, of which they have so
little. And to think of the sweet air blowing over our lawns and lanes,
and all the unoccupied, silent, shady places we had left behind us! Such
vain thoughts were not in Mrs. Merridew’s head. She was turning over and
over instead a very different kind of vision. She was counting up all
she had sacrificed, and how little she had got by it; and yet was going
to complete the sacrifice, unmoved even by her thoughts.

I confess I was surprised at the tone she took with the lawyer. She said
‘Mr. Merridew and myself’ with a composure which made me, who knew Mr.
Merridew had no hand in it, absolutely speechless. The lawyer
remonstrated as he was in duty bound, and spoke about his client’s will;
but Mrs. Merridew made very little account of the will. She quoted her
husband with a confidence so assured that even I, though I knew better,
began to be persuaded that she had communicated with him. And thus the
business was finally settled. She had recovered herself by the time we
got into the cab again. It is true that her face was worn and livid with
the exertions of the day, but still, pale and weary as she was, she was
herself.

‘But, my dear,’ I said, ‘you quoted Mr. Merridew, as if he knew all
about it; and what if he should not approve?’

‘You must not think I have no confidence in my husband,’ she said
quickly; ‘far from that. Perhaps he would not see as I do now. He would
think of our own wants first. But if it comes to his ears afterwards,
Charles is not the man to disown his wife’s actions. Oh, no, no; we have
gone through a great deal together, and he would no more bring shame
upon me, as if I acted when I had no right to act--than--I would bring
shame upon him; and I think that is as much as could be said.’

And then we made our way back to the station; but she said nothing more
till we got into the railway-carriage, which was not quite so noisy as
our cab.

‘It would have been such a thing for us,’ she said then, half to
herself. ‘Poor Charles! Oh, if I could but have said to him, “Don’t be
so anxious; here is so much a year for the children.” And Jack should
have gone to the University. And there would have been Will’s premium at
once’ (_i.e._, to Mr. Willoughby, the engineer). ‘The only thing that I
am glad of is that they don’t know. And then Janet; she breaks my heart
when she talks. It is so bad for her, knowing the Fortises and all those
girls who have everything that heart can desire. I never had that to
worry me when I was young. I was only the governess. Janet’s talk will
be the worst of all. I could have made the house so nice too, and
everything. Well!--but then I never should have had a moment’s peace.’

‘You don’t regret?’ I said.

‘No,’ said Mrs. Merridew with a long sigh. And then, ‘Do you think I
have been a traitor to the children?’ she cried suddenly, ‘taking away
their money from them in the dark? Would Charles think me a traitor, as
_they_ do? Is it always to be my part?--always to be my part?’

‘No, no,’ I said, soothing her as best I could; but I was very glad to
find my pony-carriage at the station, and to drive her home to my house
and give her some tea, and strengthen her for her duties. Thus poor John
Babington’s fortune was disposed of, and no one was the wiser, except,
indeed, the old lady and her daughter, who were not likely to talk much
on the subject. And Mrs. Merridew walked calmly across to her house in
the dusk as if this strange episode of agitation and passion had been
nothing more solid than a dream.



CHAPTER III


We did not meet again for some days after this, and next time I saw her,
which was on Sunday at church with her children, it seemed impossible to
me to believe in the reality of the strange scene we had so recently
passed through together. The calm curtain of ordinary decorums and
ordinary friendliness had risen for a moment from Mrs. Merridew’s
unexcited existence, revealing a woman distracted by a primitive sense
of justice, rending her own soul, as it were, in sunder, and doing, in
spite of herself and all her best instincts, what she felt was right.
That she should have any existence separate from her children had never
occurred to anybody before. Yet, for one day, I had seen her resist and
ignore the claims of her children, and act like an independent being.
When I saw her again she was once more the mother and nothing more,
casting her eyes over her little flock, cognizant, one could see, of the
perfection or imperfection of every fold and line in their dresses,
keeping her attention upon each, from little Matty, who was restless and
could not be kept quiet, up to Janet, who sat demure, and already caught
the eye of visitors as one of the prettiest girls of Dinglefield. Mrs.
Merridew remarked all with a vigilant mother’s eye, and as I gazed
across at her in her pew, it was all but impossible for me to believe
that this was the same woman who had clung so convulsively to my arm,
whose face had been so worn and hollowed out with suffering. How could
it be the same woman? She who had suffered poor John Babington to love
her--and then had cast him off, and married her friend’s lover instead;
who had established so firm an empire over a man’s heart, that, after
twenty years, he had remembered her still with such intensity of
feeling. How Janet would have opened her big eyes had it been suggested
to her that her mother could have any power over men’s hearts; or,
indeed, could be occupied with anything more touching or important than
her children’s frocks or her butcher’s bills! I fear I did not pay much
attention to the service that morning. I could not but gaze at them, and
wonder whether, for instance, Mr. Merridew himself, who had come back
from circuit, and was seated respectably with his family in church,
yawning discreetly over Mr. Damerel’s sermon, remembered anything at
all, for his part, of Matilda Babington or her brother. Probably he
preferred to ignore the subject altogether--or, perhaps, would laugh
with a sense of gratified vanity that there had been ‘a row,’ when the
transference of his affections was discovered. And there she sat by his
side, who had--had she betrayed his confidence? was she untrue to him in
being this time true to her friends? The question bewildered me so that
my mind went groping about it and about it. Once, I fear, she had been
false to those whose bread she ate, and chosen love instead of
friendship. Now was she false to the nearest of ties, the closest of all
relationships, sitting calmly there beside him with a secret in her mind
of which he knew nothing? ‘Falsely true!’--was that what the woman was
who looked to the outside world a mere pattern of all domestic virtues,
without any special interest about her, a wife devoted to her husband’s
interest, a mother wrapped up, as people say, in her children? I could
not make up my mind what to think.

‘I hope you got through your business comfortably,’ Mrs. Spencer said to
me as we walked home from church.

‘With Mrs. Merridew’s assistance,’ said Lady Isabella, who was rather
satirical. And the Merridews heard their own name, and stopped to join
in the conversation.

‘What is that about my wife?’ he said. ‘Did Mrs. Mulgrave have Mrs.
Merridew’s assistance about something? I hope it was only shopping. When
you have business you should consult me. She is a goose, and knows
nothing about it.’

‘I don’t think she is a goose,’ said I.

‘No, perhaps not in her own way,’ said the serene husband, laughing;
‘but every woman is a goose about business--I beg your pardon, ladies,
but I assure you I mean it as a compliment. I hate a woman of business.
Shopping is quite a different matter,’ he added, and laughed. Good
heavens! if he had only known what a fool he looked, beside the silent
woman, who gave me a little warning glance and coloured a little, and
turned away her head to speak to little Matty, who was clinging to her
skirts. A perfect mother! thinking more (you would have said) of Matty’s
little frills and Janet’s bonnet-strings than of anything else in life.

And that was all about it. The summer went on and turned to autumn and
to winter and to spring again, with that serene progression of nature
which nothing obstructs; and the children grew, and the Merridews were
as poor as ever, managing more or less to make both ends meet, but
always just a little short somewhere, with their servants chosen on the
same principle of supplementing each other’s imperfect service as that
which Janet had announced to me. For one thing, they kept their servants
a long time, which I have noticed is characteristic of households not
very rich nor very ‘particular.’ When you allow such pleas to tell in
favour of an imperfect housemaid as that she is good to the children, or
does not mind helping the cook, there is no reason why Mary, if she does
not marry in the meantime, should not stay with you a hundred years. And
the Merridews’ servants accordingly stayed, and looked very friendly at
you when you went to call, and did their work not very well, with much
supervision and exasperation (respectively) on the part of the mother
and daughter. But the family was no poorer, though it was no richer. The
only evidence of our expedition to town which I could note was, that it
had produced a new pucker on Mrs. Merridew’s brow. She had looked
sufficiently anxious by times before, but the new pucker had something
more than anxiety in it. There was a sense of something better that
might have been; a sense of something lost--a suspicion of bitterness.
How all this could be expressed by one line on a smooth white forehead I
cannot explain; but to me it was so.

Now and then, too, a chance allusion would be made which recalled what
had happened still more plainly. For instance, I chanced to be calling
one afternoon, when Mr. Merridew came home earlier than usual from town.
We were sitting over our five-o’clock tea, with a few of the children
scrambling about the floor and Janet working in the corner. He took up
the ordinary position of a man who has just come home, with his back to
the fire, and regarded us with that benevolent contempt which men
generally think it right to exhibit for women over their tea; and
everything was so ordinary and pleasant, that I for one was taken
entirely by surprise, and nearly let fall the cup in my hand when he
spoke.

‘I don’t know whether you saw John Babington’s death in the _Times_
three or four months ago, Janet,’ he said, ‘did you? Why did you never
mention it? It is odd that I should not have heard. I met Ellen to-day
coming out of the Amyotts, where I lunched, in such prodigious mourning
that I was quite startled. All the world might have been dead to look at
her. And do you know she gave me a look as if she would have spoken. All
that is so long past that it’s ridiculous keeping up malice. I wish you
would call next time you are in town to ask for the old lady. Poor
John’s death must have been a sad loss to them. I hear there was some
fear that he had left his property away from his mother and sister. But
it turned out a false report.’

I did not dare to look at Mrs. Merridew to see how she bore it; but her
voice replied quite calmly without any break, as if the conversation was
on the most ordinary subject--

‘Where did you manage to get so much news?’

‘Oh, from the Amyotts,’ he said, ‘who knew all about it. Matilda, you
know, poor girl’ (with that half laugh of odious masculine vanity which
I knew in my heart he would be guilty of), ‘married a cousin of
Amyott’s, and is getting on very well, they say. But think over my
suggestion, Janet. I think at this distance of time it would be graceful
on your part to go and call.’

‘I cannot think they would like to see me now,’ she said in a low voice.
Then I ventured to look at her. She was seated in an angular, rigid way,
with her shoulders and elbows squared to her work, and the corners of
her mouth pursed up, which would have given to any cursory observer the
same impression it did to her husband.

‘How hard you women are!’ he said. ‘Trust you for never forgiving or
forgetting. Poor old lady, I should have thought anybody would have
pitied her. But however it is none of my business. As for Ellen, she is
a very handsome woman, though she is not so young as she once was. I
should not wonder if she were to make a good marriage even now. Is it
possible, Janet, after being so fond of her--or pretending to be, how
can I tell?--that you would not like to say a kind word to Ellen now?’

‘She would not think it kind from me,’ said Mrs. Merridew, still rigid,
never raising her eyes from her work.

‘I think she would: but at all events you might try,’ he said. All her
answer was to shake her head, and he went away to his dressing-room
shrugging his shoulders and nodding his head in bewildered comments to
himself on what he considered the hard-heartedness of woman. As for me,
I kept looking at her with sympathetic eyes, thinking that at least she
would give herself the comfort of a confidential glance. But she did
not. It seemed that she was determined to ignore the whole matter, even
to me.

‘I wish papa would take as much interest in us poor girls at home as he
does in people that don’t belong to him,’ said Janet. ‘Mamma, I never
can piece this to make it long enough. It may do for Marian’ (who was
her next sister), ‘but it will never do for me.’

‘You are so easily discouraged,’ said Mrs. Merridew. ‘Let me look at it.
You girls are always making difficulties. Under the flounce your
piecing, as you call it, will never be seen. Those flounces,’ she added,
with a little laugh, which I knew was hysterical, ‘are blessings to poor
folks.’

‘I am sure I don’t think there is anything to laugh at,’ said poor
Janet, almost crying: ‘when you think of Nelly Fortis and all the other
girls, with their nice dresses all new and fresh from the dressmaker’s,
and no trouble; while I have only mamma’s old gown, that she wore when
she was twenty, to turn, and patch, and piece--and not long enough after
all!’

‘Then you should not grow so,’ said her mother, ‘and you ought to be
thankful that the old fashion has come in again, and my old gown can be
of use.’ But as she spoke she turned round and gave me a look. The tears
were in her eyes, and that pucker, oh, so deeply marked, in her
forehead. I felt she would have sobbed had she dared. And then before my
eyes, as, I am sure, before hers, there glided a vision of Ellen
Babington in her profound mourning, rustling past Mr. Merridew on the
stairs, with heaps of costly crape, no doubt, and that rich black silk
with which people console themselves in their first mourning. How could
they take it all without a word? The after-pang that comes almost
inevitably at the back of a sacrifice, was tearing Mrs. Merridew’s
heart. I felt it go through my own, and so I knew. She had done it
nobly, but she could not forget that she had done it. Does one ever
forget?

And then as I went home I fell into a maze again. Had she a right to do
it? To sit at table with that unsuspicious man, and put her arm in his,
and be at his side continually, and all the time be false to him?
Falsely true! I could not get the words out of my mind.



CHAPTER IV


I do not now remember how long it was before I saw in the _Times_ the
intimation of old Mrs. Babington’s death. I think it must have been
about two years: for Janet was eighteen, and less discontented with
things in general, besides being a great deal more contented than either
her friends or his desired, with the civilities of young Bischam from
the Priory, who was always coming over to see his aunt, and always
throwing himself in the girl’s way. He had nothing except his commission
and a hundred and fifty a year which his father allowed him, and she had
nothing at all; and, naturally, they took to each other. It is this that
makes me recollect what year it was. We had never referred to the matter
in our frequent talks, Mrs. Merridew and I. But after the intimation in
the _Times_, she herself broke the silence. She came to me the very next
day. ‘Did you see it in the papers?’ she asked, plunging without preface
into the heart of the subject: and I could not pretend not to
understand.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I saw it;’ and then stopped short, not knowing what to
say.

She had got a worn-out look in these two years, such as all the previous
years in which I had known her had not given. The pucker was more
developed on her forehead; she was less patient and more easily fretted.
She had grown thin, and something of a sharp tone had come into her
soft, motherly voice. By times she would be almost querulous; and nobody
but myself knew in the least whence the drop of gall came that had so
suddenly shown itself in her nature. She had fretted under her secret,
and over her sacrifice--the sacrifice which had never been taken any
notice of, but had been calmly accepted as a right. Now she came to me
half wild, with the look of a creature driven to bay.

‘It was for her I did it,’ she said; ‘she had always been so petted and
cared for all her life. She did not know how to deny herself; I did it
for her, not for Ellen. Oh, Mrs. Mulgrave, I cannot tell you how fond I
was of that girl! And you saw how she looked at me. Never one word,
never even a glance of response: and I suppose now----’

‘My dear,’ I said, ‘you cannot tell yet; let us wait and see; now that
her mother is gone her heart may be softened. Do not take any steps just
yet.’

‘Steps!’ she cried. ‘What steps can I take now? I have thrown altogether
away from me what might have been of such use to the children. I have
been false to my own children. Poor John meant it to be of use to us----’

And then she turned away, wrought to such a point that nothing but tears
could relieve her. When she had cried she was better; and went home to
all her little monotonous cares again, to think and think, and mingle
that drop of gall more and more in the family cup. Mr. Merridew was
again absent on circuit at this time, which was at once a relief and a
trouble to his wife. And everybody remarked the change in her.

‘She is going to have a bad illness,’ Mrs. Spencer said. ‘Poor thing, I
don’t wonder, with all those children, and inferior servants, and so
much to do. I have seen it coming on for a long time. A serious illness
is a dangerous thing at her age. All her strength has been drained out
of her; and whether she will be able to resist----’

‘Don’t be so funereal,’ said Lady Isabella; ‘she has something on her
mind.’

‘I think it is her health’ said Mrs. Spencer; and we all shook our heads
over her altered looks.

I had a further fright, too, some days after, when Janet came to me,
looking very pale. She crept in with an air of secrecy which was very
strange to the girl. She looked scared, and her hair was pushed up
wildly from her forehead, and her light summer dress all dusty and
dragging, which was unlike Janet, for she had begun by this time to be
tidy, and feel herself a woman. She came in by the window as usual, but
closed it after her, though it was very hot. ‘May I come and speak to
you?’ she said in a whisper, creeping quite close to my side.

‘Of course, my dear; but why do you shut the window?’ said I; ‘we shall
be suffocated if you shut out the air.’

‘It is because it is a secret,’ she said. ‘Mrs. Mulgrave, tell me, is
there anything wrong with mamma?’

‘Wrong?’ I said, turning upon her in dismay.

‘I can’t help it,’ cried Janet, bursting into tears. ‘I don’t believe
mamma ever did anything wrong. I can’t believe it: but there has been a
woman questioning me so, I don’t know what to think.’

‘A woman questioning you?’

‘Listen,’ said Janet hastily. ‘This is how it was: I was walking down to
the Dingle across the fields--oh! Mrs. Mulgrave, dear, don’t say
anything; it was only poor Willie Bischam, who wanted to say good-bye to
me--and all at once I saw a tall lady in mourning looking at us as we
passed. She came up to us just at the stile at Goodman’s farm, and I
thought she wanted to ask the way; but instead of that, she stopped me
and looked at me. “I heard you called Janet,” she said; “I had once a
friend who was called Janet, and it is not a common name. Do you live
here? is your mother living? and well? and how many children are there?
I should like to know if you belong to my old friend.”’

‘And what did you say?’

‘What could I say, Mrs. Mulgrave? She did not look cross or
disagreeable, and she was a lady. I said who I was, and that mamma was
not quite well, and that there were ten of us; and then she began to
question me about mamma. Did she go out a great deal? and was she tall
or short? and had she pretty eyes “like mine?” she said; and was her
name Janet like mine? and then, when I had answered her as well as I
could, she said, I was not to say a word to mamma; “perhaps it is not
the Janet I once knew,” she said; “don’t say anything to her;” and then
she went away. I was so frightened, I ran home directly all the way. I
knew I might tell you, Mrs. Mulgrave; it is like something in a book, is
it not, when people are trying to find out---- oh, you don’t think I can
have done any harm to mamma?’

Janet was so much agitated that it was all I could do to quiet her down.
‘And I never said good-bye to poor Willie, after all,’ she said, with
more tears when she had rallied a little. I thought it better she should
not tell her mother, though one is very reluctant to say so to a girl;
for Willie Bischam was a secret too. But he was going away, poor fellow,
and probably nothing would ever come of it. I made a little compromise
with my own sense of right.

‘Forget it, Janet, and say nothing about it; perhaps it was some one
else after all; and if you will promise not to meet Mr. Bischam
again----’

‘He goes to-night,’ said Janet, with a rueful look; and thus it was
evident that on that point there was nothing more to be said.

This was in the middle of the week, and on Saturday Mr. Merridew was
expected home. His wife was ill, though she never had been ill before in
her life; she had headaches, which were things unknown to her; she was
out of temper, and irritable, and wretched. I think she had made certain
that Ellen would write, and make some proposal to her; and as the days
went on one by one, and no letter came---- Besides, it was just the
moment when they had decided against sending Jack to Oxford. To pay
Willie’s premium and do that at the same time was impossible. Mrs.
Merridew had struggled long, but at last she was obliged to give in; and
Jack was going to his father’s chambers to read law with a heavy heart,
poor boy; and his mother was half distracted. All might have been so
different; and she had sacrificed her boys’ interests, and her girls’
interests, and her own happiness, all for the selfish comfort of Ellen
Babington, who took no notice of her: I began to think she would have a
brain fever if this went on.

She was not at church on Sunday morning, and I went with the children,
as soon as service was over, to ask for her. She was lying on the sofa
when I went in, and Mr. Merridew, who had arrived late on Saturday, was
in his dressing-gown, walking about the room. He was tired and irritable
with his journey, and his work, and perennial cares. And she, with her
sacrifice, and her secret, and perennial cares, was like tinder, ready
in a moment to catch fire. I know nothing more disagreeable than to go
in upon married people when they are in this state of mind, which can
neither be ignored nor concealed.

‘I don’t understand you, Janet,’ he was saying, as I entered; ‘women
are vindictive, I know; but at least you may be sorry, as I am, that the
poor old lady has died without a word of kindness passing between us:
after all, we might be to blame. One changes one’s opinions as one gets
on in life. With our children growing up round us, I don’t feel quite so
sure that we were not to blame.’

‘_I_ have not been to blame,’ she said, with an emphasis which sounded
sullen, and which only I could understand.

‘Oh no, of course; you never are,’ he said, with masculine disdain.
‘Catch a woman acknowledging herself to be in fault! The sun may go
wrong in his course sooner than she. Mrs. Mulgrave, pray don’t go away;
you have seen my wife in an unreasonable mood before.’

‘I am in no unreasonable mood,’ she cried. ‘Mrs. Mulgrave, stay. You
know--oh, how am I to go on bearing this, and never answer a word?’

‘My dear, don’t deceive yourself,’ he said, with a man’s provoking calm,
‘you answer a great many words. I don’t call you at all a meek sufferer.
Fortunately the children are out of the way. Confound it, Janet, what do
you mean by talking of what you have to bear? I have not been such a
harsh husband to you as all that; and when all I asked was that you
should make the most innocent advances to a poor old woman who was once
very kind to us both----’

‘Charles!’ said Mrs. Merridew, rising suddenly from her sofa, I can’t
bear it any longer. You think me hard, and vindictive, and I don’t know
what. You, who ought to know me. Look here! I got that letter, you will
see by the date, more than two years ago; you were absent, and I went
and saw her: there--there! now I have confessed it; Mrs. Mulgrave
knows---- I have had a secret from you for two years.’

It was not a moment for me to interfere. She sat, holding herself
hysterically rigid and upright on the sofa. Whether she had intended to
betray herself or not, I cannot tell. She had taken the letter out of
her writing-desk, which stood close by; but I don’t know whether she had
resolved on this step or whether it was the impulse of the moment. Now
that she had done it a dreadful calm of expectation took possession of
her. She was afraid. He might turn upon her furious. He might upbraid
her with despoiling her family, deceiving himself, being false, as she
had been before. Such a thing was possible. Two souls may live side by
side for years, and be as one, and yet have no notion how each will act
in any sudden or unusual emergency. He was her husband, and they had no
interest, scarcely any thought, that one did not share with the other;
and yet she sat gazing at him rigid with terror, not knowing what he
might do or say.

He read the letter without a word; then he tossed it upon the table;
then he walked all the length of the room, up and down, with his hands
thrust very deeply into his pockets; then he took up the letter again.
He had a struggle with himself. If he was angry, if he was touched, I
cannot tell. His first emotions, whatever they were, he gulped down
without a word. Of all sounds to strike into the silence of such a
moment, the first thing we heard in our intense listening was the abrupt
ring of a short excited laugh.

‘How did you venture to take any steps in it without consulting me?’ he
said.

‘I thought--I thought----’ she stammered under her breath.

‘You thought I might have been tempted by the money,’ he said, taking
another walk through the room, while she sat erect in her terror, afraid
of him. It was some time before he spoke again. No doubt he was vexed by
her want of trust, and wounded by the long silence. But I have no clue
to the thoughts that were passing through his mind. At last he came to a
sudden pause before her. ‘And perhaps you were right, Janet,’ he said,
drawing a long breath. ‘I am glad now to have been free of the
temptation. It was wrong not to tell me--and yet I think you did well.’

Mrs. Merridew gave a little choked cry, and then she fell back on the
sofa--fell into my arms. I had felt she might do it, so strange was her
look, and had placed myself there on purpose. But she had not fainted,
as I expected. She lay silent for a moment, with her eyes closed, and
then she burst into tears.

I had no right to be there; but they both detained me, both the husband
and wife, and I could not get away until she had recovered herself, and
it was evident that what had been a tragical barrier between them was
now become a matter of business, to be discussed as affecting them both.

‘It was quite right the old lady should have it,’ Mr. Merridew said, as
he went with me to the door, ‘quite right. Janet did only what was
right; but now I must take it into my own hands.’

‘And annul what she has done?’ I asked.

‘We must consult over that,’ he said. ‘Ellen Babington, who has been so
ungrateful to my wife, is quite a different person from her mother. But
I will do nothing against Mrs. Merridew’s will.’

And so I left them to consult over their own affairs. I had been thrust
into it against my own will; but still it was entirely their affair, and
no business of mine.

Mrs. Spencer and Lady Isabella called to me from their lawn as I went
out to ask how Mrs. Merridew was, and shook their heads over her.

‘She should have the doctor,’ said Mrs. Spencer.

‘But the doctor would not pay her bills for her,’ said Lady Isabella.

And I had to answer meekly, as if I knew nothing about it, ‘I don’t
think it is her bills.’

This conversation detained me some time from my own house; and when I
reached my cottage, my maid stood by the gate, looking out for me,
shading her eyes with her hands. It was to tell me there was a lady
waiting for me in the drawing-room: ‘A tall lady in mourning.’ And in a
moment my heart smote me for some hard thoughts, and I knew who my
visitor was.

I found her seated by my table, very pale, but quite self-possessed. She
rose when I went in, and began to explain.

‘You don’t know me,’ she said. ‘I have no right to come to you; but once
you came to--us--with Mrs. Merridew. Perhaps you remember me now? I am
Ellen Babington. I want to speak to you about--my brother’s will. You
may have heard that I have just lost----’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I am very sorry. If there is anything I can do----’

‘You can do all that I want from any one,’ she said. ‘Janet will never
believe that I wanted to keep the money--now. I have seen all her
children to-day at church; and I think, if she had been there, I should
perhaps have been able--but never mind. Tell her I should like--if she
would give her daughter Janet something out of the money--from me. She
is a little like what her mother was. I am sure you are kind to them. I
don’t even know your name.’

‘Mrs. Mulgrave,’ I said; and she gave a little bow. She was very
composed, very well-bred, terribly sad; with a look of a woman who had
no more to do in the world, and who yet was, Heaven help her! in the
middle of her life, full of vigour, and capability, and strength.

‘Will you tell Janet, please, that it is all settled?’ she said. ‘I
mean, not the girl Janet, but her mother. Tell her I have settled
everything. I believe she will hear from the lawyers to-morrow; but I
could not let it come only from the lawyers. I cannot forgive her, even
now. She thinks it is Matilda she has wronged; but it is me she has
wronged, taking my brother from me, my only brother, after all these
years. But never mind. I kissed the little child instead to-day--the
quiet little one, with the gold hair. I suppose she is the youngest.
Tell her I came on purpose to see them before I went away.’

‘But why send this message through me?’ I said; ‘come and see _her_. I
will take you; it is close by. And the sight of you will do her more
good--than the money. Come, and let her explain.’

I thought she hesitated for a moment, but her only answer was a shake of
her head.

‘What could she explain?’ she cried, with strange impetuosity. ‘He and I
had been together all our lives, and yet all the while he cared nothing
for his sister and everything for her. Do you think I can ever forgive
her? but I never forgot her. I don’t think I ever loved any one so well
in my life.’

‘Oh, come and tell her so,’ said I.

Again she shook her head. ‘I loved her as well as I loved him; and yet I
hate her,’ she said. ‘But tell her I spoke to her Janet, and I kissed
her baby; and that I have arranged everything with the lawyers about
poor John’s will. I am sure you are a good woman. Will you shake hands
with me for the children’s sake before I go?’

Her voice went to my heart. I had only seen her once in my life before,
but I could not help it. I went up to her and took her two hands, and
kissed her; and then she, the stranger, broke down, and put her head on
my shoulder and wept. It was only for a moment, but it bound us as if
for our lives.

‘Where are you going?’ I asked, when she went away.

‘I am going abroad with some friends,’ she said hurriedly.

‘But you will come to us, my dear, when you come back?’

‘Most likely I shall never come back,’ she said hastily; and then went
away alone out of my door, alone across the Green, with her veil over
her face, and her black dress repulsing the sunshine. One’s sympathies
move and change about like the winds. I had been so sorry for Mrs.
Merridew an hour ago; but it was not for her I was most sorry now.

And this was how it all ended. I was always glad that Mrs. Merridew had
told her husband before the letter came next morning. And they got the
money; and John went to the University, and Janet had new dresses and
new pleasures, and a ring, of which she was intensely proud, according
to Ellen’s desire. I dare say Ellen’s intention was that something much
more important should have been given to the child in her name; but then
Ellen Babington, being an unmarried woman, did not know how much a large
family costs, nor what urgent occasion there is for every farthing, even
with an addition so great as five hundred a year.

I am afraid it did not make Mrs. Merridew much happier just at first.
She wrote letters wildly, far and near, to everybody who could be
supposed to know anything about Ellen; and wanted to have her to live
with them, and to share the money with her, and I don’t know how many
other wild fancies. But all that could be found out was that Ellen had
gone abroad. And by degrees the signs of this strange tempest began to
disappear--smoothed out and filled up as Nature smooths all traces of
combat. The scars heal, new verdure covers the sudden precipice--the old
gets assimilated with the new. By degrees an air of superior comfort
stole over the house, which was very consolatory. Selina, the housemaid,
married, and Richards retired to the inevitable greengrocery. And with a
new man and new maids, and so much less difficulty about the bills, it
is astonishing how the puckers died away from Mrs. Merridew’s
forehead--first one line went, and then another, and she grew younger in
spite of herself. And with everything thus conspiring in her favour, and
habit calmly settling to confirm all, is it wonderful if by and by she
forgot that any accident had ever happened, and that all had not come
in the most natural way, and with the most pleasant consequences in the
world?

The other day I saw in a chance copy of _Galignani_, which came to me in
a parcel from Paris, the marriage of Ellen Babington to a Frenchman
there; but that is all we have ever heard of her. Whether it is a good
marriage or a bad one I don’t know; but I hope, at least, it is better
for her than being all alone, as she was when she left my house that day
in June, having made her sacrifice in her turn. If things had but taken
their natural course, how much unnecessary suffering would have been
spared: Mrs. Merridew is, perhaps, happier now than she would have been
without that five hundred a year--but for two years she was wretched,
sacrificing and grudging the sacrifice, and making herself very unhappy.
And though I don’t believe Ellen Babington cared for the money, her
heart will never be healed of that pang of bitterness which her
brother’s desertion gave her. His companion for twenty years! and to
think his best thoughts should have been given all that time to a woman
who had only slighted him, and refused his love. Mrs. Merridew does not
see the sting of this herself--she thinks it natural. And so I dare say
would half the world beside.



THE BARLEY MOW



CHAPTER I


There was but one little harmless house of public entertainment at
Dinglefield, a place not without its importance among us, with its
little farm, and the fly with the old white horse which was an
institution on the Green, and very serviceable when there was luggage to
be carried to the railway, or any party going on in bad weather when our
pony carriages could not be used.

This was the Barley Mow, a favourite and picturesque little village
public-house, the most inoffensive article of the kind, perhaps, which
was to be found for miles and miles around. The Green itself was not
like the trim and daintily-kept greensward, with orderly posts and
railings, which is to be seen in many suburban hamlets. It was long,
irregular, and just wild enough to be thoroughly natural. The lower end,
near the Barley Mow, was smooth and neat, the best cricket ground that
you could find in the neighbourhood. But the upper part was still wild
with gorse bushes, and bordered by a little thicket of rhododendrons,
which had strayed thither from the adjacent park. Many a cricket match
was played upon the lower Green, and on the bright summer Saturdays,
when the cricket parties came, there was often quite a pretty little
company from the surrounding houses to watch them, and a great traffic
went on at the Barley Mow. It was an irregular old house, partly red
brick, partly whitewashed, with a luxuriant old garden warm and sunny,
opening through a green wicket set in a great hedge on the right hand. A
signpost stood in the open space in front, where the road widened out,
and by the open door you could see through a clean, red-tiled passage
into the garden at the back, where the turf was like velvet, and the
borders full of all kinds of bright and sweet old-fashioned flowers.
There were neither standard rose-bushes nor red geraniums to be seen
there, not that Widow Aikin, good woman, had any whim of taste that
prompted her to despise these conventional inmates of the modern garden,
but that the pinks and gilliflowers, the rockets and larkspurs, and
great straggling rose-bushes were cheaper and gave less trouble, having
established themselves there, and requiring no bedding out. The room
which looked out upon this garden was where the strangers and
gentlefolks who came from far were entertained, and there was a parlour,
with a bow window in front, for humbler persons. But the favourite place
in summer for that kind of ‘company’ was the bench outside the door,
looking out upon the Green. There was little traffic of any kind in
winter, but the summer aspect of the Barley Mow was a pleasant one. It
had no air of stale dissipation about it, no heavy odour of spilt beer
or coarse tobacco, but looked wholesome and sweet-smelling, a place of
refreshment, not of indulgence. Anyhow, it was the fashion about the
Green to think and say this of Widow Aikin’s clean, honest, respectable
house. She was a favourite with all the ‘families.’ She served them with
milk as well as beer, and fresh eggs, and sometimes fruit. She had all
sorts of little agencies in hand, found servants for the ladies on the
Green, and executed little commissions of many kinds. She was a
personage, privileged and petted: everybody had a smile and a kind word
for her, and she for everybody. She was always about, never standing
still, glancing in and out of the red-tiled passage, the bow-windowed
parlour, the sunny garden, the noisy stable-yard. You saw her
everywhere--now this side, now that--an ubiquitous being, so
quick-footed that she was almost capable of being in two places at once.

It was a favourite subject with Mrs. Aikin to talk of her own
loneliness, and incapacity to manage ‘such a house as this.’ She liked
to dwell upon the responsibilities of the position and the likelihood
that a lone woman would be imposed upon; and the Green generally
considered this a very proper strain of observation, and felt it to be
respectable that a widow should so feel and so express herself. But it
was very well known that things had gone much better at the Barley Mow
since Will Aikin managed very opportunely to be carried off by that
vulgar gout which springs from beer, and has all the disadvantages with
none of the distinctions belonging to its kindred ailment. There was no
saying what might not have happened had he lived a year longer, for the
creditors were urgent and the business paralyzed. It was this which made
his death opportune, for the brewers were merciful to the widow, and
gave her time to redeem herself; and when she was relieved from the
necessity of nursing him and studying his ‘ways,’ which were as
difficult as if the landlord of the Barley Mow had been a prince of the
blood, the widow blossomed out into another woman. It is but a poor
compliment to the lamented husband, but widows continually do this, it
must be allowed, giving the lie practically to their own tears. Happily
however Mrs. Aikin, like many others in her position, took her own
desolation for granted, and attributed her increase of prosperity to
luck or the blessing of God, which is the better way of stating it. ‘Oh!
that poor Will had but lived to see it!’ she would say with kindly
tears in her eyes, and never whispered even to herself that had poor
Will lived it would never have been. She never missed an opportunity,
good soul, of bringing him into her conversation, telling stories of his
excellence, his good looks (he was one of the plainest men in the
county), his good jokes (he was as dull as ditch-water) and his
readiness in all encounters. She would stand in the doorway, with her
apron lifted in her hand, ready to dry the tear which out of grief for
his loss, or tremulous traditionary laughter over one of his
pleasantries, was always ready to spring up in the corner of her eye.
What did it matter to her that the poor old jokes were pointless? She
never inquired into their claims, but accepted them as laughter-worthy
by divine right.

Mrs. Aikin had but one child, Jane, a modest, dark-eyed girl, with
pretty fair curling hair, which gave her a certain distinction among the
rustic prettinesses about. Her mother professed to be annoyed by the
mingling of two complexions, protesting that Jane was always
‘contrairy,’ that such light hair should have gone with blue eyes, and
that she was neither one sort nor another; but in her heart she was
proud enough of her daughter’s uncommon looks--and Jane was an uncommon
girl. Next to the Barley Mow stood the smallest house on the Green, a
little place half wooden, half brick, which would have been tumbledown
and disreputable had it not been so exquisitely neat and well cared for.
This was the poorest little place of all the gentry’s houses, but it was
not by any means the humblest of the inhabitants of the Green who lived
at the Thatched Cottage. Old Mrs. Mowbray was a very great person,
though she was a very small person. She was the tiniest woman on the
Green, and she had the tiniest income, but she was related to half the
peerage, and considered herself as great a lady as if she had been a
grand duchess. Nor did any one dispute her claim. The greatest people in
the county yielded the pas to old Mrs. Mowbray, partly no doubt because
she was very old and her magnificent pretensions were amusing, but
partly also because they were well founded. There was not one house on
the Green that had such visitors as she had. She was grand-aunt to a
duke, and nobody would have been surprised to hear that in her own
person she had a far-away right to the Crown--a right, let us say,
coming by some side-wind from the Plantagenets, leaping over the other
families who are of yesterday. Many people at Dinglefield called her the
fairy queen. She had the easy familiarity of royalty with all her
surroundings. What could it matter to her what were the small gradations
of social importance among her neighbours and friends? She could afford
to be indifferent to such trifling distinctions of society. Widow Aikin
was not appreciably further out of the reach of this splendid little old
poor patrician than Lady Denzil. Education was in favour of the latter,
it is true, but there was this against her, that it was possible for
her to entertain some delusive idea of equality, of which Mrs. Aikin was
guiltless. Mrs. Mowbray accordingly made no secret of the fact that she
entertained a great friendship for the landlady of the Barley Mow, and
was very fond of Jane. She had the girl with her a great deal, and
taught her those pretty manners which were so unlike others of her
class. When Jane was a growing girl of twelve or thirteen she used to
wait upon the old lady’s guests at tea as a maid of honour might have
waited. It was done for love for one thing, which always confers a
certain grace; and it was not possible to move awkwardly or act
ungracefully under the eye of such a keen critic.

It was the general opinion of the ladies on the Green that this
patronage might not be an advantage to Jane as she grew older, and it
became necessary to choose what was to be her occupation in the world;
but in this respect Mrs. Mowbray behaved with great wisdom. It was,
indeed, against not only all her traditions, but all the habits of her
mind to ‘put nonsense in the girl’s head,’ and disgust her with her
natural position, which was what the other ladies feared. It mattered
nothing to Mrs. Mowbray whether the girl became a pupil-teacher; or
pushed upward in the small scale of rank, as understood at the Barley
Mow, to be a nursery governess and call herself a lady; or remained what
she was by nature, her mother’s right hand and chief assistant? Parties
ran very high on the Green on this subject. It was fought over in many a
drawing-room as hotly as if it had been a branch of the Eastern
Question. Ought Jane Aikin to stay at the parish school with Mrs.
Peters, whose favourite pupil she was, and become her aid and probable
successor? Ought she, being so refined in her manners, and altogether
such a nice-looking girl, to learn a little music and French, and become
a governess? The ladies who were liberal, who believed in education, and
that everybody should do their best to improve their position and better
themselves, upheld the latter idea; but the strongest party was in
favour of the pupil-teacher notion, which was considered a means of
utilizing Jane’s good manners and excellent qualities, without moving
her out of ‘her own sphere of life’--and this set was headed, by the
Rector, who was very hot and decided on the subject. A third party, to
which nobody paid much attention, and which consisted chiefly of Mrs.
Aikin herself, the only real authority, intended Jane to remain where
she was, head-waiter and superintendent at the Barley Mow. The question
between the two first projects had already been warmly discussed in the
drawing-rooms before it occurred to anybody that it could be Mrs.
Aikin’s intention to do such injustice to her daughter, or indeed that
the good landlady had any particular say in the matter. What! make a
barmaid of Jane! The Rector was, it is to be feared, very injudicious in
his treatment of the question. He attempted to carry matters with a very
high hand, and went so far as to say that no modest girl could be
brought up in ‘an alehouse,’ as he was so foolish as to call it, an
opprobrious epithet which Mrs. Aikin did not forgive for years. She was
so desperately offended, indeed, that she went to chapel for four
Sundays after she heard of it, walking straight past the church doors,
and proclaiming her defection to the whole world. Mrs. Mowbray was the
person who was employed to set this matter right. She was waited upon by
representatives of the two different parties, both of them feeling
secure of her sympathy, but both anxious at all events to bring that
foolish woman, Jane’s mother, to her senses. Mrs. Stoke was at the head
of the governess set, and good Mr. Wigmore, our excellent church-warden,
represented the Rector’s views. They met at the gate of the Thatched
Cottage upon this mission. ‘I have not spoken to dear Mrs. Mowbray on
the subject, because I feel so sure that she will be on our side--so
fond as she is of Jane,’ said Mrs. Stoke. ‘Mrs. Mowbray is not the
person to advocate any breaking up of the divisions which mark society,’
said Mr. Wigmore. ‘_She_ knows the evil of all such revolutionary
measures.’ And thus they went in, each confident in his and her own
cause.

Mrs. Mowbray sat by the fire in the big old carved ebony chair, which
made her look more than ever a fairy queen. She had a handsome old ivory
face, with a tinge of colour on the cheeks, which looked as if it might
once have been rouge. Strangers considered that this peculiarity of
complexion gave an artificial and even improper look to the old lady,
but on the Green it was considered one of the evidences of that supreme
aristocratism which would not take the trouble to disguise anything it
pleased to do, but would rouge, if rouge was necessary, in a masterful
and magnificent way, making no secret of it. However, as a matter of
fact it was not rouge, but perfectly real, as was the fine ivory yellow
of her old nose, a stately and prominent feature, evidently belonging to
the highest rank. She would not have budged from her ebony chair to
receive any one less than the Queen; but she permitted Mrs. Stoke to
kiss her, and Mr. Wigmore to shake her hand, with serene graciousness.
When they had both seated themselves she looked at them across her
knitting with a smile. ‘This looks likes a deputation,’ she said. ‘What
do you want, good people? If it is to settle about my funeral there is
no hurry--for my cold is much better, and I have a good many things to
see after before I can think of such luxuries.’ This distressed both her
visitors, who did not like to hear an old lady speak of such serious
matters in this light-minded way.

‘Indeed, indeed, dear Mrs. Mowbray, it was nothing of the kind. When
such a dreadful event occurs there will be weeping and wailing on the
Green; and we all know very well that though you always talk so
cheerfully, and so amusingly----’

‘You regard such subjects with the melancholy which becomes
right-thinking people,’ said Mr. Wigmore; ‘but we came--or to speak for
myself, I came----’

‘To speak of Jane Aikin,’ cried Mrs. Stoke, feeling the importance of
having the first word, ‘and her mother’s inconceivable foolishness in
keeping her at home; and the still more foolish step she has taken in
separating herself from all her true friends.’

‘Frequenting the Dissenters’ services,’ said Mr. Wigmore. ‘Few things
more sad have come under my observation in this very distressing
parish--which is really such a mixture of everything that is
unsatisfactory----’

‘The parish is just like other parishes,’ said Mrs. Stoke, ‘only much
better, I should say--so many educated people in it, and so few poor
comparatively. But I am sure our dear old friend will agree with me that
Jane is quite out of place----’

‘Now, my good people,’ said the old lady, ‘think a moment--what do you
mean by out of place?--Everybody is out of place now-a-days. I see
people in this room calmly sitting down by me whose fathers and mothers
would have come to the kitchen door fifty years ago; but if I made a
fuss what would any one say?’

This made Mr. Wigmore very uncomfortable, whose father had been a
cheesemonger in a good way of business; but as for Mrs. Stoke she did
not care, being very well born, as she supposed. Mrs. Mowbray, however,
took them both in quite impartially. ‘Unless people really belong to the
old nobility,’ she continued, ‘I don’t see that it matters about their
place. It does not mean anything. Even in what we call the old nobility,
you know, there’s not above half-a-dozen families that are anything like
_pur sang_. I know dukes that are just as much out of place as Jane
Aikin would be at Windsor Castle. The only place any one has a right to
is where their ancestors are born and bred--if they have any. And when
you have not rank,’ said the old lady, looking keenly at Mr. Wigmore,
‘you had much better be _peuple_, as the French say. We haven’t got an
English word for it. No, it doesn’t mean lower classes--it means
_peuple_, neither less nor more. And Jane Aikin is pure _peuple_. She
can’t be out of place where she is.’

‘But you forget her education, dear Mrs. Mowbray--and you yourself that
have given her such a taste for beautiful manners, and spoiled her for
her own common class.’

Mrs. Mowbray did not say anything, but she put on her spectacles and
stared at her reprover. ‘I never spoil any one,’ she said; ‘out of my
own condition--I make no secret of it--one girl is very much like
another to me. They should all be pretty-mannered--I never knew _that_
to spoil any one, small or great.’

‘Dear Mrs. Mowbray, no; but if we could raise her to a position in which
she would be appreciated. She has taken such a step out of her own class
in associating with you.’

‘Associating--with me!’ Mrs. Mowbray took off her spectacles again
after she had gazed mildly with a wonder beyond speech in the speaker’s
face. Then she shrugged her shoulders slightly and shook her head. ‘I
can’t recall at this moment any one in this neighbourhood who does that.
I have a great many friends, if that is what you mean, and I am not so
particular as most people about the little subdivisions--but associates!
I don’t know any. Yes, Mr. Wigmore? you were going to speak.’

‘I am one of those who agree with you that the poor should be kept in
their own place,’ said Mr. Wigmore. As he spoke the old lady took up her
spectacles again, and deliberately put them on, looking at him as if
(Mrs. Stoke said) he was a natural curiosity, which somewhat discomfited
the excellent man--‘but, as our friend says, her manners and breeding
are quite above her station.’

‘Jane Aikin has no station,’ said Mrs. Mowbray promptly. ‘She is
_peuple_, as I told you. I know nothing of your aboves and belows. Let
her stay where she is, in her natural place, and do her duty. Do your
duty in that condition to which God has called you: that’s what the
Catechism says. There’s nothing about being above or below. Very lucky
for her she’s got a natural place and her duty plain before her. If one
had not one’s own rank, which of course one does not choose, that’s what
I should prefer for myself: a distinct place and a clear duty--and
that’s what Jane Aikin has.’

‘In a public-house!’ cried Mr. Wigmore, aghast.

‘In her mother’s house, sir,’ said old Mrs. Mowbray.

Thus the Green was routed horse and foot; but the old lady on further
talk accepted the position of mediatrix to bring back the Widow Aikin to
her allegiance, and to show her her duty as a churchwoman. She sallied
forth for that purpose the very next morning in her old quilted white
satin bonnet and great furred cloak. She never changed the fashion of
her garments, having had abundant time to discover what was most
becoming to her, as she frankly said. Mrs. Aikin was standing at her
front door, looking out upon the bright morning, when the old lady
appeared. There was very little doing at the Barley Mow. The parlour
with the bow window was full of a dazzling stock of household linen,
which Jane and a maid were looking over, and putting in order. Jane
herself had the task of darning the thin places, which she did so as to
make darning into a fine art. This had been taught her by Mrs. Peters at
the parish school. Perhaps it was not, after all, such a valuable
accomplishment as it looked, but certainly Jane’s darning had a
beautiful appearance on the tablecloths, after they had passed their
first perfection of being, at the Barley Mow.

‘The sunshine’s a pleasure,’ said Mrs. Aikin, making her best curtsey,
‘and I hope I see you well, ma’am, this bright morning. It shows us as
how spring’s coming. Might I be so bold as to ask you to step in and
take a chair?’

‘Not this morning,’ said Mrs. Mowbray in her frank voice, not unduly
subdued in tone, ‘though I’ve come to scold you. They tell me you’ve
gone off from your church, you that were born and bred in it, and Jane,
though I taught her her Catechism myself. Do you mean to tell me you’ve
got opinions--you?--with a nice child like Jane to thank God for, and
everything going well----’

‘Well, ma’am,’ said Mrs. Aikin, growing red and smoothing her apron, ‘I
don’t say as I’m one for opinions--more than doing your duty, and
getting a bit of good out of a sermon when you can.’

‘That’s very pious and right,’ said the old lady, ‘but your church that
you were christened in is more than a sermon. I don’t pretend to get
much good of them myself: but you’ll not tell me that you have left your
church for that.’

‘Well, ma’am!’ said Mrs. Aikin, reluctant to commit herself. She put out
her foot, and began to trace patterns with her shoe in the sand on the
doorstep, and fixed her eyes upon the process. She could not meet the
little old lady’s decided gaze. ‘Mr. Short at the chapel do preach
beautiful, he do. You should just hear him for yourself. He’ll make you
come all over in a tremble, when you’re sitting quite quiet like,
thinking of nothing; and then he’s real comforting to poor folks and
them as is put upon. It’s almost a pleasure to feel as you’ve had your
troubles with the quality too.’

‘Quality! Where do you find any quality to have troubles with?’ said
Mrs. Mowbray. ‘You and I have always been good friends. You don’t
consider that you’re put upon, as you call it, because the Duke sent me
my Christmas turkey. That was no offence to you.’

‘No, ma’am, never--not you. There is them that shall be nameless--not
but what _they_ call names a plenty.’

‘The woman’s thinking of the Rector, I declare. Quality!’ said Mrs.
Mowbray with an accent of mingled amazement and amusement. ‘No, my dear
woman, he’s not quality. But he meant no harm. He was thinking of the
girl and her good. They think they know, these men; and we must submit,
you know, to our clergy. It was because of his interest in Jane.’

‘Interest in Jane!’ said Widow Aikin (she pronounced the name something
like _Jeyeyn_; but the peculiarities of Berkshire are too much for even
phonetic spelling), ‘if that shows an interest! telling her mother to
her face as she wasn’t fit to bring her up decent and respectable, and
showing no more confidence than that in the girl herself.’

‘It was his mistake,’ said Mrs. Mowbray, ‘he wants tact, that is what it
is. He hasn’t the right way of doing a thing, my dear woman. That is how
these middling sort of people always break down. My nephew, the Duke, if
he had to send you to prison, would do it as if it were the greatest
kindness in the world. But the middling classes have no grace about
them. That’s not to say that you’re to give up your church that you
were christened in and married in. Who’s to bury you, woman? Do you
never think of that? Not your Mr. Short at the chapel, I hope. At least
I know he would never do for me. There ought to be more in your church
than a sermon, or even than a pleasant word.’

‘Well, ma’am, I don’t say but what that’s true; and I never thought of
the burying,’ said the widow, hanging her head. She was subdued and
awe-stricken at the turn which the discussion had taken, and, indeed,
had never intended to forsake ‘her church,’ but only to make a
demonstration of her independence. Jane had come out from the parlour,
leaving her work to listen to this argument, with great anxiety and
interest, for her heart was in it. She was hovering in the passage
behind her mother, now and then giving her a little touch or pull to
enforce something the old lady said. During the pause that followed she
came forward very anxiously, and put forward a plea of her own, in which
there did not seem much point or applicability.

‘Oh, mother,’ she said softly, pulling her sleeve, ‘and Johnny in the
choir!’

‘Oh, go along with your Johnnys,’ said the landlady of the Barley Mow.
But it was clear enough that the victory was won.



CHAPTER II


It is full time that John should be spoken of, who was the other member
of the family, and a very important one. He was Mrs. Aikin’s nephew, the
son of a brother who was very poorly off and had been taken in by his
good aunt as a miserable stunted child when he was but six or seven. The
brother was a soldier, who had been discharged, and whose character it
is to be supposed did not recommend him sufficiently to get any interest
made for him, or to establish him anywhere in one of the occupations
which seem made for old soldiers. Instead of this he had fallen into a
kind of vagabondism, wandering from place to place, and as his wife was
dead this only child had been miserably neglected, and was in a bad way
when Mrs. Aikin took him to her kindly care. He had never been a
prepossessing boy, and he did not at all share with Jane in the interest
of the Green. He was heavy and lowering in his looks, quiet to outward
appearance, though tales were told of him which were not consistent with
this subdued aspect. Both the women however were devoted to John, either
because they had no one else to be fond of, or because he possessed some
qualities at bottom which made up for his faults of exterior. He
certainly did not seem at any time to give himself much trouble to
secure their affections. All that he did seemed to be done
unwillingly--the very sound of his voice was churlish--and except Mrs.
Aikin and her daughter nobody cared for the boy. From his very first
coming he had showed himself in an unfavourable light. He was then a boy
of about eight years old, and little Jane, a delightful child,
everybody’s favourite, was a year younger. One summer evening he was
standing with his hands in his pockets staring at the waggons with their
big horses, when she came running up to him.

‘Come and play, Johnny,’ she said in her soft little voice.

‘I won’t,’ he said, pushing her out of his way with his shoulder.

‘Oh, Johnny, come and have tea in the garden,’ said little Jane, ‘mother
says we may. I’ve got some cake and some gooseberries, and my own little
tea-things, and all the best shall be for you. Oh, Johnny, come!’

‘I won’t,’ he said again, though he faltered when he heard of the cake.

‘Oh, Johnny, come to please me,’ cried the poor little woman, already as
foolish in her expectations as if she had been twenty years older.

‘To please you! I’d a deal rather please myself,’ cried the boy, once
more thrusting her aside with a push of his shoulder. Little Jane was
ready to cry, but the mother coming out full of business called to the
children in her hasty way to go at once to the garden, and get out of
her road. Upon which the boy shrugged his shoulders, and obeyed with
brutish unwillingness and display of yielding to superior force. This
was how he had been ever since. The little girl would coax and entreat,
the kind mother give cheerful orders, never so much as seeing the
lowering looks of rebellion.

‘Poor boy!’ Mrs. Aikin would say, ‘he ain’t got no mother, and I can see
by his solemn face many a day as he’s thinking and thinking of his poor
father, which was never one as would settle down to anything. We has to
do all we can to keep him cheerful, Jane and me.’

Thus from the very first they made up their minds to spoil the loutish,
unpleasant boy. The widow was continually praising him, and holding him
up to the admiration of her neighbours. When it was found that he had a
good voice, this gave them as much delight and triumph as if they had
inherited a fortune, and when he made his appearance for the first time
with the choir in his white surplice, the faces of the two were a sight
to see, so glowing were they with satisfaction and delight. In this way
the two cousins had grown up--the boy always sullen and downlooking,
resisting rather than responding to the kindnesses heaped upon him, the
girl always ready to smooth away every cloud, to say the best for him,
to explain his moodiness and backwardness.

‘It is only his way,’ Jane would say in her soft voice, and _her_ way
was so ingratiating and conciliatory that no one could stand against it.
His aunt, too, was foolish in her affection for this unattractive hero.
He was the son of the house, the young master, though he had not a
penny. His opinion was always asked about everything, and his judgment
constantly relied upon. It was true that the advice he gave was not
always taken, for Mrs. Aikin was very active, and liked to manage
everything her own way; but when it happened that he agreed with her,
she would trumpet forth his praises and give him all the credit.

‘I should never have thought of that but for Johnny. There’s no telling
the sense of him,’ the good woman would say admiringly. All this special
pleading however could not give the Green any interest in John. Nobody
cared for him except the two who cared so much for him, and nobody
believed in him, notwithstanding his imposing appearance in the choir
and his beautiful voice. As he grew up this voice changed from its
angelical soprano to a big melodious baritone. He was the chief singer
at Dinglefield, and kept up the character of the place, which had always
been noted for its choir, and indeed he was the only man in it to whom a
solo could be entrusted. This made the Rector and Mr. Wigmore tolerant
of the alehouse so far as he was concerned.

Thus the little family at the Barley Mow were happy enough when the
difficulty was got over about Jane. Of course Mrs. Aikin had the best
right to settle what her daughter was to do, and whatever they might
advise, neither the clergy nor the ladies could interfere on their own
account in the matter. So that when Mrs. Aikin gave up chapel and came
back to her own pew all was forgiven and forgotten, and Jane, though the
maid of the inn, became a greater favourite than ever. She was liked as
much as her cousin was disliked. Even the contact which she could not be
altogether saved from, in her position, with the roughest and coarsest
class did not seem to affect her. She went about and served the beer,
and waited on the summer visitors as softly and as neatly as she used to
serve the ladies at tea in old Mrs. Mowbray’s tiny drawing-room. She
never took any notice of foolish things that might be said to her, and
did not even seem to hear or see the squabbles and noisy talk that must
always go on more or less about such places. In the cricketing time they
were always very busy, and Jane no doubt had the additional temptation
of the gentlemen who would have talked and flirted had she allowed them
to do so: but she passed through everything like a humble Una, with a
smile for everybody, but not a word that could have been objected to,
had all the ladies in the Green sat in committee on her. Perhaps however
her lout of a cousin did more for Jane than the ladies could have done.
She was very modest and shy, and did not betray herself except to the
keenest observation; but it was apparent enough to those who were
chiefly interested that all her thoughts were for John. She was
constantly doing his work for him in her quiet way, undertaking this and
that to let him have a holiday, or go to a choral meeting, or have his
innings at cricket.

‘Girls don’t want so much play as boys,’ she would say with a smile. And
he took her at her word, and accepted everything she did for him as if
it had been the most natural thing in the world. Strangely enough, her
mother did not object to this. She spoiled and petted the clumsy fellow
just as much as Jane did, and took it for granted that he should have
all kinds of indulgences as if he had been a favourite son. The great
terror of both of them was his vagabond father, who appeared now and
then, a scandal to their respectability, and a standing danger to John.
The two women were always in a fright lest this undesirable relative
should lead their darling astray.

‘He is such a good boy now--he has always been such a good boy,’ Mrs.
Aikin said, with an uncomfortable sense that nobody accepted this
statement as gospel, which made her more and more hot in giving it
forth. And when old Mrs. Mowbray stopped in her walk to inquire after
Jane and the poultry, the widow fairly wept over this one danger which
threatened the family peace.

‘Why do you let him come at all?’ the old lady asked peremptorily. ‘If I
were in your place, I would order him off the premises. You have done
too much for him already, my dear woman. When a man becomes a vagabond
he has no more claim on his friends.’

This did not at all please the landlady of the Barley Mow. Her honest
face flushed, and she dried her eyes indignantly.

‘Nature is nature, ma’am,’ she said; ‘good or bad, you can’t deny your
own flesh and blood.’

‘But I could keep my own flesh and blood at a distance,’ said the old
lady, ‘especially if it has got more harm in it, and could do me an
injury still.’

‘That is all that troubles me,’ said Mrs. Aikin. ‘I’d be as happy a
woman as steps the Green, but for that. Nature is nature, and a father’s
a father. And if so be as he was to put wild thoughts in our Johnny’s
head--what would me and Jane do? La, bless you, it would break that
girl’s heart.’

‘And that is just what I am thinking of,’ said Mrs. Mowbray briskly.
‘You are a silly woman. What has Jane’s heart got to do with it? You
keep this boy by her side year after year. And now they’re growing man
and woman, and what’s to come of it? What do you mean by it? That’s what
I say!’

‘La, ma’am, what could come of it? They’ve been brought up like brother
and sister,’ the widow said with a laugh, and she went about with a
smile on her face for the rest of the day. The other ladies made
remonstrances of the same kind with equally little use. Of course it was
very clear that this was what she had made up her mind to--that the two
should marry and succeed her when she grew old, and carry on the
business. It was all suitable enough and natural enough. And, of course,
the fact that Jane was above her position made no difference. When a
woman is above her position the best thing for her to do is to conceal
it carefully, and make the best of the circumstances. And she herself
was not conscious of the fact of her superiority. Whether Mrs. Aikin had
been so foolish as to communicate her ideas to Jane no one knew, but
there could be little doubt that the poor girl took the arrangement for
granted as much as her mother did. It was so natural! She had been fond
of her cousin all her life, loving him with that most powerful of all
kinds of love, the close tie of tender habit, the affection one has for
the being whom one has protected, excused, and been good to all one’s
life. If she had not pushed him softly through his work, coaxed him
through his lessons, made the best of him to everybody, how could poor
Johnny ever have got on at all? He wanted her backing up so perpetually,
that it might be permitted to Jane to believe that he could not have got
on without her. It is common to say that the love of a woman for a man
has often a great deal that is motherly in it, and certainly this was
the case here. It had been her duty to be kind to him, to make him feel
himself at home, he who had no other home. All her own little pleasures,
almost ever since she could remember, had been made secondary to
Johnny--and what so natural as that this should go on? She took it for
granted, poor girl. She scarcely expected to be courted as other girls
were who ‘fall in love’ with strangers. It had not been necessary for
her to fall in love. She had always been fond of her cousin. She had
never thought of any other man.

And poor Jane was as delicate in her love as any lady of romance. She
had none of the romping ways of country girls of her class. Neither was
she sentimentally disposed. Her modest look dwelt upon him now and then
with a tender pleasure, especially when he was singing, which was the
only thing about him which seemed to justify that delusion. But even
this look was so modest and so momentary that only careful observation
surprised it now and then. She held her somewhat embarrassing position
with a serious grace which was almost dignity--making no advances on her
part, though she was the crown princess, and had everything to bestow,
yet never doubting, I think, poor girl, what the course of affairs was
to be. Was it not natural that he should love her best as she loved him
best? and that their life should go on as it had always done, with
something added but nothing taken away? Such was the simple, happy tenor
of Jane’s maiden thoughts.

Whether John divined what the women took for granted it would be
difficult to say. Perhaps he saw the advantages of being master at the
Barley Mow, and the homage he received no doubt increased his natural
loutish self-complacency--that stolid vanity which so often dwells in
the minds of those who have nothing in the world to be vain of. He took
it for granted on his side that he was the sun of this little world, and
accepted everything as a natural homage to his fine deservings. He
thought the more of himself for all they did for him, not of them. As
for Jane, her pretty looks, her superiority, her grace and good breeding
were nothing to the lout. He would have liked her a great deal better
had she been a noisy, laughing, romping girl. He accepted all the little
sacrifices she made, and allowed her to do his work, with that satisfied
consciousness that she liked it, which gave him the feeling of doing
rather than receiving a favour. And very likely he might go on, and
carry out the programme, and marry her in the same lordly way. For there
could be no doubt that it was very much to his advantage, and that his
position as Jane’s husband would be much more assured than that of Mrs.
Aikin’s nephew. So things went on, day gliding into day, and summer into
winter. They were both young--there was no hurry; and to quicken the
settlement or alter anything from the pleasant footing on which it at
present stood was not at all the widow’s wish.

The picture would have been incomplete however had there not been
something on the other side. When one man is indifferent to the goods
the gods provide him it is almost certain there is another somewhere to
whom these gifts would seem divine. Jane had always kept up her
friendship with Mrs. Peters, the schoolmistress, who had trained her,
and whose assistant the ladies on the Green had wished her to be. She
was fond of going to see her in the winter afternoons when there was not
much doing, and always found something to do among the girls, work to
set right, or a class to look after which had wearied the
schoolmistress: and she got on so well with them that it was clear the
ladies on the Green had not been wrong in their idea of her powers. But
while she thus came and went about the good schoolmistress whom she
loved, another person had come into the little circle, of whom Jane took
little notice. This was a brother-in-law of Mrs. Peters, who had been
lately appointed schoolmaster, and was very highly thought of in the
parish. He was ten years at least older than Jane, and appeared to her a
middle-aged man, though he was scarcely over thirty. He was a good
schoolmaster and a good man, a little precise in speech perhaps, and
rigid in his ways, but true and honest and kind, anxious to be of real
service to his pupils and everybody round him. It was not wonderful that
his serious eye should be caught by the serious, gentle girl who was so
sweet and so kind to his sister-in-law, so much at home in the school,
so helpful, and so understanding. After he had taken tea half a dozen
times in her company the good young man’s head became full of Jane. And
he was not so instructed in the ways of the place as to be aware of Mrs.
Aikin’s understood plans, or the kind of tacit arrangement by which
everything seemed settled. He did not even know of John’s existence at
first--and when he did become aware of him there seemed nothing alarming
in the loutish lad, whose appearance and manners were not attractive to
the outward eye. Mr. Peters, though the very name of a public-house was
obnoxious to him, began to come out in the evenings, when that first
winter was over, and would sit down in the shade on a bench outside the
door of the Barley Mow, sometimes for hours together, within reach of
all the noises, and of the smoking and beer-drinking, which were a
horror to him, and not respectable even, or becoming in his position. To
see him seated there in his black coat, with that air of respectability
half ashamed of itself, was both comical and touching. It was said that
the Rector spoke to him about it, pointing out that the Barley Mow,
however respectable in itself, was not a place where an instructor of
youth ought to spend his evenings, a reproach which cut to the
schoolmaster’s very heart. But he was so far gone that he stood up in
defence of the place where his beloved spent her life.

‘Sir,’ he stammered, reddening and faltering, ‘I see a--person there:
who is an example to--every one round.’

‘You mean Mrs. Aikin,’ the Rector said. ‘Yes, yes, Peters, she is very
respectable, I don’t say anything against her; but it is not a place for
you to be seen at, you know.’

And this was true, there could be no doubt. The schoolmaster after this
would come late. He would be seen going out for a walk, passing the
Barley Mow with wistful looks after his tea-time, casting glances aside
at the cheerful bustle; and when the darkness was falling, and
everything had grown indistinct in the twilight, some keen eye would see
him steal to his accustomed seat and stay there, neither drinking nor
talking, except to Jane when she passed him. He watched her taking the
tray from her cousin’s hand, letting him go free for his cricket or his
practice, sometimes even sending him indoors to take a hand at whist,
and had begun to be angry with the young man for letting her do his work
for him before he surprised the gleam of soft love and kindness in
Jane’s pretty eyes which revealed the whole story. Was that what it
meant? It was such a shock to him that the schoolmaster fell ill, and
was not about the place for weeks. But at last he came back again, as
people constantly do, to gaze at sights that break their hearts. The
front of the Barley Mow was a cheerful place in these summer evenings.
Mrs. Aikin allowed no rioting or excess of drinking on her benches, and
she was as imperative as a little queen. And all the travellers who
passed stopped there to get water for their horses and beverages not
quite so innocent for themselves. The horses alone were a sight to see.
The whole hierarchy of rank on four legs might be seen at the door. The
beautiful riding-horses, slim and dainty, with their shy, supercilious
looks; the carriage horses just a trifle less fine--the large, florid,
highly-fed brutes in the drays, that made no stand on their quality, but
looked calmly conscious of unlimited corn at home--the saucy little
pony, ready for any impertinence--the shabby, poor gentleman in the fly
who had seen better days, meek beast, broken-spirited, and
unfortunate--the donkey, meeker still, but with a whole red revolution,
if he could only but once get the upper hand, in his eye. It was
curious to sit there in the darkening of the soft summer night, and see
the indistinct vehicles gliding past, and all the dim figures of men,
while the stars came out overhead, and the heat of the day sank into
grateful coolness. And what a dramatic completeness the humble, bustling
scene took, when one perceived the little human drama, tragedy or
comedy, who could tell which, that was going on in the midst, Jane
regarding the loutish cousin who was not her lover with those soft eyes
of tenderness as the stars regarded the earth: he altogether
indifferent, caring nothing, taking a vulgar advantage of her weakness
to save himself trouble; and the spectator in the corner, hidden in the
shadows, who did not lose a look or a word, whose very heart was burning
to see the wasted affection, and made furious by the indifference. Mr.
Peters would have given all he had in the world could he have purchased
that soft look from Jane; but the lout thought nothing of it, except so
far as it ministered to his own rude self-satisfaction. Perhaps he had
his grievance too. He would have liked to escape from this propriety and
quiet to the noisy revels on the other side of the Green, where there
was always some nonsense going on at the Load-o’-Hay, a kind of rival,
but much inferior place, which was the one place in the world which Mrs.
Aikin regarded with feelings of hatred, and which moved even Jane to
something like anger. He would have liked to have had ‘a bit of fun’
there, and left the steady business of the Barley Mow to take care of
itself. How it was that neither Jane nor her mother perceived or guessed
the discrepancy between his thoughts and theirs is past divining. The
girl, at least, one would have thought, must have had some moments of
distrust, some wondering doubts: but if so she never showed them, and as
for Mrs. Aikin, she was too busy a woman to think of anything that did
not come immediately under her eyes.



CHAPTER III


This state of calm, so full of explosive elements, could scarcely go on
without some revelation, sooner or later, of the dangers below; and,
again, the little old fairy queen, Mrs. Mowbray, had a hand in the
revelation. Though she was so old, there was no more clear-sighted or
keen observer in all the county; and, as her interest in Jane was great,
it cannot be supposed that she had not seen through the complications
about her. But as yet there had been no opening--nothing which could
justify her in speaking particularly on this subject; and all that could
be said in a general way had been already said. Her mind however was
very much set upon it; and she had taken in with an eager ear all the
gossip of her old maid about Mr. Peters, whose visits to the Barley Mow
had been naturally much commented upon. Mrs. Mowbray, as has been
already said, had a royal indifference to the particular grade of the
people about her. They were all her inferiors; and, whether the
difference seemed small or great to the common eye, it was one of kind,
and therefore unalterable, in her impartial judgment. Acting on this
principle, the loves of Jane and John at the Barley Mow were just as
interesting as the loves of the young ladies and gentlemen on the Green,
who thought much more highly of themselves.

This being the case, it will be less surprising to the reader to hear
that, when Mrs. Mowbray in her walks encountered the schoolmaster, she
managed to strike up an acquaintance with him; and ere long had so
worked upon him with artful talk of Jane, that poor Mr. Peters opened
his heart to the kind old lady, though he had never ventured to do so to
the object of his love. The way in which this happened was as follows.
It was summer--a lovely evening, such as tempted everybody out of doors.
The schoolmaster, poor man, had gone out to walk the hour’s walk which
he imposed upon himself as a necessary preface to his foolish vigil in
front of the Barley Mow, which had settled down into a regular routine.
He made believe to himself, or tried to make believe, that when he sat
down on that bench at the door it was only because he was tired after
his long walk; it was not as if he went on purpose--to do that would be
foolishness indeed. But he was no moth, scorching his wings in the
flame--he was an honest, manly pedestrian, taking needful rest in the
cool of the evening. This was the little delusion he had wrapped himself
in. When he was setting out for his walk, he met Mrs. Mowbray, and took
off his hat with that mixture of conscious respect and stiff propriety
which became his somewhat doubtful position--that position which made
him feel that more was expected from him than would be expected from the
common people round. He was in his way a personage, a representative of
education and civilization; but yet he did not belong to the sphere
occupied by the ladies and gentlemen. This made poor Mr. Peters doubly
precise. But as the old lady--whose lively mind was full of Jane, and of
a little plan she had in her head--turned to look at him instead of
looking where she stepped, she suddenly knocked her foot against a
projecting root, and would have fallen had not the schoolmaster, almost
too shy to touch her, and wondering much in his own mind what a
gentleman would do in such an emergency, rushed forward to give his
assistance. Mrs. Mowbray laid hold of him with a very decided clutch.
She was not shy--she threw her whole weight (it was not much) upon his
arm, which she grasped to save herself. ‘I was nearly over,’ she said,
panting a little for breath, with a pretty flush rising into her pale
old delicate cheeks. The shock stirred her old blood and made her heart
beat, and brought a spark to her eyes. It did not frighten and trouble,
but excited her not unpleasantly, so thorough-bred was this old woman.
‘No, I am not hurt, not a bit hurt: it was nothing. I ought to look
where I am going, at my age,’ she said; and held Mr. Peters fast by the
arm, and panted, and laughed. But even after she had recovered herself
she still leant upon him. ‘You must give me your arm to my house,’ she
said; ‘there’s the drawback of being old. I can’t help trembling, as if
I had been frightened or hurt. You must give me your arm to my house.’

‘Certainly, madam,’ said Mr. Peters. He did not like to dispense with
any title of civility, though (oddly enough, and in England alone) the
superior classes do so; but he would not say ‘Ma’am,’ like a servant. It
seemed to him that ‘Madam’ was a kind of stately compromise; and he
walked on, himself somewhat tremulous with embarrassment, supporting
with the greatest care his unexpected companion; and though she
trembled, the courageous old lady laughed and chattered.

‘You were going the other way?’ she said. ‘I am wasting your time, I
fear, and stopping your walk.’

‘Oh, no, madam, not at all,’ said Mr. Peters; ‘I am very glad to be of
use. I am very happy that I was there just at the moment--just at the
fortunate moment----’

‘Do you call it a fortunate moment when I hurt my foot--not that I have
really hurt my foot--and got myself shaken and upset like this--an old
woman at my age?’

‘I meant--the unfortunate moment, madam,’ said Mr. Peters, colouring
high, and feeling that he had said something wrong, though what he
scarcely knew.

‘Oh, fie! that looks as if you were sorry that you have been compelled
to help me,’ said the old lady, laughing.

Poor Mr. Peters had not the least idea how to take this banter. He
thought he had done or said something wrong. He coloured up to the
respectable tall hat that shaded his sober brows; but she stopped his
troubled explanations summarily.

‘Where were you going? It does not matter? Well, you shall come in with
me, and Morris will give you some tea. You can tell me about your
school--I am always interested in my neighbours’ concerns. You pass this
way most evenings, don’t you? I see you passing. You always take a walk
after your day’s work--a very wholesome custom. And then your
evenings--where do you spend your evenings? Are there any nice people
who give you a cup of tea? Do you go and see your friends? Yes, I am
interested, always interested, to learn how my fellow-creatures get
through their life; I don’t do much myself but look on, now-a-days. And
you know life’s a strange sort of thing,’ said the old lady. ‘Nothing
interests me so much. It isn’t a line of great events, as we think in
our youth--the intervals are more important than the events. Are you
dull, eh? You are a stranger in this place. How do you spend your
evenings after you go in?’

‘Madam, there is always plenty to do,’ said Mr. Peters; ‘a master can
never be said to have much leisure.’ And then he unbent from that high
seriousness and said, with a mixture of confused grandeur and
wistfulness, ‘In the circles to which I have admission there is not much
that can be called society. I have to spend my evenings at home, or----’

‘Or----?’ said Mrs. Mowbray. ‘Just so, that is the whole business;
alone, or---- But where is the ‘or’? So am I. I am alone (which I
generally like best), or--I have friends with me. Friends--I call them
friends for want of a better word--the people on the Green. They bore
me, but I like them sometimes. Now, you are a young man. Tell me what
‘or’ commends itself to you.’

Thus exhorted, Mr. Peters hung down his head; he stammered in his reply.
‘I am afraid, madam, you would think but badly of me if you knew:
without knowing why. I go and sit down there--in front of Mrs. Aikin’s
house.’

‘In front of the Barley Mow! Dear me!’ she said, with well-acted
surprise; ‘that is not the thing for a schoolmaster to do!’

‘I know it, madam,’ said Mr. Peters with a sigh.

‘Ah!’ said Mrs. Mowbray, with the air of one who is making an important
discovery; ‘ah! I divine you at last. It is a girl that beguiles you to
the Barley Mow! Then it must be a good girl, for they allow no one else
there. Bless me! I wonder if it should be Jane!’

‘You know her, madam?’

‘Ah, it is Jane then? Mr. Schoolmaster--I forget your name--you are a
man of penetration and sense; I honour you. A man who chooses the best
woman within his knowledge--that’s the sort of man I approve of. It
happens so seldom. Men are all such fools on that point. So it is Jane!’

Mr. Peters breathed a long sigh. ‘She never looks at me, madam--she
never knows I am there. You must not think she has anything to do with
it.’

‘Ay, ay, that’s always the way. When the men show some sense the women
are fools; or else it’s the other thing. Now, listen to me. You say, Do
I know Jane? Yes, I know her from her cradle. Why, I brought her up!
Can’t you see the girl has the manners of a lady? I gave them to her.
There is nothing Jane will not do for me. And I like the looks of you.
You’re stiff, but you’re a man. Do you think I should have come out of
my way, and hurt my foot (oh, it is quite well now!) to speak to you, if
I hadn’t heard all about this? I want to help you to marry Jane.’

‘Oh, madam, what can I say to you?’ cried Mr. Peters, not knowing in his
bewilderment what might be going to happen. He was shocked in his sense
of propriety by being told that he was stiff, and by the old lady’s
frank avowal that she knew all about him after she had wormed his secret
out of him; and he was excited by this promise of aid, and by the bold
jump of his patroness to the last crown of success. To _marry_ Jane! To
get a word from her, or a kind look, seemed enough in the meantime; and
he did not know on the spot whether he was ready to marry any one, even
this queen of his affections.

He led Mrs. Mowbray to her door, and listened to her talk, divided
between alarm and eagerness. She made everything so easy! She was
willing to be his plenipotentiary--to explain everything. She would see
no obstacle in the way--all he had to do was to put himself in her
hands. The old lady herself got very much excited over it. She said more
than she meant, as people have a way of doing when they are excited, and
sent Mr. Peters away in the most curious muddle of hope and fear--hope
that the way might be opened for him to Jane, fear lest he might be
driven along that path at a pace much more rapid and urgent than he had
meant to go.

Next morning Mrs. Mowbray had made up her mind to send for Jane and open
the subject at once--merely to represent to her how much more
satisfactory this man was than such a lout as John. What a suitable
union it would be! just her own quiet tastes and ways. And a man able to
sustain and help her, instead of a lad of her own age, whom she would
have to carry on her shoulders, instead of being guided by. The pleas in
his favour were so strong, that the old lady could not see what pretence
Jane could find for declining to listen to the schoolmaster. But she was
not so certain about it next morning--and she neither went to the Barley
Mow nor sent for Jane--but gave herself, as she said, time to think. And
but for an accident that happened that very evening, prudence might have
overcome the livelier impulse in her mind.

That evening however Mrs. Mowbray went out again to see the sunset,
taking a short turn down the lane from her house. The lane ran between
her house and the Barley Mow, and a back door from Mrs. Aikin’s garden
opened into it. It was a very green, very flowery bit of road, leading
nowhere in particular except due west; and as the ground was high
here--for Dinglefield stood on a gentle eminence raised above the rest
of the valley--this lane of an evening, when the sun was setting, seemed
to lead straight through into the sunset. It was an exceptional evening:
the sunset glowed with all the colour that could be found in a tropical
sky, and the whole world was glorified. It drew Mrs. Mowbray out in
spite of herself; she had thrown a scarf over her cap and about her
shoulders, being so near home, and was ‘stepping westward,’ like the
poet, but with the meditative step of age which signifies leisure from
everything urgent, and time to bestow upon this great pageant of Nature.
To be so at leisure from everything in thought as well as in life is a
privilege of the aged and solitary. And there is nobody who enjoys the
beauty of such a scene or dwells upon it with the same delight. But the
privilege has its drawbacks, like most human things. Those busy folks
who give but a glance, and are gone, have perhaps a warmer, because
accidental pleasure: the more deliberate enjoyment is a little sad. Mrs.
Mowbray however was one to feel this as little as could well be. She
walked briskly, and her mind, even in the midst of this spectacle, was
full of her plans. She was half-way down the lane, with all the light in
her face, when she suddenly perceived two figures black against the
light in front of her, standing out like black _silhouettes_ on the glow
of lovely colour. She saw them dimly; but they, having their backs to
the dazzling light, and being totally unmindful of the sunset, saw her
very clearly, and were much alarmed by her appearance. They had been so
much occupied with each other that the sound of the old lady’s step upon
some gravel was the first thing that roused them. The girl gave a
frightened exclamation, and sprang apart from her companion, who for his
part backed into the hedge, as if with the hope of concealing himself
there. Though Mrs. Mowbray’s attention and curiosity were immediately
roused, she did not even then recognize them, and they might have
escaped her if they had not been so consciously guilty. The girl was the
first to be detected. She ran off after that startled look, with a
half-laughing cry, leaving the other to bear the consequences.

‘Bless me! Ellen Turner. The little flirt! She is after some mischief,’
Mrs. Mowbray said to herself; and even then she thought nothing of the
young man. But he was not aware of this. He did not know that her eyes,
which had been fixed on the glow in the sky, were dazzled by it, and
unable to see him; and feeling himself detected, it seemed to John safer
to take the matter into his own hands. He made a step into the middle of
the road, in front of her. He could not have done anything less wise.
Mrs. Mowbray was thinking only of Ellen, and nothing at all of the man
she was fooling. This was the way she put it to herself: What did it
matter who the silly fellow was? If he put any dependence on such a
little coquette as that, he was to be pitied, poor fellow. The old lady
had half a mind to warn him. But she was much surprised to find him
confront her like this, and even a little frightened. And it was only
now that she recognized who he was.

He had forgotten what little manners he had, and all his awe of ‘the
quality’ in the excitement of the moment. ‘You’ll go telling of us!’ he
cried, in sudden excitement, almost with a threat of his clenched hand.

A thrill of apprehension ran through the old lady’s frame, but she stood
still suddenly, confronting him with the courage of her nature. ‘How
dare you speak to me so, with your cap on your head?’ she said.

John’s hand stole to his hat in spite of himself. He fell back a step.
‘I beg your pardon, my lady; but I was a-going to say--You won’t say
nothing to _them_?--It was a--accident--it wasn’t done a-purpose. You
won’t tell--about _her_ and me?’

‘Whom am I to tell?’ The old lady had seized the position already, and
it made her herself again. She perceived in a moment the value of the
incident. And he had taken his hat off by this time, and stood crushing
it in his hands. ‘I don’t mean nothing,’ he said. ‘It’s only a lark. I
don’t care nothing for her, nor I don’t suppose she do for me.’

‘That I’ll answer for,’ said Mrs. Mowbray briskly; ‘neither for you nor
any one else, you vain blockhead! But if it’s only a lark, as you say,
what are you frightened for? And what do you want of me?’

He stared at her for a moment with his mouth open, and then he said,
‘Haunt and Jeyeyne thinks a deal of you.’

‘I dare say they do,’ said the old lady; ‘but what of that? And they
think a deal of you, you booby--more’s the pity. If you have a fancy for
Ellen Turner, why don’t you let them know? Why don’t you marry her, or
some one like her, and have done with it? I don’t say she’s much of a
girl, but she’s good enough for you.’

His hand gripped his hat with rising fury; the very dullest of natures
feels the keen edge of contempt. And then he laughed; he had a sharp
point at his own command, and could make reprisals.

‘They’d kill her,’ he said, ‘if they knew it. They’re too sweet upon me
to put up with it. They think as I don’t see what they’re after; but I
see it fast enough.’

‘And what are they after, if you are so clear-sighted?’

‘They mean as I’m to settle down and marry Jeyeyne--that’s what they
mean. They think, ‘cos I’m a quiet one, that I can’t see an inch from my
nose. They think a fellow is to be caught like that afore he’s had his
fling, and seen a bit of the world.’

‘Oh,’ said the old lady; ‘so you want to have your fling, and see the
world?’

‘That is just about it, my lady,’ said the lout, taking courage. ‘I
talks to _her_ just to pass the time; but what I wants is to see the
world. I won’t say as I mightn’t come back after, and settle down.
Jeyeyne’s a good sort of girl enough--I’ve nothing to say against her;
and she knows my ways--but a man isn’t like a set of women. I must have
my fling--I must--afore I settle down.’

‘And who is to do your work, Mr. John, while you have your fling? Or are
you clever enough to see that you are not of the least use at the Barley
Mow?’

‘Oh, ain’t I of use! See what a fuss there will be when they think I’m
going! But Haunt can afford a good wage, and there’s lots of fellows to
be had.’

‘You ungrateful cub!’ cried the old lady; ‘is this all your thanks for
their kindness, taking you in, and making a man of you! You were glad
enough to find a home here when you were a wretched, hungry little boy.’

‘Begging your pardon, my lady, I never was,’ said John, with a gleam of
courage. ‘I’d have been a deal better with father if they’d let me
alone. He’d a got me into the regiment as a drummer, and I’d have been
in the band afore this. And that’s the sort of life to suit me. I ain’t
one of your dull sort--I likes life. This kind of a dismal old country
place never was the place for me.’

‘You ungrateful, unkind, impertinent’!--

Mrs. Mowbray stopped short. She could not get out all the words that
poured from her lips, and the sight of him there opposite silenced her
after all. Mrs. Aikin’s goodness to this boy had been the wonder and
admiration of everybody round. They had considered her foolishly
generous--Quixotic, almost absurd, in her kindness; and now to hear his
opinion of it! This bold ingratitude closes the spectator’s mouth.
Perhaps, after all, it is better to leave the bramble wild, and the
street boy in the gutter, and give up all attempts to improve the one or
the other. But there is nothing which so silences natural human
sentiment and approval of charity and kindness. Mrs. Mowbray was struck
dumb. Who could tell that he had not even some show of justice in his
wrong--something that excused his doubt, if nothing to excuse his
unkindness? This strange suggestion took away her breath.

‘They’ve had their own way,’ said John; ‘they did it to please
themselves; and that’s what they’d like to do again--marry me right
off--a fellow at my age, and stop my fun! But I’m not the sort to have a
girl thrust down my throat. I’ll have my fling first, or else I’ll have
nothing to say to it. Now, my lady,’ he added, lowering his voice, and
coming a step nearer,’ if you’ll stand my friend! There’s nobody as
Haunt and Jeyeyne thinks so much of as you. If you says it they won’t
oppose. I don’t want to quarrel with nobody; but I _will_ have my fling,
and see the world!’

‘And so you shall!’ cried Mrs. Mowbray; ‘if I can manage it. So you
shall, my man! Get out of Jane’s way--that’s all I want of you. And I
think better of you since you proposed it! Yes, yes! I’ll take it all
upon me! There’s nothing I wish for more than that you should take
yourself out of this. Have your fling! And I hope you’ll fling yourself
a hundred miles out of reach of the Barley Mow!’

John looked at her with dull amazement. What did she mean? His thanks
were stopped upon his lips. For, after all, this was not a pleasant way
of backing up. ‘Get out of Jane’s way!’ His heavy self-complacency was
ruffled for the moment. ‘I don’t mind how far I go,’ he said, with a
suspicious look.

‘Nor I, I assure you,’ cried Mrs. Mowbray briskly; ‘I’ll plead your
cause;’ and with that she turned round and went back again, forgetting
all about the sunset. Nature is hardly treated by the best of us; we let
her come in when we have nothing else in hand, but forget her as soon as
a livelier human interest claims our attention. This was how even the
old lady, who had been so meditatively occupied by Nature, treated the
patient mother now.

Next day was Sunday, and of course Mrs. Mowbray could not enter upon the
business which she had undertaken then. But when there is any
undercurrent of feeling or complication of rival wishes in a family,
Sunday is a very dangerous day, especially when the family belongs to
the lower regions of society, and the Sunday quiet affords means of
communication not always to be had on other days. This, of course, was
scarcely the case among the household at the Barley Mow, but the habit
of their class was upon them, and the natural fitness of Sunday for an
important announcement, joined, it is to be supposed, with the fact that
he had already unbosomed himself to one person, drew John’s project out.
When Mrs. Mowbray accordingly took her way to Mrs. Aikin’s on the Monday
morning, more and more pleased as she thought of it, with the idea of
getting John out of the way, she saw at once by the aspect of both
mother, and daughter that her news was no news. The two women had a look
of agitation and seriousness which on Mrs. Aikin’s part was mingled with
resentment. She was discoursing upon her chickens when Mrs. Mowbray
found her way into the barn-yard. ‘They don’t care what troubles folks
has with them, not they,’ she was saying with a flush on her cheek. ‘The
poor hen, as has sat on her nest all day, and never got off to pick a
bit o’ food. What’s that to them, the little yellow senseless things?
And them as we’ve brought up and cared for all our lives, and should
know better, is just as bad.’ Jane was putting up a setting of
Brahmapootra eggs for somebody. She was very pale, and made no reply to
her mother, but her hand trembled a little as she put them into the
packet. ‘What is the matter?’ said the old lady as she came in. Jane
gave her a silent look and said nothing. ‘La, bless us, ma’am, what
should be the matter?’ said Mrs. Aikin. They were so disturbed that Mrs.
Mowbray did a thing which she was not at all in the habit of doing. She
departed from her original intention, and said nothing at all of her
mission, concluding, as was the fact, that John himself had spoken. No
later than that afternoon however her self-denial was rewarded, for Mrs.
Aikin came to the Thatched Cottage, curtseying and apologetic. ‘I saw as
you didn’t believe me, ma’am,’ she said. ‘There is nobody like you for
seeing how things is. A deal has happened, and I don’t know whether I’m
most pleased or unhappy. For one thing it’s all settled between Johnny
and Jane.’

‘All settled!’ the old lady was so much surprised that she could
scarcely speak.

‘Yes, ma’am, thank you, the poor dears! I always said that as soon as he
knew his own mind--There ain’t a many lads as one can see through like
our John.’

‘You didn’t wish it then?’ said Mrs. Mowbray. ‘I should have thought
this morning that something bad had happened. You didn’t wish it! Then
we’ve all been doing you injustice, my dear woman, for I thought you had
set your heart on this all along.’

‘And so I have; and I’m as happy--_that_ happy I don’t know what to do
with myself,’ said Mrs. Aikin, putting her apron to her eyes.

‘Happy! nobody would think it to look at you--nor Jane. I thought I knew
you like my A, B, C, but now I can’t tell a bit what you mean.’

‘Jane, she’s all of a flutter still, and she’s that humble-minded, all
her thought is, will she make him happy? But you don’t suppose, ma’am,
as I think any such nonsense--lucky to get her, I say, and so does
everybody. It ain’t that. But he’s been seeing his father, and his
father’s put nonsense in the lad’s head. I always said as he’d do it.
Johnny’s the best of boys; he’d never have thought of such a thing if it
hadn’t been put in his head. He says he wants to go out into the world
and see a bit of life afore he settles down.’

‘And that is what troubles you? If I were you I should let him go,’ said
the old lady. ‘Lucky! I should think he was lucky. A young fellow like
that! He is not half good enough for Jane.’

‘Well, ma’am,’ said Mrs. Aikin, half ruffled, half pleased, ‘it is well
known who was always your pet, and a great honour for her and me
too--and I don’t know how it is as folks do such injustice to our John.
It’s all the father, well I know; leave him to himself and a better boy
couldn’t be. But I’ve written him a letter and given him a piece of my
mind. It’s him as always puts fancies in the boy’s head. See the world!
Where could he see the world better than at the Barley Mow! Why there’s
a bit of everything at our place. There’s them gentlemen cricketers in
the summer, and the best quality in the kingdom coming and going at
Ascot time, and London company in the best parlours most every Sunday
through the season. All sorts there is. There was never a week, summer
or winter, so long as I can remember, but something was going on at the
Barley Mow. Summer, it’s nothing but taking money from morning to night.
I don’t mean to say,’ said Mrs. Aikin, suddenly recollecting that this
sounded like a confession of large profits such as no woman in trade
willingly acknowledges--‘I don’t mean to say as the expenses ain’t
great, or as it’s all profit, far from it. But what I says to Johnny I
don’t deny anywhere--it’s a living--and it’s the amusingest living and
the most variety of any I know.’

‘And yet he wants to see the world; there’s no accounting for men’s
depravity. Do you mean to let him go?’

Mrs. Aikin laughed. ‘I ain’t a good one to deceive,’ she said; ‘this
morning I was all in a way, but now I’ve had time to think. You know
yourself, ma’am, that to say “No” is the way to make a boy more
determined than ever. Seemingly I’m a giving in, but I don’t mean to
take no steps one way or other. I’ll let things take their course. And
now that Jane and him understands one another, and the summer trade’s so
brisk, who can say? Maybe it’ll go out of his head if he ain’t opposed.
I’ve give my consent--so far as words goes--but I tell him as there’s no
hurry. We can wait.’

She laughed again in thorough satisfaction with her own tactics. And
Mrs. Mowbray, with a different sentiment, echoed the laugh. ‘Yes, we can
wait,’ the old lady said; ‘my poor little Jane!’ That was all, but it
made Mrs. Aikin angry, she could not tell why.

Mr. Peters at this period kept putting himself perpetually in Mrs.
Mowbray’s way. He went past her house for his walk, he came back again
past the Thatched Cottage. She could scarcely go out in the evening that
he did not turn up in her path: and for some days the old lady was cruel
enough to say nothing to him. At last one evening she called the poor
schoolmaster to her. ‘You must make up your mind to it like a man,’ she
said, ‘Jane is going to marry her cousin. It is all settled. The mother
told me, like a fool.’

‘All settled!’ Poor Mr. Peters grew so pale that she thought he was
going to faint. ‘I saw him,’ he gasped, ‘only yesterday, with----’

‘Never mind, yes; that’s quite true,’ said the old lady. ‘That woman has
settled it like a fool. They are going to throw the girl away among
them. But we cannot do anything. You must make up your mind to it like a
man.’

The schoolmaster’s stiffness and embarrassment all melted away under the
influence of strong feeling. He took off his hat unconsciously, showing
a face that was like ashes. ‘Then God bless her,’ he said, ‘and turn
away the evil. If she is happy, what does it matter about me!’

‘She will never be happy,’ said the old lady, ‘never, with that lout;
and the thing for us to do is to wait. I tell you, what you’ve got to do
is to wait. After all, the devil seldom gets things all his own way.’

Mr. Peters put on his hat again, and went away with a heavy heart. He
did not go near the Barley Mow. He went home to his room, and sat there
very desolate, reading poetry. He could bear it, he thought; but how
could she bear it when she came to hear of Ellen Turner and those
meetings in the lane?

At present however nothing was known of Ellen Turner at the Barley Mow.
The very next Sunday after that the women had forgotten all the dangers
of John’s perversity, and remembered only the fact of the engagement,
and that all doubt was over on the point which they thought so essential
to their happiness. Mrs. Aikin had a new bonnet on, resplendent in red
ribbons, and the happiness in Jane’s face was better than any new
bonnet. As it happened, there was a solo in the anthem that day which
John sang standing up in his white surplice, and rolling out Handel’s
great notes so that they filled the church. He had a beautiful voice,
and while he sang poor Jane’s face was a sight to see: her countenance
glowed with a kind of soft rapture. She clasped her hands unawares with
the prayer-book held open in them, her eyes were raised, her lips apart,
her nostrils slightly dilated. She had the look of a votary making a
special offering. Poor simple Jane! There was no consciousness in her
mind of any elevation above the rest, as she lifted that ineffable look,
and praised God in a subdued ecstasy, offering to Him the voice of her
beloved. For the moment Jane was as the prophets, as the poets, raised
up above everything surrounding her, triumphing even over the doubt that
was too ready to invade her mind at other times. She was but a country
girl, the maid of the inn, occupying the most unelevated and most
unelevating of positions, but yet no lady of romance could have stood on
a higher altitude, for the time.



CHAPTER IV


This however was the last time that Jane’s look of modest, silent
happiness could touch any heart. Whether she caught sight of some
private telegraphing which passed between her newly-betrothed and Ellen
Turner in the very church that very day, is not known, but other people
saw it with wonder and forebodings. Mr. Peters, who had seen the rapture
in Jane’s upturned face with a mingled pity and sympathy and pain which
made him, too, heroic for the moment, perceived the nod and look of
intelligence which passed between the baritone in the surplice and the
little dressmaker in the free seats with an impulse of suppressed wrath
which it took all the moral force he could command to resist. It was the
first time the betrothed pair had appeared, as it were, in public, since
it was known that ‘all was settled.’ And was it for this, for a vulgar
reprobate who betrayed her at the moment of union, while the first
happiness ought still to have been in delicate blossom, that she had
overlooked altogether the far more worthy love of the other? He could
not help wondering over that any more than Jane herself, a little while
later, could help wondering. The best thrown aside, the worst chosen--is
not this a far more poignant and wonderful evil than the tyrannies of
parents or hindrances of fate which keep lovers apart? But no more from
that day did Jane’s celestial content wound any sufferer. She grew
grave, pale, almost visibly older from that moment. She withdrew herself
from everybody. Even the old lady at the Thatched Cottage, who depended
upon her for so many things, did not see her for weeks together. And
their next meeting was a chance one, and took place on an August
evening, about a month after these events. How Jane could have kept out
of sight for so long was a mystery which nobody could have explained;
but she had managed it somehow, sending respectful messages of regret by
her mother. This time they met face to face without warning, as Mrs.
Mowbray was returning in the cool of the evening from Sir Thomas
Denzil’s, where she had been dining. The old lady sent her maid away
instantly, so anxious was she to have a conversation with her favourite.
Jane for her part would fain have escaped, but she could not be rude to
her kind old patroness, and Mrs. Mowbray took her arm quite eagerly.
‘You may go home, Morris,’ she said; and almost without waiting till the
maid was gone, ‘What has become of you, Jane? Where have you been
hiding? Is it because you are so happy, my dear, or for some other
reason, that you run away from me?’ A nervous quiver went over poor
Jane; she said with a trembling voice, ‘For another reason.’ She did not
even look her old friend in the face.

‘Then what is it, my dear? Come, tell me. Don’t you know, whatever it
is, you can’t hide it from me?’

To this Jane made answer by drooping her head and turning away her face;
and then she pressed the old lady’s hand, which was on her arm, to her
side, and said hastily, ‘I was coming--I wanted you to speak for me--oh!
ma’am, if you would speak to mother! about--about----’

‘What! my poor little Jane! What, dear? Tell me, tell me freely,’ said
the old lady, almost crying. There could be but one subject that could
excite the poor girl so.

‘About John’s going away. Oh, he’s sick of this quiet place! I can see
it--and mother takes no notice. Men are not like us women. He’s dying to
get away, and mother she can’t see it. She humours him in words, but she
will not do anything. Oh, ma’am, speak for us! He’s had all we have to
give him, and he’s tired of it, and he will never be happy till he gets
away.’

‘Do you wish him to go?--You, Jane?’

‘Yes,’ she cried passionately, ‘I wish it too!--it will make me happier.
I mean not so--miserable. Oh, ma’am, that’s not what I mean. I am all
confused like. I know--I know it’s for his good to go away----’

‘But it’s your good I think of--and your mother, too,’ said Mrs.
Mowbray. ‘We care for you, and not for him. You’ve avoided me, Jane, and
never told me if you were happy--now that you’re engaged, you and he.’

‘It was a mistake,’ she said, ‘all a mistake! We didn’t know our own
minds. Don’t you know, ma’am, that happens sometimes? I always felt it
was a mistake: but mother deceived herself. It’s so easy to believe what
you wish. And he deceived himself. But now that he’s done it it drives
him wild---- Oh, he must go--that’s the only thing that will do any
good. If she would only see it, and let him go!’

‘Do you want to break it off, Jane?’

‘Oh,’ she cried, with a moan, ‘break it off! Am I one to break it off?
But he can’t abide the place, and he wants to go.---- If he has any
true--respect--for me--he’ll feel it when he’s gone. That’s what I
think. Oh! ma’am, speak a word to mother, and tell her to let him go.’

‘There is more in your mind,’ said the old lady: ‘but if it is as
serious as this--I’ll go there straight, my dear. I’ll go straight and
speak to your mother. I know you’ve got more in your mind.’

Jane did not make any reply, but quickened her steps to keep up with the
active old woman as she hurried on. Poor Jane was past all make-believe.
‘Think!’ she said, almost under her breath, ‘what it is when he comes
and pretends to be fond of me---- Oh, ma’am! pretends as if he loved
me--after all I know!’ She wrung her hands, and there was a suppressed
anguish in her voice, such as only a tender creature outraged could have
been driven to. Then Mrs. Mowbray, who knew all the gossip of the place,
remembered to have heard that Ellen Turner, who was a dressmaker, had
been working at Mrs. Aikin’s--no doubt that was the cause. She went
along quickly, almost dragging the girl with her. It was a beautiful
evening, soft and cool after a hot day. The lights were beginning to
twinkle about the Barley Mow. There were people sitting out on the
bench, and people visible at the open windows with the lights behind
them, and a murmur of cheerful voices. The scene was very homely, but
the night was so soft, the shadows so grateful upon the refreshed earth,
the dews so sweet, and nothing but rest and refreshment in the air.
Overhead the sky was veiled, a few modest stars peeping from the edges
of the clouds, nothing bright to jar upon the subdued quiet. All this
went to Jane’s heart. She began to cry softly, as she looked with
wistful eyes at her home. The sensation subdued her. So peaceful and
quiet, with the vague, half-dim figures about, the cheerful lights in
the windows, was it possible that there could be such trouble there?

But all at once there came a jarring note into this tranquillity--the
sound of a woman’s voice raised in anger. They were going towards the
garden door, but before they reached it somebody was pushed out
violently, and, half falling forward, came stumbling against Jane, who
was straight in the way. ‘Get out of my sight, you little baggage, you
treacherous, wicked, lying creature, you bad girl!’ cried Mrs. Aikin in
a furious voice. Jane clutched at Mrs. Mowbray’s arm, and shrank back,
while the girl who had stumbled against her gave a sudden scream of
dismay. It was Ellen Turner, her cheeks blazing red with anger, though
the sight of Jane cowed her. ‘What have you been doing, you little
flirt?’ cried old Mrs. Mowbray. ‘If a man speaks to me, ain’t I to give
him a civil answer?’ cried the girl, standing still, and preparing to
give battle. Jane did not say a word. She shook herself free of the old
lady without knowing what she did, and went in to her mother, without as
much as a look at the other. As soon as she had disappeared John showed
himself out of the darkness like a spectre. ‘Run, Nell, run,’ he said.
‘She’s to-morrow. She’s in Jane’s hands, I’ll see you safe now. Run.
Nell, run.’ And he darted back again among the guests, and threw himself
into his work with devotion. Never before had John been seen so busy and
so civil. Who could interfere with him in the middle of his work? He was
as safe as if he had been at church.

What had happened was that Mrs. Aikin had found her nephew and the
little dressmaker together, on very affectionate terms, and her outburst
of sudden wrath was very hot and violent. But after the first moment it
was entirely against Ellen that her anger was directed, and she was as
little willing as before to listen to Mrs. Mowbray’s suggestion that he
should be sent away. She was, like most women of her class, perhaps like
most women of all classes, furious against the girl, half sorry for,
half contemptuous of, the man. ‘Lord, what could Johnny do against one
of them artful things?’ she said, when she had calmed down. ‘It’s Jane’s
fault, as don’t talk to him enough, nor keep him going. That minx shall
never set foot in my house again.’ Jane said very little while her
mother talked thus. She was very pale, and her breath came quickly, but
she betrayed no emotion either of grief or anger. She stood still by her
mother’s side while Mrs. Aikin cried and sobbed. Jane was past all that.
She said, ‘He don’t know his own mind, mother. Let him go as he wishes.’
They were both made incapable of work by this sudden incident. But
John--John had turned into a model of industry and carefulness. While
the two women retired into their little parlour with the door shut, he,
safe from all interference, kept everything going. He ran about here and
there, attending to everybody, civil and thoughtful. When he was asked
what was the matter, he answered carelessly, ‘Some row among the women,’
as if that was too trifling and too everyday a matter for his notice. He
had never shown so much cleverness in all his life before.

Even after this however the widow still temporized. Yes, she said in
words, she would let him go, but after the bustle was over--after the
summer work was done with. She gave a hundred excuses, and invented new
reasons constantly for her delay. Jane said little, having said all she
could. A new reserve crept over her, she talked to nobody--went no more
to talk to Mrs. Peters, and never saw her old friend at the Thatched
Cottage when she could help it. She was sick of her false position, as
well as of those pangs which she told to nobody, which were all shut up
in her own heart. No more in church or otherwise did the look of
happiness come back to her face. When John sang she would stand with her
eyes fixed on her book, or else would cover her face with her hand. The
beautiful song was no longer hers to be offered up to God’s praise. But
sometimes during the sermon her eyes would turn unconsciously to that
foolish pretty face in the free seats--the pink and white countenance of
Ellen Turner, inferior in beauty as in everything else to herself. ‘What
is there in her that is better than me? Why should she be preferred to
me?’ was what Jane was asking herself, with a wondering pain that was
half self-abasement and half indignation. Just so good Mr. Peters, in
the school pew, gazed from her to the loutish baritone in his surplice
and back again. Why should fate be so contradictory and hearts so
bitterly deceived?

This state of affairs however could not go on very long--and it came to
a conclusion quite suddenly at last. There was an agricultural show in
the neighbourhood some twenty miles off from Dinglefield, to which all
the rural people of the neighbourhood, and John among them, went at the
end of August. In other circumstances Jane would have gone with her
cousin; but she had no heart for shows of any kind. In the evening most
of the Dinglefield people came home, but not John. Mrs. Aikin was
evidently frightened by his non-appearance, but she made the best of it.
‘He had gone off with some of his friends,’ she said, ‘and of course he
had missed his train. He was always missing trains. He was the
carelessest lad!’ But when next day came, and the next, with no news of
John, the mother and daughter could no longer disguise their alarm. The
widow ‘was in such a way’ that her friends gathered round her full of
condolence and encouragements; and Mrs. Mowbray herself put on her
bonnet, and went to tell her not to be a fool, and to bid her remember
that young men cannot be held in like girls. ‘I know that, ma’am, I know
that,’ said Mrs. Aikin, soothed. The rest of her consolers had
encouraged her by telling her they had always foreseen it, and that this
was what over-indulgence always came to at last. The widow turned her
back upon these Job’s comforters, and clutched at Mrs. Mowbray’s shawl.
‘I’ve held him too tight, ma’am, and I should have taken your advice,’
she said. They had sent expresses in all directions in search of him,
and that very evening they had information that he had enlisted in the
regiment to which his father had formerly belonged, and which was at the
time quartered in the town where the show had been held. This is always,
though it is hard to say why, terrible news for a decent family.
‘’Listed!’ do not all the vagabonds, the good-for-nothings, ’list? It
was Mr. Peters who brought this news to the two anxious women. He had
been in Castleville ‘by accident,’ he said; the truth being that he had
given the children a holiday on purpose to offer this humble service to
the woman who had his heart. It was good news, though it was such bad
news, for the widow’s imagination had begun to jump at all sorts of
fatal accidents, and he was made kindly welcome, and allowed to remain
with them until Mrs. Aikin’s first fit of distress and relief, and shame
and vexation, and content was over. ‘It’s his father, it’s all his
father,’ she said. ‘Such a thought would never, never have come into our
Johnny’s head.’ Mr. Peters, with trembling anxiety, observed that Jane
did not say a word. She was moving about with her usual quickness,
preparing tea, that the kind visitor who had taken so much trouble
should have some refreshment after his long walk. She was full of
suppressed excitement, her cheek less pale than usual, her eyes shining.
But she said nothing till her mother’s outburst was over. Mrs. Aikin was
a foolish, softhearted, sanguine woman. As soon as she knew the worst
her mind leapt at a universal mending and making up. She had no sooner
dried her eyes and swallowed a cup of tea, after protesting that she
‘could not touch it,’ than she began with a certain timidity in another
tone.

‘It’s well known what most families do when such a thing happens,’ she
said with a sigh, ‘folks as has more money than we have. And I’ve heard
say as it was a foolish thing; but when you consider all things---- lads
is so silly, they never see what they’re doing till after it’s done, and
past changing--past their changing I mean.’

Jane did not say anything, but she stood still suddenly in the middle of
the room to listen, with a startled look.

‘I dare to say he’s repented long before this,’ said the widow, ‘him as
never was put to hard work nor ordered about, him as had most things his
own way, though he mightn’t know it. It might have been better for
Johnny if you and me hadn’t been so fond of him, Jane--and it will all
tell upon him now. We’ve spoiled him, and we’re leaving him to bear it
by himself! Oh! Jane! Jane!’

‘What is it, mother? You are thinking of something,’ said Jane with a
harsh tone, quite unusual to her, in her voice.

‘Oh, Jane, you’re hard-hearted, you ain’t forgiving, you’re not like
me,’ cried the widow. ‘If you were the girl folks think you, you would
come to me on your knees, that’s what you would do, to get me to buy him
off.’

‘Oh, mother, mother, I knew that was what you were coming to. Don’t do
it! I cannot bear it. I cannot go on with it. You may save him, but
you’ll kill me.’

‘Kill you!--what has it got to do with you?’ said Mrs. Aikin, drying her
eyes. ‘Thank the Lord, it ain’t so bad but what it can be mended--when
one comes to think of it! I’ll write to the lawyer this very night.’

‘If I can be of any use--’ said Mr. Peters, faltering. The more he felt
it was against himself, the more he was anxious to do it to show, if
only to himself, that it was Jane and not his own interest that was
nearest to his thoughts. But the poor man felt chilled to the heart as
he made his offer. He did not understand Jane. It was only an impulse of
anger, he thought, against the lover for whom, no doubt, she was longing
in her heart.

‘You’re very kind, Mr. Peters--very kind. I’ll never forget it--and you
think it’s the right thing, don’t you now? He ain’t fit for the army,
isn’t Johnny. He was always delicate in the chest, and needs to be taken
a deal of notice of. And to give him up all for one thing--all for a
minute’s foolishness.’

‘Mother!’ said Jane, with a shrill tone of passion in her voice, ‘he is
not to come back here again; let him be!’

‘No--no--no. You’ll be the first to thank me, though you’ve lost your
temper now. The fright will do him a deal of good,’ Mrs. Aikin said,
getting up with all her cheerfulness restored. ‘We’ll leave him a week
or so just to see the error of his ways, and then we’ll buy him off, and
have him back, and settle everything. Poor lad! You may take my word
he’s miserable enough, thinking of you and me, and wondering what we are
thinking of him. Poor John! We won’t go on shilly-shallying any longer,
but we’ll have it all settled when he comes home.’

She was still speaking with the smile on her face which these pleasant
anticipations had brought there when a sudden commotion got up
outside--loud voices, and something like a scuffle. Sounds of this kind
are not so rare or so alarming even at the best regulated of taverns as
they are in a private house, and the widow paid but little attention.
She went across the room and opened her big, old-fashioned chest. Her
heart was warmed and her face brightened by her resolution. Jane gave a
glance of despair at Mr. Peters (which he no more understood than if he
had not seen it). She went across the room after her mother, and laid
her hand on her shoulder. ‘Mother,’ she said, ‘don’t do it--don’t do it;
let him have his choice.’

‘Ah! what was that?’ cried Mrs. Aikin with a start.

The disturbance outside continued, and just at this moment the words
became audible, along with the sound of steps rushing to the door. ‘My
‘usband, my ‘usband!’ cried the voice; ‘what have you done with my
‘usband?’ The mother and daughter turned round by a common impulse, and
looked at each other--then stood as if stiffened into stone, with their
faces to the door. Without another word said they knew what it meant.
They needed no further explanation, nor the sight of Ellen Turner, all
in disorder, with her hair hanging about her neck, and her face swollen
with tears, who suddenly dashed the door open and came wildly in. ‘John,
John! I want my ‘usband!’ the poor creature cried, half demented. Jane
shrank back against her mother, leaning on her heavily, then cast a
wondering gaze around, appealing, as it were, to earth and heaven. Could
it be true? She put out one hand to the girl to silence her, and turned
round and leant against the wall, with a gasp for breath and a low moan.
This was all the demonstration she made. She was not even conscious of
the altercation that followed, the crying, and questioning, and denying.
Jane turned her face to the wall. People have died and broken their
hearts with less pain. The world seemed to go round with her, and all
truth and sense to fail.

When she was seen again, which indeed was next day, moving about her
work as if nothing had happened, Jane was like a ghost in the first
morning light. All the blood seemed to have been drained out of her. She
was like a marble woman, moving unconsciously, not touched by anything
she did. ‘I am quite well,’ she said when people asked, ‘quite well, and
quite right, there is nothing the matter.’ As for the poor
schoolmaster, he went home that night sobbing in the great pity of his
heart. Though he loved her so, the good fellow felt that if anything
could have brought back to her the wretched lout whom she had loved he
would have done it had it cost him his life: but Mr. Peters had to go
away helpless, unable to save her a single pang, as most of us one time
or other have to do.

When and how John had found means and ways to make himself Ellen
Turner’s husband, or whether he had really done so at all, remained
always a mystery to the Green. But she went off to him, and became a
wretched hanger-on of the regiment, from which Mrs. Aikin no longer
thought of buying him off. Nothing else could have settled the question
so summarily, and but for Jane’s stony face all the neighbourhood would
have been glad. Her misery, which was so patient and sweet, and of which
she talked to no one, lasted a great deal longer than it ought to have
done, everybody felt. But it could not last for ever. Bad enough that
such a girl should waste the first sweetness of her life on such a
delusion, but the delusion must come to an end some time. After a longer
interval than pleased the Green, an interval of which old Mrs. Mowbray
was very impatient, declaring pettishly a hundred times that she would
marry off the faithful Peters to some one if Jane did not mind, Jane
came to herself. She is now the mistress of the school-room, if not the
schoolmistress, with too many children of her own to be able to take
charge of those of the parish, but so ‘comfortable,’ with what the
Barley Mow affords, that the schoolmaster’s income requires no eking out
from her work. She is far better off, and in circumstances much more
congenial to her than if she had been able to carry out the plan which
had been her early dream, and which she and her mother had so
passionately wished. And Jane is happy: but the scar of the old wound
has never departed, and never will depart. It is unforgettable for the
sake of the pain, more than for the sake of the love. As for the
faithful Peters, he is as happy as ever schoolmaster was, and very
proper and mindful of his position, and would not sit on a bench outside
a village inn now-a-days night after night, as he once did, not for any
inducement in the world.

Mrs. Aikin held out, and kept her place after Jane was married as long
as that was practicable, but has sold the business now (and it brought
in a pretty penny), and lives very happily with a cow of her own and a
poultry yard, and half-a-dozen grandchildren. Happy woman! She has no
scar upon her comfortable soul, and knows of no mistake she ever made:
but she feeds the hungry mouths of her wretched nephew and his wretched
family, and does not grumble, for, after all, she says, ‘Nature is
Nature, and it was all his father’s fault.’

                               THE END.

                   *       *       *       *       *



                          MY FAITHFUL JOHNNY

                    DEDICATED TO F. W. C. AND B. C.



My Faithful Johnny



CHAPTER I


Everybody knows the charming song which is called by this name. I hear
it sometimes in a young household full of life and kindness and music,
where it is sung to me, with a tender indulgence for my weakness and
limited apprehension of higher efforts, by the most sympathetic and
softest of voices. A kind half-smile mingles in the music on these
occasions. Those dear people think I like it because the translated
‘words’ have a semblance of being Scotch, and I am a Scot. But the words
are not Scotch, nor is this their charm. I don’t even know what they
are. ‘I will come again, my sweet and bonnie.’ That, or indeed the name
even is enough for me. I confess that I am not musical. When I hear
anything that I like much, at least from an instrument, I instantly
conceive a contempt for it, feeling that it must be inferior somehow to
have commended itself to me. I wander vainly seeking an idea through
fields and plains of sonatas. So do a great many other lowly people,
like me, not gifted with taste or (fit) hearing; but, if you will only
suggest an idea to me, I will thankfully accept that clue. I don’t
understand anything about dominant sevenths or any mathematical
quantity. ‘How much?’ I feel inclined to say with the most vulgar.
Therefore ‘My Faithful Johnny’ charms me because this is a suggestion of
which my fancy is capable. I don’t know who the faithful Johnny was,
except that he is to come again, and that somebody, presumably, is
looking for him; and, with this guide, the song takes a hundred tones,
sorrowful, wistful and penetrating. I see the patient waiting, the doubt
which is faith, the long vigil--and hear the soft cadence of sighs, and
with them, through the distance, the far-off notes of the promise--never
realized, always expected--‘I will come again.’ This is how I like to
have my music. I am an ignorant person. They smile and humour me with
just a tender touch of the faintest, kindest contempt. Stay--not
contempt; the word is far too harsh; let us say indulgence--the meaning
is very much the same.

I do not think I had ever heard the song when I first became acquainted
with the appearance of a man with whom, later, this title became
completely identified. He was young--under thirty--when I saw him first,
passing my house every morning as regular as the clock on his way to his
work, and coming home in the evening swinging his cane, with a book
under his arm, his coat just a little rusty, his trousers clinging to
his knees more closely than well-bred trousers cling, his hat pushed
back a little from his forehead. It was unnecessary to ask what he was.
He was a clerk in an office. This may be anything, the reader knows,
from a lofty functionary managing public business, to numberless
nobodies who toil in dusty offices and are in no way better than their
fate. It was to this order that my clerk belonged. Every day of his
life, except that blessed Sunday which sets such toilers free, he walked
along the irregular pavement of the long suburban road in which I lived
at nine o’clock in the morning were it wet or dry; and between five and
six he would come back. After all, though it was monotonous, it was not
a hard life, for he had the leisure of the whole long evening to make up
for the bondage of the day. He was a pale man with light hair, and a
face more worn than either his years or his labours warranted. But his
air of physical weakness must have been due to his colourless
complexion, or some other superficial cause, for his extreme and
unbroken regularity was inconsistent with anything less than thoroughly
good health. He carried his head slightly thrown back, and his step had
a kind of irregularity in it which made it familiar to me among many
others; at each half dozen steps or so his foot would drag upon the
pavement, giving a kind of rhythm to his progress. All these particulars
I became aware of, not suddenly, but by dint of long unconscious
observation, day after day, day after day, for so many years. Never was
there a clerk more respectable, more regular. I found out after a while
that he lodged about half a mile further on in one of the little houses
into which the road dwindled as it streamed out towards the chaos which
on all sides surrounds London--and that when he passed my house he was
on his way to or from the omnibus which started from a much-frequented
corner about a quarter of a mile nearer town. All the far-off ends of
the ways that lead into town and its bustle have interests of this kind.
I am one of the people, I fear somewhat vulgar-minded, who love my
window and to see people pass. I do not care for the dignity of
seclusion. I would rather not, unless I were sure of being always a
happy member of a large cheerful household, be divided from the common
earth even by the trees and glades of the most beautiful park. I like to
see the men go to their work, and the women to their marketing. But no;
the latter occupation is out of date--the women go to their work too;
slim, young daily governesses, hard-worked music-mistresses, with the
invariable roll of music. How soon one gets to know them all, and have a
glimmering perception of their individualities--though you may see them
every day for years before you know their names!

After I had been acquainted (at a distance) with him for some time, and
had got to know exactly what o’clock it was when he passed, a change
came upon my clerk. One summer evening I saw him very much smartened up,
his coat brushed, a pair of trousers on with which I was not familiar,
and a rosebud in his button-hole, _coming back_. I was thunderstruck. It
was a step so contrary to all traditions that my heart stopped beating
while I looked at him. It was all I could do not to run down and ask
what was the matter. Had something gone wrong in the City? Was there a
panic, or a crisis, or something in the money-market? But no; that could
not be. The spruceness of the man, the rose in his coat, contradicted
this alarm; and as I watched disquieted, lo! he crossed the road before
my eyes, and turning down Pleasant Place, which was opposite,
disappeared, as I could faintly perceive in the distance, into one of
the houses. This was the first of a long series of visits. And after a
while I saw _her_, the object of these visits, the heroine of the
romance. She also was one of those with whom I had made acquaintance at
my window--a trim little figure in black, with a roll of music, going
out and in two or three times a day, giving music lessons. I was quite
glad to think that she had been one of my favourites too. My clerk went
modestly at long intervals at first, then began to come oftener, and
finally settled down as a nightly visitor. But this was a long and slow
process, and I think it had lasted for years before I came into actual
contact with the personages of this tranquil drama. It was only during
the summer that I could see them from my window and observe what was
going on. When at the end of a long winter I first became aware that he
went to see her every evening, I confess to feeling a little excitement
at the idea of a marriage shortly to follow; but that was altogether
premature. It went on summer after summer, winter after winter,
disappearing by intervals from my eyes, coming fresh with the spring
flowers and the long evenings. Once passing down Pleasant Place towards
some scorched fields that lay beyond--fields that began to be invaded by
new houses and cut up by foundation digging, and roadmaking, and
bricklaying, but where there was still room for the boys, and my boys,
among others, to play cricket--I had a glimpse of a little interior
which quickened my interest more and more. The houses in Pleasant Place
were small and rather shabby, standing on one side only of the street.
The other was formed by the high brick wall of the garden of a big
old-fashioned house, still standing amid all the new invasions which had
gradually changed the character of the district. There were trees
visible over the top of this wall, and it was believed in the
neighbourhood that the upper windows of the houses in Pleasant Place
looked over it into the garden. In fact, I had myself not long before
condoled with the proprietor of the said garden upon the inconvenience
of being thus overlooked. For this hypocrisy my heart smote me when I
went along the little street, and saw the little houses all gasping with
open windows for a breath of the air which the high wall intercepted.
They had little front gardens scorched with the fervid heat. At the open
window of No. 7 sat my clerk with his colourless head standing out
against the dark unknown of the room. His face was in profile. It was
turned towards some one who was singing softly the song of which I have
placed the name at the head of this story. The soft, pensive music came
tender and low out of the unseen room. The musician evidently needed no
light, for it was almost twilight, and the room was dark. The
accompaniment was played in the truest taste, soft as the summer air
that earned the sound to our ears. ‘I know!’ I cried to my companion
with some excitement, ‘that is what he is. I have always felt that was
the name for him.’ ‘The name for whom?’ she asked bewildered. ‘My
faithful Johnny,’ I replied; which filled her with greater bewilderment
still.

And all that summer long the faithful Johnny went and came as usual.
Often he and she would take little walks in the evening, always at that
same twilight hour. It seemed the moment of leisure, as if she had
duties at home from which she was free just then. When we went away in
August they were taking their modest little promenades together in the
cool of the evening; and when we came back in October, as long as the
daylight served to see them by, the same thing went on. As the days
shortened he changed his habits so far as to go to Pleasant Place at
once before going home, that there might still be light enough (I felt
sure) for her walk. But by and by the advancing winter shut out this
possibility: or rather, I could not see any longer what happened about
six o’clock. One evening however, coming home to dinner from a late
visit, I met them suddenly, walking along the lighted street. For the
first time they were arm-in-arm, perhaps because it was night, though no
later than usual. She was talking to him with a certain familiar ease of
use and wont as if they had been married for years, smiling and
chattering and lighting up his mild somewhat weary countenance with
responsive smiles. ‘I will come again, my sweet and bonnie----’ I
smiled at myself as these words came into my head, I could not tell why.
How could he come again when, it was evident, no will of his would ever
take him away? Was she fair enough to be the ‘sweet and bonnie’ of a
man’s heart? She was not a beauty; nobody would have distinguished her
even as the prettiest girl in Pleasant Place. But her soft, bright face
as she looked up to him: a smile on it of the sunniest kind; a little
humorous twist about the corners of the mouth; a pair of clear, honest
brown eyes; a round cheek with a dimple in it--caught my heart at once
as they must have caught his. I could understand (I thought) what it
must have been to the dry existence of the respectable clerk, the
old-young and prematurely faded, to have this fresh spring of life, and
talk, and smiles, and song welling up into it, transforming everything.
He smiled back upon her as they walked along in the intermittent light
of the shop windows. I could almost believe that I saw his lips forming
the words as he looked at her, ‘My sweet and bonnie.’ Yes; she was good
enough and fair enough to merit the description. ‘But I wish they would
marry,’ I said to myself. Why did not they marry? He looked patient
enough for anything; but even patience ought to come to an end. I chafed
at the delay, though I had nothing to do with it. What was the meaning
of it? I felt that it ought to come to an end.



CHAPTER II


It was some months after this, when I took the bold step of making
acquaintance on my own account with this pair; not exactly with the
pair, but with the one who was most accessible. It happened that a
sudden need for music lessons arose in the family. One of the children,
who had hitherto regarded that study with repugnance, and who had been
accordingly left out in all the musical arrangements of her brothers and
sisters, suddenly turned round by some freak of nature and demanded the
instruction which she had previously resisted. How could we expect
Fräulein Stimme, whose ministrations she had scorned, to descend to the
beggarly elements, and take up again one who was so far behind the
others? ‘I cannot ask her,’ I said; ‘you may do it yourself, Chatty, if
you are so much in earnest, but I cannot take it upon me;’ and it was
not until Chatty had declared with tears that to approach Fräulein
Stimme on her own account was impossible, that a brilliant idea struck
me. ‘Ten o’clock!’ I cried; which was an exclamation which would have
gone far to prove me out of my senses had any severe critic been
listening. This was the title which had been given to the little
music-mistress in Pleasant Place, before she had become associated in
our minds with the faithful clerk. And I confess that, without waiting
to think, without more ado, I ran to get my hat, and was out of doors in
a moment. It was very desirable, no doubt, that Chatty should make up
lost ground and begin her lessons at once, but that was not my sole
motive. When I found myself out of doors in a damp and foggy November
morning, crossing the muddy road in the first impulse of eagerness, it
suddenly dawned upon me that there were several obstacles in my way. In
the first place I did not even know her name. I knew the house, having
seen her, and especially him, enter it so often; but what to call her,
who to ask for, I did not know. She might, I reflected, be only a
lodger, not living with her parents, which up to this time I had taken
for granted; or she might be too accomplished in her profession to teach
Chatty the rudiments--a thing which, when I reflected upon the song I
had heard, and other scraps of music which had dropped upon my ears in
passing, seemed very likely. However I was launched, and could not go
back. I felt very small, humble, and blamably impulsive however when I
had knocked at the door of No. 7, and stood somewhat alarmed waiting a
reply. The door was opened by a small maid-servant, with a very long
dress and her apron folded over one arm, who stared, yet evidently
recognized me, not without respect, as belonging to one of the great
houses in the road. This is a kind of aristocratical position in the
suburbs. One is raised to a kind of personage by all the denizens of the
little streets and terraces. She made me a clumsy little curtsey, and
grinned amicably. And I was encouraged by the little maid. She was about
fifteen, rather grimy, in a gown much too long for her; but yet her foot
was upon her native heath, and I was an intruder. She knew all about the
family, no doubt, and who they were, and the name of my clerk, and the
relations in which he stood to her young mistress, while I was only a
stranger feebly guessing, and impertinently spying upon all these
things.

‘Is the young lady at home?’ I asked, with much humility.

The girl stared at me with wide-open eyes; then she said with a broad
smile, ‘You mean Miss Ellen, don’t ye, miss?’ In these regions it is
supposed to be complimentary to say ‘Miss,’ as creating a pleasant
fiction of perpetual youth.

‘To tell the truth,’ I said, with a consciousness of doing my best to
conciliate this creature, ‘I don’t know her name. It was about some
music lessons.’

‘Miss Ellen isn’t in,’ said the girl, ‘but missus is sure to see you if
you will step into the parlour, miss;’ and she opened to me the door of
the room in which I had seen my faithful Johnny at the window, and heard
her singing to him, in the twilight, her soft song. It was a commonplace
little parlour, with a faded carpet and those appalling mahogany and
hair-cloth chairs which no decorative genius, however brilliant, could
make anything of. What so easy as to say that good taste and care can
make any house pretty? This little room was very neat, and I don’t doubt
that Miss Ellen’s faithful lover found a little paradise in it; but it
made my heart sink foolishly to see how commonplace it all was; a
greenish-whitish woollen cover on the table, a few old photographic
albums, terrible antimacassars in crochet work upon the backs of the
chairs. I sat down and contemplated the little mirror on the mantelpiece
and the cheap little vases with dismay. We are all prejudiced now-a-days
on this question of furniture. My poor little music-mistress! how was
she to change the chairs and tables she had been born to? But, to tell
the truth, I wavered and doubted whether she was worthy of him when I
looked round upon all the antimacassars, and the dried grasses in the
green vase.

While I was struggling against this first impression the door opened,
and the mistress of the house came in. She was a little woman, stout and
roundabout, with a black cap decorated with flowers, but a fresh little
cheerful face under this tremendous head-dress which neutralized it. She
came up to me with a smile and would have shaken hands, had I been at
all prepared for such a warmth of salutation, and then she began to
apologize for keeping me waiting. ‘When my daughter is out I have to do
all the waiting upon him myself. He doesn’t like to be left alone, and
he can’t bear anybody but me or Ellen in the room with him,’ she said.
Perhaps she had explained beforehand who he was, but in the confusion of
the first greeting I had not made it out. Then I stated my business, and
she brightened up still more.

‘Oh, yes; I am sure Ellen will undertake it with great pleasure. In the
Road at No. 16? Oh, it is no distance; it will be no trouble; and she is
so glad to extend her connection. With private teaching it is such a
great matter to extend your connection. It is very kind of you to have
taken the trouble to come yourself. Perhaps one of Ellen’s ladies, who
are all so kind to her, mentioned our name?’

‘That is just where I am at a loss,’ I said uneasily. ‘No; but I have
seen her passing all these years, always so punctual, with her bright
face. She has been a great favourite of mine for a long time, though I
don’t know her name.’

The mother’s countenance brightened after a moment’s doubt. ‘Yes,’ she
said, ‘she is a good girl--always a bright face. She is the life of the
house.’

‘And I have seen,’ said I, hesitating more and more, ‘a gentleman. I
presume there is to be a marriage by and by. You must pardon my
curiosity, I have taken so much interest in them.’

A good many changes passed over the mother’s face. Evidently she was not
at all sure about my curiosity, whether perhaps it might not be
impertinent.

‘Ah!’ she said, with a little nod, ‘you have remarked John. Yes, of
course, it was sure to be remarked, so constantly as he comes. I need
not make any secret of it. In one way I would rather he did not come so
often; but it is a pleasure to Ellen. Yes; I may say they are engaged.’

Engaged? After all these years! But I remembered that I had no right,
being an intruder, to say anything. ‘I have seen them in the summer
evenings----’

‘Yes, yes,’ she said; ‘yes,’ with again a nod of her head. ‘Perhaps it
was imprudent, for you never can tell whether these things will come to
anything; but it was her only time for a little pleasure. Poor child, I
always see that she gets that hour. They go out still, though you would
not say it would do her much good in the dark; out there is nothing she
enjoys so much. She is the best girl that ever was. I don’t know what I
should do without her;’ and there was a glimmer of moisture in the
mother’s eyes.

‘But,’ I said, ‘surely after a while they are going to be married?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t see how her father can spare her.’ The cheerful
face lost all its brightness as she spoke, and she shook her head. ‘He
is so fond of Ellen, the only girl we have left now; he can’t bear her
out of his sight. She is such a good girl, and so devoted.’ The mother
faltered a little--perhaps my question made her think--at all events, it
was apparent that everything was not so simple and straightforward for
the young pair as I in my ignorance had thought.

But I had no excuse to say any more. It was no business of mine, as
people say. I settled that Ellen was to come at a certain hour next day,
which was all that remained to be done. When I glanced round the room
again as I left, it had changed its aspect to me, and looked like a
prison. Was the poor girl bound there, and unable to get free? As the
mother opened the door for me, the sound of an imperious voice calling
her came down-stairs. She called back, ‘I am coming, James, I am
coming;’ then let me out hurriedly. And I went home feeling as if I had
torn the covering from a mystery, and as if the house in Pleasant Place,
so tranquil, so commonplace, was the scene of some tragic story, to end
one could not tell how. But there was no mystery at all about it: When
‘Miss Harwood’ was announced to me next day, I was quite startled by the
name, not associating it with any one; but the moment the little
music-mistress appeared, with her little roll in her hand, her trim
figure, her smiling face, and fresh look of health and happiness, my
suspicions disappeared like the groundless fancies they were. She was
delighted to have a new pupil, and one so near, whom it would be ‘no
trouble’ to attend; and so pleased when I (with much timidity, I
confess) ventured to tell her how long I had known her, and how I had
watched for her at my window, and all the observations I had made. She
brightened, and laughed and blushed, and declared it was very kind of me
to take such an interest; then hung her head for a moment, and laughed
and blushed still more, when my confessions went the length of the
faithful lover. But this was nothing but a becoming girlish shyness, for
next minute she looked me frankly in the face, with the prettiest colour
dyeing her round cheek. ‘I think he knows you too,’ she said. ‘We met
you once out walking, and he told me, “There is the lady who lives in
the Road, whom I always see at the window.” We hoped you were better to
see you out.’ And then it was my turn to feel gratified, which I did
unfeignedly. I had gone through a great deal of trouble, cheered by my
spectatorship of life-out-of-doors from that window. And I was pleased
that they had taken some friendly notice of me too.

‘And I suppose,’ I said, returning to my theme, ‘that it will not be
long now before you reward his faithfulness. Must Chatty leave you then?
or will you go on, do you think, taking pupils after--?’

She gave me a little bewildered look. ‘I don’t think I know what you
mean.’

‘After you are married,’ I said plumply. ‘That must be coming soon now.’

Then she burst out with a genial, pretty laugh, blushing and shaking her
head. ‘Oh, no; we do not think of such a thing! Not yet. They couldn’t
spare me at home. John--I mean, Mr. Ridgway--knows that. My father has
been ill so long; he wants attendance night and day, and I don’t know
what mother would do without me. Oh dear no; we are very happy as we
are. We don’t even think of that.’

‘But you must think of it some time, surely, in justice to him,’ I said,
half indignant for my faithful Johnny’s sake.

‘Yes, I suppose so, some time,’ she said, with a momentary gravity
stealing over her face--gravity and perplexity too: and a little pucker
came into her forehead. How to do it? A doubt, a question, seemed to
enter her mind for a moment. Then she gave her head a shake, dismissing
the clouds from her cheerful firmament, and with a smiling decision set
down Chatty to the piano. Chatty had fallen in love with Miss Harwood,
her own particular music-mistress, in whom no one else had any share, on
the spot.

And after a while we all fell in love, one after another, with Miss
Ellen. She was one of those cheerful people who never make a fuss about
anything, never are put out, or make small troubles into great ones. We
tried her in every way, as is not unusual with a large, somewhat
careless, family, in whose minds it was a settled principle that, so
long as you did a thing some time or other, it did not at all matter
when you did it--and that times and seasons were of no particular
importance to any one but Fräulein Stimme. _She_, of course--our natural
disorderliness had to give way to her; but I am afraid it very soon came
to be said in the house, ‘Ellen will not mind.’ And Ellen did not mind;
if twelve o’clock proved inconvenient for the lesson, she only smiled
and said, ‘It is no matter; I will come in at three.’ And if at three
Fräulein Stimme’s clutches upon Chatty were still unclosed, she would do
anything that happened to be needed--gather the little ones round the
piano and teach them songs, or go out with my eldest daughter for her
walk, or talk to me. How many talks we had upon every subject
imaginable! Ellen was not what is called clever. She had read very few
books. My eldest daughter aforesaid despised her somewhat on this
account, and spoke condescendingly of this or that as ‘what Ellen says.’
But it was astonishing, after all, how often ‘what Ellen says’ was
quoted. There were many things which Ellen had not thought anything
about; and on these points she was quite ignorant; for she had not read
what other people had thought about them, and was unprepared with an
opinion; but whenever the subject had touched her own intelligence, she
knew very well what she thought. And by dint of being a little lower
down in the social order than we were, she knew familiarly a great many
things which we knew only theoretically and did not understand. For
instance, that fine shade of difference which separates people with a
hundred and fifty pounds a year from people with weekly wages was a
thing which had always altogether eluded me. I had divined that a
workman with three pounds a week was well off, and a clerk with the
same, paid quarterly, was poor; but wherein lay the difference, and how
it was that the latter occupied a superior position to the former, I
have never been able to fathom. Ellen belonged, herself, to this class.
Her father had been in one of the lower departments of a public office,
and had retired with a pension of exactly this amount after some thirty
years’ service. There was a time in his life, to which she regretfully
yet proudly referred as ‘the time when we were well off,’ in which his
salary had risen to two hundred and fifty pounds a year. That was the
time when she got her education and developed the taste for music which
was now supplying her with work which she liked, and a little provision
for herself. There was no scorn or _hauteur_ in Ellen; but she talked of
the working classes with as distinct a consciousness of being apart from
and superior to them as if she had been a duchess. It was no virtue of
hers; but still Providence had placed her on a different level, and she
behaved herself accordingly. Servants and shopkeepers, of the minor kind
at least, were within the same category to her--people to be perfectly
civil to, and kind to, but, as a matter of course, not the kind of
people whom in her position it would become her to associate with. When
I asked myself why I should smile at this, or wherein it was more
unreasonable than other traditions of social superiority, I could not
give any answer. We are not ourselves, so far as I know, sons of the
Crusaders, and it is very difficult to say what is the social figment of
rank by which we hold so dearly. Ellen Harwood exhibited to us the
instinct of aristocracy on one of its lower levels; and one learned a
lesson while one smiled in one’s sleeve. Never was anything more
certain, more serious, than her sense of class distinctions, and the
difference between one degree and another; and nobody, not a prince of
the blood, would have less understood being laughed at. This serene
consciousness of her position and its inherent right divine was a
possession inalienable to our music-mistress. She would have
comprehended or endured no trifling or jesting with it. One blushed
while one laughed in an undertone. She was holding the mirror up to
nature without being aware of it. And there were various fanciful
particulars also in her code. The people next door who let lodgings were
beneath her as much as the working people--all to be very nicely behaved
to, need I say, and treated with the greatest politeness and civility,
but not as if they were on the level of ‘people like ourselves.’ Lady
Clara Vere de Vere could not have been more serenely unconscious of any
possible equality between herself and her village surroundings than
Ellen Harwood. Fortunately, Mr. John Ridgway was ‘in our own position in
life.’

These and many other vagaries of human sentiment I learned to see
through Ellen’s eyes with more edification and amusement, and also with
more confusion and abashed consciousness, than had ever occurred to me
before. These were precisely my own sentiments, you know, towards the
rich linendraper next door; and no doubt my aristocratical repugnance to
acknowledge myself the neighbour of that worthy person would have seemed
just as funny to the Duke of Bayswater as Ellen’s pretensions did to me.
It must not be supposed however that Ellen Harwood was in a state of
chronic resistance to the claims of her humbler neighbours. She was an
active, bright, cheerful creature, full of interest in everything. Her
father had been ill for years; and she had grown accustomed to his
illness, as young people do to anything they have been acquainted with
all their lives, and was not alarmed by it, nor oppressed, so far as we
could tell, by the constant claims made upon her. She allowed that now
and then he was cross--‘which of us would not be cross, shut up in one
room for ever and ever?’ But she had not the least fear that he would
ever die, or that she would grow tired of taking care of him. All the
rest of her time after lessons she was in attendance upon him, excepting
only that hour in the evening when John’s visit was paid. She always
looked forward to that, she confessed. ‘To think of it makes everything
smooth. He is so good. Though I say it that shouldn’t,’ she cried,
laughing and blushing, ‘you can’t think how nice he is. And he knows so
much; before he knew us he had nothing to do but read all the
evenings--fancy! And I never met any one who had read so much; he knows
simply everything. Ah!’ with a little sigh, ‘it makes such a difference
to have him coming every night; it spirits one up for the whole day.’

‘But, Ellen, I can’t think how it is that he doesn’t get tired----’

‘Tired!’ She reddened up to her very hair. ‘Why should he get tired? If
he is tired, he has my full permission to go when he likes,’ she said,
throwing back her proud little head. ‘But nobody shall put such an idea
into my mind. You don’t know John. If you knew John that would be quite
enough; such a thing would never come into your mind.’

‘You should hear me out before you blame me. I was going to say, tired
of waiting, which is a very different sentiment.’

Ellen laughed, and threw aside her little offence in a moment. ‘I
thought you could not mean that. Tired of waiting! But he has not waited
so very long. We have not been years and years like some people--No;
only eighteen months since it was all settled. We are not rich people
like you, to do a thing the moment we have begun to think about it: and
everything so dear!’ she cried, half merry, half serious. ‘Oh, no; he is
not the least tired. What could we want more than to be together in the
evening? All the day goes pleasantly for thinking of it,’ she said, with
a pretty blush. ‘And my mother always manages to let me have that hour.
She does not mind how tired she is. We are as happy as the day is long,’
Ellen said.

I have always heard that a long engagement is the most miserable and
wearing thing in the world. I have never believed it, it is true; but
that does not matter. Here however was a witness against the popular
belief. Ellen was not the victim of a long engagement, nor of a peevish
invalid, though her days were spent in tendance upon one, and her youth
gliding away in the long patience of the other. She was as merry and
bright as if she were having everything her own way in life; and so I
believe she really thought she was, with a mother so kind as, always,
however tired she might be, to insist upon securing that evening hour
for her, and a John who was better than any other John had ever been
before him. The faithful Johnny! I wondered sometimes on his side what
he thought.



CHAPTER III


One day Ellen came to me, on her arrival, with an air of suppressed
excitement quite unusual to her. It was not, evidently, anything to be
alarmed about, for she looked half way between laughing and crying, but
not melancholy. ‘May I speak to you after Chatty has had her lesson?’
she asked. I felt sure that some new incident had happened in her
courtship, about which I was so much more interested than about any
other courtship I was acquainted with. So I arranged with all speed--not
an easy thing when there are so many in a house, to be left alone, and
free to hear whatever she might have to say. She was a little hurried
with the lesson, almost losing patience over Chatty’s fumbling--and how
the child did fumble over the fingering, putting the third finger where
the first should be, and losing count altogether of the thumb, which is
too useful a member to be left without occupation! It appeared to me
half a dozen times that Ellen was on the eve of taking the music off the
piano, and garotting Chatty with the arm which rested nervously on the
back of the child’s chair. However she restrained these impulses, if she
had them, and got through the hour _tant bien que mal_. It was even with
an air of extreme deliberation, masking her excitement, that she stood
by and watched her pupil putting away the music and closing the piano.
Chatty, of course, took a longer time than usual to these little
arrangements, and then lingered in the room. Generally she was too glad
to hurry away.

‘Go, Chatty, and see if the others are ready to go out for their walk.’

‘They have gone already, mamma. They said they would not wait for me.
They said I was always so long of getting my things on.’

‘But why are you so long of getting your things on? Run away and see
what nurse is about; or if Fräulein Stimme would like----’

‘Fräulein isn’t here to-day. How funny you are, mamma, not to remember
that it’s Saturday.’

‘Go this moment!’ I cried wildly, ‘and tell nurse that you must go out
for a walk. Do you think I will permit you to lose your walk, because
the others think you are long of putting your things on? Nothing of the
sort. Go at once, Chatty,’ I cried, clapping my hands, as I have a way
of doing, to rouse them when they are not paying attention, ‘without a
word!’

To see the child’s astonished face! She seemed to stumble over herself
in her haste to get out of the room. After the unusual force of this
adjuration I had myself become quite excited. I waved my hand to Ellen,
who had stood by listening, half frightened by my vehemence, pointing
her to a chair close to me. ‘Now, tell me all about it,’ I said.

‘Is it really for me that you have sent Chatty away in such a hurry? How
good of you!’ said Ellen. And then she made a pause, as if to bring
herself into an appropriate frame of mind before making her
announcement. ‘I could not rest till I had told you. You have always
taken such an interest. John has got a rise of fifty pounds a year.’

‘I am very glad, very glad, Ellen.’

‘I knew you would be pleased. He has been expecting it for some time
back; but he would not say anything to me, in case I should be
disappointed if it did not come. So I should, most likely, for I think
he deserves a great deal more than that. But the best people never get
so much as they deserve. Fifty pounds a year is a great rise all at
once, don’t you think? and he got a hint that perhaps about Midsummer
there might be a better post offered to him. Isn’t it flattering? Of
course I know he deserves it; but sometimes those who deserve the most
don’t get what they ought. That makes two hundred and twenty; an
excellent income, don’t you think? He will have to pay income-tax,’
Ellen said, with a flush of mingled pride and gratification and
grievance which it was amusing to see.

‘I don’t know that I think much of the income-tax; but it is very
pleasant that he is so well thought of,’ I said.

‘And another rise at Midsummer! It seems more than one had any right to
expect,’ said Ellen. Her hands were clasped in her lap, her fingers
twisting and untwisting unconsciously, her head raised, and her eyes
fixed, without seeing anything, upon the blue sky outside. She was rapt
in a pleasant dream of virtue rewarded and goodness triumphant. A smile
went and came upon her face like sunshine. ‘And yet,’ she cried, ‘to
hear people speak, you would think that it was never the right men that
got on. Even in sermons in church you always hear that it is rather a
disadvantage to you if you are nice and good. I wonder how people can
talk such nonsense; why, look at John!’

‘But even John has had a long time to wait for his promotion,’ said I,
feeling myself the devil’s advocate. I had just checked myself in time
not to say that two hundred and twenty pounds a year was not a very
gigantic promotion; which would have been both foolish and cruel.

‘Oh, no, indeed!’ cried Ellen; ‘he looks a great deal older than he is.
He lived so much alone, you know, before he knew _us_; and that gives a
man an old look--but he is not a bit old. How much would you give him?
No, indeed, thirty; he is only just thirty! His birthday was last week.’

‘And you, Ellen?’

‘I am twenty-four--six years younger than he is. Just the right
difference, mother says. Of course I am really a dozen years older than
he is; I have far more sense. He has read books and books till he has
read all his brains away; but luckily as long as I am there to take care
of him----’ Then she made a pause, looked round the room with a half
frightened look, then, drawing closer to me, she said in a hurried
undertone, ‘He said something about that other subject to-day.’

‘Of course he did; how could he have done otherwise?’ I said with a
little momentary triumph.

‘Please, _please_ don’t take his part, and make it all more difficult;
for you know it is impossible, impossible, quite impossible; nobody
could have two opinions. It was that, above all, that I wanted to tell
you about.’

‘Why is it impossible, Ellen?’ I said. ‘If you set up absurd obstacles,
and keep up an unnatural state of things, you will be very sorry for it
one day. He is quite right. I could not think how he consented to go on
like this, without a word.’

‘How strange that you should be so hot about it!’ said Ellen, with a
momentary smile; but at the bottom of her heart she was nervous and
alarmed, and did not laugh with her usual confidence. ‘He said
something, but he was not half so stern as you are. Why should it be so
dreadfully necessary to get married? I am quite happy as I am. I can do
all my duties, and take care of him too; and John is quite happy----’

‘There you falter,’ I said; ‘you dare not say that with the same
intrepidity, you little deceiver. Poor John! he ought to have his life
made comfortable and bright for him now. He ought to have his wife to be
proud of, to come home to. So faithful as he is, never thinking of any
other pleasure, of any amusement, but only you.’

Ellen blushed with pleasure, then grew pale with wonder and alarm. ‘That
is natural,’ she said, faltering. ‘What other amusement should he think
of? He is most happy with me.’

‘But very few men are like that,’ I said. ‘He is giving up everything
else for you; he is shutting himself out of the world for you; and
you--what are you giving up for him?’

Ellen grew paler and paler as I spoke. ‘Giving up?’ she said aghast.
‘I--I would give up anything. But I have got nothing, except John,’ she
added, with an uneasy little laugh. ‘And you say he is shutting himself
out of the world. Oh, I know what you are thinking of--the kind of world
one reads about in books, where gentlemen have clubs, and all that sort
of thing. But these are only for you rich people. He is not giving up
anything that I know of.’

‘What do the other young men do, Ellen? Every one has his own kind of
world.’

‘The other young men!’ she cried indignant. ‘Now I see indeed you don’t
know anything about him (how could you? you have never even seen him),
when you compare John to the other clerks. _John!_ Oh, yes, I suppose
they go and amuse themselves; they go to the theatres, and all those
wrong places. But you don’t suppose John would do that, even if I were
not in existence! Why _John_! the fact is, you don’t know him; that is
the whole affair.’

‘I humbly confess it,’ said I; ‘but it is not my fault. I should be very
glad to know him, if I might.’

Ellen looked at me with a dazzled look of sudden happiness, as if this
prospect of bliss was too much for her--which is always very flattering
to the superior in such intercourse as existed between her and me. ‘Oh!
would you?’ she said, with her heart in her mouth, and fixed her eyes
eagerly upon me, as if with some project she did not like to unfold.

‘Certainly I should.’ Then, after a pause I said, ‘Could not you bring
him to-morrow to tea?’

Ellen’s eyes sparkled. She gave a glance round upon the room, which was
a great deal bigger and handsomer than the little parlour in Pleasant
Place, taking in the pictures and the piano and myself in so many
distinct perceptions, yet one look. Her face was so expressive that I
recognized all these different details of her pleasure with the
distinctest certainty. She wanted John to see it all, and to hear the
piano, which was much better than her little piano at home; and also to
behold how much at home she was, and how everybody liked her. Her eyes
shone out upon me like two stars. And her big English ‘Oh!’ of delight
had her whole breath in it, and left her speechless for the moment.
‘There is nothing in the world I would like so much,’ she cried at
last: then paused, and, with a sobered tone, added, ‘If mother can spare
me’--a little cloud coming over her face.

‘I am sure your mother will spare you. You never have any parties or
amusements, my good little Ellen. You must tell her I will take no
denial. You never go anywhere.’

‘Where should I go?’ said Ellen. ‘I don’t want to go anywhere, there is
always so much to do at home. But for this once--And John would so like
to come. He would like to thank you. He says, if you will not think him
too bold, that you have been his friend for years.’

‘It is quite true,’ I said; ‘I have looked for him almost every day for
years. But it is not much of a friendship when one can do nothing for
the other----’

‘Oh, it is beautiful!’ cried Ellen. ‘He says always we are in such
different ranks of life. We could never expect to have any intercourse,
except to be sure by a kind of happy accident, like me. It would not do,
of course, visiting or anything of that sort; but just to be friends for
life, with a kind look, such as we might give to the angels if we could
see them. If there only could be a window in heaven, here and there!’
and she laughed with moisture in her eyes.

‘Ah!’ I said, ‘but windows in heaven would be so crowded with those that
are nearer to us than the angels.’

‘Do you think they would want that?’ said Ellen in a reverential low
tone; ‘don’t you think they must see somehow? they would not be happy if
they could not see. But the angels might come and sit down in an idle
hour, when they had nothing to do. Perhaps it would grieve them, but it
might amuse them too, to see all the crowds go by, and all the stories
going on, like a play, and know that, whatever happened, it would all
come right in the end. I should not wonder a bit if, afterwards, some
one were to say, as you did about John, “I have seen you passing for
years and years----”’

I need not repeat all the rest of our talk. When two women begin this
kind of conversation, there is no telling where it may end. The
conclusion however was that next evening John was to be brought to make
my acquaintance; and Ellen went away very happy, feeling, I think, that
a new chapter was about to begin in her life. And on our side we
indulged in a great many anticipations. The male part of the household
assured us that, ‘depend upon it,’ it would be a mistake; that John
would be a mere clerk, and no more; a man, perhaps, not very sure about
his _h’s_; perhaps over-familiar, perhaps frightened; that most likely
he would feel insulted by being asked to tea--and a great deal more, to
all of which we, of course, paid no attention. But it was not till
afterwards that even I realized the alarming business it must have been
to John to walk into a room full of unknown people--dreadful critical
children, girls and boys half grown up--and to put to the test a
friendship of years, which had gone on without a word spoken, and now
might turn out anything but what it had been expected to be. He was a
little fluttered and red when Ellen, herself very nervous, brought him
in, meeting all the expectant faces, which turned instinctively towards
the door. Ellen herself had never come in the evening before, and the
aspect of the house, with the lamps lighted, and the whole family
assembled, was new to her. She came in without saying a word, and led
her love, who for his part moved awkwardly and with shy hesitation,
through the unknown place, threading his way among the tables and
chairs, and the staring children, to where I sat. I have always said my
little Chatty was the best bred of all my children. There was no one so
much interested as she; but she kept her eyes upon her work, and never
looked up till they were seated comfortably and beginning to look at
their ease. John faltered forth what I felt sure was intended to be a
very pretty speech to me, probably conned beforehand, and worthy of the
occasion. But all that came forth was, ‘I have seen you often at the
window.’ ‘Yes, indeed,’ I said hurriedly, ‘for years; we are old
friends: we don’t require any introduction,’ and so got over it. I am
afraid he said ‘ma’am.’ I see no reason why he should not say ma’am;
people used to do it; and excepting us rude English, everybody in the
world does it. Why should not John have used that word of respect if he
chose? You say ma’am yourself to princesses when you speak to them, if
you ever have the honour of speaking to them; and he thought as much of
me, knowing no better, as if I had been a princess. He had a soft,
refined voice. I am sure I cannot tell whether his clothes were well
made or not--a woman does not look at a man’s clothes--but this I can
tell you, that his face was well made. There was not a fine feature in
it; but He who shaped them knew what He was about. Every line was
good--truth and patience and a gentle soul shone through them. In five
minutes he was at home, not saying much, but looking at us all with
benevolent, tender eyes. When Chatty brought him his tea and gave him
her small hand, he held it for a moment, saying, ‘This is Ellen’s
pupil,’ with a look which was a benediction. ‘I should have known her
anywhere,’ he said. ‘Ellen has a gift of description--and then, she is
like you.’

‘Ellen has a great many gifts, Mr. Ridgway--the house is sure to be a
bright one that has her for its mistress.’

He assented with a smile that lit up his face like sunshine; then shook
his head, and said, ‘I wish I could see any prospect of that. The house
has been built, and furnished, and set out ready for her so long. That
is, alas! only in our thoughts. It is a great pleasure to imagine it;
but it seems always to recede a little further--a little further. We
have need of patience.’ Then he paused, and added, brightening a little,
‘Fortunately we are not impatient people, either of us.’

‘Forgive me,’ I said. ‘It is a great deal to take upon me--a stranger as
I am.’

‘You forget,’ he said, with a bow that would not have misbecome a
courtier, ‘that you were so kind as to say that we were not strangers
but old friends.’

‘It is quite true. Then I will venture to speak as an old friend. I wish
you were not so patient. I wish you were a hot-headed person, and would
declare once for all that you would not put up with it.’

He reddened, and turned to me with a look half of alarm, half, perhaps,
of incipient, possible offence. ‘You think I am too tame, too easy--not
that I don’t desire with my whole heart--’

‘Not that you are not as true as the heavens themselves,’ I said, with
the enthusiasm of penitence. His face relaxed and shone again, though
once more he shook his head.

‘I think--I am sure--you are quite right. If I could insist I might
carry my point, and it would be better. But what can I say? I understand
her, and sympathize with her, and respect her. I cannot oppose her
roughly, and set myself before everything. Who am I, that she should
desert what she thinks her duty for me?’

‘I feel like a prophet,’ I said. ‘In this case to be selfish is the
best.’

He shook his head again. ‘She could not be selfish if she tried,’ he
said.

Did he mean the words for himself, too? They were neither of them
selfish. I don’t want to say a word that is wicked, that may discourage
the good--they were neither of them strong enough to be selfish.
Sometimes there is wisdom and help in that quality which is so common. I
will explain after what I mean. It does not sound true, I am well aware,
but I think it is true: however in the meantime there was nothing more
to be said. We began to talk of all sorts of things; of books, with
which John seemed to be very well acquainted, and of pictures, which he
knew too--as much, at least, as a man who had never been out of England,
nor seen anything but the National Gallery, could know. He was
acquainted with that by heart, knowing every picture and all that could
be known about it, making me ashamed, though I had seen a great deal
more than he had. I felt like one who knows other people’s possessions,
but not his own. He had never been, so to speak, out of his own house;
but he knew every picture on the walls there. And he made just as much
use of his _h’s_ as I do myself. If he was at first a little stiff in
his demeanour, that wore off as he talked. Ellen left him entirely to
me. She went off into the back drawing-room with the little ones, and
made them sing standing round the piano. There was not much light,
except the candles on the piano, which lighted up their small fresh
faces and her own bright countenance; and this made the prettiest
picture at the end of the room. While he was talking to me he looked
that way, and a smile came suddenly over his face--which drew my
attention also. ‘Could any painter paint that?’ he said softly, looking
at them. As the children were mine, you may believe I gazed with as much
admiration as he. The light seemed to come from those soft faces, not to
be thrown upon them, and the depth of the room was illuminated by the
rose-tints, and the whiteness, and the reflected light out of their
eyes. ‘Rembrandt, perhaps,’ I said; but he shook his head, for he did
not know much of Rembrandt. When they finished their little store of
songs I called to Ellen to sing us something by herself. The children
went away, for it was their bedtime; and all the time the good-nights
were being said she played a little soft trill of prelude, very sweet,
and low, and subdued. There was a harmonizing influence in her that made
everything appropriate. She did things as they ought to be done by
instinct, without knowing it; while he, with his gaze directed to her,
felt it all more than she did--felt the softening of that undertone of
harmonious accompaniment, the sweet filling up of the pause, the
background of sound upon which all the little voices babbled out like
the trickling of brooks. When this was over Ellen did not burst into her
song all at once, as if to show how we had kept her waiting; but went on
for a minute or two, hushing out the former little tumult. Then she
chose another strain, and, while we all sat silent, began to sing--the
song I had heard her sing to him when they were alone that summer
evening. Was there a little breath in it of consciousness, a something
shadowing from the life to come--‘I will come again?’ We all sat very
silent and listened: he with his face turned to her, a tender smile upon
it--a look of admiring pleasure. He beat time with his hand, without
knowing it, rapt in the wistful, tender music, the longing sentiment,
the pervading consciousness of her, in all. I believe they were both as
happy as could be while this was going on. She singing to him, and
knowing that she pleased him, while still conscious of the pleasure of
all the rest of us, and glad to please us too; and he so proud of her,
drinking it all in, and knowing it to be for him, yet feeling that he
was giving us this gratification, making an offering to us of the very
best that was his. Why was it, then, that we all, surrounding them, a
voiceless band of spectators, felt the hidden meaning in it, and were
sorry for them, with a strange impulse of pity--sorry for those two
happy people, those two inseparables who had no thought but to pass
their lives together? I cannot tell how it was; but so it was. We all
listened with a little thrill of sympathy, as we might have looked at
those whose doom we knew, but who themselves had not yet found out what
was coming upon them. And at the end, Ellen too was affected in a
curious sympathetic way by some mysterious invisible touch of our
sympathy for her. She came out of the half-lit room behind, with
trembling, hurried steps, and came close to my side, and took in both
hers the hand I held out to her. ‘How silly I am!’ she cried, with a
little laugh. ‘I could have thought that some message was coming to say
he must go and leave me. A kind of tremor came over me all at once.’
‘You are tired,’ I said. And no doubt that had something to do with it;
but why should the same chill have crept over us all?



CHAPTER IV


The time passed on very quietly during these years. Nothing particular
happened; so that looking back now--now that once more things have begun
to happen, and all the peaceful children who cost me nothing but
pleasant cares have grown up and are setting forth, each with his and
her more serious complications, into individual life--it seems to me
like a long flowery plain of peace. I did not think so then, and no
doubt from time to time questions arose that were hard to answer and
difficulties that cost me painful thought. But now all seems to me a
sort of heavenly monotony and calm, turning years into days. In this
gentle domestic quiet six months went by like an afternoon; for it was,
I think, about six months after the first meeting I have just described
when Ellen Harwood rushed in one morning with a scared face, to tell me
of something which had occurred and which threatened to break up in a
moment the quiet of her life. Mr. Ridgway had come again various
times--we had daily intercourse at the window, where, when he passed, he
always looked up now, and where I seldom failed to see him and give him
a friendly greeting. This intercourse, though it was so slight, was also
so constant that it made us very fast friends; and when Ellen, as I have
said, rushed in very white and breathless one bright spring morning,
full of something to tell, my first feeling was alarm. Had anything
happened to John?

‘Oh, no. Nothing has happened. At least, I don’t suppose you would say
anything had happened--that is, no harm--except to me,’ said Ellen,
wringing her hands, ‘except to me! Oh, do you recollect that first night
he came to see you, when you were so kind as to ask him, and I sang that
song he is so fond of? I took fright then; I never could tell how--and
now it looks as if it would all come true----’

‘As if what would come true?’

‘Somebody,’ said Ellen, sitting down abruptly in the weariness of her
dejection, ‘somebody from the office is to go out directly to the
Levant. Oh, Chatty, dear, you that are learning geography and
everything, tell me where is the Levant? It is where the currants and
raisins come from. The firm has got an establishment, and it is
likely--oh, it is very likely: they all think that John, whom they
trust so much--John--will be sent----’

She broke off with a sob--a gasp. She was too startled, too much excited
and frightened, to have the relief of tears.

‘But that would be a very good thing, surely--it would be the very best
thing for him. I don’t see any cause for alarm. My dear Ellen, he would
do his work well; he would be promoted; he would be made a partner----’

‘Ah!’ She drew a long breath: a gleam of wavering light passed over her
face. ‘I said you would think it no harm,’ she said mournfully, ‘no
harm--except to me.’

‘It is on the Mediterranean Sea,’ said Chatty over her atlas, with a
great many big round ‘Oh’s’ of admiration and wonder, ‘where it is
always summer, always beautiful. Oh, Ellen, I wish I were you! but you
can send us some oranges,’ the child added philosophically. Ellen gave
her a rapid glance of mingled fondness and wrath.

‘You think of nothing but oranges!’ she cried (quite unjustly, I must
say); then putting her hands together and fixing her wistful eyes upon
me, ‘I feel,’ she said in the same breath, ‘as if the world were coming
to an end.’

‘You mean it is just about beginning--for of course he will not go
without you--and that is the very best thing that could happen.’

‘Oh, how can you say so? it cannot happen; it is the end of everything,’
Ellen cried, and I could not console her. She would do nothing but wring
her hands and repeat her plaint, ‘It is the end of everything.’ Poor
girl, apart from John her life was dreary enough, though she had never
felt it dreary. Music lessons in the morning, and after that continual
attendance upon an exacting fiery invalid. The only break in her round
of duty had been her evening hours, her little walk and talk with John.
No wonder that the thought of John’s departure filled her with a terror
for which she could scarcely find words. And she never took into account
the other side of the question, the solution which seemed to me so
certain, so inevitable. She knew better--that, at least, whatever other
way might be found out of it, could not be.

Next day in the evening, when he was going home, John himself paused as
he was passing the window, and looked up with a sort of appeal. I
answered by beckoning to him to come in, and he obeyed the summons very
rapidly and eagerly. The spring days had drawn out, and it was now quite
light when John came home. He came in and sat down beside me, in the
large square projecting window, which was my favourite place. There was
a mingled air of eagerness and weariness about him, as if, though
excited by the new prospect which was opening before him, he was yet
alarmed by the obstacles in his way, and reluctant, as Ellen herself
was, to disturb the present peaceful conditions of their life. ‘I do not
believe,’ he said, ‘that they will ever consent. I don’t know how we
are to struggle against them. People of their age have so much stronger
wills than we have. They stand to what they want, and they have it,
reason or no reason.’

‘That is because you give in; you do not stand to what you want,’ I
said. He looked away beyond me into the evening light, over the heads of
all the people who were going and coming so briskly in the road, and
sighed.

‘They have such strong wills. What can you say when people tell you that
it is impossible, that they never can consent? Ellen and I have never
said that, or even thought it. When we are opposed we try to think how
we can compromise, how we can do with as little as possible of what we
want, so as to satisfy the others. I always thought that was the good
way, the nobler way,’ he said with a flush coming over his pale face.
‘Have we been making a mistake?’

‘I fear so--I think so; yes, I am sure,’ I cried. ‘Yours would be the
nobler way if--if there was nobody but yourself to think of.’

He looked at me with a wondering air. ‘I think I must have expressed
myself wrongly,’ he said; ‘it was not ourselves at all that we were
thinking of.’

‘I know; but that is just what I object to,’ I said. ‘You sacrifice
yourselves, and you encourage the other people to be cruelly selfish,
perhaps without knowing it. All that is virtue in you is evil in them.
Don’t you see that to accept this giving up of your life is barbarous,
it is wicked, it is demoralizing to the others. Just in so much as
people think well of you they will be forced to think badly of them.’

He was a little startled by this view, which, I confess, I struck out on
the spur of the moment, not really seeing how much sense there was in
it. I justified myself afterwards to myself, and became rather proud of
my argument; but for a woman to argue, much less suggest, that
self-sacrifice is not the chief of all virtues, is terrible. I was half
frightened and disgusted with myself, as one is when one has brought
forward in the heat of partisanship a thoroughly bad, yet, for the
moment, effective argument. But he was staggered, and I felt the thrill
of success which stirs one to higher effort.

‘I never thought of that; perhaps there is some truth in it,’ he said.
Then, after a pause, ‘I wonder if you, who have been so good to us all,
who are fond of Ellen--I am sure you are fond of Ellen--and the children
like her.’

‘Very fond of Ellen, and the children all adore her,’ I said with
perhaps unnecessary emphasis.

‘To me that seems natural,’ he said, brightening. ‘But yet what right
have we to ask you to do more? You have been as kind as it is possible
to be.’

‘You want me to do something more? I will do whatever I can--only speak
out.’

‘It was this,’ he said, ‘if you would ask--you who are not an interested
party--if you would find out what our prospects are. Ellen does not want
to escape from her duty. There is nothing we are not capable of
sacrificing rather than that she should shrink from her duty. I need not
tell you how serious it is. If I don’t take this--in case it is offered
to me--I may never get another chance again; but, if I must part from
Ellen, I cannot accept it. I cannot; it would be like parting one’s soul
from one’s body. But I have no confidence in myself any more than Ellen
has. They have such strong wills. If they say it must not and cannot
be--what can I reply? I know myself. I will yield, and so will Ellen.
How can one look them in the face and say, ‘Though you are her father
and mother, we prefer our own comfort to yours?’

‘Do not say another word. I will do it,’ I said, half exasperated, half
sympathetic--oh, yes! more than half sympathetic. They were fools; but I
understood it, and was not surprised, though I was exasperated. ‘I will
go and beard the lion in his den,’ I said. ‘Perhaps they will not let me
see the lion, only his attendant. But remember this,’ I said
vindictively, ‘if Ellen and you allow yourselves to be conquered, if you
are weak and throw away all your hopes, never come to me again. I have
made up my mind. You must give up me as well as all the rest. I will not
put up with such weakness.’ John stared at me with alarm in his eyes; he
was not quite comfortable even when I laughed at my own little bit of
tragedy. He shook his head with a melancholy perplexity.

‘I don’t see clearly,’ he said; ‘I don’t seem able to judge. To give in
is folly; and yet, when you think--supposing it were duty--suppose her
father were to die when she was far away from him?’

‘If we were to consider all these possibilities there never would be a
marriage made--never an independent move in life,’ I cried. ‘Parents die
far from their children, and children, alas! from their parents. How
could it be otherwise? But God is near to us all. If we were each to
think ourselves so all-important, life would stand still; there would be
no more advance, no progress; everything would come to an end.’

John shook his head; partly it was in agreement with what I said, partly
in doubt for himself. ‘How am I to stand up to them and say, “Never mind
what you want--_we_ want something else?” There’s the rub,’ he said,
still slowly shaking his head. He had no confidence in his own power of
self-assertion. He had never, I believe, been able to answer
satisfactorily the question, why should he have any special thing which
some one else wished for? It was as natural to him to efface himself, to
resign his claims, as it was to other men to assert them. And yet in
this point he could not give up--he could not give Ellen up, come what
might; but neither could he demand that he and she should be permitted
to live their own life.

After long deliberation I decided that it would not be expedient to rush
across to Pleasant Place at once and get it over while John and Ellen
were taking their usual evening walk, which was my first impulse; but to
wait till the morning, when all would be quiet, and the invalid and his
wife in their best humour. It was not a pleasant errand; the more I
thought of it, the less I liked it. If they were people who could demand
such a sacrifice from their daughter, was it likely that they would be
so far moved by my arguments as to change their nature? I went through
the little smoky garden plot, where the familiar London ‘blacks’ lay
thick on the grass, on the sweetest May morning, when it was a pleasure
to be alive. The windows were open, the little white muslin curtains
fluttering. Up-stairs I heard a gruff voice asking for something, and
another, with a querulous tone in it, giving a reply. My heart began to
beat louder at the sound. I tried to keep up my courage by all the
arguments I could think of. Nevertheless, my heart sank down into my
very shoes when the little maid, with her apron folded over her arm, and
as grimy as ever, opened to me--with a curtsey and a ‘La!’ of delighted
surprise--this door of fate.



CHAPTER V


I had a long time to wait before Mrs. Harwood came. The morning sun was
shining into the room, making everything more dingy. No doubt it had
been dusted that morning as well as the little maid could dust it; but
nothing looked pure or fresh in the brightness of the light, which was
full of motes, and seemed to find out dust in every corner. The dingy
cover on the table, the old-fashioned Books of Beauty, the black
horsehair chairs, stood out remorselessly shabby in the sunshine. I
wondered what kind of house Ellen would have when she furnished one for
herself. Would John and she show any ‘taste’ between them--would they
‘pick up’ pretty things at sales and old furniture shops, or would they
buy a drawing-room suite for twenty-five pounds, such as the cheap
upholsterers offer to the unwary? This question amused me while I
waited, and I was sorry to think that the new household was to be
planted in the Levant, and we should not see how it settled itself.
There was a good deal of commotion going on overhead, but I did not pay
any attention to it. I pleased myself arranging a little home for the
new pair--making it pretty for them. Of her own self Ellen would never,
I felt sure, choose the drawing-room suite in walnut and blue rep--not
now, at least, after she had been so much with us. As for John, he would
probably think any curtain tolerable so long as she sat under its
shadow. I had been somewhat afraid of confronting the mother, and
possibly the father; but these thoughts put my panic out of my head.
These horsehair chairs! was there ever such an invention of the evil
one? Ellen could not like them; it was impossible. When I had come this
length my attention was suddenly attracted by the sounds up-stairs; for
there came upon the floor over my head the sound of a foot stamped
violently in apparent fury. There were voices too; but I could not make
out what they said. As to this sound however it was easy enough to make
out what it meant: nothing could be more suggestive. I trembled and
listened, my thoughts taking an entirely new direction; a stamp of
anger, of rage, and partially of impotence too. Then there was a woman’s
voice rising loud in remonstrance. The man seemed to exclaim and
denounce violently; the woman protested, growing also louder and louder.
I listened with all my might. It was not eavesdropping; for she, at
least, knew that I was there; but, listen as I might, I could not make
out what they said. After a while there was silence, and I heard Mrs.
Harwood’s step coming down the stairs. She paused to do something,
perhaps to her cap or her eyes, before she opened the door. She was in a
flutter of agitation, the flowers in her black cap quivering through all
their wires, her eyes moist, though looking at me with a suspicious
gaze. She was very much on her guard, very well aware of my motive,
determined to give me no encouragement. All this I read in her vigilant
eyes.

‘Mrs. Harwood, I came to speak to you--I promised to come and speak to
you--about Mr. Ridgway, who is a great friend of mine, as perhaps you
know.’

The poor woman was in great agitation and trouble; but this only
quickened her wits. ‘I see John Ridgway every day of my life,’ she said,
not without a little dignity. ‘He might say whatever he pleased to me
without asking anybody to speak for him.’

‘Won’t you give your consent to this marriage?’ I asked. It seemed
wisest to plunge into it at once. ‘It is my own anxiety that makes me
speak. I have always been anxious about it, almost before I knew them.’

‘There are other things in the world besides marriages,’ she said. ‘In
this house we have a great deal to think of. My husband--no doubt you
heard his voice just now--he is a great sufferer. For years he has been
confined to that little room up-stairs. That is not a very cheerful
life.’

Here she made a pause, which I did not attempt to interrupt; for she had
disarmed me by this half-appeal to my sympathy. Then suddenly, with her
voice a little shaken and unsteady, she burst forth: ‘The only company
he has is Ellen. What can I do to amuse him--to lead his thoughts off
himself? I have as much need of comfort as he has. The only bright thing
in the house is Ellen. What would become of us if we were left only the
two together all these long days? They are long enough as it is. He has
not a very good temper, and he is weary with trouble--who wouldn’t be
in his case? John Ridgway is a young man with all the world before him.
Why can’t he wait? Why should he want to take our only comfort away from
us?’

Her voice grew shrill and broken; she began to cry. Poor soul! I believe
she had been arguing with her husband on the other side; but it was a
little comfort to her to pour out her own grievances, her alarm and
distress, to me. I was silenced. How true it had been what John Ridgway
said: How could he, so gentle a man, assert himself in the face of this,
and claim Ellen as of chief importance to him? Had not they a prior
claim?--was not her duty first to her father and mother? I was put to
silence myself. I did not know what to say.

‘The only thing is,’ I said timidly at last, ‘that I should think it
would be a comfort to you to feel that Ellen was settled, that she had a
home of her own, and a good husband who would take care of her when--She
ought to outlive us all,’ I added, not knowing how to put it. ‘And if it
were to be always as you say,’ I went on, getting a little courage,
‘there would be no marriages, no new homes. We have all had fathers and
mothers who had claims upon us. What can it be but a heartbreak to bring
up a girl for twenty years and more, and think everything of her, and
then see her go away and give her whole heart to some one else, and
leave us with a smile on her face?’ The idea carried me away--it filled
my own heart with a sort of sweet bitterness; for had not my own girl
just passed that age and crisis? ‘Oh! I understand you; I feel with you;
I am not unsympathetic. But when one thinks--they must live longer than
we; they must have children too, and love as we have loved. You would
not like, neither you nor I, if no one cared--if our girls were left out
when all the others are loved and courted. You like this good John to be
fond of her--to ask you for her. You would not have been pleased if
Ellen had just lived on and on here, your daughter and nothing more.’

This argument had some weight upon her. She felt the truth of what I
said. However hard the after consequences may be, we still must have our
‘bairn respectit like the lave.’ But on this point Mrs. Harwood
maintained her position on a height of superiority which few ordinary
mortals, even when the mothers of attractive girls, can attain. ‘I have
never made any objection,’ she said, ‘to his coming in the evening.
Sometimes it is rather inconvenient; but I do not oppose his being here
every night.’

‘And you expect him to be content with this all his life?’

‘It would be better to say all my life,’ she replied severely; ‘no, not
even that. As for me, it does not matter much. I am not one to put
myself in anybody’s way; but all her father’s life--which can’t be very
long now,’ she added, with a sudden gush of tears. They were so near the
surface that they flowed at the slightest touch, and besides, they were
a great help to her argument. ‘I don’t think it is too much,’ she cried,
‘that she should see her poor father out first. She has been the only
one that has cheered him up. She is company to him, which I am not. All
his troubles are mine, you see. I feel it when his rheumatism is bad;
but Ellen is outside: she can talk and be bright. What should I do
without her! What should I do without her! I should be nothing better
than a slave! I am afraid to think of it; and her father--her poor
father--it would break his heart; it would kill him. I know that it
would kill him,’ she said.

Here I must acknowledge that I was very wicked. I could not but think in
my heart that it would not be at all a bad thing if Ellen’s marriage did
kill this unseen father of hers who had tired their patience so long,
and who stamped his foot with rage at the idea that the poor girl might
get out of his clutches. He was an old man, and he was a great sufferer.
Why should he be so anxious to live? And if a sacrifice was necessary,
old Mr. Harwood might just as well be the one to make it as those two
good young people from whom he was willing to take all the pleasure of
their lives. But this of course was a sentiment to which I dared not
give utterance. We stood and looked at each other while these thoughts
were going through my mind. She felt that she had produced an
impression, and was too wise to say anything more to diminish it--while
I, for my part, was silenced, and did not know what to say.

‘Then they must give in again,’ I said at last. ‘They must part; and if
she has to spend the rest of her life in giving music lessons, and he to
go away, to lose heart and forget her, and be married by any one who
will have him in his despair and loneliness--I hope you will think that
a satisfactory conclusion--but I do not. I do not!’

Mrs. Harwood trembled as she looked at me. Was I hard upon her? She
shrank aside as if I had given her a blow. ‘It is not me that will part
them,’ she said. ‘I have never objected. Often it is very
inconvenient--you would not like it yourself if every evening, good or
bad, there was a strange man in your house. But I never made any
objection. He is welcome to come as long as he likes. It is not me that
says a word----’

‘Do you want him to throw up his appointment?’ I cried, ‘his means of
life.’

She looked at me with her face set. I might have noticed, had I chosen,
that all the flowers in her cap were shaking and quivering in the shadow
cast upon the further wall by the sunshine, but did not care to remark,
being angry, this sign of emotion. ‘If he is so fond of Ellen, he will
not mind giving up a chance,’ she said; ‘if some one must give in, why
should it be Harwood and me?’

After this I left Pleasant Place hurriedly, with a great deal of
indignation in my mind. Even then I was not quite sure of my right to be
indignant; but I was so. ‘If some one must give in, why should it be
Harwood and me?’ I said to myself that John had known what he would
encounter, that he had been right in distrusting himself; but he had not
been right in trusting me. I had made no stand against the other side.
When you come to haggle about it, and to be uncertain which should give
in, how painful the complications of life become! To be perfect,
renunciation must be without a word; it must be done as if it were the
most natural thing in the world. The moment it is discussed and shifted
from one to another, it becomes vulgar, like most things in this
universe. This was what I said to myself as I came out into the fresh
air and sunshine, out of the little stuffy house. I began to hate it
with its dingy carpets and curtains, its horsehair chairs, that shabby,
shabby little parlour--how could anybody think of it as home? I can
understand a bright little kitchen, with white hearth and floor, with
the firelight shining in all the pans and dishes. But this dusty place
with its antimacassars! These thoughts were in my mind when, turning the
corner, I met Ellen full in the face, and felt like a traitor, as if I
had been speaking ill of her. She looked at me, too, with some surprise.
To see me there, coming out of Pleasant Place, startled her. She did not
ask me, Where have you been? but her eyes did, with a bewildered gleam.

‘Yes; I have been to see your mother,’ I said; ‘you are quite right,
Ellen. And why? Because I am so much interested; and I wanted to see
what mind she was in about your marriage.’

‘My--marriage! there never was any question of that,’ she said quickly,
with a sudden flush.

‘You are just as bad as the others,’ said I, moved by this new
contradiction. ‘What! after taking that poor young man’s devotion for so
long, you will let him go away--go alone, break off everything.’

Ellen had grown pale as suddenly as she had blushed. ‘Is that
necessary?’ she said, alarmed. ‘Break off everything? I never thought of
that. But, indeed, I think you are making a mistake. If he goes, we
shall have to part, but only--only for a time.’

‘How can you tell,’ I cried, being highly excited, ‘how long he may be
there? He may linger out his life there, always thinking about you, and
longing for you--unless he gets weary and disgusted, and asks himself
what is the use, at the last. Such things have been; and you on your
side will linger here, running out and in to your lessons with no longer
any heart for them; unable to keep yourself from thinking that everybody
is cruel, that life itself is cruel--all because you have not the
courage, the spirit----’

She put her hand on mine and squeezed it suddenly, so that she hurt me.
‘Don’t!’ she cried; ‘you don’t know; there is nothing, not a word to be
said. It is you who are cruel--you who are so kind; so much as to speak
of it, when it cannot be! It cannot be--that is the whole matter. It is
out of the question. Supposing even that I get to think life cruel, and
supposing he should get weary and disgusted. Oh! it was you that said
it, you that are so kind. Supposing all that, yet it is impossible; it
cannot be; there is nothing more to be said.’

‘You will see him go away calmly, notwithstanding all?’

‘Calmly,’ she said, with a little laugh, ‘calmly--yes, I suppose that is
the word. I will see him go calmly. I shall not make any fuss if that is
what you mean.’

‘Ellen, I do not understand. I never heard you speak like this before.’

‘You never saw me like this before,’ she said with a gasp. She was
breathless with a restrained excitement which looked like despair. But
when I spoke further, when I would have discussed the matter, she put up
her hand and stopped me. There was something in her face, in its fixed
expression, which was like the countenance with which her mother had
replied to me. It was a startling thought to me that Ellen’s soft fresh
face, with its pretty bloom, could ever be like that other face
surmounted by the black cap and crown of shabby flowers. She turned and
walked with me along the road to my own door, but nothing further was
said. We went along side by side silent till we reached my house, when
she put out her hand and touched mine suddenly, and said that she was in
a hurry and must run away. I went in more disturbed than I can say. She
had always been so ready to yield, so cheerful, so soft, independent
indeed, but never harsh in her independence. What did this change mean?
I felt as if some one to whom I had turned in kindness had met me with a
blow. But by and by, when I thought better of it, I began to understand
Ellen. Had not I said to myself, a few minutes before, that
self-renunciation, when it had to be, must be done silently without a
word? better perhaps that it should be done angrily than with
self-demonstration, self-assertion. Ellen had comprehended this; she had
perceived that it must not be asked or speculated upon, which was to
yield. She had chosen her part, and she would not have it discussed or
even remarked. I sat in my window pondering while the bright afternoon
went by, looking out upon the distant depths of the blue spring
atmosphere, just touched by haze, as the air, however bright, always is
in London, seeing the people go by in an endless stream without noticing
them, without thinking of them. How rare it is in human affairs that
there is not some one who must give up to the others, some one who must
sacrifice himself or be sacrificed! And the one to whom this lot falls
is always the one who will do it; that is the rule so far as my
observation goes. There are some whom nature moves that way, who cannot
stand upon their rights, who are touched by the claims of others and can
make no resistance on their own account. The tools are to him that can
handle them, as our philosopher says; and likewise the sacrifices of
life to him who will bear them. Refuse them, that is the only way; but
if it is not in your nature to refuse them, what can you do? Alas! for
sacrifice is seldom blessed. I am saying something which will sound
almost impious to many. Human life is built upon it, and social order;
yet personally in itself it is seldom blessed; it debases those who
accept it; it harms even those who, without wilfully accepting it, have
a dim perception that something is being done for them which has no
right to be done. It may, perhaps--I cannot tell--bear fruit of
happiness in the hearts of those who practise it. I cannot tell.
Sacrifices are as often mistaken as other things. Their divineness does
not make them wise. Sometimes, looking back, even the celebrant will
perceive that his offering had better not have been made.

All this was going sadly through my mind when I perceived that some one
was passing slowly, endeavouring to attract my attention. By this time
it was getting towards evening--and as soon as I was fully roused I saw
that it was John Ridgway. If I could have avoided him I should have done
so, but now it was not possible; I made him a sign to come up-stairs. He
came into the drawing-room slowly, with none of the eagerness that there
had been in his air on the previous day, and it may easily be believed
that on my side I was not eager to see him to tell him my story. He came
and sat down by me, swinging his stick in his usual absent way, and for
a minute neither of us spoke.

‘You do not ask me if I have any news for you; you have seen Ellen!’

‘No; it is only because I have news on my side. I am not going after
all.’

‘You are not going!’

‘You are disappointed,’ he said, looking at me with a face which was
full of interest and sympathy. These are the only words I can use. The
disappointment was his, not mine; yet he was more sympathetic with my
feeling about it than impressed by his own. ‘As for me, I don’t seem to
care. It is better in one way, if it is worse in another. It stops any
rise in life; but what do I care for a rise in life? they would never
have let me take Ellen. I knew that even before I saw it in your eyes.’

‘Ellen ought to judge for herself,’ I said, ‘and you ought to judge for
yourself; you are of full age; you are not boy and girl. No parents have
a right to separate you now. And that old man may go on just the same
for the next dozen years.’

‘Did you see him?’ John asked. He had a languid, wearied look, scarcely
lifting his eyes.

‘I saw only her; but I know perfectly well what kind of man he is. He
may live for the next twenty years. There is no end to these tyrannical,
ill-tempered people; they live for ever. You ought to judge for
yourselves. If they had their daughter settled near, coming to them from
her own pleasant little home, they would be a great deal happier. You
may believe me or not, but I know it. Her visits would be events; they
would be proud of her, and tell everybody about her family, and what a
good husband she had got, and how he gave her everything she could
desire.’

‘Please God,’ said John, devoutly; his countenance had brightened in
spite of himself. But then he shook his head. ‘If we had but got as far
as that,’ he said.

‘You ought to take it into your own hands,’ cried I in all the fervour
of a revolutionary. ‘If you sacrifice your happiness to them, it will
not do them any good; it will rather do them harm. Are you going now to
tell your news?’

He had got up on his feet, and stood vaguely hovering over me with a
faint smile upon his face. ‘She will be pleased,’ he said; ‘no
advancement, but no separation. I have not much ambition; I think I am
happy too.’

‘Then, if you are all pleased,’ I cried, with annoyance which I could
not restrain, ‘why did you send me on such an errand? I am the only one
that seems to be impatient of the present state of affairs, and it is
none of my business. Another time you need not say anything about it to
me.’

‘There will never be a time when we shall not be grateful to you,’ said
John; but even his mild look of appealing reproach did not move me. It
is hard to interest yourself in people and find after all that they like
their own way best.



CHAPTER VI


He was quite right in thinking Ellen would be pleased. And yet, after it
was all over, she was a little wounded and disappointed, which was very
natural. She did not want him to go away, but she wanted him to get the
advancement all the same. This was foolish, but still it was natural,
and just what a woman would feel. She took great pains to explain to us
that it was not hesitation about John, nor even any hesitation on the
part of John in going--for Ellen had a quick sense of what was desirable
and heroic, and would not have wished her lover to appear indifferent
about his own advancement, even though she was very thankful and happy
that in reality he was so. The reason of the failure was that the firm
had sent out a nephew, who was in the office, and had a prior claim. ‘Of
course he had the first chance,’ Ellen said, with a countenance of great
seriousness; ‘what would be the good of being a relation if he did not
have the first chance?’ And I assented with all the gravity in the
world. But she was disappointed, though she was so glad. There ought not
to have been any one in the world who had the preference over John! She
carried herself with great dignity for some time afterwards, and with
the air of a person superior to the foolish and partial judgments of the
world; and yet in her heart how thankful she was! from what an abyss of
blank loneliness and weary exertion was her life saved! For now that I
knew it a little better I could see how little that was happy was in her
home. Her mother insisted that she should have that hour’s leisure in
the evening. That was all that any one thought of doing for her. It was
enough to keep her happy, to keep her hopeful. But without that, how
long would Ellen’s brave spirit have kept up? Perhaps had she never
known John, and that life of infinite tender communion, her natural
happy temperament would have struggled on for a long time against all
the depressing effects of circumstances, unaided. But to lose is worse
than never to have had. If it is

    Better to have loved and lost,
    Than never to have loved at all,

yet it is at the same time harder to lose that bloom of existence out of
your lot, than to have struggled on by mere help of nature without it.
She had been so happy--making so little go such a long way!--that the
loss of her little happiness would have been appalling to her. And yet
she was dissatisfied that this heartbreak did not come. She had strung
herself up to it. It would have been advancement, progress, all that a
woman desires for those belonging to her, for John. Sacrificing him for
the others, she was half angry not to have it in her power to sacrifice
herself to his ‘rise in life.’ I think I understood her, though we never
talked on the subject. She was dissatisfied, although she was relieved.
We have all known these mingled feelings.

This happened at the beginning of summer; but all its agitations were
over before the long sweet days and endless twilights of the happy
season had fully expanded upon us. It seems to me as I grow older that a
great deal of the comfort of our lives depends upon summer--upon the
weather, let us say, taking it in its most prosaic form. Sometimes
indeed to the sorrowful the brightness is oppressive; but to all the
masses of ordinary mortals who are neither glad nor sad, it is a
wonderful matter not to be chilled to the bone; to be able to do their
work without thinking of a fire; without having a sensation of cold
always in their lives never to be got rid of. Ellen and her lover
enjoyed that summer as people who have been under sentence of banishment
enjoy their native country and their home.

You may think there is not much beauty in a London suburb to tempt any
one: and there is not for those who can retire to the beautiful fresh
country when they will, and surround themselves with waving woods and
green lawns, or taste the freshness of the mountains or the saltness of
the sea. We, who go away every year in July, pined and longed for the
moment of our removal; and my neighbour in the great house which shut
out the air from Pleasant Place, panted in her great garden (which she
was proud to think was almost unparalleled for growth and shade in
London), and declared herself incapable of breathing any longer in such
a close and shut up locality. But the dwellers in Pleasant Place were
less exacting. They thought the long suburban road very pleasant. Where
it streamed off into little dusty houses covered with brown ivy and
dismal trellis work, and where every unfortunate flower was thick with
dust, they gazed with a touch of envy at the ‘gardens,’ and felt it to
be rural. When my pair of lovers went out for their walk they had not
time to go further than to the ‘Green Man,’ a little tavern upon the
roadside, where one big old elm tree, which had braved the dust and the
frost for more years than any one could recollect, stood out at a corner
at the junction of two roads, with a bench round it, where the passing
carters and cabmen drank their beer, and a trough for the horses, which
made it look ‘quite in the country’ to all the inhabitants of our
district. Generally they got as far as that, passing the dusty cottages
and the little terrace of new houses. A great and prolonged and most
entertaining controversy went on between them as they walked, as to the
kind of house in which they should eventually settle down. Ellen, who
was not without a bit of romance in her, of the only kind practicable
with her upbringing, entertained a longing for one of the dusty little
cottages. She thought, like all inexperienced persons, that in her hands
it would not be dusty. She would find means of keeping the ivy green.
She would see that the flowers grew sweet and clean, and set blacks and
dust alike at defiance. John, for his part, whose lodging was in one of
those little houses, preferred the new terrace. It was very new--very
like a row of ginger-bread houses--but it was very clean, and for the
moment bright, not as yet penetrated by the dust. Sometimes I was made
the confidante of these interminable, always renewed, always delightful
discussions. ‘They are not dusty yet,’ Ellen would say, ‘but how long
will it be before they are dusty? whereas with the villas’ (they had a
great variety of names--Montpellier Villas, Funchal Villas, Mentone
Mansions--for the district was supposed to be very mild) ‘one knows what
one has to expect; and if one could not keep the dust and the blacks out
with the help of brushes and dusters, what would be the good of one? I
should sow mignonette and Virginia stock,’ she cried with a firm faith;
‘low-growing flowers would be sure to thrive. It is only roses (poor
roses!) and tall plants that come to harm.’ John, for his part, dwelt
much upon the fact that in the little front parlours of the terrace
houses there were shelves for books fitted into a recess. This weighed
quite as much with him as the cleanness of the new places. ‘The villas
are too dingy for her,’ he said, looking admiringly at her fresh face.
‘She could never endure the little gray, grimy rooms.’ That was his
romance, to think that everything should be shining and bright about
her. He was unconscious of the dinginess of the parlour in Ellen’s home.
It was all irradiated with her presence to him. These discussions
however all ended in a sigh and a laugh from Ellen herself. ‘It is all
very fine talking,’ she would say.

And so the summer went on. Alas! and other summers after it. My eldest
girl married. My boys went out into the world. Many changes came upon
our house. The children began to think it a very undesirable locality.
Even Chatty, always the sweetest, sighed for South Kensington, if not
for a house in the country and a month in London in the season, which
was what the other girls wished for. This common suburban road, far from
fashion, far from society--what but their mother’s inveterate
old-fashionedness and indifference to appearances could have kept them
there so long? The great house opposite with the garden had ceased to
be. The high wall was gone from Pleasant Place, and instead of it stood
a fresh row of little villakins like the terrace which had once been
John Ridgway’s admiration. Alas! Ellen’s forebodings had been fully
realized, and the terrace was as dingy as Montpellier Villas by this
time. The whole neighbourhood was changing. Half the good houses in the
road--the houses, so to speak, of the aristocracy, which to name was to
command respect from all the neighbourhood--had been built out and
adorned with large fronts of plate glass and made into shops. Omnibuses
now rolled along the dusty way. The station where they used to stop had
been pushed out beyond the ‘Green Man,’ which once we had felt to be
‘quite in the country.’ Everything was changing; but my pair of lovers
did not change. Ellen got other pupils instead of Chatty and her
contemporaries who were growing up and beyond her skill, and came out at
ten o’clock every morning with as fresh a face as ever, and her little
roll of music always in her hand. And every evening, though now he was
set down at his lodgings from the omnibus, and no longer passed my
window on his way home, John made his pilgrimage of love to Pleasant
Place. She kept her youth--the sweet complexion, the dew in her eyes,
and the bloom upon her cheek--in a way I could not understand. The long
waiting did not seem to try her. She had always his evening visit to
look for, and her days were full of occupation. But John, who had
naturally a worn look, did not bear the probation so well as Ellen. He
grew bald; a general rustiness came over him. He had looked older than
he was to begin with: his light locks, his colourless countenance, faded
into a look of age. He was very patient--almost more patient than Ellen,
who, being of a more vivacious temper, had occasioned little outbursts
of petulant despair, of which she was greatly ashamed afterwards; but at
the same time this prolonged and hopeless waiting had more effect upon
him than upon her. Sometimes he would come to see me by himself for the
mere pleasure, it seemed to me, though we rarely spoke on the subject,
of being understood.

‘Is this to go on for ever?’ I said. ‘Is it never to come to an end?’

‘It looks like it,’ said John, somewhat drearily. ‘We always talk about
our little house. I have got three rises since then. I doubt if I shall
ever have any more; but we don’t seem a bit nearer----’ and he ended
with a sigh--not of impatience, like those quick sighs mixed up with
indignant, abrupt little laughs in which Ellen often gave vent to her
feelings--but of weariness and despondency much more hard to bear.

‘And the father,’ I said, ‘seems not a day nearer the end of his
trouble. Poor man, I don’t wish him any harm.’

This, I fear, was a hypocritical speech, for in my heart I should not
have been at all sorry to hear that his ‘trouble’ was coming to an end.

Then for the first time a gleam of humour lighted in John’s eye. ‘I am
beginning to suspect that he is--better,’ he said; ‘stronger at least. I
am pretty sure he has no thought of coming to an end.’

‘All the better,’ I said; ‘if he gets well, Ellen will be free.’

‘He will never get well,’ said John, falling back into his dejection,
‘and he will never die.’

‘Then it will never come to anything. Can you consent to that?’ I said.

He made me no reply. He shook his head; whether in dismal acceptance of
the situation, whether in protest against it, I cannot tell. This
interview filled me with dismay. I spent hours pondering whether, and
how, I could interfere. My interference had not been of much use before.
And my children began to laugh when this lingering, commonplace little
romance was talked of. ‘My mother’s lovers,’ the boys called them--‘My
mother’s turtle-doves.’

The time had almost run on to the length of Jacob’s wooing when one day
Ellen came to me, not running in, eager and troubled with her secret as
of old, but so much more quietly than usual, with such a still and fixed
composure about her, that I knew something serious had happened. I sent
away as quickly as I could the other people who were in the room, for I
need not say that to find me alone was all but an impossibility. I gave
Chatty, now a fine, tall girl of twenty, a look, which was enough for
her; she always understood better than any one. And when at last we were
free I turned to my visitor anxiously. ‘What is it?’ I said. It did not
excite her so much as it did me.

She gave a little abstracted smile. ‘You always see through me,’ she
said. ‘I thought there was no meaning in my face. It has come at last.
He is really going this time, directly, to the Levant. Oh, what a little
thing Chatty was when I asked her to look in the atlas for the Levant;
and now she is going to be married! What will you do,’ she asked
abruptly, stopping short to look at me, ‘when they are all married and
you are left alone?’

I had asked myself this question sometimes, and it was not one I liked.
’“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,”’ I said; ‘the two little
ones of all have not so much as thought of marrying yet.’

Ellen answered me with a sigh, a quickly drawn impatient breath. ‘He is
to sail in a fortnight,’ she said. ‘Things have gone wrong with the
nephew. I knew he never could be so good as John; and now John must go
in a hurry to set things right. What a good thing that it is all in a
hurry! We shall not have time to think.’

‘You must go with him--you must go with him, Ellen!’ I cried.

She turned upon me almost with severity in her tone. ‘I thought you knew
better. I--go with him! Look here,’ she cried very hurriedly, ‘don’t
think I don’t face the full consequences--the whole matter. He is tired,
tired to death. He will be glad to go--and after--after! If he should
find some one else there, I shall never be the one to blame him.’

‘Ellen! you ought to ask his pardon on your knees--he find some one
else! What wrong you do to the faithfullest--the truest----’

‘He is the faithfullest,’ she said; then, after a moment, ‘but I will
never blame him. I tell you beforehand. He has been more patient than
ever man was.’

Did she believe what she was saying? It was very hard to know. The
fortnight flew by like a day. The days had been very long before in
their monotony, but now these two weeks were like two hours. I never
quite knew what passed. John had taken his courage in both hands, and
had bearded the father himself in his den: but, so far as I could make
out, it was not the father but the mother with her tears who vanquished
him. ‘When I saw what her life was,’ he said to me when he took leave of
me, ‘such a life! my mouth was closed. Who am I that I should take away
her only comfort from her? We love each other very dearly, it is our
happiness, it is the one thing which makes everything else sweet: but
perhaps, as Ellen says, there is no duty in it. It is all enjoyment. Her
duty is to them; it is her pleasure, she says, her happiness to be with
me.’

‘But--but you have been engaged for years. No doubt it is your
happiness--but surely there is duty too.’

‘She says not. My mind is rather confused. I don’t seem to know. Duty,
you know, duty is a thing that it is rather hard to do; something one
has to raise one’s self up to, and carry through with it, whether we
like it or whether we don’t like it. That’s her definition; and it seems
right--don’t you think it is right? But to say that of us would be
absurd. It is all pleasure--all delight,’ his tired eyelids rose a
little to show a gleam of emotion, then dropped again with a sigh; ‘that
is her argument; I suppose it is true.’

‘Then, do you mean to say----’ I cried, and stopped short in sheer
bewilderment of mind, not knowing what words to use.

‘I don’t think I mean to say anything. My head is all confused. I don’t
seem to know. Our feeling is all one wish to be together; only to see
one another makes us happy. Can there be duty in that? she says. It
seems right, yet sometimes I think it is wrong, though I can’t tell
how.’

I was confused too and silenced. I did not know what to say. ‘It
depends,’ I said faltering, ‘upon what you consider the object of life.’

‘Some people say happiness; but that would not suit Ellen’s theory,’ he
said. ‘Duty--I had an idea myself that duty was easily defined; but it
seems it is as difficult as everything is. So far as I can make out,’ he
added with a faint smile, ‘I have got no duties at all.’

‘To be faithful to her,’ I said, recollecting the strange speech she had
made to me.

He almost laughed outright. ‘Faithful! that is no duty; it is my
existence. Do you think I could be unfaithful if I were to try?’

These were almost the last words he said to me. I suppose he satisfied
himself that his duty to his employer required him to go away. And Ellen
had a feverish desire that he should go away, now that the matter had
been broached a second time. I am not sure that when the possibility of
sacrifice on his part dawned upon her, the chance that he might
relinquish for her this renewed chance of rising in the world, there did
not arise in her mind a hasty impatient wish that he might be
unfaithful, and give her up altogether. Sometimes the impatience of a
tired spirit will take this form. Ellen was very proud; by dint of
having made sacrifices all her life, she had an impetuous terror of
being in her turn the object for which sacrifices should be made. To
accept them was bitterness to her. She was eager to hurry all his
preparations, to get him despatched, if possible, a little earlier than
the necessary time. She kept a cheerful face, making little jokes about
the Levant and the people he would meet there, which surprised
everybody. ‘Is she glad that he is going? Chatty asked me, with eyes
like two round lamps of alarmed surprise. The last night of all they
spent with us--and it seemed a relief to Ellen that it should be thus
spent, and not _tête-à-tête_ as so many other evenings had been. It was
the very height and flush of summer, an evening which would not sink
into darkness and night as other evenings do. The moon was up long
before the sun had gone reluctantly away. We sat without the lamp in the
soft twilight, with the stream of wayfarers going past the windows, and
all the familiar sounds, which were not vulgar to us, we were so used to
them. They were both glad of the half light. When I told Ellen to go and
sing to us, she refused at first with a look of reproach; then, with a
little shake of her head, as if to throw off all weakness, changed her
mind and went to the piano. It was Chatty who insisted upon Mr.
Ridgway’s favourite song, perhaps out of heedlessness, perhaps with that
curious propensity the young often have to probe wounds and investigate
how deep a sentiment may go. We sat in the larger room, John and myself,
while behind, in the dim evening, in the distance, scarcely visible,
Ellen sat at the piano and sang. What the effort cost her I would not
venture to inquire. As for him, he sat with melancholy composure
listening to every tone of her voice. She had a very sweet refined
voice--not powerful, but tender, what people call sympathetic. I could
not distinguish his face, but I saw his hand beat the measure
accompanying every line, and when she came to the burden of the song he
said it over softly to himself. Broken by all the babble outside, and by
the music in the background, I yet heard him, all tuneless and low,
murmuring this to himself: ‘I will come again, I will come again, my
sweet and bonnie.’ Whether his eyes were dry I cannot tell, but mine
were wet. He said them with no excitement, as if they were the words
most simple, most natural--the very breathing of his heart. How often, I
wonder, would he think of that dim room, the half-seen companions, the
sweet and tender voice rising out of the twilight? I said to myself,
‘Whoever may mistrust you, I will never mistrust you,’ with fervour. But
just as the words passed through my mind, as if Ellen had heard them,
her song broke off all in a moment, died away in the last line, ‘I will
come a----’ There was a sudden break, a jar on the piano--and she
sprang up and came towards us, stumbling, with her hands put out, as it
she could not see. The next sound I heard was an unsteady little laugh,
as she threw herself down on a sofa in the corner where Chatty was
sitting. ‘I wonder why you are all so fond of that old-fashioned
nonsense,’ she said.

And next day the last farewells were said, and John went away.



CHAPTER VII


We left town directly after this for the autumn holidays. The holidays
had not very much meaning now that all the boys had left school, and we
might have gone away when we pleased. But the two youngest girls were
still in the remorseless hands of Fräulein Stimme, and the habit of
emancipation in the regular holiday season had clung to me. I tried very
hard to get Ellen to go with us, for at least a day or two, but she
resisted with a kind of passion. Her mother, I am sure, would have been
glad had she gone; but Ellen would not. There was in her face a secret
protestation, of which she was perhaps not even herself aware, that if
her duty bound life itself from all expansion, it must also bind her in
every day of her life. She would not accept the small alleviation,
having, with her eyes open and with a full sense of what she was about,
resigned everything else. She would have been more perfect, and her
sacrifice more sweet, had she taken sweetly the little consolations of
every day; but nobody is perfect, and Ellen would not come. I had gone
to Pleasant Place to ask her, and the scene was a curious one. The
mother and daughter both came to the parlour to receive me, and I saw
them together for the first time. It was about a fortnight after John
went away. Ellen had not been ill, though I had feared she would; but
she was pale, with dark lines under her eyes, and a worn and nervous
look. She was bearing her burden very bravely, but it was all the harder
upon her that she was evidently determined not to complain. When I told
my errand, Mrs. Harwood replied eagerly. ‘You must go, Ellen. Oh, yes! I
can do; I can do very well. It will only be for a week, and it will do
you so much good; you must go.’ Ellen took scarcely any notice of this
address. She thanked me with her usual smile. ‘It is very, very good of
you--you are always good--but it is impossible.’ ‘Why impossible, why
impossible?’ cried her mother. ‘When I tell you I can do very well--I
can manage. Your father will not mind, when it is to do you good.’ I saw
that Ellen required a moment’s interval of preparation before she looked
round.

‘Dear mother,’ she said, ‘we have not any make-believes between us, have
we? How is it possible that I can go? Every moment is mapped out. No,
no; I cannot do it. Thank you all the same. My mother wants to give me a
pleasure, but it cannot be. Go away for a week! I have never done that
in all my life.’

‘But you think she can, you think she ought,’ I said, turning to her
mother. The poor woman looked at her child with a piteous look. I think
it dawned upon her, then and there, for the first time, that perhaps she
had made a mistake about Ellen. It had not occurred to her that there
had been any selfishness in her tearful sense of the impossibility of
parting with her daughter. All at once, in a moment, with a sudden gleam
of that enlightenment which so often comes too late, she saw it. She saw
it, and it went through her like an arrow. She turned to me with another
piteous glance. What have I done? what have I done? her looks seemed to
say.

‘Two or three days,’ the poor woman said, with a melancholy attempt at
playfulness. ‘Nothing can happen to us in that time. Her father is ill,’
she said, turning to me as if I knew nothing, ‘and we are always
anxious, he thinks it will be too much for me by myself. But what does
it matter for a few days? If I am overdone, I can rest when she comes
back.’

Was it possible she could suppose that this was all I knew? I was afraid
to catch Ellen’s eye. I did not know what might come after such a
speech. She might break forth with some sudden revelation of all that I
felt sure must be in her heart. I closed my eyes instinctively, sick
with terror. Next moment I heard Ellen’s clear, agreeable voice.

‘I don’t want you to be overdone, mother. What is the use of all that is
past and gone if I am to take holidays and run away when I like for two
or three days? No, no; my place is here, and here I must stay. I don’t
want you to be overdone.’

And looking at her, I saw that she smiled. But her mother’s face was
full of trouble. She looked from Ellen to me, and from me to Ellen. For
everything there is a beginning. Did she only then for the first time
perceive what had been done?

However, after this there was nothing more to say. We did not see Ellen
again till the days were short and the brilliant weather over. She
changed very much during that winter. Her youth, which had bloomed on so
long unaltered, seemed to leave her in a day. When we came back, from
looking twenty she suddenly looked thirty-five. The bloom went from her
cheeks. She was as trim as ever, and as lightfooted, going out alert and
bright every morning to her lessons; but her pretty little figure had
shrunk, and her very step on the pavement sounded different. Life and
all its hopes and anticipations seemed to have ebbed away from her. I
don’t doubt that many of her neighbours had been going on in their dull
routine of life without knowing even such hopes or prospects as hers,
all this time by Ellen’s side, fulfilling their round of duty without
any diversions. Oh, the mystery of these myriads of humble lives, which
are never enlivened even by a romance manqué, a story that might have
been; that steal away from dull youth to dull age, never knowing
anything but the day’s work, never coming to anything! But Ellen had
known a something different, a life that was her own; and now she had
lost it. The effect was great: how could it be otherwise? She lost
herself altogether for a little while, and when she came to again, as
all worthy souls must come, she was another Ellen; older than her age as
the other had been younger, and prepared for everything. No longer
trying to evade suffering; rather desirous, if that might be, to
forestall it, to discount it--if I may use the word--before it was due,
and know the worst. She never told me this in words, but I felt that it
was so. It is not only in a shipwreck that the unfortunate on the verge
of death plunge in to get it over a few hours, a few minutes, sooner. In
life there are many shipwrecks which we would forestall, if we could, in
the same way, by a plunge--by a voluntary putting on of the decisive
moment. Some, I suppose, will always put it off by every expedient that
despair can suggest; but there are also those who can bear anything but
to wait, until slowly, surely, the catastrophe comes. Ellen wanted to
make the plunge, to get it over, partly for John’s sake, whose
infidelity she began to calculate upon--to (she believed) wish for. ‘He
will never be able to live without a home to go to, without a woman to
speak to, now,’ she said once, in a moment of incaution--for she was
very guarded, very reticent, about all this part of her mind, and rarely
betrayed herself. It is curious how little faith women in general, even
the most tender, have in a man’s constancy. Either it is because of an
inherent want of trust in their own power to secure affection, which
might be called humility; or else it is quite the reverse--a pride of
sex too subtle to show, in any conscious way--overweening confidence in
the power over a man of any other woman who happens to be near him, and
want of confidence in any power on his part to resist these
fascinations. Ellen had made up her mind that her lover when he was
absent from her would be, as she would have said, ‘like all the rest.’
Perhaps, in a kind of wild generosity, she wished it, feeling that she
herself never might be free to make him happy; but, anyhow, she was
persuaded that this was how it would be. She looked out for signs of it
in his very first letter. She wanted to have it over--to cut off
remorselessly out of her altered being all the agitations of hope.

But I need not say that John’s letters were everything a lover’s, or
rather a husband’s letters should be. They were more like a husband’s
letters, with very few protestations in them, but a gentle continued
reference to her, and to their past life together, which was more
touching than any rhapsodies. She brought them to me often, folding
down, with a blush which made her look like the blooming Ellen of old,
some corner of especial tenderness, something that was too sacred for a
stranger’s eye, but always putting them back in her pocket with a word
which sounded almost like a grudge, as who should say, ‘For this once
all is well, but next time you shall see.’ Thus she held on to her
happiness as by a strained thread, expecting every moment when it would
snap, and defying it to do so, yet throbbing all the time with a passion
of anxiety, as day after day it held out, proving her foreboding vain.
That winter, though I constantly saw her, my mind was taken up by other
things than Ellen. It was then that the children finally prevailed upon
me to leave the Road. A row of cheap advertising shops had sprung up
facing us where had been the great garden I have so often mentioned, and
the noise and flaring lights were more than I could put up with, after
all my resistance to their wishes. So that at last, to my great regret,
but the exultation of the young ones, it was decided that we must go
away.

The removal, and the bustle there was, the change of furniture--for our
old things would not do for the new house, and Chatty, Heaven save us!
had grown artistic, and even the little ones and Fräulein Stimme knew a
great deal better than I did--occupied my mind and my time; and it took
a still longer time to settle down than it did to tear up our old roots.
So that there was a long interval during which we saw little of Ellen;
and though we never forgot her, or ceased to take an interest in
everything that concerned her, the distance of itself threw us apart.
Now and then she paid us a visit, always with John’s letter in her
pocket, but her time was so limited that she never could stay long. And
sometimes I, and sometimes Chatty, made a pilgrimage to the old district
to see her. But we never could have an uninterrupted long talk in
Pleasant Place. Either Ellen was called away, or Mrs. Harwood would come
in and sit down with her work, always anxiously watching her daughter.
This separation from the only people to whom she could talk of her own
private and intimate concerns was a further narrowing and limitation of
poor Ellen’s life. But what could I do? I could not vex my children for
her sake. She told us that she went and looked at the old house almost
every day, and at the square window in which I used to sit and see John
pass. John passed no longer, nor was I there to see. But Ellen remained
bound in the same spot, seeing everything desert her--love, and
friendship, and sympathy, and all her youth and her hope. Can you not
fancy with what thoughts this poor girl (though she was a girl no
longer) would pause, as she passed, to look at the abandoned place so
woven in with the brightest episode of her life, feeling herself
stranded there, impotent, unable to make a step--her breast still
heaving with all the vigour of existence, yet her life bound down in the
narrowest contracted circle? Her mother, who had got to watch her
narrowly, told me afterwards that she always knew when Ellen had passed
No. 16; and indeed I myself was rather glad to hear that at length No.
16 had shared the general fate, that my window existed no longer, and
that a great shop with plate-glass windows was bulging out where our
house had been. Better when a place is desecrated that it should be
desecrated wholly, and leave no vestige of its old self at all.

Thus more than a year glided away, spring and winter, summer and autumn,
and then winter again. Chatty came in one November morning, when London
was half invisible, wrapped in mist and fog, with a very grave face, to
tell me that she had met Ellen, and Ellen had told her there was bad
news from John. ‘I can’t understand her,’ Chatty said. ‘I couldn’t make
out what it was; that business had been bad, and things had gone wrong;
and then something with a sort of laugh that he had got other thoughts
in his mind at last, as she knew all along he would, and that she was
glad. What could she mean?’ I did not know what she could mean, but I
resolved to go and see Ellen to ascertain what the change was. It is
easier however to say than to do when one is full of one’s own affairs,
and so it happened that for a full week, though intending to go every
day, I never did so. It was partly my fault. The family affairs were
many, and the family interests engrossing. It was not that I cared for
Ellen less, but my own claimed me on every hand. When one afternoon,
about a fortnight after, I was told that Miss Harwood was in the
drawing-room and wished to speak to me, my heart upbraided me with my
neglect. I hurried to her and led her away from that public place where
everybody came and went, to my own little sitting-room, where we might
be alone. Ellen was very pale; her eyes looked very dry and bright, not
dewy and soft as they used to be. There was a feverish look of unrest
and excitement about her. ‘There is something wrong,’ I cried. ‘What is
it? Chatty told me--something about John.’

‘I don’t know that it is anything wrong,’ she said. The smile that had
frightened Chatty came over her face--a smile that made one unhappy, the
lip drawn tightly over the teeth in the most ghastly mockery of
amusement. ‘No; I don’t know that it is anything wrong. You know I
always expected--always from the moment he went away--that between him
and me things would soon be at an end. Oh, yes, I expected it, and I did
not wish it otherwise; for what good is it to me that a man should be
engaged to me, and waste his life for me, when I never could do anything
for him?’

Here she made a little breathless pause, and laughed. ‘Oh, don’t, Ellen,
don’t!’ I cried. I could not bear the laugh; the smile was bad enough.

‘Why not?’ she said with a little defiance; ‘would you have me cry? I
expected it long ago. The wonder is that it should have been so long
coming. That is,’ she cried suddenly after a pause, ‘that is if this is
really what it means. I took it for granted at first; but I cannot be
certain. I cannot be certain! Read it, you who know him, and tell me,
tell me! Oh, I can bear it quite well. I should be rather glad if this
is what it means.’

She thrust a letter into my hand, and going away with a rapid step to
the window, stood there with her back to me, looking out. I saw her
standing against the light, playing restlessly with the tassel of the
blind. In her desire to seem composed, or else in the mere excitement
which boiled in her veins, she began to hum a tune. I don’t think she
knew herself what it was.

The letter which she professed to have taken so easily was worn with
much reading, and it had been carried about, folded and refolded a
hundred times. There was no sign of indifference in all that--and this
is what it said:--

     ‘I got your last letter, dear Ellen, on Tuesday. I think you must
     have written in low spirits. Perhaps you had a feeling, such as we
     used to talk about, of what was happening here. As for me, nobody
     could be in lower spirits than this leaves me. I have lost heart
     altogether. Everything has gone wrong; the business is at an end: I
     shut up the office to-day. If it is in any way my fault, God
     forgive me! But the conflict in my heart has been so great that I
     sometimes fear it must be my fault. I had been low enough before,
     thinking and thinking how the end was to come between you and me.
     Everything has gone wrong inside and out. I had such confidence,
     and now it is all going. What I had most faith in has deceived me.
     I thought I never was the man to change or to fail, and that I
     could have trusted myself in any circumstances; but it does not
     seem so. And why should I keep you hanging on when all’s wrong with
     me? I always thought I could redeem it; but it hasn’t proved so.
     You must just give me up, Ellen, as a bad job. Sometimes I have
     thought you wished it. Where I am to drift to, I can’t tell; but
     there’s no prospect of drifting back, or, what I hoped for, sailing
     back in prosperity to you. You have seen it coming, I can see by
     your letters, and I think, perhaps, though it seems strange to say
     so, that you won’t mind. I shall not stay here; but I have not made
     up my mind where to go. Forget a poor fellow that was never worthy
     to be yours.--JOHN RIDGWAY.’

My hands dropped with the letter in them. The rustle it made was the
only sign she could have had that I had read it, or else instinct or
inward vision. That instant she turned upon me from the window with a
cry of wild suspense: ‘Well?’

‘I am confounded. I don’t know what to think. Ellen, it looks more like
guilt to the office than falsehood to you.’

‘Guilt--to the office!’ Her face blazed up at once in scorching colour.
She looked at me in fierce resentment and excitement, stamping her foot.
‘Guilt--to the office! How dare you? How dare you?’ she cried like a
fury. She clenched her hands at me, and looked as if she could have torn
me in pieces. ‘Whatever he has done,’ she cried, ‘he has done nothing he
had not a right to do. Do you know who you are speaking of? John! You
might as well tell me I had broken into your house at night and robbed
you. _He_ have anything to blame himself for with the office?--never!
nor with any one. What he has done is what he had a right to do--I am
the first to say so. He has been wearied out. You said it once yourself,
long, long before my eyes were opened; and at last he has done it--and
he had a good right!’ She stood for one moment before me in the fervour
of this fiery address; then, suddenly, she sank and dropped on her knees
by my side. ‘You think it means that? You see it--don’t you see it? He
has grown weary, as was so natural. He thought he could trust himself;
but it proved different; and then he thought he could redeem it. What
can that mean but one thing?--he has got some one else to care for him.
There is nothing wrong in that. It is not I that will ever blame him.
The only thing was that a horrible doubt came over me this morning--if
it should not mean what I thought it did! That is folly, I know; but
you, who know him--put away all that about wrong to the office, which is
out of the question, and you will see it cannot be anything but one
thing.’

‘It is not that,’ I said.

She clasped her hands, kneeling by my side. ‘You always took his part,’
she said in a low voice. ‘You will not see it.’ Why did she tremble so?
Did she want to believe it, or not to believe it? I could not understand
Ellen. Just then, from the room below, there came a voice singing. It
was Chatty’s voice, the child whom she had taught, who had been the
witness of their wooing. She knew nothing about all this; she did not
even know that Ellen was in the house. What so natural as that she
should sing the song her mistress had taught her? It was that which
Ellen herself had been humming as she stood at the window.

‘Listen!’ I said. ‘You are answered in his own words--“I will come
again.”’

This was more than Ellen could bear. She made one effort to rise to her
feet, to regain her composure; but the music was too much. At that
moment I myself felt it to be too much. She fell down at my feet in a
passion of sobs and tears.

Afterwards I knew the meaning of Ellen’s passionate determination to
admit no meaning but one to the letter. She had taken him at his word.
In her certainty that this was to happen, she had seen no other
interpretation to it, until it was too late. She had never sent any
reply; and he had not written again. It was now a month since the letter
had been received, and this sudden breaking off of the correspondence
had been so far final on both sides. To satisfy myself, I sent to
inquire at the office, and found that no blame was attached to John; but
that he had been much depressed, unduly depressed, by his failure to
remedy the faults of his predecessor, and had left as soon as his
accounts were forwarded and all the business details carefully wound up:
and had not been heard of more. I compelled, I may say, Ellen to write,
now that it was too late; but her letter was returned to her some time
after. He had left the place, and nothing was known of him there; nor
could we discover where he had gone.



CHAPTER VIII


This little tragedy, as it appeared to me at the time, made a great
impression on my mind. It did not make me ill; that would have been
absurd. But still it helped, I suppose, to depress me generally and
enhance the effect of the cold that had hung about me so long, and for
which the elder ones, taking counsel together, decided that the desire
of the younger ones should be gratified, and I should be made to go to
Italy for the spring. The girls were wild to go, and my long-continued
lingering cold was such a good excuse. For my own part, I was not
willing at all; but what can one woman, especially when she is their
mother, do against so many? I had to give in and go. I went to see Ellen
before we started, and it was a very painful visit. She was still
keeping up with a certain defiance of everybody. But in the last two
months she had changed wonderfully. For one thing, she had shrank into
half her size. She was never anything but a little woman; but now she
seemed to me no bigger than a child. And those cheerful, happy brown
eyes, which had so triumphed over and smiled at all the privations of
life, looked out from two hollow caverns, twice as large as they had
ever been before, and with a woeful look that broke one’s heart. It was
not always that they had this woeful look. When she was conscious of
inspection she played them about with an artificial activity as if they
had been lanterns, forcing a smile into them which sometimes looked
almost like a sneer; but when she forgot that any one was looking at
her, then both smile and light went out, and there was in them a woeful
doubt and question which nothing could solve. Had she been wrong? Had
she misjudged him whom her heart could not forget or relinquish? Was it
likely that she could give him up lightly even had he been proved
unworthy? And oh, Heaven! was he proved unworthy, or had she done him
wrong? This was what Ellen was asking herself, without intermission, for
ever and ever; and her mother, on her side, watched Ellen piteously with
much the same question in her eyes. Had she, too, made a mistake? Was it
possible that she had exacted a sacrifice which she had no right to
exact, and in mere cowardice, and fear of loneliness, and desire for
love and succour on her own part, spoiled two lives? This question,
which was almost identical in both, made the mother and daughter
singularly like each other; except that Ellen kept asking her question
of the air, which is so full of human sighs, and the sky, whither so
many ungranted wishes go up, and the darkness of space, in which is no
reply--and the mother asked hers of Ellen, interrogating her countenance
mutely all day long, and of every friend of Ellen’s who could throw any
light upon the question. She stole into the room when Ellen left me for
a moment, and whispered, coming close to me, lest the very walls should
hear--

‘How do you think she is looking? She will not say a word to me about
him--not a word. Don’t you think she has been too hasty? Oh! I would
give everything I have if she would only go with you and look for John,
and make it up with him again.’

‘I thought you could not spare her,’ I said with perhaps some cruelty in
my intention. She wrung her hands, and looked piteously in my face.

‘You think it is all my fault! I never thought it would come to this; I
never thought he would go away. Oh, if I had only let them marry at
first! I often think if she had been happy in her own home, coming to
see her father every day, it would have been more of a change for him,
more company than having her always. Oh! if one could only tell what is
going to happen. She might have had a nice family by this time, and the
eldest little girl big enough to run in and play at his feet and amuse
her grandpa. He always was fond of children. But we’ll never see Ellen’s
children now!’ cried the poor woman. ‘And you think it is my fault!’

I could not reproach her; her black cap with the flowers, her little
woollen shawl about her shoulders, grew tragic as she poured forth her
trouble. It was not so dignified as the poet’s picture, but yet, like
him, she

    Saw the unborn faces shine
    Beside the never lighted fire;

and with a groan of misery felt herself the slayer of those innocents
that had never been. The tragic and the comic mingled in the vision of
that ‘eldest little girl,’ the child who would have amused her grandpa
had she been permitted to come into being; but it was all tragic to poor
Mrs. Harwood. She saw no laugh, no smile, in the situation anywhere.

We went to Mentone, and stayed there till the bitterness of the winter
was over, then moved along that delightful coast, and were in Genoa in
April. To speak of that stately city as a commercial town seems
insulting--and yet so it is now-a-days. I recognized at once the type I
had known in other days when I sat at the window of the hotel and
watched the people coming and going. It reminded me of my window in the
Road, where, looking out, I saw the respectable City people--clerks like
John Ridgway, and merchants of the same cut though of more substantial
comfort--wending their way to their business in the morning, and to
their suburban homes in the evening. I do not know that I love the
commercial world; but I like to see that natural order of life--the man
‘going forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.’ The
fashion of it is different in a foreign town, but still the life is the
same. We changed our quarters however after we had been for some time in
that city, so-called of palaces, and were lodged in a suite of rooms
very hard to get up to (though the staircase was marble), but very
delightful when one was there; rooms which overlooked the high terrace
which runs round a portion of the bay between the inns and the quays. I
forget what it is called. It is a beautiful promenade, commanding the
loveliest view of that most beautiful bay and all that is going on in
it. At night, with all its twinkling semicircle of lights, it was a
continual enchantment to me; but this or any of my private admirations
are not much to the purpose of my story. Sitting at the window, always
my favourite post, I became acquainted with various individual figures
among those who haunted this terrace. Old gentlemen going out to sun
themselves in the morning before the heat was too great; children and
nursemaids, Genoese women with their pretty veils, invalids who had got
up the stairs, I cannot tell now, and sat panting on the benches,
enjoying the sea air and the sunshine. There was one however among this
panorama of passing figures, which gave me a startled sense of
familiarity. It was too far off to see the man’s face. He was not an
invalid; but he was bent, either with past sickness or with present
care, and walked with a dropping head and a languid step. After watching
him for a time, I concluded (having always a great weakness for making
out other people’s lives, how they flow) that he had some occupation in
the town from which he escaped, whenever he had leisure, to rest a
little and refresh himself upon the terrace. He came very regularly,
just at the time when Italian shops and offices have a way of shutting
up, in the middle of the day--very regularly, always, or almost always,
at the same hour. He came up the steps slowly and languidly, stopped a
little to take breath, and then walked half way round the terrace to a
certain bench upon which he always seated himself. Sometimes he brought
his luncheon with him and ate it there. At other times, having once
gained that place, he sat quite still in a corner of it, not reading,
nor taking any notice of the other passers-by. No one was with him, no
one ever spoke to him. When I noticed him first he startled me. Who was
he like? His bent figure, his languid step, resembled no one I could
think of; but yet I said to myself, He is like somebody. I established a
little friendship with him, though it was a friendship without any
return; for though I could see him he could not see me, nor could I
distinguish his face; and we never saw him anywhere else, neither at
church, nor in the streets, not even on the _festas_ when everybody was
about; but always just there on that one spot. I looked for him as
regularly as the day came. ‘My mother’s old gentleman,’ Chatty called
him. Everybody is old who is not young to these children; but though he
was not young he did not seem to me to be old. And he puzzled as much as
he interested me. Who was he like? I never even asked myself, Who was
he? It would be no one I had any chance of acquaintance with. Some poor
_employé_ in a Genoa office; how should I know him? I could not feel at
all sure, when I was cross-examined on the subject, whether I really
remembered any one whom he was like; but yet he had startled me more
than I can say.

Genoa, where we had friends and family reasons for staying, became very
hot as the spring advanced into early summer, and we removed to one of
the lovely little towns on the coast at a little distance, Santa
Margherita. When we had been settled there for a few days, Chatty came
in to me one evening with a pale face. ‘I have just seen your old
gentleman,’ she said. ‘I think he must live out here; but I saw by the
expression of her eyes that there was more to say. She added after a
moment, ‘And I know who he is like.’

‘Ah! you have seen his face,’ I said; and then, before she had spoken,
it suddenly flashed on myself in a moment, ‘John Ridgway!’ I cried.

‘Mother,’ said Chatty, quite pale, ‘I think it is his ghost.’

I went out with her instantly to where she had seen him, and we made
some inquiries, but with no success. When I began to think it over, he
was not like John Ridgway. He was bent and stooping, whereas John was
erect; his head drooped, whereas how well I recollected poor John’s head
thrown back a little, his hat upon the back of it, his visionary outlook
rather to the skies than to the ground. No, no, not like him a bit; but
yet it might be his ghost, as Chatty said. We made a great many
inquiries, but for the moment with no success, and you may suppose that
I watched the passers-by from my window with more devotion than ever.
One evening in the sudden nightfall of the Italian skies, when darkness
comes all at once, I was seated in my usual place, scarcely seeing
however the moving figures outside, though all the population of the
place seemed to be out, sitting round the doors, and strolling leisurely
along enjoying the heavenly coolness and the breeze from the sea. At the
further end of the room Chatty was at the piano, playing to me softly in
the dark which she knows is what I like, and now and then striking into
some old song such as I love. She was sure to arrive sooner or later at
that one with which we now had so many associations; but I was not
thinking of the song, nor for the moment of Ellen or her faithful (as I
was sure he was still) lover at all. A woman with so many children has
always plenty to think of. My mind was busy with my own affairs. The
windows were open, and the babble of the voices outside--high pitched,
resounding Italian voices, not like the murmur of English--came in to us
as the music floated out. All at once, I suddenly woke up from my
thinking and my family concerns. In the dusk one figure detached itself
from among the others with a start, and came forward slowly with bent
head and languid step. Had he never heard that song since he heard Ellen
break off, choked with tears unshed, and a despair which had never been
revealed? He came quite close under the window where I could see him no
longer. I could not see him at all; it was too dark. I divined him. Who
could it be but he? Not like John Ridgway, and yet John; his ghost, as
Chatty had said.

I did not stop to think what I was to do, but rose up in the dark room
where the child was singing, only a voice, herself invisible in the
gloom. I don’t know whether Chatty saw me go; but, if so, she was
inspired unawares by the occasion, and went on with her song. I ran
down-stairs and went out softly to the open door of the inn, where there
were other people standing about. Then I saw him quite plainly by the
light from a lower window. His head was slightly raised towards the
place from which the song came. He was very pale in that pale, doubtful
light, worn and old and sad; but as he looked up, a strange illumination
was on his face. His hand beat the air softly, keeping time. As she came
to the refrain his lips began to move as if he were repeating after his
old habit those words, ‘I will come again.’ Then a sudden cloud of pain
seemed to come over his face--he shook his head faintly, then bowed it
upon his breast.

In a moment I had him by the arm. ‘John,’ I said in my excitement; ‘John
Ridgway! we have found you.’ For the moment, I believe, he thought it
was Ellen who had touched him; his white face seemed to leap into light;
then paled again. He took off his hat with his old formal, somewhat shy
politeness--‘I thought it must be you, madame,’ he said. He said
‘madame’ instead of the old English madam, which he had always used:
this little concession to the changed scene was all the difference. He
made no mystery about himself, and showed no reluctance to come in with
me, to talk as of old. He told me he had a situation in an office in
Genoa, and that his health was bad. ‘After that _fiasco_ in the Levant,
I had not much heart for anything. I took the first thing that was
offered,’ he said, with his old vague smile; ‘for a man must live--till
he dies.’ ‘There must be no question of dying--at your age,’ I cried.
This time his smile almost came the length of a momentary laugh. He
shook his head, but he did not continue the subject He was very silent
for some time after. Indeed, he said nothing, except in reply to my
questions, till Chatty left, the room and we were alone. Then all at
once, in the middle of something I was saying--‘Is she--married again?’
he said.

‘Married--again!’

‘It is a foolish question. She was not married to me; but it felt much
the same: we had been as one for so long. There must have been
some--strong inducement--to make her cast me off so at the end.’

This he said in a musing tone, as if the fact were so certain, and had
been turned over in his mind so often that all excitement was gone from
it. But after it was said, a gleam of anxiety came into his half-veiled
eyes. He raised his heavy, tired eyelids and looked at me. Though he
seemed to know all about it, and to be resigned to it when he began to
speak, yet it seemed to flash across him, before he ended, that there
was an uncertainty--an answer to come from me which would settle it,
after all. Then he leaned forward a little, in this sudden sense of
suspense, and put his hand to his ear as if he had been deaf, and said
‘What?’ in an altered tone.

‘There is some terrible mistake,’ I said. ‘I have felt there was a
mistake all along. She has lost her hold on life altogether because she
believes you to be changed.’

‘Changed!’ His voice was quite sharp and keen, and had lost its languid
tone. ‘In what way--in what way? how could I be changed?’

‘In the only way that could matter between her and you. She thought,
before you left the Levant, that you had got to care for some one
else--that you had ceased to care for her. Your letter,’ I said, ‘your
letter!’--half frightened by the way in which he rose, and his
threatening, angry aspect--‘would bear that interpretation.’

‘My letter!’ He stood before me for a moment with a sort of feverish,
fierce energy; then he began to laugh, low and bitterly, and walk about
as if unable to keep still. ‘My letter!’ The room was scarcely
lighted--one lamp upon the table, and no more; and the half-darkness, as
he paced about, made his appearance more threatening still. Then he
suddenly came and stood before me as if it had been I that had wronged
him. ‘I am a likely man to be a gay Lothario,’ he cried, with that laugh
of mingled mockery and despair which was far more tragical than weeping.
It was the only expression that such an extreme of feeling could find.
He might have cried out to heaven and earth, and groaned and wept; but
it would not have expressed to me the wild confusion, the overturn of
everything, the despair of being so misunderstood, the miserable sum of
suffering endured and life wasted for nothing, like this laugh. Then he
dropped again into the chair opposite me, as if with the consciousness
that even this excitement was vain.

‘What can I say? What can I do? Has she never known me all
along?--Ellen!’ He had not named her till now. Was it a renewal of life
in his heart that made him capable of uttering her name?

‘Do not blame her,’ I cried. ‘She had made up her mind that nothing
could ever come of it, and that you ought to be set free. She thought of
nothing else but this; that for her all change was hopeless--that she
was bound for life; and that you should be free. It became a fixed idea
with her; and when your letter came, which was capable of being
misread----’

‘Then the wish was father to the thought,’ he said, still bitterly. ‘Did
she show it to you? did you misread it also? Poor cheat of a letter! My
heart had failed me altogether. Between my failure and her slavery----
But I never thought she would take me at my word,’ he went on piteously,
‘never! I wrote, don’t you know, as one writes longing to be comforted,
to be told it did not matter so long as we loved each other, to be
bidden come home. And there never came a word--not a word.’

‘She wrote afterwards, but you were gone; and her letter was returned to
her.’

‘Ah!’ he said, in a sort of desolate assent. ‘Ah! was it so? then that
was how it had to be, I suppose; things were so settled before ever we
met each other. Can you understand that?--all settled that it was to end
just so in misery, and confusion, and folly, before ever we met.’

‘I do not believe it,’ I cried. ‘There is no need that it should end so,
even now; if--if you are unchanged still.’

‘I--changed?’ He laughed at this once more, but not so tragically, with
sham ridicule of the foolishness of the doubt. And then all of a sudden
he began to sing--oh, it was not a beautiful performance! he had no
voice, and not much ear; but never has the loveliest of music moved me
more--‘I will come again, my sweet and bonnie: I will come----’ Here he
broke down as Ellen had done, and said, with a hysterical sob, ‘I’m ill;
I think I’m dying. How am I, a broken man, without a penny, to come
again?’

Chatty and I walked with him to his room through the soft darkness of
the Italian night. I found he had fever--the wasting, exhausting ague
fever--which haunts the most beautiful coasts in the world. I did my
best to reassure him, telling him that it was not deadly, and that at
home he would soon be well; but I cannot say that I felt so cheerfully
as I spoke, and all that John did was to shake his head. As we turned
home again through all the groups of cheerful people, Chatty with her
arm clasped in mine, we talked, it is needless to say, of nothing else.
But not even to my child did I say what I meant to do. I am not rich,
but still I can afford myself a luxury now and then. When the children
were in bed I wrote a short letter, and put a cheque in it for twenty
pounds. This was what I said. I was too much excited to write just in
the ordinary way:--

‘Ellen, I have found John, ill, heart-broken, but as faithful and
unchanged as I always knew he was. If you have the heart of a mouse in
you come out instantly--don’t lose a day--and save him. It may be time
yet. If he can be got home to English air and to happiness it will still
be time.

‘I have written to your mother. She will not oppose you, or I am much
mistaken. Take my word for all the details. I will expect you by the
earliest possibility. Don’t write, but come.’

In less than a week after I went to Genoa, and met in the steamboat from
Marseilles, which was the quickest way of travelling then, a trembling,
large-eyed, worn-out creature, not knowing if she were dead or alive,
confused with the strangeness of everything, and the wonderful change in
her own life. It was one of John’s bad days, and nobody who was not
acquainted with the disease would have believed him other than dying. He
was lying in a kind of half-conscious state when I took Ellen into his
room. She stood behind me clinging to me, undistinguishable in the
darkened place. The flush of the fever was going off; the paleness as of
death and utter exhaustion stealing over him. His feeble fingers were
moving faintly upon the white covering of his bed; his eyelids half
shut, with the veins showing blue in them and under his eyes. But there
was a faint smile on his face. Wherever he was wandering in those
confused fever dreams, he was not unhappy. Ellen held by my arm to keep
herself from falling. ‘Hope! you said there was hope,’ she moaned in my
ear, with a reproach that was heart-rending. Then he began to murmur
with his almost colourless yet smiling lips, ‘I will come again, my
sweet and bonnie; I will come--again.’ And then the fingers faintly
beating time were still.

But no, no! Do not take up a mistaken idea. He was not dead; and he did
not die. We got him home after a while. In Switzerland, on our way to
England, I had them married safe and fast under my own eye. I would
allow no more shilly-shally. And, indeed, it appeared that Mrs. Harwood,
frightened by all the results of her totally unconscious domestic
despotism, was eager in hurrying Ellen off, and anxious that John should
come home. He never quite regained his former health, but he got
sufficiently well to take another situation, his former employers
anxiously aiding him to recover his lost ground. And they took
Montpellier Villa after all, to be near Pleasant Place, where Ellen goes
every day, and is, Mrs. Harwood allows, far better company for her
father, and a greater relief to the tedium of his life, than when she
was more constantly his nurse and attendant. I am obliged to say however
that the mother has had a price to pay for the emancipation of the
daughter. There is nothing to be got for nought in this life. And
sometimes Ellen has a compunction, and sometimes there is an unspoken
reproach in the poor old lady’s tired eyes. I hope for my own part that
when that ‘eldest little girl’ is a little older Mrs. Harwood’s life
will be greatly sweetened and brightened. But yet it is she that has to
pay the price; for no argument, not even the last severe winter, and
many renewed ‘attacks,’ will persuade that old tyrant, invisible in his
upper chamber, to die.

A song needs no story perhaps; but a story is always the better for a
song: so that after all I need not perhaps apologize to Beethoven and
his interpreters as I meant to do for taking their lovely music as a
suggestion of the still greater harmonies of life.

                                THE END

                    RICHARD CLAY AND SONS, LIMITED,

                          LONDON AND BUNGAY.





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