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Title: The Story of Valentine and His Brother
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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                                  THE

                          STORY OF VALENTINE

                            AND HIS BROTHER

                                  BY

                             MRS OLIPHANT

              AUTHOR OF ‘CHRONICLES OF CARLINGFORD,’ ETC.

                          STEREOTYPE EDITION

                      WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS
                         EDINBURGH AND LONDON
                              MDCCCLXXVI



            _ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN BLACKWOOD’S MAGAZINE_



                                  TO

                             MY ETON BOYS

                               C. F. O.
                               F. R. O.
                                 F. W.



                        THE STORY OF VALENTINE;

                           AND HIS BROTHER.



CHAPTER I.


Two ladies were seated in a great dim room, partially illuminated by
fits and starts with gleams of firelight. The large windows showed a
pale dark sky, in which twilight was giving place to night, and across
which the brown branches of the trees, rough with the buds of March,
tossed wildly in a hurricane of wind, burdened with intermittent blasts
of rain--rain that dashed fiercely against the windows a handful at a
time, then ceased till some new cloud was ready to discharge its angry
shower. Something fiercely personal and furious was in the storm. It
looked and felt like something not addressed to the world in general,
but aimed individually by some angry spirit of the elements at the
people who lived here high up above the brawling Esk amid the brown
wintry woods at Rosscraig House.

The drawing-room was large, lofty, and full of old-fashioned furniture
which would have enchanted a connoisseur. The two ladies, who were its
only occupants, were scarcely discernible at first, though the
firelight, gleaming about among the still life, caught here a green
reflection from a wonderful cabinet of rarest Vernis-Martin, and there
entangled itself in the bevelled sides of a strange old mirror, used to
reflecting wizards. It was more easy to make out these accessories of
existence than it was to identify the two voices which occupied and
reigned over this still and darkling chamber. They were in one corner
of the room near the fire; one, the prevailing voice, was soft but
strong, with the vigour in it of mature life, just roughened here and
there by a touch of age, which gave it an _aigre-doux_ of distinct
character--and came from an ample dark shadow in a great chair turned
towards the fire. The other, which gave forth only monosyllabic sounds
of assent or wonder, sweet and tender, but feeble, belonged to a smaller
person near the first, and facing her--whose countenance, turned towards
the window, showed like a pale whiteness in the dark. This was the
central light, the highest tone in the picture, except the pale gleaming
of the sky from the windows, and the fitful red flash from the fire.

“Richard’s story,” said the stronger voice, “cannot be supposed to be
very interesting to any but ourselves. If it is for mere curiosity,
Mary----”

“Curiosity!”--there was a tone of reproach in the soft repetition--a
reproach and an appeal.

“That was unkind. I did not mean it. I meant interest, friendship; but
Mary, Mary, friendship is weak, and interest a poor bit feeble echo of
feeling to them that are all bound up in one life, as I have been in my
son!”

Here there was a little pause, and then the younger voice answered,
faltering, “I have known him all my life. I have seen few men but
him----”

This was preliminary to the story which old Lady Eskside had begun to
tell when I opened to you, gentle reader, the door of this great dim
room. She was deep in it by the time we shadows entered, among the
shadows, to listen. And most of us can figure to ourselves what a mother
would be likely to say of her only child--the child not of her youth
even, which puts a kind of equality between mother and son, and brings
them together, as it were, upon one table-land of life, sooner or
later--but the child of her mature age, and therefore always a child to
her. What she said of him I need not repeat. The reader will make
acquaintance with the man for himself, a different creature from the man
as seen through his mother’s eyes.

“Perhaps it is not a thing to remark to you,” said the old lady, who was
old enough not only to retain a Scotch accent, but to use occasionally a
word peculiar to the north,--“but, Mary, you are not a bit girlie
unacquainted with the world. You will recognise Richard in this that he
married the woman.--God forgive me! I’m sorely tempted to think
sometimes that vice is less deadly for this world than virtue. You know
what most men would have done--they would have taken the girl as they
would have gathered a flower; and neither she nor one belonging to her
knew better, nor expected better; but my Richard, God bless him! was a
fool, Mary,--he was a fool! His father says so, and what can I say
different? He has always been a fool in that way, thank God! He married
the woman; and then he sent to me when it was all over and nothing could
be mended, to come and see, for God’s sake, what was to be done.”

“And you went?”

“I went after a struggle; I could not thole the creature,--the very name
of her was odious to me. It was a ridiculous name--a play-actor’s name.
They called her Altamira. What do you think of that for Richard’s wife?
I thought she was some shopkeeper’s daughter--some scheming, dressing,
half-bred woman that had made her plan to marry him because his father
was Lord Eskside--though, heaven knows, it’s a poor enough lordship when
all’s said. Perhaps we women are too apt to take that view; naturally,
when such a thing happens, we think it the woman’s fault--the woman’s
doing. But Mary, Mary, when I saw the girl----”

“You freed her,” said the other, with a sighing sound in her low voice,
“from the blame?”

“The blame!” cried the old lady, with some impatience; then, sinking her
voice low, she said hurriedly--“the girl was no shopkeeper’s daughter,
not even a cottage lass, nor out of a ploughman’s house, or a weaver’s
house, or the lowest you can think. She was out of no house at all--she
was a tramp. Mary, do you know what that means?--a creature hanging
about the roads and fields, at fairs and races, wherever the roughest,
and the wildest, and the most miserable congregate--that was Richard’s
wife----”

“Oh, Lady Eskside!”

“You may well say, Oh! As for me, if I had ever fainted in my life I
would have fainted then. She was a beautiful creature; but the sight of
her brought a sickness to my very heart. She was like a wild hunted
thing, frightened to death for me and everything that was
civilised--looking out of her wild black eyes to see how she could
escape--shrinking back not to be touched as if she thought I would give
her a blow. Blame! you might as well blame a deer that it let itself be
taken, poor, bonnie, panting, senseless thing! I blamed nobody, Mary; I
was just appalled, neither more nor less, at the man’s folly that had
done it. Think of a son of mine having so little command of himself! The
madness of it! for it was no question of making a lady of her, a woman
that could take his mother’s place. She had to be tamed first out of her
gipsy ways, tamed like a wild beast, and taught to live in a house, and
wear decent clothes as she had never done in her life.”

A low cry of dismay and wonder came from the listener’s lips, and a
strange pang which nobody knew of went through her heart--a pang
indescribable, mingled of misery, humiliation, and a kind of guilty and
bitter pride; guilty, though she was innocent enough. This was his
choice, she said to herself; and that sharp and stinging contempt--more
painful to herself than to the object of it--which a woman sometimes
permits herself to feel for a man who has slighted her, shot through the
gentlest soul in the world.

“I cannot tell you,” said Lady Eskside, her voice sinking low so that
her companion had to stoop forward to hear, “all that I went through.
She broke away from us, and got back to her people more than once. Our
ways were misery and bondage to her. At first she had to be dressed like
a child--watched like a child. Her husband had no influence over her,
and she was frightened for me: the moment she was out of our sight her
whole mind was busy with schemes to get away.”

“But what reason--what motive----” began the other, faltering.

“None,” said Lady Eskside. “Listen, Mary; there was one thing. She was
good, as people call good; there was no wickedness in her, as a woman.
What wife meant, in any higher sense, she was ignorant of; but there was
no harm--no harm. Always remember this, whatever may happen, and
whatever you may hear. I say it--Richard’s mother--that can have no
motive to shield her. She wanted her freedom, nothing more. She was not
an ill woman; nothing bad--in that way--was in her head. She would have
put her knife into the man who spoke lightly to her, as soon as look at
him. She was proud in her way of being Richard’s wife. She felt the
difference it made between her and others. But she was like a wild
animal, or a bird. She would not be caged, and there was too deep an
ignorance in her to learn. There was no foundation to build
upon--neither ambition, nor pride, nor any feeling that the like of us
expect to find.”

“And was there no--love?” The voice that made this inquiry
trembled andhad a thrill in it of feeling so mingled as to be
indescribable--bitterness, wonder, pity, and a sense of contrast more
overwhelming than all.

Lady Eskside did not reply at once. “Often and often I’ve asked myself
that question,” she said at length; “Was there love? How can I tell?
There are different kinds of love, Mary. You and I even would love very
differently, let alone you and her. With you there would be no thought
of anything but of the person loved----”

“I am not at all in question, Lady Eskside,” said the other, with the
strangest delicate haughtiness.

“I beg your pardon,” said the old lady, quickly. “You are right, my
dear; there is no question of you. But still there are different kinds
of love. Some think only of the person loved, as I said; but some are
roused up into a kind of fierce consciousness of themselves through
their very love. They feel their own individuality not less but more in
consequence of it. This was that poor creature’s way. Mixed with her
wild cravings for the freedom she had been used to, and the wild outdoor
life she had been used to, I think she had a sort of half-crazy feeling
how unlike Richard she was; and this became all the stronger when I
came. My dear,” said Lady Eskside, suddenly, “the most untrained woman
feels what another woman thinks of her far more than she feels any man’s
criticism. I have thought and thought on this for years, and perhaps I
put my own thoughts into her mind; but I cannot help fancying that
sometimes, though she did not understand me in the least, poor thing,
she caught a glimpse of herself through my eyes; and what with this, and
what with her longing to be out of doors, she grew desperate, and then
she ran away.”

The listener made no reply. I don’t think she cared to hear any excuse
made for the wild woman who was Richard’s wife--whom Richard had chosen
instead of any other, and who had thus justified his choice.

“I stayed as long as I could, and tried all I could,” Lady Eskside
continued, “and then there came a time when I felt it was better for me
to go away. I told Richard so, and I advised him to take her
abroad--where she would have nobody to fly to. And so he did, and
wandered about with her everywhere. I can’t think but what she must
have made some advances, in sense, at least, while they were so much
together; but it takes a long time to tame a savage; it takes a long
time to graft a new stock upon a wild tree.”

“And have you never seen her again?”

“I saw her when her children were born. She was so far tamed then by
weakness, and by the natural restraint of the circumstances,” said Lady
Eskside, “that I hoped she might be changed altogether. And she would
talk a little--not so much as that one could find out how her mind was
working--but yet a little--enough to swear by; and her voice was
changed. It lost its wild sound and took finer modulations. You know how
particular Richard always was in all his ways--you remember his voice.”

The other drew back her chair a little. Somehow the sudden reference
struck her like an arrow through and through. It was not her fault. For
years she had been trying to think of Richard--as she ought to
think--not too much, nor too kindly, but with gentle indifference and
friendship; no, not indifference; old long friendship which may be
permitted to remember. “Like his sister,” she had often said to herself.
But somehow these sudden words, “You remember his voice,” struck poor
Mary at unawares. They brought her down to the very ground. She tried
with a choking sobbing sensation to get out the word “Yes.” Remember it!
She seemed to hear it and nothing else, till her head ached and swam,
and there was a ringing in her ears.

“Ah!” Lady Eskside paused, with a wondering sense that something was
going on in the dark more potent than mere interest in her story. But
after a while, as even a story which is one’s own takes a stronger hold
upon one than the emotion of another, however deep--she recommenced,
going back to herself. “Her voice had changed wonderfully. She spoke
almost like an educated person--that gave me great hope. I thought, what
with the children and what with this opening of new life in herself,
that everything would be changed; and my heart was moved to her. When I
left I kissed the children, and for the first time I kissed her; and I
promised to send her a nurse, an excellent nurse I knew of, and came
home quite happy. You recollect my coming home, and how proud I was of
the twins--the darlings! Oh, Mary, Mary! little did I know----”

Mary put out her hand and took that of her old friend. She was too much
moved herself to say anything. From this point she had a faint knowledge
of the story, as everybody had.

“The next I heard was that she had disappeared,” said the old
lady;--“disappeared totally, taking the babies with her. Richard went
with me so far on my way home, and while he was absent his wife
disappeared. There is no other word for it; she disappeared, and no one
has ever heard of her again. Oh, Mary, what news for us all! There had
been some gipsy wanderers, some of her own class, about the place, we
found out afterwards; and whether they carried her off, or she went of
her own will, nobody knows. Sometimes I have thought she must have been
carried away, but then they would not have taken the children; and
sometimes I have blamed myself, and thought that what I said about the
nurse may have frightened her--God knows. We sought her everywhere,
Mary, as you may suppose. I went myself up and down over all the
country, and Richard went to America, and I cannot tell you where. We
had the police employed, and every sort of person we could think of; but
we have never heard any more of her to this day.”

“Nor of the children?” said Mary, drawing closer and holding still more
tenderly her old friend’s hand.

“Nor of the children; two bonnie boys--oh, my dear, two lovely boys!”
cried the old lady, with a sob. “I never saw such sweet children. You
may fancy all I had said to my old lord when I came home, about them:
one was to have my property, such as it is, and the other the Eskside
lands. A single heir would have been better, Lord Eskside said, in his
way, you know--but he was as proud as I was. Two boys!--no fear of the
old house dying out. We began to plan out the new wing we had always
thought of building. Oh, Mary, now you will understand how I can never
laugh when the gentlemen make a joke with my poor old lord about the new
wing!”

“Dear Lady Eskside! but you must not--you must not break down--for his
sake.”

“No, I must never break down; and if I would I could not,” said the old
lady; “it’s no my nature. I must keep up. I must stand firm till my last
day. But, Mary, though it is my nature, I have to pay for it, as one
pays for everything. Oh, the weary nights I have lain awake thinking I
heard her wandering round the house, thinking I heard her at the window
trying to get in. She knew nothing about Rosscraig--nothing; but,
strange enough, I always think of her coming here. When the wind’s
blowing as it blows to-night, when the leaves are falling in autumn--oh,
Mary, have you never heard a sound like steps going round and round the
house?”

“It is only the leaves falling,” said Mary; and then she added,
suddenly, “I have heard everything that the heart hears.”

“And that’s more than the ears ever hear tell of,” said the old lady;
“but oh, to live for years and never hear that without thinking it may
be them--never to see beggar bairns on a roadside without thinking it
may be them--to go watching and waiting and wondering through your life,
starting at every noise, trembling at every sudden sound--God help us!
what is that--what is that?” she cried, suddenly rising to her feet.

“Oh, Lady Eskside!” cried the other, rising too, and grasping her hand
with a nervous shudder; “it is nothing--nothing but the storm.”

The old lady dropped heavily into her seat again. “Sometimes I cannot
bear it,” she cried--“sometimes I cannot bear it! I get half-crazed at
every sound.”

“The wind is very high,” said Mary, soothing her, “and the Esk is
running wild over the linn, and the storm tearing the trees. It must be
the equinoctial gales. If you only heard them as we do, roaring and
raging over the sea!”

For a few minutes the two ladies sat quite still holding each other’s
hands. The storm outside was wild enough to impose silence upon those
within. The trees were tossing about as if in an agony, against the pale
whiteness of the sky; now and then a deeper note would come into the
tumult of sound, the hoarse roar of the river, which grew rapidly into a
torrent at the foot of the hill; and then the wind would rush, like the
avenging spirit through the bleeding wood in the Inferno, tearing off
the limbs of the trees, which shrieked and cried in unavailing torment.
The last lingering rays of twilight had disappeared out of the sky, the
last gleams of firelight were sinking too--even the mirrors had sunk out
of sight upon the walls, and nothing but the large windows filled with
the mournful pallor of the sky, and Mary’s pale face, a spot of
congenial whiteness, were even partially visible. After this story, and
while they sat silent, conscious of the strange stillness within, and
commotion outside, was it their imaginations that represented to them
another sound striking into the roar of the storm? Lady Eskside did not
start again as she had done before, but she grasped Mary’s hand tightly;
while Mary, for her part, sat bolt-upright in her chair, thinking to
herself that it must be imagination, that it was a mere trick of
excitement which filled her ears with echoes of fanciful knockings. Who
could be knocking at this hour? or how could such a sound be heard even,
in the onslaught of the storm?

What was it? what could it be? Now, was that the forlorn peal of a bell?
and now a gust of cold air as if the door in opening had admitted the
storm in person, which swept through the house like a mountain stream;
and now a wild dash and clang as if the same door had closed again,
shaking the very walls. Tighter and tighter Lady Eskside grasped Mary’s
hand. No words passed between them, except a faint “It is nothing--it is
fancy,” which came from Mary’s lips unawares, and under her breath. Was
it fancy? Was it some curious reverberation through the air of the
countless anxieties which the old lady had hushed in her mind for years,
but which until now she had never betrayed? For the next few minutes
they heard their own hearts beating loud over the storm; and then there
came another sound ludicrous in its methodical calm, which startled them
still more than the sounds they had supposed themselves to hear.

“Something has happened, Mary!” cried Lady Eskside, withdrawing her
grasp and wringing her hands. “Something has happened! some one has
arrived, and Harding is coming to let us know.”

“He is coming to light the lamps,” said Mary, making one desperate
effort to throw off the superstitious impression; and she laughed. The
laugh sounded something terrible, full of mockery and contempt in the
midst of the always resounding storm; the echo of it seemed to breathe
all round the room, calling forth diabolical echoes. In the midst of
these Harding came solemnly into the room. He was an elderly man, who
had been many years in the house, and was deeply impressed by the
solemnity of his own position. He came in without any light, and stood
invisible at the door, another voice and nothing else. “My lady,” said
Harding, solemnly, “something has happened--something as is very
mysterious and we can’t understand. Would it be a great trouble to your
ladyship if we was to ask you to come down-stairs?”

She had sprung up nervously at his first words. She rushed now before
him down-stairs--unable to reply, unable to question--as light as a girl
of twenty, though three times that age; followed trembling by the other,
who was not half so old, nor half so full of life as she.



CHAPTER II.


Before I can fully explain what happened next, and what Lady Eskside saw
when she rushed down-stairs, I am obliged to turn back for some hours to
the afternoon of this day, and for some miles, to a scene of a very
different kind--a scene so opposed to the other in all its
circumstances, that it is strange to realise the close connection
between them; though the two were so closely linked together as to be
incomprehensible, one without the other. The village of Lasswade lies on
the Esk, at a lower elevation, and nearer to the sea, than Rosscraig
House. It was, at the time I speak of, a much more primitive village
than it is now, when so many cottages of gentility have sprung up around
as to make it almost a suburb of Edinburgh. It consisted of little more
than one street, which straggled off into the country at one end, and at
the other dragged itself across the bridge to conclude in a humble
postscript of an additional street on the other side of the water. The
Esk, which ran through it, was not beautiful at this point. It was
somewhat dirty, and encumbered with the overflowings of the village; but
yet the groups of clustered houses on either side of the river, framed
in by the high wooded banks which you could see rising in the distance
on either hand as you stood on the bridge, and with the fresh green
fringe of rich and silent country beyond, was a pretty sight. There was
no railway near at that time, but a coach ran regularly on all lawful
days, from the corner of Princes Street to the Bull Inn in the High
Street, and conveyed its few passengers with a regularity and
steadiness quite satisfactory to those leisurely people. But the aspect
of Lasswade, though considered cheerful and inviting by its Edinburgh
visitors, was very dreary on this March afternoon, when the wind blew a
hurricane, and the rain now and then came down in torrents. Between
these storm-showers there came “blinks” of intermission, when people who
loved to see what was going on came forth to their doors, after the
fashion of the place; and it was this humble sprinkling of the
population which, as many of them remembered later, witnessed the
passage through the town of a still humbler visitor, a poor woman who
arrived shortly before the darkening in a miserable condition enough.
Two small boys accompanied her, wet through, splashed with mud, and
crying with weariness, and with the buffets of the wind which blew them
off their little legs. The woman was tall, wrapt in an old shawl of that
indescribable no-colour of which the vagrant class has a monopoly. Her
damp clothes hung limp about her, her poor bonnet, wet and limp like her
dress, clung to the dark locks which here and there escaped from its
cover. She was a stranger, as her weary and bewildered looks testified,
and the children who clung to her on either side seemed to confuse her
still more by their whimpering weariness. This melancholy little group
came over the bridge in one of the pauses of the storm, when a few
people had strayed out to their doors to relieve the _ennui_ of the wet
and stormy day by a little gossip at least. Chief among these were
Merran Miller, the blacksmith’s wife, a woman too fond of hearing
everything that was going on (people said) for the comfort of her house;
and the old postman, Simon Simson, whose work was over for the day. When
the stranger approached this knot of gossips, and asked the way to Jean
Macfarlane’s inn, they all answered at once, glad of an event, with
directions on the one hand and remonstrances on the other. Old Simon
pointed out the way with officious haste; but Mrs Miller stopped the
wayfarer to tender advice.

“My woman,” she said, “I would not go to Jean Macfarlane’s if I were
you. You’re wet and cauld, but a wee piece further would make little
difference. John Todd at the Loanhead is real respectable, and would
give lodgings just as cheap.”

“Hoots, woman! Jean Macfarlane will do her nae harm,” cried old Simon,
interrupted in the midst of his instructions.

“It’s no a house for an honest woman,” said the smith’s wife, “or for
little bairns, poor things. They maun have travelled far the day to be
so wet and so draiglet. Bide a moment and I’ll give them a piece.”

“Where did you say it was?” said the stranger, vacantly, paying no
regard to this benevolent offer; and she went on with her children,
following the old man’s directions, without waiting for Mrs Miller’s
return with the “piece” which she had gone into her house to seek. This
of itself was a strange thing to happen with any one so poor and
miserable, and impressed the fact of her appearance upon the mind of the
smith’s wife, mortified by such a tacit refusal of her kindness. “She
maun be a foreigner--or a fool,” said Merran, standing with the rejected
piece in her hand, and watching the retreating figures as they
approached Jean Macfarlane’s door.

Jean Macfarlane’s house was worse spoken of than any other house in
Lasswade. Every disturbance that happened in the tranquil place came
from that centre of disorder and lawlessness; and to lodge there, or to
propose lodging there, was of itself a tacit acknowledgment of vagrancy,
or at least of an absence of that regard for other people’s opinions
which is the first step towards respectability. All the disreputable
class of travellers who passed through so quiet a place found their way
to it by instinct, and recommended others of their own kind. No one was
too low for Jean Macfarlane. Pedlars of the lowest class, travelling
tinkers, tramps without even that pretence at occupation, frequented her
house. She was herself the most dreaded personage in the village: a
large, coarsely-handsome woman, loud-voiced and hot-tempered, the most
terrible scold and “randy” on all Eskside. The minister, who had once
attempted, simple soul, to bring her to reason, had been made to flee
before her; and the chief elder of the parish, Mr Mouter himself, was
known to be in the habit of walking a mile round rather than pass her
door,--a proceeding at which many people scoffed, asking, What was
religion if it preserved you so little from the fear of man, or indeed
of woman? It may be supposed, then, that the poor woman who openly asked
to be directed to Jean Macfarlane’s was as poor and as completely beyond
all regard for the prejudices of society as it was possible to be. She
went on without pause or hesitation, with an abstracted indifference of
demeanour which perhaps was occasioned by mere weariness and
discomfort, to the little tavern. The aspect of the house was not
encouraging, neither was the reception which the traveller received. It
was the last house in the village, dreary always, drearier than ever on
this stormy afternoon. In the poor little parlour with its sanded floor,
which was the better part of the establishment, two men, in wet coats,
steaming from the rain, sat before the fire, talking loudly over their
little measure of whisky, while Jean’s voice rang through the house as
she went and came, in a continuous and generally angry monologue. The
newcomer came up to her timidly, holding back the children, and asked in
a low tone for a room with a fire, where she and her children could
rest. “A room to yoursel’!” said the mistress of the house; “set you up!
are you better than other folk, that ye canna share and share alike?
Sirs, this leddy’s mista’en her road. She thinks she’s at the Bull,
where there’s plenty o’ parlours and private rooms, and naebody tae gang
near them. Here’s a’ the private room you’ll get in my house. Eh, woman,
canna ye stop the mouth o’ that girning brat? It’s cauld and weet? I can
see that: but it needna deave decent folk. Sit aff from the fire and let
the woman in, ye twa drucken brutes o’ men! What do you want there,
dribbling and drinking, and spending your wives’ siller? Let the puir
bit things get near the fire----”

“Jean, you’re the greatest randy in the parish!” said one of the men,
getting up in time to save himself from the ignominious push aside which
sent his companion, reeling, out of the way.

“And if I’m a randy, what are ye? drucken beasts that drink a’ night and
sit owre the fire a’ day? Ca’ yourselves men!” cried Jean, with the
freedom of perfect independence. “You can sit down here, wife, if this
will do ye. Eh, what a handless thing that canna warm her wean’s feet,
nor even gie’t a clat on the side o’ the head to make it haud its
tongue! Ye’re a’ alike, a’ alike. Tea? Lord preserve us! what does the
woman want wi’ tea? A wee drap whisky would do ye ten times the good.
Will I gie ye what ye want? Oh ay, now you’ve gotten to your English
I’ll gie ye what ye want--if ye’ll make thae little deevils stop their
clatter, and no look sic a draiglet idiot yoursel’.”

The men laughed uneasily, not knowing whether they might not divert the
stream of Jean’s eloquence upon themselves, as she thus rated her other
guest; but all took the despotism as a matter of course, and submitted
meekly, without anything of the surprise or indignation with which the
lodgers of a different kind of hostelry would have regarded such an
address. They were her customers, it is true, but at the same time they
were her subjects. The new-comer scarcely, indeed, seemed to hear the
abuse directed against her. She drew her little boys to the fire, took
one on her knee and put her arm round the other, drying their little wet
hands and faces with a corner of her shawl. They were subdued into quiet
and comfort by the time that Mrs Macfarlane’s servant-lass, Jess,
brought them their tea, on a battered old iron tray, with coarse brown
sugar, and a jug of skim-milk flanking the broken and smoky teapot.
People in this poor woman’s condition of life are not fastidious, and
the miserable beverage warmed and comforted the humble travellers. After
some time and much further parley with Jess--who was less peremptory and
despotic than her mistress, though she, too, felt herself the superior
of so poor a guest--the woman and her children were allowed to go
up-stairs into a dingy little bedroom,--a poor exchange for the fireside
which, grimy as it was, had the comfort of warmth. Dear reader, your
children or mine would (in our apprehensions at least) have died of such
treatment; but the tramp-mother is saved from anxieties which trouble
mothers in other circumstances. She did all she could for them, and
which of us can do more? She had no dry clothes to put on them, but she
was not afraid of taking cold. She put them both on the bed, where they
soon fell asleep, and covered them with a blanket;--they were damp but
warm, and rest was heavenly to their poor little wearied limbs. They
were asleep as soon as their little heads touched the pillow; and then
she sat down by the bedside--to think.

How many processes get called by that name which have little enough to
do with thought! The mother of these children had lived up to this time
an almost entirely physical existence--if it is possible to say this of
one who had gone through passions and miseries, and acted upon impulses
which had to do with the more ethereal part of her being. She had been
moved to despair, which is (I humbly suppose, not knowing) a sensation
beyond the reach of any animal, save man; but never in all her life had
she been moved before by a tremendous moral impulse, against her own
will, and in contradiction to all that she believed to be for her own
good and happiness. At other times she had eased the pain in her breast
by sudden resolutions, sudden actions, all more or less like the
instincts of an animal, to get rid of some burden or trouble which
oppressed her. But somehow, she could not tell how, an entirely new tide
had set in, mysterious and unaccountable, in her being. She had been
driven by an impulse which she hated, which she resisted, which made her
miserable, to do a certain act which her wild and uninstructed mind took
to be justice. Long she had struggled against it, but gradually it had
grown until it became too much for her, and had driven her at last to
the verge of an act which would make her miserable, yet would be
_right_. What a wonderful moral revolution had been worked in a creature
so untaught as to seem without any moral nature at all, before things
came to this pass, I need not say. And now she sat down, as she
thought--to think; not to think whether she would do it, but--which it
was to be? Her mind was wildly made up, after many a conflict, to submit
to the wild law of justice which had seized upon her against her will.
She was about to give up, to “them that had the right to it,” one of her
children. What she had to decide now was--which was it to be?

I do not believe that a woman ever sullied by vice would have been
capable of the moral impression to which this woman had been made
subject. I think that the natural consciousness (rather than conscience)
of the vicious, coincides curiously with common law in this
respect,--giving, with a bitterness of natural scorn, upon which
conventional interpretations throw the aspect of a privilege and
advantage, no fatherhood to the vicious man, and but one parent to the
child of shame. Purity alone recognises the right on both sides; though
law stops short with insolent opposition to nature, and robs the
virtuous woman as it robs, justly, the vicious man. How long it was
before it dawned upon the woman of whom I speak, in the confusion of her
uninstructed thoughts, in the bewildered silence of her ignorant soul,
that she had robbed the father of her children in taking both of them, I
cannot tell; nor how long in her absolute solitude, with no one to
counsel or even to understand what was in her mind, she fought against
the idea; but at last it had become too strong for her. To my thinking
there could be no such unanswerable argument to prove that she had
remained an uncontaminated wife; and now the long-debated question had
come to its hardest point, its most limited compass--which was she to
give and which to keep, of the two who were all in all to her? Which was
she to give away?

Poor soul! she had done much that was very foolish, and much that was
wrong (but that because she knew no better) in her life. She had been a
trouble to many better people than herself. She had spoiled one other
existence as well as her own, and thrown a cloud upon several lives--all
without knowing much what she was doing,--without meaning it--out of
ignorance. Now here she sat, absolute arbitress of two lives more, able
to determine their course almost as she pleased, yet as ignorant as
ever--as little aware of the real character of her responsibility. If
ever woman merited pity, this poor woman did--not only to give up one of
her children, but to choose which to give up. Her brain, so dull, yet so
keen as it was, became, as it were, suffused with a mist of pain; her
head grew giddy, a film came before her eyes; a sense of the intolerable
overwhelmed her--that terrible sensation which makes your very being
reel like a drunken thing, the sense that you cannot bear that which you
know you must bear, whatever happens. She put down her throbbing head
into her hands. To keep silent for that terrible moment--not to cry out
and writhe, as this sword went through her heart, was all that she could
do.

She was a tall young woman, with a fine, elastic, well-developed figure,
looking about thirty, but not so old. Her features were very fine and
regular: her great, restless, unquiet, dark eyes flashed out of deep
caverns, which seemed to have been hollowed out by pain or passion
rather than by time. Any delicacy of complexion or youthful bloom which
she had ever possessed must have been long gone, for her skin was burned
to one uniform tint of reddish brown--the colour of exposure, of health
and vigour, but of that vigour and health which are purchased by all the
severities of an outdoor life. No one could see her once without looking
again, without wondering over so much beauty accompanied by so little
attractiveness. She had vagrant written in every line of her fine form
and miserable dress; but notwithstanding there was that in her abstract
look, always busy with something else than the thing immediately before
her--in a certain careless calm of manner, and indifference to all
surrounding her, which, I think, would have made the most abandoned of
men hesitate ere he offered any rudeness to this strange vagrant. She
had a wedding-ring on her finger--that was no great matter, for it is
easy to show to the world that ensign of respectability; but there was
something more trustworthy in her look and presence, the passionless
abstraction of her air. In her rough dress, with her outdoor look, her
hard hands, her strange beauty scarcely on the wane, she was protected
from every shadow of insult by the stony purity of her looks. Such a
woman might be miserable enough, but wanton never.

There were dreary red curtains half drawn over the window, and the dingy
blind was partially drawn down, leaving little light in the miserable
room, even had the sky been bright; and it was now darkening towards
night. It was the physical cold, I think--that discomfort which always
makes itself doubly felt when the mind is weighed down with
trouble--which roused her to the sense that what she had to do must be
done quickly. She rose up and wandered, tottering, round and round the
bed--first to one side, then to the other, asking herself that
heartrending question, Which? The children lay there in the pretty grace
of childish _abandon_. One little fellow had kicked off unawares his
muddy boot, which fell to the ground, and startled her so that she put
her hands to her panting side, and did not recover the shock for some
moments. He was the fair child of the two, and lay like a little white
angel with his dimpled hands stretched above his head in the perfect
grace of infant sleep. The other was almost as dark as his brother was
fair; his black curly locks were ruffled up from his bold forehead, his
little arms folded on his breast, his rose-mouth shut close with
unconscious resoluteness--though it might be but the mother’s sick fancy
which saw this expression on the little face. They were beautiful
children both, with a general resemblance to each other; yet very
unlike,--one so blond, and the other so dark, one so delicately gentle
in his aspect, the other bold and handsome like a little gipsy prince.
Poor soul! what words can I use to describe the agony of choice with
which this unhappy woman hung over them? But she made no choice at
all--how could she? Suddenly, in passionate quick decision of her fate
and his, she snatched the dark child into her arms--not because she
loved him least, nor because he was the eldest, nor for any other
reasonable motive under heaven. Only because the other, God help her!
had kicked off his boot upon the floor. In such a terrible choice, what
but the most fantastic chance, the wildest hazard, can tell upon a mind
distraught? She caught him up to her, with anxious care not to wake him,
which contrasted strangely with the passion and misery in her face. Once
having done it, nature itself demanded that no moment should be lost.
She gathered him closely into her arms, wrapped her shawl round him, and
leaving the other on the bed, went swiftly and silently down the dark
stairs, and out into the night.

If any one had spoken to her or touched her, I believe the poor
distracted creature would have gone mad or fallen into dead
unconsciousness; for nature was strained in her almost to the furthest
limit; but no one saw or interfered, or knew what was being done. She
never looked at the boy again, but held him fast and hurried on. He was
a child of seven years old, but small and light; in her vigorous
arms--she was as strong as a man, as light and rapid as a savage--he was
as a feather’s weight. She went away with him unnoticed, wrapping her
poor shawl round him to keep him from the rain, through the muddy roads,
in the storm and dusky twilight. Merran Miller, the smith’s wife,
shutting her door in the darkening, when the rain began to blow in, saw
the dark figure pass, and said to herself that Jean Macfarlane had sent
the beggar-wife away; and oh! what a night it was to travel in, even for
the like of her! “But what’s come o’ the bairns?” she asked herself;
then shut the door, and went in, and stirred her fire, and put on her
kettle. The beggar-wife and her bairns were no concern of hers.

“The beggar-wife” went swiftly up by dark Eskside beneath the trees,
that waved overhead like spirits in pain. She was blinded with the rain,
not with tears, for her eyes were dry and refused to shed more. Her
limbs trembled under her, but her wild heart and purpose did not fail.
After a time she came back again alone, without her burden. The dark
branches still tossed against the pale sky, and kept on their passionate
struggle against the elements; but the forlorn human creature who
tottered along underneath, swift but unsteady, beaten about by the wind,
drenched by the rain, too miserable to feel either, had lost all sense
of struggle. The lassitude of soul which comes after a great act
accomplished was in her. She went like a ghost across the bridge, where
no one now was visible, so much had the storm increased, and up the
further end of the village street. Jean Macfarlane was sitting with her
guests in the little room down-stairs, drinking with them, and filling
the air with her loud excited voice and torrent of words. There was no
one in the passage or stair to note the dark figure gliding back to the
room which no one had cared to notice since she entered it. It was dark,
but she required no light. The other child, he who remained, her only
one, lay still as she had left him. She put down her face upon his warm
flushed cheek; she lifted him tenderly on her lap, and put on his little
boot, and soothed him when he woke and cried in the dark, and clung to
her. “Mother’s here!--mother’s here!” she murmured, crooning to him,
poor wretched hopeless soul! with the voice of a dove in her nest. Then
she took him too in her arms, and going down-stairs stopped the dirty
maid who was Jean Macfarlane’s whole staff of service, and paid for the
poor refreshment she had had. “You’re no going on sic a night?” said the
girl; “and whaur’s the other wee laddie?” “He has gone on before,” said
the mother. “We are going to meet the coach at Loanhead.” “Then you’ll
have to be awfu’ quick,” cried the girl, compassionate. “Poor wee man!
what a night to be out in! Here’s a piece to give them when you’re in
the coach; but oh, woman, tak’ pity on the bairns, and bide till the
morn. It’s enough to give them their death.”

“I cannot stay--good night,” cried the stranger, passing out. The
good-natured lass, though she was dirty, looked after her, shaking an
unkempt head, and twisting up as she did so an elf-lock which had fallen
out of the poor hold of her deficient hair-pins. “Eh, thae tramps, what
an awfu’ life!” Jess said to herself, comparing her own position with
that of the wanderer, with a thrill of superior comfort and well-being.
She paused to fasten up the refractory lock before she followed to the
door to look out after the departing guest; but by that time the
darkness had swallowed her up, and nothing was visible except the wild
sweeping rain, which came down in a sheet, visible across the blackness
of the night, like the warp of a sable web. “Lord save us! sic a night
to be out in! and oh thae puir weans!” cried Jess, with a grimy tear in
the corner of her eye.

The stranger and her child got into the coach at Loanhead, but they did
not reach Edinburgh in that respectable conveyance. Somewhere in the
outskirts of the town they managed to drop out of the coach, leaving the
money for their fare on the damp seat, which their wet clothes had
soaked. “A queer customer yon, but an awfu’ honest woman!” the coachman
said, with mingled wonder and admiration. It was still scarcely night,
though so much had happened since it began to grow dark. The vagrant
found her way to some haunt of vagrants such as I do not know, and have
no chance of being able to describe, and there passed the night safe
from all search or possibility of pursuit, encompassed by securities and
precautions which can only be made perfect by a class at war with
society. She herself had done no crime so far as any one knew; but the
instinctive suspicion of a race accustomed to shelter from the eye of
justice kept her safe. Notwithstanding the hue and cry that was raised
after her, she went on her way as secure as any woman could be, and got
back to England with her boy, and disappeared among the mysterious
fastnesses of her class, not to reappear or be heard of for years. Poor
soul! she had left no traces behind her by which she could be
recognised. Even in Jean Macfarlane’s house the instinct of caste was
roused to cover her retreat. “A woman with a wean? Am I to remark a’ the
women with weans that come and gang afore my door--there’s ower mony o’
them, far ower mony! I’ve something better to do than to glowr at
women,” cried the mistress of the place. “There was but ane here--a real
decent person, with twa bairns. She took them baith away with her, safe
and sound, and got the coach at Loanhead,” said Jess. “What like was
she? How am I to tell that never saw her but in her bannet? A’ that I
can tell you was that she sighed sair, mair like a moan than a sigh. She
was a real decent woman,” cried good-hearted Jess. And this was all her
history and description--all by which she could be identified among
others. The prolonged investigations that were made disclosed nothing
more.



CHAPTER III.


The hall at Rosscraig was large and long: there was a great fireplace in
it, from which came a feeble gleam of firelight. A large lamp, swinging
from the raftered roof, threw but a moderate light into its great height
and space; but upon a side-table a candle was flaring, its long waving
flame blown about by the movement in the air, which had not yet subsided
after the opening of the door. A group of servants who had been crowding
round some unseen object in the corner dispersed hastily as Lady Eskside
was seen descending the stair, but only to hang about behind-backs
waiting the interpretation of the mystery. One person only, an old and
confidential servant, kept her place near the door, round which there
was a wide stain of wet made by the rain, which had burst in when it was
opened. Lady Eskside went forward bewildered, not perceiving what it was
she had been called to see; and it was not till a sick disappointment
had begun to creep over her that the old lady found out the central
object on which all eyes were turned. On the great skin mat which lay
between the door and the wall stood something so small and dark as to be
almost undistinguishable, till the light caught a glimmer and sparkle
from a pair of eyes low down, gleaming out of a little pale and scared
face. Lady Eskside went slowly forward, bracing herself for something,
she knew not what. When she caught the gleam of those eyes, she stood
still and uttered a sudden cry.

A child stood there, with its feet buried in the long skin of the mat,
backing closely into the corner for support, half frightened, half
defiant. Tears were standing in those great eyes, and hanging on the
pale little cheek--the lip was ready to quiver at a moment’s notice; but
still he confronted the novel world in which he found himself with a
certain defiance. The old lady, who felt all her dreams and hopes
suddenly realised at the first glance, went nearer to him, with
tremulous excitement, and stooped down over the child. Her whole frame
was trembling--a mist obscured her eyes. “Who are you?--who are you?”
she cried. “Oh, who are you?” then stopping short as the frightened look
got the mastery on the child’s face, and his lip began to quiver, she
changed her tone with a wonderful effort, and dropped down upon her
knees on the mat to bring herself on a level with him. Lady Eskside saw
in the little face more than any one else could see, and knew him, as
she said afterwards, at once. “My bonny man!” she cried, “my poor little
man, nobody will hurt you. What is your name, and who brought you here?
You are safe--quite safe--and nobody will harm you. Who are you, and who
brought you here?”

The child made a pause--he was struggling proudly against his
inclination to cry; and there was breathless silence in the hall as if
some great revelation had been about to be made. Then a small whimpering
voice, with tears in it, made itself audible, “I am--Val,” it said.

Lady Eskside rose up as if by some force which she could not resist. She
turned upon Mary Percival, and the group of servants beyond, with
uplifted hands, calling their attention imperatively, though for the
moment she could not speak. Then her voice broke forth, choked and
hoarse, “Val! Mary, you hear, you hear! Did not I know it? Val! Oh, at
last, at last!”

Then in a moment she stilled herself, and knelt down trembling upon the
mat. “My bonnie little man!” she said, her voice trembling, “tell me
again. Val--Val what? And, oh, who brought you here?”

“Nobody don’t call me nothing but Val,” said the child. “Mammy brought
me. Not for no harm. She’s gone back for Dick.”

“Ah!” Lady Eskside’s breath seemed to stop. She put out one hand behind
her, and plucked blindly at Mary Percival’s dress, to call her close
attention. “Your mammy has gone back--for--Dick?”

“He’s down at the village,” said the child, keeping his eyes fixed upon
her with the watchfulness of terror. “He’s asleep. I’ve got to wait for
mammy. She put me in out of the rain. I’ll be good till mammy comes. Oh,
don’t let him touch me! I ain’t come for no harm.”

Harding the butler had approached nearer, anxious to bring his superior
cleverness to his mistress’s aid; and it was this movement which made
the little fellow back further into his corner, holding up one small arm
before his face as if to ward off a blow. A precocious knowledge of
danger and a precocious desperation of baby courage glimmered in his
frightened but excited eyes. “I won’t touch nobody if you’ll let me
alone!” he cried.

“Stand back, Harding,” said Lady Eskside; and then she laid her soft old
hand upon the child’s raised arm, which yielded to her touch. “Nobody
will harm you here, my poor little bonnie man. Oh, look at him! look at
him, Mary! Is it my old een that deceive me? Is it from having always
one idea in my head? But you are not half-crazy like me. Mary, try to
forget the name and everything else. Look at his face!”

Mary Percival stood close behind, as much moved in her way, though with
feelings very different from those of her old friend. Instead of the
love and yearning in Lady Eskside’s heart, there was something which
felt like half-hatred--a repugnance for which she detested herself--in
the intense interest with which she had watched every look and movement
of the little alien creature. Her voice was low and choked as she
replied, as if the words were extracted from her, “I am looking at him.
He is dark--not fair--like--his father. He has different eyes. Oh, Lady
Eskside, what can I say? Everything else is Richard--everything; and I
don’t wish to think so like you.”

I do not believe that Lady Eskside heard these last words, which were
foreign to the passionate tenderness and joy in her own mind. She heard
only so much as chimed in with her own thoughts. “Mary sees it too,” she
said, with a low outcry of such emotion as cannot be put into words. She
was still on her knees in the attitude of prayer. With one hand she held
the child fast, and with the other she covered her face. Some low
sounds, but they were not audible words, came from her as she
knelt--sounds which no one around heard distinctly, yet all understood
by the strange sentiment of mingled anguish and rapture there was in
them. Then she rose up, shaken and agitated, yet all her vigorous self.

“Harding,” she said, “you’ll stay here and watch--till--she comes back.
For God’s sake take care what you do. You must not scare her, or send
her away; or go out yourself down the avenue, and let your wife stay
here. It’s a matter of life and death. Marg’ret, you hear all I say.”
This was to the housekeeper, Harding’s wife. “Keep the house quiet; no
noise, no excitement; but watch and be ready. Let one of the women
prepare the green room, and light fires; and Joseph can bring me wine,
and some milk for the children. Oh, thank God that I can say such a
word! You’ll show--_her_--every respect. Marg’ret, Marg’ret, you know
what I mean?”

“Oh, yes, my lady--yes! I see it a’,” cried the housekeeper; “but it
will be too much for you.”

“Joy’s never hard to bear,” said Lady Eskside, with a smile. “My bonnie
boy! come with me--you are not afraid of me?”

The child looked at her with his great eyes, which fright and novelty
and the paleness of his little face made twice their usual size.
“Richard never had eyes like these,” Miss Percival said to herself; but
it would have been cruel, indeed, to have said this aloud. He paused a
moment irresolute, and then gave a wild glance at the door, as if the
impulse of flight was the strongest; then he put his little cold hand,
half-reluctantly, into the soft white hand held out for it. The old lady
looked round upon them all with a glow of triumph indescribable; how her
hand closed upon those little tremulous fingers! She marched to the door
of the dining-room, which was nearest, her whole figure expanding like
some Roman woman in a victor’s procession. What battle had she won? what
enemy had she conquered? Mary, full of strange agitation, followed her,
wondering, tremulous, excited, but always with a certain repugnance,
into the warm room, all ruddy and cheerful with light from the fire.

And then a sudden change, strange to be seen, came upon this old
Volumnia, this heroic matron in her triumph. She sat down by the fire,
in the great chair where her old lord had been sitting over his wine
half an hour before, and gathered up the child into her lap, and turned
at once as by the touch of a wand into the old mother, the mere woman,
all whose instincts culminated in simple maternity. Perhaps her delicate
old hands had never touched anything so muddy and rough before; but she
was totally unconscious of this as she set the shivering wet little
figure upon her satin lap, and began to unlace and draw off his wet
boots. Lady Eskside was a proud woman, fastidious in everything she
approached or handled; but she undid the muddy leather laces, and pulled
off the dirty little boots, and stained her worn and fine old hands, so
delicately white and dainty, without hesitation, even without a thought.
She held the child close to her, murmuring over him unconscious sounds
of endearment, like a dove in her nest. “My little man! my bonnie little
man!--put out your poor wee feetie to the fire--how cold they are, the
poor wee pilgrim feet--and how far they’ve wandered! but this is home,
my darling, this is home!--And so they call you Val!--Oh, my bonnie
boy, to be out in such a night,--they call you Val? and your brother is
Dick--oh, may God keep my heart that I may not die of joy!”

The child sat on her knee with all the gravity of his age, and heard
everything, but made no response. I think the weariness and the unusual
comfort began alike to tell upon him; the cheerful light dazzled his
eyes, the warmth crept into his baby limbs, and even the excitement and
strange novelty of his position were not enough at seven years old to
counteract these subduing influences. By-and-by his little eyes began to
wink as he gazed into the fire and felt the drowsy spell of the genial
warmth. When Joseph brought the tray, he took the piece of cake which
was put into his hand, and ate it slowly, gazing and winking at the
fire. Then his head began to droop against Lady Eskside’s breast. With
an effort he opened his eyes at intervals, fixing them severely as if
they could never close again, upon the fire, then gradually subdued by
the warmth shut them altogether, and half turning towards her, nestled
his head upon the old lady’s shoulder. As his curls fell finally into
this resting place, Lady Eskside turned to Mary with an unspeakable
look: “He knows them that belong to him,” she said in a whisper. Her
arms encircled him with that delight of protecting maternity which goes
through all the levels of creation. It was but the hen gathering her
chickens under her wing--yet God himself can find no tenderer simile.
All expression, save that last supreme beatitude which borders upon
vacuity, went out of her face. She forgot everything around her--the
past, the future, her duties of the present. Everything in the world had
become suddenly concentrated to her in this action, which was no more
elevated than that of a bird in her nest, this watch which secured
warmth, slumber, and safety to the child.

Miss Percival sat on the other side of the great dining-table and gazed
at her old friend with that mixture of irritation, wonder, and reluctant
sympathy which provokes and tantalises a friendly soul when watching
some novel exhibition of human weakness. She could not understand Lady
Eskside’s instant adoption into her very heart of the strange little
unknown creature, dropped from the skies or by the winds, unseen and
unknown until this moment, and which might be a little demon in human
form for aught that any one knew. And yet she did understand in a way
which made her irritation rather greater than less. Mary was not very
clever, not very remarkable in any way; but she was herself--thinking
and feeling according to her own nature and principles, and not
according to any conventional model. She did not possess that sugary
sweetness of disposition, or those very etherial Christian sentiments
which put aside all personal consciousness of wrong and seem to prefer
injury. Richard Ross had been, if not her lover, at least so indicated
by every family prepossession, so prepared by training and association
to be her eventual husband, that his sudden and strange marriage had
given a shock to her nerves and moral nature from which she had never
recovered. I cannot tell if she had ever been what people call “in love”
with him. If she had, her love had never taken full shape and form, but
had lingered insidiously about her heart, prepared, by every indication
of her young life, and every probability of the future, to come into
being at a touch. This touch was given in another way when Richard
disappeared into the nameless obscurity and shame that surrounded his
marriage. Her whole being received the shock, and received it without
warning or preparation. It changed the aspect of all mankind to her,
more perhaps than it changed her feeling towards Richard. He it was who
had inflicted the wound, but its effects were not confined to him. She
was the gentlest creature in existence, but her pride was roused against
the whole world, in which outward appearances seem ever to gain the day,
and the still and unpretending are held of no account.

Instead, however, of making the more (after these reflections) of the
simple beauty she possessed, which was of a very attractive kind, though
moderate in degree, or taking the good of her real advantages, Mary had
done what many proud gentlewomen do--she had retired doubly into herself
after the shock she received. She had withdrawn from society, and
society, heedless, had gone on its way and paid little attention to the
withdrawal: so that the penalties fell not at all upon it, but upon
herself. She was still young, between six and seven and twenty; but
something of the aspect which that same mocking and careless world calls
that of an old maid, was stealing imperceptibly upon her. Her pride,
though so natural, thus told doubly against her--for people who were
incapable of understanding the shock she had received, or the revulsion
of her proud and delicate heart, called her, with light laughter, a
disappointed woman, foiled in her attempt to secure a husband. Many of
us who ought to know much better use such words in thoughtless levity
every day. I need not enter into the circumstances which, on this night
of all others, had brought Mary to Rosscraig, and recalled to her mind,
through Lady Eskside’s story, many sharp and painful memories which she
had partially succeeded in banishing from her thoughts. I do not think
that this rush of recollection had the effect of moving her to any
enthusiasm for Richard’s child. The strange bitterness of scorn with
which she learned what kind of woman that was who had been preferred to
herself, moved not the best part of her nature; for Mary, as I have
said, was not sweetness and gentleness personified, but a genuine human
creature, not all good. Perhaps the very strength of her antagonistic
feelings, and the absence of any general maudlin sympathy with
everything pitiful presented to her, made her all the more certain that
the child was Richard’s child, the child of the tramp whom Richard had
admired and loved more than herself; an interest which was half
repugnance attracted her eyes and her thoughts to this little creature,
who was assuredly no stranger, no impostor, but the very flesh and blood
which might have been her own. Yes, he might have been her child--and
the blood ran tingling with shame, anger, pride, and dislike to Mary’s
very finger-tips, as this thought flashed through her mind. She sat and
watched him, falling asleep on Lady Eskside’s knee, with the strangest
aching mixture of irritation and interest. She was half envious, half
impatient of the strange beatitude and absorption with which her old
friend held the boy, throwing her own very being into him--the child who
had been stolen away from all lawful life and protection, who had lived
among outcasts, a beggar, a baby-adventurer, the child of a tramp! How
could that proud old woman take him out of hands so stained, and take
him to her pure and honourable breast? Poor Mary was not quite
responsible for the hot anger, the unjust condemnation of this thought;
these angry feelings surged uppermost, as the worst of us always does,
to the surface of her agitated soul.

The lamp had been placed in a corner, so as not to disturb the child’s
sleep, and the room formed a dark background to that group, which was
relieved against the dusky glow of the fire. Silence was in the house,
sometimes interrupted by a stealthy suggestive creaking of the great
door, as Mrs Harding from time to time looked out into the night. The
winds still raged without, and the rain swept against the window,
filling the air with a continuous sound. Soon that stealthy noise
outside, which betrayed the watchers who were on the outlook for the
mother’s return with the other child, affected Mary with a sympathetic
suspense. Her imagination rushed out to meet the stranger, to realise
her appearance. Richard’s wife! She could not sit still and think of
this new figure on the scene. If the woman came Mary felt that she must
withdraw; she would not meet her--she could not! and this feeling made
her eagerly anxious for the appearance of the stranger who excited such
wild yet causeless antagonism in her own mind. She went to the window,
and drew aside the curtain and gazed out--that she might see her
approach, she said to herself, and escape out of the way.

Thus time went on; Lady Eskside, worn out with emotion, and hushed by
happiness, dozed too, I think, in the easy-chair with the sleeping child
on her lap, while Miss Percival stood, with every sense awake, watching
the dark avenue through the window. And I do not know how long it was
before, all at once, another conviction took possession of Mary--which
was the true one--that Richard’s wife had no intention of coming back.
This thought came to her in a moment, as if some one had said it in her
ear. Had some one said it? Was it a mysterious communication made to her
somehow, from one soul to another through the darkness of that night
which hid the speaker, which had fallen upon the child’s mother like a
veil? Miss Percival sank, almost fell, down upon the chair, on which she
had been kneeling in her eagerness to look out. She was startled and
shaken, yet calmed, with sensations incomprehensible to her. She sat
still and listened, but without any further expectation. A strange dim
realisation of the unknown creature of whom she had been thinking hard
thoughts came into her mind. Was she too, then, an independent being,
with a heart which could be wrung, and a mind capable of suffering?--not
merely Mary’s rival, Mary’s antagonist, a type of lower nature and
coarser impulse. The wind abated, the rain cleared off, the silent
minutes crept on, but no one came to the house where all except the old
lord were listening and watching. Mary, roused at length, stirred up in
all her own energies by this conviction, felt that doubt was no longer
possible. The unknown mother had given this remorseful tribute to the
house she had despoiled, but had kept her share and would appear no
more.

“Dear Lady Eskside,” she said, laying her hand on her old friend’s
shoulder, “don’t you think it would be better to let Mrs Harding put him
to bed?”

“Eh? Is it you, Mary? What were you saying? I do not feel sure,” said
Lady Eskside, looking up with a smile, “that I was not dozing myself
upon the bairn’s head. Put him to his bed? it would perhaps be the best
thing, as you say; but I cannot give him over to Harding, I will carry
him up-stairs myself.”

“Rather give him to me,” said Mary; “he is too heavy for you. I will
take him to the old nursery----”

“Where his father and you have played many a day,” said Lady Eskside,
with a smile which was weak with happiness. “Oh, my dear, my dear! but
how different our thoughts were then!” Here she saw a contraction upon
Mary’s face which gave her a note of warning. “Call the women, Mary,”
she added, hurriedly. “I have lost count of time. _She_ should have been
here by now with the other one. Oh! but I can never love him like this
one, that has slept on my bosom like a child of my own, and crept into
my heart.”

“She has not come. She does not mean to come,” said Mary; but she spoke
low, and Lady Eskside did not mark what she said. Her own mind was
filled to overflowing with her new possession, and no real anxiety about
the other one or about the mother existed for the moment in her mind.
“Jean, take this darling in your arms--softly, softly,” she said to the
maid. “You are a strong, good girl, and you will carry him kindly. Don’t
waken my bonnie boy. I’ll go with you up-stairs and see him put to bed.”

And, absorbed in this new occupation, she hurried up-stairs after Jean,
giving a hundred warnings--to lay his head comfortably--to hold him
faster--to throw her apron about his little feet--like a foolish old
mother, half beside herself with love and happiness. She could think of
nothing but the lost treasure restored; and I might spend pages on the
description before I could tell you with what renewal of all old and
dead joys she watched the maid’s anxious but vain attempts to prepare
the child for bed without awaking him, and to soothe him when he
stirred and pushed them away with his rosy feet, and murmured whimpering
childish objections to everything that was being done for him. In this
unlooked-for fulness of joy, she forgot everything else in the world.



CHAPTER IV.


Lord Eskside was a homely representative of Scotch aristocracy. He was
as proud as Lucifer in his own way, but that way was quaint and
unsuspected by strangers; and his outward appearance and manners, and
the principles he professed, were even humorously homely and almost
democratical. Pretension of any kind moved him to an exaggeration of
this natural homeliness; though when his dignity was really touched
nobody could be more decided in his treatment of the vulgar, whom on
ordinary occasions he seemed to incline towards, and to whom, so long as
they made no fictitious claims to importance, he was whimsically
friendly and indulgent. He had many other paradoxical sentiments about
him. Being a high Tory by tradition and birth, it happened to him now
and then to take up a trenchant Radical theory, which he clung to with
the obstinacy of his race, and would carry out in the most
uncompromising manner. He was keenly intelligent when he chose; but when
he did not choose, no lout in the village could be more thickheaded than
the old lord, nor show greater need to have everything “summered and
wintered” to him, as Lady Eskside often impatiently said. He had strong
feelings, but they lay very deep, and were seldom exhibited to the
common eye, his own consciousness of their existence showing itself
chiefly in a testy determination to avoid all means of moving them,
which gave many ignorant persons the impression that our old lord was an
ill-tempered man. He was impatient, I allow, and resented all long and
slow explanations, except when it happened to be his caprice to put on
the air of requiring them; and many people were afraid of his sharp
retorts and ruthless questions. He was a little man, with keen hazel
eyes gleaming out from under overhanging eyebrows, which often gathered
into seeming frowns; not a man with whom, you may be sure, sentimental
considerations would weigh much--or at least who would permit it to be
seen how much they weighed.

He was very much startled when he heard what had happened--so much
startled that he received the tale in comparative silence, half
stupefied by the strange incident; and allowed himself to be led by his
wife to the side of the bed where the child slept profoundly, almost
without a word of remark. He stood and gazed at it, his keen eyes
twinkling from beneath their heavy eyebrows, and his under lip working,
as it habitually did when he was moved by any feeling which he did not
choose to show. But he uttered nothing more than an unintelligible
“humph!” and instead of sympathising with Lady Eskside’s excitement, her
tearful enthusiasm, and the tumult of agitation in which she was, turned
away almost without response, and went off to his study, where he had
been painfully busy with calculations and cogitations over the ‘Journal
of Agriculture;’ for he was a great farmer, and just then deeply
occupied with the question of manures, a study of thrilling and delicate
interest. He tried to resume these studies, but for this his philosophy
did not suffice. He sat down, however, by his table as before, and with
his periodical open before him--working his under lip, which projected
slightly, and bending his brows--gave his mind to this new problem,
which was more astounding than anything in agriculture. After a while he
rose and rang the bell. It was answered by Harding, the English butler,
who had been in Lord Eskside’s service for thirty years, and knew all
about the family as an old servant knows--that is, rather more than
there is to know. The fact, however, that Harding was English, gave a
certain peculiarity to the connection between himself and his old
master, who was equally ready to hold him up to admiration as “a good
solid Englishman, not troubling himself about whimsies,” or to denounce
him as “a doited English body, never understanding the one-half of what
you said to him.” Lord Eskside had a mingled trust in Harding and
contempt for him, which I do not think he could have entertained for a
countryman of his own.

“Harding,” he said, “come in and shut the door. I suppose you know all
that’s happened in the house to-night. You should have called me.
Haven’t I always told you to call me when anything out of the way
occurred?”

“My lord,” said Harding, not without agitation, “there has never nothing
happened much out of the way before. When I did call your lordship the
night of the fire in the laundry, your lordship said I was a doited old
fool--and how was I to know----?”

“That will do,” said Lord Eskside; “you needn’t recriminate. The thing I
want to know is about this child. How did it come? who brought it? My
lady has told me something, but I want your account. Now take your time,
and begin at the beginning. Who brought the boy here?”

“My lord, if I were to die this moment,” Harding began----

“Idiot! what would you die for this moment?” cried the old lord; “and if
you did die, what information would I get from that? Begin at the
beginning, I tell you: what happened? none of your adjurations. What do
you _know_?”

“If your lordship will let me speak,” said Harding, aggrieved. “I don’t
know from Adam who brought him. It was close upon dark, and the storm
raging. I thought it was nothing but the wind that swept in, and a blast
of rain that came full in my face. There hasn’t been such a wind that I
recollect since the year Mr Richard went first to college--when there
was a hawful storm, as your lordship may remember----”

“Never mind the storm,” said Lord Eskside, with an effort of patience,
“think a little.--When did this occur. Fix upon the hour. Now--that’s
something definite. We’ll get on from that.”

“_That_ there can be no doubt about, my lord,” said Harding, promptly.
“The bell was ringing for the servants’ hall supper--which made it a
little hard at first to hear the door-bell. We has our supper sharp at
nine----”

(“Trust him to mind his times of eating!” ejaculated Lord Eskside: “an
Englishman never forgets that.”)

“----And just then the door-bell rang. Not expecting nobody, I was a
little scared-like. I said to myself, ‘Who’s this a-coming at this time
of the night?’ and I called to Mrs ’Arding----”

“Lordsake, man, never mind your thoughts or your Mrs Hardings! get on.”

“I called to Mrs ’Arding, my lord,” said the butler, solemnly, “to wait
and see who it was afore they went into supper. It might have been
visitors unexpected, as I’ve known to arrive all in an ’eap and never a
room ready. It might have been Mr Richard, as is always particular. Beg
your lordship’s pardon, that was what passed through my ’ead. Then them
as was outside rang again. I’m a bit confused with all that’s ’appened.
It was that loud that it sounded like the day of judgment----”

“There are to be no bells that ever I heard of at the day of judgment,”
said his master; “leave metaphors, man, and give me facts--that’s all I
want.”

“Then they got to knocking on the door, my lord--not using the knocker
like people as knows. I ain’t superstitious, though I’ve heard tales
enough to make your hair stand up on your head since I’ve been in the
north--warnings and that sort. But I did say to myself, if so be it’s
for his lordship or my lady--spirits being in the family, so to
speak---- Was it something else your lordship was pleased to want?”

“Send for your wife,” growled Lord Eskside, who had rung the bell
violently, and now stood impatient on the hearth with his back to the
fire, working his projecting lip and shaggy eyebrows. This was so very
common an interruption of the more important interviews between master
and man, that Mrs Harding came without further call, not sorry of the
opportunity of getting rid of a little of her own excitement, and very
anxious to know, in a matter of so much moment, “what my lord would
say.”

“Look here,” said her master. “What did he see? Not a word can I get out
of him but havers. What did the man see? I suppose you were there too,
like all the rest of the house--like everybody, in short, except myself.
What did he see?”

“He saw naething, my lord, that I can make out,” said the housekeeper;
“just the door dung open in his face with the wind and a good push from
the outside. It’s been a wild night, and the sounds of the storm were
awfu’ confusing even to the like of me. So far as I can discover, there
was just something thrown inside, and a blast of weet, and the big door
snatched out of his hand and clashed to, and all in a moment before he
could say a word. That’s a’ that I can make out. I was in the servants’
passage myself listening and wondering, and a’ in a tremble with the
thoughts of visitors or waur. He didna say a word but gaed a kind of
skreigh, and I kent something had happened. When I ran into the hall,
and a’ the women after me--for ye ken the story of the Eskside warning,
my lord, as well as me--there was the wean standing up in the corner
against the wa’; and him there glow’ring at it, as if the bonnie bit
laddie was a ghaist.”

“And that’s all?”

“That’s all, my lord, as far as I can find out--he says he saw a figure,
but what kind of a figure----”

“It was a woman wrapped in a cloak,” said Harding, somewhat sullenly--“I
was coming to that; a tall figure of a woman, not like nobody I know--a
sort of a beggar--a tramp.”

“Would you know her again, if you saw her?” asked Lord Eskside.

“As for that, my lord--I see as she had black hair hanging down, and
something red twisted round her neck,--a roughish sort of a woman. She
caught hold of the door and shut it in my face,” said Harding, roused to
energy, “though she was the one as was outside and me in----”

“And said nothing--you are sure she said nothing?”

“Not a word, my lord. I called out to her, Hollo! ’old ’ard!” said
Harding; “but she didn’t pay no attention. She took hold of the door,
and dragged it out of my hand. It’s true as I was taken by surprise and
didn’t put out my strength.”

“A muckle strong randy of a woman,” said Mrs Harding. “I think I maun
have seen her the other day down by the lodge, with a bairn tied on her
back in a shawl:” then suddenly perceiving her mistake, she added, “no
that such a quean could have anything to do with--with our wee
gentleman, if my lady’s right; and she’s aye right,” the housekeeper
continued, in a lower tone, with keen eyes fixed on the old lord. Mrs
Harding knew her master and mistress, and flattered herself that she had
no small influence with them; but part of her power, like that of many
other popular oracles, consisted in her vivid perception of the
variations in the minds of her employers, whom she often seemed to lead
by means of prompt and instantaneous following. She was herself very
much excited, very doubtful and uncertain about this strange event; and
she watched her master with a sharpness of observation which proved the
urgency of the case. As for Lord Eskside, he stood knitting his brow,
and forgetting, or at least ignoring, the pair who stood, one sharply,
and one dully, attentive, awaiting his next observation. When he spoke,
his utterance was sharp and sudden--the abrupt issue of a long
deliberation.

“Have you any reason to suppose that this--person--this woman--has been
haunting the place? You say you saw her down at the lodge?”

“I saw a--beggar-wife,” said the housekeeper, subdued; “but on second
thoughts, my lord----”

“D---- second thoughts!” cried her master, impatiently; then turning to
her husband,--“and you, Harding, had you ever seen her before?”

Harding paused; he balanced himself first on one leg and then on the
other; he scratched his puzzled head, fixing his old master with his
eyes, in the hope that this precaution would guard him against an
outburst. “Seen her before, your lordship?” Harding said finally, with
caution; “I’ve seen--a many like her----”

“Fool! can’t you answer a plain question?” cried his master, furious.
“Had you seen _her_ before? could you recognise _her_ again?”

“My lord, I’m no wanting to interfere out of a woman’s sphere,” said the
housekeeper. “You ken better than me, both your lordship and _him_; but
if you’ll just consider---- He saw her one moment, nae mair. He was sair
taken by surprise; it was dark, and the wind blowing wild, and the rain
in his face. You should see the hall, a’ weet where it came in--and just
one moment, my lord! If it had been myself he would scarce have kent me.
And his een are no so shairp as they once were, your lordship well
knows.”

“Oh ay, Marg’ret, I know; you take his part whatever happens----”

“And wha but me should take his part, when he’s my man?” said the
housekeeper, triumphantly. As soon as she had brought that reluctant
impatient smile momentarily to her master’s face, she was safe, she
knew. Lord Eskside stood lost in his own thoughts for some time before
he dismissed them, forgetting their existence, though to them he was the
centre of the earth, and could not be forgotten. When at last, coming to
himself abruptly, he waved his hand and muttered something about the
night being too far spent for further action, the pair left the room
with very different sentiments. Harding, who had not yet recovered the
discomfort of his watch in the wet avenue, was too thankful to be spared
further trouble to disturb himself with any questions; but his wife,
more interested, partly from her deeper concern in all that affected the
family, and partly, perhaps, from mere feminine preoccupation with the
mystery, was by no means satisfied. “Is my lady right?” she kept saying
to herself; and put the evidence together with that strange ability and
clearheadedness which family servants, whose entire intelligence is
absorbed in the facts of a family history, so often show. My lady was
generally right--at least her opinions were generally approved and
adopted by the household, which comes to much the same thing; but there
was a huge gulf of doubt before her, which Mrs Harding contemplated with
a disquieted mind. How could this beggar’s brat be the heir of Eskside?
He was like the Rosses; he was called by their favourite name--“a
daftlike name, no doubt, and out of the common,” the housekeeper
acknowledged to herself; but yet the difficulties overbalanced the
probabilities in the judgment of this keen though homely observer. She
drove her husband nearly frantic by dwelling upon the subject all the
night long. “It ain’t none of our business,” said Harding; “trust my
lord and my lady to mind theirselves; it ain’t got nothing to say to
us.” He was very glad to get rid of so troublesome a question, and to
mind his work, as he said; for a better servant, as both his master and
mistress often declared, was not to be found in Scotland. His wife had
her faults; but she lay awake half the night pondering this strange
incident while he slept the sleep of the just, unburdened by any
anxieties. But he was more exact than she was (with her disturbed mind)
about the comfort of the household next morning. On the whole, it is
difficult to say which kind of service is the best.

Lord Eskside remained for some time longer in his study, and then he
went up-stairs to the drawing-room, to join the ladies. Lady Eskside,
however, was not to be found there, and a certain look of agitation was
in the place of which she was the natural soul. She had gone up to “the
nursery,”--long disused and unaccustomed words!--to sit by the child’s
bedside, and brood over his slumbers. Mary Percival was sitting by the
fire alone, with a book upon her lap, which she did not even pretend to
read. The fire was low, the lamp was low, the room was less bright than
usual, and everything told of some occurrence which had broken the
ordinary calm. Mary put her book aside and took up some knitting which
lay on the table, when the old lord entered and took his position on the
hearth-rug, with his back to the fire as usual; but her knitting was a
mere pretence, as her reading had been--the pretence of a pretence, for
she only held it vaguely in her hand. For some little time nothing was
said except a few commonplaces consequent on Lord Eskside’s curt
impatient remarks. How bad the lights were! it was the lamp that had run
down, Mary said; and went and screwed it up again, with a hand that
trembled. Where was my lady?--She had gone up-stairs; Mary did not know
if she meant to come down again; perhaps, having been a good deal
shaken, she had gone to bed. Humph! Lord Eskside said, working his under
lip, and bending his shaggy brows. Mary felt pained and embarrassed,
like a stranger involved in a family quarrel, and obliged to explain the
conduct of one member of a household to another; and she felt the
silence almost intolerable as she sat down again, and took her knitting
in her hand. At last the old lord rushed abruptly into the all-absorbing
subject, as was his way.

“What do _you_ think of all this, Mary? You’re a sensible girl. Is my
lady out of her mind? or what’s to be done about this--child?”

“Oh, Lord Eskside,” said Mary, with tremulous agitation, “how could she
be wrong on such a point? It is Richard’s child.”

“How should she not be wrong? how is any one to know? a nameless brat,
without sign or surety; probably some gipsy’s spawn or other. Right! It
could be but a guess at the best.”

“You did not see him,” said Mary, faltering. “He is like--his father.”

“Like his father!” cried Lord Eskside; and he began to pace up and down
the long, large, partially lighted room, a moving atom in it, yet
supreme in his disturbed and disturbing humanity; “like his
father!--very probably--but how can we tell who is his father? I think
my lady, poor soul, has gone out of her mind.”

“But you have not seen him,” said Mary, softly, not knowing what to
say.

“I have seen the creature, a little dark toad. Dick was always fair and
feeble like my mother’s family, a fusionless being. We must write for
him, and have his opinion. God bless me, Mary! if they both hold to it,
mother and son, and this foundling grows up as heir to the property, how
is he ever to establish his title? We’ll have Sandy Pringle down upon us
with all the Scots law at his finger-ends--and what am I, a reasonable
man, to do?”

“Oh, Lord Eskside, that is a long way off,” cried Mary, laying hold of
the first argument that occurred to her.

“Things are none the easier for being a long way off,” said the old
lord; and then he fell silent, pacing up and down the room, and finally
returned to his place on the hearth-rug, where he stood pondering and
waiting for his wife, whose hasty conclusions he so much objected to,
yet whose presence and energy bore him up. Had she been there to argue
with him, the strange thing that had occurred would have looked real.
But in her absence what could Lord Eskside do but fret and fume? Mary
and her gentle arguments were unsubstantial to him as any of the other
shadows that filled the silent and deserted room.



CHAPTER V.


Richard Ross had not visited his parents for years. He had scarcely been
at home at all since the miserable catastrophe which had so fatally
enlightened the world as to the folly of his marriage; and perhaps the
certainty that he must come now contributed something to his mother’s
rapture in the recovery of his child: for the instinct of nature
overcomes all its unlikenesses; and Richard, though a man whom she would
have laughed at and scorned had he not been her son, was, being her son,
dearer than all the world to Lady Eskside. The new event which had
happened was important enough, and his mother’s appeal was still more
urgent and imperative; but I doubt if it would be true to say that there
was any excitement of feeling, any happiness of anticipation in
Richard’s mind as he travelled home in obedience to the call. Nearly
seven years had elapsed since his children were taken from him, and
they had been too young to take any permanent hold on his affections.
That they were his children was all that could be said; and in Richard’s
mind, as time went on and he began to regard his misfortunes with a kind
of hopeless apathy, they had come to be more like shadows of their
mother than independent beings possessing rights and claims of their
own. The first effect of the news was to rouse him to a painful sense of
his own dismal shipwreck and hopeless failure in life, rather than to
any excitement of a more tender kind. Those great personal misfortunes
which change the complexion of our lives may fall into the background,
they may cease to render us actively and always wretched; but they lie
in wait, keeping, as it were, ever within reach, to wake into hot
recollection at a touch. Most of us prefer to avoid that touch when we
can, and Richard had done this more persistently and with greater
success than most people; but yet they lay there ready, the shame and
the pain, wanting nothing but a jog to bring them out in full force.

I would not go the length of saying that he was touched by no feeling of
thankfulness that his child was restored; but his pleasure was
infinitely less than the suffering he went through by means of this
revival of all that was most painful in his life. He had long outgrown
the boyish passion which led to his strange marriage; and as he had
nothing to look back upon in connection with that marriage which was not
miserable and humiliating, it was not wonderful that shame and
self-disgust were his most lively sensations when it was recalled to
him. He could not understand how he could have been guilty of folly so
supreme and so intense; how he could have bartered his credit, his
comfort, all the better part of life, not to speak of that hot love of
youth, which in calmer years often looks so much like folly, even when
it is happy and fortunate--for what? Nothing. He had not even, so far as
he knew, touched the heart of the woman for whom he had made so
extraordinary a sacrifice. At best she had but accepted and submitted to
his love; she had never loved him; his influence had not wrought any
change in her. He had not even affected her being so much as to induce
her to give up the habits of her former life, or show any inclination to
learn the habits of his. She had humiliated him in every way, and in no
way so much as by allowing him to perceive his own impotence in regard
to herself. This gave the last sting of bitterness to his
recollections. A man can bear the outer annoyances which result from a
foolish marriage; he can put up, patiently or otherwise, with much that
would revolt him in any other less close and binding connection; but
when, in addition to these, he is made to feel that he himself is
nothing and less than nothing to the creature for whom he has made such
sacrifices, it is inevitable, or almost inevitable, that the early
infatuation should change into a very different feeling. Sometimes, it
is true, the victim of passion, notwithstanding all enlightenment,
continues in his subjection, and goes on adoring even where he despises;
but such cases are rare, and Richard’s was not one of them. I cannot
understand any more than his mother could, how “a son of hers” could
have ever made so extraordinary a mistake in life; but now that his
existence was permanently ruined and devastated by this great blunder,
Richard had felt that his best policy was to ignore it utterly. He had
lived a celibate and blameless life during all those years of enforced
widowhood. Society knew vaguely that he had been married, and most
people thought him a widower; but though much in the world, he had lived
so as to avoid all disagreeable inquiries into the actual facts of the
case. He had never betrayed even to his friends the blight which had
stopped all progress in life for him. According to all precedent of
fiction, some other woman ought to have stepped across his path and
learned his secret, as Mr Thackeray’s Laura does by George Warrington.
But Richard Ross had indulged in no Laura. He had friends enough and to
spare, but never any close enough or dear enough to warrant scandal.
Instead of Platonic affections he had taken to china, a safer weakness;
and it was to this tranquil gentleman in the midst of his collections
that the mother’s letter came, thrusting back upon his recollection the
dismal and humiliating melodrama of which he had been the hero. It is
not difficult to imagine in the circumstances with what bitter annoyance
he bore this revival of all his miseries, and girded himself up to
answer the summons, and for the first time appear at home.

He arrived on a spring night as mild as the former one I have described
had been boisterous. The sun had just set, and the rosy clouds hung
above the trees of Rosscraig, and over the hillside, just tinged here
and there with the bursting of the spring buds, but still for the most
part brown and leafless, which sloped to the brawling Esk. I do not
know a fairer scene anywhere. Some old turrets of the older part of the
house, belonging to that style of domestic architecture which is common
to France and to Scotland, peeped forth above the lofty slope of the
bank. Had winter been coming, the brown, unclothed trees might have
conveyed an impression of sadness; but as spring was coming they were
all hopeful, specially where the green breaks of new foliage, big
chestnut buds, and silken leaves still creased and folded, threw a wash
of delicate colour upon the landscape. Richard’s heart was somewhat
touched by the feeling that he was approaching home; but the more his
heart was touched the less he was inclined to show it; for had not he
himself injured the perfection of that home, which was surrounded by
people _who knew_, and who could not but comment and criticise? He
heaved an impatient sigh, even while his heart was melting to the dear
familiar place, and wished himself away again among people who knew
nothing about him, even though he felt the many charms of home steal
into his heart.

Richard Ross was a year or two over thirty--a young man, though he did
not feel young--tall and fair, with a placid temper and the gentlest
manners; a man to all appearance as free from passion and as prone to
every virtuous and gentle affection as man could be. His aspect, indeed,
was that of a very model of goodness and English domestic perfection--a
man who would be the discreetest of guides to his household, the best of
fathers, an example to all surrounding him. This was what he ought to
have been. Had he married Mary Percival this is what he would have been;
though I think it very likely that Mary would have wearied of him
without knowing why, and found life--had she had him--a somewhat languid
performance. But, unfortunately, she was quite unconscious of what would
have happened had the might have been ever come to pass, and did not
know that she missed some evil as well as some good. On the contrary,
her heart beat far more than she would have wished it to beat when the
roll of the carriage-wheels which conveyed Richard was heard in the
avenue. She stole out by the conservatory-door to be out of the way, and
hid herself in the woods which slope downward to Eskside. She scarcely
heard the brawl of Esk, so loud was her heart beating. Poor Mary! it was
not Richard alone who had come back and had to be met with tranquilly,
as one stranger meets another--but her youth and all her fancies, and
those anticipations long past which were so different from the reality.
Mary stayed under the budding trees till almost the last ray of daylight
had faded, and the bell from the house, calling all stragglers, tinkled
from the height among the evening echoes. This bell of itself was a sign
that something had happened: Lord and Lady Eskside were homely in their
ways, and it was never rung when they were alone.

Lady Eskside received her son with the child by her side, going forward
to meet him with little Val clinging to her hand; but when she forgot
Val and threw her arms round her own boy whom she had not seen for so
long, the child, bewildered, shifted his grasp to her gown, which he
held fast, somewhat appalled as well as jealous at the appearance of
this new-comer. It was not until after Richard had received his father’s
less effusive greeting that even Lady Eskside bethought herself of the
occasion of the visit--the little silent spectator, who, half buried in
the folds of her gown, watched everything with keen eyes. “Ah!” she
cried; then with a self-reproach for her own carelessness, “I think of
my boy first, without minding that you are thinking of yours. Come, Val,
and speak to your papa. Oh, Richard! oh, my dear! here is the child----”

“Oh!--this is the child, is it?” said Richard, with a momentary
faintness coming over him. He did not snatch the little fellow into his
arms, as his mother expected he would. He did something very different,
for the poor man was short-sighted, a thing which none of us can help.
He took up nervously that double eyeglass which the French call a
_pince-nez_, and put it on his nose. He could not have seen otherwise
had his heart been ever so tender; but it would be impossible to
describe the shock, the chill, which this simple proceeding brought upon
Lady Eskside. Was there, then, no paternal instinct in her son’s
heart--none of the feeling which had made her own expand and glow
towards the boy? Was her impulse of nature wrong, or his deadened? The
old lord looked on curiously too, but with less vehement feeling, for
Lady Eskside had a deeper stake in the matter. She felt that to find
herself mistaken, and to have to give up the child whom she had adopted
into her warmest affections, would be her death-blow.

“Richard! you don’t think--your father and I--have been wrong?” she
cried.

It was on Lord Eskside’s lip to say that this rash adoption was none of
his doing, and thus give up his wife to her fate; but he was sorry for
her, and held his tongue, watching the man and the child as they stared
at each other with gradually growing interest. The boy stood, holding by
Lady Eskside’s gown, with a baby scowl upon his soft little forehead,
half raising one arm with instinctive suspicion, as he had done on the
night of his arrival, to ward off an imaginary blow. Richard sat
opposite and gazed at him intently through his _pince-nez_. Something
pathetic, tragic, terrible, yet ludicrous, was in the scene.

“Richard,” faltered Lady Eskside, “don’t keep me in this suspense. Do
you suppose--do you think--it is not him?”

“What is your name?” said Richard, looking at his son. “Val?--you are
sure you are Val and not the other? Yes. I suppose, then, he’s the
eldest,” he said hurriedly, getting up and walking away to the window at
the other end of the room. The old couple were too much surprised to say
anything. They gave a wondering glance at each other, and Lord Eskside,
putting up his hand, stopped the crowd of wondering questions which was
about to pour from his wife’s lips. Richard stood perhaps two minutes
(it seemed an hour), with his back to them, looking out from the window.
When he returned, his voice was husky and his face paler. “You have done
quite right, mother, to take him in,” he said, in low tones, “so far as
I can judge.” Then, with a suddenly heightened colour, “He is like--his
mother. No one who has ever seen _her_ could fail to recognise _him_.”

“Richard! oh, take him in your arms and give your child a kiss!” cried
Lady Eskside, with tears in her eyes. “Oh, take your own mother’s word,
it is you the darling is like--you, and none but you!”

“Is that like me?” said Richard, touching his son’s dark hair, with a
harsh laugh; “or could we be mixed up, we two, in anything, even a
child’s face? No; one of them was hers--all hers. Don’t you recollect,
mother? I was pleased then, like an idiot as I was. The other,” he
added, with a softened voice, “was like me.”

And then there was silence again. He had not touched the child or spoken
to him, except that unfriendly touch; and little Val stood by his
grandmother’s knee, still clutching her dress, looking on with a
bewildered sense of something adverse to himself which was going on over
his head, but which he did not understand. Richard threw himself into a
chair, his fair, amiable face flushed with unusual emotion; he swung
back in his seat, with an uneasy smile on his face, and an expression of
assumed carelessness and real excitement totally unlike his usual
aspect. As for Lady Eskside, she was struck dumb; she put her arms round
the child, petting and consoling him. “My bonnie man!” she said,
pressing him close to her side, comforting the little creature, who was
nothing more than perplexed in his baby mind--as if he had shared the
distinct pain in her own.

“Enough of this, Richard,” said Lord Eskside, coming to the rescue.
“Whatever has happened, it is not the boy’s fault. Your mother and I
have the property to think of, and the succession. It is necessary that
you should give an opinion one way or another----”

“Father, I beg your pardon,” said Richard, rising to his feet with a
sudden flush of shame. “I allowed my feelings to get the better of me. I
acknowledge the child. He is too like to be denied. Valentine was the
eldest, and had dark hair, like---- I have no doubt on the subject. If
my mother chooses to use her eyes, she can see the resemblance----”

“To you, Richard! Oh, do not be bitter against the bairn; he is like
you!”

Richard smiled--a painful smile, which sat ill on a countenance of which
very nature demanded gentleness. “You may bring him up, sir, as your
heir; I acknowledge him. There, mother, what do you want more of me? I
can’t be a hypocrite, even for you.”

“You should remember that you are his father,” said the old lady, half
indignant, half weeping; “whatever may have happened, as your father
says, the child is not to blame.”

“No,” said the young man. “Do you mean me to go, now that I have done
what you wanted? Am I to be dismissed, my business being over----”

“What do you mean, sir?” said Lord Eskside, hotly; “you forget that you
are speaking to your mother----”

“My mother has not a word nor a look for me!” cried Richard. “She wants
me for nothing but this gipsy brat, that I may own him, and advance him
to my own place. I say it is hard on a man. I come back here, after
years; and the first words that are said to me are--not to welcome me
home--but to upbraid me that I do not grow maudlin all in a moment over
this child.”

“Richard!” cried the old lady, with a sharp tone of pain in her voice;
“do you want me to think that though I have got your son I have lost
mine?”

“That must be as you will, mother; you seem to prefer him,” said
Richard, in high offence. It was the first quarrel they had ever had in
their lives; for through all his youthful errors she had stood by him
always. I do not know what demon of perversity, vexation, and personal
annoyance worked in him; but I do know the intense and silent
disappointment with which his mother’s heart closed its open doors--wide
open always to him--and she turned away, all her joy changed into
bitterness. When she came to think of it, she blamed herself, saying to
herself that she had been injudicious in thrusting the strange little
new-comer upon him the very moment of his arrival; but then she had
judged him by herself--what can mortal do more?--and had believed that
the boy would be his first thought.

In this way a cloud fell on the house from the very moment of Richard’s
return. His was not the prodigal’s return, notwithstanding his long
banishment and his great error. He had done more harm to his father’s
house than many a profligate son could have done; yet he was not wicked,
but virtuous, and could not be received as a prodigal. And he, for his
part, was warmly conscious of personal blamelessness, though his
position, so far as other people knew, was that of one to whom much had
been forgiven--a complication which was very productive of irritating
feelings. I do not mean to say that the cloud lasted, or that Richard
went to his room that night unreconciled with his mother. On the
contrary, when Lady Eskside followed him there, with a woman’s yearning,
to wipe out every trace of the misunderstanding, her boy fell upon her
neck as when he had been really a boy, and kissed her, and did all but
lift up his voice and weep, according to the pathetic language of
Scripture. Even yet, after the recollection of his petulance was thus
effaced, the shock she had received tingled through his mother’s heart,
and indeed through her physical frame, which was beginning to be more
sensitive by reason of age, vigorous woman though she was. Even without
any painful occurrences in the interval, a visit like this, paid after
years of separation, is often a painful experiment. The son of Lord
Eskside, a homely Scots lord, with few interests which were not
national, or even local, was a very different person from the Hon.
Richard Ross, senior _attaché_ of the British Legation at Florence,
whose life had fallen into grooves entirely different from those of
home. Though he returned to all the soft kindness of his natural manner,
the keen observation of the two women who were watching him (for Mary
was little less interested than Lady Eskside) soon made out that Richard
took little interest in his father’s talk, and was quickly fatigued by
his mother’s questions. He did not care for the parties of country
neighbours who were asked to meet him. “Of course, my dear mother,
whoever you please,” he would say, with a faint little contraction in
his smooth forehead; but then probably that was because those country
neighbours knew all about him, and understood that they were invited to
eat the fatted calf, and celebrate a prodigal’s return.



CHAPTER VI.


After this first experience of his feeling on the subject, Lady Eskside,
though with a painful effort, wisely resolved to avoid further
embarrassment by letting things fall into their natural course, and
making no effort to thrust his child upon Richard’s notice. The little
fellow, already familiar with the house, and fully reconciled, with a
child’s ease and _insouciance_, to the change in his lot, ran about
everywhere, making the great hall resound with his voice, and beginning
to reign over Harding and the rest of the servants, as the spoiled
darling, the heir of the race, is apt to do, especially in the house of
its grandparents. The only person Val was shy of was his father, who
took little or no notice of him, but after his first introduction
expressed no active feeling towards the child one way or another.
Perhaps, indeed, Richard was slightly ashamed of that uncalled-for
demonstration of his feelings. Valentine was his son, whether he liked
it or not, and must be his heir and representative as well as his
father’s; and though it never occurred to him to contemplate the moment
when he himself should reign in his father’s stead, he felt it wise to
make up his mind that his boy should do so, and to give his parents the
benefit of his own experience as to Val’s education. “You must be
prepared for an ungovernable temper and utter unreasonableness,” he said
to his mother, making a decided and visible effort to open the subject.

“My dear, there is nothing of the kind,” cried Lady Eskside, eagerly;
“the bairn is but a bairn, and thoughtless--but nothing of the kind can
I see----”

“He is seven years old, and he is fooled to the top of his
bent--everybody gives in to him,” said Richard. “Mark my words,
mother,--this is what you will have to strive against. Self-control is
unknown to that development of character. So long as they don’t care
very much for anything, all may go well; but the moment that he takes a
fancy into his head----”

Mary was present at this interview, and it was not in human nature to
refrain from a glance at his mother to see how she received this lofty
delineation of a character which Richard evidently thought entirely
different from his own. Lady Eskside saw the glance, and understood it,
and faltered in her reply.

“Many do that, my dear,” she said, meekly, “that are gentle enough in
appearance. I will remember all the hints you give me. But Val, though
he is very high-spirited, is a good child. I think I shall be able to
manage him.”

“Send him to school,” said Richard--“that is the best way; let him find
his level at school. Send him to Eton, if you like, when he is old
enough, but in the mean time, if my advice is worth anything, put him
under some strict master who will keep him well in hand, at once. My
dear mother, you are too good, you will spoil him. With the blood he has
in his veins he wants a firmer hand.”

“My hand is getting old, no doubt,” said Lady Eskside, with a little
glow of rising colour.

“I do not mean that; you are not old--you will never be old,” said her
son, with that flattery which mothers love. This put the disagreeable
parts of his previous speech out of her mind. She smiled at her boy, and
said, “Nonsense, Richard!” with fond pleasure. To be sure it was
nonsense; but then nonsense is often so much better than the sagest
things which wisdom itself can say.

As for the meeting with Mary Percival, that was got over more easily
than she herself could have expected. There were so many other things in
Richard’s mind that he took her presence there the first evening as a
matter of course; and though that too had its sting, she was so great a
comfort and help to them all in the excitement and embarrassment
involved in the first meeting, that Mary was made into a person of the
first importance--a position which always sheds balm upon the mind of
one who has been, or thinks she has been, slighted. This state of
comfort was somewhat endangered next morning, when Richard thought it
proper to express his sense of her great kindness in coming to meet him.
“It was very good of you,” he said--“like yourself; you were always much
kinder to me than I deserved.” Now this is not a kind of acknowledgment
which sensitive women are generally much delighted to receive, from men
of their own age at least.

“Was I?” said Mary, trying to laugh; “but in this case at least I had no
intention of being kind. I was here before there was any question of
your coming; and I do not know that I should have stayed--for when she
has you, Lady Eskside wants no other companion--but that I was very
anxious to know about Val.”

“I ought to be grateful to Val,” said Richard; “he seems to have
supplanted me with all my friends--even my mother is more interested, a
great deal, in Val’s digestion, than she is in my tastes, nowadays. I
have to fall back upon the consolation of all whose day is over. It was
not always so.”

There was the slightest touch of bitterness in this, which partially
conciliated Mary, though it would be difficult to tell why.

“I suppose that is a consolation,” she said. “I feel it too; but in your
case there is no occasion. They worship the child because he is your
son.”

“Yes, it is a consolation,” said Richard, “so far as anything can
console one for the loss of opportunities, the change of circumstances.
I find it safer to say nothing on such subjects, and to live among
people who know nothing; but now that I am forced to stand here again,
to recollect all that might have been----”

It was a still afternoon, the sun shining with lavish warmth and force,
the grass growing, the leaves opening, so that you could almost see
their silent haste of progress. They were standing on the terrace
outside the windows, looking down over the brown woods all basking in
the sunshine, to Esk, which showed here and there in a wider eddy of
foam round some great boulder which interrupted his course. It was too
early for the twitter of swallows; but some of those hardy birds that
dwell all the year at home were interchanging their genial babble, deep
among the multitudinous branches, and a few daring insects hummed in the
air which was so full of sunshine. Floods of golden crocus had come out
on all the borders. It was not the moment for recollection; but these
words raised a swell and expansion of feeling in Mary’s heart which it
was not safe to indulge. Soft moisture came to her eyes. Happily that
rush of sensation was not strong enough to make her wretched, but it
confused her so much that she could not reply.

“All the same,” said Richard, quickly, “I do not agree with Browning in
his rapture over an English spring. You should see Italy at this season:
everything here is pale, a mere shadow of the radiance yonder. From
Bellosguardo, for instance, looking down upon Florence; you have never
been in Italy, Mary?--a sky to which this is darkness, air all lambent
with light and warmth, such towers, such roofs rising up into it, and
the Val-d’Arno stretching away in delicious distance, like the sea, as
ignorant people say--as if the sea could ever be so full of grace and
interest! It is, I suppose, the junction of art with exquisite nature
which gives such a landscape its great charm. Here we have nature to be
sure, pretty enough in its way; but everything that man touches is
monstrous. Those square horrible houses! Happily we don’t see them
here.”

The soft flow of feeling which had risen in Mary’s mind, and had filled
her eyes with moisture, suddenly turned into gall. “No,” she said, “I
have never been in Italy. I don’t know that I want to go. I prefer to
think my own country the most beautiful in the world.”

“Well,” said Richard, “perhaps if you are obliged to live in it all your
life it is the most philosophical way.”

How little Mary was thinking of philosophy at that moment! It was well
for her that his mother came out from the open window, ready to walk
down to the village, which she had made her son promise somewhat
unwillingly to do. “Mary will go with us,” Lady Eskside had said as an
inducement to Richard, not perhaps taking Mary’s inclinations much into
account; for, of course (she reckoned securely), Mary would put her own
feelings in her pocket rather than take away a motive from Richard to do
his duty; and there could be no doubt that it was his duty to visit the
old people who remembered him, and who would be wounded if he took no
notice of them. “We must go to our old Merran’s, your nurse that used to
be. She is married to the smith, you remember, Richard? and doing well,
I believe, though always a great gossip, as she was when she was a young
woman. Her son has come to be under-gamekeeper, and your father thinks
he will give him one of the lodges if he turns out well, for he is going
to be married,” said Lady Eskside, walking briskly down the winding path
through the wood, which was shorter than the avenue,--and full of a
country lady’s satisfaction in that sway over her humble neighbours and
full knowledge of their concerns which is so good for both parties.
Richard went dutifully by her side, and listened at least; while Mary
came behind with little Valentine in wonderful new fine clothes, velvet
and lace, the strangest contrast to his former appearance. He had been a
beautiful child in his poor garments; he was like a little prince now,
with aristocrat (a stranger would have said) written in every fine line
of those features, upon which the noble father and the vagrant mother
had both impressed their image. The mother not being by, the child was
universally wondered over for his resemblance to his father; but to that
father’s eyes Val had nothing that had not come to him from the
other--that other who had once been Richard’s idol, and now was his
enemy and his shame.

Merran Miller, you may be sure, had heard every word of the story, and
more, and knew exactly how the beautiful boy, in his fantastic, costly
dress, had been brought to Rosscraig, and remembered how she had herself
seen him make his entry into his future kingdom, muddy and crying, “a
beggar-wean” by the side of the mother who went to lodge at Jean
Macfarlane’s. She knew it all, but this did not lessen the warmth of her
enthusiasm for Mr Richard’s boy, the bonnie wee gentleman who was so
like his papaw. “Eh, bless him, he’s like a prince! I wish the queen
herself might have the like!” she cried, with all the loyalty of an old
retainer, and wiped her eyes with her apron at thought of the kindness
of Mr Richard coming so far to see “the like of me!” Richard, after he
had said all that was civil to his old nurse, fell back, while his
mother inquired into her domestic affairs, and informed her of Lord
Eskside’s intended favour to the young gamekeeper who was about to be
married. “We cannot forget that you were a good nurse to our boy,” said
the old lady, gracious in her happiness; “and as Providence has been
good to us, giving us back our grandchild, who is the heir, and his
father at the same time, my lord and myself take a pleasure in seeing
other folk happy too.” “Eh, my lady, but you’re kind and good! and what
can I say to you for my Willie--for such a grand start in life!” cried
Merran, once more applying her apron to her eyes. Richard strayed aside,
and would have fallen back upon Mary, not feeling much interest in this
conversation, had not Mary, still affronted, eluded his address.

But as he looked round the cottage, something which interested him still
more attracted his eye. It was the “aumrie” or oak press in which Merran
and her mother before her had kept their “napery” for ages. The
connoisseur rushed at it, and examined every line of its old carving; he
opened the doors and looked over all the drawers and intricacies inside.
“Here is something as fine as any piece of furniture in your house. Ask
her if she will part with it,” he said rapidly to his mother in French.
His blue eyes sparkled with pleasant excitement, and his colour rose.
Since he came back, nothing--not his unknown child, not his parents, not
Mary, nor the associations of home--had given him so warm a glow of
pleasurable feeling. He was in his natural element once more.

It became still more apparent, however, and in a more agreeable way, how
much Richard was changed when the first dinner-party convoked in his
honour assembled at Rosscraig. The best people in the county were there,
straining a point to show the dear old Esksides (as the Dowager-Duchess
herself said) that for their sake their son’s misdoings would be
overlooked, and himself received again as if nothing had happened. They
all came prepared to be kind to him, to forget the disgrace he had
brought upon himself and his family, and to condone all past offences on
condition of future good conduct. But lo! Richard was civil to the
people who had intended to be good to _him_--he received them with the
quiet self-assured air of a man of the world, which was ever so far
removed from that of the conscious offender against social laws whom
they had come to meet. He spoke with a certain gentle authority as a man
much better acquainted with the great world and the highest levels of
life than were his critics--giving them pieces of information about
political matters, and deciding which was the real version of
fashionable scandals in a way which struck the neighbours dumb. “My
dears, we are all under a delusion,” said the same Dowager-Duchess whom
we have already quoted, addressing a little group in the corner of the
drawing-room to which they had retired to compare notes, and make their
astonished comments on leaving the dinner-table. “Depend upon it it’s no
tramp he has married, but some foreign princess. He’s no more ashamed of
himself than I am.” And, indeed, a rumour to this effect ran through all
Mid-Lothian. In the dining-room all the gentlemen were equally
impressed. Before they rose from table, Sir John Gifford, the greatest
land-owner in the district, and son-in-law to the Marquess of Tranent,
asked Richard’s opinion as to what the Ministry would do about the then
existing crisis (I do not remember what it was) in foreign politics; and
they all listened to what he said about the state of feeling in Italy,
and the condition of the smaller courts, as if it had been gospel. “That
son of Eskside’s, whatever he may have done to compromise himself in his
youth, is a rising man, you may take my word for it,” Sir John said
solemnly at the next assembly of the county. “And the less we inquire
into most men’s youth the better, my dear Sir John,” said the
Dowager-Duchess, of whose tongue most people stood in awe; and Sir John
coloured, and felt more and more sympathetic with Dick Ross; for he,
too, had known the drawbacks of a _jeunesse orageuse_.

This revolution was made not gradually but in a single evening. The
first dinner-party at Rosscraig was intended more or less to represent
that entertainment at which the fatted calf was eaten; but in the
curious change of sentiment that ensued there was no more thought of
fatted calves. The indulgent reception intended to be given to the
exile, almost the outlaw, of whom every one had spoken for years with
bated breath, turned imperceptibly into the welcome accorded to a
distinguished guest. Richard’s manners were allowed to be perfect; he
had all the _savoir vivre_, the easy grace, the perfect self-possession
of a man of the world. He knew everybody, he had seen everything; he was
learned in art of every description, from the old masters in painting to
lace and china; and every lady in the county who possessed either was
proud of his approbation. Perhaps he was not quite so great out of
doors, where neither agriculture nor sport were in his way; but men
forgive much to a political authority, as women do to a connoisseur, and
Richard’s visit was an event in the neighbourhood. Lady Eskside’s
feelings on witnessing this revolution were of the strangest. She
watched it with a certain consternation, half frightened, half
triumphant; the poor boy’s humiliation and sufferings, she said to
herself, were all being repaid to him; yet Lady Eskside was a just
woman, and I do not think she was quite sure that Richard deserved to be
thus received with an ovation. But where was there ever a mother who did
not glow with pride and happiness to see her son the observed of all
observers, the hero of her world? Mary Percival, who stood by and looked
on closely, a spectator less prejudiced in Richard’s favour, yet full of
the keenest interest, wondered still more, judging him differently in
her heart. Mary’s feelings were of a kind which would not bear
analysing. She could not keep from watching him, she heard everything
that was said of him, she noted his words and actions with a keen and
never-failing concern; but this wondering interest and a partial
amusement which pained herself, yet would not be altogether subdued,
were not sympathy. She seemed to herself to be behind the scenes, and to
see more than the rest did; and by this means it came about that the
rush of blood to her heart, and the thrill through all her frame with
which Mary had acknowledged Richard’s approach at first in spite of
herself, died away and left her quite calm as all the world awoke to his
merits. This second and less important revolution Lady Eskside perceived
dimly, but did not understand.

However, Richard’s sudden popularity was the most fortunate incident
possible for his child. Many people, after the first eager interest with
which they had received the romantic story of little Val’s first
appearance at Rosscraig, began to doubt it because it was so romantic,
and pointed out to each other the much more likely and sensible way of
accounting for it. “The beggar-wife is all a myth, depend upon it,” said
the Dowager-Duchess,--“a myth founded upon the popular conviction that
Dick Ross was unfortunate in his marriage. Most of us are unfortunate in
our marriages; but it seldom comes to that sort of thing. No, no;
depend upon it, the child came with his father, as was natural and
proper. What better explanation would you have?” There can be no doubt
that this method of introducing a child who is heir to a peerage is a
much more comprehensible and reasonable one than a wild tale by which he
was represented as having been thrust in at the hall-door on a stormy
night. There had been much excitement caused by the story; but that very
excitement was a proof to many sober people that it was ridiculous. Why
search further? they said. His father had come home on a visit, a very
rising young man, and extremely agreeable, and he had brought the child
with him. Valentine’s appearance confirmed the district in this sensible
view of the question. In his velvet tunic and collar of falling lace, he
was utterly unlike anything but a dainty little dandy born to luxury and
bred with every care, whose cheek the winds had never been allowed to
touch rudely. To look at the child was quite enough, said many. He to
have been wandering about the country with a tramp!--the idea was
preposterous. He was a little aristocrat all over--from his dark curls
to the buckles on his dainty shoes. And when the gentry of the country
inquired, as they almost all did individually, into the origin of the
other absurd story, it was universally traced to the servants’ hall. My
Lady Gifford’s maid had got it from Joseph the footman at Rosscraig, and
the Dowager-Duchess had heard it from an under-gardener who kept the
lodge, and with whom she did not disdain an occasional gossip. There is
no limit to the imagination of persons in that class of life, many
people said; and it became a mark of fashion on Eskside by which you
could decide whether any individual really belonged to the cream of
society or not. Belief in the common-sense theory that (of course)
Richard had brought his son to his mother’s care, was for a long time
the shibboleth of the county. Those who had faith in the romantic part
of the story were given over to a reprobate imagination, and stamped
themselves vulgar at once by adopting a theory so ridiculous. Nothing
could have been more fortunate for the young heir. Lady Eskside awoke to
the importance of maintaining this “sensible” view before she had been
tempted to utter the true occasion of her joy to any dear friend. Nobody
knew the real facts of the case except Mary and the servants. Mary was
safe as Lady Eskside herself, and as careful of the honour of the
family; and as for the servants, with their well-known love of the
marvellous, how could any one pin his faith on them? Thus circumstances
arranged themselves for little Val a hundred times better than the most
sanguine imagination could have believed.

But the story lingered in the lower levels of society, where nobody was
deceived. Merran Miller herself, though she had been Richard’s nurse,
and felt herself a partisan of the family, paused to give an elaborate
description of the child and his finery to her friends, when, throwing
her apron over her cap, she rushed out to proclaim her Willie’s good
fortune to all the world: “I wish I was at the bottom o’t,” cried
Merran; “it’s an awfu’ queer story. I’m real glad now that it came into
my head to give the weans a piece, and that I was civil to the woman.
But to see yon bairn decked up like a cheeny image! and him gaun
greeting with a beggar-wife nae later than Wednesday at e’en----!”



CHAPTER VII.


“Richard, there is one disagreeable subject which, as you said nothing
about it, I have avoided as long as possible; but I must speak now,
before you go.”

Lady Eskside had led her son out upon the terrace the evening before he
was to leave. She was dressed for dinner in her black satin gown, with a
lace cap and stomacher, which even his fastidious eye approved. She had
come to the age when little change of costume is possible. Sometimes she
wore velvet instead of satin, but that was about all the variety she
made, and her lace was her only vanity. She had a crimson Indian scarf
thrown over her head and shoulders. Her erect old figure was still as
trim, and her step as springy, as any girl’s. She was the picture of an
old lady, everybody allowed;--and it was true she was old--yet full of
an unquenchable youth. She had taken her son by the arm in the interval
before dinner, and led him out into the open air to speak to him.
Perhaps it was an inopportune moment; but it was a subject for which she
felt a few minutes were enough, as it could not but be painful to both.

“Well, mother,” he said, with a tone of resignation. He was going next
day, which gave him strength to bear this ordeal, whatever its cause
might be.

“I have said nothing to you--indeed, indeed, I have wished to say
nothing--about---- Richard, my dear boy, listen to me with patience, I
will not keep you long---- about--Val’s mother--your wife.”

“What about her?” said Richard, with harsh brevity. He made a movement
almost as if to throw off his mother’s arm.

“My dear, you must not think this subject is less disagreeable to me
than to you. Nothing has been said about her for a long time----”

“And why should anything be said about her?” said Richard. “In such a
hopeless business, what is the advantage of discussion? She has chosen
her path in life, which is not the same as mine.”

His soft and gentle face set into a harsh rigidity: it grew stern,
almost severe. “Come indoors, mother--the evening gets cold,” he added,
after a pause.

“Just a word, Richard--just one word! Do you not see a trace of
something different rising in her? She has brought back your boy: I
suppose she thinks, poor thing, that it is just she should have one of
them----”

“Mother,” said Richard, “I am astonished at your charity. You say, poor
thing. Do you remember that she has ruined your son’s life?”

Lady Eskside made no answer. She looked at him wistfully, with an
evident repression of something that rose to her lips.

“She has been my curse,” said Richard, vehemently. “For God’s sake, if
she will leave us alone, let us leave her alone. She has made my life a
desert. Is it choice, do you think, that makes me an outcast from my own
country? that shuts me out from everything your son and my father’s son
ought to have been? Why cannot I take my proper place in society--my
natural place? You know well enough what the answer is--she is the
cause. She has been my ruin: she is the curse of my life.”

He spoke almost with passion, growing not red but white in the intensity
of his feelings. Lady Eskside looked at him, kept looking at him, with a
face in which sympathy shone--along with some other expression not so
easy to be defined.

“Richard,” she said, in a low voice, “all you say is true--who can know
it better than I do? but oh, my dear, mind! she could have had no power
on your life, if you had not given it to her--of your free will.”

“So, then, it is I alone who am to blame?” said Richard, with a laugh,
which was half rage and half scorn. “I might have known that was what
you were sure to say.”

“Yes, you might have known it,” said Lady Eskside--“for nothing, I hope,
will ever shut my mind to justice; but not because I am in the habit of
reproaching you, Richard--for that I never did, even when you had made
my heart sore; but we need not quarrel about it, you and me. What I want
to know is, if you do not see now the still greater importance of
getting some hold upon her--for Valentine’s--for all our sakes?”

“You will never get a hold upon her: it is folly to dream of it. She is
beyond your reach, or that of any reasonable creature. Mother, come
in--the bell must have rung for dinner.”

“I have written to the man we employed before,” said Lady Eskside,
hurriedly. “This was what I wanted to say. Do not stare at me, Richard!
I will not put up with it. I must do my duty as I see it, and whatever
comes of it. I have given him all the particulars I could, and told him
to try every means, and lose no time. Her heart must be soft after
giving up her child.”

“So,” said Richard, with a quivering pale smile, “you consult me what
should be done after all the steps have been taken. This is kind! You
have taken care to provide for my domestic comfort, mother--”

“If we should find her--which God grant!--I will take charge of her,”
said Lady Eskside, with a flush of resentment. “Neither your comfort nor
your pride shall be interfered with--never fear.”

“You are most considerate, mother,” said Richard. “Your house, then, is
to be finally closed to me, after the effort I have made to revisit it?
Well, after all, I suppose the Palazzo Graziani suits me best.”

“You are cruel to say so, Richard,” said his mother. Tears came quickly
to her bright old eyes; but at that moment Lord Eskside looked out from
one of the drawing-room windows, and stayed the further progress of the
quarrel.

“What are you two doing there, philandering like a lad and a lass?” said
the old lord. “Richard, bring your mother in; she’ll catch cold. There’s
a heavy dew falling, though it’s a fine night.”

“It is my mother who insists on staying out in the night air, which I
disapprove of,” said Richard. “The Italians have a prejudice on the
subject of sunset. They think it the most dangerous hour of the day. I
am so much of an Italian now--and likely to be more so--that I have
taken up their ideas; at least so far as sunset is concerned.”

“So much an Italian--and likely to be more so!--I hope not, I hope not,
Richard,” said his father. “After this good beginning you have made, it
will be hard upon your poor mother and me if we cannot tempt you home.”

“Or drive me away for ever,” said Richard, so low that his mother only
heard him. She grasped his arm with a sudden vehemence of mingled love
and anger, which for the moment startled him, and then dropped it, and
stepped in through the window, letting the subject drop altogether. She
was unusually bright at dinner, excited, as it seemed, by the sharp
little encounter she had just had, which had stirred up all her powers.
Lord Eskside, who was not of a fanciful nature, and whose moods did not
change so quickly, regarded her with some suspicion. He was himself
depressed by his son’s approaching departure, and somewhat disposed to
be angry, as he generally was when depressed.

“You must have been saying something to your mother to raise her
spirits,” he said, after one or two ineffectual attempts to subdue
her--when Richard and he were left to their claret.

“Not I, sir,” said Richard, “on the contrary; my mother has ideas with
which I disagree entirely.”

“Ay, boy, to be sure,” said the old lord, “she was saying something to
me. Then it was opposition, and not satisfaction as I thought? You see,
Richard, women have their own ways of thinking. We cannot always follow
their reasoning; but in the main your mother’s perhaps right.”

And having said this, in mild backing up of his wife’s bolder
suggestions, Lord Eskside changed the subject and spoke of the property,
and of new leases he was granting, and the improvement of the estate.

“There is a great deal of land about Lasswade that might be feued very
advantageously--but I would not do it without ascertaining your feeling
on the subject, Richard. It can’t make much difference in my time; but
in the course of nature that time can’t be very long.”

“I wish it might be a hundred years,” said Richard, with no false
sentiment; for indeed, apart from natural affection, to be Lord Eskside
and live up here in the paternal _château_ among the woods did not charm
his imagination much.

“That is all very pleasant for you to say,” said his father, receiving
and dismissing the compliment with a wave of his hand; “but, as I say,
in the course of nature my time must be but short. There is just the
question about the amenities, upon which every man has his own
opinions----”

“The---- what did you say?” asked Richard, puzzled.

“The amenities of the place. It is true the village is not visible from
the house, but if in the future you were to find the new houses that
might be built an eyesore----”

“That is entirely a British notion,” Richard answered, with a smile; “I
think great part of the beauty in Italy is from the universal life you
see everywhere--villages climbing up every hillside. No; I have no
English prejudices on that point.”

“I don’t know that it’s an English prejudice,” said Lord Eskside, who
never forgot the distinction between English and Scotch as his son
invariably did. “Then you don’t object to feuing? Willie Maitland will
be a proud man. He has told me often I might add a thousand a-year to
the income of the property by judicious feus. They will be taken up by
all kind of shopkeeper bodies, retired tradesmen, and the like--a
consideration which gives me little trouble, Richard, but may perhaps
act upon you. No? Well, you’re a philosopher: they’re bad at an
election; they’re totally beyond control--unless, indeed, your mother
and I were to put ourselves out of our way to visit and make of them;
but we would want a strong inducement for that.”

Here Lord Eskside looked at his son with a look of veiled entreaty, not
saying anything; and Richard knew his father well enough to comprehend.

“You must not think of that, sir,--indeed you must not. Am I in a
position to be set up before the county, and have every fact of my life
brought up against me? No, father, anything else you like--but let me
stay among strangers, where the circumstances of my existence need not
be inquired into.”

“I don’t know that you have anything to be ashamed of,” said Lord
Eskside, with a husky voice.

“Anyhow, I cannot offer myself as a subject to be discussed by all the
world,” said Richard. Courage, he said to himself--to-morrow and all
this will be over! He made a strenuous effort to be patient,
strengthened by the thought.

“Well, Richard, if you have made up your mind--but you know our wishes,”
said the old lord with a sigh. Little Val had been exercising his
grandfather’s temper by his excursions round the table a little while
before. He had been obstinate and childishly disobedient till he was
carried off by the ladies; and Lord Eskside, somewhat out of temper, as
I have said, by reason of being depressed in spirits, had been ready to
augur evil of the child’s future career. But the contradiction of Val’s
father was more grave. When he resisted his parent’s wishes it was of
little use to be angry. The old lord sighed with a dreary sense that
nothing was to be made by struggling. Of all hopeless endeavours that of
attempting to make your children carry out the plans you have formed, is
(he thought to himself) the most hopeless. Everything might favour the
project which would make a man’s friends happy, and satisfy all their
aspirations for him; when, lo! a causeless caprice, a foolish dislike,
would balk everything. It is true that he had for years resigned the
hope of seeing Richard take his true place in the county, and show at
once to the new men what the good old blood was worth, and to the old
gentry that the Rosses were still their leaders, as they had been for
generations; but this visit had brought a renewal of all the old
visions. He had seen with a secret pride, of which, even to his wife, he
had not breathed a word, his son assume with ease a social position
above his brightest hopes. The county had not only received him, but
followed him, admired him, listened to his opinions as those of an
oracle. To bring him in for the county after this, and to carry his
election by acclamation, would be child’s-play, his father thought. But
Richard did not see it. He was, or assumed to be, indifferent to the
applause of “the county.” He cared nothing for his own country, or for
that blessedness of dwelling among his own people which Scripture itself
has celebrated. No wonder that Lord Eskside should sigh. “I believe you
think more of these fiddling play-acting foreigners,” he said, after an
interval of silence, during which his eyebrows and his under lip had
been in full activity, “than for all our traditions, and all the duties
of your condition in life.”

“Every man has his taste, sir,” Richard answered, with a shrug of his
shoulders, which irritated his father still more deeply.

“Well, you are old enough to judge for yourself,” he said, getting up
abruptly from the table. A great many things to say to his son had been
in the old lord’s mind. He had meant to expound to him his own view of
the politics of the day, at home, to which naturally Richard had not
paid much attention. He had meant to impress upon him the line the
Rosses had always taken in questions exclusively Scotch. But all this
was cut short by Richard’s refusal even to consider the question. Being
sad beforehand by reason of his son’s departure, I leave you to imagine
how melancholy-cross and disappointed Lord Eskside was now.

“What! is that imp still up?” he said, as going into the drawing-room he
stumbled over his own best-beloved stick, upon which Val had been riding
races round the room. “How dared you take my stick, sir? If you do that
again you shall be whipped.”

“You daren’t whip me,” cried saucy Valentine. “Grandma says I am never
to be frightened no more--but I ain’t frightened; and I’m to have what I
want. Grandma! he is taking my stick away!”

“_Your_ stick, ye little whipper-snapper! No; one generation succeeds
another soon enough, but not so soon as that. Send the boy to his bed,
my lady. He ought to have been there an hour ago.”

“Just for this night,” said Lady Eskside, as she caught the little
rebel, and, holding him close in her arms, smoothed the ruffled curls on
his forehead, and whispered in his ear that he was to be good, and not
to make grandpa angry. “Just for this night--as his father is going
away.”

“Oh, his father!” said her husband, with a slight snort of irritation
which showed Lady Eskside that the last evening had been little more
satisfactory to him than to herself. Her own voice had faltered a little
as she spoke of Richard’s departure, and she looked at her son
wistfully, with an incipient tear in the corner of her eye, hoping
(though she might have known better) for some response; but Richard, as
bland and gentle as ever, had seated himself by Mary, to whom he was
talking, and altogether ignored his mother’s furtive appeal. Valentine
gave her enough to do just at that moment to hold him, which, perhaps,
was well for her; and Lord Eskside walked away to the other end of the
room, pretending to look at the books which were scattered about the
tables, and whistling softly under his breath, which was one of his ways
of showing irritation. Even Mary was agitated she scarcely knew why; not
on Richard’s account, she said to herself, but as feeling the suppressed
excitement in the house, the secret sense of disappointment and deep
heart-dissatisfaction which was in those two old people, who had but
little time before them to be happy in, and so wanted the sunshine of
life all the more. Richard’s visit had been a success in one sense. It
had answered to their highest hopes, and more than answered; but yet in
more intimate concerns, in a still closer point of view, it had been a
failure; and of this the father and mother were all the more tremulously
sensible that he showed so little consciousness of it--nay, no
consciousness at all. He sat for a long time by Mary, talking to her of
the most ordinary subjects, while his mother sat silent in her chair,
and Lord Eskside, at the other end of the room, made-believe to look for
something in the drawers of one of the great cabinets, opening and
shutting them impatiently. Richard sat and talked quite calmly during
these demonstrations, unaffected by them. He kissed his child coolly on
the forehead, and bid him good-bye, with something like a sentiment of
internal gratitude to be rid of the little plague, who rather repelled
than attracted him. Mary went to her room shortly after Valentine’s
removal, which was effected with some difficulty, pleading a headache,
and in reality unable to bear longer the painful atmosphere of family
constraint--Lady Eskside’s half-appealing, half-affronted looks, and
anxious consciousness of every movement her son made, and the old lord’s
irritation, which was more demonstrative. Then the three who were
left gathered together round the fire, and some commonplace
conversation--conversation studiously kept on the level of
commonplace--ensued. Richard was to start early next morning, and
proposed to take leave of his mother that night--“not to disturb her at
such an unearthly hour,” he said. “Did you ever leave the house at any
hour when I did not make you your breakfast and see you away?” Lady
Eskside asked, with a thrill of pain in her voice. And as she left the
room, she grasped his hand, and looked wistfully in his face, while he
stooped to kiss her. “Richard,” she said in a half whisper, as the two
faces approached close to each other, “for myself I do not ask
anything--but, oh, mind, your father is an old man! Please him if you
can.”

Lord Eskside was leaning upon the mantelpiece, gazing into the fire. He
continued the same commonplace strain of talk when his son came back to
him. How badly the trains corresponded; how hard it would be, without
waiting at cross stations and losing much time, to accomplish the
journey. “And as you have to make so early a start you should go to your
bed soon, my boy,” he said, and held out his hand; then grasping his
son’s, as his wife had done, added hastily, his eyebrows working up and
down--“What I have been saying to you, Richard, may look less important
to you than it does to me; but if you would make an effort to please
your mother! She’s been a good mother to you; and neither I nor anything
in the world can give her the pleasure that you could. Good night. I
shall see you in the morning;” and Lord Eskside took up his candle and
hurried away.

The effect of this double appeal, so pathetically repeated, was not, I
fear, all that it should have been. When he reached his own room,
Richard yawned, and stretching his arms above his head--“Thank heaven! I
shall be out of this to-morrow,” he said.



CHAPTER VIII.


I have now to change the scene and bring before the notice of the reader
another group, representing another side of the picture, with interests
still more opposite to those of Lord Eskside and his heir-apparent than
were, even, the interests of that heir-apparent’s mother. But to exhibit
this other side, I have fortunately no need to descend to the lower
levels of society, to Jean Macfarlane’s disreputable tavern, or any
haunt of doubtful people. On the contrary, I know no region of more
unblemished respectability or higher character than Moray Place in
Edinburgh, which is the spot I wish to indicate. Strangers and tourists
do not know much of Moray Place. To them--and great is their
good-fortune--Edinburgh means the noble crowned ridge of the Old Town,
fading off misty and mysterious into the wooded valley beneath; the
great crags of the castle rising into mid-sky, and the beautiful
background of hills. Upon this they gaze from the plateau of Princes
Street; and far might they wander without seeing anything half so fine
as that storied height, lying grey in sunshine, or twinkling with
multitudinous lights, as the blue poetic twilight steals over the Old
Town. But on the other side of that middle ground of Princes Street lies
a New Town, over which our grandfathers rejoiced greatly as men rejoice
over the works of their own hands, despite the fullest acknowledgment of
the work of their ancestors. There lie crescents, squares, and places,
following the downward sweep of the hill, with, it is true, no
despicable landscape to survey (chiefly from the back windows), yet
shutting themselves out with surprising complacency from all that
distinguishes Edinburgh amid the other cities of the world. Nobody can
say that we of the Scots nation are not proud of our metropolis; but
this is how our fathers and grandfathers--acute humorous souls as most
of them were, with a large spice of romance in them, and of much more
distinctly marked individual character than we possess in our
day--asserted the fundamental indifference of human nature, in the
long-run, to natural beauty. How comfortable, how commodious are those
huge solid houses!--houses built for men to be warm in, to feast in, and
gather their friends about them, but not with any æsthetical meaning. Of
all these streets, and squares, and crescents, Moray Place perhaps is
the most “palatial,” or was, at least, at the period of which I speak.
Personally, I confess that it makes a very peculiar impression on me.
Years ago, so many that I dare not count them, there appeared in the
pages of ‘Blackwood’ a weird and terrible story called the “Iron
Shroud,” in which the feelings of an unhappy criminal shut up in an iron
cell (I think, to make the horror greater, of his own invention) which
by some infernal contrivance diminished every day, window after window
disappearing before the wretch’s eyes, until at last the horrible prison
fell upon him and became at once his grave and his shroud--were depicted
with vivid power. This thrilling tale always returns to my mind when I
stand within the grand and gloomy enclosure of Moray Place. It seems to
me that the walls quiver and draw closer even while I look at them; and
if the circle were gradually to lessen, one window disappearing after
another, and the whole approaching slowly, fatally towards the centre, I
should not be surprised. But in Edinburgh, Moray Place is, or was,
considered a noble circus of houses, and nobody feels afraid to live in
it. I suppose as it has now stood so long, it will never crash together,
and descend on the head of some breathless wretch in the garden which
forms its centre; but a superstitious dread of this catastrophe, I own,
would haunt me if I were rich enough to be able to live in Moray Place.

Mr Alexander Pringle, however, never once thought of this when he
established his tabernacle there. This gentleman was an advocate, to use
the Scotch term--the cosmopolitan and universal term, instead of the
utterly conventional and unmeaning appellation of barrister common to
the English alone--at the Scotch bar. His father before him had been a
W.S., or Writer to the Signet--a title of which I confess myself unable
to explain the exact formal meaning. How these comparatively unimportant
people came to be the heirs-at-law, failing the Rosses, of the barony of
Eskside, I need not tell. Pringle is a name which bears no distinction
in its mere sound like Howard or Seymour; but notwithstanding, it is
what is called in Scotland “a good name;” and this branch of the
Pringles were direct descendants from one of the Eskside barons. When
Dick Ross’s misfortunes happened, and his wife forsook him, Mr Alexander
Pringle, then himself recently married, producing heirs at a rate which
would have frightened any political economist, and possessing a wife far
too virtuous ever to think of running away from him, became all at once
a person of consequence. He felt it himself more than any one, yet all
society (especially in Moray Place) had felt it. By this time he had a
very pretty little family, seven boys and one girl, all healthy,
vigorous, and showing every appearance of long and prosperous life.

Fear not, dear reader! I do not mean to follow in this history the
fortunes of Sandy, Willie, Jamie, Val, Bob, Tom, and Ben. They were
excellent fellows, and eventually received an admirable education at the
Edinburgh Academy; but I dare not enter upon the chronicle of such a
race of giants. Val was born about the time that Richard Ross’s children
disappeared, and the Pringles christened the baby Valentine Ross,
feeling that this might be a comfort to the old lord, whose “name-son”
had thus mysteriously disappeared. Mr Pringle spoke of the event as an
“inscrutable dispensation,” and lamented his cousin’s strange
misfortunes to everybody he encountered. But dreadful as the misfortune
was, it made him several inches higher, and threw a wavering and
uncertain glimmer of possible fortune to come over the unconscious heads
of Sandy, Willie, Val, and the rest. They cared very little, but their
father cared much, and was very wide awake, and constantly on the watch
for every new event that might happen on Eskside. The seven years of
quiet, during which nothing was heard of Richard’s children, ripened his
hopes to such an extent that he almost felt himself the next in
succession; for a mild _dilettante_ like Dick Ross, who always lived
abroad, did not seem an obstacle worth counting. Perhaps he was in
consequence a little less careful of his practice at the bar; for this
tantalising shadow of a coronet had an effect upon his being which was
scarcely justified by the circumstances. But at all events, though they
managed to keep up their establishment in Moray Place, and to give the
boys a good education, the Pringles did not advance in prosperity and
comfort as they ought to have done, considering how well-connected they
were, and the “good abilities” of the head of the house. Though he would
sometimes foolishly show a disregard for the punctilios of the law in
his own person, and was now and then outwitted in an argument, yet Mr
Pringle was understood to be an excellent lawyer; and he had a certain
gift of lucidity in stating an argument which found him favour alike in
the eyes of clients and of judges. Had he been a little more energetic,
probably he would have already begun to run the course of legal
preferment in Scotland. He was Sheriff of the county in which his little
property lay; and at one time no man had a better chance of rising to
the rank of Solicitor-General or even Lord Advocate, and of finally
settling as Lord Pringle or Lord Dalrulzian (the name of his property)
upon the judicial bench. But his progress was arrested by this shadow of
a possible promotion with which his profession would have nothing to do.
Lord Dalrulzian might be a sufficiently delightful title if no more
substantial dignity was to be had, but Lord Eskside was higher; and the
man’s imagination went off wildly after the hereditary barony, leaving
the reward of legal eminence far in the background. Gradually he had
built himself up with the thought of this advancement; and though they
were by no means rich enough to afford it, nothing but his wife’s
persistent holding back would have kept him from sending Sandy, his
eldest boy, to Eton, by way of preparing him for his possible dignity.
For the days when boys were sent from far and near to the High School of
Edinburgh are over; and it is now the Scottish parent’s pride to make
English schoolboys of his sons, and to eliminate from the speech of his
daughters all trace of their native accent. Mrs Pringle, however, was
prudent enough to withstand her husband’s desire. “What would he do at
Eton?” she said. “Learn English? If he’s not content with the English
you and I speak, it’s a pity; and as for manners, he behaves himself
very well in company as it is, and you’ll never convince me that
ill-mannered louts will be made into gentlemen by a year or two at a
public school. You may send him if you like, Alexander--you’re the
master--but you will get no countenance from me.” When a
well-conditioned husband is told that he is the master there is an end
of him. Mr Pringle was not made of hard enough material to resist so
strong an opposition; and then it would have cost a great deal of money.
“Well, my dear, we’ll talk it over another time,” he said, and put off
the final decision indefinitely; which was a virtual giving in without
the necessity of acknowledging defeat.

After all this gradually growing satisfaction and confidence in his own
prospects, it is almost impossible to describe the tremendous effect
which the news of Richard’s return, and of the strange events which had
taken place at Rosscraig, had upon the presumptive heir. He spoke not a
word to any one for the first two days, but went about his business
moodily, like a man under the shadow of some deadly cloud. The first
shock was terrible, and scarcely less terrible was the excitement with
which he listened to every rumour that reached him, piecing the bits of
news together. For a week he neglected his business; forsook, except
when his attendance was compulsory, the Parliament House; and, if he
could have had his will, would have done nothing all day but discuss the
astounding tale, which at first he declared to be entire fiction, a
made-up story, and pretended to laugh at. He hung about his
dressing-room door in the morning, while his wife finished her toilet,
talking of it through the doorway; he hovered round the
breakfast-table, after he had finished his meal, neglecting his
‘Scotsman’; he was continually appearing in the drawing-room when Mrs
Pringle did not want him, and “deaved her,” as she said, with this
eternal subject. To no one else could he speak with freedom; but this
sweet privilege of wifehood, instead of being an unmingled good, often
becomes, in the imperfection of all created things, a bore to the happy
being who is thus elevated into the ideal position of her spouse’s
_alter ego_. Mrs Pringle was not sentimental, and she soon got heartily
sick of the subject. She would have cheerfully sold, at any time, for a
new dinner dress--a thing she was pretty generally in want of--all her
chances, which she had no faith in, of ever becoming Lady Eskside.

“Don’t you think, Alexander,” she said, having been driven beyond
endurance by his rejection of a proposed match at golf on Musselburgh
Links--a thing which proved the profound gravity of the crisis,---“don’t
you think that the best thing you could do would be to take the coach
and go out to Lasswade, and inquire for yourself? Take Violet with
you--a little fresh air would do her good; and if you were to talk this
over with somebody who knows about it, instead of with me, that know
nothing more than yourself----”

“Go--to Lasswade!” said Mr Pringle--“that is a step that never occurred
to me. No; I have not been invited to Rosscraig to meet Dick, and it
would look very strange if I were to go where nobody is wanting me. If
you think, indeed, that Vi would be better for a little change---- But
no; Lord Eskside would not like it--there would be an undignified look
about it--an underhand look; still, if you think an expedition would be
good for Vi----”

It was thus that under pressure of personal anxiety a man maundered and
hesitated who could give very sound advice to his clients, and could
speak very much to the purpose before the Lords of Session. Mrs Pringle
knew all this, and did not despise her husband. She felt that she
herself was wiser in their own practical concerns than he was, but gave
him full credit for all his other advantages, and for that ability in
his profession which did not always make itself apparent at home. And
she had a great many things to do on this particular afternoon, and was
driven nearly out of her senses, she allowed afterwards, by this eternal
discussion about Dick Boss’s children and the succession to Eskside.

“Do you remember,” she said, exercising her ingenuity, with as little
waste of words as possible--for the mother of seven sons, not to speak
of one little daughter besides, who is not rich enough to keep a great
many servants, has not much time to waste in talk--“that little cottage
at the Hewan, which I was always so fond of? The children are fond of it
too. As you are off your match, and have the afternoon to spare, go away
down and see if the Hewan is let, and whether we can have it for the
summer.”

“But, my dear, it is not half big enough for us,” Mr Pringle began.

His wife turned upon him a momentary look of impatience. “What does it
matter whether it’s big or little, when you want to see what is going
on?” she said. “Take the child with you, and ask about it. It would be
fine to have such a place, to send Vi when the heat gets too much for
her.” These last words were spoken in perfect good faith, for people in
Edinburgh keep up a fiction of believing that the heat is too much for
them--as if they were in London or Paris, or anywhere else, where people
love a yearly change.

“So it would,” said Mr Pringle; “and you could go out yourself sometimes
and spend a long day. It would do you good, my dear. I think I will go.”

“Run and tell nurse to put on your best hat, Violet,” said her mother;
“and you may have your kid gloves, if you will be sure not to lose them.
You are going out to the country with papa.”

Little Violet rose from where she had been sitting, with a family of
dolls round her, on the carpet. She had been giving her family their
daily lessons, and felt it a very important duty. She was but six years
old--one of those fair-haired little maidens who abound in Scotland,
with hair of two shades of colour, much brighter in the half-curled
locks which lay about her shoulders than on her head. With these light
locks she had dark eyes, an unusual combination, and pretty infant
features, scarcely formed yet into anything which gave promise of
beauty. She was so light that Sandy, her big brother, could hold her up
on his hand, to the admiration of all beholders. One daughter in such a
family holds an ideal position, such as few girls achieve otherwise at
so early an age. Their little sister was the very princess of all these
boys. The big ones petted and spoiled her, the little ones believed in
and reverenced her. To the one she was something more dainty than any
plaything--a living doll, the prettiest ornament in the house, and the
only one which could be handled without breaking wantonly, on purpose to
have them punished, in their hands; and to the others she was a small
mother, quaintly unlike the big one, yet imposing upon them by her
assumption of the maternal ways and authority. When she addressed the
nursery audience with, “Now you ’ittle boys, mind what I say to you,”
the babies acknowledged the shadow of authority, and felt that Vi
wielded a visionary sceptre. She was very serious in her views of life,
and held what might appear to some people exaggerated ideas as to the
guilt of spilling your tea upon your frock, or tearing your pinafore;
and was apt to wonder where naughty little children who did such things
expected to go to, with an unswerving and perfectly satisfied faith in
everlasting retribution, such as would have edified the severest
believer. Violet awarded these immense penalties to very trifling
offences, not being as yet wise enough to discriminate or get her
landscape into perspective. Her dolls were taught their duty in the most
forcible way, and she herself carried out her tenets by punishing them
severely when they displeased her. She got up from the midst of them
now, and though she had been lecturing them solemnly a few minutes
before, huddled them up, with legs and arms in every kind of contortion,
into a corner which was appropriated to her. She walked up-stairs very
gravely to be dressed, but made such a fuss about her kid gloves, that
nurse, with two baby boys on her hands, was nearly driven to her wits’
end. On ordinary occasions, Vi wore little cotton gloves, with the tops
of the fingers sewed inside in a little lump, which made her small hands
(as they used to make mine) extremely uncomfortable. When she was fully
equipped, she was a very trim little woman--not fine, but as imposing
and dignified in her appearance as a lady of six can manage to be; and
when the anxious heir-at-law to the Eskside barony came down-stairs with
her to start on this mission of inquiry, she was very particular that he
should have his umbrella nicely rolled, and that his hat should be
brushed to perfection. She liked her papa to be neat, as she was, and
took, in short, a general charge of him, as of all the house.

This, dear reader, is the villain of this history, who is bent on
spoiling, if he can, the hero’s prospects, and working confusion in all
the arrangements of the Eskside family, for the advantage of himself and
his Sandy, the next heir, failing Richard Ross’s problematical children.
But on this particular day when he lifted his little girl into the
coach, and made her comfortable, and smiled at her as she chatted to
him, notwithstanding all his preoccupations, he was not a very bad
villain. He would have liked to turn out to the streets the little
beggar’s brat of whom he had heard such incredible stories, and who was
supposed to be likely to supplant in his lawful inheritance himself and
his handsome boys; but then he had never realised the individuality of
this beggar’s brat, while his heart was very much set upon his own
children and their advantage--a state of mind not very uncommon. He was
as good to little Violet as if he had been an example of all the
virtues, and instead of feeling at all ashamed of so very small a
companion, was as proud of her as if she had been a duchess. To see her
brighten up as the coach rolled on through the green country roads
distracted him for the first time from his all-absorbing anxiety; and as
they came in sight of the village of Lasswade, and he pointed out the
river and the woods and the village houses to little Vi, he almost
forgot all about the barony of Eskside. You would say that evil
intentions could scarcely take very deep root in a heart so occupied;
but human nature is very subtle in its combinations, and it is curious
how easily virtue can sometimes accommodate itself by the side of very
ill neighbours. Mr Pringle had no idea or intention of working mischief,
though mischief might no doubt arise by chance in his path. All that he
wanted, so far as he was aware, was justice, and to make sure that there
was no cuckoo’s egg foisted into the nest at Eskside.



CHAPTER IX.


“Oh, sir, no, sir,” said the smiling landlord at the Black Bull, where
Mr Pringle went to have some luncheon and to order “a machine,” to take
Vi and himself to the Hewan--the little cottage, which was the
ostensible end of his mission--“there’s different stories going about
the country, but we must not believe all we hear. The real truth is, I’m
assured by them that ought to know, that the little boy came over from
foreign parts with his father, the Honourable Richard Ross, to be
brought up as is befitting, in a decent-like house, and among folk that
have some fear of God before their eyes,--which it’s no easy to find, so
far as I can hear, abroad.”

“Came over with his father!” cried Mr Pringle, through whose soul this
information smote like a sword. If this was the case, farewell to the
beggar’s brat theory, and to all hope both for Sandy and himself.

“Well, that’s the most reasonable story,” said the landlord; “there’s
plenty of other nonsense flying about the country. What we a’ heard at
first was, that some gangrel body knockit loud and lang at the ha’ door
the night of that awfu’ storm, and threw in a bundle, nigh knocking over
auld Harding the butler; and when lights were got--for the lamp was
blown out by the wind--it was found to be this boy. It’s an awfu’ age
for sensation this, and that’s the sensational story, folk ca’ it. But
Mr Richard, there can be nae doubt, has been home direct from Florence
and Eitaly, and what so likely as that he should bring the bairn
himsel’? So far as I can learn, a’body that is anybody, so to speak, the
gentry and them that ought to ken, believes he came with his father. The
servants and folk about the town uphold the other story; but you ken,
sir, the kind of story that pleases common folk best? Aye something
wonderful; fancy afore reason.”

“But surely it is very easy to get to the bottom of it,” said Mr
Pringle, with a beating heart. “Was the child with Mr Ross, for
instance, when he arrived?”

“Na, I never heard that,” said the landlord, swaying over to the other
side. “The carriage passed by our windows. So far as I could see, there
was but himself inside, and his man on the box. We maunna inquire too
close into details, sir--especially you that are a relation of the
family.”

“That is exactly why it is so important I should know.”

“Well-a-well, sir! they do say, I allow,” said the man, sinking his
voice, “that the little laddie was here before his father; that’s rather
my own opinion--no that I ever saw him. They sent down here, about a
week before Mr Ross came home, to inquire about a woman and a wean; nae
woman or wean had been here. There was one I heard, at Jean Macfarlane’s
on the other side of the bridge, which is a place no decent person can
be expected to ken about.”

“And who was the woman?” said Mr Pringle, with breathless interest.

“Na, that’s mair than I can tell. Some say a randy wife that’s been seen
of late about the country-side; some says one thing and some another.
Auld Simon the postman and Merran Miller were twa I’m told that saw her;
but this is a’ hearsay--a’ hearsay; I ken naething of my own knowledge.
I must say, however,” added the landlord, seriously, “that I blame
themselves up at the big house for most of the stir. They sent down
inquiring and inquiring, putting things into folk’s heads about this
woman and the wean. My lord had a’ them that saw her up to the house,
and put them through an examination. It was not a prudent thing to
do--it was that, more than anything else, that made folk begin to talk.”

“And was that before Richard Ross came home?”

“Oh ay, sir--oh ay; a good week before.”

“At the time, in short, that the child came?” said Mr Pringle, with
legal clearness.

“Well, Mr Pringle--about the time the bairn was said to have come, I’ll
no deny; but a’body that’s best able to judge has warned me no to build
my faith on a coincidence like that. Maist likely it was nothing more
than a co-inn-cidence. They’re queer things, as you that are a lawyer
must know.”

“Yes, they are queer things,” said Mr Pringle, with a flicker of hope;
and then he changed the conversation, and began to inquire about the
Hewan, and whether it was let for the season, or if any one had been in
treaty for it. “My wife has a fancy for the place. She knew it when she
was young,” he said, half apologetically.

“But it’s a wee bit box of a place--no fit for your fine family. It
would bring the roses, though, into little Miss’s cheeks, for the air’s
grand up on that braehead.”

“It is just for her we want it,” Mr Pringle said, with an unusual
openness of confidence. “She is rather pale. Come, Vi, there is the gig
at the door.”

Vi walked down-stairs very demurely and got into the gig, trying to look
as if she mounted with some dignified difficulty, and not to clamber up
with the speed and sureness which her breeding among so many boys had
taught her. She had been listening, though she took no part in the
talk. “Who is the little boy, papa?” she said, curiously, as they drove
briskly along through the keen but sunshiny air.

“A little boy at Rosscraig up yonder among the trees. Do you see the
turrets, Vi?”

“Yes, I see them: are they made of gold? and is he a bad little boy,
papa?”

“No, Vi; I don’t suppose he means it, and you don’t understand, my pet;
but it would be very bad for Sandy and the rest if he were to stay
there.”

“Then, papa, if it will be bad for Sandy, and the little boy is naughty,
why not drive up the avenue and take him and carry him away somewhere
where he can do no harm?”

This was Violet’s incisive way of dealing with difficulties. She had all
the instincts of a grand inquisitor: and would have acted with the same
benevolent absorption in the grand object of doing good to her patient
whether he liked it or no. The pair drove at a spanking pace up the
pretty road among the budding trees, through which at intervals there
were glimpses of Esk brawling over his boulders, his brown impetuous
stream all flecked with foam, like a horse in full career. A sensation
of positive happiness was in Mr Pringle’s mind as he drove along the
familiar road through the country which he hoped might yet acknowledge
his influence and authority. He could not have kidnapped the little
offender as Violet suggested; but he was glad to think that there was
every chance he was an impostor, and the field clear for himself and his
heir. A lawsuit rose up before him in fullest dramatic detail, a kind of
thing very attractive to his professional imagination. He saw how much
more difficult it would be on the other side to prove the right of this
supposititious heir, than it would be on his to throw doubt upon him. I
do not think the thought ever crossed his mind that the child might not
be supposititious at all, but the real grandson of Lord Eskside. It is
so much easier when you are deeply interested in a subject to see your
own side of the question, and to believe that yours is the side of
right. In his sense of the possibilities of the case his spirits rose,
and he enjoyed his drive to the Hewan with his innocent little girl
beside him. Up they went, mounting the long slope, now letting the horse
walk at the steep parts, now urging him to a momentary spurt, now
rolling rapidly along on a shady level, with the branches almost meeting
overhead. The day was warm for April, yet the wind was fresh and
chilly, and blew in their faces with a keen and sweet freshness which
brought the colour to little Violet’s cheek. “Little Vi would change
into Little Rose up here on Eskside,” said Violet’s father--he had not
felt so light of heart for many a day.

The Hewan is the tiniest of little cottages, perched high up on a bank
of the Esk, and surveying for a mile or two the course of the
picturesque little stream between its high wooded banks, with here and
there a pretty house shining far off among the trees, on some little
plateau of greensward, and the sound of the river filling the air with a
soft rustling and tinkling. Alas! there are paper-mills now along the
course of that romantic stream. I was but six years old, like Violet,
when I first saw that wild little place, and ever since (how long a
time!) it has remained in my mind, charming me with vague longings. Vi
trotted to the grassy ridge and gazed down the course of the stream, and
said nothing: for what can a child say, who has no phrases about the
beautiful at her tongue’s end, and can only stare and wonder, and
recollect all her life after, that brawling, surging river, those high
trees, inclining from either bank towards each other, and that ineffable
roof of sky? The old woman who kept the cottage consented that it was
still unlet, and threw no difficulties in the way; and Mr Pringle
secured it there and then for the summer. “I should like to buy it,” he
said to himself, “if it were not----” If it were not?--that perhaps the
turrets within sight might one day be his--a castle of dreams. The idea
of the great possibilities before him suddenly surged upwards, flooding
his soul; and then a hunger seized him for the river, and the woods, and
the fair country which they threaded through. He wanted to have them, to
possess them--not the rent of them, or the wealth of them, but
themselves--a passion of acquisition which is something like love,
swelling suddenly in his heart. He forgot himself gazing at them, till
Vi roused him, plucking at his coat, “Papa, it is bonnie; but why do you
look and look, with your eyes so big and strange, like the wolf that ate
little Red Riding Hood?”

“Am I like a wolf?” he said, half laughing, yet tremulous in his
momentary passion, seizing the child in his arms, and lifting her up to
share his view. “Look, Vi! perhaps some day all that may be yours and
mine.”

Violet looked gravely as a duty; but there was something in his
strenuous grasp that frightened her, and she struggled to be put down.
“I do not think,” she said, with precocious philosophy, “that it would
be any bonnier if it was yours, papa--or even mine.”

Mr Pringle was tremulous after this burst of unusual emotion, for what
has a respectable middle-aged lawyer to do with passion either of one
kind or another? The fit went off, and he felt slightly ashamed of
himself; but the thrill and flutter of feeling did not go off for some
time. He sent the gig and horse to meet him at the Eskside gates, and
taking Vi’s hand in his, went down by a pathway through the woods to a
side entrance. “Perhaps we shall see this little boy we were talking
of,” he said; but he was far from having made up his mind to confront
the two old people, my lord and my lady, who would see through his
pretences, as people are clever to see through the guiles of their
heirs. He was reluctant to face them boldly; but yet he was--how
curious!--eager to look the present crisis in the face, and see for
himself what he had to fear. After they had gone a little way along the
woodland path, which was still high above the course of the stream,
though accompanied all the way by the sound of its waters as by a song,
Violet escaped from her father’s hand, and ran on in advance, making
excursions of her own, hither and thither, darting about in her brown
coat and scarlet ribbons like a robin-redbreast under the budding
branches. Mr Pringle, lost in his own thoughts, let her stray before
him, expecting no encounter. Presently, however, there came from Vi a
little cry of surprise and excitement, which quickened his steps. He
hurried on after her, and came to an opening in the trees where the path
widened out. It was a small circular platform, open to the slope of the
river-bank, and with a rustic seat placed in an excavation on the higher
side of the way. Into this open space another little figure had rushed
from the other side, panting and flushed, grasping a tall stick, and
stood, suddenly arrested, in front of Violet, facing her, with an
answering cry, with big brown eyes expanded to twice their natural size,
and a face suddenly filled with curiosity and wonder. Mr Pringle it may
be supposed was _blasé_ in the matter of boys, and I do not think that
the affectionate father of an honest plain family is ever a great
amateur of childish beauty. This little figure, however, in his
fantastic velvet dress, with his hat perched on the back of his head,
and all his dark curls ruffled back from his bold brown forehead, struck
him with a certain keen perception of beauty which was almost pain. Ah!
and with a perception of something else which was still sharper pain. He
fell back a step to recollect himself, staggered by the sudden
impression. What made the child so like Richard Ross? What malignant
freak of fortune had so amalgamated with the dark complexion and look
which was not Richard’s, those family features? Mr Pringle stood as if
spell-bound, contemplating the child about whom he had been so curious,
about whom his curiosity was so fatally satisfied now.

“You are the little boy that lives at Rosscraig,” said Violet, feeling
the responsibility of a first address to lie with her, but somewhat
frightened, with tremblings in her voice.

“Yes; and who are you?” cried the little fellow. Mr Pringle behind
noticed with a pang that he spoke with an “English accent,” that
advantage which the ambitious Scotch parent so highly estimates. This
gave him a still deeper pang than the resemblance, for it seemed to give
the final blow to the beggar’s brat theory. Beggar’s brats in Mr
Pringle’s experience spoke Scotch.

“Who are you?” said Val. “I never saw you before. Will you come and
play? It’s dull here, with no one to play with. Do you hear any one
coming? I’ve run away from grandpapa.”

“But you oughtn’t to run away from your grandpapa,” said Violet. “It is
very naughty to run away, especially when the other people can’t run so
fast as you.”

“That’s the fun,” cried the other, with a laugh. “If you’ll come and
play, I’ll show you squirrels and heaps of things. But help me first to
hide this big stick. I think I hear him coming--quick, quick!”

“Would he beat you with it?” said Vi, growing pale with terror.

“Quick, quick!” cried the boy, seizing her by the wrist; but just then
there was a rush of steps along the sloping path which wound down the
brae to this centre, and Lord Eskside himself appeared, half angry, half
laughing, pulling aside the branches to look through. “Give me back my
stick, you rogue!” he cried, then paused, arrested, as Mr Pringle had
been, by that pretty woodland picture. It was something between a
Watteau group, and the ruder common rendering of the “Babes in the
Wood:” the girl in her scarlet ribbons with liquid dark eyes uplifted,
her face somewhat pale, with mingled terror, and self-control; the boy,
all flushed and beautiful in his cavalier dress, grasping her by the
wrist; with the faintly green branches meeting over their heads, and the
brown harmonious woods, all musical with evening notes of birds and
echoes of the running water, for a background. The men on either side
were so impressed by the picture that they paused mutually, in
involuntary admiration. But they had both perceived each other, and
though their sentiments were not very friendly, politeness commanded
that they should speak.

“I hope you are well, Lord Eskside,” said Mr Pringle, stepping with an
effort into the charmed circle. “I had just brought my little girl
through the woods to see how beautiful they are. This is my Violet; and
this fine little fellow is--a visitor, I suppose?”

“Is it you, Alexander Pringle?” said Lord Eskside. “I could not believe
my eyes. It is a sight for sore een to see you here.”

“Indeed it is chance--mere chance,” said Pringle, with a fulness of
apology which he was himself uneasily conscious was quite uncalled for.
“I have been up at the Hewan, which I have taken for the summer.”

“The Hewan for the summer! why, man, it’s a mere cottage; and what has
become of your own place?”

“Oh, I retain my old place; but it is a long way off, and best for the
autumn, when we can flit altogether. My wife is fond of the Hewan,
though it is so small; and we thought it would be handy to run out for a
day, now and then. In short, it suits us. Does this little fellow, Lord
Eskside, belong to the place? or is he a visitor? He seems to have
struck up a sudden friendship with my little girl.”

“A visitor!” said Lord Eskside. “Do you mean to say you have not
heard--do you see no likeness in him? This is my grandson, Pringle--my
successor one day, I hope--Richard’s eldest son.”

“Richard’s son!--you are joking,” said Mr Pringle, growing pale, but
with a smile that hurt him,--“you are joking, Lord Eskside; a child of
that complexion Richard’s son!”

Lord Eskside felt that his adversary had hit the blot--and, to tell the
truth, he himself had never perceived Val’s resemblance to Richard.
“Colouring is not everything,” he said; “I suppose he has his complexion
from his mother:” then with a return blow,--“but I cannot expect you to
be very much delighted with the sight of him, Pringle; he takes the wind
out of your sails--yours and your boys’.”

“I hope my boys will be able to manage for themselves,” said Pringle,
with a forced laugh. “If I say that I don’t see the resemblance, it is
for no such reason. I have never hungered for other folk’s rights: but
that is one thing and justice is another. Vi, my dear, we must go.”

“What! won’t you come and see my lady? She will be affronted if you pass
so near without calling; and you see,” said the old lord, with an effort
at cordiality, “the children have made friends already. Come and have
some dinner, man, before you go home. You know me of old. My bark is
waur than my bite--I meant no harm.”

“Oh, there is no offence,” said the heir-at-law; “but it’s getting late
for a delicate child, and our gig is waiting at the Woodgate. Violet,
you must bid the little man good-bye.”

“He is not a naughty boy, papa, as you said--he is a nice boy,” said Vi,
looking up with an appeal in her eyes; “please, I should like to stay.”

“And what made you think he was naughty, my bonnie little girl?” said
Lord Eskside, in insinuating tones.

“Come, come, Violet, you must be obedient,” said her father, hastily,
shaking hands with his kinsman, whose old face, half grim, half
humorous, was lighted up with sudden and keen enjoyment of the
situation. Mr Pringle hurried his daughter on almost harshly in the
confusion of his feelings. He had never been harsh to her before; and
Violet, in her disappointment, took to crying quietly under her breath.
“I should like to stay--I should like to stay!” she murmured; till out
of pure exasperation the kindest of fathers could have whipped her, and
thought of that operation as an actual relief to his feelings. Lord
Eskside, on his part, stood still in the clearing, holding back Val, who
was more vehement. “I want her to play with me; and you said I was to
have whatever I wanted,” the boy cried, struggling with all his might to
break away.

“You must know, my man, that there are many things which we all want and
cannot get,” cried the old lord, holding him fast; and then he burst
into a low laugh. “Here’s a bonnie state of affairs already,” he said
to himself: “Richard’s son breaking bounds to be after Sandy Pringle’s
daughter! It’s the best joke I’ve heard for many a day. Come, Val, come,
like a good boy. We’ll go and tell grandma. She may have a little girl
in her pocket for anything you and I know.”

“But I don’t want any little girl; I want _that_ little girl,” cried
Val, with precocious discrimination. The old lord chuckled more and more
as he half led, half dragged him up the steep path towards the house.

“Man, if you’re after them like this already, we’ll have our hands full
by the time you’re of age!” But when he had said this, Lord Eskside
paused and contemplated his grandson, and shook his head. “Can he be
Richard’s son after all?” the old man asked himself.

Lord Eskside, however, looked grim enough before he went into the house,
where he betook himself at once to the drawing-room in which his wife
sat alone, at a window overlooking the river. He went in to her moody,
with the air of a man who has something to say.

“What is the matter?” said Lady Eskside.

“Oh, nothing’s the matter. We’re entering into the botherations I
foresaw, that’s all that’s the matter. Who do you think I met in the
woods but that lawyer-rascal Sandy Pringle, come to spy out the
nakedness of the land!”

“And what nakedness is there to spy into? and what can Sandy Pringle do
to you or me?” said the old lady, with a slight elevation of her head.

“Not much, perhaps, to you or me. He’s taken the Hewan, Catherine, where
he can lie in wait like an auld spider till he gets us into his net.”

“I don’t understand you,” said the old lady, with the light of battle
waking in her eyes. “What does it matter to us where Sandy Pringle
lives? He has been out of the question, poor man, as everybody knows,
since Providence sent to my son Richard his two bonnie boys.”

“It’s fine romancing,” said Lord Eskside. “Where’s the t’other of your
bonnie boys, my lady? And where is your proof of this one that will
satisfy a court of law? Likeness is all very well, and natural
instinct’s all very well, but they’ll have little effect on the Court of
Session. And though he’s a haverel in private life, Sandy Pringle was
always a clever lawyer. If you do not find the woman there will be a
lawsuit, that will leave Eskside but an empty title, and melt all the
lands away.”

“We’ll find the woman,” said the old lady, clasping her fine nervous
hands. “I’ll move earth and heaven before I’ll let anything come in my
boy’s way.”

At this moment Val burst in, rosy and excited, with his grandfather’s
stick, which in the vehemence of their new ideas both the child and the
old man had forgotten. “Grandma, I want that little girl to play with.
Send over directly,” cried Val, in hot impatience, “to get me the little
girl!”

“You have enough on your hands, my lady,” said Lord Eskside.



CHAPTER X.


The Hewan was not a cottage of gentility. It was too small, too homely,
too much like a growth of the soil, to belong to any class that could be
described as _ornée_. The roof indeed was not thatched, but it was of
red tiles, so overgrown with lichens as almost to resemble a thatch,
except in the rich colour, which, to tell the truth, very few people
appreciated. Its present owner was a shopkeeper in Lasswade, in whose
heart there were many searchings about the vulgarity of its appearance,
which he felt sure was the reason why it was not more easily let for the
summer; and this good man had almost made up his mind to the expense
required for a good slate roof, when Mr Pringle fortunately appeared and
engaged it “as it was.” A sort of earthen embankment, low and thick,
encircled the little platform on which it stood. There was nothing
behind it but sky, with a light embroidery of trees; for it occupied the
highest “brae head” in the neighbourhood, and in a more level country
would have been described as situated on the top of a hill. Before it
lay the whole course of the Esk, not all visible indeed, narrowing here
and there between high banks, now and then hiding itself under the
foliage, or capriciously turning a corner out of sight,--but always
lending to the landscape that charm of life which water more than
anything imparts to the inanimate world around. Cliffs and trees, and
bits of bold brown bank, and soft stretches of greensward, all took a
certain significance, and explained their _raison d’être_ by the river.
The houses, too, from the dignified roofs of Rosscraig lower down the
stream, showing their turrets, which little Violet supposed to be made
of gold, between the clouds of trees--down to the square white houses of
the paper-mill people on the other side, and here and there rough red
tiles of a cottage of earlier date--were all harmonised by the river,
which was the link which held them together. The usual geographical
indications on Eskside were not by the points of the compass, as is so
common in Scotland, but by the stream--“up the water” or “down the
water” was the popular indication; and a more picturesque one it would
be difficult to find.

The Hewan was a long way up the water from Lasswade, yet not so far but
that many a visitor would climb the brae to “get their tea” with old Mrs
Moffatt, who was the mother of the proprietor,--living in charge of the
house, and not too proud to superintend the domestic arrangements of
small families who hired it for the summer. She had a little room with a
“box-bed,” that mystery of discomfort and frowsiness, but which was
neither frowsy nor uncomfortable in the hands of the brisk little old
woman--which her son had built on to the back of the house for her, and
in which she continued summer and winter, retiring herself there in
dignified privacy when “a family” was in full possession. Mrs Moffatt’s
little room, which had been made on purpose for her, had no
communication with the cottage. She considered it a very dignified
retirement for her old age. John Moffatt, her son, was a shoemaker in
Lasswade; and when the savings of his cobbling enabled him to buy the
Hewan, and establish his mother there, no noble matron in a stately
jointure-house was ever half so proud. Such a feeling indeed as pride,
or even satisfaction, rarely moves the mind of the dethroned queen who
has to move out of the house she has swayed for years, and descend into
obscurity when the humiliation of widowhood befalls her. Mrs Moffatt,
good old soul, had no such past to look back upon. She had been long a
widow, knocking about the world, doing whatever homely job she could
find, struggling to bring up her children; and the Hewan and the little
back room represented a kind of earthly paradise to the cobbler’s
mother. The summer lodgers who paid her for cooking and keeping in order
their little rooms, gave the frugal old soul enough to live on during
the winter; and when by chance “a family” came which had no need of her,
good John, out of the abundance of the rent, allowed his mother the few
weekly shillings she required. She had a little kitchen-garden to the
back, surrounding her nest, as she called it, and kept a pig, which was
her pride and joy, and a few chickens. If she could but have had a cow,
the old woman would have been perfectly happy; but as it is not, I
suppose--or at least so people say--good for us to be perfectly happy,
the cow was withheld from her list of mercies granted. Good little soul,
her mouth watered sometimes when she thought of the butter she could
make, and of the cheeriness of having “a neebor’s lassie” coming in with
her pitcher for the milk, or even the luxury of a “wee drap real cream”
in her cup of tea. But to mourn for unattainable things had never been
her way; and when she went “doon the toun” with a basketful of eggs for
her daughter-in-law, she was as proud and happy in her homely gift as if
it had been gold or diamonds. She was a friendly body everybody
testified, and known up the water and down the water as always
serviceable and always cheery. When there was any gossip going on of an
interesting nature, some one in Lasswade or the neighbourhood always
found opportunity of taking a walk up to the Hewan, and a cup of tea
with old Jean, who was every one’s friend.

On such occasions Mrs Moffatt carefully skimmed everything that looked
like cream from the milk which had been standing in a bowl for this
purpose since the morning, and put on her little kettle, and took out
her best china, and even prepared some “toasted breed” over and above
the oat-cakes, which were her usual fare. The window of the old woman’s
nest looked out upon a dark wilderness of trees, which descended down a
steep bank to the upper Esk, and shut out any view. Her door was
generally open, as well as the window, so that the rustling of the trees
and the singing of the kettle kept pleasant company. Her boarded floor
was as clean as soap and water could make it, and her hearth well swept
and bright; a huge rug, made by her own hands (for she was a capable old
wife) out of strips of cloth of all colours, looked cosy before the
fire. Her bed, like a berth in a ship, appeared behind, with a very
bright bit of chintz for curtains, and covered with a gay patchwork
quilt. She had some brilliantly-coloured pictures on the walls--a
wonderful little boy with big eyes and a curly dog, and a little girl
with long curls and a doll, not more staring and open-eyed than herself.
The old lady thought they were like “our wee Johnnie and Phemie down the
town,” and found them “grand company.” She had some brass candlesticks
and a glorious tea-caddy on the mantelpiece, and such a tea-tray set up
against the wall as would have made all other ornamentation pale. “The
worst o’t is, ye maun be awfu’ solitary, especially in the winter time,
when there’s naebody ben the house, and few on the road that can help
it,” her friends would say. “Me solitary!” said old Jean. “I’m thankful
to my Maker I never was ane that was lanesome. I’m fond o’ company, real
fond o’ company--but for a while now and then it’s no’ that ill to have
your ain thoughts. And then there’s the hens, poor things, aye canty and
neighbour-like, troubling their heads about their sma’ families, just as
I used to do mysel’--and Grumphy yonder’s just a great diversion; and
when it’s a cauld night, and I shut to the door, there’s the fire aye
stirring and birring, and the wee nest as warm as can be, and the auld
clock, tick, tick, aye doing its duty, poor thing, though it might be
tired this hunder year or twa it’s been at it; and there’s a hantle
reading in the ‘Courant,’ though maybe the ‘Scotsman’s bigger, and I’m
on the Leeberal side mysel’. Toots! solitary! there’s naebody less
solitary than me.”

A cheerful soul is always a social centre, however humble it may be.
Jean’s friends accordingly went to see her, not out of pity, as to cheer
a poor solitary old woman, but for their own amusement, which in this
kind of social duty is by far the strongest motive. She was about the
best-informed woman on all Eskside. Every kind of gossip made its way to
her; and I doubt whether the people in Rosscraig House themselves, knew
so well all that had happened and all that everybody said on the night
of little Valentine’s arrival. She heard a great deal even from Mrs
Harding herself, the housekeeper, who could not resist the temptation of
confiding a few details, not generally known, to her old friend’s
keeping. For Jean was known to be a person in whom it was possible to
repose confidence, not one that would betray the trust placed in her.
Besides, Mrs Moffatt had become a person of importance since it was
known in Rosscraig that Mr Pringle had taken the Hewan for the season.
Lady Eskside herself got out of her carriage one day as she passed, and
went to pay the old woman a visit. She went into the cottage and
complimented old Jean on the excellent order in which she kept it. “I
hear it has been taken by a relation of ours--Mr Pringle,” she said.

“I didna ken he was a relation of your leddyship’s; but it’s Mr Pringle
sure enough. I was sure I kent the face--no doubt I’ve seen him coming
or going about the House.”

“He comes very seldom to see us,” said Lady Eskside. “In fact, before my
grandson was born he considered himself the heir--after my son, you
know; and he has been dreadfully disappointed, poor man, since. Val,
don’t go too near the dyke!”

“And this is the heir, nae doubt, my lady?--eh, what a bonnie bairn!
Nane that see him need ever ask the rank he’s born to. He has the look
of a bit little prince. And I wouldna say but he was fond of his own way
whiles----”

“More than whiles, more than whiles,” said the old lady, graciously; “he
is just a handful. But Mr Pringle has a large family, if it’s him. He
will never find room for his bairns in this little bit of a place.”

“It’s chiefly for the wee Miss he had with him, my lady. She’s delicate,
they say; and if ever a man was wrapt up in a bairn--and her so
delicate----”

“Dear me, I am sorry to hear it!” said Lady Eskside, whose sympathy was
instantly aroused; “will it be anything the matter with the chest? I am
always most afraid for the chest in children. Mr Pringle is a most
excellent man. He has been a little disappointed and soured perhaps--but
he is an excellent person. The air is sharp up here, Jean--too sharp for
a delicate child. If she should want anything, cream or fresh milk in
the morning, be sure you let me know. Cream is excellent for the lungs.
I like it better than that oil that doctors give now--nasty-smelling
stuff. But if there is anything the poor child should want, be sure you
send to me.”

Lady Eskside was an acute woman, but she was foolish in this particular.
She caught her own healthy blooming grandchild on the edge of the low
embankment, where he was hazarding his life in warm enjoyment of the
risk, and gave him a kiss though he deserved a whipping, and said,
“Poor Sandy Pringle!” with the most genuine feeling. She went into Lord
Eskside’s library, when her drive was over, full of this information.
“You need not alarm yourself about Sandy Pringle, poor man,” she said;
“he has taken the Hewan on account of his poor little girl who is
delicate--her chest, I am afraid. If you remember, his mother died of
consumption quite young. It’s a terrible scourge when it’s in a family.
My heart is sore for him, poor man. When the child comes we must have
her here, and see if anything can be done. Perhaps if they were to take
it in time, and send her to Madeira or some of these mild places; there
is always hope with a bairn.”

“My word, my lady, but you go fast,” said the old lord, with his little
keen eyes twinkling under his shaggy eyebrows. But he did not convince
her any more than she convinced him. And indeed, when the Pringle family
began to appear about the woods, every member of the household at
Rosscraig, down to my lady’s young footman, felt that curiosity of
opposition in respect to them which is almost as eager as the curiosity
of partisanship. Mrs Harding the housekeeper had for her part taken up
Lord Eskside’s view of the subject, and when she too made a visit to
Jean Moffatt one evening of the early summer, her purpose was of a more
sternly investigating order than that of Lady Eskside.

“How do you like the folk ben the house?” she said, as she sat at tea;
the cake she had brought “in a present” was placed on the table in the
place of honour, and the tea was “masking” before the fire. It was a
soft evening in May. The door was open, but the fire was not
disagreeable, and the sound of the Esk far down below the brae, and the
rustling of the leaves close round the house, were softened by the air
of spring into a pleasant murmur. The family “ben the house” being
separated by a good Scotch stone wall from old Mrs Moffatt’s nest, gave
no sound of their neighbourhood, and nothing but that wild but soft
cadence of the waters and the trees interrupted the homely domestic
harmonies more closely at hand--the cheery little stir and _pétillement_
of the fire, the singing of the kettle, the purring of the cat, the
ticking of the old clock. Mrs Harding combined an earnest desire for
information with a very pleasant sense of the immediate comfort and ease
which she was enjoying. My lord and my lady were “out to their dinner,”
and Harding himself had promised to daunder up to the Hewan in the
gloaming and fetch his wife home. Being “out to her tea” was an unusual
event in the housekeeper’s responsible life, and the enjoyment it gave
her was great. “Eh, how quiet and pleasant it is!” she added, almost
with enthusiasm; “this is one of the days you can hear the grass
growin’: and to get away from a’ the stew and bustle o’ the dinner, the
hot fire, and the smell o’ the meat, and thae taupies that let one thing
burn, and another boil over. If I were to envy onybody in the world, I
think, Jean Moffatt, it would be you.”

“Hoots,” said the old woman, with a pleasant consciousness that her lot
was enviable; “when you and your man make up your mind to retire, my
certy, ye’ll be a hantle better off than the like o’ me.”

“And when will that be?” said Mrs Harding, with a sigh; “no as lang as
_They_ live, for they couldna do without my man an’ me. But I was
saying, how do you like the folk ben the house?”

“You shouldna let yourself be keepit in bondage,” said Jean, with a
touch of sarcasm; “when folk _maun_ do without ye, they _can_ do without
ye--I’ve aye seen that. Oh, I like them real well. They come and they
gang, and now it’s a breakfast and now the bairns’ dinner--nothing
more--and aye a maid to serve them; so it suits me fine. The lads are
stirring boys, and Missie’s a darling. She makes me think upon one I
lost, that was the sweetest o’ a’ my flock. Eh, if you could but keep a
girlie like that aye the same, what a pleasure it would be in a house!
But the bit things grow up and marry, and have weans of their own, and
get to be just as careworn and wrinkled as yoursel’. I think whiles my
Marg’ret, with ten of a family, and a man no better than he should be,
is aulder than me.”

“It’s the course of nature,” said Mrs Harding--“we maunna grumble; but
I’m sure when I see a’ that folk have to go through with their families,
I’m thankful I have nane o’ my ain. Ye ken your Mr Pringle sets up to be
_our_ heir! It’s real ridiculous if it wasna provoking. I could laugh
when I think o’t. He must have been terrible cast down when Mr Richard
brought hame his boy.”

“But I thought it was a randy wife, not Mr Richard----”

“Whisht!” said the housekeeper; “we’ll say no more about that. It’s no’
a story I pretend to understand, but I’m rather thinking it was some
Italian or other that Mr Richard sent with the bairn. Foreigners are
strange cattle. And whether it was man or woman I wouldna say, for
nobody saw them but my man, and he’s confused about the story. But this
is clear, it was Mr Richard sent the bairn hame; and reason guid. You
should have heard his man on Eetaly and thae places. You might as well
sell your soul to Satan, and better too, for you would aye get something
by the bargain--and there’s no even _that_ comfort out there. Ye canna
but wonder at Providence that lets a’ that play-acting and fiddling and
breaking o’ the Sabbath gang on, and takes nae mair heed than if a’ thae
reprobats were sober, decent, kirk-going folk like ourselves. But I’m
thinking their time will come.”

“Poor bodies! I daur to say they ken nae better,” said Jean. “It’ll be
by the mother’s side that the Pringles and the Rosses count kin?”

“Na, how could that be, when he thinks himsel’ the heir? When ye’ve ance
lived in a high family, ye learn a heap of things. Titles never gang the
way o’ the spinning-wheel, nor land that’s entailed, as they call it.
It’s lad comes after lad, and the lasses never counted. I canna say it’s
according to justice, but it’s law, and there’s nae mair to be said.
This is the way of it, for my lady told me hersel’: A Ross married a
Pringle that was an heiress two or three hunder years ago, and took his
wife’s name, which was a poor exchange, though I’m saying nothing
against the name of Pringle; my first place was with the Pringles of
Whytfield, a real fine family. And now that a’ the Rosses have died down
to the present family, the Pringles have come uppermost. My lady herself
was six or seven years married before Mr Richard was born. So ye see
they’ve had the cup to their lips, as you may say, more than once.
That’s a thing I could not bide. I would rather be my man’s wife,
knowing I could be no better all my days, than expect to be my lady, and
never win further ben.”

“It’s much the same in a’ ranks o’ life,” said Jean. “There’s my
Marg’ret; it’s been her desire a’ her days to get the house at the
Loanhead, with a nice bit land, that would gang far to feed her family.
She’s had the promise o’t for ten years back. Old John Thomson was to
flit afore he died, but that fell through; and when he died, they
couldna refuse to let his son come in; and then it was reported through
a’ the parish that young John was to emigrate----”

“I’ve heard that,” said Mrs Harding; “and I aye give my advice against
it: for nae man will ever succeed if he doesna work hard; and if he’ll
work hard, he’ll do very well at hame.”

“Young John was to emigrate,” continued Mrs Moffatt; “and it was a’
settled about his roup, and Marg’ret was sure of getting in by the term;
when what does he do but change his mind! I thought the poor lass would
have broken her heart; and oh, the fecht she has with a’ thae bairns and
a weirdless man. Then he had that awfu’ illness, and it was reported he
was dying. My poor Marg’ret came to me the day he was prayed for in the
kirk, with red een. ‘I’m doing naething but pray for him,’ she said;
‘for oh, if I didna pray for him to mend, I would wish him dead, mother;
and what comfort could I have in onything that came to me after that?’
The man got weel,” said the old woman, with a sigh; “he’s as weel as you
or me, and a hantle younger, and he canna make up his mind if he’ll go
or bide. It’s awfu’ tantalising; and it happens in a’ classes of life.
I’m real sorry for the poor gentleman, and I hope he doesna take it to
heart like my Marg’ret, poor lass!”

“Ye mean well,” said Mrs Harding, half affronted; “but to pity the next
heir is like grudging the Almighty’s mercies to us. Folk should learn to
be content. I’m no’ saying for your Marg’ret; but Mr Pringle is as weel
off as he has ony right to be, and why should he come spying upon my
lord and my lady? Folk should learn to be content.”

“It’s awfu’ easy when it’s no’ your ain case,” said Jean; “an’ I suppose
we’ve a’ as much or mair than we deserve; but that does not satisfy your
wame when you’re hungry, nor your back when you’re cauld. The maister
has never been out here since the first time. The leddy came once, a
fine sensible woman, that looks weel after her family; but it’s Missie
that’s the queen o’ the Hewan. As it’s such a fine night, and nane but
bairns in the house, if you’ll come ben we’ll maybe see them. I’ll have
to think o’ some supper for them, for thae lang laddies are just wolves
for their supper. Or maybe you’ll first take another cup o’ tea?”

Mrs Harding declined this hospitable offer, and rose, taking her shawl
and bonnet with her, for it was nearly the time, she remarked, when she
“must be going.” The two lingered outside to look at the hens, and
especially that careful but premature mother who had begun to “sit,”
though the weather was still but moderately adapted for the fledglings;
and then they made a momentary divergence to see “Grumphy,” who was the
pride of his mistress’s heart. “I’ll no’ kill him till after harvest,
and I’ll warrant you there’ll be no better meat between this and
Edinburgh. Poor beast!” she said, with a mixture of the practical and
sentimental, “he’s a fine creature, and has a fine disposition; but it’s
what we a’ must come to. And yonder’s where I would keep the coo--if I
had ane,” she added with a sigh, pointing to a little paddock. The cow
was to old Jean what the barony of Eskside was to Mr Pringle, and the
house at the Loanhead to her daughter Marg’ret: but the old woman’s lot
was the easiest, in that the object of her desire was not almost within
her longing grasp.



CHAPTER XI.


Lord and Lady Eskside, as the reader has seen, were not quite in accord
about their grandson: or at least they took different views of the
circumstances which attended his arrival. They took (perhaps) each the
view which came naturally to man and woman in such a position of
affairs. The old lord, although himself at length absolutely convinced
that the boy was his son’s child and his own heir, was deeply oppressed
by the consciousness that though there was moral certainty of this fact,
there was no legal proof. “Moral certainty’s a grand thing,” said Willie
Maitland, the factor, a man who knew the Eskside affairs to the very
depths, and from whom there were no secrets possible; but he spoke so
doubtfully as to inflame the mind of my lady, who sat by listening to
their talk with an impatience beyond words.

“A grand thing!” cried Lady Eskside; “it is simply everything: what
would you have more? And who can judge in such a question but ourselves?
my son, who must know best, and my old lord and myself, who are next
nearest? What do the men mean by their dubious looks? What can you have
more than certainty? Mr Maitland, with your knowledge of the law, I
would like you to answer me that.”

“Well, madam, as my lord says,” said Willie Maitland, who was
old-fashioned in his manners, “there is legal proof wanted. It may be
just a deficiency on our part--and indeed, according to the Scriptures
themselves, law is a sign of moral deficiency--but everything has to be
summered and wintered before the Lords of Session.”

“And what have the Lords of Session to do with our boy?” said my lady,
indignantly. “I hope we are not so doited but what we can take care of
him ourselves.”

“My dear Catherine, that is not the question.”

“What is the question, I would like to know?” said Lady Eskside,
flushing with the heat of argument. “Do I need the Lords of Session to
tell me whose son my own bairn is? I think you are all taking leave of
your senses with your formalities and your legal proof. Poor Alexander
Pringle there, up the water, cannot bring his delicate little girlie to
the country for change of air but you think he’s plotting against Val.
If this suspicion and distrust of every mortal is what your bonnie law
brings, I’m thankful for my part that I know nothing about the law; and
I wish everybody was of my mind.”

Lord Eskside and his factor went out quite cowed from my lady’s
presence. They were half ashamed both of the law and themselves, and I
think the visit which they made to the land which was being marked out
for “feus” was necessary to get up their spirits. Lord Eskside was
rather excited about these feus--allotments of land to be let for
building, upon a kind of copyhold which secured a perpetual revenue in
the shape of ground-rent to the proprietor: though he was a little
disposed at the same time to alarm himself as to the persons who might
come to live there, and perhaps bring Radical votes into the county, and
corrupt a constituency still stanch, amid Scotland’s many defections, to
“the right side.” This public anxiety was a relief to his mind from the
private anxiety; for however public-spirited a man may be, and however
profound his interest in politics, the biting of a little private
trouble is more sharp and keen than that patriotic concern for his
country which drives him wild with excitement over a contested election.
Willie Maitland the factor--a man “very well connected,” half a lawyer,
half a farmer, and spoken of by every soul in the parish and on the
estate by his Christian name--was big and burly and easy-minded, and
took things much more easily than his lord. “By the time there is any
question of the succession,” he said, “the story will be clean
forgotten. It will be many a year, I hope, before Richard succeeds, let
alone the boy.”

“Ay, ay, that is very true,” said the old lord, knitting his brows; “it
may be many a year; but it might be a question of days, Willie, for
anything you and me can tell. Well, well; for the moment we can make
nothing better of it; and here are the feus. Good morning, doctor! I
hope you’re all well at the Manse. It is a fine day for a walk. We are
going to take a look at Willie Maitland’s pet scheme here.”

“An excellent scheme,” said Dr Bruce, the parish minister, turning to
accompany them, with all that sober pleasure in something new which
moves the inhabitants of a tranquil rural district in favour of such
gentle revolutions as do not affect their own habits or comforts; and
the three gentlemen spent an agreeable half-hour pacing and measuring
the allotments. While they were thus engaged, Lady Eskside drove past
with Val on the coach-box, making believe to drive. “There is my lady
with her boy,” said Lord Eskside, waving his hand to them as they
passed; but he thought he saw an incredulous smile upon the face of the
minister, which took away from him all pleasure in the feus.

My lady worked while my lord thus allowed himself to be overcast by
every doubtful look. Strong in her moral certainty, she took every means
which lay in her power to spread the same conviction far and wide; and
as she worked very hard at this undertaking, she had a right to the
success, which she enjoyed thoroughly. Her chief work, however, was with
the child himself--the strange little unknown being unable to express
all the wonderments that were in him at his change of lot, who was in
her hands as wax in some respects, while in others she could make but
little of him. Val had reconciled himself to the revolution in his fate
with wonderful facility. He was so young, that after a few fits of
violent weeping and crying for his mother and his brother, he had to all
appearance forgotten them; and being indulged in every whim, and petted
to the top of his bent, with abundant air, exercise, toys, and caresses,
had so adapted himself to his new position as to look familiar and at
ease in it before many weeks had passed. What vague recollections and
baby thoughts upon the subject might be in him, nobody knew; but as
childish recollections are in most cases carefully cultivated, and exist
by means of constant reminders, I suppose Val, deprived of such aids,
actually did forget much more readily than children usually do. Lady
Eskside devoted herself specially to his polish and social education, to
the amending of his manners and speech, and the imparting of those acts
of politeness which are the special inheritance of small gentlemen: and
she succeeded, to her own surprise, much more perfectly than she had
hoped to do. Val took to the teaching in which no books nor perplexing
printed symbols were involved, with perhaps a precocious sense of
humour, but certainly a readiness of apprehension which filled my lady
with joy. She taught him to bow, to open the door for her when she went
out or in, to listen, and to reply; and what was still more wonderful,
to sit still when circumstances demanded that painful amount of
self-restraint. “A little gentleman tries first of all to be pleasant to
other people,” said his instructress. “When you are out playing, you
shall please yourself, Val, and everybody will help you to enjoy
yourself; but in company a gentleman always thinks of others, not of
himself.” And having well laid down this principle, my lady proceeded,
with great minuteness, to details. She thought it was a certain sign of
his gentle blood that he learned his social lesson with such quickness;
but I am inclined to believe that Valentine’s success was owing much
more surely to that latent dramatic power which exists in almost all
children, and which they are so proud and happy to exercise on every
possible occasion.

Certainly, whatever the cause was, the result was triumphant. When Val
was alone--in the nursery, where he ruled like a little despot, or out
of doors, where he conducted himself like a tiny desperado, always in
mischief--he was uncontrollable; but in the drawing-room, when his
grandmother received her visitors, or when he accompanied her on the
visits which it was now a point in her diplomacy to make, no little
paladin born in the purple could have shown more perfect manners, or
behaved himself more gracefully. He was acting a part, well defined and
recognisable, and the _rôle_ gave him pleasure. Not that the child
himself was conscious of this, or could have defined what his instinct
enabled him to do so perfectly; but yet the mental exercise was one
that excited him, and called forth all his powers. The little actor
threw himself off, as he jumped from the coach-box, where he had been
driving wildly, with precocious dash and nerve, restrained, with
difficulty, by the cautious old coachman, who knew exactly how much my
lady could put up with--and assumed in a moment the gracious character
of the little prince, suave, soft, and courteous, saying what he had to
say with childish frankness, and keeping himself still and in order with
a virtue which was heroic. From the Dowager Duchess to the farmers’
wives on Eskside, everybody was satisfied by these performances; and no
reasonable creature who had seen Val’s little exhibition could have lent
a moment’s credence to the vulgar story of the “randy wife.” “I don’t
see the strong likeness to his father,” said the Dowager Duchess, who
was, as it were, the last court of appeal and highest tribunal of social
judgment in the county. “To me there is another type of feature very
evident besides the difference of complexion; but in manners he’s his
father’s son. Not a lout, like Castleton’s boy, who ought to be a
gentleman, heaven knows! if race is anything--on both sides of the
house.” Lady Eskside felt the implied sting about “both sides of the
house,” but bore it heroically, knowing that the Marquis of Hightowers,
the Duke of Castleton’s only son, was like any ploughman’s child beside
her own bonnie boy; and it did not occur to her, any more than it did to
Val himself, that the whole secret of his success was his superiority in
dramatic power, and in enjoyment of that suppressed but exquisite joke
of mystification which children by nature love so dearly. Probably it
was the blood of gipsy and tramp and roadside mime in Val’s veins which
gave him more facility than usual in the representation; but the same
gift shows in every nursery in a greater or lesser degree. Little Violet
Pringle, with her dolls around her, discoursing to them--scolding one
for its naughtiness, and another for having neglected its lessons, with
high maternal dignity--was not more purely histrionic than was Val when
he played at being young prince and good boy, according to his
grandmother’s injunctions, and enjoyed the mystification--unless when it
chanced to last too long.

“He is a strange child,” said Lady Eskside to her favourite confidant
Mary Percival, whose visits became more frequent and prolonged after
this, and whose curiosity about the boy, whom she was not fond of, gave
a certain point of interest and almost excitement to the pleasure she
had in seeing her old friend. “He is a strange boy. When he goes out
with me, you should see, Mary, the gentleman he is. The politest
manners--better than Richard’s, for Richard was shy; never too forward,
nor taking too much upon him, but a smile and an answer for everybody;
and ready to open the door or hand you anything, as if he had been
brought up to it all his life. But when he comes home, he is just a
whirlwind, nothing else--what is the meaning of it? I sometimes think
the spirits of both the bairns have got together in one frame.”

“You have heard nothing of the other?”

“Nothing; nor of _her_, which is hard to bear. I cannot say for my own
part either, that I feel it so hard; but I’m sorry for my old lord. I
never saw him so full of fears and fancies. He thinks unless we can find
her and the other boy, that Val’s place in the world will never be sure.
I tell him it’s just nonsense. Who has anything to do with it but
ourselves? and who can be such judges as we are? But he will not listen
to me.”

“I think Lord Eskside must be right,” said Mary. “Lawsuits are terrible
things, and bring great trouble. I know something about that.”

“Lawsuits!” said Lady Eskside, with a laugh. “If Sandy Pringle has the
assurance to bring a lawsuit, I think we could soon let him see his
mistake. Besides, what could he bring a lawsuit about? I don’t think you
show your usual sense, my dear. Because my lord and me have found our
son’s son, and have killed the fatted calf for our grand-bairn? The
fatted calf is ours, and not Sandy Pringle’s. He could scarcely make a
case of that.”

“No, indeed,” said Mary; but she did not feel any security in Lady
Eskside’s triumphant argument. Val had been out on one of his
expeditions with his grandmother, in which he had won all hearts, and
now was in the wood making the air ring with shouts, and letting out the
confined exuberance of his spirits in every kind of noise and mischief
possible to a child of his age. “That’s the boy,” said Lady Eskside,
leaning from the open window to listen. “You may be sure he is on the
rampage, as Marg’ret Harding says.” The smile upon the old lady’s face
went to Mary’s heart; there was the foolishness of love in it, as there
was the foolishness of triumphant security in her reasoning. She was
not troubled by the problem of this little creature so strangely thrown
upon her hands, nor even by the twofold life, which she wondered at.
People do not analyse the characters of their children, but accept
them--often with a mingling of wonder at their peculiarities, and frank
unconsciousness of any cause for these peculiarities, which is very
strange to the beholder. Lady Eskside took pride in Val’s versatility,
even while it occasioned her some delighted wonder; but she did not
trouble herself by any speculation as to the qualities that produced it,
or the results to which it might lead.

Thus things went on for some years, and the country-side, as Willie
Maitland predicted, partially forgot the story. The boy grew tall and
strong, a favourite in society, and not unpopular among the rougher
public of his own age and kind, who, indeed, were chiefly represented to
Val by the Pringle boys. The Pringles continued to keep possession of
the Hewan partly because the children liked it, partly because the
father still cherished in his secret soul some hope of finding out the
fraud which he believed was being perpetrated against his rights and his
boy’s; and as the cottage was within easy reach of Edinburgh, some
member of the family was almost always there. Sometimes it was the
mother, with Violet and the little ones,--sometimes the boys alone,
walking out in a dusty merry party, on a holiday, for any diversion that
happened to be in season. They came for skating in winter, for fishing
in spring and autumn; for the Esk above the Hewan was sweet, and free
from all poisonous paper-mills. And as they were undoubtedly relations,
though in a very distant degree, it was not within the possibilities of
Scotch politeness to refuse the boys some share of the shooting; and it
was in the company of Sandy and his stalwart brethren that young Val
first fired a shot and missed a bird. Though Lord Eskside looked glum at
the associations thus formed, and wondered more than ever what Sandy
Pringle meant, it was impossible to keep his grandson from the company
of the only boys within reach who were of his own class, or something
approaching to it. He learnt all kinds of manly exercises from them or
with them, and knew the way to the Hewan blindfold by night or day, as
well as he knew the way to his own chamber--a result which the parents
on either side were far from desiring, but seemed helpless to prevent.

One day in the early summer, when the boy was about twelve years old, he
escaped, I don’t know how, from the tutor who had been brought from
Oxford for him, and whose life Val did his best to make a burden. He got
away quite early in the morning, and escaped into the woods, with a
double sense of pleasure in the thought that this holiday was
surreptitious, the conquest of his bow and his spear rather than lawful
leisure granted by lawful authority. Val had had no breakfast, but he
did not mind--he was free. He went away into the thickest of the woods
and climbed a tree, and lay there among the branches in a cradle of
boughs which he had long since found out, looking up at the breaks of
blue sky through the leaves in the fresh early morning, before anything
was astir but the birds. Val was great in birds, like most country boys.
He listened to the universal twitter about him, amusing himself by
identifying every separate note, till he tired of this tranquil
pleasure. Then he looked out from his lofty retreat to count how many
different kinds of trees he could see from that leafy throne; and then
for a few minutes he lay back with his face to the sky, and watched the
white airy puffs of cloud which floated slowly across the blue, with a
dreamy enjoyment. But such meditative pleasures could not last very
long. It was true he had the delightful thought that he had played
truant, and had a whole day to himself, to fall back upon when he was
tired, and this was always refreshing. But after a while it weighed
heavy upon Val that he had nothing to do, and presently even the
satisfaction of having stolen a march upon Mr Grinder scarcely bulked so
large in his mind as the want of breakfast, which he saw no easy way of
obtaining up here among the leaves. He did not venture to go to a
gamekeeper’s cottage for a share of the children’s porridge, lest he
should be led ignominiously back to Grinder and grammar. All at once a
brilliant idea suggested itself--the Hewan! In a moment this notion was
carried into practice; and Val, jumping down like a squirrel from his
nest in the branches, stole up the brae under the deepest trees, through
the ferns all wet with dew, to the little airy platform on which the sun
was shining, where the windows had just been opened and the day begun.
One little figure sat perched on the low earthen dyke looking down the
course of the Esk over tower and tree, and showing from far like a blue
flower in her bright-coloured frock. “It’s the flag,” said Val at first
to himself, as he toiled upward through the high ferns, keeping
carefully away from the path; then he corrected this first notion, and
said, “It’s Sandy’s cricket-cap;” and then he added to himself with
animation, “It’s Vi!”

It was Vi, grown older and a little bigger since the first time she came
to the Hewan--a very stately, splendid, foolish, idle little person,
full of laughter and gravity and baby fun and precocious wisdom. She was
as fond of taking care of everybody as ever she had been, but she forgot
herself oftener, being older, and was not perhaps quite so severe on
peccadilloes as at six. She was a little alarmed when she saw the big
thing struggling upward among the ferns, and wondered whether there
might really be a bear or a wolf in the woods, as there used to be in
ancient times. A lion it could not be, Violet reflected, for the weather
was too cold in Scotland for lions. She did not like to run away, but
she thanked Providence devoutly that none of “the children” were here,
and wondered with a delightful thrill of excitement whether, if it
should be a lion, it would do anything to her. Then there came a whistle
which Violet knew, and looking down through the bushes with a pleasant
sense of safety, she recognised the wayfarer. “Oh, is it you?” she
cried, calling to him from the top of her fortress: “I thought it was a
bear.” “Ay, it’s me. There are no bears nowadays. Who has come?” said
Val, laconic and _sans cérémonie_, as is the use of children, as he
panted upwards to the embankment, and putting his foot in a crevice
swung himself up with the aid of a tree. “You will break your neck,”
said little Vi, with great gravity; “how can you do such things, you
foolish boys?--nobody has come but me.”

“Nobody but you!” said Val, with a whistle of surprise and half regret.
Then he added with animation, “I’m awfully hungry; give us some
breakfast, Vi. I have run off from Grinder, and I don’t mean to go home
till night. You can’t think how jolly it is in the woods when there’s
nobody to stop you, and you have everything your own way.”

“Oh, Val!” cried Violet, not knowing how to express the tumult of her
feelings. She could not approve of such wickedness, but yet “playing
truant” bore a glorious sound about it. She had heard the words from
fraternal lips, mingled with sighs of envy. Sandy and the rest had never
gone so far as to play truant that she knew of; but the words suggested
endless rambles, woods and streams and wild flowers, and everything that
stirs a child’s imagination; and it was the beginning of June when the
woods are at their freshest, and Vi was all alone at the Hewan, hoping
for nothing better than a story from old Jean Moffatt to beguile the
endless summer day. Her eyes lighted up with excitement and curiosity.
“Oh, Val! if they find you, what will they do to you?” she cried with
awe; “and where will you go, and what will you play at?” she added,
eager interest following close upon terror. There was not a soul visible
about the Hewan in the morning sunshine. Old Jean had gone away to her
own quarters on the other side of the house, after putting Violet’s
breakfast upon the table in the little parlour--and was busy with her
beloved Grumphy, out of sight and hearing. The innocent doors and
windows stood wide open; the child, in her blue frock, musing on the
dyke in childish dreaminess, had forgotten all about her breakfast.
Absolute solitude, absolute stillness, infinitely more deep than that of
the forest, which indeed was full of chatter and movement and
inarticulate gay society, was about this silent sunny place. The bold
brown boy, with his curls pushed off his forehead, his cheeks glowing,
his dress stained with the moss and ferns and morning dew, and his young
bosom panting with exertion, looked the very emblem of Adventure and
outdoor enterprise--the young reiver born to carry peace and quiet away.

“I’m awfully hungry,” was Val’s only response. “Vi, have you had your
breakfast? I think I could eat you.”

“To be sure I had forgotten my breakfast,” said Violet, tranquilly; “you
are always so hungry, you boys. Come in, there’s sure to be plenty for
both of us;” and she led the way in with a certain bustle of
hospitality. There was a little coffee and a great deal of fresh milk on
the table (for old Jean by this time had attained in a kind of vicarious
way to the summit of earthly delight, and had, if not her own, yet Mrs
Pringle’s cow to care for, and made her butter, and dispensed the milk
to the children with a lavish hand)--with two little bantam’s eggs in a
white napkin, and fresh scones, and fresh butter, and jam and marmalade
in abundance. Val made a very rueful face at the bantam’s eggs.

“Is that the kind of things girls eat?” he said; “they’re only a
mouthful. I should like a dozen.”

“You may have one,” said Vi, graciously. “It’s my own little white
bantam, and they’re always saved for me; but if you’re so hungry, I’ll
call Jean--or I’ll go myself, and see what’s in the larder----”

“That is best,” said Val; “it’s nice to be by ourselves, just you and
me. Don’t call Jean; she might tell the gamekeeper, and the gamekeeper
would tell Harding, and somebody would be sent after me. You go to the
larder, Vi; and I’ll tell you when you come back what we’ll do.”

Violet ran, swift as her little feet could carry her, and came back
laden with all the riches the larder contained, the chief article of
which was a chicken-pie, old Mrs Moffatt’s state dish, which had been
prepared for the arrival of Mr and Mrs Pringle, who were expected in the
afternoon. Vi either forgot, or did not know, the august purpose of this
lordly dish: and when were there ever bounds to a child’s hospitality
when thus left free to entertain an unexpected visitor? She had some of
the pie herself, neglecting her little eggs in compliment to Valentine,
who plunged into it, so to speak, body and soul; and they made the
heartiest of meals together, with a genuine enjoyment which might have
filled an epicure with envy.

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” said Val, with his mouth full; “we’ll go
away down by the water-side as far as the linn--were you ever as far as
the linn? There’s plenty of primroses there still, if you want them, and
I might get you a bird’s nest if you like, though the eggs are all over;
and I’ll take one of Sandy’s rods, and perhaps we’ll get some fish; and
we can light a fire and roast potatoes: you can’t think how jolly it
will be----”

“We?” said Violet, her brown eyes all one glow of brilliant wonder and
delight; “do you mean me too?”

“Of course I mean you too--you are the best of them all,” said Val,
enthusiastic after his pie; “you never sneak nor whinge, nor say you’re
tired, like other girls. Run and get your hat; two is far better fun
than one--though it’s very jolly,” he added, not to elate her too
much--“all by yourself among the woods. But stop a minute, let’s think
all we’ll take; if we stay all day we’ll get hungry, and you can’t
always catch fish when you want to. Where’s a basket?--I think we’d
better have the pie.”

A cold shiver came over Violet as she asked herself what old Jean would
say; but the virtue of hospitality was too strong in her small bosom to
permit any objection to her guest’s proposal. “After all, it’s papa’s
and mamma’s, not old Jean’s--it’s not like stealing,” Vi said to
herself. So the pie was put into the basket, and some cheese from the
larder, and some scones, and biscuits, and oatcake; the jam Vi objected
to, tidiness here outdoing even hospitality. “The jam always upsets, and
there’s a mess,” she said, with a little _moue_ of disgust, remembering
past experiences; therefore the jam was left behind. Valentine
shouldered the basket manfully when all was packed. “You can bring it
home full of flowers,” he said--a suggestion which filled up the silent
transport in Violet’s mind. Had it really arrived to her, who was only a
girl, nothing more, to “play truant” for a whole day in the woods? the
thought was almost too ecstatic--for you see Violet in all her little
life had never done anything _very wicked_ before, and her whole being
thrilled with delightful expectation. Val put the basket down upon the
dyke, pausing for one last deliberation upon all the circumstances
before they made their start; while Violet, scarcely able to fathom his
great thoughts and advanced generalship, watched him eagerly, divining
each word before he said it, with her glowing eyes.

“We shan’t go by the road,” said Val, meditatively, “for we might be
seen. You don’t mind the ferns being a little damp, do you, Vi? If you
hold the basket till I get down, I’ll lift you over. But look here,
haven’t you got a cloak or something? Run and fetch your cloak--look
sharp; I’ll wait here till you come back.”

Violet flew like the wind for her little blue cloak, which, by good
luck, was waterproof, before she plunged down with her leader into the
wet ferns. Poor little Vi! that first plunge was rather disheartening,
after all her delightful anticipations. The ferns were almost as tall as
she was; and her little varnished shoes, her cotton stockings and frock,
were small protection from the wet. Excitement kept her up for some
time; but when her companion, far in advance of her, called loudly to Vi
to come on, I think nothing but the dread of being taunted with
cowardice ever after, and shut out from further participation in such
expeditions, kept the child from breaking down. She held out valiantly,
however, and after various adventures--one of which consisted in a
scramble up to Val’s favourite seat among the high branches, whither he
half dragged, half carried her, leaving the basket at the foot of the
tree--they reached the bank on the side of the water where the sun
shone, and dried her wet skirts and shoes. Here the true delight of the
truants began. “Take off your shoes and stockings, and I’ll put them in
the sun to dry,” said Val, who, in his rough way, took care of her; and
Violet had never known any sensation so delightful as the touch of the
warm, mossy, velvet grass upon her small bare feet, except the other
sensation of feeling the warm shallow water ripple over them, as Val
helped her out by the stepping-stones to the great boulders at the side
of the linn. The opposite bank was one waving mass of foliage, in all
the tender tints of the early summer; whilst on that along which the
children had been strolling, the trees retired a little, to leave a
lovely grassy knoll, with an edge of golden sand and sparkling pebbles.
Through this green world the Esk ran, fretted by the opposition of the
rocks, foaming over them so close by Violet’s side that, perched upon
her boulder, she could put her hand into the foaming current, and feel
it rush in silken violence, warm and strong, carrying away with
lightning speed the flowers she dropped into it--till her own childish
head grew giddy, and she felt all but whirled away herself,
notwithstanding that she sat securely in an arm-chair of rock, where her
guardian had placed her. Vi would have been happy, beyond words to tell,
thus seated almost in the middle of the stream, with the water rushing
and foaming, the leaves shining and rustling, the whole universe full of
nothing but melodious storms of soft sound--loud, yet soft, penetrating
heart and soul--had it not been for the freaks of that wild guardian,
who would perch himself on the topmost point of the boulder on one foot,
with the other extended over the rushing linn; or jump the chasm back
and forward with shouts of joyous laughter, indifferent to all her
remonstrances, which, indeed, he did not hear in the roar of the
waterfall. But the fearful joy was sweet, though mixed with panic
indescribable. “Oh, Val, if you had fallen in!” she cried, half
hysterical with fright and pleasure, when they got back in safety to the
grassy bank. I suspect Val was rather glad to be back too in safety,
though he could not restrain the masculine impulse of showing his
prowess, and dazzling and frightening the small woman who furnished the
most appreciative audience Val had ever yet encountered in his short
life.

I need not attempt to describe the consternation which filled all bosoms
in the two houses from which the truants had fled, when their absence
was discovered. The Pringles arrived to find their chicken-pie gone, and
their daughter--and Lady Eskside white with terror, consulting with old
Jean Moffatt at the cottage door. Jean was not so deeply alarmed, and
could not restrain her sense of the joke, the ravished larder, and the
prudent provision of the runaways; but poor Lady Eskside did not see the
joke. “How can we tell the children alone did it?” she cried, with
terrible thoughts in her mind of some gipsy rescue--some wild attempt of
the boy’s mother to take him away again. She was ghastly with fear as
she examined the marks on the dyke where the culprits had scrambled
over. “No bairn ever did that,” cried the old lady, infecting Mr Pringle
at least with her terrors. Lord Eskside and Harding and the gamekeepers
were dispersed over the woods in all directions, searching for the lost
children, and the old lady was on her way to the lower part of the
stream, though all agreed it was almost impossible that little Vi could
have walked so far as the linn, the most dangerous spot on Esk. “Would
you like to come with me?” my lady said with white lips to Mrs Pringle,
whose steady bosom, accustomed to the vagaries of seven boys, took less
alarm, but who was sufficiently annoyed and anxious to accept the offer.
Mr Pringle got over the dyke in the traces of the fugitives, to follow
their route to the same spot, and thus all was excitement and alarm in
the peaceful place. “It is not the linn I fear--it is those wild folk,”
cried poor Lady Eskside in the misery of her suspense, forgetting that
it was her adversary’s wife who was also her fellow-sufferer. But good
Mrs Pringle was nobody’s adversary, and had long ago given up all
thought of the Eskside lordship. She received this agitated confidence
calmly. “They could have no reason to carry off my little Vi,” she said,
with unanswerable good sense. The two ladies drove down the other side
of the hill to the water-side, a little below the linn, and leaving the
carriage, walked up the stream--one of them at least with such tortures
of anxiety in her breast, as the mother of an only child alone can know.
Mrs Pringle was a little uneasy too, but her boys had been in so many
scrapes, out of which they had scrambled with perfect safety, that her
feelings were hardened by long usage. At the linn some traces were
visible, which still further consoled Violet’s mother, but did not
affect Lady Eskside--Violet’s little handkerchief to wit, very wet,
rather dirty, and full of wild flowers. “They have been playing here,”
said the more composed mother. “_She_ has been here,” cried the old
lady; “but oh, my boy! my boy!”

“I see something among the trees yonder,” cried Mrs Pringle, running on.
Lady Eskside was over sixty, but she ran too, lighter of foot than her
younger companion, and inspired with fears impossible to the other. The
sun had set by this time, but the light had not waned--it had only
changed its character, as the light of a long summer evening in Scotland
changes, magically, into a something which is not day, but as clear as
day, sweeter and paler--a visionary light in which spirits might walk
abroad, and all sweet visions become possible. Hurrying through this
tender, pale illumination of the woodland world about them, the two
ladies came suddenly upon a scene which neither of them, I think, ever
forgot. It was like a tender travesty, half touching, half comic, of
some maturer tale. Between two great trees lay a little glade of the
softest mossy grass, with all kinds of brown velvet touches of colour
breaking its soft green; vast beech-boughs, stretching over it like a
canopy, and a gleam of the river just visible. Over the foreground were
scattered the remains of a meal, the central point of which--the dish
which had once been a pie--caught Mrs Pringle’s rueful gaze at once. A
mass of half-faded flowers, a few late primroses, mixed with the pretty
though scentless blue violet which grows along with them, lay dropped
about in all directions, having been, it appeared, crazily propped up as
an ornament to the rustic dinner-table. Against the further tree were
the little runaways--Violet huddled up in her blue cloak, with nothing
of her visible but her little head slightly thrown back, leaning half on
the tree, half on her companion, who, supporting himself against the
trunk, gave her a loyal shoulder to rest upon. The little girl had cried
herself to sleep--tears were still upon her long eyelashes, and the
little pouting rose-mouth was drawn down at the corners. But Valentine
was not sleeping. He was pondering terrible thoughts under his knitted
brows. How he was ever to get home--how he was ever to get _her_ home!
The boy was chilled and depressed and worn out, and awful anticipations
were in his mind. What would happen if they had to stay there all night
through the midnight darkness, among the stirrings of the mysterious
woods? Val knew what strange sounds the woods make when it is dark, and
you are alone in them--and a whole night! His mind was too much confused
to hear the soft steps of the two ladies who stood behind the other big
beech, looking, without a word, at this pretty scene--Lady Eskside, for
her part, too much overpowered by the sudden sense of relief to be able
to speak. I am not sure that a momentary regret over her chicken-pie did
not make itself felt in Mrs Pringle’s soul; but she, too, paused with a
little emotion to look at the unconscious baby-pair, leaning against
each other in mutual support; the little woman overwhelmed with remorse
and fatigue, the little man moody and penitent over the dregs of the
feast, and the wild career of pleasure past. But just then there came a
crash of branches, and louder steps resounding down the brae among the
ferns, which made Val’s face light up with hope and shame, and woke
little Violet from her momentary oblivion. Lord Eskside’s party of
beaters, and Mr Pringle, solitary but vigorous, all converged at the
same moment upon this spot. “Here, my lord,” said Willie Maitland’s
hearty voice, with laughter that made the woods ring--“here are your
babes in the wood.”



CHAPTER XII.


The exploit of the Babes in the Wood, as Willie Maitland called it, was
one of the last freaks which Valentine played in his childhood by
Eskside. Mr Grinder, who was from Oxford, a cultured and dainty young
Don, was recognised to be no fit tutor for a child who preferred the
woods to the classics, and could not construe a bit of Greek decently to
save his life. What agonies Mr Grinder went through while his term of
office lasted I will not attempt to describe. He was a young man of fine
mind, one of the finest minds of his day, and that was saying a great
deal. He loved pictures and fine furniture and dainty decorations as
well as Richard Ross did, though perhaps he was not quite so learned;
and when he first saw the great green cabinets in the drawing-room,
could barely say the common civilities to Lady Eskside before he went on
his knees to adore the Vernis-Martin. It may be supposed how little this
dainty personage had in common with the boy, always carrying an
atmosphere of fresh air about him, his pockets bulged out with unknown
implements, his boots often clogged with mud, and his hands not always
clean, whom it seemed a kind of desecration to introduce, all rustic and
noisy, into the shadowy world of the Greek drama. Mr Grinder, I am
afraid, had looked with lenient eye upon his pupil’s absence on that
June day. He had not reported the truant, but reconciled himself easily
to the want of him; and it was only when the day was almost over that he
had taken fright at the boy’s prolonged absence. Lady Eskside could not
forgive him the panic he had caused her, and as soon as the most
exquisite politeness and delicate pretences of regret made it possible,
Mr Grinder and his knick-knacks were got rid of; and a hard-working
student from Edinburgh College, toiling mightily to make his way into
the Scotch Church, and indifferent what labours he went through to
attain this end, reigned in his stead. He was perhaps not so pleasant a
person to have in the house, my lady allowed, but far better for the
boy, which was the first object. The new man cared nothing about the
sanctity of the Greek drama, and perhaps did not know very much, if the
truth were told. He turned Valentine on to Homer, and marched him
through battle and tempest with some rough sense of the poetry, but very
little delicacy about the grammar. But he kept his eye upon his pupil,
and got a certain amount of work out of him, and prevented all such
runaway expeditions, relieving the old people from their anxieties for
the moment at least.

Val was not an easy boy to manage. He had two natures in him, as Lady
Eskside said,--the one wild, adventurous, uncontrollable; the other more
than ordinarily impressionable by social influences. But when a boy gets
into his teens he is not so easily kept up to the pitch of drawing-room
polish as is a dainty little gentleman of eight in velvet and lace. With
the period of black jackets the histrionic power begins to
wane--temporarily at least: and when Val at thirteen turned his back
upon the Dowager Duchess, and fretted furiously against being taken to
make calls, his terrified grandmother thought immediately, not of his
age, but of the mother’s blood, which made him clownish; and not only
thought so herself, but was seized with a panic lest others should think
so. It had made her proud to see how far her little Val surpassed in
manners the Marquis of Hightowers; but it did not console her to think
that Valentine now was no worse than his exalted neighbour. For, alas!
the mother of Hightowers had as many quarterings on her shield as his
august father, and the boy might be as great a lout as he liked without
exciting any remark or suspicion; whereas poor Val could never be free
of possible criticism on the score of his mother’s blood.

This troubled the serenity of his childhood, though Val himself did not
know the reason why. His recollections of the earlier period of his life
had grown very vague in these years. Val had been well disposed to be
communicative on the subject when he came to Eskside first. He had shown
on many occasions a dangerous amount of interest and knowledge as to the
economy of the travelling vans which sometimes passed through Lasswade
with shows of various kinds, or basketmakers or tinkers; and once had
followed one of them for miles along the road, and had been brought back
again much disfigured with weeping, whimpering that his mammy must be
there. But children are very quick to perceive when their recollections
are not acceptable to the people about them, and still more easily led
into other channels of thought; and as he had nothing near him to recall
that chapter of his life to his mind, he gradually forgot it. There was
still a vague light of familiarity and interest in his eyes if, by any
chance, he came upon an encampment of gipsies, or the vans of a show, or
even the travelling tramps upon the road; but the boy, I think, came to
be ashamed of this feeling of interest, and to divine that his early
life was no credit to him, but rather something to be concealed, about
the same time as he ceased to be the perfect little actor and social
performer he had been in his first stage. He began to be conscious of
himself, that most confusing and bewildering of experiences. This
consciousness comes later or earlier, according to the constitution of
the individual; but when it comes it has always a confusing influence
upon the young mind and life. When one’s self thrusts into sight, and
insists upon filling up the foreground of the scene, it changes all
natural rules of proportion and perspective. The child or the youth has
to review everything around him over again to get it into keeping with
this new phantom suddenly arisen, which does nothing but harass his
mind, and puts him out in all his calculations. Me--how much has been
said about it, philosophies based upon it, the whole heaven and earth
founded on this atom! but there is nothing that bewilders the young soul
so much as to see it surging up through the fair, sunny, matter-of-fact
universe, and through the world of dreams, disturbing and disarranging
everything. This change befell Valentine early. I think it began from
that day in the woods, which was full of so many experiences. Even then
he had been faintly conscious of himself--conscious of “showing off” to
dazzle Violet on the linn--conscious of deceiving her as to their safety
when she began to cry with fatigue and loneliness, and he, upon whom all
the responsibility of the escapade lay, had to think how she was to be
got home. In the chaotic bit of existence which followed, when Oxford,
worsted, left the field, and Edinburgh, dauntless, came in, Valentine
had a tough fight with this Frankenstein of himself, this creature which
already had lived two lives, and possessed a vague confusing world of
memories half worn out, yet not altogether extinct, alongside of his
actual existence. I do not mean to pretend that the boy was a prodigy of
reflectiveness, and brooded over these thoughts night and day; but yet
there were times when they would come into his mind, taking all his baby
grace away from him, and all the security and power of unconsciousness.
Lady Eskside did not know what had come over her boy. She discussed it
eagerly with her old lord, who tried in vain to dismiss the subject.
“He’s at the uncouth age, that’s all,” said Lord Eskside. “Oh, I hope it
is not his mother’s blood!” said the old lady. And thus the delightful
day of playing truant in the woods was the primary cause of a wonderful
revolution in Val’s affairs. The grandfather and grandmother made up
their minds to deny themselves, and send him to school.

The incident of the Babes in the Wood made a still greater impression on
the other culprit. Mrs Pringle took her little daughter home, not
without some emotion--for what mother can resist the delighted look of
absolute security which comes to the face even of a naughty child,
when, out of unimaginable danger and tragic desolation, it suddenly
beholds the Deliverer appear--the parent in whom Providence and Power
and Supreme Capacity are conjoined? But she was half amused at the same
time; and indeed the whole household at the Hewan regarded Vi’s escapade
with more amusement than alarm. “Oh, Miss Violet, to tak’ the pie!--that
was a’ I had for your papa’s and mamma’s dinner,” said old Jean. “They
maun be content with ham and eggs noo, for I’ve naething else in the
hoose. My larder’s sweepit clean,” she added, when Violet had been
carried off to have her damp and draggled garments changed. “Cheese and
biscuits and everything there was: my word, but yon laddie maun have a
good stomach! You wouldna think to bring the pie-dish back?”

“Indeed, we were too thankful,” said Mrs Pringle, “to find the
bairns----”

“Oh, the bairns! bless you, there was never ony fear o’ the bairns; but
my dish was new, or as good as new. I’ll give little Johnny at the farm
a penny to gang and look for’t. There was three fine fat young chickens,
no’ to speak of eggs and a’ the seasoning. If that laddie’s no’ ill the
morn he maun be an ostridge, or whatever ye ca’ the muckle bird ye get
the feathers from; and a’ the morning’s milk and the new bread I laid in
for your suppers! Just an ostridge! I wish the laddie nae harm, but he
should have a sair head the morn, and a good licking, if he gets what he
deserves.”

“Alexander,” said Mrs Pringle, an hour or two later, when she, with a
warm shawl on, took a seat for ten minutes on the earthen dyke to keep
her husband company while he smoked his cigar. The night was still
clear, and pale with the lingering of the light, though it was past ten
o’clock; and the western sky shone with such silvery tints of celestial
hue, sublime visions of colour, free of all earthly crudeness, as are
never visible save in a northern summer. “Alexander, Sandy’s wife, if he
lives to have one, will never be Lady Eskside; but I would not wonder if
you and me had more interest in that title than any daughter-in-law
could give us. We’ll see what tune may bring forth.”

“You mean you’ll have it yourself? I am sure I hope so, one day, my
dear,” said Mr Pringle, complacently: “not meaning any harm to Dick
Ross; but his was never a very strong life.”

“I am not meaning myself,” said Mrs Pringle, provoked. “How obtuse you
are, you men! Neither you nor Sandy will ever have the lordship, you may
take my word for that.”

“And what do I care then who is my lady?” said the heavy husband. “I
don’t really see, my dear, why you should be so very decided against
your husband and son. One would think you would be more likely to take
our side.”

Mrs Pringle shrugged her shoulders slightly, and drew her shawl closer
round her. What was the use of throwing away her pearls--her higher
insight? She changed the subject; and by-and-by, having no consolation
of a cigar, and finding the lovely twilight chilly, though it was so
beautiful, she went in, and went up-stairs to the little room in the
roof where Violet lay warm and cosy, with her bright eyes still open,
and turned to the soft clear sky of which her attic window was full.
“Oh, mamma, was it very, very wicked to go?” said Violet. Her mother
stooped to kiss the little tearful face.

“We’ll say no more about it, Vi--but you must never play truant again.”

“Never!” cried Vi, with a half sob which prolonged the word, and made it
echo through the tiny chamber. Alas! there was more than penitence in
that vow; there was regret, there was the ghost of a delight made doubly
precious by trouble and terror. Oh no, never again! but what had all
Violet’s discreet and exemplary life--a life irreproachable and full of
every (nursery) virtue--to show, which could compare with the transport,
and terror, and misery, and sweetness, of that one never-to-be-repeated
day?

Vi had a great deal to bear afterwards, when the boys heard the story,
and held over her the recollection of the “day she played truant,” with
all that delight in torture which is natural to their kind. But with all
this they could not take from her the memory of it, which grew dearer in
proportion as she buried it in her own small bosom. The running of the
water, the rustling of the leaves, the solemn drowse of noon in the full
sunshine, the soft velvet rush of the foaming linn over the little
fingers with which she tried to stop its torrent, and all the stirs and
movements among the trees, peopled the child’s recollection for many a
day. Seated at a dull window in Moray Place, looking out upon the stiff
garden with its shrubs--public property, and unlovely as public
property generally is--Violet could see once more her bold companion
leaping from one boulder to another, with the furious Esk underneath,
and feel again a delicious thrill of visionary terror. She had learned
more about “the country,” about woods and wilds, and birds and
squirrels, and about the sensations of explorers in a new-discovered
land, than anything else could have taught her. “I too in Arcadia,” she
could have said: her one day of playing truant was the possession out of
which she drew most enjoyment; and I leave the gentle reader to imagine,
as Violet grew older, whether she could dismiss the partner of this
celestial piece of wickedness into the mere common region of
indifference, and leave him there undistinguished by any preference. She
was always Val’s defender afterwards, when any discussion of his merits
arose among the boys; and what was more remarkable still, Mrs Pringle
became Val’s warm partisan and supporter, dismissing almost with
indignation any suggestion which might be made to his disfavour. She was
impatient of what she called her husband’s “whimsey” about his heirship.
“It is just a piece of folly,” she would say with some heat. “Are the
Esksides fools to take up a false heir? or what motive could they have?
Your father is a very clever man, and has a great deal of sense in a
general way. But, boys, don’t you build any hopes upon this, for it’s
just nonsense. You may be sure they are not the kind of folk to commit
themselves, or expose the property to certain waste and destruction,
with an impostor for an heir----” That he should have so important a
deserter from his standard filled Mr Pringle with surprise. He was
justified in thinking that it would have been natural that, right or
wrong, she should have placed herself on her own boy’s side. But Mrs
Pringle was a woman who was given to an opinion of her own, and was not
to be persuaded out of it when once formed upon sufficient cause.

And thus the soft-paced time went on, gently, dallying with the
children, spinning out long tranquil days for them, and years that
seemed as if they would never be over, as he does not do with their
elders. They grew up slowly like the grass, which never shows itself in
the act of growing, but is, while yet we are unaware of it; the happiest
of all life’s various periods--not only to the younglings, who are
unconscious of it, but also to the fathers and mothers, who sometimes
have an inkling of the truth. It looks long while it is in progress,
thank heaven--though after, I suppose, when it is over, and the birds
are out of the nest, it is like everything else in life, as short to
look back upon as a tale that is told. But in the meantime there is
little more to be said than that the children grew. And by-and-by
Rosscraig House fell into sudden shadow, as if the sun had gone behind a
cloud, and the voices in it died down into subdued sounds of old
people’s voices, as had been the case before the child came to it,
turning everything topsy-turvy. Val had been sent to school.



CHAPTER XIII.


The school that Valentine Ross, Lord Eskside’s grandson and heir, was
sent to was, naturally, Eton. His father had been educated there, but
not his grandfather, who belonged to an older fashion in education as in
everything else, and was Scotch to his fingers’ tips, and to every shade
of idea in his mind. Valentine was placed with the brother of the tutor
who had succeeded so indifferently with his early training--a kind of
mingled compensation for that failure, and keeping up of old
associations--for Mr Grinder’s father had been Richard’s tutor--which
satisfied Lord and Lady Eskside. The boy’s departure was no small trial
to the old people. Each of them said something to him privately before
he went away. Lord-Eskside took him out for a last walk, and showed
him the new feus that had been marked out, and told him
confidentially--recognising for the first time his partially grown-up
condition--of the improvements he had been making, and the addition to
the rent-roll of the estate which the feus would give--“enough to pay
your school expenses, Val,” he said; and then he gave his grandson his
parting advice.

“You have not to make your living by learning,” said the old lord,
“therefore I don’t bid you give every moment to it that health allows;
but a good scholar is always a credit to every rank in life; and if a
thing is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well. But there are other
things at Eton besides books. A man in the position you will hold
should know men like himself--not only the outside of them, but their
ways of thinking, and what’s working in their heads. The working of
young heads is a sign how the tide’s going; and I want you, if it’s in
you, Val, some time or other, to go on the top of the tide--not just to
be dragged with the swing of it, like common lads. You’re too young for
that at present, but when you’re old enough you must try to get into
what societies they have--debating, or the like. I don’t know very well
what you’re going to turn to. You have good abilities--very good
abilities--and plenty of spirit when you like; and mind, to give
yourself over to play, and nonsense games, is bairnly, not manly--I
would have you recollect that.”

“Do you mean cricket, grandpapa?” said Valentine, with astonished eyes.

“I mean everything that turns a gentleman into a player, sir,” said the
old lord, knitting his brows; “setting sport above the honest concerns
of this life and the ruling of the world--which is what young men of
good family are born for, if they like to put their hand to their work.
To set up a game in the highest place is bairnly, Val--mind what I say
to you--and not manly. If you mean to put your life into cricket, you
had better make up your mind to earn your bread by it, and give up the
other trade I’m speaking of--which is not to say you may not play to
amuse yourself,” he added, dropping from the seriousness of the previous
address, “and, in moderation, as much as you like; only never make a
business of a mere pleasure. I am taking you into my confidence,” Lord
Eskside continued, after a little pause. “I want you to go into public
life at home. Your father will not, and he has his reasons, which are
perhaps good enough; and I had not the time nor the possibility when I
was young like you. I succeeded early, for one thing; and a Scotch
representative peer does not cut much of a figure in politics. But you,
my boy, have little chance of succeeding early. If your father lives to
be as old as I am, you have a long career before you--and you’ll mind my
advice.”

“Yes, grandpapa,” said the boy, bewildered. Valentine was proud, yet
much confounded, to be thus advanced to the position of his
grandfather’s confidant, and spoken to as if he were on the verge of the
university, instead of entering at fourteen a public school. He did his
best to understand, with eyes intent upon the old man’s face.

“The secret of all success, Val,” said the old lord, “is to know how to
deny yourself. It does not matter very much what the object is. That’s
one advantage about even these games I was speaking of. Training, as
they call it, is a good thing, an excellent thing. If you once learn to
get the whip-hand of yourself, that’s the best education. There is
nothing in this world like it, Val. Prove to me that you can control
yourself, and I’ll say you’re an educated man; and without this, all
other education is good for next to nothing. Other people, no doubt, can
do you harm more or less, but there is no living creature can do you the
harm yourself can. I would write that up in gold letters on every
school, if I had it in my power. Not that I like asceticism--far from
it--but a man is no man that cannot rule himself.”

Lord Eskside paused with a sigh, while the boy looked at him with eyes
and ears intent, taking in the words, but not all or indeed much of
their meaning. And here I think Val’s attention began to wane a little;
for he had not the slightest clue to the thoughts into which the old man
plunged, almost against his will--the dismal recollections of shipwreck
which crowded into his mind as he spoke. “We won’t enter into the
subject at length,” he resumed; “but, Val, you have more than ordinary
occasion to be upon your guard.”

“Why have I more than ordinary occasion?” said the boy, wondering and
curious; this mysterious intimation immediately roused him up.

“Ah, well, we’ll say nothing about that. You’ve wild blood in you, my
boy; and when you’re a man, you’ll remember that I gave you sound
advice. These are the great things, Val. I don’t need to tell you to be
good, for I hope you know your duty. Try and never do anything that you
would think shame to have told to us; you may be sure sooner or later
that it will be told to us, and to every soul you want it kept from.
There’s no such thing as a secret in this world; and the more you want
to hide a thing the more it’s known--mind that. For lesser matters, I’ll
see you have enough of pocket-money, and I hope you’ll take care to
spend it like a gentleman--which does not mean to throw it away with
both hands, mind; and you’ll keep your place, and learn your lessons
like a man; and you’ll write regularly to your grandma; and God bless
you, Val!”

Saying this, the old lord wrung the boy’s hand, and turned off down a
side path, leaving him alone in the avenue. Lord Eskside’s shaggy
eyebrows were working, and something strangely like tears welled up
somehow from about his heart, and stood in two pools, unsheddable, under
these penthouses. Not for all he had in the world would he have let that
moisture drop in sight of living man.

Val was somewhat startled by this abrupt withdrawal, and tried hard,
without being quite able, to make it out, what it meant; for the notion
that he himself was supremely loved by his old grandfather was one that
did not immediately enter into the boy’s mind, far from all sentimental
consciousness as boys’ minds generally are. He went up thoughtfully to
the house, but I am afraid it was not the wisdom of his grandfather’s
advice or the contagion of his emotion which moved him. He was wondering
what it meant--why he, Valentine, should have more than ordinary reason
to take care; and what was the wild blood he had in his veins? The
wonder was vague; I cannot say that the boy was possessed by any eager
longing to penetrate the mystery; but still he wondered, having arrived
at a kind of crisis in his life, a thing which makes even a child think.
He went in to his grandmother serious, and, as she thought, sad; and
Lady Eskside was pleased by the cloud over his face, and set it down to
his sorrow at leaving home, putting her own sentiments into Valentine’s
mind, as we all do.

“You must not be down-hearted, Val,” she said, drawing him close to her,
and speaking with a quiver in her lip. “When once the shock is over, you
will find plenty of new friends, and be very happy. It is natural at
your age. It is us that will miss you, oh my bonnie boy! far, far more
than you will miss my old lord and me.”

Val did not say anything; he felt his breast swell with a certain soft
sympathy, but he was not deeply dismayed at the thought of leaving home,
as she supposed. Lady Eskside put her arm round him, and drew her boy
close. She was not ashamed of the tears that came heavily to her eyes.

“My bonnie boy!” she said, “my darling! Ye cannot think what you have
been to us, Val--like light to them in darkness; you’ve made God’s
providence clear to me, though you’re too young to understand why. When
you are away, Val, you’ll think of that. If anything ill were to happen
to you in body or soul, it would break my heart--you’ll remember that?
Oh, my own boy, be good! There are all kinds at a great school, some not
innocent lads like you. You’ll shut your ears to bad words and wicked
things for my sake? Don’t listen to them--but say your prayers night and
morning, and read your chapter, and God will protect my boy. Nobody can
make you do wrong, Val, except yourself.”

“But I don’t mean to do wrong, grandma,” said Valentine, with a little
self-assertion. “Why should you think I would? Is there anything
particular about me?”

“There is a great deal particular about you,” said the old lady; “you
are the hope and the joy of two old folk that would never hold up their
heads again in this world if any harm came to you. Is not that enough?
But I am not afraid of my boy,” she added, seeing that the admonition
had gone far enough, and smiling a wintry watery smile, the best she
could muster. “Mind all that Mr Grinder says, and don’t be too rough in
your play. You’re a very stirring boy, Val; but I want my boy to be
always a gentleman, and not too rough. Your manners are not so nice as
they once were----”

“I’m not a baby any longer,” said the boy. “I don’t know how to speak to
ladies and grand people; but I don’t mean to be rough.”

“Well, dear, perhaps that is true,” said Lady Eskside, with a sigh; “but
you’ll mind, Val, to be very particular about your manners as well as
other things. It’s more important than you think.”

“I wish you would tell me something, grandma,” said Val; “why is it more
important than I think? and what do grandpapa and you mean by saying
that I need to be on my guard more than others? There must be something
particular about me.”

“Then your grandpapa has been speaking to you!” said the old lady, with
a little vexation, feeling herself forestalled. “I suppose, being old,
we are more particular than most people, and more anxious. Your father,
you see, makes no such fuss.”

“I don’t know anything about my father, grandma.”

“Oh, Val, hush! he is at a distance, where duty keeps him; he has never
been at home but that once since you came, and he is not a good
correspondent; but now that you are at school you must write to him
direct, and be sure he will answer. He knows you are safe in our hands.”

“That may be,” said Val, seriously; “but still, you see, grandma, it’s a
fact that I don’t know much about my father--nor my mother either,” he
added, suddenly dropping his voice. Since he had been a small child, he
had not mentioned her before. Lady Eskside could not restrain a startled
movement, which he felt, standing so close to her. The boy lifted his
eyes and fixed them on her face.

“Was that her, grandma,” he said in a low voice, “that brought me here?
and why is she never here now? I know there is something strange about
me, for all you say.”

“Do you remember her, Val?”

“No,” said the boy, somewhat impatiently; “that is, I remember _her_,
but not to know her now if I saw her. Why do you never speak of her? why
is she never here? I think I ought to know.”

“Oh, my dear, it’s a long story--a long and a sad story,” said the old
lady. “I wish--I wish I could find her, Val. I have sought for her
everywhere, both now and when you were born; but I cannot find her. It
is not our fault.”

“Where is she?” said the boy. His face was flushed and agitated, his
utterance hurried and breathless as if with shame.

“I tell you we cannot find her, Val.”

“But she is alive, in the world, _like that_?” said the boy; and drew a
long painful breath. Lady Eskside could not tell, and dared not ask, how
much Val understood or remembered of his mother and her life when he
said these words; and indeed, I think the boy himself would have found
it very difficult to tell. He had lost all clear recollection of her in
those seven years past, which were just the years in which a child
forgets most easily--or remembers most tenaciously, when its
recollections are encouraged and cultivated. He recollected dimly his
coming to Eskside, and more dimly a life beyond, which was not as his
present life,--a curious dull chaos of wanderings and change, with a
woman in it and a playfellow, for whom he used to cry of nights. The
chief impression on his mind, however, was of the strange difference
between that life and his present one. He had escaped out of that into
this; and the thought of being made to go back again gave him a
sensation of vague alarm. If this woman was his mother, might she not
meet him somewhere, claim him, take him back again? This thought filled
him with a confused and indescribable horror. He had experienced this
strange feeling before now; when he saw caravans passing--when he met a
wandering party of tramps on the road--it had occurred to him more than
once, what if some one should claim him? though he scarcely knew the
ground of his own fears. This had given a curious inarticulate duality
to his life. There were two of him. One Valentine Ross, whom he could
identify boldly, who was happy and free and beloved--the other,
something he did not know. But after his conversation with his
grandmother, this vague terror suddenly took shape and form. His mother,
his _real_ mother, who had a right to him, might claim him, might seize
upon him and carry him away. The idea filled him for the moment with
mortal terror. He lost the security of childhood, and for the time felt
himself involved in that insecurity, that panic, which is more terrible
to a child than it ever can be in more mature life. A spasm came into
his throat--a pang of shame and outraged feeling--which added to the
terror, and made it very hard to bear. His eyes grew wet with a
hot-springing moisture, salt and bitter, which seemed to scorch his
eyelids. Lady Eskside, partially discovering the agitation in the boy’s
mind, pressed him closer to her in sympathy and tenderness; but he set
his elbows square, and repulsed the fond consoling movement. He was
angry with her, and with all the world, because he himself was thus
separated from all the world, though he was no more than a child.

“I am going out,” he said abruptly, with a slight struggle to be free,
“to say good-bye to Hunter and the rest. I promised to say good-bye to
them. Let me go, grandma; I shall not be long away.”

“Come back before dinner, dear. You are to have your dinner with us
to-night,” said the old lady, kissing his hot forehead as she let him
go. He ran from her, and out into the woods, and never drew breath till
he reached Hunter the gamekeeper’s cottage, which was two miles off. The
hot tears dried in the boy’s eyes as he ran, swift as an arrow from the
bow. It was a half-savage way of relieving the pain in him; yet it did
relieve it, probably because of the half-savage blood which was boiling
in his veins. He did not feel quite sure that he was safe even in the
woods, and flew as if some one were pursuing him. In this panic there
mingled no curiosity about his mother--no longing wish to see her--no
stirring of filial love, such as one would imagine natural in such a
case. Strangely enough, children show little curiosity in most cases
about the parents they have lost. It seems so natural to them to accept
what is, as absolutely unchangeable, the one only state of affairs they
have ever known, as the state which must be, and to which there is no
alternative. The very idea of an alternative disturbs the young mind,
and wounds it. And Valentine had more than ordinary cause to be
disturbed. He was afraid and he was ashamed of that duality in his
existence. It mortified him as only a child can be mortified. If he
could only forget it, shut it out of his mind for ever! He did not want
to hear any more upon the subject, which was hateful to him; he could
not bear even to think that any one was aware how much of it he knew.
The sight of the little colony of children and dogs at the gamekeeper’s
was a wholesome distraction to his burdened mind; and fortunately there
were many people to be shaken hands with, and to be told of his start
to-morrow. “To Edinburgh first, and then to London! My word, Mr
Valentine, but you’ll be far afore us all, country folk. And I wouldna
wonder but you would see the Queen and the House of Parliament, and a’
thing that’s splendid,” said the gamekeeper’s wife. The boy was pleased;
the thought of all the novelty to come moved him for a moment; but even
the delight of novelty could not banish from his mind his new horror and
fear.

He dined with his grand-parents that night as they had promised; and the
old people watched him with an anxious scrutiny, of which the child was
vaguely conscious. They had no insight into the tempest that was surging
in his childish bosom, but watched him as wistfully as if they had been
the children and he the man, wondering whether “his mother’s blood” was
working in him, and any wild desire of adventure and vagrancy like hers
arising in his mind, or whether he was thinking of and longing for her,
which seemed the most natural supposition. I think, had they known the
selfish shame and fear which had taken possession of him, both of them
would have been disappointed and shocked, even though satisfied. They
would have blamed the boy as without natural feeling, and they would
have been wrong. The feeling in Valentine’s heart was all chaotic,
undeveloped. He had found out what was the meaning of the contradiction
of two natures in him, the jar of which he had been dimly conscious,
without knowing what it was. The struggle itself had been going on
within him for years, since the time when, a mere child, he had suffered
and conquered that natural thirst for the out-of-door life to which he
had been born. He had stood by his nursery window many a day and gazed
out, and beaten his head and his hands against the panes, longing to
escape, with a longing which was only recognised as naughtiness, and
which by force of circumstances and some innate force of nature had been
restrained. His ductile infantine nature had been forced into the new
channel, and now he thought of the old one with a thrill and shiver of
imaginative terror: but no distinct enlightenment as to his own position
pierced the childish imbroglio of his thoughts. He felt rather than
thought that he was in danger; he had lost his happy sense of security;
but his mind had not gone further. All this, however, was as invisible,
as unrevealable, to the two old people, who watched him so anxiously, as
their eager watch was to him. He had not left their charge for a day for
seven long years, and yet they knew as little of him as you and I, dear
reader, know of the child who has never left our side, and has, as it
seems, no thought, no object in life apart from ours. How can we tell
what that unknown familiar creature will do when set out upon
independent life for itself? and how could they tell what was passing in
Val’s bosom, which had no window to it, any more than the rest of us
have?

They watched him, however, very closely, consulting each other now and
then with their eyes, and said things to him which meant more than the
words, but which Val received without thinking at all what they meant.
That last night at home was meant to be a solemn one, and would have
been so, had Val’s mind not been absorbed in its own excitement. Lord
Eskside gave him a watch, which made his heart jump for the moment--a
gold hunting-watch, such as Val had long admired and longed for, with
his initials and crest on the back; but even this affected him much less
than it would have done, had he received it a week--a day before. He was
to start early the next morning, and his portmanteaus were packed, and
everything ready that night. He went and looked at them before he went
to bed, and the higher pulsation of novelty and adventure began to swell
in his young veins. The shadow slid still a little further off his heart
when Lady Eskside came into his room on her way to her own, as she had
done every night for years. Val was not asleep, but only pretended to be
so, to avoid any self-betrayal. The boy, peering curiously through his
eyelashes, which showed him this little scene as through a veil of
tinted gauze, saw the old lady put down her candle, look at him closely,
and when she saw him, as she thought, fast asleep, kneel down by his
bedside. She said no audible words, but she put her hands together and
lifted her face, with tears standing full in her eyes. It was all Val
could do not to cry too, and betray himself; the water came welling up,
feeling warm within his eyelids, and blurring out the sight before him.
After a little while my lady rose, and put her hand softly on his
forehead and kissed him; then took up her candle and walked away,
closing the door carefully after her not to wake her boy. Val felt
strangely desolate for the first moment after the door closed, and the
soft light and the watchful presence went away. He did not say anything
tender within himself, for he was (or had become) a Scotch boy, totally
unused to the employment of endearing words. But his small heart
swelled, and a sense of soft security, of watchers round him, and
ever-wakeful all-powerful love, came to him unawares.

Thus Val dropped asleep on his last night at home; and he woke in the
morning cured of his first trouble, with as light a heart as any
schoolboy need have--the shock having gone off with all its
consequences, and his mind being too full of his new start, of his new
watch, of his long journey--the first he had ever taken--and of Eton at
the end most wonderful of all,--far too full of these things to be sad.
He gave his grandmother a hug when the moment came to go away. “I’ll be
back at Christmas, grandma,” he said, between laughing and crying. The
old lord was going with his heir, and this “broke the parting very much,
so that he bore up like a man,” Lady Eskside said afterwards, wishing, I
fear, that Val had been a little more “overcome.” She shed tears enough
for both of them after the carriage had driven away, with a large box of
game--to conciliate Mr Grinder--fastened on behind. From the window of
one of the turrets she could see it driving across the bridge at
Lasswade; and there she went, though the stairs tired her, and waved her
handkerchief out of the narrow window, and wept at thought of the
dreariness he left behind him. It seemed to my lady that there was not
one creature left in the great house, or on Eskside, up the water and
down the water, save herself; and thus Val made his first start in life.



CHAPTER XIV.


The boy was very tired when he arrived in London, and not capable of the
hot interest he expected to feel in the great muddy capital, which was
one muddle of mean houses, noisy roads, carts and carriages, and
crowding people, to his tired perceptions. The day after, he and his
grandfather went to Windsor through the mild soft country, half veiled
in the “mists and mellow fruitfulness” that distinguish autumn, and warm
with the all-pervading and diffused sunshine of the season. How
different was the calm slow river, lingering between its placid banks,
seeking no coy concealment under cliff or tree, but facing the daylight
with gentle indifference, from the wild shy Esk, which played at
hide-and-seek with the sunshine, like a flying nymph among the woods!
The old lord seemed half inspired by this return to scenes which he
remembered so well, though he had not been himself brought up at Eton.
“I brought your father here, as I’m bringing you,” he said, as they
rolled along round the curves of the railway, looking out upon the
distant castle and the river. “You will see plenty of boats on the river
in another day, my boy; and if your grandma and I come here next summer,
I daresay we shall see you strutting along in all your finery, with
flowers in your hat, and a blue shirt.” Innocent old lord! he thought
his little rustic, just out of the nest, might reach the celestial
heights of Eton in a few months, and perhaps--for what limits are there
to the presumption of ignorance?--find a place in the Eight in his first
summer. But, indeed, I don’t really think Lord Eskside’s ignorance went
so far as this. He said it, not knowing what else to say, to please the
boy. They went down together to the great dame’s house, full already of
small boys settling into their familiar quarters, upon whom Val looked
with all the wondering envy and respect natural to a freshman. He had
himself assumed the tall hat for the first time in his life, and the
sight of so many tall hats moving about everywhere confused yet excited
him. His tutor, who was not his “dame,” lived in a tiny house attached
to a big pupil-room, and had no accommodation for boys or for much else,
except the blue-and-white china in which his soul delighted. Mr Gerald
Grinder, like his brother Mr Cyril Grinder, who had been Val’s tutor at
Eskside, had one of the finest minds of his time; but the chief way in
which this made itself evident to the outer world was in his furniture,
and the fittings-up of his little house, every “detail” in which he
flattered himself was a study. It was a very commonplace little house,
but the thought that had been expended on its decoration might have
built pyramids--if anything so rude and senseless as building pyramids
could have occurred to the refined intelligence of a man of Mr Gerald
Grinder’s day. Val gazed at all the velvet brackets, and all the antique
cabinets (which had been “picked up” in holiday travels all over the
world, and were each the subject of a tale), and all the china, with a
sense of failing breath and space too small for him; while his
grandfather engaged Mr Grinder in conversation, and pointed out the
boy’s peculiarities, as if these characteristics could be of any
particular interest to any one out of Val’s own family--and the young
tutor listened with a smile. “I don’t doubt we shall soon know each
other,” he said suavely, and shook hands with Val, and dismissed him: to
receive just such a description of another boy next moment from another
anxious parent. “Whether is it Ross or Smith now, that is the
self-willed one, and which is the boy that catches cold?” the young
tutor asked himself, when the audience was over. He concluded, finally,
that the latter case must be Smith’s, since he was brought by his
mother--a generalisation which perhaps was justifiable. Poor Mr Grinder!
he knew all the marks of his china as well as these tiresome people
knew, so to speak, the manufacturer’s marks on their boys; but how much
more interesting was one than the other! He took a walk up to Windsor to
an old furniture shop, where bargains of precious ware were now and
then to be had, with a delicious sense of relief when it was too late to
expect more pupils--and fell upon a bit of real Nankin there which
refreshed his very soul.

Meanwhile the old lord and his boy strayed about the narrow streets.
They went to the bookseller’s and bought pictures for Val’s room--which,
I need not say, were chiefly Landseers, though, granting the subject,
Val was not particular as to the artist; and then they walked to the
castle, the grandfather making a conscientious but painful attempt to
remember who built the Round Tower, and who was responsible for St
George’s Chapel. As to these points, however, Val was not at all
exacting, and had no thirst for information. He liked to walk on the
terrace better, where the great sunny misty plain before him made his
young heart expand with a delightful sense of space and distance, but
did not care for the splendid alleys of the Long Walk, which were too
formal to please his ill-regulated fancy. And then they went to the
river, along the green bank of the Brocas, which touched Lord Eskside’s
heart with many recollections. “I have walked with your father here
fifty times, I should think,” said the old lord. “He was not much of a
boating man himself, but he was fond of the river. Your father had
always what is called a fine mind, Val.”

“What is a fine mind?” said the boy, who did not know very much about
his father, or care a great deal, if the truth must be told.

“It’s rather hard to define,” said the old lord, “when you don’t possess
the article; and you must not learn to generalise too much, my boy; it’s
a dangerous custom. It is, so far as I’ve been able to remark, an
intellect which pays more attention to the small things than the great
in this life; it cares for what it calls the details, and lets the
bigger matters shift for themselves.”

“Was my father--very good at anything?” asked Val, whom this definition
interested but moderately. He had some difficulty in shaping this
question; for indeed, having just heard that his father was not a
boating man, his curiosity was partially satisfied before expressed.

“Your father has very good abilities,” said Lord Eskside--“very good
abilities. I wish he would put them to more use. I’ve been told he was
an elegant scholar, Val.”

“What is an elegant scholar, grandpa?”

The old lord laughed. “Not me nor you,” he said; “and I doubt if either
you or me are the stuff to make one of; but your father was. I’ll show
you an old school-list at home with his name in it. I’ve heard his Latin
verses were something very fine indeed; Val, Latin verses are grand
things. Poetry in English is a thriftless sort of occupation; but a dead
language makes all the difference. If you ever can make Latin verses
like your father, you’ll be a great man, Val.”

Val never knew whether his grandfather was laughing at him when he
adopted this tone. “Is my father a great man?” he asked, with a serious
face. “I should like to know a little more about him. I have only seen
him once. Once is not much for a fellow to have seen his father; and I
was so small then, and never thought of anything.”

“Most of us are just as well without thinking,” said Lord Eskside, with
a suppressed sigh, “except about your work, my boy. You may be sure you
will want all your thoughts for your work.”

“That is just how you always turn me off,” said Val. “I ask you about my
father, grandpa, and you tell me about my work. I will do my work,” said
the boy, with a dogged air, which he sometimes put on; “but why does my
father never come home?--why doesn’t he care for me? All these fellows
there are with their fathers. I like you a great deal better--but _why_
doesn’t he come?”

“Because he likes his own way,” said the old lord, “better than he likes
you or me--better than he likes his own country or our homely life.
Observe, my boy, this is nothing for you to judge, or make your remarks
upon,” he added, bending his brows at Val, who was not used to be looked
on frowningly. “Your father is no boy like you, but a man, and able to
judge for himself. His profession takes him abroad. He will be an
ambassador one of these days, I suppose, and represent his
sovereign--which is more honour than often falls to the lot of a poor
Scots lord.”

Val did not make any reply, and the pair continued their walk along the
river-side. His father a representative of his sovereign; his
mother----. For the last time before he was engulfed by the practical
schoolboy life which was more congenial to his years, Val felt the whirl
of wonder, the strange chaos of his double life which was made up of
such different elements, and lay as it were between two worlds. His
panic was gone, having worn itself out, and no real interest in his
unknown mother kept her image before him; but he felt the jar in him of
these two existences, so strangely, widely separated. His head felt
giddy, as if the world were turning round with him. But every moment the
river was becoming more gay and bright, and the moving panorama before
him after a while overcame his individual reflections. The “fellows”
newly arrived were already crowding down to the river--little new boys
standing about with their hands in their pockets looking wistfully on;
but the old _habitués_ of the Thames asserted their superiority, and got
afloat in swarms--some in the strange outriggers which Val had heard of,
but had never seen before. Lord Eskside was as eager about the sight as
if it had been he who was the new boy. “Look how light they are, Val!”
he cried--“how cleverly they manage them! If those long oars get out of
balance the thing upsets. Look at that small creature there no bigger
than yourself----”

“Bigger! he’s not up to my elbow,” cried Val, indignant.

“Well, smaller than yourself: but you could not do that, you lout, to
save your life.”

Val’s face grew crimson. “Come back next week, grandpa,” he said, “and
see if I can’t; or come along, I’ll try now; it would only be a
ducking--and what do I care for a ducking? I’ll try this very day.”

“Come back, come back, my boy; they won’t let you try to-day,” cried the
old lord, laughing at the boy’s impetuosity. Val had turned back, and
was rushing down to the “rafts” where boats were to be had; and it was
all that his grandfather could do to restrain him. “You are not, Val
Ross, your own master--not to speak of other people’s--here,” he said,
holding the boy by the arm, “but a member of a corporation, and you must
obey the laws of it. They’ll not give you a boat, or if they do, it will
be because they think you don’t belong to Eton; and if you were to go
out without fulfilling all the regulations, they’d punish you, Val.”

“Punish me!” cried Val, with nostrils dilating, and a wild fire in his
eyes.

“Ay, punish _you_, though you are such a great man. This will never do,”
said Lord Eskside; “do you mean to struggle with me, sir, in the sight
of all these lads? Master yourself! and that at once.”

The boy came to himself with a gasp, as if he had been drowning. I don’t
think he had ever in his life been spoken to in so severe a voice. He
ceased to resist, and the old lord gave up his hold on his arm, and
continued in a lower tone--

“You must learn this lesson, my boy, at once. You are nobody here, and
you must master yourself. Do it of your own will, and you show the
makings of a man. Do it because you are compelled and what are you but a
slave? The thing is in your own hands, Val,” said Lord Eskside,
softened, and putting off his peremptory tone; “you have almost made an
exhibition, before all these strange lads, of yourself--and me.”

Val did not say anything; his breast was swelling high, his heart
throbbing with the effort he had made; and he was not pleased that he
had been obliged to make the effort, nor did he feel that satisfaction
in having done his duty which is said always to attend that somewhat
difficult operation. He walked along the river-side panting and drawing
his breath hard, as if he really had tried the experiment of a ducking.
How he longed to do this thing which he had been assured he must not do!
He would have liked to jump into the river and swim out to one of the
long slim boats, poised like big dragon-flies on the water, and eject
its rower, and take the vacant place; in which case, no doubt, Val would
have come to signal grief, as he would have deserved--for he had never
been in an outrigger in his life.

Then the pair went and dined at the hotel, where Val recovered his
spirits; and then the old lord took the boy to his little room, where
they found his things unpacked, and his pictures standing in a little
heap against the wall, and his room almost filled up with the bed which
had been folded up out of the way when they were there before. It was
not like the luxurious large airy room which had been Val’s at home, any
more than the house with its long passages, with regiments of doors on
either side, was like the old-fashioned arrangements of Rosscraig. And
here at last the parting so often rehearsed had to be done in earnest.
“Master yourself,” said the old lord, with a voice which was neither so
cheery nor so firm as he meant it to be; “and God bless you, Val!” And
then he was gone, walking up the dark street with a heavy heart in his
old bosom, and his eyebrows working furiously. And Val sat down upon
his bed and looked round him wonderingly, and for the first time
realised that he was left alone.

However, it is needless to enter upon the details of so very common a
scene. Perhaps the boy shed a few tears silently when the maid took away
his candle, and he felt that no soft step, subdued lest he should be
sleeping, no rustling silken garments, could come into his room that
night. In the morning he faced his new existence vigorously, and hung
his pictures, and began his work without any weakness of recollection.
The old people felt it a great deal more, and a great deal longer; but
Val could not have been known from the most accustomed and habitual
schoolboy, and, stranger still, scarcely knew himself for anything else,
after that night. At the end of the week he felt as if he had lived
there all his life--as if he had been there before in some previous kind
of existence. I suppose this readiness of a child to adapt itself to new
habits, and make them its own, does but increase the strange unreality
of life itself to the half-conscious mind--life which changes in a
moment, so that one week seems like years, and years, being past, look
as if they had never been.

At the end of the week Val wrote home; and in his first letter there was
this paragraph, written in his clearest hand:--

“Tell grandpapa I rowed up to Surly Hall, a long way above where we
walked, above locks, _in an outrigger_, this morning. I rowed another
fellow and licked him. I passed swimming on Thursday, and _outriggers is
very_ easy. You have nothing to do but keep steady, and it flies like a
bird.”

“What is an outrigger?” said Lady Eskside, as she gave her husband the
letter. The old lord gave an internal shiver, and thanked heaven that
she did not remember; and Val did not think it necessary to inform his
anxious grand-parents how often he had swamped his little craft on the
Friday, before he succeeded in making that triumphal progress to Surly
on Saturday morning. “He’s a determined rascal, that boy of yours, my
lady,” was all the answer Lord Eskside made.

I would not assert, however, that Val found all his difficulties at
school to be surmounted so easily as the outrigger. He had to go through
the average number of accidents, and perils, and overcome various wild
stirrings of nature within him, before he learned, as a true Etonian
does, to take pride in the penalties and hardships as well as the
pleasures which distinguish his school. Val’s natural pride in his own
person as Val Ross had to be met and routed by his artificial and
conventional pride as a schoolboy, before, for instance, he could
reconcile himself to be some one’s fag, a fate which overtook him
instantly. Little Lord Hightowers, the Duke’s son, who was in the same
house, took to it naturally, without any stirring of repugnance, and
made his master’s toast with conscientious zest, and went his master’s
errands, and accepted his share of the dainties he had fetched when that
potentate was in a liberal mood, without any struggle whatever with
himself. But Val had a struggle, the wild blood in his veins being
unused to obedience and finding subjection hard. I am happy to say,
however, that his powers were equal to the necessary sacrifice, and that
he never made an exhibition of himself as he had been on the eve of
doing on the day of his arrival. Time passed on, and Val grew and
“mastered himself;” but sometimes did not master himself, and got into
disgrace, and scrambled out again, and had no fair-weather voyage, but
all a schoolboy’s troubles at their hardest. Hightowers had a very much
easier time of it; he was neither proud nor ambitious, but was just as
happy at the foot of his division as anywhere else, quite as happy
looking on at a game as playing, and took the floggings which overtook
him periodically with the most heavenly calm; whereas the mere threat of
one wrought Val to the point of desperation. Hightowers was better off
than Val by right of his temperament and calmer blood. He took
everything much more lightly, and used to discourse to his companion on
the vanity of “making a fuss” with ponderous and precocious wisdom. “Why
don’t you take it easy, as I do?” said Hightowers; “what’s the good of
verses, for instance? A fellow never does verses after he leaves school.
If you get complained of, it don’t hurt you; and even a swishing, though
it stings, it’s only for a minute--I don’t mind. There’s a house match
on to-day between Guerre’s and Whiting’s. Put that rubbish away and come
along.”

Val was on the point of going, when a recollection of what he had heard
of his father’s eminence in the way of verse-making returned to his
mind; whereupon he sat down again doggedly to grind the smooth English
into rugged schoolboy Latin. He clenched his teeth at the thought of
being inferior to his father--not from love--for how should he love the
man who had not spent a kind word on him, or seen him, but once in his
life?--but from a violent instinct of opposition which had sprung up in
his soul, he could not tell why. He would not be beaten by his father;
and this visionary jealousy overcame all Hightowers’ philosophisings,
and even the attractions of the match between Whiting’s and Guerre’s.

Thus the boy grew, not perhaps a very amiable boy, though with a side to
his character which was as sweet and soft as the other was rugged; and
with his grandfather’s lesson well learned and bearing fruit. People who
do right by a struggle are not so pleasant as those who do right because
it comes natural to them--or even sometimes as those who do wrong in an
easy and natural way without any effort; and when Val went home he would
carry occasional traces of the conflict, and sometimes showed a chaotic
condition of mind which disturbed the peace of his elders almost as much
as it disturbed his own; and his career at school was of a mixed
character, sometimes almost brilliant, sometimes very doubtful. What
wild impulses would rise in him, longings for he knew not what, desires
almost uncontrollable to rush away out of the routine in which his life
was spent. Sometimes a fierce inclination to go to sea seized upon him;
sometimes he would be suddenly tempted by the sight of the soldiers, of
whom he saw so many, and for the moment the fancy of enlisting and going
off unknown to India, China, or the end of the world, in search of
adventures--a veritable knight-errant--moved the boy. But only himself
knew how sudden and fierce were these temptations. He did not confide
them to any one. He could not tell where they came from, not being
learned enough or clever enough to refer them to his mother’s vagrant
blood, which stirred and rose in spring-tides and periodical
overflowings with the rising of his youth. But his practical schoolboy
life had this excellent effect, that it withdrew him from everything
visionary, giving him only practical difficulties and temptations to
struggle against. He forgot at Eton all about the other strange and
jarring element in his existence which had perplexed him in his
childhood. And, indeed, the boy had no leisure, even had he been
disposed, to brood over his parentage, or ask himself why his father and
mother were unlike those _paters_ and _maters_ of whom his companions
talked. It was so; and what more could be said? He accepted the fact
without further questioning, and thought no more about it. He had enough
to do with his schoolboy occupations, and with that high art in which he
was being trained by all the influences round him--the art of mastering
himself.



CHAPTER XV.


Val had grown to be sixteen, tall and strong, towering far above the old
lord, and even above his father, who had made another visit to Eskside,
and had seen his son, and regarded him with more approval than he did
when Val was seven years old. The older he grew, however, the less the
boy resembled Richard, whose features, settling into middle age, no
longer even resembled themselves--a thing which few people took into
consideration. Many persons in the county expressed their surprise,
indeed, on seeing them together, that they could ever have supposed
Valentine to be like his father--without in the least perceiving that
the Honourable Richard Ross, who was now Secretary of Legation in
Florence, and had every chance of rising to the post of Ambassador the
very next time that a wave of promotion came, was almost more unlike
young Dick Ross, Lady Eskside’s fair-haired boy. But Richard himself was
very civil to his son, and inquired after his studies, and recounted his
own Eton experiences, and volunteered advice about Oxford in a way which
gratified all the family. The intercourse between the father and son was
perfectly polite and civil, though, on Val’s side at least, there was
little warm feeling in it; but both took from this meeting a sentiment
of satisfaction, not to say something like pride in each other.
Valentine on his side perceived his father’s easy superiority in culture
and knowledge of the world to the rural magnates who formed society at
Eskside, with a sense of increased consequence which is always
agreeable; while Richard looked upon the handsome bold boy, the soft
oval of whose boyish face was yet unmarred by any manly growth on lip or
cheek, with a curious mingled feeling of pride in this being who
belonged to himself, and repugnance to the creature who recalled so
strongly another image most unlike his own. Valentine possessed in a
high degree that air of distinction which does not always accompany, as
it ought, the highest birth. Beside him Lord Hightowers was as a
ploughman, clumsy-footed, heavy-mannered, the very embodiment of the
common in opposition to the refined. How did this come about? “Val is
very like the picture of your grandfather--the Raeburn, as you call it;
though it would be more respectful to say the tenth lord,” Lady Eskside
said to her son, with a slight faltering. “To be a Raeburn is some
distinction, but the tenth lord was nobody in particular,” said the
_dilettante_, ignoring the subject of the likeness. For, indeed, as he
developed, Valentine was the handsomest Ross that had been seen on
Eskside for generations, though the dark curls pushed off his bold
forehead, and his great liquid eyes full of light, and his form, which
was all spring and grace and elasticity, represented another race
altogether than the lords of Eskside.

This was his age and this his appearance in the summer after his
sixteenth birthday, when there happened to Val an encounter which
affected all his future life, little as he thought of any such result.
It was the middle of June, the height of the “summer half,” that period
of perfect blessedness to young Eton, a delicious evening “after six,”
when all the nine hundred boys that form the community were out and
about in full enjoyment of their most perfect moment of leisure. The sun
was setting up the river in purple and crimson, building a broad pathway
as of molten gold, a celestial bridge up to the summer heavens, over the
gleaming water; the banks were gorgeous with summer flowers, thickets of
the gay willow-herb, and yellow toad-flax, and great plumy feathers of
the meadow-queen glowing in the evening light--the soft green of
scattered willow-trees drooping above--and long beds of the tenderest
blue forget-me-not dipping in and out of the stream. As if these did not
supply colour enough, the whole breadth of the river was aglow with
reflected tints from the sky, soft yellow, crimson, orange--great rosy
clouds deepening into purple, and a soft vague vault of blue above with
specks of tinted cloud, like scattered roses. The river was alive with
boats. A little farther up, at Athens, the bathing-place, it was alive
with something else--with shoals of boys bathing, plunging in and out,
and peopling the shining stream with bobbing heads and white shoulders,
as plentiful as fishes and as much at their ease in the element, but
using their human privilege of laughter to turn the spot into a Babel of
noisy sweetness--noise which the charmed summer air took all roughness
out of, and softened into gay music, tumultuous yet magical, in full
accord with all the soft breathings of the waning day.

Val in his outrigger was lower down the stream, not much above the spot
where the railway bridge does all that modern ugliness can to reduce
nature to its own level. The boy was not thinking much about the beauty
of the scene, yet he felt it, having a mind curiously open to all
outdoor influences; and this it was which had arrested his course in mid
stream, just where he could see the glorious mass of the castle rising
from the green foliage of the slopes, and the clustered red roofs of the
homely town at its feet. The sunset threw its fullest radiance upon this
wonderful termination of the landscape, which seemed, from where Val
contemplated it, to stand across the stream, the light whitening here
and there a window, and a golden haze of warmth and mellow distance
enveloping the grey walls, the pinnacles of St George’s, the picturesque
broken outline of the Curfew tower. The animated foreground was full of
boats--dragon-fly outriggers like his own, poising their long
outstretched wings over the water--“tubs” full of laughing boys--and
through the midst of all, the glorious vision of the Eight, with a
well-known stalwart figure, as big as the boat in which he stood,
steering the slim craft as it flew, and shouting stentorian correction
and reproof to No. 4 and No. 7--for was not Henley in prospect, with all
its chances of loss or triumph? Val withdrew towards the bank with a few
strokes of his long oars, to get out of the way of that leviathan. As he
stayed his boat again, with the sweetness of the evening, the light, the
colour, the gay medley of sound floating in happy confusion into his
mind--a gig, stumbling down stream in the hands of three or four
laughing urchins, totally indifferent to the chances of a ducking, came
suddenly foul of Val’s boat, tossing his oar out of his hand, and
upsetting him from his precarious vessel in a moment. Let not the gentle
reader be dismayed; there was neither fright nor rarity in the accident,
nor the slightest occasion for the blue-coated waterman, with the Eton
lilies on his silver buttons, who stood in a punt at some distance with
uplifted pole, relieved against the sunset sky, to hasten to the rescue.
“Awfully sorry!” said all the small boys, rather envying Val the delight
of being swamped; they were fresh and wet themselves from bathing, and
would have liked nothing better than to swamp too. As for Valentine, he
swam to the bank, which was close by, pulling his slim bark after him.
He had as little clothing upon his handsome person as decency
permitted--a white jersey, thin as a spider’s web, and trousers turned
up almost to the knee. So he was neither harmed nor alarmed, and might
have walked back to the “rafts” and left his boat to be carried down by
the stream without concerning himself about it, or seeking help to right
it, had not his Fate commanded otherwise. But he had arrived at one of
those moments in life, when Fate, potent and visible, except to the
actors in the drama, does intervene.

It was, as I have said, the middle of June. Ascot races were lately
over, and the roads, as careful housekeepers in lonely places knew but
too well, were encumbered with “tramps,” making their way from that
great central event of their year to the lesser incidents of country
fairs and provincial races. Many of these wandering parties were
about,--so many, that they had ceased to be much remarked by
quiet wayfarers. And, indeed, the poor tramps were quiet
enough;--weatherbeaten groups, women with children in their weary arms,
men with fur caps and knotted handkerchiefs, and those specimens of the
doggish race which have vagrant written in every hair of their shabby
coats, as it is inscribed in the hard brown lines, drawn tight by
exposure to the weather, of their masters’ faces. Two of these tramps
were seated on a log of wood, resting, just opposite the spot where
Valentine’s boat had swamped. These were a woman and a boy, more decent
than the majority of their kind, though noway separated from it in
appearance. The woman looked over forty, but was not so old. She was
seated, with her hands crossed listlessly in her lap, holding a little
bundle in a coloured handkerchief; her dress was a dark cotton gown and
a shawl, with an old-fashioned bonnet which came quite round the face,
enclosing it like a frame--a fashion which no longer finds favour among
women. This dark circle round her face identified it, and called the
passenger’s attention; and a more remarkable face has seldom caught and
arrested the careless eye. I saw her about this same time, seated on a
bank in a leafy country road, with the light interlacing of shadow and
sunshine over her; and as it was her aspect and looks which moved me to
collect all these particulars, and trace out her history, and that of
her children, I can speak still more distinctly of how she looked to me,
than of her first appearance to Val. Complexion she had none. Her skin
was burnt a kind of brick-dust colour, red-brown, and it was roughened
by the exposure of years; her black hair was smoothed away on her
forehead leaving only a little rim visible between the brow and the
bonnet. Her features were beautiful, but only struck the spectator when
he had looked at her more than once, the roughness of her aspect and
colouring seeming to throw a veil upon their beauty of form. But it was
her eyes and expression which were most remarkable, and fascinated the
wondering glance. She looked like Silence personified--her lips shut
close, as if they could not open, and an air of strange abstraction from
the immediate scene enveloping and removing her from its common
occurrences. The circles round her eyes were wide and large, and out of
those worn sockets looked two great wistful eyes, always looking, never
seeing anything--eyes unfathomable, which were full of solemn
expression, yet told you nothing, except that there was much to tell. In
her way the beauty of the night had entered into her inarticulate soul;
but I do not think she was aware of any of the details that made it
up--and she had not even noticed the incident of the swamping when
Valentine’s light well-strung figure scrambled up the bank. “Here, you!”
cried Val to the boy by her side, with the ready ease of one accustomed
to command to one accustomed to obey--“lend us a hand, will you, to
empty the boat?”

The boy, who had been seated by the woman’s side, rose at the call with
ready reply to the demand upon him. He had the corresponding habit to
Valentine’s--the habit of hearing when he was called to, of doing what
he was told to do. He had done everything to which a vagrant lad is
bred--held horses, ran errands, executed a hundred odd jobs; and it did
not occur to him to withhold the help by which sixpences were earned and
bread gained, from any one who demanded it. “Here you are, sir,” he
answered, cheerily. He was about the same age as Valentine, but not so
tall nor so finely made--a fair-haired, sunny-faced lad, looking clean
and ruddy, despite of dust and weariness, and the rough tramp costume,
blue-spotted handkerchief, and nondescript jacket which he wore. He and
his mother had been seated there together for some time past, not
speaking to each other--for vagrants generally are a silent race. She
did not stir even now, when he rose from her side. To have him called
casually by whomsoever wanted help, and to see him obey, was habitual to
her also. Val and the young tramp worked together in silence at the
righting of the boat: they pulled it up on the bank, and turned it over,
and set it afloat again. Then, however, Val changed his first intention.
“I say,” he began half meditatively, “have you time to take her down to
Goodman’s? no, you mustn’t get in, you can tow her down; and if you’ll
come to me to-morrow morning I’ll pay you. I’m Boss, at Grinder’s. Do
you know Grinder’s? well, anybody will tell you. You can come after ten
to-morrow; and tell old Goodman it’s Ross’s boat.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll see to it,” said the boy blithely, touching his cap. He
looked up with his fair frank face to Val’s and the two lads “took a
liking” to each other on the spot. Val had made a step or two down the
bank, then came back. “What are you?” he said; “do you live here? I
never saw you on the river before.”

“Mother and I are going to stop the night,” said the lad; “we’re last
from Ascot; I ain’t got a trade, but just does odd jobs. No, I never was
on the river before.”

Upon which a sudden warmth of patronage and lordly benevolence came to
Valentine’s bosom. “If you stay here I’ll give you what odd jobs I can.
What’s your name? I like the looks of you,” said lordly Val.

“Dick Brown, sir; thank you, sir,” said the lad, with grateful
kindliness. He had no pride to be wounded by this brusque address, but
took it in perfectly good part, and was gratified by the good impression
he had made. He had tied a piece of string, which he brought from his
own pocket, to the sharp prow of the boat, and was preparing to tow it
down stream. But he stopped as Val stopped, still dripping, his wet
shirt fitting to his fine well-developed form like a glove. The other
had none of Val’s physical advantages of education, any more than the
mental. He was as ignorant of how to hold himself as how to make Latin
verses; and had he got into the outrigger, as he at first proposed,
would have been by this time at the bottom of the river. He admired his
handsome young patron with an innocent open-hearted pleasure in the
sight of him, feeling him a hundred miles removed from and above
himself.

“Very well,” said Val; “you come to me to-morrow at Grinder’s. If you
stay we’ll find you plenty to do.”

Then he turned, bethinking himself of his wet clothes, which began to
get chilly, and, with an amicable wave of his hand, stepped out along
the road; but even then he paused again, and turned back to call out,
“Remember Ross, at Grinder’s,” and with another nod disappeared. The
woman behind had not been attending to the colloquy. She roused up
suddenly at these last words, and looked after the boy, with her eyes
lighting up strangely. “What did he say?” she asked, in a half whisper,
rising quickly and coming to her son’s side; “what was that name he
said?”

“His own name, mother,” said the smiling lad. “I am to go to him at ten
to-morrow. He’s one of the college gentlemen. He says he likes the looks
of me, and I shouldn’t wonder if he’d help me to a job.”

“What was his name?” repeated the woman, grasping her son’s arm
impatiently. He took it with perfect calm, being accustomed to her
moods.

“Come along, mother, I’ve to take the boat down to the raft; Ross, at
Grinder’s. I wonder where’s Grinder’s? He’s Ross, I suppose?”

The woman stood with her hand on his arm, looking after the other figure
which withdrew into the distance through the soft air, still tinted with
all the rosy lights of sunset. The young athlete, all dripping in his
scanty clothing, was joined by an admiring train as he went on; he was
popular and well known, and his loyal followers worshipped him as much
in this momentary eclipse as if he had done something famous. The
tramp-woman was roused out of all the abstraction with which she had
sat, oblivious of Valentine’s closer presence, gazing vaguely at the sky
and the river. Her eyes followed him with a hungry eagerness, devouring
the space between; a slight nervous trembling ran through her frame.

“I wish I had seen him nigh at hand,” she said, with a sigh; “it’s my
luck, always my luck.”

“Come along and you’ll see him still if you want to,” said the lad, “I
know what them swells do. They go down to the rafts and takes off their
wet things, and puts on their coats and chimney-pots. He’s a good un to
look at, I can tell you; but you never see nothing that’s under your
nose, mother. You get curious-like when anything’s past.”

“Don’t stand talking,” said the woman with a tremulous impatience, “but
come on.”

Dick obeyed promptly; but it is not so easy to walk quickly, towing a
troublesome outrigger with its projecting rowlocks, when there is no one
in it to guide its course along the inequalities of the bank. The woman
bore this delay with nervous self-restraint as long as she could, then
telling him she would wait for him, pursued her way rapidly alone to the
rafts, which were crowded by boys arriving and departing in every
possible stage of undress. She waited wistfully at the gate, not
venturing to enter the railed-off enclosure, which was sacred to the
boats and “the gentlemen;” and when Val issued forth in correct Eton
dress, she did not recognise him. She stood there in tremulous and
passionate agitation--suppressed, it is true, but intense--gazing
wistfully at the crowds of moving figures, all bearing that resemblance
to each other which boys undergoing the same training and wearing the
same dress so often do. She could not identify any one, and she was
growing sick and faint with weariness, and with the beating of her
heart.

“Here I am, mother; did you see him?” said Dick, appearing at last,
tired but pleased, with his awkward charge.

“How was I to know him?” she asked, sharply; “I did not see his face. As
to who he is, Dick, it’s a name I once knew. I wish I had seen him; but
it’s my luck, always my luck.”

“I’ll ask all about him, mother,” said the cheery boy; but while he was
gone to deposit the boat, some other members of their wandering class
joined the woman, and distracted, or did their best to distract, her
attention. With them she made a long round by the bridge to the Windsor
side--(there was a ferry, but pennies are pennies, and were not to be
lightly spent on personal ease)--and then make her way to a lodging she
knew in the vagrant quarter--the Rag Fair, of the little royal borough.
Whatever might be the thoughts that were passing in her mind, or
whatever the anxieties within her hidden heart, she had to give her
attention to the practical side of her rough life, and stopped on her
way to buy some scraps of meat and some bread for her own and her son’s
meal. There was a common fire in the lower room of the lodging-house, at
which the tramp-lodgers were allowed to cook their supper. This woman
did so in her turn, like the rest; and to Dick the scraps which his
mother had cooked, as well as she knew how, made a luxurious meal, taken
on a corner of the rough table, with all the sounds and all the smells
of Coffin Lane coming in at the open door. There was a Babel of sounds
going on within in addition, each group talking according to its
pleasure, and the outdoor shouting, jesting, quarrelling, coming in as
chorus. Dick had not found out very much about his young patron. He told
his mother that he had summut to do with a lord, but was not sure what.
“But why can’t we stay here a bit?” said Dick. “There ain’t nothing
going on in the country but poor things, where we don’t pick up enough
to keep body and soul together; you’ll see I’ll make something handsome
on the river, with all the odd jobs there is; and if this here young
gentleman is as good as his word----”

“Did he look as if he would be as good as his word?”

“Lord bless us, how can I tell?” said Dick. “I don’t read faces, nor
fortunes neither, like you. He said he liked the looks of me; and so did
I,” the lad added, with a laugh. “I hope it’ll do him a deal of good. I
like the looks of him too.”

And Dick went to bed in the room which he shared (under Government
regulation and with great regard to the cubic feet of air--such air as
is to be had in Coffin Lane) with two other rough fellows not so
guiltless in their vagrancy as himself--with a cheery heart, thinking
that here, perhaps, he had found foundation enough to build a life
upon--a beginning to his career, if he had known such an imposing word.
He was a good boy, though his previous existence had been spent among
the roughest elements of society. He knelt down boldly at his bedside,
and said the short half-childish prayer which he had been taught as a
child, without caring in the least for his companions’ jeers. Perhaps
even it was more a charm against evil than a prayer; but, such as it
was, the boy held by it bravely. He was exhilarated somehow, and full of
hope, he could not have told why. Something good seemed about to happen
to him. I do not know what he expected Valentine to do for him, or if he
expected anything definite; but he was somehow inspired and elated, he
could not tell why.

His mother, for her part, sat down upon her bed and pondered, her
abstract eyes fixing upon the bare whitewashed walls as solemn a gaze as
that which she had fixed on the distant glow of the sunset across the
river. They were not eyes which could see anything near at hand, but
were always far off, watching something visionary, more true than the
reality before her. She, too, had companions in her room, where there
was nothing beyond the supply of bare necessities--a bed to sleep on,
nothing more. She had not Dick’s happy temperament, though she was as
indifferent as he was to the base surroundings of that poor and low
level of life to which they were accustomed; but somehow, in her mind
too, various new thoughts, or rather old thoughts, which were new by
reason of long disuse, were surging up whether she would or not. Perhaps
it was the sound of the name which she had not heard for years. Ross. It
was not a very uncommon name; but yet, when this poor creature began to
think who the boy whom she had seen might be--and to wonder with
quick-beating pulses whether it was so--these thoughts were enough to
fill her heart with such wild throbs and bursts of feeling as had not
stirred it for many years.



CHAPTER XVI.


Dick Brown got up very early next morning, with the same sense of
exhilaration and light-heartedness which had moved him on the previous
night. To be sure he had no particular reason for it, but what of that?
People are seldom so truly happy as when they are happy without any
cause. He was early in his habits, and his heart was too gay to be
anything but restless. He got up though it was not much past five
o’clock, and took his turn at the pump in the yard, which formed the
entire toilet arrangements of the tramps’ lodging-house, and then
strolled down with his hands in his pockets and his ruddy countenance
shining fresh from these ablutions to where the river shone blue in the
morning sunshine at the foot of Coffin Lane. Dick had passed through
Windsor more than once in the course of his checkered existence. He had
been here with his tribe--those curious unenjoying slaves of pleasure
who are to be found wherever there is merrymaking, little as their share
may be in the mirth--on the 4th of June, the great _fête_ day of Eton,
and on the occasion of reviews in the great Park, and royal visits; so
the place was moderately familiar to him, as so many places were all
over the country. He strolled along the raised path by the water-side,
with a friendly feeling for the still river, sparkling in the still
sunshine, without boat or voice to break its quiet, which he thought to
himself had “brought him luck,” a new friend, and perhaps a long
succession of odd jobs. Dick and his mother did very fairly on the whole
in their wandering life. The shillings and sixpences which they picked
up in one way or another kept them going, and it was very rare when they
felt want. But the boy’s mind was different from his fate; he was no
adventurer--and though habit had made the road and his nomadic outdoor
life familiar to him, yet he had never taken to them quite kindly. The
thing of all others that filled him with envy was one of those little
tidy houses or pretty cottages which abound in every English village, or
even on the skirts of a small town, with a little flower-garden full of
flowers, and pictures on the walls inside. The lad had said to himself
times without number, that there indeed was something to make life
sweet--a settled home, a certain place where he should rest every night
and wake every morning. There was no way in his power by which he could
attain to such a glorious conclusion; but he thus secured what is the
next best thing to success in this world, a distinct conception of what
he wanted, an ideal which was possible and might be carried out.

Dick sat down upon the bank, swinging his feet over the mass of gravel
which the workmen, beginning their morning work, were fishing up out of
the river, and contemplated the scene before him, which, but for them,
would have been noiseless as midnight. The irregular wooden buildings
which flanked the rafts opposite looked picturesque in the morning
light, and the soft water rippled up to the edge of the planks,
reflecting everything,--pointed roof and lattice window, and the
wonderful assembly of boats. It was not hot so early in the morning; and
even had it been hot, the very sight of that placid river, sweeping in
subdued silvery tints, cooled down from all the pictorial warmth and
purple glory of the evening, must have cooled and refreshed the
landscape. The clump of elm-trees on the Brocas extended all their
twinkling leaflets to the light; lower down, a line of white houses,
with knots of shrubs and stunted trees before each attracted Dick’s
attention. Already lines of white clothes put up to dry betrayed at once
the occupation and the industry of the inhabitants. If only his mother
was of that profession, or could adopt it, Dick thought to himself,--how
sweet it would be to live there, with the river at hand and the green
meadow-grass between--to live there for ever and ever, instead of
wandering and tramping about the dusty roads!

There was no dust anywhere on that clear fresh morning. The boy made no
comment to himself upon the still beauty of the scene. He knew nothing
of the charm of reflection and shadow, the soft tones of the morning
brightness, the cool green of the grass; he could not have told why they
were beautiful, but he felt it somehow, and all the sweetness of the
early calm. The great cart-horse standing meditative on the water’s
edge, with its head and limbs relieved against the light sky; the
rustling of the gravel as it was shovelled up, all wet and shining upon
the bank; the sound of the workmen’s operations in the heavy boat from
which they were working,--gave a welcome sense of “company” and
fellowship to the friendly boy; and for the rest, his soul was bathed in
the sweetness of the morning. After a while he went higher up the stream
and bathed more than his soul--his body too, which was much the better
for the bath; and then came back again along the Brocas, having crossed
in the punt by which some early workmen went to their occupation,
pondering many things in his mind. If a fellow could get settled work
now here--a fellow who was not so fortunate as to have a mother who
could take in washing! Dick extended his arms as he walked, and
stretched himself, and felt able for a man’s work, though he was only
sixteen--hard work, not light--a good long day, from six in the morning
till six at night; what did he care how hard the work was, so long as he
was off the road, and had some little nook or corner of his own--he did
not even mind how tiny--to creep into, and identify as his, absolutely
his, and not another’s? The cottages facing to the Brocas were too fine
and too grand for his aspirations. Short of the ambitious way of taking
in washing, he saw no royal road to such comfort and splendour; but
homelier places no doubt might be had. What schemes were buzzing in his
young head as he walked back towards Coffin Lane! He had brought out a
hunch of bread with him, which his mother had put aside last night, and
which served for breakfast, and satisfied him fully. He wanted no
delicacies of a spread table, and dreams of hot coffee did not enter his
mind. On winter mornings, doubtless, it was tempting when it was to be
had in the street, and pennies were forthcoming; but it would have been
sheer extravagance on such a day. The bread was quite enough for all
Dick’s need; but his mind was busy with projects ambitious and fanciful.
He went back to the lodging-house to find his mother taking the cup of
weak tea without milk which was her breakfast; and, as it was still too
early to go to his appointment with Val, begged her to come out with him
that he might talk to her; there was no accommodation for private talk
in the tramps’ lodging-house, although most of the inmates by this time
were gone upon their vagrant course. Dick took his mother out by the
river-side again, and led her to a grassy bank above the gravel-heap and
the workmen, where the white houses on the Brocas, and the waving lines
of clean linen put out to dry, were full in sight. He began the
conversation cunningly with this practical illustration of his discourse
before his eyes.

“Mother,” said Dick, “did you never think as you’d like to try staying
still in one place and getting a little bit of a home?”

“No, Dick,” said the woman, hastily; “don’t ask me--I couldn’t do it. It
would kill me if I were made to try.”

“No one ain’t agoing to make you,” said Dick, soothingly; “but look
here, mother--now tell me, didn’t you ever try?”

“Oh yes, I’ve tried--tried hard enough--till I was nigh dead of it----”

“I can’t remember, mother.”

“It was before your time,” she said, with a sigh and uneasy
movement--“before you were born.”

Dick did not put any further questions. He had never asked anything
about his father. A tramp’s life has its lessons as well as a lord’s,
and Dick was aware that it was not always expedient to inquire into the
life, either public or private, of your predecessors. He had not the
least notion that there had been anything particular about his father,
but took it for granted that he must have been such a one as Joe or
Jack, in rough coat and knotted handkerchief, a wanderer like the rest.
He accepted the facts of existence as they stood without making any
difficulties, and therefore he did not attempt to “worrit” his mother by
further reference to the past, which evidently did “worrit” her. “Well,
never mind that,” he said; “you shan’t never be forced to anything if I
can help it. But if so be as I got work, and it was for my good to stay
in a place--supposing it might be here?”

“Here’s different,” said his mother, dreamily.

“That’s just what I think,” cried Dick, too wise to ask why; “it’s a
kind of a place where a body feels free like, where you can be gone
to-morrow if you please--the forest handy and Ascot handy, and barges as
will give you a lift the moment as you feel it the right thing to go.
That’s just what I wanted to ask you, mother. If I got a spell of work
along of that young swell as I’m going to see, or anything steady,
mightn’t we try? If you felt on the go any day, you might just take the
road again and no harm done; or if you felt as you could sit still and
make yourself comfortable in the house----”

“I could never sit still and make myself comfortable,” she said; “I
can’t be happy out of the air, Dick--I can’t breathe; and sitting still
was never my way--nor you couldn’t do it neither,” she added, looking in
his face.

“Oh, couldn’t I though?” said Dick, with a laugh. “Mother, you don’t
know much about me. I am not one to grumble, I hope--but if you’ll
believe me, the thing I’d be proudest of would be to be bound ’prentis
and learn a trade.”

“Dick!”

“I thought you’d be surprised. I know I’m too old now, and I know it’s
no good wishing,” said the boy. “Many and many’s the time I’ve lain
awake of nights thinking of it; but I saw as it wasn’t to be done nohow,
and never spoke. I’ve give up that free and full, mother, and never
bothered you about what couldn’t be; so you won’t mind if I bother a bit
now. If I could get a long spell of work, mother dear! There’s them men
at the gravel, and there’s a deal of lads like me employed about the
rafts; and down at Eton they’re wanted in every corner, for the
fives-courts and the rackets, and all them things. Now supposing as
this young swell has took a fancy to me, like I have to him--and
supposing as I get work--let’s say supposing, for it may never come to
nothing,--wouldn’t you stay with me a bit, mother, and try and make a
home?”

“I’d like to see the gentleman, Dick,” said his mother, ignoring his
appeal.

“The gentleman!” said the boy, a little disappointed. And then he added,
cheerily--“Well, mother dear, you shall see the gentleman, partickler if
you’ll stay here a bit, and I have regular work, and we get a bit of an
’ome.”

“He would never come to your home, lad--not the likes of him.”

“You think a deal of him, mother. He mightn’t come to Coffin Lane; I
daresay as the gentlemen in college don’t let young swells go a-visiting
there. But you take my word, you’ll see him; for he’s taken a fancy to
me, I tell you. There’s the quarter afore ten chiming. I must be off
now, mother; and if anything comes in the way you’ll not go against me?
not when I’ve set my heart on it, like this?”

“I’ll stay--a bit--to please you, Dick,” said the woman. And the lad
sprang up and hastened away with a light heart. This was so much gained.
He went quickly down, walking on through the narrow High Street of Eton
to the great red house in which his new friend was. Grinder’s was an
institution in the place, the most important of all the Eton
boarding-houses, though only a dame’s, not a master’s house. The elegant
young Grinder, who was Val’s tutor, was but a younger branch of this
exalted family, and had no immediate share in the grandeurs of the
establishment, which was managed by a dominie or dame, a lay member of
the Eton community, who taught nothing, but only superintended the meals
and morals of his great houseful of boys. Such personages have no place
in Eton proper--the Eton of the Reformation period, so to speak--but
they were very important in Val’s time. Young Brown went to a side door,
and asked for Mr Ross with a little timidity. He was deeply conscious of
the fact that he was nothing but “a cad”--not a kind of visitor whom
either dame or tutor would permit “one of the gentlemen” to receive;
and, indeed, I think Dick would have been sent ignominiously away but
for his frank and open countenance, and the careful washing, both in
the river and out of it, which he had that morning given himself. He was
told to wait; and he waited, noting, with curious eyes, the work of the
great house which went on under his eyes, and asking himself how he
would like to be in the place of the young curly-headed footman who was
flying about through the passages, up-stairs and down, on a hundred
errands; or the other aproned functionary who was visible in a dark
closet at a distance, cleaning knives with serious persistence, as if
life depended on it. Dick decided that he would not like this mode of
making his livelihood. He shrank even from the thought--I cannot tell
why, for he had no sense of pride, and knew no reason why he should not
have taken service in Grinder’s, where the servants, as well as the
other inmates, lived on the fat of the land, and wanted for nothing; but
somehow his fancy was not attracted by such a prospect. He watched the
cleaner of knives, and the curly-headed footman in his livery, with
interest; but not as he watched the lads on the river, whose life was
spent in launching boats and withdrawing them from the water in
continual succession. He had no pride; and the livery and the living
were infinitely more comfortable than anything he had ever known. “His
mind did not go with it,” he said to himself; and that was all it was
necessary to say.

While he was thus meditating, Valentine Boss, in correct Eton
costume--black coat, high hat, and white necktie--fresh from his tutor,
with books under his arm, came in, and spied him where he stood waiting.
Val’s face lightened up into pleased recognition,--more readily than
Dick’s did, who was slow to recognise in this solemn garb the figure
which he had seen in undress dripping from the water. “Hollo, Brown!”
said Val; “I am glad you have kept your time. Come up-stairs and I’ll
give you what I promised you.” Dick followed his patron up-stairs, and
through a long passage to Val’s room. “Come in,” said Val, rummaging in
a drawer of his bureau for the half-crown with which he meant to present
his assistant of last night. Dick entered timidly, withdrawing his cap
from his head. The room was quite small, the bed folded up, as is usual
at Eton. The bureau, or writing-desk with drawers adorned by a
red-velvet shelf on the top, stood in one corner, and a set of
book-shelves similarly decorated in another; a heterogeneous collection
of pictures, hung as closely as possible, the accumulation of two
years, covered the wall; some little carved brackets of stained wood
held little plaster figures, not badly modelled, in which an Italian
image-seller drove a brisk trade among the boys. A blue-and-black coat,
in bright stripes (need I add that Val--august distinction--was in the
Twenty-Two), topped by a cap of utterly different but equally bright
hues--the colours of the house--hung on the door; a fine piece of
colour, if perhaps somewhat violent in contrast. The window was full of
bright geraniums, which grew in a box outside, and garlanded with the
yellow canariensis and wreaths of sweet-peas. Dick looked round upon all
these treasures, his heart throbbing with admiration, and something that
would have been envy had it been possible to hope or wish for anything
so beautiful and delightful for himself; but as this was not possible,
the boy’s heart swelled with pleasure that his young patron should
possess it, which was next best.

“Wait a moment,” cried Val, finding, as he pursued his search, a note
laid upon his bureau, which had been brought in in his absence; and Dick
stood breathless, gazing round him, glad of the delay, which gave him
time to take in every detail of this schoolboy palace into his mind. The
note was about some momentous piece of business,--the domestic economy
of that one of “the boats” in which Val rowed number seven, with hopes
of being stroke when Jones left next Election. He bent his brows over
it, and seizing paper and pen, wrote a hasty answer, for such important
business cannot wait. Dick, watching his movements, felt with genuine
gratification that here was another commission for him. But his patron’s
next step made his countenance fall, and filled his soul with wonder.
Val opened his door, and with stentorian voice shouted “Lower boy!” into
the long passage. There was a momentary pause, and then steps were heard
in all directions up and down, rattling over the bare boards, and about
half-a-dozen young gentlemen in a lump came tumbling into the room. Val
inspected them with lofty calm, and held out his note to the last comer,
over the heads of the others. “Take this to Benton at Guerre’s,” he
said, with admirable brevity; and immediately the messenger departed,
the little crowd melted away, and the two boys were again alone.

“I say, I mustn’t keep you here,” said Val; “my dame mightn’t like it.
Here’s your half-crown. Have you got anything to do yet? I think you’re
a handy fellow, and I shouldn’t mind saying a word for you if I had the
chance. What kind of place do you want?”

“I don’t mind what it is,” said Dick. “I’d like a place at the rafts
awful, if I was good enough; or anything, sir. I don’t mind, as long as
I can make enough to keep me--and mother; that’s all I care.”

“Was that your mother?” said Val. “Do you work for her too?”

“Well, sir, you see she can make a deal in our old way. She is a great
one with the cards when she likes, but she won’t never do it except when
we’re hard up and she’s forced; for she says she has to tell the things
she sees, and they always comes true: but what I want is to stay in one
place, and get a bit of an ’ome together--and she ain’t good for
gentlemen’s washing or that sort, worse luck,” said Dick, regretfully.
“So you see, sir, if she stays still to please me, I’ll have to work for
her, and good reason. She’s been a good mother to me, never going on the
loose, nor that, like other women do. I don’t grudge my work.”

Val did not understand the curious tingling that ran through his veins.
He was not consciously thinking of his own mother, but yet it was
something like sympathy that penetrated his sensitive mind. “I wish I
could help you,” he said, doubtfully. “I’d speak to the people at the
rafts, but I don’t know if they’d mind me. I’ll tell you what, though,”
he added, with sudden excitement. “I can do better than that--I’ll get
Lichen to speak to them! They might not care for me--but they’ll mind
what Lichen says.”

Dick received reverentially and gratefully, but without understanding
the full grandeur of the idea, this splendid promise--for how should the
young tramp have known, what I am sure the reader must divine, that
Lichen was that Olympian demigod and king among men, the Captain of the
Boats? If Lichen had asked the Queen for anything, I wonder if her
Majesty would have had the courage to refuse him? but at all events
nobody about the river dared to say him nay. To be spoken to by Lichen
was, to an ordinary mortal, distinction enough to last him half his
(Eton) days. Dick did not see the magnificence of the prospect thus
opened to him, but Val knew all that was implied in it, and his
countenance brightened all over. “I don’t think they can refuse Lichen
anything,” he said. “Look here, Brown; meet us at the rafts after six,
and I’ll tell you what is done. I wish your mother would tell me my
fortune. Lots of fellows would go to her if they knew; but then the
masters wouldn’t like it, and there might be a row.”

“Bless you, sir, mother wouldn’t--not for the Bank of England,” cried
Dick. “She might tell _you_ yours, if I was to ask her. Thank you
kindly, sir; I’ll be there as sure as life. It’s what I should like
most.”

“If Lichen speaks for you, you’ll get it,” said Val; “and I know Harry
wants boys. You’re a good boy, ain’t you?” he added, looking at him
closely--“you look it. And mind, if we recommend you, and you’re found
out to be rowdy or bad after, and disgrace us, Lichen will give you such
a licking! Or for that matter, I’ll do it myself.”

“I’m not afraid,” said Dick. “I ain’t rowdy; and if I get a fixed place
and a chance of making a home, you just try me, and see if I’ll lose my
work for the sake of pleasure. I ain’t that sort.”

“I don’t believe you are,” said Val; “only it’s right I should warn you;
for Lichen ain’t a fellow to stand any nonsense, and no more am I. Do
you think that’s pretty? I’m doing it, but I haven’t the time.”

This was said in respect to a piece of wood-carving, which Valentine had
begun in the beginning of the year, and which lay there, like many
another enterprise commenced, gathering dust, but approaching no nearer
to completion. Dick surveyed it with glowing eyes.

“I saw some like it in a shop as I came down. Oh, how I should like to
try! I’ve cut things myself out of a bit of wood with an old knife, and
sold them at the fair.”

“And you think you could do this without any lessons?” said Val,
laughing; “just take and try it. I wonder what old Fullady would say?
there are the saws and things. But look here, you’ll have to go, for
it’s time for eleven o’clock school. Take the whole concern with you,
quick, and I’ll give you five bob if you can finish it. Remember after
six, at the rafts to-night.”

Thus saying, the young patron pushed his _protégé_ before him out of the
room, laden with the wood-carving, and rushed off himself with a pile of
books under his arm. All the boys in the house seemed flooding out, and
all the boys in Eton to be pouring in different directions, one stream
intersecting another, as Dick issued forth filled with delight and
hope. He had not a corner to which he could take the precious bit of
work he had been intrusted with--nothing but the common room of the
tramps’ lodging-house. Oh for a “home,” not so grand as Val’s little
palace, but anything that would afford protection and quiet--a place to
decorate and pet like a child! This feeling grew tenfold stronger in
Dick’s heart as he sat wistfully on the river’s bank, and looked across
at the rafts, in which were sublime possibilities of work and wages. How
he longed for the evening! How he counted the moments as the day glowed
through its mid hours, and the sun descended the western sky, and the
hour known in these regions as “after six” began to come down softly on
Eton and the world!



CHAPTER XVII.


Dick’s mother sat upon the bank where he had left her, with her hands
clasping her knees, and her abstract eyes gazing across the river into
the distance, seeing scarcely anything before her, but seeing much which
was not before her nor could be. A tramp has no room to sit in, no
domestic duties to do, even were she disposed to do them; and to sit
thus in a silent musing, or without even musing at all, in mere empty
leisure, beaten upon by wind and sun, was as characteristic of her
wandering life as were the long fatigues of the road along which at
other times she would plod for hours, or the noisy tumult of racecourse
or fair through which she often carried her serious face and abstract
eyes--a figure always remarkable and never having any visible connection
with the scene in which she was. But this day she was as she had not
been for years. The heart which fulfilled its ordinary pulsations in her
breast calmly and dully on most occasions, like something far off and
scarcely belonging to her, was now throbbing high with an emotion which
influenced every nerve and fibre of her frame. It had never stilled
since last night when she heard Val’s name sounding clear through the
sunny air, and saw the tall well-formed boy, with his wet jersey
clinging to his shoulders, moving swiftly away from her, a vision, but
more substantial than any other vision. Her old heart, the heart of her
youth, had leaped back into life at that moment; and instead of the
muffled beating of the familiar machine which had simply kept her alive
all these years, a something full of independent life, full of passion,
and eagerness, and quick-coming fancies, and hope, and fear, had
suddenly come to life within her bosom. I don’t know if her thoughts
were very articulate. They could scarcely have been so, uneducated,
untrained, undisciplined soul as she was--a creature ruled by impulses,
and with no hand to control her; but as she sat there and saw her placid
Dick go happily off, to meet the other lad who was to him “a young
swell,” able to advance and help him, one to whom he had taken a sudden
fancy, he could not tell why,--the strangeness of the situation roused
her to an excitement which she was incapable of subduing. “It mayn’t be
him after all--it mayn’t be him after all,” she said to herself,
watching Dick till he disappeared into the distance. She would have
given all she had (it was not much) to go with him, and look face to
face upon the other. It seemed to her that she must know at the first
glance whether it was _him_ or not. But, indeed, she had no doubt that
it was _him_. For I do not attempt to make any pretence at deceiving the
well-informed and quick-sighted reader, who knows as well as I do who
this woman was. She had carried on her wandering life, the life which
she had chosen, for the last eight years, exposed to all the
vicissitudes of people in her condition, sometimes in want, often
miserable, pursuing in her wild freedom a routine as mechanically fixed
as that of the most rigid conventional life, and bound, had she known
it, by as unyielding a lacework of custom as any that could have
affected the life of the Honourable Mrs Richard Ross, the wife of the
Secretary of Legation. But she did not know this, poor soul; and
besides, all possibility of that other existence, all hold upon it or
thought of it, had disappeared out of her horizon for sixteen years.

Sixteen years! a large slice out of a woman’s life who had not yet done
more than pass the half-way milestone of human existence. She had never
possessed so much even of the merest rudimentary education as to know
what the position of Richard Ross’s wife meant, except that it involved
living in a house, wearing good clothes, and being surrounded by people
of whom she was frightened, who did not understand her, and whom she
could not understand. Since her flight back into her natural condition,
the slow years had brought to her maturing mind thoughts which she
understood as little. She was not more educated, more clever, nor indeed
more clear in her confused fancies, than when she gave back one of her
boys, driven thereto by a wild sense of justice, into his father’s
keeping; but many strange things had seemed to pass before her dreamy
eyes since then,--things she could not fathom, vague visions of what
might have been right, of what was wrong. These had come to little
practical result, except in so far that she had carefully preserved her
boy Dick from contact with the evil around--had trained him in her way
to truth and goodness and some strange sense of honour--had got him even
a little education, the faculties of reading and writing, which were to
herself a huge distinction among her tribe; and by keeping him in her
own dreamy and silent but pure companionship, had preserved the lad from
moral harm.

She had however, in doing this, a material to work upon which had saved
her much trouble. The boy was, to begin with, of a character as
incomprehensible to her as were the other vague and strange influences
which had shaped her shipwrecked life. He was good, gentle, more
advanced than herself, his teacher, in the higher things which she tried
to teach him, getting by instinct to conclusions which only painfully
and dimly had forced themselves upon her, not subject to the temptations
which she expected to move him, not lawless, nor violent, nor hard to
control, but full of reason and sense and steady trustworthiness from
his cradle. She had by this time got over the surprise with which she
had slowly come to recognise in Dick a being totally different from
herself. She was no analyst of character, and she had accepted the fact
with dumb wonder which did not know how to put itself into words. Even
now there awaited her many lesser surprises, as Dick, going on from step
to step in life, did things which it never would have occurred to her to
do, and showed himself totally impervious to those temptations against
which it had been necessary for her to struggle. His last declaration to
her was as surprising as anything that went before it. The nomad’s son,
who had been “on the tramp” all his life, whose existence had been spent
“on the road,” alternating between the noisy excitement of those scenes
of amusement which youth generally loves, and that dull
semi-hibernation of the winter which gives the tramp so keen a zest for
the new start of spring,--was it the boy so bred who had spoken to her
of a “home,” of steady work, and the commonplace existence of a man who
had learned a trade? She wondered with a depth of vague surprise which
it would be impossible to put into words--for she herself had no words
to express what she meant. Had it not happened to chime in with the
longing in her own mind to stay here and see the other boy, whose
momentary contact had filled her with such excitement, I don’t know how
she would have received Dick’s strange proposal; but in her other
agitation it passed without more than an additional but temporary shock
of that surprise which Dick constantly gave her; and she did not count
the cost of the concession she had made to him--the tacit agreement she
had come under to live under a commonplace roof, and confine herself to
indoor life during this flush of midsummer weather--for the longing that
she had to know something, if only as a distant spectator, of the life
and being of that other boy.

After a while she roused herself and went over in the ferry-boat to the
other side of the river, where were “the rafts” to which Dick looked
with so much anxiety and hope. Everything was very still on the rafts at
that sunny hour before mid-day, when Eton, shut up in its schoolrooms,
did its construing drowsily, and dreamed of the delights of “after
twelve” without being able to rush forth and anticipate them. The
attendants on the rafts, lightly-clad, softly-stepping figures, in
noiseless boating shoes, and such imitation of boating costume as their
means could afford, were lounging about with nothing to do, seated on
the rails drawling in dreary Berkshire speech, or arranging their boats
in readiness for the approaching rush. Dick’s mother approached along
the road, without attracting any special observation, and got into
conversation with one or two of the men with the ease which attends
social intercourse on these levels of life. “If there is a new hand
wanted, my lad is dreadful anxious to come,” she said. “Old Harry’s
looking for a new lad,” answered the man she addressed. And so the talk
began.

“There was a kind of an accident on the river last night,” she said,
after a while; “one of the gentlemen got his boat upset, and my lad
brought it down----”

“Lord bless you! call that a haccident?” said her informant;
“half-a-dozen of ’em swamps every night. They don’t mind, nor nobody
else.”

“The name of this one was--Ross, I think,” she said, very slowly; “maybe
you’ll know him?”

“I know him well enough--he’s in the Victory; not half a bad fellow in
his way, but awful sharp, and not a bit of patience. I seed him come in
dripping wet. He’s free with his money, and I daresay he’d pay your lad
handsome. If I were you I’d speak to old Harry himself about the place;
and if you say you’ve a friend or two among them young swells, better
luck.”

“Is this one what you call a swell?” said the woman.

“Why, he’s _Mr_ Ross, ain’t he? that’s Eton for honourable,” said one of
the men.

“_He_ ain’t Mr Ross,” said an older and better-informed person, with
some contempt. The older attendants at the rafts were walking peerages,
and knew everybody’s pedigree. “His father was Mister Ross, if you
please. He used to be at college in my time; a nice light-haired sort of
a lad, not good for much, but with heaps of friends. Not half the pluck
of this one; this one’s as dark as you, missis, a kind of a
foreign-looking blade, and as wilful as the old gentleman himself. But I
like that sort better than the quiet ones; the quiet ones does just as
much mischief on the sly.”

“They’re a rare lot, them lads are,” said the other--“shouting at a man
like’s he was the dust under their feet. Ain’t we their fellow-creatures
all the same? It ain’t much you makes at the rafts, missis, even if you
gains a lot in the season. For after all, look how short the season
is--you may say just the summer half. It’s too cold in March, and it’s
too cold in October--nothing to speak of but the summer half. You makes
a good deal while it lasts, I don’t say nothing to the contrary--but
what’s that to good steady work all round the year?”

“Maybe her lad isn’t one for steady work,” said another. “It _is_ work,
I can tell you is this, as long as it lasts; from early morning to
lock-up, never a moment to draw your breath, except school-hours; and
holidays, and half-holidays without end. Then there’s the regular
boating gents as come and go, not constant like the Eton gentlemen. They
give a deal of trouble--they do; and as particular with their boats as
if they were babies. I tell you what, missis, if you want him to have
an easy place, I wouldn’t send him here.”

“He’s not one that’s afraid of work,” said the woman, “and it’s what
he’s set his heart on. I wonder if you could tell me where this Mr Ross
comes from?--if he’s west-country now, down Devonshire way?”

“Bless you, no!” said the old man, who was great in genealogies; “he’s
from the north, he is--Scotland or thereabouts. His grandfather came
with him when he first came to college--Lord something or other. About
as like a lord as I am. But the nobility ain’t much to look at,” added
this functionary, with whom familiarity had bred contempt. “They’re a
poor lot them Scotch and Irish lords. Give me a good railway man, or
that sort; they’re the ones for spending their money. Lord--I cannot
think on the old un’s name.”

“Was it--Eskside?”

“You’re a nice sort of body to know about the haristocracy,” said the
man; “in course it was Eskside. Now, missis, if you knowed, what was the
good of coming asking me, taking a fellow in?”

“I didn’t know,” said the woman, humbly; “I only wanted to know. In my
young days, long ago, I knew--a family of that name.”

“Ay, ay, in your young days! You were a handsome lass then, I’ll be
bound,” said the old man, with a grin.

“Look here,” said one of the others--“here’s old Harry coming, if you
like to speak to him about your lad. Speak up and don’t be frightened.
He ain’t at all a bad sort, and if you tell him as the boy’s spry and
handy, and don’t mind a hard day’s work--Speak up! only don’t say I told
you.” And the benevolent adviser disappeared hastily, and began to pull
about some old gigs which were ranged on the rafts, as if much too
busily occupied to spare a word. The woman went up to the master with a
heart beating so strongly that she could scarcely hear her own voice. On
any other occasion she would have been shy and reluctant. Asking favours
was not in her way--she did not know how to do it. She could not feign
or compliment, or do anything to ingratiate herself with a patron. But
her internal agitation was so strong that she was quite uplifted beyond
all sense of the effort which would have been so trying to her on any
other occasion. She went up to him sustained by her excitement, which
at the same time blunted her feelings, and made her almost unaware of
the very words she uttered.

“Master,” she said, going straight to the point, as the excited mind
naturally does--“I have a boy that is very anxious for work. He is a
good lad, and very kind to me. We’ve been tramping about the
country--nothing better, for all my folks was in that way; but he don’t
take after me and my folks. He thinks steady work is better, and to stay
still in one place.”

“He is in the right of it there,” was the reply.

“Maybe he is in the right,” she said; “I’m not the one to say, for I’m
fond of my freedom and moving about. But, master, you’ll have one in
your place that is not afraid of hard work if you’ll have my son.”

“Who is your son? do I know him?” said the master, who was a man with a
mobile and clean-shaven countenance, like an actor, with a twinkling eye
and a suave manner, the father of an athletic band of river worthies who
were regarded generally with much admiration by “the college gentlemen,”
to whom their prowess was well known,--“who is your son?”

The woman grew sick and giddy with the tumult of feeling in her. The
words were simple enough in straightforward meaning; but they bore
another sense, which made her heart flutter, and took the very light
from her eyes. “Who was her son?” It was all she could do to keep from
betraying herself, from claiming some one else as her son, very
different from Dick. If she had done so, she would have been simply
treated as a mad woman: as it was, the bystanders, used to tramps of a
very different class, looked at her with instant suspicion, half
disposed to attribute her giddiness and faltering to a common enough
cause. She mastered herself without fully knowing either the risk she
had run or the looks directed to her. “You don’t know him,” she said.
“We came here but last night. One of the college gentlemen was to speak
for him. He’s a good hard-working lad, if you’ll take my word for it,
that knows him best.”

“Well, missis, it’s true as you knows him best; but I don’t know as we
can take his mother’s word for it. Mothers ain’t always to be trusted to
tell what they know,” said the master, good-humouredly. “I’ll speak to
you another time, for the gentlemen are coming. Look sharp, lads.”

“All right, sir; here you are.”

The tide was coming in--a tide of boys--who immediately flooded the
place, pouring up-stairs into the dressing-rooms to change their school
garments for boating dress, and gradually occupying the rafts in a
moving restless crowd. The woman stood, jostled by the living stream,
watching wistfully, while boat after boat shot out into the
water,--gigs, with a laughing, restless crew--outriggers, each with a
silent inmate, bent on work and practice; for all the school races had
yet to be rowed. She stood gazing, with a heart that fluttered wildly,
upon all those unknown young faces and animated moving figures. One of
them was bound to her by the closest tie that can unite two human
creatures; and yet, poor soul, she did not know him, nor had he the
slightest clue to find her out--to think of her as anyhow connected with
himself. Her heart grew sick as she gazed and gazed, pausing now upon
one face, now upon another. There was one of whom she caught a passing
glimpse, as he pushed off into the stream in one of the long-winged
dragon-fly boats, who excited her most of all. She could not see him
clearly, only a glimpse of him between the crowding figures about;--an
oval face, with dark clouds of curling hair pushed from his forehead.
There came a ringing in her ears, a dimness in her eyes. Women in her
class do not faint except at the most tremendous emergencies. If they
did, they would probably be set down as intoxicated, and summarily dealt
with. She caught at the wooden railing, and held herself upright by it,
shutting her eyes to concentrate her strength. And by-and-by the
bewildering sick emotion passed; was it him whom she had seen?

After this she crossed the river again in the ferry-boat, though it was
a halfpenny each time, and she felt the expenditure to be extravagant,
and walked about on the other bank till she found Dick, who naturally
adopted the same means of finding her, neither of them thinking of any
return “home,”--a place which did not exist in their consciousness. Then
they went and bought something in an eating-shop, and brought it out to
a quiet corner opposite the “Brocas clump,” and there ate their dinner,
with the river flowing at their feet, and the skiffs of “the gentlemen”
darting by. It was, or rather looked, a poetic meal, and few people
passed in sight without a momentary envy of the humble picnic; but to
Dick Brown and his mother there was nothing out of the way in it, and
she tied up the fragments for supper in a spotted cotton handkerchief
when they had finished. It was natural for them to eat out of doors, as
well as to do everything else out of doors. Dick told her of his good
luck, how kind Valentine had been, and gave her the half-crown he had
received, and an account of all that was to be done for him. “If they
don’t mind him, they’re sure to mind the other gentleman,” said devout
Dick, who believed in Val’s power with a fervent and unquestioning
faith. After a while he went across to the rafts, and hung about there
ready for any odd job, and making himself conspicuous in eager anxiety
to please the master. His mother remained with the fragments of their
meal tied up in the handkerchief, on the same grassy bank where they had
dined, watching the boats as they came and went. She did not understand
how it was that they all dropped off one by one, and as suddenly
reappeared again when the hour for dinner and the hour of “three o’clock
school” passed. But she had nothing to do to call her from that musing
and silence to which she had become habituated, and remained there the
entire afternoon doing nothing but gaze.

At last, however, she made a great effort, and roused herself. The
unknown boy after whom she yearned could not be identified among all
these strange faces; and there was something which could be done for
good Dick, the boy who had always been good to her. She did for Dick
what no one could have expected her to do; she went and looked for a
lodging where they could establish themselves. After a while she found
two small rooms in a house facing the river,--one in which Dick could
sleep, the other a room with a fireplace, where his hot meals, which he
no doubt would insist upon, could be cooked, and where, in a corner, she
herself could sleep when the day was over. She had a little stock of
reserve money on her person, a few shillings saved, and something more,
which was the remnant of a sum she had carried about with her for years,
and which I believe she intended “to bury her,” according to the curious
pride which is common among the poor. But as for the moment there was no
question of burying her, she felt justified in breaking in upon this
little hoard to please her boy by such forlorn attempts at comfort as
were in her power. She ventured to buy a few necessaries, and to make
provision as well as she knew how for the night--the first night which
she would have passed for years under a roof which she could call her
own. One of the chief reasons that reconciled her to this step was, that
the room faced the river, and that not Dick alone, but the other whom
she did not know, could be watched from the window. Should she get to
know him, perhaps to speak to him, that other?--to watch him every
summer evening in his boat, floating up and down--to distinguish his
voice in the crowd, and his step? But for this hope she could not, I
think, have made so great a sacrifice for Dick alone--a sacrifice she
had not been able to make when the doing of it would have been still
more important than now. Perhaps it was because she was growing older,
and the individual had faded somewhat from her consciousness; but the
change bewildered even herself. She did it notwithstanding, and of her
free will.



CHAPTER XVIII.


When Dick saw his friend and patron come down to the rafts that evening
in company with another of the “gentlemen,” bigger, stronger, and older
than himself, at whom everybody looked with respect and admiration, the
state of his mind may be supposed. He had been hanging about all day, as
I have said, making himself useful--a handy fellow, ready to push a boat
into the water, to run and fetch an oar, to tie on the sheepskin on a
rower’s seat, without standing on ceremony as to who told him to do so.
The master himself, in the hurry of operations, had given him various
orders without perceiving, so willing and ready was Dick, that it was a
stranger, and not one of his own men, whom he addressed. Dick
contemplated the conversation which ensued with a beating heart. He saw
the lads look round, and that Valentine pointed him out to the potentate
of the river-side; and he saw one of the men join in, saying something,
he was sure, in his favour; and, after a terrible interval of suspense,
Val came towards him, waving his hand to him in triumph. “There,” cried
Val, “we’ve got you the place. Go and talk to old Harry yourself about
wages and things. And mind what I said to you, Brown; neither Lichen nor
I will stand any nonsense. We’ve made all sorts of promises for you;
and if you don’t keep them, Lichen will kick you--or, if he don’t, I
will. You’d best keep steady, for your own sake.”

“I’ll keep steady,” said Dick, with a grin on his face; and it was all
the boy could do to keep himself from executing a dance of triumph when
he found himself really engaged at reasonable wages, and informed of the
hour at which he was expected to present himself on the morrow. “Give an
eye to my boat, Brown,” said Val; “see she’s taken care of. I’ll expect
you to look out for me, and have her ready when you know I’m coming. I
hate waiting,” said the lad, with imperious good-humour. How Dick
admired him as he stood there in his flannels and jersey--the
handsomest, splendid, all-commanding young prince, who had stooped from
his skies to interfere on his (Dick’s) behalf, for no reason in the
world except his will and pleasure. “How lucky I am,” thought Dick to
himself, “that he should have noticed me last night!”--and he made all
manner of enthusiastic promises on account of the boat, and of general
devotion to Val’s service. The young potentate took all these
protestations in the very best part. He stepped into his outrigger with
lordly composure, while Dick, all glowing and happy, knelt on the raft
to hold it. “You shan’t want a friend, old fellow, as long as you behave
yourself,” said Val, with magnificent condescension which it was fine to
see; “I’ll look after you,” and he nodded at him as he shot along over
the gleaming water. As for Dick, as his services were not required till
next day, he went across the river to Coffin Lane, where his mother was
waiting for him, to tell his news. She did not say very much, nor did he
expect her to do so, but she took him by the arm and led him along the
water-side to a house which stood in a corner, half facing the river,
looking towards the sunset. She took him in at the open door, and
up-stairs to the room in which she had already set out a homely and very
scanty table for their supper. Dick did not know how to express the
delight and thanks in his heart. He turned round and gave his mother a
kiss in silent transport--a rare caress, such as meant more than words.
The window of this room looked up the river, and straight into the
“Brocas clump,” behind which the sunset was preparing all its splendour.
In the little room beyond, which was to be Dick’s bedroom--glorious
title!--the window looked straight across to the rafts. I do not think
that any young squire coming into a fine property was ever more happy
than the young tramp finding himself for almost the first time in his
life in a place which he could call home. He could not stop smiling, so
full of happiness was he, nor seat himself to his poor supper, but went
round and round the two rooms, planning where he could put up a shelf or
arrange a table. “I’ll make it so handy for you, mother; you’ll not know
you’re born!” cried Dick, in the fulness of his delight.

And yet two barer little rooms perhaps no human home ever was made in.
There was nothing there that was not indispensable--a table, two chairs,
and no more; and in Dick’s room a small iron bed. All that his mother
possessed for her own use was a mattress, which could be rolled up and
put aside during the day. She took her son’s pleasure very quietly, as
was her wont, but smiled with a sense of having made him happy, which
was pleasant to her, although to make him happy had not been her only
motive. When she had put away the things from their supper, she sat down
at the open window and looked out on the river. The air was full of
sound, so softened by the summer that all rudeness and harshness were
taken out of it: in the foreground the ferry-boat was crossing and
recrossing, the man standing up with his punt-pole against the glow of
the western sky; just under the window lay the green eyot, waving with
young willows, and up and down in a continual stream on the sunny side
of it went and came the boys in their boats. “Show him to me, Dick, when
he comes,” said the woman. Dick did not require to be told whom she
meant, neither was he surprised at this intensity of interest in _him_,
which made his young patron the only figure worth identification in that
crowded scene. Had he not been, as it were, Dick’s guardian angel, who
had suddenly appeared for the boy’s succour?--and what more natural than
that Dick’s mother should desire before everything else to see one who
had been such a friend to her boy?

But I do not think she was much the wiser when Val came down the river,
accompanied by a group of backers on the bank, who had made themselves
hoarse shrieking and shouting at him. He was training for a race, and
this was one of his trial nights. Lichen himself had agreed to come down
to give Val his advice and instructions--or, in more familiar
phraseology, was “coaching” him for the important effort. Dick rushed
out at the sight, to cheer and shriek too, in an effervescence of
loyalty which had nothing to do with the character of Val’s performance.
The mother sat at the window and looked out upon them, longing and
sickening with a desire unsatisfied. Was this all she was ever to see of
him--a distant speck in a flying boat? But to know that this was
him--that he was there before her eyes--that he had taken up Dick and
established him in his own train, as it were, near to him, by a sudden
fancy which to her, who knew what cause there was for it, seemed
something like a special interference of God,--filled her with a strange
confused rapture of mingled feelings. She let her tears fall quietly as
she sat all alone, gazing upon the scene. It must be God’s doing, she
felt, since no man had any hand in it. She had separated them in her
wild justice, rending her own heart while she did so, but God had
brought them together. She was totally untaught, poor soul, in religious
matters, as well as in everything else; but in her ignorance she had
reached that point which our high philosophy reaches struggling through
the mist, and which nowadays the unsatisfied and over-instructed mind
loves to go back to, thinking itself happier with one naked primary
truth than with a system however divine. No one could have taken from
this dweller in the woods and wilds the sense of a God in the
world,--almost half visible, sometimes, to musing, silent souls like her
own; a God always watchful, always comprehensible to the simple mind, in
the mere fact of His perpetual watchfulness, fatherliness, yet
severity,--sending hunger and cold as well as warmth and plenty, and
guiding those revolutions of the seasons and the outdoor facts of
existence which impress the untaught yet thoughtful being as nothing
taught by books can ever do. To know as she did that there was a God in
the world, and not believe at the same time that His interference was
the most natural of all things, would have been impossible to this
primitive creature. Therefore, knowing no agencies in the universe but
that of man direct and visible, and that of God, which to her could
scarcely be called invisible, she believed unhesitatingly that God had
done this--that He had balked her, with a hand and power more great than
hers. What was to be the next step she could not tell,--it was beyond
her: she could only sit and watch how things would befall, having not
only no power but no wish to interfere.

Thus things went on for the remaining portion of the “half,” which
lasted only about six weeks more. Dick set himself to the work of making
everything “handy” for her with enthusiasm in his odd hours, which were
few, for his services at the rafts were demanded imperatively from
earliest morning till the late evening after sunset, when the river
dropped into darkness. “The gentlemen,” it is true, were all cleared off
their favourite stream by nine o’clock; but the local lovers of the
Thames would linger on it during those summer nights, especially when
there was a moon, till poor Dick, putting himself across in his boat
when all at last was silent--the last boating party disposed of, and the
small craft all ranged in their places ready for to-morrow--would feel
his arms scarcely able to pull the light sculls, and his limbs trembling
under him. Even then, after his long day’s work, when he had eaten his
supper, he would set to work to put up the shelves he had promised his
mother, or to fix upon his walls the pictures which delighted himself.
Dick began with the lowest rudiments of art, the pictures in the penny
papers, with which he almost papered his walls; but his taste advanced
as his pennies grew more plentiful: the emotional prints of the ‘Police
News’ ceased to charm him, and he rose to the pictures of the
‘Illustrated,’ or whatever might be the picture-paper of the time. This
advance--so quickly does the mind work--took place in the six weeks that
remained of the half; and by the time “the gentlemen” left, and work
slackened, Dick’s room was already gorgeous, with here and there a
mighty chromo, strong in tint and simple in subject, surrounded with all
manner of royal progresses and shows of various kinds, as represented in
the columns of the prints aforesaid. He grew handy, too, in amateur
carpentering, having managed to buy himself some simple tools; and when
he had a spare moment he betook himself to the bits of simple carving
which Val had handed over to him, and worked at them with a real
enjoyment which proved his possession of some germ at least of artistic
feeling. The boy never had a moment unemployed with all these
occupations, necessary and voluntary. He was as happy as the day was
long, always ready with a smile and pleasant word, always sociable, not
given to calculating his time too nicely, or to grumbling if some of his
“mates” threw upon his willing shoulders more than his share of work.
The boating people about got to know him, and among the boys he had
already become highly popular. Very grand personages indeed--Lichen
himself, for instance, than whom there could be no more exalted
being--would talk to him familiarly; and some kind lads, finding out his
tastes, brought him pictures of which they themselves had got tired, and
little carved brackets from their walls, and much other rubbish of this
description, all of which was delightful to Dick.

As for Valentine, the effect produced upon him by the possession of a
_protégé_ was very striking. He felt the responsibility deeply, and at
once began to ponder as to the duties of a superior to his inferiors, of
which, of course, one time or other he had heard much. An anxious desire
to do his duty to this retainer who had been so oddly thrown upon his
hands, and for whom he felt an unaccountable warmth of patronising
friendship, took possession of him. He made many trite but admirable
theories on the subject--theories, however, not at all trite to Val, who
believed he had invented them for his own good and that of mankind. It
was not enough, he reasoned with himself, to have saved a lad from the
life of a tramp, and got him regular employment, unless at the same time
you did something towards improving his mind, and training him for the
_rôle_ of a respectable citizen. These were very fine words, but Val
(strictly within himself) was not afraid of fine words. No young soul of
sixteen, worth anything, ever is. To make a worthy citizen of his waif
seemed to him for some time his mission. Having found out that Dick
could read, he pondered very deeply and carefully what books to get for
him, and how to lead him upon the path of knowledge. With a little sigh
he recognised the fact that there was no marked literary turn in Dick’s
mind, and that he preferred a bit of wood and a knife, as a means of
relaxation, to books. Val hesitated long between the profitable and the
pleasant in literature as a means of educating his _protégé_. Whether to
rouse him to the practical by accounts of machinery and manufactures, or
to awake his imagination by romance, he could not easily decide. I fear
his decision was biassed ultimately by the possession of a number of
books which he had himself outgrown, but which he rightly judged might
do very well for his humble friend, whose total want of education made
him younger than Val by a few years, and therefore still within the
range of the ‘Headless Horseman,’--of Captain Mayne Reid’s vigorous
productions, and other schoolboy literature of the same class. These he
brought down, a few volumes at a time, to the rafts, and gave them to
his friend with injunctions to read them. “You shall have something
better when you have gone through these; but I daresay you’ll like
them--I used to myself,” said Val. Dick accepted them with devout
respect; but I think the greatest pleasure he got out of them was when
he ranged them in a little book-shelf he had himself made, and felt as a
bibliopole does when he arranges his fine editions, that he too had a
library. Dick did not care much for the stories of adventure with which
Val fed him as a kind of milk for babes. He knew of adventures on the
road, of bivouacs out of doors, quite enough in his own person. But he
dearly liked to see them ranged in his book-shelf. All kinds of curious
instincts, half developed and unintelligible even to himself, were in
Dick’s mind,--the habits of a race of which he knew nothing--partially
burnt out and effaced by a course of life infinitely different, yet
still existing obstinately within him, and prompting him to he knew not
what. If we could study human nature as we study fossils and strata, how
strange it would be to trace the connection between Dick’s rude
book-shelves, with the coarse little ornament he had carved on them, and
the pleasure it gave him to range Val’s yellow volumes upon that rough
shelf--and the great glorious green cabinets in Lady Eskside’s
drawing-room! Nobody was aware of this connection, himself least of all.
And Val, who had an evident right to inherit so refined a taste, cared
as little for the Vernis-Martin as though he had been born a savage; by
such strange laws, unknown to us poor gropers after scraps of
information, does inheritance go!

All this time, however, Dick’s mother had not seen Val nearer than in
his boat, for which she looked through all the sunny afternoons and long
evenings, spending half her silent intent life, so different to the
outward one, so full of strange self-absorption and concentrated feeling
in the watch. This something out of herself, to attract her wandering
visionary thoughts and hold her passionate heart fast, was what the
woman had wanted throughout the strange existence which had been warped
and twisted out of all possibility at its very outset. Her wild
intolerance of confinement, her desire for freedom, her instinct of
constant wandering, troubled her no more. She did her few domestic
duties in the morning, made ready Dick’s meals for him (and they lived
with Spartan simplicity, both having been trained to eat what they could
get, most often by the roadside--cold scraps of food which required no
preparation), and kept his clothes and her own in order; and all the
long afternoon would sit there watching for the skimming boat, the white
jersey, with the distinctive mark which she soon came to recognise. I
think Val’s jersey had a little red cross on the breast--an easy symbol
to recollect. When he came down the river at last, and left his boat,
she went in with a sigh, half of relief, from her watch, half of pain
that it was over, and began to prepare her boy’s supper. They held her
whole existence thus in suspense between them; one utterly ignorant of
it, the other not much better informed. When Dick came in, tired but
cheery, he would show her the books Mr Ross had brought him, or report
to her the words he had said. Dick adored him frankly, with a boy’s
pride in all his escapades; and there were few facts in Val’s existence
which were not known in that little house at the corner, all unconscious
as he was of his importance there. One morning, however, Dick approached
this unfailing subject with a little embarrassment, looking furtively at
his mother to see how far he might venture to speak.

“You don’t ever touch the cards now, mother?” he said all at once, with
a guilty air, which she, absorbed in her own thoughts, did not perceive.

“The cards?--I never did when I could help it, you know.”

“I know,” he said, “but I don’t suppose there’s no harm in it; it ain’t
you as puts them how they come. All you’ve got to do with it is saying
what it means. Folks in the Bible did the same--Joseph, for one, as was
carried to the land of Egypt.”

The Bible was all the lore Dick had. He liked the Old Testament a great
deal better than the ‘Headless Horseman;’ and, like other well-informed
persons, he was glad to let his knowledge appear when there was an
occasion for such exhibitions. His mother shook her head.

“It’s no harm, maybe, to them that think no harm,” she said; “no, it
ain’t me that settles them--who is it? It must be either God or the
devil. And God don’t trouble Himself with the like of that--He has more
and better to do; so it must be the devil; and I don’t hold with it,
unless I’m forced for a living. I can’t think as it’s laid to you then.”

“I wish you’d just do it once to please me, mother; it couldn’t do no
harm.”

She shook her head, but looked at him with questioning eyes.

“Suppose it was to please a gentleman, as I am more in debt to than I
can ever pay--more than I want ever to pay,” cried Dick, “except in
doing everything to please him as long as I live. You may say it ain’t
me as can do this, and that I’m taking it out of you; but you’re all I
have to help me, and it ain’t to save myself. Mother, it’s Mr Ross as
has heard somehow how clever you are; and if you would do it just once
to please him and me!”

She did not answer for a few minutes. Dick thought she was struggling
with herself to overcome her repugnance. Then she replied, in an altered
and agitated voice, “For him I’ll do it--you can bring him to-morrow.”

“How kind you are, mother!” said Dick, gratefully. “College breaks up
the day after to-morrow,” he added, in a dolorous voice. “I don’t know
what I shall do without him and all of them--the place won’t look the
same, nor I shan’t feel the same. Mayn’t he come to-night? I think he’s
going off to-morrow up to Scotland, as they’re all talking of. Half of
’em goes up to Scotland. I wonder what kind of a place it is. Were we
ever there?”

“Once--when you were quite a child.”

“‘Twas there the t’other little chap died?” said Dick, compassionately.
“Poor mammy, I didn’t mean to vex you. I wonder what he’d have been like
now if he’d lived. Look here, mother, mayn’t _he_ come to-night?”

“If you like,” she said, trying to seem calm, but deeply agitated by
this reference. He saw this, and set it down naturally to the melancholy
recollections he had evoked.

“Poor mother,” he said, rising from his dinner, “you _are_ a feelin’
one! all this time, and you’ve never forgotten. I’ll go away and leave
you quiet; and just before lock-up, when it’s getting dark, him and me
will come across. You won’t say nothing you can help that’s dreadful if
the cards turn up bad?--and speak as kind to him as you can, mother
dear, he’s been so kind to me.”

Speak as kind to him as you can! What words were these to be said to her
whose whole being was disturbed and excited by the idea of seeing this
stranger! Keep yourself from falling at his feet and kissing them; from
falling on his neck and weeping over him. If Dick had but known, these
were more likely things to happen. She scarcely saw her boy go out, or
could distinguish what were the last words he said to her. Her heart was
full of the other--the other, whose face her hungry eyes had not been
able to distinguish from her window, who had never seen her, so far as
he knew, and yet who was hers, though she dared not say so, dared not
claim any share in him. Dared not! though she could not have told why.
To her there were barriers between them impassable. She had given him up
when he was a child for the sake of justice, and the wild natural virtue
and honour in her soul stood between her and the child she had
relinquished. It seemed to her that in giving him up she had come under
a solemn tacit engagement never to make herself known to him, and she
was too profoundly agitated now to be able to think. Indeed I do not
think that reasonable sober thought, built upon just foundations, was
ever possible to her. She could muse and brood, and did so, and had done
so,--doing little else for many a silent year; and she could sit still,
mentally, and allow her imagination and mind to be taken possession of
by a tumult of fancy and feeling, which drew her now and then to a hasty
decision, and which, had she been questioned on the subject, she would
have called thinking--as, indeed, it stands for thinking with many of
us. It had been this confused working in her of recollection and of a
fanciful remorse which had determined her to give up Valentine to his
father; and now that old fever seemed to have come back again, and to
boil in her veins. I don’t know if she had seriously regretted her
decision then, or if she had ever allowed herself to think of it as a
thing that could have been helped, or that might still be remedied. But
by this time, at least, she had come to feel that it never could be
remedied, and that Valentine Ross, Lord Eskside’s heir, could never be
carried off to the woods and fields as her son, as perhaps a child might
have been. He was a gentleman now, she felt, with a forlorn pride, which
mingled strangely with the anguish of absolute loss with which she
realised the distance between them,--the tremendous and uncrossable gulf
between his state and hers. He was her son, yet never could know her,
never acknowledge her,--and she was to speak with him that night.

The sun had begun to sink, before, starting up from her long and
agitated musing, the womanish idea struck her of making some
preparations for his reception, arranging her poor room and her person
to make as favourable an impression as possible upon the young prince
who was her own child. What was she to do? She had been a gentleman’s
wife once, though for so short a time; and sometimes of late this
recollection had come strongly to her mind, with a sensation of curious
pride which was new to her. Now she made an effort to recall that
strange chapter in her life, when she had lived among beautiful things,
and worn beautiful dresses, and might have learned what gentlemen like.
She had never seen Val sufficiently near to distinguish his features;
and oddly enough, ignoring the likeness of her husband which was in
Dick, she expected to find in Valentine another Richard, and
instinctively concluded that his tastes must be what his father’s were.
After a short pause of consideration, she went to a trunk, which she had
lately sent for to the vagrant headquarters, where it had been kept for
her for years--a trunk containing some relics of that departed life in
which she had been “a lady.” Out of this she took a little shawl
embroidered in silken garlands, and which had faded into colours even
more tasteful and sweet than they were in their newest glories--a shawl
for which Mr Grinder, or any other _dilettante_ in Eton, would have
given her almost anything she liked to ask. This she threw over a rough
table of Dick’s making, and placed on it some flowers in a homely little
vase of coarse material yet graceful shape. Here, too, she placed a book
or two drawn from the same repository of treasures--books in rich faded
binding, chiefly poetry, which Richard had given her in his early folly.
The small table with its rich cover, its bright flowers and gilded
books, looked like a little altar of fancy and grace in the bare room;
it was indeed an altar dedicated to the memory of the past, to the
pleasure of the unknown.

When she had arranged this touching and simple piece of incongruity, she
proceeded to dress herself. She took off her printed gown and put on a
black one, which also came out of her trunk. She put aside the printed
handkerchief which she usually wore, tramp fashion, on her head, and
brushed out her long, beautiful black hair, in which there was not one
white thread. Why should there have been? She was not more than
thirty-five or thirty-six, though she looked older. She twisted her hair
in great coils round her head--a kind of coiffure which I think the poor
creature remembered Richard had liked. Her appearance was strangely
changed when she had made this simple toilet. She looked like some wild
half-savage princess condemned to exile and penury, deprived of her
retinue and familiar pomp, but not of her natural dignity. The form of
her fine head, the turn of her graceful shoulders, had not been visible
in her tramp dress. When she had done everything she could think of to
perfect the effect which she prepared, poor soul, so carefully, she sat
down, with what calm she could muster, to wait for her boys. Her boys,
her children, the two who had come into the world at one birth, had lain
in her arms together, but who now were as unconscious of the
relationship, and as far divided, as if worlds had lain between them!
Indeed she was quite calm and still to outward appearance, having
acquired that power of perfect external self-restraint which many
passionate natures possess, though her heart beat loud in her head and
ears, performing a whole muffled orchestra of wild music. Had any
stranger spoken to her she would not have heard; had any one come in,
except the two she was expecting, I do not think she would have seen
them, she was so utterly absorbed in one thought.

At last she heard the sound of their steps coming up-stairs. The light
had begun to wane in the west, and a purple tone of half darkness had
come into the golden air of the evening. She stood up mechanically, not
knowing what she was doing, and the next moment two figures stood before
her--one well known, her familiar boy,--the other! Was this the other? A
strange sensation, half of pleasure, half of disappointment, shot
through her at the sight of his face.

Val had come in carelessly enough, taking off his hat, but with the ease
of a superior. He stopped short, however, when he saw the altogether
unexpected appearance of the woman who was Dick’s mother. He felt a
curious thrill come into his veins--of surprise, he thought. “I beg your
pardon,” he said; “I hope you don’t mind my coming? Brown said you
wouldn’t mind.”

“You are very welcome, sir,” she said, her voice trembling in spite of
her. “If there is anything I can do for you. You have been so kind--to
my boy.”

“Oh,” said Val, embarrassed, with a shy laugh, “it pays to be kind to
Brown. He’s done us credit. I say--what a nice place you’ve got here!”

He was looking almost with consternation at the beautiful embroidery and
the books. Where could they have picked up such things? He was half
impressed and half alarmed, he could not have told why. He put out a
furtive hand and clutched at Dick’s arm. “I say, do you think she
minds?” Val had never been so shy in his life.

“You want me to tell you your fortune, sir?” she said, recovering a
little. “I don’t hold with it; but I’ll do it if you wish it. I’ll do
it--once--and for you.”

“Oh, thanks, awfully,” cried Val, more and more taken aback--“if you’re
sure you don’t mind:” and he held out his hand with a certain timidity
most unusual to him. She took it suddenly in both hers by an
uncontrollable movement, held it fast, gazed at it earnestly, and bent
down her head as if she would have kissed it. Val felt her hands
tremble, and her agitation was so evident that both the boys were moved
to unutterable wonder; yet somehow, I think, the one of them who
wondered least was Valentine, upon whom this trembling eager grasp made
the strangest impression. He felt as if the tears were coming to his
eyes, but could not tell why.

“It is not the hand I thought to see,” she said, as if speaking to
herself--“not the hand I thought.” Then dropping it suddenly, with an
air of bewilderment, she said, hastily, “It is not by the hand I do it,
but by the cards.”

“I ought to have crossed my hand with silver, shouldn’t I?” said Val,
trying to laugh; but he was excited too.

“No, no,” she said, tremulously; “no, no--my boy’s mother can take none
of your silver. Are you as fond of him as he is fond of you?”

“Mother!” cried Dick, amazed at the presumption of this inquiry.

“Well--fond?” said Val, doubtfully; “yes, really, I think I am, after
all, though I’m sure I don’t know why. He should have been a gentleman.
Mrs Brown, I’m afraid it is getting near lock-up----”

“My name is not Mrs Brown,” she said, quickly.

“Oh, isn’t it? I beg your pardon,” said Val. “I thought as he was
Brown--Mrs----?”

“There’s no Miss nor Missis among my folks. They call me Myra--Forest
Myra,” she said, hastily. “Dick, give me the cards, and I will do my
best.”

But Dick was sadly distressed to see that his mother was not doing her
best. She turned the cards about, and murmured some of the usual jargon
about fair men and dark women, and news to receive and journeys to go.
But she was not herself: either the fortune was so very bad that she was
afraid to reveal it, or else something strange must have happened to
her. She threw them down at last impatiently, and fixed her intent eyes
upon Valentine’s face.

“If you have all the good I wish you, you’ll be happy indeed,” she said;
“but I can’t do nothing to-night. Sometimes the power leaves us.” Then
she put her hand lightly on his shoulder, and gazed at him beseechingly.
“Will you come again?” she said.

“Oh yes,” said Val, relieved. He drew a step back, with a sense of
having escaped. “I don’t really mind, you know, at all,” he said; “it
was nothing but a joke. But I’ll come again with pleasure. I say, what
have you done to that carving, Brown?”

How glad Val was to get away from her touch, and from her intent eyes!
and yet he did not want to go away. He hastened to the other end of the
room with Dick, who was glad also to find that the perplexing interview
was at an end, and got out his bit of carving with great relief. Val
stood for a long time (as they all thought) side by side with the other,
laying their heads together, the light locks and the dark--talking both
together, as boys do; and felt himself calm down, but with a sense that
something strange had happened to him, something more than he could
understand. The mother sat down on her chair, her limbs no longer able
to sustain her. She was glad, too, that it was over--glad and sad, and
so shaken with conflicting emotions, that she scarcely knew what was
going on. Her heart sounded in her ears like great waves; and through a
strange mist in her eyes, and the gathering twilight, she saw vaguely,
dimly, the two beside her. Oh, if she could but have put her arms round
them and kissed them both together! But she could not. She sat down
silent among the shadows, a shadow herself, against the evening light,
and saw them in a mist, and held her peace.

“You did not tell me your mother was a lady,” said Val, as the two went
back together through the soft dusk to the river-side.

“I never knew it,” said wondering Dick; “I never thought it--till
to-night.”

“Ah, but I am sure of it,” said Val. “I thought you couldn’t be a cad,
Brown, or I should not have taken to you like this. She’s a lady, sure
enough; and what’s more,” he added, with an embarrassed laugh, “I feel
as if I had known her somewhere--before--I suppose, before I was born!”



CHAPTER XIX.


After this curious meeting, Val paid several visits to the little corner
house; so many, indeed, that his tutor interfered, as he had a perfect
right to do, and reproached him warmly for his love of low society, and
for choosing companions who must inevitably do him harm. Mr Grinder was
quite right in this, and I hope the tutors of all our boys would do
exactly the same in such a case; but Val, I am afraid, did not behave so
respectfully as he ought, and indeed was insubordinate and scarcely
gentlemanly, Mr Grinder complained. The young tutor, who had been an
Eton boy himself not so very long before, had inadvertently spoken of
poor Dick as a “Brocas cad.” Now I am not sufficiently instructed to
know what special ignominy, if any, is conveyed by this designation; but
Val flamed up, as he did on rare occasions, his fury and indignation
being all the greater that he usually managed to restrain himself. He
spoke to Mr Grinder as a pupil ought not to have done. He informed him
that if he knew Dick he never would venture to use such terms; and if he
did not know him, he had no right to speak at all, not being in the
least aware of the injustice he was doing. There was a pretty business
altogether between the high-spirited impetuous boy and the young man
who had been too lately a boy himself to have much patience with the
other. Mr Grinder all but “complained of” Val--an awful proceeding,
terminating in the block, and sudden execution in ordinary cases--a
small matter enough with most boys, but sufficiently appalling to those
who had attained such a position as Val’s, high up in school; and
intolerable to his impetuous temperament. This terrible step was averted
by the interposition of mediators, by the soft words of old Mr Grinder,
who was Val’s “dame,” and other friends. But young Mr Grinder wrote a
letter to Rosscraig on the subject, which gave Lady Eskside more
distress and trouble than anything which had happened to her for a long
time. If she had got her will, her husband would have gone up instantly
to inquire into the matter, and it is possible that the identity of Dick
and his mother might have been discovered at once, and some future
complications spared. The old lady wrung her hands and wept salt tears
over the idea that “his mother’s blood” was asserting itself thus, and
that her son Richard’s story might be about to be repeated again, but
with worse and deeper shades of misery. Lord Eskside, however, who had
been so much disturbed by dangers which affected her very lightly, was
not at all moved by this. He demurred completely to the idea of going to
Eton, but agreed that Val himself should be written to, and explanations
asked. Val wrote a very magnificent letter in reply, as fine a
production as ever sixteen (but he was seventeen by this time) put
forth. He related with dignity how he had encountered a friendly boy on
the river’s side who helped him when his boat swamped--how he had
discovered that he was an admirable fellow, supporting his old mother,
and in want of work--how he had exerted himself to procure work for this
deserving stranger, and how he had gone to his house two or three times
to see how he was getting on. “I have been lending him books,” wrote
Val, “and doing what I could to help him to get on. His master, who took
him on my recommendation, and Lichen’s (you know Lichen? the captain of
the boats), says he never had such a good man in his place; and I have
thought it was my duty to help him on. If you and grandmamma think I
ought not to do so,” Valentine concluded majestically, “I confess I
shall be very sorry; for Brown is one of the best fellows that ever was
born.”

Lady Eskside wept when she read this letter--tears of joy, and pride,
and happy remorse at having thought badly of her boy. She wrote him such
a letter as moved even Val’s boyish insensibility, with a ten-pound note
in it, with which she intrusted him to buy something for his _protégé_.
“It is like your sweet nature to try to help him,” she said; “and oh,
Val, my darling, I am so ashamed of myself for having a momentary fear!”
Mr Grinder had a somewhat cold response from Lord Eskside, but not so
trenchant as my lady would have wished it. “We are very much obliged to
you for your care,” said the old lord; “but I think Valentine has given
such good reasons for his conduct that we must not be hard upon him. Of
course nothing of this sort should be allowed to go too far.” Thus Val
was victorious; but I am glad to have to tell of him that as soon as he
was sure of this, he went off directly and begged Mr Grinder’s pardon.
“I had no right, sir, to speak to you so,” said the boy. They were
better friends ever after, I believe; and for a long time Lady Eskside
was not troubled with any terrors about Val’s “mother’s blood!”

All this time Dick “got on” so, that it became a wonder to see him. He
had finished Val’s carving long ago, and presented it to his gracious
patron, declining with many blushes the “five bob” which he had been
promised. Before he was eighteen, he had grown, in virtue of his
absolute trustworthiness, to be the first and most important ministrant
at the “rafts.” Everybody knew him, everybody liked him. So far as young
squires and lordlings constitute that desirable thing, Dick lived in the
very best society; his manners ought to have been good, for they were
moulded on the manners of our flower of English youth. I am not very
sure myself that he owed so much to this (for Eton boys, so far as I
have seen, bear a quite extraordinary resemblance to other boys) as to
his naturally sweet and genial temper, his honest and generous
humbleness and unselfishness. Dick Brown was the very last person Dick
thought of, whatever he might happen to be doing--and this is the rarest
of all qualities in youth. Then he was so happy in having his way, and a
“home,” and in overcoming his mother’s fancy for constant movement, that
his work was delightful to him. It was hard work, and entailed a very
long daily strain of his powers--too long, perhaps, for a growing
boy--but yet it was pleasant, and united a kind of play with continuous
exertion. All summer long he was on the river-side, the busiest of lads
or men, in noiseless boating-shoes, and with a dress which continually
improved till Dick became the nattiest as well as the handiest of his
kind. He had a horror of everything that was ugly and dirty: when others
lounged about in their hour’s rest, while their young clients were at
school, Dick would be hot about something;--painting and rubbing the old
boats, scraping the oars, bringing cleanness, and order, and that bold
kind of decoration which belongs to boat-building, to the resuscitation
of old gigs and “tubs” which had seemed good for nothing. He would even
look after the flowers in the little strip of garden, and sow the seeds,
and trim the border, while he waited, if there happened to be no old
boats to cobble. He was happy when the sun shone upon nothing but
orderliness and (as he felt it) beauty.

In his own rooms this quality of mind was still more apparent. I have
said that he and his mother lived with Spartan simplicity. This enabled
him to do a great deal more with his wages than his more luxurious
companions. First, comforts, and then superfluities--elegances, if we
may use the word--began to flow into the room. The elegances, perhaps,
were not very elegant at first, but his taste improved at the most rapid
rate. When he had nothing better to do, he would go and take counsel
with Fullady the wood-carver, and get lessons from him, helping now and
then at a piece of work, to the astonishment of his master. In the
evening he carved small pieces of furniture, with which he decorated his
dwelling. In winter he was initiated into the mysteries of
boat-building, and worked at this trade with absolute devotion and real
enjoyment. In short, Dick’s opinion was that nobody so happy as himself
had ever lived--his work was as good as play, and better, he thought;
and he was paid for doing what it gave him the greatest pleasure to
do--a perennial joke with the gentle fellow. In all this prosperity Dick
never forgot his first patron. When Val rowed, Dick ran by the bank
shouting till he was hoarse. When Val was preferred to be one of the
sublime Eight, who are as gods among men, he went almost out of his wits
with pride and joy. “_We’ll_ win now, sure enough, at Henley!” he said
to his mother, with unconscious appropriation of the possessive pronoun.
But when Dick heard of the squabble between Val and his tutor, his good
sense showed at once. He took his young patron a step aside, taking off
his hat with almost an exaggeration of respect--“Don’t come to our
house again, sir,” he said; “the gentleman is in the right. You are very
kind to be so free with me, to talk and make me almost a friend; but it
wouldn’t do if every Eton gentleman were to make friends with the
fellows on the water-side--the gentleman is in the right.”

“My people don’t think so, Brown,” cried Val; “look here, what has been
sent me to buy you something,” and he showed his ten-pound note.

Dick’s eyes flashed with eager pleasure, not for the money, though even
that was no small matter. “I don’t understand,” lie added, after a
moment, shaking his head. “I don’t think they’d like it either, if they
knew. You must have been giving too good an account, sir, of mother and
me.”

Val only laughed, and crushed the crisp bank-note into the pocket of his
trousers. “I mean to spend it for you on Monday, when I am going to town
on leave,” he said. He was going to see Miss Percival, his grandmother’s
friend. And, in fact, he did buy Dick a number of things, which seemed
to his youthful fancy appropriate in the circumstances. He bought him
some books, a few of those standard works which Val knew ought to be in
everybody’s library, though he did not much trouble them himself; and a
capital box of tools, and drawing materials, for Dick had displayed some
faculty that way. Both the boys were as happy as possible--the one in
bestowing, the other in receiving, this gift. Lady Eskside’s present
gave them the deepest pleasure, though she was so far from knowing who
was the recipient of her bounty. “Brown,” said Val, solemnly, after they
had enjoyed the delight of going over every separate article, and
examining and admiring it--“Brown, you mind what I am going to say. You
must rise in the world; you have made a great deal of progress already,
and you must make still more. Heaps of fellows not half so good as you
have got to be rich, and raised themselves by their exertions. You must
improve your mind; and you must take the good of every advantage that
offers, and rise in the world.”

“I’ll try, sir,” said Dick, with the cheeriest laugh. He was ready to
have promised to scale the skies, if Val had recommended it. He arranged
his books carefully in a little bookcase he had made, which was far
handsomer than the old one which had received the yellow
volumes--overflowings of Val’s puerile library. But I am not sure that
Macaulay and Gibbon instructed him much more than the ‘Headless
Horseman’ had done. His was not a mind which was much affected by
literature; he cared more for doing than for reading, and liked his box
of tools better than his library. Musing over his work, he revolved many
things in his head, and got to have very just views about matters
concerning which his education had been a blank; but he did not get his
ideas out of books. That was not a method congenial to him, though he
would have acknowledged with respect that it was most probably the right
way. But anyhow, Val had done his duty by his _protégé_. He had put into
his hands the means of rising in the world, and he had suggested this
ambition. Whatever might happen hereafter, he had done his best.

And Dick’s mother continued contented also, which was a perpetual wonder
to him. She weathered through the winter, though Dick often watched her
narrowly, fearing a return to her old vagrant way. When Val’s boat
disappeared from the river with all the others, she was indeed restless
for a little while; but it was, as it happened, just about that time
that Val took to visiting the little corner house, and these visits kept
her in a visionary absorption, always afraid, yet always glad, when he
came. In spring she was again somewhat alarming to her son, moving so
restlessly in the small space they had, and looking out so wistfully
from the window, that he trembled to hear some suggestion of fresh
wandering. All that she asked, however, was, When did the boats go up
for the first time? a question which Dick answered promptly.

“On the 1st of March, mother. I wish it was come,” cried Dick, with
animation.

“And so do I,” she said, with musing eyes fixed on the river; then
alarmed, perhaps, lest he should question her, she added hastily, “It is
cheery to see the boats.”

“So it is,” said Dick, “especially for you, mother, who go out so
seldom. You should take a walk along the banks; it’s cheerful always. I
don’t think you half know how pretty it is.”

She shook her head. “I am not one for walks,” she said, with a half
smile--“not for pleasure, Dick. Since I’ve given up our long tramps, I
don’t feel to care for moving. I’m getting old, I think.”

“Old!” said Dick, cheerily; “it will be time enough to think of that in
twenty years.”

“Twenty years is a terrible long time,” she replied, with a little
shiver; “I hope I’ll be dead and gone long before that.”

“I wish you wouldn’t speak so, mother.”

“Ah, but it’s true. My life ain’t much good to any one,” she said. “I am
not let to live in my own way, and I can’t live in any other. If God
would take me, it would be for the best. Then I might have another
chance.”

“Mother, you break my heart,” cried Dick, with a face full of anxiety,
throwing away his tools, and coming up to her. “Do you mean that it is I
that won’t let you live your own way?”

“I don’t blame nobody but myself--no; you’ve been a good boy--a very
good boy--to me,” she cried; “better, a long way, than I’ve been to
you.”

“Mother,” said the lad, laying his hand on her shoulder, his face
flushing with emotion, “if it’s hard upon you like this--if you want to
start off again----”

“No, I don’t, I don’t!” she said, with suppressed passion; then falling
back into her old dreamy tone--“So the boats go up on the 1st of March?
and that’s Monday. To see ’em makes the river cheery. I’m a little down
with the winter and all; but as soon as I see ’em, I’ll be all right.”

“Please God, mother,” said pious Dick, going back to his carving. He was
satisfied, but yet he was startled. For, after all, why should she care
so much about the boats?

This 1st of March inaugurated Val’s last summer on the river--at least,
on this part of the river, for he had still Oxford and its triumphs in
prospect. That “summer half” was his last in Eton, and naturally he made
the most of it. Val had, as people say, “done very well” at school. He
was not a brilliant success, but still he had done very well, and his
name in the school list gave his grandparents great pleasure. Lord
Eskside kept a copy of that little _brochure_ on his library table, and
would finger it half consciously many a time when some county magnate
was interviewing the old lord. Val’s name appeared in it like this: *
Ross (5) γ. Now this was not anything like the stars and ribbons of the
name next above his, which was B * Robinson, (19) α; for I do not mean
to pretend that he was very studious, or had much chance of being in the
Select for the Newcastle Scholarship (indeed he missed this
distinction, though he went in for it gallantly, without being, however,
much disappointed by his failure). To be sure, I have it all my own way
in recording what Val did at Eton, since nobody is likely nowadays,
without hard labour in the way of looking up old lists, to be in a
position to contradict me. But he had the privilege of writing his
letters upon paper bearing the mystic monogram of Pop.--_i.e._, he was a
member of _Eton Society_, which was a sure test of his popularity; and
he was privileged in consequence to walk about with a cane, and to take
part in debates on very abstruse subjects (I am not quite sure which
privilege is thought the most important), and received full recognition
as “a swell,”--a title which, I am happy to say, bears no vulgar
interpretation at Eton, as meaning either rank or riches. And he was a
very sublime sight to see on the 4th of June, the great Eton holiday,
both in the morning, when he appeared in school in court dress--breeches
and black silk stockings--and delivered one of those “Speeches” with
which Eton upon that day delights such members of the fashionable world
as can spare a summer morning out of the important business of the
season; and in the evening, when he turned out in still more gorgeous
array, stroke of the best boat on the river, and a greater personage
than it is easy for a grown-up and sober-minded imagination to conceive.

It happened that this particular year Mr Pringle was in London upon some
business or other, and had brought his daughter Violet with him to see
the world. Vi was seventeen, and being an only daughter, and the chief
delight of her parents’ hearts, and pride of her brothers’, big and
little, was already “out,” though many people shook their heads at Mrs
Pringle’s precipitancy in producing her daughter. Violet’s hair was
somewhat darker now that it was turned up, but showed the pale golden
hue of her childhood still in the locks which, when the wind blew upon
her, would shake themselves out in little rings over her ears and round
her pretty forehead. Her eyes were as dark and liquid as they had been
when she was a child, with a wistful look in them, which was somewhat
surprising, considering how entirely happy a life she had led from her
earliest breath, surrounded with special love and fondness; but so it
was, account for it who will. Those tender eyes that shone out of her
happy youthful face were surely conscious of some trouble, which, as it
did not exist in the present, must be to come, and which, with every
pretty look, she besought and entreated you to ward off from her, to
help her through. But a happy little maiden was Vi, looking through
those pretty eyes, surprised and sweet, at London--tripping everywhere
by her proud father’s side, with her hand on his arm, looking at the
fine pictures, looking at the fine people and the fine horses in the
Park, and going over the sights as innocent country people do when such
a happy chance as a child to take about happens to them. Some one
suggested to Mr Pringle the fact of the Eton celebration during this
pleasant course of dissipation, and Vi’s eyes lighted up with a sweet
glow of pleasure beyond words when it was finally decided that they were
to go.

And go they did, conscientiously seeing everything. They went to
“Speeches” in the morning--that august ceremonial--and heard Val speak,
and a great many more. Violet confined her interest to the modern
languages which she understood; but Mr Pringle felt it incumbent upon
him to look amused at the jokes in Greek, which, I fear, the poor
gentleman in reality knew little more about than Vi did. But the
crowning glory of the morning was that Val in his “speaking clothes”
(and very speaking, very telling articles they were, in Violet’s eyes at
least) walked through college with them afterwards, bareheaded, with the
sun shining on his dark curls, the same bold brown boy who had carried
off the little girl from the Hewan six years before, though by this time
much more obsequious to Vi. He showed himself most willing and ready all
day to be the cicerone of “his cousins;” and when in the evening,
Violet, holding fast by her father’s arm, her heart beating high with
pleasure past and pleasure to come, walked down to the rafts in company
with Val in the aquatic splendours of his boating costume--straw hat
wreathed with flowers, blue jacket and white trousers--the girl would
have been very much unlike other girls if she had not been dazzled by
this versatile hero, grand in academic magnificence in the morning, and
resplendent now in the uniform of the river. “I am so sorry I can’t take
you out myself,” said Val, “for of course I must go with my boat; but I
have a man here, the best of fellows, who will row you up to Surly.
Here, Brown,” he cried, “get out the nicest gig you have, and come
yourself--there’s a good fellow. I want my cousins to see everything.
Oh, I’ll speak to Harry, and make it all right. I want you, and nobody
else,” he added, looking with friendly eyes at his _protégé_. I don’t
think Mr Pringle heard this address, but looking round suddenly, he saw
a young man standing by Valentine whose appearance made his heart jump.
“Good God!” he cried instinctively, staring at him. Dick had grown and
developed in these years. He had lost altogether the slouch of the
tramp, and was, if not so handsome as Val, trim and well made, with a
chest expanded by constant exercise, and his head erect with the
constant habit of attention. He was dressed in one of Val’s own coats,
and no longer looked like a lad on the rafts. For those who did not look
closely, he might have been taken for one of Val’s schoolfellows, so
entirely had he fallen into the ways and manners of “the gentlemen.” He
was as fair as Val was dark, about the same height, and though not like
Val, was so like another face which Mr Pringle knew, that his heart made
a jump into his mouth with wonder and terror. Perhaps he might not have
remarked this likeness but for the strange association of the two lads,
standing side by side as they were, and evidently on the most friendly
terms. “Who is that?” cried Mr Pringle, staring with wide-open eyes.

“It is the best fellow in the world,” cried Val, laughing, as Dick
sprang aside to arrange the cushions in a boat which lay alongside the
raft. “He’ll take you up to Surly faster than any one else on the
river.”

“But, Valentine--it is very kind of him,” said Vi, hesitating--“but you
did not introduce him to us----”

“Oh, he’s not a gentleman,” said Val, lightly; “that is to say,” he
added, seeing Dick within reach, with a hasty blush, “he’s as good in
himself as any one I know; but he ain’t one of the fellows, Vi; he works
at the rafts--his name is Brown. Now, do you think you can steer? You
used to, on the water at home.”

“Oh yes,” said Violet, with modest confidence. Val stood and looked
after them as the boat glided away up the crowded river; then he stalked
along through the admiring crowd, feeling as a man may be permitted to
feel who holds the foremost rank on a day of _fête_ and universal
enjoyment.

    “To him each lady’s look was lent,
     On him each courtier’s eye was bent.”

To be sure there were a great many others almost as exalted as Val; and
only the initiated knew that he rowed in the Eight, and was captain of
the Victory,--the best boat on the river. He stalked along to his boat,
over the delicious turf of the Brocas, in the afternoon sunshine,
threading his way through throngs of ladies in pretty dresses, and
hundreds of white-waistcoated Etonians. How proud the small boys who
knew him were, after receiving a nod from the demigod as he passed, to
discourse loudly to gracious mother or eager sister, Val’s style and
title! “That’s Ross at my dame’s--he’s in the Eight--he won the school
sculling last summer half; and we think we’ll get the House Fours, now
he’s captain. He’s an awfully jolly fellow when you know him,” crowed
the small boys, feeling themselves exalted in the grandeur of his
acquaintance; and the pretty sisters looked after Val, a certain awe
mingling with their admiration; while Philistines and strangers,
unaccompanied by even a small boy, felt nobodies, as became them. Then
came the start up the river. Never was a prettier sight than this
ceremonial. The river all golden with afternoon glory; the great trees
on the Brocas expanding their huge boughs in the soft air, against the
sky; the banks all lined with animated, bright-coloured crowds; the
stream alive with attendant boats; and the great noble pile of the
castle looking down serene from its height upon the children and
subjects at its royal feet, making merry under its great and calm
protection. It is George III.’s birthday--poor, obstinate, kindly old
soul!--and this is how a lingering fragrance of kindness grows into a
sort of fame. They say he was paternally fond and proud of the boys, who
thus yearly, without knowing it, celebrate him still.

Dick took his boat with Val’s cousins in it up the river, and waited
there among the willows, opposite the beautiful elms of the Brocas, till
the “Boats” went past in gay procession. He pointed out Val’s boat and
Val’s person to Violet with a pleasure as great as her own. “It is the
best boat on the river, and he is one of the best oars,” cried Dick, his
honest fair face glowing with pleasure. “We all think his house must win
the House Fours--they didn’t last year, for Mr Lichen was still here,
and he’s heavier than Mr Ross; but Grinder’s will have it this time.”
Dick’s face so brightened with generous delight, and acquired an
expression so individual and characteristic, that Mr Pringle began to
breathe freely, and to say to himself that fancy had led him astray.

“Do you belong to this place?” he asked, when they started again to
follow the boats up the river, in the midst of a gay flotilla, looking
Dick very steadily, almost severely, in the face.

“Not by birth, sir,” said Dick. “Indeed, I don’t belong anywhere; but
I’m settled here, I hope, for good.”

“But you don’t mean to say you are a boatman?” said Mr Pringle; “you
don’t look like it. It must be a very precarious life.”

“I am head man at the rafts,” said Dick--“thanks to Mr Ross, who got me
taken on when I was a lad”--(he was not quite nineteen then, but
maturity comes early among the poor), “and we’re boatbuilders to our
trade. You should see some of the boats we turn out, sir, if you care
for such things.”

“But I suppose, my man, you have had a better education than is usual?”
said Mr Pringle, looking so gravely at him that Dick thought he must
disapprove of such vanities. “You don’t speak in the least like the
other lads about here.”

“I suppose it’s being so much with the gentlemen,” said Dick, with a
smile. “I am no better than the other lads. Mr Ross has given me
books--and things.”

“Mr Ross must have been very kind to you,” said Mr Pringle, with vague
suspicions which he could not define--“he must have known you before?”

“Hasn’t he just been kind to me!” said Dick, a flush coming to his fair
face; “an angel couldn’t have been kinder! No, I never saw him till two
years ago; but lucky for me, he took a fancy to me--and I, if I may make
so bold as to say so, to him.”

“Mr Brown,” said Violet, looking at him with a kind of heavenly dew in
her dark eyes--for to call such effusion of happiness tears would be a
word out of place--“I am afraid, if we are going through the lock, I
shall not be able to steer.”

This was not in the least what she wanted to say. What she wanted to say
was, I can see you are a dear, dear, good fellow, and I love you for
being so fond of Val; and how Dick should have attained to a glimmering
of understanding, and known that this was what she meant, I cannot
tell--but he did. Such things happen now and then even in this stupid
everyday world.

“Never mind, Miss,” he said cheerfully, looking back at her with his
sunshiny blue eyes, “I can manage. Hold your strings fast that you may
not lose them: the steerage is never much use in a lock; and if you’re
nervous, there’s the Sergeant, who is a great friend of Mr Ross’s, will
pull us through.”

The lock was swarming with boats, and Violet, not to say her father, who
was not quite sure about this mode of progression, looked up with hope
and admiration at the erect figure of the Sergeant, brave and fine in
his waterman’s dress with his silver buttons, and medals of a fiercer
service adorning his blue coat. The Sergeant had shed his blood for his
country before he came to superintend the swimming of the favoured ones
on the Thames. His exploits in the water and those of his pupils are
lost to the general public, from the unfortunate fact that English
prejudice objects to trammel the limbs of its _natateurs_ by any
garments. But literature lifts its head in unsuspected places, and the
gentle reader will be pleased to learn that the Sergeant’s Book on
Swimming will soon make the name, which I decline to deliver to
premature applauses, known over all the world. He looked to Violet, who
was somewhat frightened by the crowds of boats, like an archangel in
silver buttons, as he caught the boat with his long pole, and guided
them safely through.

I cannot, however, describe in detail all the pretty particulars of the
scene, which excited and delighted Violet more than words can tell. Her
father was infinitely less interested than usual in her pleasure, having
something else in his mind, which he kept turning over and over in his
busy brain, while he led her round the supper-table of the boys at
Surly, or held her fast during the fireworks at the end of the evening.
Was this the other? If it was the other, what motive could the Eskside
people have to hide him, to keep him in an inferior station? Did Val
know? and if Val knew, how could he be so rash as to present to his
natural adversary, a boy who had in every feature Dick Ross’s face? Mr
Pringle was bewildered with these thoughts. Now and then, when Dick’s
face brightened into expressiveness, he said to himself that it was all
nonsense, that he was crazy on this point, and that any fair lad who
appeared by Val’s side would immediately look like Richard in his
prejudiced eyes. Altogether he was more uncomfortable than I can
describe, and heartily glad when the show was over. He took Val by the
arm when he came to say good-bye to them, and drew him aside for a
moment.

“Does your grandfather know of your intimacy with this lad?” he asked,
with the morose tone which his voice naturally took when he was excited.

“Yes, of course they do,” said Val, indignant. “I never hid anything
from them--why should I?”

“Who is he, then? I think I have a right to know,” said Mr Pringle.

“A right to know! I don’t understand you,” said Val, beginning to feel
the fiery blood tingling in his veins; but he thought of Vi, and
restrained himself.

“He is Brown,” he said, with a laugh; “that’s all I know about him.
You’re welcome to know as much as I do; though as for right, I can’t
tell who has the right. You can ask the men at the rafts, who have just
the same means of information as I.”

While this conversation was going on, Violet had spoken softly to Dick.
“Mr Brown,” she said, being naturally respectful of all strangers, “I am
so glad of what you told us about Mr Ross.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Dick; “you could not be more glad to hear than
I am to tell. I should like to let every one know that though he’s only
a boy, he’s been the making of me.”

“But--I beg your pardon--are you older than a boy?” said Vi.

Dick laughed. “When you have to work for your living, you’re a man
before you know,” he said, with a certain oracular wisdom that sank
deeply into Vi’s mind. But the next moment her father called her
somewhat sharply, and she awoke with a sigh to the consciousness that
this wonderful day was over, and that she must go away.



CHAPTER XX.


This was Val’s last summer at Eton; he went away with deep regret, as
all well-conditioned boys do, and was petted and made much of at home in
the interval between his school and his university life. Lady Eskside,
who had once carried little Val with her, with care so anxious, was
proud and happy beyond description now when Val accompanied her anywhere
with that air of _savoir faire_ and intimate knowledge of the world
which distinguishes his kind. He had already a circle much enlarged from
hers, and knew people whom even the Dowager Duchess, who was more in the
world than Lady Eskside, could not pretend to know. He was a head taller
than good-natured Lord Hightowers, and a thousand times handsomer and
better bred. “But not the least like his father,” said her Grace, with
pointed particularity. “Not so like as he was,” said Lady Eskside, not
unprepared for this attack; “but I can still see the resemblance--though
the difference of complexion is bewildering to those who don’t know both
faces so well as I do,” she added, with a smile. To be sure, no one else
could know the two faces as well as she did. Val was extremely well
received in the county, and considered, young as he was, an acquisition
to general society; and was asked far and wide to garden-parties, which
were beginning to come into fashion, and to the few dances which
occurred now and then. He had to go, too, to various entertainments
given by the new people in Lord Eskside’s feus. During Val’s boyhood,
the feus which the old lord and his factor laid out so carefully had
been built upon, to the advantage of the shopkeepers in Lasswade, for
one thing; and a row of, on the whole, rather handsome houses, in solid
white stone, somewhat urban in architecture for the locality, and built
to resist wind and storm for centuries, rose on the crown of the green
bank which overlooked the road, and were to be seen from the terrace at
Rosscraig. There were two ladies in them who gave parties,--one the wife
of a retired physician, the other a well-connected widow. Val had to
dance at both houses, for the very good reason that the widow was well
connected, which made it impossible to refuse her; while the other house
had a vote, more important still. “It is your business to make yourself
agreeable to everybody, Val,” said Lord Eskside, feeling, as he looked
at the boy’s long limbs and broad shoulders, that the time was
approaching in which his ambition should at last be gratified, and a
Ross be elected for the county, notwithstanding all obstacles. Within
the next four or five years a general election was inevitable; and it
was one of the old lord’s private prayers that it might not come until
Val was eligible. He did all he could to communicate to him that
interest in politics which every young man of good family, according to
Lord Eskside, should be reared in. Val had been rather inattentive on
this point: he held, in an orthodox manner, those conventional and not
very intelligent Tory principles which belong to Eton; but he had not
thought much about the subject, if truth must be told, and was rather
amused than impressed by Lord Eskside’s eloquence. “All right,
grandpapa,” he would say, with that calm general assent of youth which
is so trying to the eager instructor. He was quite ready to accept both
position and opinions, but he did not care enough about them to take the
trouble of forming any decision for himself.

But he went to Mrs Rintoul’s party, and made himself very agreeable; and
not only the retired doctor himself, but what was perhaps more
important, his daughters--from Miss Rintoul of five-and-thirty to the
little one of sixteen--were ready as one woman to adopt his cause, and
wear his colours when the time came. “What does it matter between them,
papa?” said Miss Rintoul, who was very strong-minded. “Tory or
Radical--what does it matter? They are all conservative in office, and
destructive out of it. If I had a vote--and at my age it’s a disgrace to
England that I haven’t--I should stand by friends and neighbours. That’s
a better rule than your old-fashioned Tory and Whig. A good man is the
one thing needful; over whom, if necessary, one can exert intelligent
influence,” said this enlightened woman. I do not think her papa, who
was better aware how very impossible it is to influence any human
creature, was entirely of her opinion; but he informed Willie Maitland
that probably on the whole, if no candidate exactly of his own way of
thinking appeared in the field, he would not hesitate to support Mr
Ross, if he carried out, as there was every reason to expect, the
promise of his youth. Thus Val, in gay unconsciousness, was made to
begin his canvassing when he was nineteen, and while still the episode
of the university lay between him and public life. Lord Eskside invited
a large party for the 1st of September, and the house continued full up
to the time of Val’s departure for Oxford; and besides this party of
guests at home, there was such a succession of entertainments given at
Rosscraig as had not been known before for many years,--not since Val’s
father was on his promotion, like Val. Mary Percival was one of the
party during this gay time, aiding Lady Eskside to receive her guests
and do the honours of her house. She came when it was definitely
ascertained that Richard was not coming, as his parents wished. He wrote
that he was deeply occupied, and that in the present state of Italian
politics it was impossible that he could leave his post--a letter over
which Lady Eskside sighed; but as Mary came to make up the deficiency,
there was something gained to atone for this loss.

Mary, however, never would commit herself to that enthusiasm for Val
which his grandmother felt was her boy’s due. She liked him very well,
she said--oh, very well: he was a nice boy; she was very glad he had
done so well at school, and she hoped he would take a good place at
Oxford; but I leave the reader to judge whether this mild approbation
was likely to satisfy the old people, who by this time--husband as well
as wife--were, as the servants said, altogether “wrapt up” in Val. Mary
offended her friend still more by the perverse interest she took in the
Pringle family, and her many visits to the Hewan, where Val was
delighted to accompany her as often as she chose to go. Violet was “in
residence,” as he said, at the cottage, living a somewhat lonely life
there, though the others of the family came and went, spending a day or
a night as they could manage it. I do not know if any thought of
“falling in love” had ever come into Valentine’s boyish head; but there
was a delicate link of affection and interest between Violet and himself
which affected him he could not quite tell how. As for poor little Vi, I
fear her young imagination had gone further than Valentine’s. It was not
love in her case, perhaps, any more than in his; but it was fancy, which
at seventeen is almost as strong. I think this was the primary reason of
Mary’s frequent visits to the Hewan. She saw what was going on in the
girl’s young head and heart; and with that intense recollection of the
circumstances which decided her own fate which such gentlewomen, thrown
out of the common path of life, often have, she had conceived an almost
exaggerated anxiety for the fate of Vi, which seemed to be shaping
itself after the model of her own.

“I wish my dear old lady would not spoil that boy so,” she said one
September morning, when she had walked alone through the woods to the
Hewan. Her pretty _particular_ grey gown (for Mary was not without
something of that precise order which it is usual to call
old-maidishness, about her dress) was marked here and there with a
little spot from the damp ferns and grass, which she rubbed with her
handkerchief as she spoke, and which suddenly brought back to Violet’s
memory that one day of “playing truant” which had been about the
sweetest of her life. Mary had perceived that Violet gave a quick look
for the other figure which generally followed, and that there was a
droop of disappointment about her, when she perceived that her visitor
was alone. “I wish she would not spoil that boy so. He is not a bad
boy----”

“Is it possible you can mean Val?” said Violet, with dignity, erecting
her small head.

“Yes, indeed, my dear, it is quite possible; I do mean Val. He is a good
boy enough, if you would not all spoil him with adulation--as if he were
something quite extraordinary, and no one had ever seen his like
before.”

“You do not like Val, Miss Percival--you never did; but he likes you,
and always walks with you when you will let him.”

“Ah, that is when I am coming here,” said Mary, with a momentary
compunction. Then perceiving a pleased glow diffuse itself over Vi’s
face, she added, quickly, “I mean, he likes to go with me when it
pleases himself; but if I were to ask any little sacrifice of his will
from him, you should see how he would look. He is one of the most
self-willed boys I know.”

Violet did not make any answer. She patted her foot upon the carpet, and
the corners of her little mouth were drawn down. She would have frowned
had she known how; as it was, she averted her face in wrath and dismay.

“Violet, my dear, I take a great interest in you,” said Mary. “When I
look at you, I sometimes think I see myself at your age. I don’t like
to think that you may grow up to make a demigod of Val--or indeed of any
other.”

“Miss Percival!--I! Oh, how dare you?--how can you say so?” cried
Violet, springing to her feet, her face crimson, her eyes shining. “I!
make a--anything of Val. Oh, how can you be so unkind, you grown-up
people? Must a girl never speak to a boy unless he is her brother? And
Val has been just like my brother. I think of him--as I think of Sandy.”

“Oh, you little story-teller!” cried Mary, laughing in spite of herself,
as Violet’s indignant voice faltered into uncertainty; “but, Vi, I am
not going to scold--don’t be afraid. I am going to tell you for your
good what happened to me. I don’t like doing it,” she said, with a blush
that almost neutralised the difference of age between herself and the
girl who listened to her; “but I think it may be for your good, dear.
Violet, when I was your age there was some one--whom I was constantly in
the habit of seeing, as you might be of seeing Val. There was never
any--flirtation or nonsense between us. How shall I say it, Violet?--for
I don’t care to speak of such things any more than you would. I liked
him, as I thought, as you do, like a brother; and he was always kept
before me--never any one but Richard. After a while he went out into the
world, and there did--something which separated us for ever! oh, not
anything wrong, Vi--not a crime, or even vice--but something which
showed me that I, and all I was, such as I was, was nothing in the world
to him--that nothing was of value to him but his own caprice. I never
got over it, Violet. You see me now growing old, unmarried; and of
course I never shall marry now, nor have young ones round me like your
mother----”

“Oh, dear Miss Percival,” cried Violet, with tears in her eyes, “who
cares for being married? What has that to do with it? Is it not far
finer, far grander, to live like you, for ever constant to your first
love? Is not that the best of all?” cried the little enthusiast,
flushing with visionary passion. Mary caught her by her pretty
shoulders, shook her and kissed her, and laughed, and let one or two
tears drop, a tribute, half to her own, half to the child’s excitement.

“You little goose!” she cried. “Vi, I saw him after, years after--such a
man to waste one’s life for!--a poor petty _dilettante_, more fond of a
bit of china than of child or wife, or love or honour. Ah, Vi, you
don’t understand me! but to think I might have been the mother of a
child like you, but for that poor creature of a man!”

“Oh, don’t, don’t!” cried Vi, putting her hands to her ears; “I will not
listen to you, now. If you--loved him,” said the girl, hesitating and
blushing at the word, “you never, never could speak of him like that.”

“I never--never could have been deceived in him,--is that what you mean?
Vi, I hope you will never follow my example.”

“Hollo!” cried another voice of some one coming in at the door, which
stood open all day long, as cottage doors do--“is there any one in--is
Mary here? Are you in, Vi?” and Val’s head, glowing with a run up the
brae, bright with life and mirth, and something which looked very much
like boyish innocence and pleasure, looked in suddenly at the parlour
door. Val was struck by consternation when he saw the agitated looks
which both endeavoured to hide. “What’s the row?” he asked, coming in
with his hat in his hand. “You look as if you had been crying. What have
you been doing, Mary, to Vi?”

“Scolding her,” said Miss Percival, laughing. “I hope you have no
objection, Val.”

“But I have great objections; nobody shall bother Violet and make her
cry, if I can help it. She never did anything in her life to deserve
scolding. Vi,” cried Val, turning to her suddenly, “do you remember the
day we played truant? If Mary hadn’t been here, I meant to carry you off
again into the woods.”

Violet looked up first at him and then at Mary; the first glance was
full of delight and tender gratitude, the other was indignant and
defiant. “Is this the boy you have been slandering?” Vi’s eyes said, as
plain as eyes could speak, to her elder friend. Miss Percival rose and
made the gentleman a curtsy.

“If Mary is much in your way, she will go; but as Vi is a young lady
now, perhaps Mary’s presence would be rather an advantage than
otherwise. I put myself at your orders, young people, for the woods, or
wherever you like.”

“Well,” said Val, with the composure of his age, “perhaps it might be as
well if you would come too. Run to the larder, Violet, and look if
there’s a pie. I’ll go and coax Jean for the old basket--the very old
basket that we had on that wonderful day. Quick! and your cloak, Vi.”
He rushed away from them like a whirlwind; and soon after, while the two
ladies were still looking at each other in doubt whether he should be
humoured or not, Jean’s voice was heard approaching round the corner
from her nest.

“Pie! set you up with dainty dishes! Na, Mr Valentine, you’ll get nae
pie from me, though you have the grace to come and ask for it this time;
but I’ll make you some sandwiches, if you like, for you’ve a tongue like
the very deil himself. Oh, ay--go away with your phrases. If you were
not wanting something you would take little heed o’ your good Jean, your
old friend.”

“Listen,” said Mary to Vi.

“No that ye’re an ill laddie, when a’s said. You’re not one of the
mim-mouthed ones, like your father before you; but I wouldna say but you
were more to be lippened to, with all your noise and your nonsense.
There, go away with you. I’ll do the best I can, and you’ll take care of
missie. Here’s your basket till ye, ye wild lad.”

Vi had grasped Mary’s arm in return when old Jean continued; but being
pitiful, the girl in her happiness would not say anything to increase
what she felt must be the pain of the woman by her side. Vi had divined
easily enough that it was Valentine’s father of whom Mary spoke; and the
child pitied the woman, who was old enough to be her mother. Ah, had it
but been Valentine! He never would disappoint any one--never turn into a
_dilettante_, loving china better than child or wife. She kissed Mary in
a little outburst of pity--pity so angelic that Violet almost longed to
change places with her, that she might see and prove for herself how
different Valentine was. As for Mary, she made herself responsible for
this mad expedition with a great confusion and mingling of feelings. She
went, she said to herself, to prevent harm; but some strange mixture of
a visionary maternity, and of a fellow-feeling quite incompatible with
her mature age, was in her mind at the same time. She said to herself,
with a sigh, as she went down the slope, that she might have been the
boy’s mother, and let her heart soften to him, as she had never done
before; though I think this same thought it was which had made her feel
a little instinctive enmity to him, because he was not her son but
another woman’s. How lightly the boy and girl tripped along over the
woodland paths, waiting for her at every corner, chattering their happy
nonsense, filling the sweet, mellow, waving woods with their laughter!
They pushed down to the river, though the walk was somewhat longer than
Mary cared for, and brought her to the glade in which the two runaways
had eaten their dinner, and where Vi had been found asleep on Val’s
shoulder. “It looks exactly as it did then; but how different we are!”
cried Violet, on the warm green bank where her shoes and stockings had
been put to dry. Mary sat down on the sunny grass, and watched them as
they poked into all the corners they remembered, and called to them with
maternal tremblings, when the boy once more led the girl across the
stepping-stones to the great boulder by the side of which Esk foamed and
flashed. She asked herself, was it possible that this bold brown boy
would ever turn out to be like his father? and tried to recollect
whether Richard had ever been so kind, so considerate of any one’s
comfort as Val was of Vi’s. Was it perhaps possible that, instead of her
own failure, this romance, so prettily begun, might come to such a
climax of happiness as romances all feign to end in? Mary, I fear,
though she was so sensible, became slightly foolish as she sat under the
big beech, and looked at the two in the middle of the stream together,
Esk roaring by over his rocks, and making the words with which she
called them back quite inaudible. How handsome Val looked, and how
pretty and poetic his little companion! The bank of wood opposite was
all tinted with autumn colour, rich and warm. It was a picture which any
painter would have loved, and it went to Mary’s heart.

“But you are too big, Val, to play at the Babes in the Wood nowadays,”
said old Lady Eskside, with a little wrinkle in her brow, when she heard
of the freak; “and I wonder the Pringles leave that poor little thing by
herself at the Hewan, sometimes for days together. They say it’s for her
health; but I think it would be much better for her health if she were
under her mother’s eye.”

“You must remember that I was with them,” said Mary, “representing her
mother, or a middle-aged supervision at least.”

“My dear,” said Lady Eskside, half angry, half smiling, as she shook her
finger at her favourite, “I have my doubts that you are just a romantic
gowk; though you might know better.”

“Yes, I might know better--if experience could teach,” said Mary; but
experience so seldom teaches, notwithstanding all that is said to the
contrary. And Mary could not but reflect that Lady Eskside had not
frowned, but smiled, upon her own delusion. Perhaps in such cases
parental frowns are safer than smiles.



CHAPTER XXI.


There was a great dinner at Rosscraig before Val went to Oxford: as much
fuss made about him, the neighbours began to say, as was made for his
father who came home so seldom, and had distinguished himself in
diplomacy, and turned out to be a man of whom the county could be proud;
whereas Val was but an untried boy going to college, of whom no one
could as yet say how he would turn out. Mr Pringle was invited to this
great ceremonial, partly by way of defiance to show him how popular the
heir was, and partly (for the two sentiments are not incapable of
conjunction) out of kindness, as recognising his relationship. He came,
and he listened to the remarks, couched in mysterious terms, yet
comprehensible enough, which were made as to Val’s future connection
with the county, in grim silence. After dinner, when the ladies had
retired, and as the wine began to circulate, these allusions grew
broader, and at length Mr Pringle managed to make out very plainly that
old Lord Eskside was already electioneering, though his candidate was
but nineteen, and for the moment there was very little chance of a new
election. Val, careless of the effect he was intended to produce, and
quite unconscious of his grandfather’s motives, was letting loose freely
his boyish opinions, all marked, as we have said, with the Eton mark,
which may be described as Conservative in the gross, with no very clear
idea what the word means in detail, but a charming determination to
stick to it, right or wrong. Lord Eskside smiled benignly upon these
effusions, and so did most of his guests. “He has the root of the matter
in him,” said the old lord, addressing Sir John, who was as anxious as
himself to have “a good man” elected for the county, but who had no son,
grandson, or nephew of his own; and Sir John nodded back in genial
sympathy. Mr Pringle, however, as was natural, being on the opposite
side from the Rosses in everything, was also on the other side in
politics, and maintained an eloquent silence during this part of the
entertainment. He bided his time, and when there came a lull in the
conversation (a thing that will happen occasionally), he made such an
interpellation as showed that his silence arose from no want of
inclination to speak.

“Your sentiments are most elevated, Valentine,” he said, “but your
practice is democratical to an extent I should scarcely have looked for
from your father’s son. I hope your friend the boatman at Eton is
flourishing--the one you introduced to my daughter and me?”

“A boatman at Eton,” said the old lord, bending his brows, “introduced
to Violet? You are dreaming, Pringle. I hope Val knows better than
that.”

“Indeed I think it shows very fine feeling on Valentine’s part--this was
one of nature’s noblemen, I gathered from what he said.”

“Nature’s fiddlestick!” exclaimed Lord Eskside, and the Tory gentlemen
pricked up their ears. There was scarcely one of them who did not
recollect, or find himself on the eve of recollecting, at that moment,
that Val’s mother was “not a lady,” and that blood would out.

“I introduced him to you as a boatman, sir,” said Val, “not as anything
else; though as for noblemen, Brown is worth twenty such as I have known
with handles to their names. We get to estimate people by their real
value at Eton, not by their accidental rank,” said the youth splendidly,
at which Mr Pringle cried an ironical “Hear, hear!”

“Gently, gently, my young friend,” said Sir John. “Rank is a great power
in this world, and not to be lightly spoken of; it does not become you
to speak lightly of it; and it does not agree with your fine Tory
principles, of which I warmly approve.”

“What have Tory principles to do with it?” said Val. “A fellow may be
rowdy or a snob though he is a lord; and in that case at Eton, sir,
whatever may happen at other places, we give him the cold shoulder. I
don’t mean to set up Eton for an example,” said Val, gravely, at which
there was a general roar.

“Bravo, bravo, my young Tory!” cried the Duke himself, no less a person,
who on that night honoured Lord Eskside’s table. “In that respect, if
you are right, Eton _is_ an example, let any one who pleases take the
other side.”

“If Wales had been at Eton, and had been wowdy, we’d have sent him to
Coventry as soon as look at him,” said Lord Hightowers, smoothing an
infantile down on his upper lip.

“A very fine sentiment; but I don’t know if the antagonistic principle
would work,” said Mr Pringle. “I am a Liberal, as everybody knows; but I
don’t care about admitting boatmen to my intimacy, however much I may
contemn an unworthy peer.”

“Did Brown intrude upon you?” said Valentine, bewildered; “was he
impudent? did he do anything he oughtn’t to? Though I could almost as
soon believe that I had behaved like a cad myself, if you say so I’ll go
down directly and kick the fellow.” And poor Valentine, flushed and
excited, half rose from his seat.

“Bwown!” said Lord Hightowers from the other side of the table. “Beg
your pardon, but you’re mistaken; you must be mistaken. Bwown! best
fellow that ever lived. Awfully sorry he’s not a gentleman; but for a
cad--no, not a cad--a common sort of working fellow, he’s the nicest
fellow I ever saw. Couldn’t have been impudent--not possible. It ain’t
in him, eh, Ross? or else I’d go and kick him too with pleasure,” said
the young aristocrat calmly.

Between the fire of these two pairs of young eyes, Mr Pringle was
somewhat taken aback.

“Oh, he was not impudent; on the contrary, a well-informed nice young
fellow. My only wonder was, that young gentlemen of your
anti-democratical principles should make a bosom friend of a man of the
people--that’s all. For my part, I think it does you infinite credit,”
said Mr Pringle, blandly. “I hope you have been having good sport at
Castleton, Lord Hightowers. You ought to have come out to my little moor
at Dalrulzian, Val. I don’t know when the boys have had better bags.”

And thus the conversation fell back into its ordinary channels; indeed
it had done so before this moment, the battle about Brown having quickly
failed to interest the other members of the party. Lord Eskside sat
bending his brows and straining his mind to hear, but as he had the
gracious converse of a Duke to attend to, he could not actually forsake
that potentate to make out the chatter of the boys with his adversary.
Thus Mr Pringle fired his first successful shot at Val. The Tory
gentlemen forgot the story, but they remembered to have heard something
or other of a love of low company on the part of Valentine Ross, “which,
considering that nobody ever knew who his mother was, was perhaps not to
be wondered at,” some of the good people said. When Lady Eskside heard
of it, she was so much excited by the malice of the suggestion, and
expressed her feelings so forcibly, that Val blazed up into one of his
violent sudden passions, and was rushing out to show Mr Pringle himself
what was thought of his conduct, when his grandfather caught him and
arrested him. “Do you want to make fools of us all with your intemperate
conduct, sir?” cried the old lord, fire flashing from under his heavy
brows. “It is only a child that resents a slight like this--a man must
put up with a great deal and make no sign. ‘Let the galled jade wince;
my withers are unwrung.’ That is the sort of sentiment that becomes us.”
I don’t know if this good advice would have mollified Val but for the
sudden appearance just then at one of the windows which opened on the
terrace, of Violet in her blue gown, whose innocent eyes turned to them
with a look which seemed to say, “Don’t, oh don’t, for my sake!” Of
course Violet knew nothing about it, and meant nothing by her looks. It
was the expression habitual to her, that was all; but as the old man and
the young, one hot with fury, the other calming down his rage, perceived
the pretty figure outside, the old lord dropped, as if it burned him,
his hold on Val’s arm, and Val himself stopped short, and, so to speak,
lowered his weapons. “Is my lady in, please?” said Violet through the
glass--which was all she had wanted to ask, with those sweet imploring
looks. They opened the window for her eagerly, and she stepped in like
something dropped out of the sky, in her blue gown, carrying her native
colour with her. After this Val could not quite make out what it was
that he had against Mr Pringle, until Violet in her innocence brought
the subject up.

“Mamma was scolding papa for something--something about Valentine,” said
Violet. “I did not hear what it was.”

“Indeed your papa seems to have spoken in far from a nice spirit, my
dear, though I don’t like to say it to you,” said Lady Eskside. “What
was it about, Val? some boatman whom he called your bosom friend.”

“Oh!” cried Violet, clasping her hands together, “it must have been Mr
Brown. Papa used to talk of him for long and long after.”

“And did you think, Violet,” said the old lady, severely, “that my boy
made him his bosom friend?”

“Oh, Lady Eskside! he was so nice and so grateful to Val. I took such a
fancy to him,” cried Vi, with a blush and a smile, “because he was so
grateful. He said Mr Ross had done everything for him. Bosom friend! He
looked--I don’t think I ever saw a man look so before--women do
sometimes,” said Violet, with precocious comprehension--“as if he would
have liked to be hurt or done some harm to for Val’s sake.”

“It is the boy I told you about, grandma,” said Val--“the one that
Grinder made himself disagreeable about; as if a fellow couldn’t try to
be of use to any other fellow without being had up! He rowed them up the
river on the 4th of June. He ain’t my bosom friend,” he added, laughing;
“but I’d rather have him to stand by me in a crowd than any one I
know--so that Mr Pringle was right.”

“But he did not mean it so; it was ill-meant, it was ill-meant!” cried
Lady Eskside. Violet looked at them both with entreating looks.

“Papa may have said something wrong, but I am sure he did not mean it,”
said Vi, with the dew coming to her pretty eyes. Lady Eskside shook her
head; but as for Val, his anger had stolen away out of his heart like
the moisture on the grass when the sun comes out; but the sun at the
moment had an azure radiance shining out of a blue gown.

After this Val went off to the University with a warm sense of his
approaching manhood, and a new independence of feeling. He went to
Balliol naturally, as the college of his country, and there fell into
the hands of Mr Gerald Grinder, who had condescended to be the boy’s
private tutor long ago, just before he attained to the glories of his
fellowship. Boys were thus passed up along the line among the Grinder
family, which had an excellent connection, and throve well. Val was not
clever enough nor studious enough to furnish the ambitious heads of his
college with a future first-class man; but as he had one great and
well-established quality, they received him with more than ordinary
satisfaction; for even at Balliol, has not the most sublime of colleges
a certain respect for its place on the river? I have heard of such a
thing as a Boating scholarship, the nominal examination for which is
made very light indeed to famous oars; but anyhow, Val, though perhaps a
very stiff matriculation paper might have floored him, got in upon
comparatively easy terms. I will not say much about his successes, nor
even insist on the fact that Oxford was an easy winner on the river that
triumphant day when Lichen rowed stroke and Val bow in the University
boat, and all the small Etonians roared so, under their big hats, that
it was a mercy none of them exploded. Val did well, though not
brilliantly, in his University career, as he had done at Eton. He had a
little difficulty now and then with his hasty temper, but otherwise came
to no harm; and thus, holding his own in intellectual matters, and doing
more than hold his own in other points that rank quite as high in
Oxford, as in the rest of the academical world, made his way to his
majority. I believe it crossed Lord Eskside’s mind now and then to think
that in Parliament it was very soon forgotten whether a man had been bow
or even stroke of the ‘Varsity boat; and that it could count for little
in political life, and for less than nothing with the sober constituency
of a Scotch county; but then, as all the youth of England, and all the
instructors of that youth, set much store by the distinction, even an
anxious parent (not to say grandfather) is mollified. “What good will
all that nonsense do him?” the old lord would growl, working his shaggy
eyebrows, as he read in the papers, even the most intellectual, a
discussion of Val’s sinews and breadth of chest and “form” before the
great race was rowed. “At least it cannot do him any harm,” said my
lady, always and instantly on the defensive; “and I don’t see why you
should grudge our boy the honour that other folks’ boys would give their
heads for.” “Other folks’ boys may be foolish if they like--I am
concerned only for my own,” said Lord Eskside; “what does the county
care for his bow-ing or his stroke-ing? it’s a kind of honour that will
stand little wear and tear, however much you may think of it, my lady.”
But to tell the truth, I don’t think my lady in her soul did think very
much of it, except in so far that it was her principle to stand up for
most things that pleased Val.

In the meantime, however, the departure of Val from Eton had produced a
much more striking effect upon some nameless persons than on any of his
other friends. Dick missed him with unfeigned and unconcealed regret. He
insisted upon carrying his bag to the station for him; notwithstanding
the cab which conveyed Val’s other effects; and went home again in very
depressed spirits, after having bidden him good-bye. But Dick’s
depression was nothing to that with which his mother sat gazing blankly
over the river, with that look in her eyes which had for some time
departed from them--that air of looking for something which she could
not find, which had made her face so remarkable. She had never quite
lost it, it is true; but the hope which used to light up her eyes of
seeing, however far off, that one boat which she never failed to
recognise shooting up or down the stream, had softened her expression
wonderfully, and brought her back, as it were, to the things surrounding
her. Val, though she saw so little of him, was as an anchor of her heart
to the boy’s mother. The consciousness that he was near, that she should
hear his name, see the shadow of him flitting across the brightness of
the river, or that even when he was absent, a few weeks would bring back
those dim and forlorn delights to her, kept the wild heart satisfied.
This strange visionary absorption in the boy she had given up did not
lessen her attachment to the boy she retained--the good Dick, who had
always been so good a son to her. She thought that she had totally given
up Val; and certainly she never hoped, nor even desired, any more of him
than she had from her window. Indeed, in her dim perpetual ponderings on
this subject, the poor soul had come to feel that it could be no
comfort, but much the reverse, to Val, to find out that she was his
mother. Had any hope of the possibility of revealing herself to him ever
been in her mind, it would have disappeared after their first interview.
After that she had always kept in the background on the occasions when
he came to see Dick, and had received his “Good morning” without
anything but a curtsy. No, alas! a gentleman like that, with all the
consciousness about him of a position so different,--with that
indescribable air of belonging to the highest class which the poor
tramp-woman recognised at once, remembering her brief and strange
contact with it--a gentleman like that to have a mother like herself
revealed to him--a mother from the road, from the fairs and racecourses!
She almost cried out with fright when she thought of the possibility,
and made a vow to herself that never, never would she expose Valentine
to this horror and shame. No! she had made her bed, and she must lie
upon it.

But when he went away, the visionary support which had sustained her
visionary nature--the something out of herself which had kept her wild
heart satisfied--failed all at once. It was as if a blank had suddenly
been spread before the eyes that were always looking for what they could
find no more. She never spoke of it--never wept, nor made any
demonstration of the change; but she flagged in her life and her spirit
all at once. Her work, which she had up to this time got through with an
order and swiftness strangely at variance with all the habits which her
outdoor life might have been supposed to form, began to drag, and be a
weariness to her. She had no longer the inducement to get it over, to be
free for the enjoyment of her window. Sometimes she would sit drearily
down in the midst of it, with her face turned to the stream by a forlorn
habit, and thus Dick would find her sometimes when he came in to dinner.
“You are not well, mother,” the lad said, anxiously. “Oh yes, quite
well; the likes of me is never ill--till we die,” she would say, with a
dreamy smile. “You have too much work, mother,” said Dick; “I can’t have
you working so hard--have a girl to help you; we’ve got enough money to
afford it, now I’m head man.” “Do you think I’ve gone useless, then?”
she would ask, with some indignation, rousing herself; and thus these
little controversies always terminated.

But Dick watched her, with a wonder growing in his mind. She was very
restless during the autumn, yet when the dark days of winter came,
relapsed into a half-stupefied quiet. Even when Val was at Eton, he had
of course been invisible on the river during the winter. “The spring
will be the pull,” Dick said to himself, wondering, with an anguish
which it would be difficult to describe, whether it was his duty to pull
up the stakes of this homely habitation, which he had fixed as he
thought so securely for himself, and to abandon his work and his living,
and the esteem of his neighbours, to resume for her sake the wanderings
which he loathed; could it be his duty? A poor lad, reared at the cost
of visible privations by a very poor mother, has a better idea of the
effort and of the sacrifice made for him, than a young man of a higher
class for whom even more bitter sacrifices may have been made. Dick knew
what it must have cost the poor tramp-woman to bring him up as she had
done, securing him bread always, keeping him from evil communications,
even having him taught a little in his childhood. For a tramp to have
her child taught to read and write involves as much as Eton and Oxford
would to another; and Dick was as much above the level of his old
companions in education as a university prizeman is above the common
mass; and he knew what it must have cost her, therein having an
advantage over many boys, who never realise what they have cost their
parents till these parents are beyond all reach of gratitude. Was it,
then, his duty to give up everything, his own very life, and open the
doors of her prison-house to this woman to whom he owed his life? Such
questions come before many of us in this world, and have to be solved
one way or other. Our own life, independence, and use; or the happiness
of those who have guarded and reared us, though without giving up their
all to us, as we are called upon to do for them. Perhaps it is a
question which women have to decide upon more often than men. Dick
thrust it away from him as long as he could, trying not to think of it,
and watching his mother with an anxiety beyond words, as the days
lengthened, and the spring freshness came back, and the Brocas elms got
their first wash of green. Sometimes he saw her give an unconscious gasp
as if for breath, as though the confined air of the room stifled her.
Sometimes he found her half bent out of the open window, with her rapt
eyes gazing, not at the river, but away over the distant fields. She got
paler and thinner every day before his eyes; and he owed everything (he
thought) to her, and what was he to do?

What the sacrifice would have been to Dick, I dare not calculate. In
these three years he had become known to everybody about, and was
universally liked and trusted. He was his master’s right-hand man. He
had begun to know what comfort was, what it was to have a little money,
(delightful sensation!) what it was to get on in the world. The
tramp-boys about the roads, and the new lads who were taken on at the
rafts, attracted his sympathy, but it was the sympathy of a person on a
totally different level--who had indeed been as they were, but who had
long gone over their heads, and was of a class and of habits totally
different. Had Lord Hightowers been called upon to divest himself of
his title, and become simple John Seton in an engineer’s workshop, the
humiliation would not have been comparable to that which Dick would have
endured had he been compelled to degrade himself again into a vagrant, a
frequenter of fairs and races. Indeed I think Lord Hightowers would
rather have liked the change, being of a mechanical turn,--while to Dick
the thought was death. It made him sick and faint to think of the
possibility. But, on the other hand, was he to let his mother pine and
die like a caged eagle? or let her go away from him, to bear all the
inevitable privations alone?

One day the subject was finally forced upon his consideration in such a
way that he could not disregard it. When he went home to his early
dinner, she was gone. Everything was arranged for him with more care
than usual, his meal left by the fire, his table laid, and the landlady
informed him that his mother had left word she would not be back till
night. Dick did not run wildly off in search of her, as some people
would have done. He had to look after his work, whatever happened. He
swallowed his dinner hastily, a prey to miserable thoughts. It had come
then at last, this misfortune which he had so long foreseen! Could he
let her wander off alone to die of cold and weariness behind some hedge?
After the three years’ repose, her change of habits, and the declining
strength which he could not deceive himself about, how could she bear
those privations alone? No, it was impossible. Dick reviewed the whole
situation bitterly enough, poor fellow. He knew what everybody would
say: how it was the vagrant blood breaking out in him again; how it was,
once a tramp always a tramp; how it was a pity--but a good thing, on the
whole, that he had done nothing wild and lawless before he left. And
some would regret him, Dick thought, brushing his hand across his
eyes--“the gentlemen” generally, among whom he had many fast friends.
Dick decided that he would do nothing rash. He would not give up his
situation, and give notice of leaving to the landlady, till he had first
had a talk with his mother; but he “tidied” the room after his solitary
dinner with a forlorn sense of the general breaking up of all his
comforts--and went to his afternoon’s work with a heavy heart.

It was quite late when she came home. He could hear by her steps upon
the stair that she was almost too tired to drag one foot after another,
as he ran to open the door for her. Poor soul! she came in carrying a
basket of primroses, which she held out to him with a pathetic smile.
“Take them, Dick; I’ve been far to get ’em, and you used to be fond of
them when you were little,” she said, dropping wearily into the nearest
seat. She was pale, and had been crying, he could see; and her abstract
eyes looked at him humbly, beseechingly, like the eyes of a dumb
creature, which can express a vague anguish but cannot explain.

“Was it for _them_ you went, mother?” cried Dick, with momentary relief:
but this was turned into deeper distress when she shook her head, and
burst out into a low moaning and crying that was pitiful to hear.

“No,” she said,--“no, no, it wasn’t for them; it was to try my strength;
and I can’t do it, Dick--I can’t do it, no more, never no more. The
strength has gone out of me. I’m dying for free air and the road--but I
can’t do it, no more, no more!”

Poor Dick went and knelt down by her side, and took her hand into his.
He was glad, and conscience-stricken, and full of pity for her, and
understanding of her trouble. “Hush, mother! hush!” he said; “don’t cry.
You’re weakly after the long winter, as I’ve seen you before----”

“No, lad, no,” she cried, rocking herself in her chair; “no, I’ll never
be able for it again--no more, no more!”

Dick never said a word of the tumult in his own mind: he tried to
comfort her, prophesying--though heaven knows how much against his own
interests!--that she would soon feel stronger, and coaxed her to eat and
drink, and at length prevailed upon her to go to bed. Now that they had
become comparatively rich, she had the little room behind which had once
been Dick’s, and he was promoted to a larger chamber up-stairs. He sat
up there, poor fellow, as long as he could keep awake, wondering what he
must do. Could it be that he was glad that his mother was less strong?
or was it his duty to lose no time further, but to take her away by easy
stages to the open air that was necessary for her, and the fields that
she loved? Dick’s heart contracted, and bitter tears welled up into his
eyes. But he felt that he must think of himself no longer, only of her.
That was the one thing self-evident, which required no reasoning to make
clear.

The next day a letter came from Valentine Ross, the first sign of his
existence all this time, which changed entirely the current of affairs.



CHAPTER XXII.


Val’s letter was of a character sufficiently exciting to have made Dick
forget anything less important than the crisis which had thus arrived.
Its object was to invite him to Oxford, to a place somewhat similar to
that which he had held at Eton, in one of the great boating
establishments on the river. The master was old, and wanted somebody of
trust to superintend and manage his business, with a reasonable hope of
succeeding to him. “You had better come up and talk it over,” wrote Val,
ever peremptory. “I have always said you must rise in the world, and
here is the opportunity for you. They have too much regard for you at
Eton to keep you from doing what would be so very advantageous;
therefore come up at once and look after it.” Dick’s heart, which had
been beating very low in his honest breast, overwhelmed with fear and
forebodings, gave one leap of returning confidence; but then he
reflected that his mother must be made the final judge, and with a
sickening pang of suspense he “knocked off” his work, and rowed himself
across to the little house at the corner. His mother was wearied and
languid with her long walk on the day before. She had paused in the
midst of her morning occupations, and Dick found her seated in the
middle of the room, with her back turned to the window, and her face
supported on her hands. She was gazing at the wall opposite, much as she
gazed into the distant landscape, not seeing it, but longing to see
through it--to see something she could not see. She started when Dick
came in, and smiled at him deprecating and humble. “I was resting a
moment,” she said, with an air of apology that went to his heart. “Have
you forgotten something, Dick?”

“No, mother, but I’ve heard of something,” he said, taking out his
letter. This made her sit upright, and flushed her cheek suddenly with a
surprised alarm for which he could not account--for which, she herself
could not account; for it was perhaps the first time in her life that it
had occurred to her what would happen if Dick found out the secret of
his own story. The possibility of Valentine doing so had crossed her
mind, and she had shrunk from it. But what if Dick should find out? the
idea had never entered her imagination before.

“It’s a letter from Mr Ross, mother,” said Dick, steadily looking at
her. “He says he has heard of a place for me at Oxford where he is
himself--a place where I should be almost master at once, have
everything to manage, and might succeed, and get it into my own hands.
Mother! that would please you? Now to think you should like _that_ when
you can’t endure this! It would be the same kind of place.”

“Don’t be hard upon me, Dick,” she said, faltering, and turning away her
eyes that he might not see the strange light in them--which she was
herself aware must be too remarkable to be overlooked. “I can’t answer
for my feelings. It’s a change, I suppose--a change that I want. My old
way I can’t go back to, for more things than one. I’m too weak and old;
and more than that, I’m changed in my mind. Dick, I think it will be a
comfort to you to tell you. It ain’t only my limbs, boy, nor my
strength. My mind’s changed; I couldn’t go on the tramp again.”

“No, mother? thank God!”

“I don’t thank God,” she said, shaking her head. “I am not glad; but so
it is, and I want a change. Let us go, boy. Please God, I’ll be happier
there.”

“Mother,” said Dick, anxiously, “your looks are changed all at once. I’m
going to ask you a curious question. Has it anything to do with--Mr
Ross?”

She made no answer for the moment, but leant her head upon her hands,
and looked vaguely at the wall.

“I know it’s a curious question,” repeated Dick, with an attempt at a
smile. “But you were satisfied as long as he was here; and since he’s
gone you have fallen back--only since he’s gone! You never got that
longing sort of look while he was here. What has Mr Ross to do with you
and me? Mother--don’t you suppose I think it’s anything wrong, for I
don’t--but what has he to do with you and me?”

“Nothing--nothing, Dick,” she cried--“nothing; never will have, never
can have. Don’t ask me. When I was young, when I was a girl, I knew
his--people--his--father. There, that’s all. I never meant to have said
as much. There is nothing wrong. Yes, I suppose it’s him I miss somehow.
Not that he is half to me, or quarter to me, that you are--or anything
to me at all.”

“It’s very strange,” said Dick, troubled; “and somehow _I_ feel for him
as I never felt for anybody else. You knew his--father----?”

“I won’t have any questions from you, Dick,” she cried passionately,
rising from her chair. “I told you I knew his--people. Some time or
other I’ll tell you how I knew them; but not now.”

“I wonder does he know anything about it,” said Dick, speaking more to
himself than her. “It’s very strange; he said he thought you were a
lady, mother; and that he had seen you before----”

“Did he? God bless him!” cried the woman, surprised by sudden tears.
“But I ain’t a lady--I ain’t a lady,” she added, under her breath; “he
was wrong there.”

“You have some lady ways, mother, now and again,” said Dick, pondering.
“It _is_ strange. If you knew his people, as you say, does he know?”

“Not a word, Dick, and he mustn’t know. Remember, if it was my last
word--_he_ mustn’t know! Promise me you’ll not speak. If he knew and
they knew--they’d--I don’t know what they mightn’t do. Dick, you will
never betray your mother?--you will never--never----”

“Hush, mother dear; you are worrying yourself for nothing,” said her
gentle boy. “If there’s nothing wrong, what could they or anybody do? Of
course, I won’t say a word. All the safer,” he added, with a laugh,
“because I don’t know what words to say. When you keep me dark, mother,
I can’t give out any light to other people, can I? It’s the surest way.”

She took no notice of this implied reproof, the most severe that had
ever come from Dick’s gentle lips. She was another creature altogether
from the languid woman whom he had found sitting there in the midst of
the untidy room. A new light had come into her eyes--all her stupor and
weariness were over. Dick was startled, and he was a trifle hurt at the
same time, which was natural enough. If there had been any material for
jealousy in him, I think it must have developed at that moment--for all
his love had not called forth from his mother one tittle of the feeling
which to all appearance an utter stranger awoke. Dick sighed, but his
nature was not in the smallest degree self-contemplative; and he shook
the momentary feeling away ere it had time to take form. “If I can get
leave, I’ll go up to Oxford and see about it to-morrow,” he said. When
he had come to this conclusion, he went towards the door to return to
his work, leaving her active and revived, both in mind and body. But he
stopped before he reached it, and turned back. “Mother,” he said, with a
little solemnity, “Mr Ross will be only about two years at Oxford. What
shall we do when he goes away? We cannot follow him about wherever he
goes.”

“God knows,” she said, stopping short in her sweeping. “Perhaps the
world may end before then; perhaps----. We can’t tell,” she added
solemnly, bowing her head as if to supreme destiny, “what may happen any
day or any year. It’s all in God’s hand.”

Dick went away without another word. He arranged to go to Oxford, and
did so, and found Val, and finally made an agreement to take the
situation offered him; but this little prick to his pride and affection
rankled in his mind. Why should Mr Ross be so much more to her than
himself, her son, who had never left her side? “It is strange,” he said,
with a sense of injury, which grew fainter every moment, yet still
lingered. He looked at Val with more interest than ever, and a curious
feeling of somehow belonging to him. What could the link be? Dick knew
very little about his own history; he did not know whose son he was, nor
what his mother had been. The idea, indeed, gleamed across his mind that
Val’s father might have been his own father, and this thought gave him
no such thrill of pain and shame as it would naturally have brought to a
young man brought up in a different class. Dick, with the terrible
practical knowledge of human nature which belongs to the lower levels of
society, knew that such things happened often enough; and if he felt a
little movement in his mind of unpleasant feeling, he was neither
horrified by the suggestion of such a possibility, nor felt his mother
lowered in his eyes. Whatever the facts were, they were beyond his ken;
and it was not for him to judge them. Pondering it over, however, he
came to feel with a little relief that this could not be the solution.
He knew what the manners of his class were, and he knew that his mother
had always been surrounded by that strange abstract atmosphere of
reserve and modesty which no one else of her degree resembled her in.
No, that could not be the explanation. Perhaps she had recognised in Val
the son of some love of her youth whom she had kept in her thoughts
throughout all her rougher life. This was a strangely visionary
hypothesis, and Dick felt how unreal it was; but what other explanation
could he make?

The situation at Oxford was a great “rise in the world” to Dick. It was
a place of trust, with much better wages than he had at Eton, and a
little house close to the river-side. His Eton employer grumbled a
little, and said something about a want of gratitude, as employers are
so apt to do; but eventually it was all arranged to Dick’s satisfaction
and benefit. He and his mother took possession of the little house in
May, so quickly was the bargain made; and when she made her first
appearance at Oxford, she had put off the last lingering remnants of the
tramp, and looked after the furniture and fittings-up with a languid
show of pleasure in them, such as she had never exhibited before. She
changed her dress, too, to Dick’s infinite pleasure. She put off the
coloured handkerchief permanently from her head, and adopted a
head-dress something of the same shape,--a kerchief of white net tied
under her chin, which threw up her still beautiful face, and impressed
every one who saw her with Val’s idea that she had been a lady once.
This strange head-gear, and the plain black gown without flounces or
ornament which she wore constantly, made people think her some sort of a
nun; and the new man at Styles’ and his mother became notable on the
river-side. They had a little garden to the house, and this, too, seemed
to please her. She filled it with common sweet-smelling flowers, and
worked in it with a new-born love for this corner of earth which she
could call hers; and every day she stood looking over her little
garden-wall, and saw Val and his boat go by. This kept the rhythm of her
life in cadence, and she was livelier and more ready in conversation and
intercourse with her good son than she had ever been before.

As for Val, after the kind thought which made him send for Dick and
warmly plead his cause with the boat-builder on the river-side, there
were moments when he felt a certain embarrassment about what he had
done. Dick, too, had changed, as well as himself. He could not speak to
him as of old, or give him half-crowns, or trust to him to do whatever
he wished. In the last case, indeed, he might have trusted Dick
entirely; for his gratitude, and what is more, his affection, for his
young patron, was unbounded. But Val no longer liked to suggest what
Dick would have been but too happy to do. The vagrant whom he had taken
up had become in a manner Val’s equal. He was wiser than the other,
though he did not know a tenth part so much; and though he owed
everything he was to Val’s boyish interposition in his favour, yet he
had a great deal in him which Val had not originated, and which, indeed,
was quite beyond him. The undergraduate of high degree did not know how
to treat the young man who was still so lowly. He could not ask him to
his rooms, or bid him to eat at his own table, half out of a lingering
social prejudice, half because he had an uncomfortable knowledge of what
people would say. He was as much his friend as ever, but he did not know
how to show it. Now and then he went to the little house, but Dick’s
mother gave him sensations so very strange that he did not care to go
often; and had he gone very often, his tutor, no doubt, would have taken
notice of the fact, and set it down to a love of low society, as his
Eton tutor had done; altogether, the situation was full of
embarrassment, and the intercourse not half so easy as it had been. To
be sure, the external advantages were certain; Dick had a much better
situation and a bright prospect before him, and this was so much gained.
Val’s advice to him about rising in the world had been wonderfully
carried out. He had risen in the world, and got on the steps of the
ladder. Indeed, Dick might almost have been said to have attained all
that a person of his class could ever attain; he might make a great deal
more money, but he could not materially advance his position. Val was
still, and perhaps more than ever, above him, since as they both
progressed into manhood, their respective positions began to be more
sharply defined: and nothing in the world could ever make it possible
for Lord Eskside’s heir to say to the young boat-builder, “Come up
higher.” And yet Val had lost all power of treating him as an inferior.
It was a curious problem, infinitely more difficult, as was natural, to
the generous young fellow on the higher level, than to the lowlier lad
who made no pretensions to any sort of dignity, and never “stood upon” a
quality which he did not suppose himself to possess.

There happened, however, a curious incident in Val’s last summer at
Oxford, which he indeed did not know, but which affected Dick strangely
enough. One summer morning (it was in Commemoration week, when the
mornings are somewhat languid) Dick’s mother was seated in the little
parlour facing the river, which her son had furnished with all the care
of an untaught _virtuoso_. Half the things in it were of his own making;
but there were many trifles besides which he had “picked up,” with that
curious natural fancy for things pretty and unusual which was innate in
him. It was a strange incongruous room. The floor was covered with a
square of old Turkey carpet, the subdued harmonious colours of which,
and soft mossy texture, were Dick’s delight. The little table, covered
with the old faded embroidered shawl, stood in the window; an
old-fashioned glass which Dick had “picked up” was on the mantelpiece,
reflecting some china vases which his mother had bought, and which
showed her taste to be of a different character from his. Prettily
carved bookcases of his making were fitted into the corners; and a
common deal table, without any cover, stood just under one of them, with
a large brown earthenware basin on it, before which his mother sat
shelling peas for Dick’s dinner. She had “a girl” now to help her with
the work, and it was her son’s desire that she should sit in the
parlour. But as it was not within the poor soul’s possibilities to shut
herself up to needlework or any lady-like occupation, she brought in her
peas to shell there, and sat alone, contented enough, yet oppressed with
the sense that within a few days the same blank which she had before
experienced would fall on the earth and skies. It was a bright morning,
still cool but full of sunshine, which just touched the old-fashioned
window-sill, upon which lay Dick’s carving materials and a book or
two--not, I am sorry to say, books intended to be read, but only to get
designs out of, and suggestions for work. The river lay broad in the
sunshine, relieved by here and there the bright green of some willows:
the softened sounds outside, the soft silence within, were harmonious
with the subdued sensations of the lonely woman, in whom all seemed
stilled too for the moment. The shadow hung over her, but it had not yet
fallen, and her mind was less excited than it had been--more able to
endure, less intolerant of pain.

Thus she sat absorbed in her homely occupation, when she heard voices
approaching through the soft air. One of them she recognised at once
with a thrill of pleasure to be Val’s. He was coming slowly along,
pointing out everything to some one with him. The woman dropped the peas
out of her hands, and listened. The window was open, and so near the
road that every sound was distinctly heard. It was some time before any
one replied to Val, and the listener had leisure enough for many wild
fears and throbs of anxious suspense. At last the answer came--in a
lady’s voice, which she knew as well as if she had heard it yesterday,
with its soft Scotch accent, its firm tone and character, unlike any
other she knew. The woman rose suddenly, noiselessly, to her feet; she
grew white and blanched, as with deadly terror.

“Here is where Brown lives,” said Val, in his cheery voice--“and his
mother, whom I want you particularly to see. A nice little house, isn’t
it? Stop and look at the boats down the river before we go in. Isn’t it
pretty, grandma? not like our Esk, to be sure, but with a beauty of its
own.”

“Far gayer and brighter than Esk, certainly,” said Lady Eskside, quite
willing to humour the boy; though her own opinion of the broad, flat,
unshadowed, and unfeatured Thames was not too flattering. She stood
leaning upon his arm, rapt in a soft Elysium of pride and happiness. The
lovely morning, and the good accounts she had been hearing of her boy,
and the fact that he was going home with her, and that she was leaning
on his arm, and seeing more beauty in his kind young face than the
loveliest summer morning or the fairest scene could have shown her--all
combined to make everything fair to Lady Eskside. She was going to visit
his humble friends--to seal with her approbation that kindly patronage
of the “deserving” poor, which is as creditable to their superiors as a
love of low society is discreditable. They stood together talking for a
minute at the open door.

At that same moment Dick was on his way to the back door which
communicated with the boat-building yard--but was met, to his wonder and
dismay, by his mother, flying from the house with a face blanched to
deadly paleness, and a precipitate haste about her, which nothing but
fear could have produced. She seized him by the arm without a
word--indeed she was too breathless and panting to speak--and dragged
him with her, too much amazed to resist. “For God’s sake, what is the
matter, mother?” he said, when surprise would let him speak. She made no
answer, but holding fast by him, took refuge in a boat-house built
against the side wall of the little backyard through which she had
flown. Dick, who was a patient fellow, not easily excited, stood by her
wondering, but refraining to question when he saw the state of painful
excitement in which she was. “Listen!” she said, under her breath; and
presently he heard Val’s voice in the yard calling her. “Mrs Brown!”
cried Val; though it was the first time after her disavowal of it that
he had used that name, which was now adopted by everybody else, as of
course the name of Dick Brown’s mother. “I can’t think where she can
have gone to,” he added, with some vexation; “and I wanted you to see
her specially--almost more than Brown himself.”

“Well, my dear, it cannot be helped,” said the voice of Lady Eskside,
much more composed than Val’s--for I cannot say that she was deeply
disappointed. “No doubt the honest woman has run out about some needful
business--leaving her peas, too. Come, Val, since you can’t find her;
your grandpapa will be waiting for us, my dear.”

“I can’t see Brown, either,” he said, with still greater annoyance,
coming back after an expedition into the yard. “The men say he went
home. I can’t tell you how annoyed I am.”

“Well, well, I can see them another time, my dear,” said my lady,
smiling within herself at the boy’s disappointment--“and we must be
going to meet your grandfather. I wonder where she got that cover on her
table. I had a shawl just like it once; but come, dear, come; think of
my old lord waiting. We must not lose any more time, Val.”

Dick put his arm round his mother; he thought she was going to faint, so
deadly white was her face--white as the kerchief on her head. She laid
her head on his shoulder, and moaned faintly. Her closed eyes, her
blanched cheeks, her lips falling helplessly apart, gave Dick an
impression of almost death.

“Mother, tell me, for God’s sake, who is this, and what is the matter
with you?” he cried.



CHAPTER XXIII.


“You must hold yourself ready to be called back at a moment’s notice,
Val,” said the old lord. “It must be some time next year, and it may be
any day. That is to say, we can scarcely have it, I suppose, before
Parliament meets, except in some unforeseen case. Therefore see all you
can as soon as you can, and after February hold yourself in readiness to
be recalled any day.”

“Certainly, sir,” said Val, with a blithe assent which was trying to his
grandfather. He was quite ready to do anything that was wanted of
him--to make up his mind on any political subject on the shortest
notice, and sign anything that was thought desirable; but as for
personal enthusiasm on the subject, or excitement in the possibility of
being elected member for the county, I am afraid Val was as little moved
as the terrier he was caressing. Perhaps, however, he was all the more
qualified on that account to carry the traditionary principles of the
Rosses to the head of the poll, and to vote as his fathers had voted
before him, when they had the chance,--or would have voted had they had
the chance. Val was setting out on his travels when this warning was
given. He was going to see his father in Florence, and, under his
auspices, to visit Italy generally, which was a very pleasant prospect.
Up to this time he had done the whole duty of boy in this world; and now
he had taken his degree, and had a right to the prouder title of man.

Not that Val was very much changed from his Eton days. He was still slim
and slight, notwithstanding all his boating. His brown complexion was a
trifle browner, if that were possible, with perpetual exposure to the
sun; his hair as full of curls, and as easily ruffled as ever, rising up
like a crest from his bold brown forehead; and I do not think he had yet
got his temper under command, though its hasty flashes were always
repented of the moment after. “A quick temper, not an ill temper,” Lady
Eskside said; and she made out that Valentine Ross, the tenth lord, her
husband’s father--he whose portrait in the library her son called “a
Raeburn,” and between whom and Val she had already attempted to
establish a resemblance--was very hasty and hot-tempered too; which was
an infinite comfort to her, as proving that Val got his temper in the
legitimate way--“from his own family”--and not through that inferior
channel, “his mother’s blood.” He was slightly excited about the visit
to his father, and about his first progress alone into the great
world--much more excited, I am sorry to say, than he was about
representing the county; but on that point Lord Eskside did everything
that was necessary, filling up what was wanting on Valentine’s part in
interest and emotion. He had again filled Rosscraig with a party which
made the woods ring with their guns all morning, and talked politics all
night; and there was not a voter of importance in the whole county who
had not already been “sounded,” one way or other, as to how he meant to
dispose of his vote. “The first thing to be done is to make sure of
keeping the Radicals out,” Lord Eskside said; for, indeed, a Whig lawyer
was known to be poising on well-balanced wing, ready to sweep down upon
a constituency which had always been stanch--faithful among the
faithless known. The present Member, I must explain, was in weak health;
and but for embarrassing his party, and thwarting the cherished purpose
of Lord Eskside, who was one of the leading members of the Conservative
party in the county, would have retired before now.

Val’s term of residence at home was not, therefore, much more than a
visit. He did what an active youth could do to renew all his old
alliances, and climbed up the brae to the Hewan many times without
seeing any of the family there, except the younger boys, who were
mending of some youthful complaint under Mrs Moffatt’s care, and who
looked up to him with great awe, but were not otherwise interesting to
the young man. “Are any of the others coming--is your mother coming--or
Vi?” said Valentine; but these youthful individuals could afford him no
information. “Oh ay, they’re maybe coming next month,” said old Jean,
who took a feminine pleasure in the dismay that was visible in
Valentine’s face. “They were here a’ the summer, June and July; and I
wouldna wonder but we’ll see them all October--if it’s no too cauld,”
the old woman added, with a twinkle in her eye.

“What good will that do me?” said Val; and he leapt the dyke and went
home through the ferns angry with disappointment. And yet he was not at
all in love with Violet, he thought, but only liked her as the nicest
girl he knew. When he remarked to Lady Eskside that it was odd to find
none of the Pringles at the Hewan, my lady arose and slew him on the
spot. “Why should the Pringles be at the Hewan?” she said; “they have a
place of their own, where it becomes them much better to be. To leave
Violet there so long by herself last year was a scandal to her mother,
and gave much occasion for talking.”

“Why should it give occasion for talking?” said Val.

“A boy like you knows nothing about the matter,” the old lady answered,
putting a stop to him decisively. Perhaps that was true enough; but it
was also true that Val took a long walk to the linn next day, and sat
down under the beeches, and mused for half an hour or so, without quite
knowing what he was thinking about. How clearly he remembered those two
expeditions, mingling them a little in his recollection, yet seeing each
so distinctly! the small Violet in her blue cloak, sleeping on his
shoulder (which thought made him colour slightly and laugh in the
silence, such intimate companionship being strangely impossible to think
of nowadays), and the elder Violet, still so sweet and young, younger
than himself, though he was the very impersonation of Youth, repeating
all the earlier experiences except that one. “By Jove, how jolly Mary
is!” said Valentine to himself at the end of this reverie; and when he
went home he devoted himself to Miss Percival, who was again at
Rosscraig, as she always was when Lady Eskside was exposed to the strain
and fatigue of company. “Do you remember our picnic at the linn last
year?” he said, standing over Mary in a corner after dinner, to the
great annoyance of an elderly admirer, who had meant to take this
opportunity of making himself agreeable to a woman who seemed the very
person to “make an excellent stepmother” to his seven children. Mary,
who was conscious in some small degree of the worthy man’s meaning, was
grateful to Val for once; and enjoyed, as the quietest of women do, the
discomfiture of her would-be suitor.

“Yes,” she said, smiling; “what of it, you unruly boy?”

“I am not a proper subject for such epithets,” said Val. “I have
attained my majority, and made a speech to the tenantry. I say, Mary, do
you know, that’s a lovely spot, that linn. I was there to-day----”

“Oh, you were there to-day?”

“Yes, I was there. Is there anything wonderful in that?” said Val, not
sure whether he ought not to take offence at the laughing tone, which
seemed to imply something. “Tell Violet, when you see her, that it was
uncommonly shabby of her not to come this year. We’d have gone again.”

“There’s a virtue in three times, Val,” said Mary. “If you go again, it
will be more than a joke; and I don’t think I’ll give your message to
Vi.”

“Why should it be more than a joke? Or why should it be a joke at all?”
said Val, reddening, he scarcely knew why. He withdrew after this,
slightly confused, feeling as if some chance touch had got at his heart,
giving it a _dinnle_ which was half pleasure and half pain. Do you know
what a _dinnle_ is, dear English reader? It means that curious sensation
which you, in the poverty of your language, call “striking the funny
bone.” You know what it is in the elbow. Valentine had that kind of
sensation in his heart; and I think if this half-painful jar of the
nerve lasted, and suggested quite new thoughts to the boy, it was all
Mary Percival’s fault. I am happy to say that her widower got at her on
Val’s withdrawal, and made himself most overpoweringly agreeable for the
rest of the night.

And then the boy went away on his grand tour, leaving the old people at
home rather lonely, longing after him; though Lord Eskside was too much
occupied to take much notice of Val’s departure. My lady was very busy,
too, paying visits all over the country, and paying court to great and
small. She promised the widower her interest with Mary, but judiciously
put him off till Miss Percival’s next visit, saying, cunningly, that she
must have time to prepare her young friend for the idea, and trusting in
Providence that the election might be over before an answer had to be
given. It was gratifying to the Esksides to find a devoted canvasser for
Valentine in the person of Lord Hightowers, the only possible competitor
who could have “divided the party” in the county. Hightowers, however,
was not fond of politics, and had no ambition for public life; it would
have suited him better to be a locksmith, like Louis Seize. And among
them all, they got the county into such a beautiful state of preparation
that Lord Eskside could scarcely contain his rapture--and having laid
all his trains, and holding his match ready, sat down, in a state of
excitement which it would be difficult to describe, to wait until the
moment of explosion came.

In other places, too, Valentine’s departure had caused far more
excitement than he was at all aware of. He had seen and said good-bye to
Dick with the most cordial kindness, on the day he left Oxford. But Val
had not failed to remark a gravity and preoccupation about his humble
friend which troubled him in no small degree. When he recounted to Dick
the failure of Lady Eskside and himself on the day before, the young man
had received the information with a painful attempt to seem surprised,
which made Val think for a moment that Dick’s mother had avoided the
visit of set purpose. But as he knew of no hidden importance in this,
the idea went lightly out of his head; and a few days after he
remembered it no more. Very much more serious had been the effect upon
Dick. His mother’s flight and her panic were equally unintelligible to
him. The thought that there must be “something wrong” involved, in order
to produce such terror, was almost irresistible; and Dick’s breeding, as
I have said, had been of that practical kind which makes the mind
accustomed to the commoner and vulgarer sorts of wrong-doing. He did not
insist upon knowing what it was that made his mother afraid of Val’s
grandmother; but her abject terror, and the way in which she dragged him
too, out of sight, as if he had been a partner of her shame, had the
most painful effect upon the young man. In the rudimentary state of
morals which existed among the class from which he sprang, and where all
his primitive ideas had been formed, dishonesty was the one crime short
of murder which could bring such heavy shame along with it. He who
steals is shunned in all classes, except among the narrow professional
circles of thieves themselves; and Dick could not banish from his
thoughts a painful doubt and uncertainty about his mother’s relations
with “Mr Ross’s people.” She herself was so stunned and petrified by the
great danger which she seemed to herself to have escaped, that she was
very little capable of giving a rational explanation of her conduct.
“You knew this lady before, mother?” said Dick to her, half pitifully,
half severely, as he took her back to the parlour and placed her in a
chair after the visitors were gone. “Yes,” she answered, but no more.
And though he asked her many other questions, nothing more than
repeated Yes and No could he get in reply.

I do not know what wild sense of peril was in the poor creature’s heart.
She feared, perhaps, that they could have taken her up and punished her
for running away from her husband; she felt sure that they would
separate her from her remaining boy--though had they not the other, whom
she had given up to them? and in her panic at the chance of being found
out, all power of reasoning (if she ever had any) deserted her. Ah, she
thought to herself, only a tramp is safe! As soon as you have a settled
habitation, and are known to neighbours, and can be identified by people
about, all security leaves you: only on the tramp is a woman who wishes
to hide herself safe. In her first panic, the thought of going away
again, of deserting everything, of taking refuge on those open
roads--those outdoor bivouacs which are full in the eye of day, yet
better refuges than any mysterious darkness--came so strongly over her,
that it was all she could do to withstand its force. But when she looked
at her son, active and trim, in his boat-building yard, or saw him
studying the little house at night, with his tools in his hand, to judge
where he could put up something or improve something--his mother felt
herself for the first (or perhaps it was the second) time in her life,
bound as it were by a hundred minute threads which made it impossible
for her to please herself. It was something like a new soul which had
thus developed in her. In former times she had done as the spirit moved
her, obeying her impulses whenever they were so strong as to carry
everything else before them. Now she felt a distinct check to the wild
force of these impulses. The blood in her veins moved as warmly as ever,
impelling her to go, and she knew that she was free to go if she would,
and that Dick too could be vanquished, and would come with her, however
unwillingly. She was free to go, and yet she could not. For the first
time in her life she had learned consciously to prefer another to
herself. She could not ruin Dick. The struggle that she maintained with
her old self was violent, but it was within herself, and was known to
nobody; and finally, the new woman, the higher creature, vanquished the
old self-willed and self-regarding wanderer. She set herself to meet the
winter with a dogged resolution, feeling less, perhaps, the absence of
that visionary solace which she had found in the sight of Val, in
consequence of the hard and perpetual battle she had to fight with
herself. And, to make it harder, she had not the cheery gratitude and
tender appreciation of the struggle, which had rewarded her much less
violent effort before. Dick was gloomy, overcast, pondering upon the
strange thing that had happened. He could not get over it: it stood
between him and his mother, making their intercourse constrained and
unhappy. Had she _robbed_ the old lady from whom she had fled in so
strange a panic? Short of that, or something of that kind, why, poor
Dick thought, should one woman be so desperately afraid of another? He
did not, it is true, say, or even whisper to himself, this word so
terrible to one in his insecure position, working his way in the world
with slow and laborious advances; but the suspicion rankled in his
heart.

All this time, however, his mother neither thought of setting herself
right by telling him what her mystery was, nor once felt that she was
wronging Dick by keeping the secret of his parentage so closely hidden
from him. It did not occur to her that by doing this she was doing an
injury to her boy. The life of gentlefolks--the luxurious and elegant
existence into which her husband had tried to tame her, a wild creature
of the woods--had been nothing but misery to her; and I doubt whether
she was capable of realising that Dick, so different from herself in
nature, would have felt differently in respect to those trammels from
which she had fled. Had she been able to think, she would have seen
how--unconsciously, with the instinct of another race than hers--the boy
had been labouring all his life to manufacture for himself such a poor
imitation of those trammels as was possible to him; but she was little
capable of reasoning, and she did not see it. Besides, he was hers
absolutely, and she had a right to him. She had given up the other,
recognising a certain claim of natural justice on the part of the father
of her children; and in so doing she had gone as far as nature could go,
giving up half, with a rending of her heart which had never healed; but
no principle of which she had ever heard called upon her to give up the
whole. The very fact of having made a sacrifice of one seemed to enhance
and secure her possession of the other--and how could she do better for
Dick than she had done for herself? But this question had not even
arisen in her mind as yet. She feared that _they_ had hidden emissaries,
who, if they found her out, might take her remaining child from her;
but that he was anyhow wronged by her silence, or had any personal
rights in the matter, had not yet entered into her brooding, slowly
working, confused, and inarticulate soul.

In one other house besides, Val and his concerns were productive of some
little tumult of feeling--not the least important of the many eddies
with which his stream of life was involved. Mr Pringle was almost as
much excited about the approaching conflict as Lord Eskside. He saw in
it opportunities for carrying out his own scheme, which he called
exposure of fraud, but which to others much more resembled the vengeance
of a disappointed man. He was the bosom friend of the eminent lawyer who
meant to contest Eskside in the Liberal interest, and had no small share
in influencing him to this step. His own acquaintance with the county,
in the position of Lord Eskside’s heir-presumptive in past days, had
given him considerable advantages and much information which a stranger
could not easily command; and with silent vehemence he prepared himself
for the conflict--contemplating one supreme stroke of revenge--or, as he
preferred to think, contemplating a full exposure to the world of the
infamous conspiracy against his rights and those of his children, from
which the county also was now about to suffer. He did not speak freely
to his family of these intentions, for neither his wife nor his children
were in harmony with him on the subject; but this fact, instead of
inducing him to reconsider a matter which appeared to other eyes in so
different a light, increased the violence of his feelings, just in
proportion to the necessity he felt for concealing them. It was even an
additional grievance against Valentine, and the old people who had set
Valentine up as their certain successor, that the lad had secured the
friendship of his enemy’s own family. Sandy, who was by this time a
hard-working young advocate, less fanciful and more certain of success
than his father--though a very good son, and very respectful of his
parents, had a way of changing the subject when the Eskside business was
spoken of, which cut Mr Pringle to the quick. He could see that his son
considered him a kind of monomaniac on this subject; and indeed there
was sometimes very serious talk between Sandy and his mother about this
_idée fixe_ which had taken hold upon the father’s mind.

Thus Mr Pringle’s own family set themselves against him; but perhaps
there was not one of them that had the least idea what painful results
might follow except poor little Violet, who was very fond of her father,
and in whose childish heart Val had established himself long ago. She
alone was certain that her father meant mischief--mischief of a deeper
kind than mere opposition to his election, such as Mr Pringle, as tenant
of the Hewan and the land belonging to it, had a right to make if he
pleased. Violet watched him with a painful mixture of dread lest her
father should take some unworthy step, and dread lest Valentine should
be injured, contending in her mind. She could scarcely tell which would
have been the most bitter to her; and that these two great and appalling
dangers should be combined in one, was misery enough to fill her young
soul with the heaviest shadows. This she had to keep to herself, which
was still harder to bear, though very usual in the troubles of youth.
Everything which concerns an unrevealed and nascent love,--its terrors,
which turn the very soul pale; its partings, which press the life out of
the heart; its sickness of suspense and waiting,--must not the maiden
keep all these anguishes locked up in her heart, until the moment when
they are over, and when full declaration and consent make an end at once
of the mystery and the misery? This training most people go through,
more or less; but the trial is so much harder upon the little blossoming
woman that the dawnings of the inclination, which she has never been
asked for, are a shame to her, which they are not to her lover. Violet
did not venture to say a word even to her mother of her wish to be at
the Hewan while Val was there--of her sick disappointment when she found
he had gone away without a chance of saying good-bye; and though she did
venture to whisper her fears lest papa might “say something to hurt poor
Val’s feelings,” which was a very mild way of putting it--she got little
comfort out of this suppressed confidence. “I am afraid he will,” Mrs
Pringle said. “Indeed, the mere fact that your papa is Mr Seisin’s chief
friend and right-hand man, will hurt Val’s feelings. I am very sorry,
and I think it very injudicious; for why should we put ourselves in
opposition to the Eskside family? but it cannot be helped, and your papa
must take his way.”

“Perhaps if you were to speak to him,” said Vi, with youthful confidence
in a process, than which she herself knew nothing more impressive, and
even terrible on occasion.

“Speak to him!” said Mrs Pringle; “if you had been married to him as
long as I have, my dear, you would know how much good speaking to him
does. Not that your papa is a bit worse than any other man.”

With this very unsatisfactory conclusion poor Violet had to be
satisfied. But she watched her father as no one else did, fearing more
than any one else. Her gentle little artifices, in which the child at
first trusted much, of saying something pleasant of Val when she had an
opportunity--vaunting his fondness for the boys, his care of herself (in
any other case the strongest of recommendations to her father’s
friendship), his respect for Mr Pringle’s opinions, his admiration of
the Hewan--had, she soon perceived, to her sore disappointment, rather
an aggravating than a soothing effect. “For heaven’s sake, let me hear
no more of that lad! I am getting to hate the very sound of his name,”
her father said; and poor Violet would stop short, with tears springing
to her eyes.



CHAPTER XXIV.


Valentine went off gaily upon his journey, without any thought of the
tragic elements he had left behind him. I think, had Dick been still at
the rafts at Eton, his young patron would have proposed to him to
accompany him to Italy in that curious relationship which exists in the
novel and drama, and could perhaps exist in former generations, but not
now, among men--as romantic humble servant and companion. But Dick was
grown too important a man to make any such proposal possible. Valentine
dallied a little in Paris, which he saw for the first time, and made his
way in leisurely manner across France, and along the beautiful Cornice
road, as people used to do in the days before railways were at all
general, or the Mont Cenis tunnel had been thought of. He met, I need
not add, friends at every corner--old “Eton fellows,” comrades from
Oxford, crowds of acquaintances of his own class and kind--a peculiarity
of the present age which is often very pleasant for the traveller, but
altogether destroys the strangeness, the novelty, the characteristic
charm, of a journey through a foreign country. A solid piece of England
moving about over the Southern landscape could not be more alien to the
soil on which it found itself than were those English caravans in which
the young men travelled; talking of cricket if they were given that
way--of hits to leg, and so many runs off one bat; or, if they were
boating men, of the last race, or what happened at Putney or at Henley,
while the loveliest scenes in the world flew past their carriage-windows
like a panorama. I think Mr Evelyn saw a great deal more of foreign
countries when he made the grand tour; and even Val, though he was not
very learned in the jargon of the picturesque, got tired of those
endless _réchauffés_ of stale games and pleasures. He got to Florence
about a fortnight after he left England, and made his way at once to the
steep old Tuscan palace, with deeply-corniced roof and monotonous gloom
of aspect, which stood in one of the smaller streets opening into the
Via Maggio on the wrong side of the river. The wrong side--but yet the
Pitti palace is there, and certain diplomatists preferred that regal
neighbourhood. Val found a servant, a bland and splendid Italian
major-domo, waiting for him when he arrived, but not his father, as he
had half hoped; and even when they reached the great gloomy house, he
was received by servants only--rather a dismal welcome to the English
youth. They led him through an endless suite of rooms, half lighted,
softly carpeted, full of beautiful things which he remarked vaguely in
passing, to an inner sanctuary, where his father lay upon a sofa with a
luxurious writing-table by his side. Richard Ross sprang up when he
heard his son announced, and came forward holding out his hand. He even
touched Valentine’s face with his own, first one cheek, then the
other,--a salutation which embarrassed Val beyond measure; and then he
bade him welcome in set but not unkindly terms, and began to ask him
about his journey, and how he had left “everybody at home.”

This was only the third time that Val had seen his father, and Richard
was now a man approaching fifty, and considerably changed from the
elegant young diplomatist, who had surveyed with so little favour
fourteen years ago the boy brought back to him out of the unknown.
Richard’s first sensation now on seeing his son was one of quick
repugnance. He was so like--the vagrant woman against whom Mr Ross was
bitter as having destroyed his life. But he was too wise to allow any
such feeling to show, and indeed did his best to make the boy at home
and comfortable. He asked him about his studies, and received Val’s
half-mournful confession of not having perhaps worked so well as he
might have done, with an indulgent smile. “It was not much to be
expected,” he said; “boys like you, with no particular motive for work,
seldom do exert themselves. But I heard you had gained reputation in a
still more popular way,” he added; and spoke of the boat-race, &c., in a
way that made Val deeply ashamed of that triumph, though up to this
moment he had been disposed to think it the crowning triumph of his
life. “You were quite right to go in for it, if your inclination lies
that way,” said his bland father. “It is as good a way as another of
getting a start in society.” And he gave Val a list of “who” was in
Florence, according to the usage established on such occasions. He even
took the trouble of going himself to show him his room, which was a
magnificent chamber, with frescoed walls and gilded ceilings, grand
enough for a prince’s reception-room, Val thought; and told him the
hours of meals, and the arrangements of the household generally. “My
house is entirely an Italian one,” he said, “but two or three of the
people speak French. I hope you know enough of that language at least,
to get on easily. Your own servant, of course, will be totally helpless,
but I will speak to Domenico to look after him. If you know anything at
all of Italian, you should speak it,” he added, suavely; “you will find
it the greatest help to you in your reading hereafter. Now I will leave
you to rest after your long journey, and we shall meet at dinner,” said
the politest of fathers. Val sat staring before him half stupefied when
he found himself left alone in the beautiful room. This was not the kind
of way in which a son just arrived would be treated at Eskside. How much
he always had to explain to his grandmother, to tell her of, to hear
about! What a breathless happy day the first day at home always was, so
full of talk, news, consultations, interchange of the family nothings
that are nothing, yet so sweet! Val’s journey had only been from
Leghorn, no further, so he was not in the least fatigued; and why he
should be shut up here in his room to rest he had not a notion, any
desire to rest being far from his thoughts. After a while he got up and
examined the room, which was full of handsome old furniture. How he
wished Dick had been with him, who would have enjoyed all those
cabinets, and followed every line of the carvings with interest!
Valentine himself cared little for such splendours. And finally he went
out, and found as usual a school-fellow round the first corner, and
marched about the strange beautiful place till it was time for dinner,
and felt himself again.

It was very strange, however, to English--or rather Scotch--Valentine,
to find himself in this Italian house, with a man so polished, so
cultivated, so exotic as his father for his sole companion. Not that
they saw very much of each other. They met at the twelve o’clock
breakfast, where every dish was new to Val, for the _ménage_ was
thoroughly Italian; and at dinner on the days when Richard dined at
home. Sometimes he took his handsome boy with him to great Italian
houses, where, in the flutter of rapid conversation which he could not
follow, poor Val found himself hopelessly left out, and looked as
_gauche_ and unhappy as any traditionary lout of his age; and sometimes
Val himself would join an English party at a hotel, where the hits to
leg and the Ladies’ Challenge Cup would again be the chief subjects of
conversation; if not (which was still more dreary) the ladies’ eager
comparing of notes over Lady Southsea’s garden party, or that charming
Lady Mary Northwood’s afternoon teas. On the whole, Val felt that his
father’s banquets were best adapted to the locality; and when a lovely
princess, with jewels as old as her name and as bright as her eyes,
condescended to put up with his indifferent French, the young man was
considerably elated, and proud of his father and his father’s
society--as, when the same fair lady congratulated Richard upon the
_beaux yeux_ of Monsieur _son fils_, his father was of him.

One of the rare evenings which they spent together, Val informed his
father of Lord Eskside’s eager preparations for the ensuing election,
and of the place he was himself destined to take in the eyes of his
county and country. Richard Ross did not receive this information as his
son expected. His face grew immediately overcast.

“I wonder my father is so obstinate about this,” he said. “He knows my
feeling on the subject. It is the most terrible ordeal a man can be
subjected to. I wish you had let me know, all of you, before making up
your minds to this very foolish proceeding. Parliament!--what should you
want with Parliament at your age?”

“Not much,” said Val, somewhat uneasy to hear his grandfather attacked
by his father, and a little dubious whether it became him to take the
old man’s side so warmly as he wished; “but I hope I shall do my duty as
well as another,” he said, with a little modest pride, “though I have
still everything to learn.”

“Do your duty! stuff and nonsense,” said Richard; “what does a boy of
your age know about duty? Please your grandfather you mean.”

Val felt the warm blood mounting to his face, and bit his lip to keep
himself down. “And if it was so, sir,” he said, his eyes blazing in
spite of himself, “there might be worse things to do.”

Richard stopped short suddenly and looked at him--not at his face, but
into his eyes, which is of all things in the world the most trying to a
person of hot temper. “Ha!” he said, with a soft smile, raising his
eyebrows a little in gentle surprise, “you have a temper, I see! how is
it I never found that out before?”

Val dug his heels into the rich old Turkey carpet; he pressed his nails
into his flesh, wounding himself to keep himself still. One glance he
gave at the perfect calm of his father’s face, then cast down his eyes
that he might not see it. Richard looked at him with amused calculation,
as if measuring his forces, then waited, evidently expecting an
outburst. When none came, he said with that precise and nicely-modulated
voice, every tone of which ministers occasions of madness to the
impatient mind--

“Of course, with that face you must have a temper; I should have seen it
at the first glance. But you have learnt to restrain it, I perceive. I
congratulate you--it augurs well for your success in life.”

Then he fell back quite naturally into the previous subject, changing
his tone in a moment to one of polite and perfect ease.

“I am sorry, as I said before, that my father is so obstinate. Why
doesn’t he put in some squire or other whom he might influence as much
as he pleases? But you; I tell you there isn’t such an ordeal in
existence. Everything a man has ever done is raked up.”

“They may rake up as much as they please,” said Val, with a violent
effort, determined not to be outdone by his father in power of
self-control. His voice, however, was unsteady, and so was the laugh
which he forced. “They may rake up what they please; I don’t think they
can make much of that, so far as I am concerned.”

“So far as you are concerned!” repeated Richard, impatiently. “Why, if
your grandaunt made a _faux pas_ a hundred years ago, it would be
brought up against you. You! It was not robbing of orchards I was
thinking of. My father is very foolish; and it is wilful folly, for I
told him my sentiments on the subject.”

“I wish, sir, if it was the same to you, you would remember that my
grandfather--is my grandfather,” said Val, not raising his eyes.

“Oh, very well. He is not my grandfather, you see, and that makes me,
perhaps, less respectful,” said Richard. “You have taken away my comfort
with this news of yours, and it is hard if I may not abuse somebody. Do
you know what an election is? If your great-grandaunt, as I said, ever
made a _faux pas_----”

“I don’t suppose she did,” said Val. “Why should we be troubled about
the reputation of people who live only in the picture-gallery? I am not
afraid of my grandaunt.”

“It is because you do not know,” said Richard, with a sigh. “Write to
your grandfather, and persuade him to give it up. It is infinitely
annoying to me. Tell him so. I shall not have a peaceful moment till it
is over. One’s whole history and antecedents delivered up to the gossip
of a vulgar crowd! I think my father must have taken leave of his wits.”

And he began to pace about the great dimly-lighted room in evident
perturbation. The rooms in the Palazzo Graziani were all dimly lighted.
A few softly burning lamps, shaded with delicate _abâtjours_, gave here
and there a silvery glimmer in the midst of the richly-coloured and
balmy darkness--just enough to let you see here a picture, there a bit
of tapestry, an exquisite cabinet, or some priceless “bit” of the
sumptuous furniture which belongs of right to such houses. Richard’s
slight figure moving up and down in this lordly place, with impatient
movements, disturbed its calm like a pale ghost of passions past.

“Every particular of one’s life!” he continued. “I told him so. It is
all very well for men who have never stirred from home. If you want to
save us all a great deal of annoyance, and yourself a great many stings
and wounds, write to your grandfather, and beseech him to give it up.”

“I will tell him that you wish it, sir,” said Val, hesitating; “but I
cannot say that I do myself, or that I distrust his judgment. Will you
tell me what wounds I have to fear should they bring up all my
antecedents--every particular of one’s life?”

Richard eyed his son from the shade in which he stood. Val’s face was in
the full light. It was pale, with a certain set of determination about
the mouth, on which there hovered a somewhat forced smile. He paused a
moment, wondering how to reply. A dim room is an admirable field for
deliberation, with one face in the shade and the other in the light.
Should he settle the subject with a high hand, and put the young man
summarily down? Should he yield? He did neither. He altered his voice
again with the consummate skill of a man trained to rule and make use of
even his self-betrayals, and knowing every possible way of doing so. He
laughed softly as he came back to the table, throwing off his impatience
as if it had been a cloak.

“A snare! a snare!” he said. “If you think I am so innocent as to fall
into it, or if you hope to see me draw a chair to the table and begin,
‘My son, listen to the story of my life,’ you are mistaken, Val. I am
like most other men. I have done things, and known people whom I should
not care to have talked about--and which will be talked about inevitably
if you are set up as a candidate for Eskside. Never mind! I shall have
to put up with it, I suppose, since my father has set his heart upon it;
but I warn you that it may come harder on you than me; and when I say so
I have done. Give me your photographs, and let me look over them--a
crowd of your Eton and Oxford friends, I suppose.”

Val looked at his father with a question in his eyes, which he tried to
put with his lips, and could not. During all these years he had thought
little enough of his mother. Now and then the recollection that there
was such a person wandering somewhere in the world would come to him at
the most unlikely time--in the middle of the night, in the midst of some
moment of excitement, rarely when he could make any inquiries about her,
even had it been possible for him to utter such inquiries. Now at once
these suppressed recollections rushed into his mind. Here was the
fountain-head of information; and no doubt the story which he did not
know, which no one had ever told him, was what his father feared.
“Father,” he began, his mouth growing dry with excitement, his heart
beating so loudly that he could scarcely hear himself speak.

Probably Richard divined what he was going to say--for Val, I suppose,
had hardly ever addressed him solemnly by this title before. He called
him “Sir,” when he spoke to him, scarcely anything else. Richard stopped
him with a rapid movement of his hand.

“Don’t, for heaven’s sake, speak to me so solemnly,” he said, half
fretfully, half playfully. “Let me look at your photographs. There is a
good man here, by the way, where you should go and get yourself done.
The old people at home would like it, and it might prove a foundation,
who knows, for the fine steel engraving of the member for Eskside,
which, no doubt will be published some day or other. Come round to this
side and tell me who they are.”

The words were stopped on Valentine’s lips; and if any one could have
known how bitter these words were to him, his relinquishment of the
subject would be more comprehensible to them. Are we not all glad to
postpone a disagreeable explanation? “It must be done some time,” we
say; “but why now, when we are tolerably comfortable?” Valentine acted
upon this natural feeling. His sentiments towards his father were of a
very mingled character. He was proud of him; his refinement and
knowledge of the world made a powerful impression upon the boy’s mind;
Val even admired the man who was so completely unlike himself--admired
him and almost disliked him, and watched him with mingled wonder and
respect. He had never had a chance of regarding him with the natural
feelings of a child or forming the usual prejudices on his behalf. He
met him almost as one stranger meets another, and could not but judge
him accordingly on his merits rather than receive him blindly, taking
those merits for granted, which is in most cases the more fortunate lot
of a son. His father was only a relation of whom he knew very little,
and with whom he was upon quite distant and independent, yet respectful
terms. They were both glad, I think, to take refuge in the photographs;
and Richard asked with a very good grace, “Who is this?” and “Who is
that?”--through showers of young Oxford men and younger Etonians. When
he had made his way through them, there was still a little pack of
cards to be turned over--photographs not dignified enough to find a
place in any book. Hunter, the gamekeeper, Harding, the butler, his wife
the housekeeper, and many other humble personages, were amongst them;
and Richard turned them over with more amusement than the others had
given him. Suddenly, however, his remarks came to a dead stop. Val, who
was standing close by him, felt that his father started and moved
uneasily in his chair. He said nothing for the moment; then in a voice
curiously unlike his former easy tone, yet curiously conquered into a
resemblance of it, he said, with a little catching of his breath, “And
who is this, Val?”

It was a scrap of an unmounted photograph, a bit cut off from the corner
of a river scene--a portrait taken unawares and unintentionally by a
wandering artist who was making studies of the river. It was Dick
Brown’s mother, as she had been used to stand every day within her
garden wall, looking at Val’s boat as it passed. Val had seen the
picture with her figure in it, and had bought and kept it as a memento
of two people in whom he took so much interest: for by an odd chance
Dick was in it too, stooping to push off a boat from the little pier
close by, and very recognisable by those who knew him, though his face
was scarcely visible. “Oh, sir,” said Val, instinctively putting out his
hand for it, “that is nothing. It was taken by chance. It’s the portrait
of a woman at Oxford, the mother of a fellow I know.”

“A fellow you know--who may that be? is his portrait among those I have
been looking at? This,” said Richard, holding it fast and disregarding
Val’s hand, which was stretched out to take it, “is an interesting
face.”

What feelings were in the man’s breast as he looked at it who can tell?
Surprise, almost delirious, though he hid it as he had trained himself
to hide everything; quick-springing curiosity, almost hatred, wild
eagerness to know what his son knew of her. He made that remark about
the interesting face not unfeelingly, but unawares, to fill up the
silence, because everything in him was stirred up into such wild
impulses of emotion. The light swam in his eyes; yet he continued to see
the strange little picture thus blown into his hand as it seemed by some
caprice of fate. As for Valentine, he felt a repugnance incomprehensible
to himself to say anything about Dick or his mother, and could have
snatched the scrap of photograph out of his father’s hand, though he
could not tell why.

“Oh, it is not much,” he said--“it is not any one you would know. It is
the mother of a lad I took a great fancy to a few years ago. He was on
the rafts at Eton, and used to do all sorts of things for me. That’s his
mother--and indeed there’s himself in the corner, if you could see him.
I found it in a photograph of the river; and as I knew the people, and
it is so seldom one sees people who are unconscious of their likenesses
being taken, I bought it; but of course it has no interest to any one
who does not know the originals,” and he put out his hand for it again.

“Pardon,” said Mr Ross, serenely--“it has an interest. The face is a
very remarkable face, like one I remember seeing years ago. What sort of
a person was her son?”

By skilful questions he drew from Val all that he knew: the whole story
of Dick’s struggle upwards; of his determination to do well; of the way
he had risen in the world. Val mixed himself as little as he could with
the narrative, but could not help showing unwittingly how much share he
had in it; and at last grew voluble on the subject, flattered by the
interest his father took in it. “You say the son was at the rafts at
Eton, and yet this picture was taken at Oxford. How was that?” said
Richard. Val was standing behind him all this time, and their looks had
not met.

“Well, sir,” said Val, “I hope you won’t think, as Grinder did, that it
was my love of what he called low society. If Brown is low society, I
should like to know where to find better.”

“So Grinder said it was your love of low society?”

“He wrote to my grandfather,” said Val, sore at the recollection, “but
fortunately they knew me better; and when I explained everything,
grandmamma, like the old darling she is, sent me ten pounds to buy Brown
a present. I got him some books, and crayons, and carving things----”

“Yes; but you have not told me how this came to be taken at Oxford,”
said Richard, persistent.

“Well, sir, I was going to tell you. I heard that old Styles wanted a
man. Styles, perhaps you recollect him down at---- Yes, that’s him. So I
told him I could recommend Brown, and so could Lichen, who had been
captain of the boats in my time. Lichen of Christ’s-Church. You won’t
know his name? He rowed stroke----”

“Yes, yes; but let us come back to Brown.”

“There is not much more,” said Val, a little disconcerted. “Styles took
him on our recommendation, and hearing what an excellent character he
had--and that’s where he is now. He and his mother have got Styles’
little house, and the old man’s gone into the country. I shouldn’t
wonder if Brown had the business when he dies. He has got on like a
house on fire,” said Val--“educated himself up from nothing, and would
be a credit to any one. I’ve always thought,” said the lad, with an
innocent assumption of superior insight, “that he cannot have been born
a cad, as he seemed, when I first saw him; for the mother looks as if
she had been a lady. You laugh, sir, but I dare swear it’s true.”

“I was not laughing,” said Richard, bundling up the photographs
together, and handing them over to his son; “indeed, I think you have
behaved very creditably, and shown yourself capable of more than I
thought. Now, my dear fellow, I’m going to work to-night. Take your
pictures. They have amused me very much; and I think you should go to
bed.”

Val had been doing a great deal that day, and I think he was not sorry
to take his father’s advice. He gathered all his treasures together, and
bade him a more cordial good-night than usual, as he went away with his
candle through the dim suite of rooms. As soon as he had turned his
back, Richard Ross pushed away the papers he had drawn before him, and
watched the young figure with its light, walking down the long vista of
curtained rooms. The man was not genial enough to let that same gentle
apparition come in and illuminate with love the equally dim and lonely
antechambers of his heart; but some thrill of natural feeling quickened
within him, some strange movement of unwonted emotion as he looked after
the lad, and felt how wonderful was this story, and how unwittingly, in
natural friendliness of his boyish soul, Val had done a brother’s part
to his brother. The idea moved him more than the reality did. He took up
the little photograph again, which he had kept without Valentine’s
knowledge, and gazed at it, but not with love. “Curse of my life!”--he
said to himself, murmuring the words in sonorous Tuscan, which he spoke
like a native; and clenching his teeth as he gazed at the image of the
woman who had ruined him, as he thought. She to look “as if she had
been a lady!”--he laughed within himself secretly and bitterly at the
thought--a lady! the tramp-girl who had been his curse, and whom he had
never been able to teach anything to. When the first vehemence of these
feelings was over, he sat down and wrote a long letter to his
confidential solicitor in London, a man to whom the whole story had long
been known. And I do not think Richard Ross had sound sleep that night.
The discovery excited him deeply, but not with any of the pleasure with
which a man finds what he has lost, with which a husband might be
supposed to discover the traces of his lost wife and child. No; he
wanted no tamed tramp to disgrace him with her presence, no successful
mechanic-son to shame his family: as they had chosen, so let them
remain. He had not even any curiosity, but a kind of instinctive
repugnance to his other son. And yet he was pleased with Valentine, and
thought of the boy more kindly, because he had been kind to his lost
brother. How this paradox should be, I am unable to explain.



CHAPTER XXV.


“So Mr Pringle is on the other side,” said Mary Percival. “Perhaps it is
just as well, considering all things.”

“Why should it be just as well?” said Violet, with a spark of fire
lighting up her soft eyes. “Is unkindness, and opposition among people
who ought to be friends, ever ‘just as well’? You are not like yourself
when you say so;” and a colour which was almost angry rose upon Vi’s
delicate cheek.

“My dear, I have never concealed from you that I want to keep you and
Val apart from each other,” said Miss Percival, with an injudicious
frankness which I have never been able to understand in so sensible a
woman; but the most sensible persons are often foolish on one special
point, and this was Mary’s particular weakness.

“Why should we be kept apart?” said Violet, with lofty youthful
indignation. “Nobody can keep us apart--neither papa’s politics nor
anything else outside of ourselves.”

“Vi! Vi! I don’t think that is how a girl should speak of a young man.”

“Oh, I cannot bear you when you go on about girls and young men!” cried
Violet, stamping her small foot in the vehemence of her indignation. “Is
it my fault that I am a girl and Val a boy? Must I not be friends with
him because of that, a thing we neither of us can help, though I have
known him all my life? But we are fast friends,” cried Vi, with
magnificent loftiness, her pretty nostrils dilating, her bright eyes
flashing upon her companion. “Neither of us thinks for a moment of any
such nonsense. We were friends when we were seven years old, and I would
not give up my friend, not if he were twenty young men!”

“You are a foolish little girl, and I am sorry for you, Vi,” said Mary,
shaking her head. “At any rate, because you are fond of Val, that is no
reason for being uncivil to me.”

At these words, as was natural, Violet, with tears in her eyes, flew to
her friend and kissed her, and begged pardon with abject penitence. “But
I wish I had nothing more on my mind than being friends with Val,” the
girl said, sighing, “or the difference of people’s politics. Of course
people must differ in politics, as they do in everything else. I am a
Liberal myself. I think that to resist everything that is new, and cling
to everything that is old, whether they are bad, or whether they are
good, is very wrong. To choose what is best, whether old or new, is
surely the right way.”

“Oh, you are a Liberal yourself?” said Mary, amused; “but I don’t doubt
Val could easily turn you into a Conservative, Vi.”

“Val could not do anything of the kind,” said Violet, with some
solemnity. “Of course I can’t have lived to be twenty without thinking
on such subjects. But I wish I had nothing more on my mind than that.
Both Liberals and Conservatives may be fond of their country, and do
their best for it. I don’t like a man less for being a Tory, though I am
a Liberal myself.”

“That is very satisfactory for us Tories, my dear,” said Mary, “and I am
obliged to you for your magnanimity; but what is it then, my pretty Vi,
that you have upon your mind?”

The girl paused and let fall a few sudden tears. “Mary,” she said (for
there was a Scotch tie of kinship between them also which made this
familiarity admissible), “I am so frightened--and I don’t know what I
am frightened at. I feel sure papa means to do something more than any
one knows of, against Val.”

“Against Val! He means to oppose his election, no doubt, and give Lord
Eskside and our side all the trouble possible: we know that,” cried
Mary, who was a politician of the old school. “These are always the
tactics of the party--to give as much trouble, and sow as many
heart-burnings as possible; though they know they have not a chance of
success.”

“I suppose it is just what the Tories would do if they were in the same
position,” said Violet, naturally on the defensive. “But all that is
nothing to me,” she cried; “if people like to fight, let them: I don’t
mind it myself--the excitement is pleasant. But, of course, you know
better than I do--are you sure there is nothing more than fair fighting
that papa could do to Val?”

“I am sure your papa is not a man to do anything inconsistent with fair
fighting,” said Mary, evasively, her curiosity strongly roused.

This stopped Violet once more. She gave a heavy sigh. “I hear them say
that everything is fair in an election contest, as everything is fair in
war.”

“Or love.”

“I don’t understand such an opinion,” said Violet, rising to her feet
and striking her pretty hands together in impatience. “If a thing is
wrong once, it is wrong always. Love! they call that love which can be
pushed on by tricks and lies; and people like you, Mary--people who
ought to know better--say so too. Of course, one knows you cannot
_think_ it,” the girl cried, with a quick-drawn breath, half sob, half
sigh.

“Well, dear, I suppose we all give in to the saying of things which we
don’t think,” said Miss Percival, deprecatingly; “but, Vi, you have made
me curious. What is it your father means to do?”

“I wanted to ask you that; what can he do? Can he do anything?” said
Violet. Mary looked at the impulsive girl, not knowing what to answer.
Vi was true as truth itself in her generous young indignation against
all unworthy strategy--and she was “fond of” and “friends with” Val,
according to the childish phraseology which, in this respect at least,
she chose to retain. But still, even Violet’s innocence was a reason
for not trusting her with any admission that Valentine was open to
special attack. She might assail her father with injudicious
partisanship, entreating him to withhold from assaults which he had
never thought of making; so that, on the whole, Mary judged it was
judicious to say nothing as to any special flaw in the young candidate’s
armour. She shook her head.

“I cannot think of anything that could be done against Valentine,” she
said. “He has been a good boy, so far as we know; and when a boy is not
a good boy it is always found out. Sir John is to propose him, and Mr
Lynton of the Linn to second,--he could not have a better start; and
dear old Lord Eskside to stand by him, to get his heart’s desire,” said
Mary, with a little glimmer of moisture in her eyes. “You young things
don’t think of the old people. It goes to my heart, after all their
disappointments, to think they will have their wish at last.”

Violet did not make any reply. Though she was a Liberal herself, and
looked upon politics generally from such an impartial elevation of good
sense, it was no small trouble to poor Vi to know that she could not
even pretend to be on Valentine’s side at this great crisis of his
life;--could not go with Lady Eskside’s triumphant party to see him done
honour to in the sight of all men; could not even wear a bit of ribbon,
poor child, for his sake, but must put on the colours of snuffy Mr
Seisin, and go with her mother to the opposition window, and pretend to
look delighted at all the jokes that might be made, and all the assaults
upon her friends. Violet would not allow how deeply she felt this, the
merely superficial and necessary part of the situation; and, in reality,
it was as nothing to her in comparison with the dread in her heart of
something more, she knew not what--some masked battery which her
father’s hand was arranging. She took Mary out to show her the
improvements which were being made at the Hewan, the new rooms which
were almost finished, and which would make of the poor little cottage a
rustic villa. Jean Moffatt, whose nest had not been interfered with,
though Mr Pringle had bought the place, came out as she heard the voices
of the ladies, to take her share in the talk. Jean had now the
privileged position of an old servant among the Pringles, and still
acted as duenna and protectress to Violet on many a summer day when that
little maiden escaped alone with her maid from Moray Place. Mr Pringle
had been getting on in his profession during those years; not in its
honours, the tide of which he had allowed to go past him, but in its
more substantial rewards. He was better off, and able to afford himself
the indulgence of a whim; so the Hewan had been bought, half in love,
half in hatred. In love, because the children, and Violet especially,
were fond of the little place; and in hatred, because it commanded the
always coveted domain of Eskside.

“You are a Liberal too, I understand, Jean,” said Mary; “you are all Mr
Ross’s enemies up here.”

“I wish he might never have waur enemies,” said old Jean, “and that’s no
an ill wish; but I’ll never disown my principles. I’ve aye been a
Leeberal from the time of the Reform Bill, which made an awfu’ noise in
the country. There’s nane o’ your contests worth speaking o’ in
comparison with that. But I’m real distressed that there’s this
opposition now. We’ll no get our man in, and we’ll make a great deal o’
dispeace; and two folk so muckle thought of in the county as my lord and
my lady might have gotten their way for once. I canna bide the notion of
going again’ Mr Valentine; but he’s a kindly lad, and will see that,
whatever you are, ye maun gang with your pairty. Lord bless the callant!
if it was for naething but yon chicken-pie, he’s a hantle mair to me
than ony Edinburgh advocate that was ever born. But you see yoursel,
Miss Percival, how we’re placed; we maun side with our ain pairty, right
or wrong.”

“Yes, I see the difficulty of the position,” said Mary, laughing, “and I
shall make a point of explaining it to Val.”

“Do that, mem,” said Jean, seriously. She did not see any joke in the
matter, any more than Vi did, whose mind was in a very disturbed state.

“And I suppose your son will be of your mind?” said Mary, not indisposed
to a little gentle canvassing on her own part.

“I couldna undertake to answer for John,” said the old woman; “nor I
wouldna tamper with him,” she added, “for it’s a great responsibility,
and he ought to judge for himself. There’s one thing with men, they tak
a bias easy, and John was never a Leeberal on conviction, as ye may say,
like his faither and me; and he has a’ the cobbling from the House, and
a’ the servants’ work, and my lord’s shooting-boots, and so forth, and
noo and then something to do for my lady hersel; so I wouldna say but he
might have a bias. It’s a grand thing to have nae vote,” said Jean,
meditatively, “and then ye can have the satisfaction of keeping to your
pairty without harming your friends on the other side.”

Jean expressed thus the sentiments of a great many people in Eskside on
the occasion of this election. Even some of the great tenant-farmers who
were Liberals, instead of delighting in the contest, as perhaps they
ought to have done, grumbled at the choice set before them, and
regretted the necessity of vexing the Eskside family, old neighbours, by
keeping to their own party. For Val Ross, as they all felt, was on the
whole a much more appropriate representative than “a snuffy old
Edinburgh lawyer,” said one of the malcontents, “with about as much
knowledge of the county as I have of the Parliament House.” “But he
knows how to bring you into the Parliament House, and squeeze the siller
out of your pouch and mine,” said another. The Parliament House in
question, gentle Southern reader, meant not the House of Commons, but
the Westminster Hall of Edinburgh, into which, or its purlieus, it was
quite easy to get with Mr Seisin’s help, but not so easy to get out
again. I am afraid, indeed, that as the Liberal party was weak in the
county, and there had been no contest for some time, and no active party
organisation existed, there would have been no attempt to oppose
Valentine at all but for the determination of Mr Pringle, who, without
bringing himself very prominently forward, had kept his party sharply up
to the mark, and insisted upon their action. That they had no chance of
success, or so little that it was not worth calculating upon, they all
acknowledged; but allowed themselves to be pushed on, notwithstanding,
by the ardour of one fierce personal animosity, undisclosed and
unsuspected. Mr Pringle had been gradually winding himself up to this
act of vengeance through many years. I think if other people had
recollected the strange way in which his young supplanter had made his
first appearance at Eskside, or if any sort of stigma had remained upon
Val, the feelings of the heir-presumptive would have been less
exaggerated; but to find that everybody had forgotten these suspicious
circumstances--that even his insinuations as to the lad’s love of low
company, though sufficiently relished for the moment, had produced no
permanent impression--and that the world in general accepted Valentine
with cheerful satisfaction as Richard Ross’s son and Lord Eskside’s
heir, without a doubt or question on the subject,--all this exasperated
Mr Pringle beyond bearing. No passionate resentment and sense of injury
like this can remain and rankle so long in a mind without somehow
obscuring the moral perceptions; and the man had become so possessed by
this consciousness of a wrong to set right and an injury to avenge, that
it got the better both of natural feeling and morality. He did not even
feel that the thing he meditated was beyond the range of ordinary
electioneering attack; that it strained every law even of warfare, and
exceeded the revenges permitted to civilised and political men. All this
he would have seen in a moment had the case not been his own. He would
have condemned any other man without hesitation; would have solemnly
pointed out to him the deliberate cruelty of the project, and the
impossibility of throwing any gloss, even of pretended justice, over it.
For no virtuous impulse to punish a criminal, no philanthropic purpose
of hindering the accomplishment of a crime, could be alleged for what he
meant to do. The parties assailed were guiltless, and there was no
chance that his assault, however virulent, could shake poor Val’s real
position, however much it might impair his comfort. He could scarcely,
even to himself, allege any reason except revenge.

Meanwhile Val had been summoned home. He had spent Christmas with his
father, and since then had travelled farther afield, visiting, though
with perhaps not much more profit than attended his tour in Italy, the
classic islands of Greece. It was early spring when the summons reached
him to return without delay, everything in the political horizon being
ominous of change. Val got back in March, when the whole country was
excited by the preliminaries of a general election. He had been so
doubtful of the advantage of the abundant English society he had enjoyed
abroad, that he was comforted to find himself in English society at
home, where it was undeniably the right thing, and natural to the soil.
When he arrived at Eskside there was a great gathering to meet him. His
address was to be seen at full length on every bit of wall in Lasswade
and the adjoining villages, and even in the outskirts of Edinburgh; and
the day of nomination was so nearly approaching that he had scarcely
time to shake himself free from the dust and fatigue of his journey, and
to think of the speech which it would be necessary to deliver in answer
to all the pretty compliments which no doubt would be showered upon him.
Val, I am afraid, was a great deal more concerned about making a good
appearance on this occasion, and conducting himself with proper manly
coolness and composure--as if being nominated for a seat in Parliament
was a thing which had already happened to him several times at least in
his career--than about the real entry into public life itself, the
responsibility of an honourable member, or any other legitimate subject
of serious consideration. When he asked after everybody on his return,
the dignified seriousness with which he was told of the presence of the
Pringles at the Hewan did not affect the young man much. “Ah, you never
liked poor Mr Pringle, grandma,” he said, lightly. “I have little
occasion to like him,” said Lady Eskside; “and now that he is the getter
up of all this opposition, the only real enemy you have, my own boy----”

“Oh, enemy! come, grandma, that is too strong,” said Val. “If I never
have any worse enemy than old Pringle, I shall do. But I am sorry they
are on the other side,” he added, with a boyish thought that his blue
colours would have looked prettier than ever near Violet’s bright locks.
He paused a moment, and then burst out with a laugh. “I wonder if they
will put her into old Seisin’s yellow ribbons,” he cried, quite unaware
how dreadfully he was betraying himself. “Poor Vi!”

Lady Eskside and Mary looked at each other--the one with a little
triumph, the other with horror and dismay. It was my lady whose face
expressed the latter sentiments. She had constantly refused to believe
that Val had ever “thought twice” of Sandy Pringle’s daughter. Even now
she assailed Mary indignantly, as soon as Valentine’s back was turned.
“What did you mean by giving me such a look? Do you mean that a boy like
that cannot think of a girl he has known all his life without being in
love with her? My dear Mary, that is not like you. I was laughing
myself, I confess,” said the old lady, who looked extremely unlike
laughter, “at the idea of their yellow ribbons on Vi’s yellow hair. The
little monkey! setting herself up, forsooth, as a Liberal; I’m glad the
colours are unbecoming,” Lady Eskside concluded, with the poorest
possible attempt at a laugh.

Mary made no reply--but she was much more prepossessed in favour of Val
than she had ever been. Women like a man, or even a boy for that matter,
who betrays himself--who has not so much command of his personal
sentiments but that now and then a stray gleam of them breaking forth
shows whereabouts he is. Mary--who had taken Violet under her
protection, determined that not if she could help it should that little
girl fall a victim, as she herself had done--was entirely disarmed by
the boyish ingenuousness of his self-disclosure. She thought with a half
sigh, half smile, once more, as she had thought that summer day by the
linn, that this boy might have been her son had things gone as they
should--that he ought indeed to have been her son. Sometimes this was an
exasperating, sometimes a softening thought; but it came to Mary on this
occasion in the mollifying way.

“Don’t ask me anything about Vi,” she said to Valentine the same
evening. “You know I never approved of too much friendship between you;
she is your enemy’s daughter.”

“What do you call too much friendship?” said Val, indignantly. “If you
think I am going to give her up because her old father is an old fool,
and goes against us, you are very much mistaken. Why, Vi! I have known
her since I was _that_ high--better than Sandy or any of them.”

“Her father is not so dreadfully old,” said Mary, laughing; “and
besides, Val, I don’t put any faith in him; his opposition is a great
deal more serious than you think.”

“Well, I suppose he must stick to his party,” said Val, employing in the
lightness of his heart old Jean’s words; “but I know very well,” he
added, with youthful confidence, “that though he may be forced for the
sake of his party to show himself against me, he wishes me well in his
heart.”

“You are convinced of that?”

“Quite convinced,” said Val, with magnificent calm. Indeed I rather
think the boy was of opinion that this was the case in the world
generally, and that however outward circumstances might compel an
individual here and there to appear to oppose him, by way of keeping up
his party or otherwise, yet in their hearts the whole human race wished
him well.



CHAPTER XXVI.


It was on a bright spring morning that the nomination of a knight of the
shire to represent Eskshire in Parliament took place in Castleton, the
quiet little country town which was not far from the Duke’s chief seat,
and tolerably central for all the county. The party from Eskside drove
over in state, my lord and my lady, with Miss Percival and Val, in the
barouche, and with four horses in honour of so great an occasion. They
were all in high spirits, with hopes as bright as the morning, though I
think Valentine thought more than once how pleasant it would have been
to have had little Vi sitting bodkin on the front seat of the carriage
between himself and his grandfather. There would have been plenty of
room for her, though I don’t know that this would have been considered
quite a dignified proceeding by my lady. The little town was all astir,
and various cheers were raised as Lord Eskside and Val went into the
committee room; and my lady and Mary went on to the hotel which was in
their interest,--a heavy, serious, old, grey stone house in the
market-place close to the hustings, from one of the windows of which
they were to witness the nomination. On the opposite side stood the
other hotel where Mr Seisin’s supporters congregated. When Lady Eskside
took her place at the window specially reserved for her, there was a
flutter of movement among the crowd already assembled, and many people
turned to look at her with interest scarcely less than that with which
they welcomed the candidate and his supporters. Lady Eskside was a great
deal older than when we saw her first; indeed, quite an old lady, over
seventy, as was her husband. But she had retained all her activity, her
lightness of figure and movement, and the light in her eyes, which shone
almost as brightly as ever. The beauty of age is as distinct as, and not
less attractive in its way than, the beauty of youth; the one extremity
of life having, like the other, many charms which fail to us commonplace
persons in the dull middle-ages, the period of prose which intervenes in
every existence. Lady Eskside was a beautiful old woman; her eyes were
bright, her colour almost as sweet and fresh, though a little broken and
run into threads, as when she was twenty; her hair was snowwhite, which
is no disadvantage, but the reverse, to a well-tinted face. She had a
soft dove-coloured bonnet of drawn or quilted satin coming a little
forward round her face, not perched on the top of the head as ladies now
wear that necessary article of dress; and a blue ribbon, of Val’s
colours, round her throat,--though I think, as a matter of choice, she
would have preferred red, as “more becoming” to her snowy old beauty.
Mary, you may be sure, was in Val’s colours too, and was the thorough
partisan of the young candidate, however little she had been the
partisan of the boy himself in his natural and unofficial character.
There was a bright fire blazing in the room behind them to which they
could retire when they pleased; and the window was thrown wide open, so
that they might both see and hear.

The hotel opposite--not by any mean such a good one as the Duke’s
Head--was of course in the opposition interest, and blazed with yellow
flags and streamers. At the window there, just before the commencement
of proceedings, several ladies appeared. They did not come in state like
Lady Eskside, for Mr Seisin had no womankind belonging to him; and these
feminine spectators were wives and daughters of his supporters, and not
so enthusiastic in his cause as they were about their own special
relations who intended to perform on the occasion. Among them, in a
prominent position, but keeping back as much as possible, Mrs Pringle
and Violet were soon descried by the ladies opposite. Neither of them
wore anything yellow, as Lady Eskside, with sharp old eyes, undimmed by
age, discovered in a moment. “They are both fair, and yellow is
unbecoming to fair people,” she said, with involuntary cynicism. I do
not much wonder that she was severe upon them; for indeed had they not
pretended all manner of kindness and friendship for her boy? “It is not
their fault,” said Mary, apologetically. “I wonder what you mean by
telling me it is not their fault!” cried Lady Eskside. “Is a man’s wife
just his housekeeper, that she should have no power over him? They
should not have let Sandy Pringle make a fool of himself. They should
not have given their consent, and stuck themselves up there in
opposition to the family. I have no patience with such women.” It was
not wonderful that my lady should disapprove; and I don’t think that two
greater culprits in feeling than Mrs Pringle and her daughter were to
be found in all Eskside. They had the satisfaction of knowing that the
husband and father who had driven them to make this appearance was not
unaware of the sentiments with which they regarded it; but that, I
think, was all the comfort these poor ladies had.

Then there came a stir in the crowd, and a thickening and increase of
its numbers, as if more had been poured into a vessel nearly full; and
the candidates and their supporters came up to the hustings. How Lady
Eskside’s heart swelled and fluttered as her handsome boy, a head taller
than his old grandfather, appeared on that elevation over the crowd,
detached from the rest, not only by his position as the hero of the day,
but by his fresh youth, and those advantages of nature which had been so
lavishly bestowed upon him! Lady Eskside looked at him with pride and
happiness indescribable, and kissed her hand to him as he turned to
salute her at her window; but I will not venture to describe the
feelings of the other ladies, when Val, with, they thought, a
reproachful look on his handsome face, took off his hat to them at their
opposite window. Mrs Pringle blushed crimson, and pushed back her chair;
and Violet, who was very pale, bent her poor little head upon her
mother’s shoulder and cried. “Oh, how cruel of papa to set us up here!”
sobbed Vi. Mrs Pringle was obliged to keep up appearances, and checked
her child’s emotion summarily; but she made up her mind that the cause
of this distress and humiliation should suffer for it, though she would
not fly in his face by refusing absolutely to appear. These agitated
persons did not find themselves able to follow the thread of the
proceedings as Lady Eskside did, who did not lose a word that was said,
from the speech of Sir John who proposed Val, down to the young
candidate’s own boyish but animated address, which, and his good looks,
and the prestige and air of triumph surrounding him, completely carried
away the crowd. Sir John’s little address was short, but very much to
the purpose. It gave a succinct account of Val. “Born among us, brought
up among us--the representative of one of the most ancient and
honourable families in the county; a young man who has distinguished
himself at the university, and in every phase of life through which he
has yet passed,” said Sir John, with genial kindness. Mr Lynton, who
seconded Val’s nomination, was more political and more prosy. He went
into the policy of his party, and all it meant to do, and the measures
of which he was sure his young friend would be a stanch supporter, as
his distinguished family had always been. Mr Lynton was cheered, but he
was also interrupted and assailed by questions from Radical members of
the crowd, and had a harder time of it than Sir John, who spoke largely,
without touching abstract principles or entering into details. Mr Lynton
was a little hustled, so to speak, and put through a catechism, but on
the whole was not badly received.

Val’s, however, was the speech of the day. He rushed into it like a
young knight-errant, defying and conciliating the crowd in the same
breath, with his handsome head thrown back and his young face bright and
smiling. “He has no end of way on him,” Lord Hightowers said, who stood
by, an interested spectator--or rather, metaphorically, ran along the
bank, as he had done many a day while Val rowed triumphant races,
shouting and encouraging. Val undertook everything, promised everything,
with the confidence of his age. He gave a superb assurance to the
Radicals in the crowd that it should be the aim of his life to see that
the intelligence of the working classes, which had done so much for
Great Britain, should have full justice done to it; and to the
tenant-farmer on the other side, that the claims of the land, and those
who produced the bread of the country, should rank highly in his mind as
they ought always to do. The young man believed that everything could be
done that everybody wanted; that all classes and all the world could be
made happy;--what so easy? And he said so with the sublime confidence of
his age, promising all that was asked of him. When Mr Seisin’s
supporters and himself came after this youthful hero, it is
inconceivable what a downfall everybody felt. I am bound to add that Mr
Seisin’s speech read better than Val’s in the paper, and so did that of
his own proposer. But that mattered very little at the moment. Val
carried the crowd with him, even those of them who were a little
unwilling, and tried to resist the tide. The show of hands was
triumphantly in his favour. He was infinitely more Liberal than Mr
Seisin, and far more Tory than Sir John. He thought every wrong could be
redressed, and that every right must conquer: there was no compromise,
no moderation, in his triumphant address.

Lady Eskside and Mary made a progress down the High Street when the
gentlemen went to the committee rooms, and saw the Duchess and the
Dowager-Duchess, who were both most complimentary. These great ladies
had heard Val’s speech, or rather had seen it, being too far off to hear
very much, from their carriage, where they sat on the outskirts of the
crowd. “What fire, what vigour he has!” said the Dowager. “I
congratulate you, dear Lady Eskside; though how you could ever think
that boy like his father----”

“He is not much like your family at all, is he?” said the
Duchess-regnant, with a languid smile. This was the only sting Lady
Eskside received during all that glorious day. The old lord and the
young candidate joined them ere long, and their drive back was still
more delightful to the old couple than the coming. Lord Eskside,
however, growled and laughed and shook his head over Val’s speech.
“You’re very vague in your principles,” he said. “Luckily you have men
at your back that know what they are doing. You must not commit yourself
like that, my man, wherever you go, or you’ll soon get into a muddle.”

“Never mind!” said my lady; “he carried everybody with him; and, once in
the House, I have no fear of his principles; he’ll be kept all right.”

“Luckily for him, the county knows me, and knows he’s all right; though
he’s a young gowk,” said the old lord, looking from under his bended
eyebrows at his hope and pride. They were more pleased, I think, than if
Val had made the most correct of speeches. His exuberance and overflow
of generous youthful readiness for everything made the old people laugh,
and made them weep. They knew, at the other end of life, how these
enthusiasms settle down; but it was delicious to see them spring a
perennial fountain, to refresh the fields and brighten the landscape,
which of itself is arid enough. They looked at each other, and
remembered, fifty years back, how this same world had looked to them--a
dreary old world, battered and worn, and going on evermore in a dull
repetition of itself, they knew; but as they had seen it once, in all
the glamour which they recollected, so it appeared now to Val.

Val himself was so much excited by all that had happened, that he
strolled out alone as soon as he had got free, for the refreshment of a
long walk. It was the end of March: the trees were greening over; the
river, softening in sound, had begun to think of the summer as his banks
changed colour; and the first gowans put out their timid hopeful heads
among the grass. Val went on instinctively to the linn, with a minute
wound in his heart, through all its exhilarations. He thought it very
hard that Vi should not have been near him, that she should not have
tied up her pretty hair with his blue ribbon, that she should have been
ranged on the other side. It was the only unpleasant incident in the
whole day, the only drop in his cup that was not sweet. He explained to
himself how it was, and felt that the reason of it was quite
comprehensible; but this gives so little satisfaction to the mind. “Of
course he must stick to his party,” Val murmured to himself between his
teeth; and of course Mrs Pringle and Violet could not go against the
head of the family in the sight of the world at least. When Val saw,
however, a gleam of his own colour between the two great beech-trees he
knew so well, he rushed forward, his heart beating lighter. He felt sure
that it was Violet’s blue gown, which she must have put on, on her
return, by way of indemnifying herself for wearing no blue in the
morning. He quickened his step almost to a run, going softly over the
mossy grass, so that she did not hear him. The sunset was glowing in the
west, lighting up the woods with long slanting gleams, and clouds of
gorgeous colour, which floated now and then over the trees like chance
emissaries from some army where the cohorts were of purple and gold. Vi
sat with her face to that glow in the west, under the old beech-tree
where the Babes in the Wood had been discovered; but her face was
hidden, and she was weeping quite softly, confident in the loneliness of
the woods, through which now and then a long sobbing sigh like a child’s
would break. The pretty little figure thus abandoned to sorrow, the
hidden face, the soft curved shoulders, the golden hair catching a gleam
of the sunset through the branches, and still more, the pathetic echo of
the sob, went to Val’s heart. He went up close to her, and touched her
shoulder with a light caressing touch. “Vi! what’s the matter?” said the
boy, half ready to cry too out of tender sympathy, though he was nearly
twenty-two, and just about to be elected knight of the shire.

“Oh Val, is it you?” She sprang up, and looked at him with the tears on
her cheeks. “Oh, don’t speak to me!” cried Violet. “Oh, how can you ask
me what is the matter, after what has happened to-day?”

“Is that what you are crying for?” said Val. “Never mind, Vi, dear. I
know you have got to stick to your father, and he must stick to his
party. It was hard to see you over there on the other side; but if you
feel it like this, I don’t mind.”

“How did you think I should feel it?” cried the girl. “Oh no, you don’t
mind! you have plenty, plenty better than me to be with you, and stand
up for you; but I--I do mind. It goes to my heart.”

And here she sat down again, and covered her face once more. Val knelt
beside her, and drew away her hands.

“Here was where we sat when we were children,” he said softly, to
comfort her. “We have always cared more for each other than for any one
else; haven’t we, Vi? How could I have plenty, plenty to stand by me?
wasn’t it unkind to say so--when you know you are the one I care for
most?”

Violet did not lift up her head, but she cried more softly, letting the
voice of the charmer steal into her heart.

“I was savage when I saw you over there,” said Val, with his lips very
close to her ear. “But you did not put on their ugly colours at least;
and now you are all dressed out in mine, and I don’t care,” said the
youth; and he stooped and kissed her blue gown prettily, as a young
knight-errant might.

“Oh Val!” cried Violet, with a fresh outburst, but turning towards him;
“I thought you would be angry.”

“How could I be angry with you, Vi? Should you have been angry if it had
been me?”

“Yes,” she said quickly; “if I had thought you didn’t care.” And here
she stopped and grew crimson, and turned away her head.

“But you could not suppose that I didn’t care,” said Val; “that would
have been impossible. If you only knew how often I have thought of you
while I have been away! It was cruel of you not to let me see you before
I went; but when I was gone, I am sure there never was a day, seldom an
hour, that I did not think of you, Vi.”

She turned round her head to look at him for a moment: there were tears
still in her eyes, but very soft ones, a kind of honey-dew. “Did you,
Val?” she said, half under her breath.

“Always,” said the lad. “I wanted you to see everything I saw. I
thought how sweet it would be if we could go everywhere together, as we
did when we were children--but not just like that either. You know,
don’t you, how fond I am of you, Vi?”

“Oh Val!” She was almost as near him as when she fell asleep on his
shoulder. “But you must not speak to me so now,” she cried suddenly,
making an effort to break the innocent spell which seemed to draw them
closer and closer; “it makes me wretched. Oh Val, it is not only that we
were on the other side this morning. My heart is breaking. I am sure
papa means to do something against you, and I cannot stop him. I think
my heart will break.”

“What can he do against me?” said Val, in his light-hearted confidence;
“and he would not if he could. Don’t think of such nonsense, Vi, but
listen to me. We are not children now, but I am fonder of you than of
anybody in the world. Why shouldn’t we go everywhere together, be always
together. If I might go to your father now and say you belonged to me,
he could not carry you off to the other side--could he? Vi,” said the
lad, a little chilled and anxious, “don’t turn your head away, dear.
Won’t you have me, Vi?”

“Oh Val, wait a little--I daren’t listen to you now. I should be afraid
to say a word.”

“Afraid, Vi, to say anything to me--except that you don’t care for me!”
said Valentine, holding her fast. “Look me in the face, and you could
never have the heart to say that.”

Violet did not say anything good or bad, but she turned softly to him:
her face met his eyes as a child turns to a mother or a flower to the
sun, and they kissed each other tenderly under the great beech boughs
where they had sat leaning against each other, two forlorn babies, ten
long years before. The scene now was the completion of the scene then.
What explanations were wanted between the children? they had loved each
other all along; no one else had so much as come within the threshold of
either heart. They clung together, feeling it so natural, murmuring in
each other’s ears with their heads so close; the sunset glowing, then
fading about them, till the green glade under the beeches was left in a
silvery grey calm of evening, instead of that golden glow. The Babes in
the Wood had forgotten themselves. Violet at last discovered with a
start, how changed the light was and how embrowned the evening. She
started from her young lover’s arm.

“Oh, how late it is!” she cried. “Oh, what will they think at home? I
must go. I must go at once, or they will think I am lost.”

“We have been lost before now,” said Val, taking it much more easily.
“But it _is_ late, and there’s a dinner and fine people at Rosscraig. Oh
Vi, what a bore, what a bore! Can’t you come with me?--not this night
when so much has happened, not this one night?”

“Indeed you are very bold to speak of such a thing,” said Vi, with
dignity; “and you must not come with me either,” she said, mournfully.
“Oh Val, I am afraid we have gone and made things worse. I told you not
to speak.”

“Very likely that I should not speak!” said Val. “But, Vi, look here;
now that it is settled, you may come with grandmamma on Thursday, mayn’t
you? I cannot have you on the other side now.”

“But I _am_ on the other side,” said Vi, with some loftiness. “I am a
Liberal myself. I should never have opposed you, Val, or worn anybody
else’s colours, even if I had not--cared for you; but I am a Liberal as
well as papa.”

“You must be a Tory when you belong to me,” said Val.

“Never!” cried Violet; and she shook his arm away and stood independent,
with eyes glowing and cheek flushing. Valentine was half angry, half
amused, with a man’s instinctive sense of the futility of such
protestations. How delightful it was! almost a first quarrel, though
their engagement was not an hour old!

“Well, then, you shall be a little Radical if you like--so long as you
come,” he said. “I give in; but you must come with us for the election.
I have set my heart on that; otherwise I shall stand up on the
hustings,” cried Val, “and say, That young lady is going to be my wife,
and this is how she treats me. I swear, if you are not with grandmamma,
I will----”

“How foolish you boys are!” said Vi; and she took his arm, as if, they
both thought, they had been old engaged people, or married people (it
did not much matter which). And in this way they made their charmed
progress through the wood, forgetting the passage of time till they came
to the brae at the Hewan, where Violet, with some terror, dismissed her
lover. “You shall not come any farther,” she said; “you shall not. I
don’t mean you to see papa to-night. Oh Val, Val! what shall I do if he
means to do you any harm?”

“Tell him he will be harming you,” said Val; but how lightly he took her
terror! what could Mr Pringle or any man do to him? He was at the high
topgallant of success and happiness, almost intoxicated with all the
good things that had come to him, and with the young innocent love which
rose warm as a summer stream and as soft, fed by all the springs of his
heart, growing with all the growth of his life. It was very hard to
leave her there, and make his way to his dinner and his politics; but
still it had to be done, though Violet stamped her little foot in
impatience before he would go. When they parted at last, Val sped along
the twilight woods like an arrow, with nothing but triumph and delight
in him. He had plucked the last flower of happiness, to wear in his
bosom for ever; there seemed to be nothing wanted to the perfection of
the moment, and of his life.

As for Violet, she was far from being so happy. She went up the brae
more leisurely, in no hurry to go in. Poor child! all her anxieties came
back to her with double force. How was she to tell this, how to keep it
secret? the one was almost as hard as the other. And then the great
chimera in her mind, which she tried to say to herself was nothing,
nothing! that dread which she could not explain or define--the
consciousness that her father was going to do something against Val.
What could she do to hinder him? She shrank from encountering his sharp
looks, from telling him her story,--and yet was it not her duty to make
one final effort? She went round the new buildings to the little old
front of the cottage, which still commanded that view over the Esk which
Violet loved so well. Her father was walking about alone smoking his
cigar. No one else was visible. The peace of evening had fallen upon the
house; but it was cold after the sunset, and Mrs Pringle had not come
out to cheer her husband while he smoked his cigar; indeed, to tell the
truth, he was not sufficiently in his wife’s good graces to have this
indulgence. If Vi, his favourite child, could do anything, now was the
moment. Her heart began to beat violently as she stood and looked at
him, hesitating, drawn forward by one impulse and back by another. A
mere chance movement settled the question. He held out his hand to her
as she stood looking at him. “Come, Vi, give me your company,” he said;
“your mother thinks it too cold to come out. Where have you been, child,
so late?”

“I have been down at the linn,” said Violet; “it is always so pretty
there.”

“But you need not have forgotten your dinner, my dear; your mother does
not like it; and I thought you were tired after your drive to
Castleton,” said Mr Pringle, in slightly reproachful tones.

“I am not tired, papa; I was a little--troubled in my mind. Papa, must
we go on the election day, and put ourselves up again, against Val? Oh
papa, why? might we not stay at home at least? That is what I was
thinking of. Valentine never did any harm to us, papa.”

“Has not he?” said Mr Pringle, fiercely. “You are a goose, Vi, and know
nothing about it; you had better not speak of what you don’t
understand.”

“Why shouldn’t I understand?” said Violet, roused. “I am just as able to
understand as anyone. The only harm Val has done is by being born, and
how could he help that? But papa, dear,” said the girl, twining her arm
suddenly within his, and leaning on him closely--“that was not what I
was thinking of. Down at the linn, where we used to be so much together,
how could I help thinking? Val was always so----” Vi paused, with
injudicious words on her lips which she stopped just in time--“nice to
me,” she added, with a quick breath of fright at her own temerity. “Even
the boys were never so good to me; they never took me out into the woods
to play truant. Oh papa, if you could only know how delightful it was!”

“He might have broken your neck,” said the obdurate father. “I owe him
something for the fright he gave us that day.”

“What fright did he give you? Mamma has told me since she was not a bit
frightened. It was the very sweetest--no, almost the very sweetest,”
said Violet, a little thrill of tremulous happiness going through her
heart, which told of a sweeter still--“day of my life. He took as much
care of me as if I had been--his sister; more than the boys ever take.
Oh papa! and to sit up yonder against him, as if we were not friends
with Val. He is the only one who does not blame you a bit,” said Violet,
unused to secrets, and betraying herself once more.

“He! you have seen him, then? It is very kind of him certainly not to
blame me,” said Mr Pringle, with a smile.

“He says, of course you must stick to your party,” said Violet. “I just
met him--for a moment--in the wood. He was not angry, though I should
have been angry in his place. He said it was very hard to see mamma and
me over there, but that of course we could not help it; and that he was
sure you would not really harm him even if you could.”

Mr Pringle was not a bad man, and his whole being was quaking at that
moment with something he had done. Like many another amiable person, led
astray by a fixed idea, he had brooded over his injury till it filled
all earth and heaven, and made every kind of revenge seem lawful and
natural, until, as the climax of a world of brooding, he had launched
the deadly shaft he had been pointing and preparing so long. Now it was
done, and a cold chill of doubt lest it were ill done had seized upon
him. He had called Violet to him on purpose to escape from this, and lo!
Violet seized upon him too, like an angel of penitence. He paused a
moment, casting a perturbed glance towards Lasswade, whence probably by
this time his shaft had been launched--poor little innocent village,
under its trees! Had there been time to draw back I almost think he
would have done it; but as there was not time, Mr Pringle took the only
alternative. He shook off his daughter’s arm, and told her to go in to
her mother, and concern herself with things she understood; and that
when he wanted her advice and her friend Val’s, he would ask for it, not
sooner. “A couple of babies!” he said contemptuously, not perceiving, in
his remorse, and resentment, and sore impatience, that even now he had
linked the name of his young enemy, upon whom he had revenged himself,
with that of his favourite child.



CHAPTER XXVII.


So early as next morning the messenger of vengeance had gone like a
fiery cross all over Eskside--up the water and down the water, placarded
in the hamlets, sent flying by the post over all the county. It came by
the morning’s post to Rosscraig itself. The man who went for the letters
got a copy from somebody, which was given with much solemnity and
secrecy to Harding the butler for his private information. The upper
servants laid their heads together over it in the housekeeper’s room
with fright, and yet with that almost agreeable excitement which moves a
little community when any great event happens to the heads of it.
Excitement is sweet, howsoever it comes; and the grim pleasure which
servants often seem to enjoy even in “a death in the family,” is curious
to behold. This was much more piquant than a death, and nobody could
tell to what it might lead; and then there was the thrilling suspense as
to who should venture to tell it to my lord and my lady, and how they
would take it when they found it out.

As was to be expected, it was through Harding’s elaborate care to keep
it from his master that it was found out. Lord Eskside was in his
library before breakfast, very busy with his lists of voters, and the
calculations of each district and polling-place, all of which agreed so
delightfully in the certain majority which must carry Val triumphantly
to his place in Parliament--a triumph which, all the more perfect that
it was late, filled the old lord’s heart. His wrinkled forehead was
smoothed out as if he had swallowed an elixir of life; his shaggy
eyebrows, almost white now, were still, or nearly so; his under lip had
subsided peacefully. How many disappointments had passed over that
rugged old head! His son Richard had been nothing but one disappointment
from beginning to end, sometimes giving acute pain--always a dormant
dissatisfaction to his parents. For years and years he had been lost to
them altogether: he had sinned like a prodigal, bringing in a wild and
miserable romance into the family records, without making up for his sin
by the prodigal’s compensating qualities,--the readiness to confess, the
humility of asking pardon. Richard had done badly by his family, yet was
as proud, and took up as superior a position, as if he had done well.
He had not only disappointed but scorned his father’s hopes. Neither
father nor mother had any comfort in him, any good of him, any more than
if they had no son.

But there was recompense for all their suffering in Val; he was
altogether their own, their creation: and the pleasure with which the
old lord found all his hopes realising themselves in this boy, who was
still young enough to be under his own influence, to take his opinions
as a kind of _credo_ and symbol of faith, to carry out his wishes, and
take up the inheritance of the Rosses, as he had perfected and filled it
up during his long life--was, I think, far greater, more perfect and
delightful, than the success of any middle-aged man like Richard, who,
as old Jean Moffatt said, was quite as old if not older than himself,
could have given him. There were a hundred things in Richard’s character
that jarred upon his father, which his good sense made him accept and
submit to, knowing how hopeless it would be to attempt to shape a man of
the world, who half despised even while he respected his rustic father,
into anything like his own image. But there was nothing yet which was
grieving or contradictory in Val. The boy was passionate, but then every
boy had some defect; and a little wayward and wilful if roused, but
always submissive as a child to the arguments of affection, and candid
to understand when he was wrong. Lord Eskside saw with fond eyes of
affection, and heard from every one--scholastic Grinders, and persons in
society, and men of the world--that no more promising lad could be than
this hero of his, who had accepted all his schemes and fallen in with
all his views. To attain this rare pleasure in your old age is not a
common blessing, and it was all the more exquisite because he knew how
rare it was.

In this state of mind he rose from his library table and his lists of
voters, and stalked out with his hands clasped under his coat tails, to
look at the great registering thermometer which hung outside on the
shady corner at the west wing. When he came into the hall, Lord Eskside
saw Harding in the distance, poring over a paper which he held in his
hand,--a large white broadsheet, very much like Val’s address, of which
there were some copies about the house. Harding’s obtusity was a joke
with the old lord. “Has he not got the sense of it into his old noddle
yet?” he said to himself, half laughing, and watched with quiet
amusement the butler’s absorption. Lord Eskside’s patience, however, was
none of the longest, and he called Harding before many seconds had
passed. The man was too much occupied to hear him, and did not stir.
Then the old lord, half irritated, half laughing, called again. “If
that’s Mr Ross’s address you are reading, bring it here, you haverel,
and I’ll explain it to you,” he said. Harding turned round with a scared
look, and, crushing up the paper in his hand, he thrust it into his
pocket with hurried and almost ostentatious panic.

“It’s not Mr Ross’s address, my lord,” he said.

“Hey! what is it then?--let me see. Lord bless us, man!” said his
irascible master, “why do you put on that look? What is it? Let me see!”

“I assure you, my lord, it’s nothing--nothing of the least consequence,”
said Harding. “Your lordship would not look twice at it; it’s nothing,
my lord.” And he put his hand upon his pocket, as if to defend that
receptacle of treason, and stood with the air of the hero in the poem--

    “Come one, come all, this rock shall fly
     From its firm base as soon as I.”

Harding, for the first time in his life, was melodramatic in his
determination to give his blood sooner than the objectionable paper.
While the old lord stood looking at him half alarmed, and becoming more
and more impatient, Mrs Harding strayed from her room, which was within
reach of the voices, as it was her habit to do when her husband was
audible in too prolonged colloquy with my lord.

“Marg’ret,” said Lord Eskside, “what has that haverel of a man of yours
got in his pocket? I never can get a word of sense out of him, as you
well know.”

“Hoots, my lord, it’s some of his nonsense papers. What have you in your
pocket, man? Cannot you give my lord a sensible answer? It’s some of the
squibs or things about yon auld Seisin, the lawyer body that’s set up
against us,--a bonnie like thing in our county, that has never had a
Whig member as lang as I can mind.”

“That’s true,” said Lord Eskside, mollified; “it’s scarcely worth the
trouble to publish any squibs. Let’s see it, Harding,--and don’t look so
like a gowk, if you can help it. What is the matter with the man?”

“Give it him without more ado,” whispered Mrs Harding peremptorily to
her spouse. “He maun see it sooner or later, and he’ll think we’ve
something to do wi’ it if you keep it back. Here’s the paper, my lord.
Na, it’s no a squib on auld Seisin. I’m thinking it’s something on the
other side.”

“What do you mean by the other side?” said Lord Eskside, his eyebrows
beginning to work as he snatched it out of her hand.

“Nae doubt they have their squibs too,” said Mrs Harding, making her
escape with as unconcerned a face as possible. Her husband, on the
contrary, stood gaping and pale with horror, not knowing what
thunderbolt might burst upon him now.

The old lord smoothed the crumpled paper, and held it out before him at
a distance to read it without his spectacles. He stood so for a moment,
and then he went back into the library, and shut the door. About half an
hour after he rang the bell, and asked that my lady should be called.
“Ask Lady Eskside to be so good as to come to me here,” he said, in
strange subdued tones, without looking up. This was a very unusual
summons. In all the common affairs of life he went to her, and it was
only when something more grave than usual happened in the house that
Lord Eskside sent for his wife. He did not rise when she came in, which
she did at once, her old face flushed with alarm. All the ruddy rustic
colour had gone out of my lord’s face; his very hand was pallid which
held the paper. He drew a chair close to him with his other hand, and
called to her impatiently, “Come here, Catherine, come here!”

“What has happened?” Her eye ran over the papers on the table, looking
for the yellow cover of a telegram--thinking of her absent son, as
mothers do. If it was nothing about Richard, it could not be anything
very terrible. Having satisfied herself on this point, she sat down by
him, and put her hand upon his arm. “My dear, you are not well?”

“Never mind me,” he said; “I am well enough. Read that.”

Lady Eskside looked at it, wondering, then looked up at him, gave a low
cry, and drew it towards her. This was what she read:--


         “_To the free and independent Electors of Eskshire._

     “GENTLEMEN,--You were called upon to listen to, applaud, and accept
     certain statements yesterday, coming from no less a person than Sir
     John Gifford, and other great personages of the county, which it
     may perhaps be well to examine dispassionately before acting on
     them so far as to send to Parliament as your representative a young
     man possessing no real right to such an honour.

     “I mean to say nothing against the gentleman calling himself, and
     called by others, Mr Valentine Ross. He is young and absolutely
     untried; therefore, though it cannot be said that he has done
     anything to justify his claims on your support, it is equally true
     that he has done nothing to invalidate them, so far as he possesses
     any. This, however, is the fundamental question which I wish to
     assist you to examine. What are his claims upon you? They are those
     of Lord Eskside’s grandson, heir of one of the most considerable
     families in the county--a family well known and respected by all of
     us, and about whose principles there can be no doubt, any more than
     of their high honour and estimation in the district. These are the
     pretensions of the party who support Mr Ross as a candidate for
     your suffrages. Sir John Gifford--and no one can respect Sir John
     more than I do, or would give more weight to his
     opinion--introduced his name to you with high eulogies, as ‘one
     born among us, brought up among us, the heir of one of the most
     ancient and honourable families in the county.’ Now the question I
     have to lay before you is straightforward and simple--‘Is this
     true?’ Sir John’s first statement is of course to be taken as a
     figure of speech, and I will not be so ungracious as to press it,
     for we all know that the young gentleman in question was not born
     among us. He made his first appearance at Eskside, as most of you
     are aware, when a child of about seven years old. How did he make
     his first appearance? Was he brought home carefully, out of one
     comfortable nursery into another, under the charge of suitable
     nurses and attendants, as our own children are, and as it is
     natural to suppose the son of the Honourable Richard Ross--a man
     holding an important appointment in Her Majesty’s diplomatic
     service, and the heir of an old title and very considerable
     estate--would be? I answer, unhesitatingly, No. The child, in the
     dress and with the appearance of a tramp-child, was brought to Lord
     Eskside’s door by a female tramp--a wandering vagrant--who lodged
     that night in a low tavern in the neighbourhood. He was thrust in
     at the door, and left there without a word; and equally without a
     word he was received. The persons who were present know that no
     message nor letter nor token of any kind was sent with the child.
     He was left like a parcel at Lord Eskside’s door. Lord Eskside
     immediately after announced to the world that his grandson had been
     sent to him, to be brought up at home. And the child thus strangely
     introduced, without mother, without pedigree, without resemblance,
     without a single evidence of his identity, is the young gentleman
     who is known to us by the name of Mr Valentine Ross, and who now
     asks our suffrages on his family’s merits rather than his own.

     “Gentlemen, I am not one to disregard any claim which a man, who
     has in any way served his country, makes upon his own merits. To
     such a man I reckon it an impertinence to ask any question as to
     his pedigree. But when a young man says to me, Elect me, because I
     am my father’s son, I ask, Is it certain that he is the son of the
     man he claims as father? All that we know of his history is against
     it. His reputed father has studiously kept out of the way. Why, if
     he is Richard Ross’s son, whom we all know, is not Richard Ross
     here to acknowledge him? Instead of Richard Ross, we have nothing
     but a fond old man who has adopted an ingratiating boy. Lord
     Eskside has a right to adopt whom he pleases; but he has no right
     to set up some base-born pretender--some chance child thrown on his
     bounty--as the heir of his honours and the representative of his
     family. Will you send to Parliament, as a Ross of Eskside, an old
     man’s pet and pensioner, a supposititious heir? or will you not
     rather demand a searching inquiry into a history so mysterious,
     before you strengthen, by your election of him, the pretended
     rights of an impostor? He may be an innocent impostor, for I say
     nothing against the young man in his own person; but until his
     claims have been investigated, and some reasonable evidence
     afforded, an impostor he must be considered by all Eskside men
     whose ambition it is to have everything about them honest and
     above-board.

                                                  “AN ESKSIDE ELECTOR.”


“The demons!” cried Lady Eskside. Hot tears were shining in her eyes,
forced there by pressure of rage and shame. She clenched her hand in
spite of herself. “Oh, the word’s not bad enough! Devils themselves
would have more heart.”

“It’s Sandy Pringle’s doing,” said the old lord. “I thought he was too
mim and mild. He’s been preparing it these dozen years; and now the
moment’s come, and he’s struck home.”

“It’s too bad for Sandy Pringle,” said the old lady, pushing her chair
from the table. “Oh no, no; it’s too bad for that; the man has bairns of
his own.”

And the tears ran down her cheeks with sheer pain. “We were never ill to
anybody,” she moaned; “never hard-hearted that I know of. Oh, my poor
old lord!--just when your heart was light, and you had your way!”

She turned upon him in the midst of her own pain with a pathetic pity,
and the two pairs of tremulous old hands clasped each other closely with
that sympathy which is far deeper than any words. I do not think it
would have taken much to bring a tear down the old lord’s rugged cheek
as well as his wife’s. The blow had gone straight to his heart.
Pain--helpless, bitter, penetrating, against which the sufferer
surprised by it can do nothing but make a speechless appeal to heaven
and earth--was the chief sensation in his mind. He was so unprepared and
open to attack, so happy and proud, glad and rejoicing in the last
evening lights, which were so sweet. For the first moment neither of
them could think--they could only feel the pain.

Then there came a sense of what had to be done, which roused the old
pair from the pang of the first shock. “It will be all over the county
this morning,” said Lord Eskside. “Of that we may be sure. A man could
not be bad enough to do so much without being bad enough to do more.
We’ll say nothing about it here, Catherine; especially, we’ll tell the
boy nothing about it. Leave him at peace for the moment; to-morrow he is
sure to hear; but in the mean time, as soon as breakfast is over, I’ll
make some excuse, and drive over to Castleton. We’ll keep him out of the
way. I’ll see Lynton, and Sir John, and as many more of the committee as
I can, and consult what’s to be done.”

“You’ll tell them how false it all is, and how devilish,” said my lady;
“devilish, that is the only word.”

“Devilish, if you please,” said Lord Eskside; “but how am I to say it’s
false! Half the county know it’s true.”

Lady Eskside stopped the contradiction which came to her lips. She wrung
her hands in that impotence which it is so much harder on the strong to
bear than on the weak.

“Oh, that woman! that woman!” she cried; “the harm she has done to me
and mine!”

“I will lay the whole matter before them,” said Lord Eskside; “there is
nothing else for it now--they must hear everything. At times it may be
prudent to hold your peace; but when you must speak, you must speak
freely. I will tell them everything. It would have been better to have
done it long ago.”

“Oh, what is the need of telling them?” cried my lady--“do you think
they don’t know? Ay, as well as we do; but do what seems to you good, my
good man. It’s like to break my heart; but I am most sorry for you, my
dear, my dear!”

“Dry your eyes now, Catherine,” he said, hoarsely; “we must not show our
old eyes red to strangers. Come, the bell has rung, and we’ll all be the
better of our prayers.”

They went in, arm in arm, to the great dining-room, where the servants
were waiting, more curious than can be described, to see how my lord and
my lady “were taking it.” They had no satisfaction, I am glad to say.
The old lord read his short “chapter,” and the short prayer which
followed, in a tone in which the most eager ear could detect no
faltering. And my lady, if perhaps not so buoyant in her aspect as
yesterday, did not betray herself even to Mary Percival, who knelt
calmly by her side, and did not know how her old heart was sinking.

“We will give you a holiday to-day, Val,” Lord Eskside said, after
breakfast; “but for me, I will drive over to Castleton and see how
everything is going on.”

Val, who had visions of rushing up to the Hewan, and who felt himself
perfectly safe in his grandfather’s hands, consented gaily. “If you are
sure you don’t want me,” he said; and the old man drove off smiling,
waving his hand to the ladies at the door. Harding and the other
servants were very much puzzled by their master. They had thought it not
unlikely that he might afford them still further excitement by fainting
dead away or going off in a fit.

I do not know which had the hardest task--Lord Eskside telling the
story of his son’s marriage, with all its unfortunate consequences, to
the serious county magnates assembled round the table of the committee
room, and looking as grave as though Valentine had committed high
treason--or his wife at home, trying to look as if nothing had happened,
and to keep Val by her side that he might not hear of the assault upon
him. At one period of the day at least my lady’s work was the hardest.
It was when Val insisted upon having from her a message to Violet
Pringle or her mother, asking that the girl might accompany her next
morning to see the election.

“Violet Pringle,” cried the old lady, tingling in every vein with
resentment and indignation--“of all the people in the world, why should
I take her father’s daughter about with me? You are crazy, Val.”

“Perhaps I am,” said Val, with unusual gravity and humility; “but if I
am crazy, I am still more crazy than you think. Grandma, I want you to
take Vi about with you everywhere. Don’t you know what friends she and I
have always been? Listen, and don’t be angry, Granny dear. When all this
is over, and there is time to think of anything, I want you to give your
blessing to Vi and me. She is going to be my wife.”

The old lady gave a scream: it was nothing else. She was wild for the
moment with wonder, and anger, and horror. “Never! never! it must never
be! Your wife!” she cried. “Oh, Val, you are mad. It can never be!”

“How can you say it can never be, when it _is_?” said Val, gently, with
the smile of secure and confident happiness. “Yes, I don’t mind Mary
hearing, as she is there. Last night I met Vi in the woods. I was half
mad, as you say, to think they had kept her away from me on such a day.
I asked her to promise that it should never be so any more; and now
nothing can come between us,” said the young man in the confidence of
youth. The idea of any strenuous objections on the part of the old
people, who had yielded to every wish he had formed all his life, did
not occur to him. Why should they object? He knew no reason. He had not
announced it last night because there was a great dinner-party, and the
house was full of strangers, but not because he felt any alarm as to how
his news would be received.

“Val, I tell you you are mad,” said Lady Eskside, deeply flushed with
anger, of which she did not venture to show all the causes. “Your
grandfather will never hear of it for a moment. Sandy Pringle has always
been your enemy--always! and has he not shown himself so, openly, now?”

“Oh, of course he must stick to his party,” said Val, lightly. “As for
being my _enemy_, that is nonsense. Why should we be melodramatic? I am
sure he wishes me well in his heart.”

“A likely story!” said the old lady, her old cheeks blazing hotter and
hotter; and when Val announced his intention of going off at once to
make his proposal known to Mr Pringle, and claim his consent, the
passionate resentment and indignation which she strove to suppress were
almost too much for her. She bade the boy remember that he owed it to
his grandfather at least to tell him first of so important a step, but
at last had to come down to arguments of convenience and expediency.
“You may be sure Sandy Pringle is not at the Hewan to-day. He has too
much mischief in hand to stay there in his hole. He is at work, doing
you all the harm he can, the old sneck-drawer!” said the indignant old
lady--not daring to put half her indignation into words.

“As he is to be my father-in-law, you must be more civil to him,
grandmamma,” said Val, half laughing at her vehemence. He gave in at
last, very reluctantly, to put off his going for the day. But even when
this was attained, Lady Eskside’s work was but half done, for Val had to
be kept at home if possible, kept occupied and amused, that he might not
discover prematurely the cruel attack of which he was the victim. She
was afraid he might do something rash, and compromise himself before the
election. In the excitement of that day itself, and when the business
was too near completion to be capable of being deranged by any
hot-headed folly poor Val might be guilty of, the risk would be less--or
so at least the old people thought.

Thus things went on until the evening. Lord Eskside had fortunately left
some business behind him to be completed, which gave Val occupation, and
my lady had a moment of ease in which she could confide all that had
happened to Mary. This last complication about Violet made everything so
much the worse. Lady Eskside would have thought Sandy Pringle’s daughter
a poor enough match for her boy at any time; but now! Her only trust was
that Mrs Pringle was a sensible woman, and might see the necessity of
putting a stop to it; but with the precedent of his father’s reckless
marriage before him, and Val’s hot and hasty disposition, the old lady’s
heart sank at the prospect. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil
thereof,” she said at last, letting fall a silent tear or two, as she
sat with Mary waiting in the dusk of the evening for her husband’s
return. “My poor old lord is long of coming; he’ll be worn to death with
this terrible day.”

Lord Eskside was very late. The dressing-bell had rung, and the ladies
were lingering, waiting for him in the pale dusk, which had come on
earlier than usual. The time and the season and the hour were very much
like that other bleak night, fifteen years ago, when Val came first to
Rosscraig. There was no storm, but it had been raining softly all the
afternoon, refreshing the country, but darkening the skies, and
increasing the depression of all who were disposed to be depressed. Val
had gone out in the rain into the woods after his day’s work, not
knowing why it was that some uneasiness in the house had taken hold upon
him, some sense of contradictoriness and contrariety. Were things going
wrong somehow, that had been so triumphantly right? or what was it that
irritated and oppressed him? The ladies, in their anxiety, which he was
not allowed to share, were glad when he went away, releasing them from
all necessity for dissimulation. They sat in different parts of the
room, not even talking to each other, listening to the rain, to the taps
of the wet branches upon the windows, and all the hushed sounds of a
rainy night. Lady Eskside had her back to the window, but, for that very
reason, started with the greater excitement when a sound more distinct
than the taps of the branches--the knocking of some one for admission,
and a low plaintive voice--came to her ear, mingled with the natural
sounds of the night. Crying out, “Mary, for God’s sake! who is it?” she
rose up from her chair. Just about the time and the moment when one of
the boys was brought to her! I think for the time the old lady’s mind
was confused with the pain in it. She thought it was Val’s mother come
back at last with the other boy.

A little figure, young and light, was standing outside the window in the
rain,--not Val’s mother, in her worn and stormy beauty, but poor little
Violet in her blue cloak, the hood drawn over her golden hair--her eyes,
which had been pathetic at their gayest moment, beseeching now with a
power that would have melted the most obdurate. “Oh, my lady, let me in,
let me in!” cried Vi. Lady Eskside stood for a minute immovable. “Her
heart turned,” as she said afterwards, against this trifling little
creature that was the cause of so much trouble (though how poor Vi, who
suffered most, could be the cause, heaven knows!--people are not logical
when they are in pain). Then I think it was the rain that moved her, and
not the child’s pleading face. She could not have left her enemy’s dog,
let alone his daughter, out in that drenching rain. She went across the
room, slow and stately, and opened the window. But when Violet in her
wet cloak came in, Lady Eskside gave her no encouragement. “This is a
wet night for you to be out,” was all she said.

“Oh, Lady Eskside!” said poor Violet, throwing herself down in a heap at
the old lady’s feet--“I have come to ask your pardon on my knees. Oh,
you cannot think we knew of it, mamma and I. She is ill, or she would
have been here too. Oh, my lady, my lady, think a moment! if it is hard
for you, it is worse for us. It will kill mamma; and my heart is broken,
my heart is broken!” cried poor little Vi.

“Miss Pringle, I do not think, on the spur of the moment, that there is
much to be said between you and me.”

“Oh, my lady!” Violet cried out, as if she had been struck, at the sound
of her own name.

“Nothing to be said,” continued Lady Eskside, though her voice wavered.
“Who would blame you, poor thing--or your mother either? but between
your father’s family and mine what can there be to say? That is not a
fit posture for a young lady. We are not in a theatre, but private
life,” said the old lady, severely calm. “If you will rise up and put
off your wet cloak, I will order the carriage to take you home.”

“Oh, no, no!” cried Violet, rising to her feet. Her soft eyes sent forth
an answering flash; her pale little face flushed over. “If you will not
have any pity--I meant nothing else, my lady--will you tell--Val,” she
added, with a hysterical sob rising in her throat, “that he is not to
think any more of what he said last night. I’ll--forget it. It cannot be
now, whatever--might have been. Oh, Mary,” cried the girl, turning to
Miss Percival, whom she saw for the first time--“tell him! I never,
never can look him in the face again.”

“If you please, my lady,” said Harding, appearing at the door in the
darkness, “my lord has just come home; and he would be glad to see your
ladyship in his own room.”

Lady Eskside hurried away. She did not pause even to look again at the
suppliant whom she had repulsed. Violet stood looking after her,
wistful, incredulous. The girl could not think it was anything but
cruelty; perhaps at the bottom of her poor little distracted soul she
had hoped that the old lady, who was always so kind to her, would have
accepted her heart-broken apology, and refused to accept her
renunciation. She could not believe that such a terrible termination of
all things was possible, as that Lady Eskside should leave her without a
word. She turned to Mary, and tottered towards her, with such a look of
surprised anguish as went to Miss Percival’s heart.

“My dear, my dear, don’t look so heart-broken! She has gone to hear what
has happened. She is very, very anxious. Come to my room, and change
your wet things, my poor little Vi.”

“No, no! Not another moment! Let me go, let me go!” cried the girl,
escaping from her hold; and, with the swiftness of youth and passion,
Violet turned and fled, through the open window by which she had
entered, out into the darkness, the rain, and the night.



CHAPTER XXVIII.


Valentine, poor boy, was in his room dressing for dinner, fearing and
knowing nothing of all that was happening, when Violet made that hapless
visit to throw herself on Lady Eskside’s mercy. He was whistling softly
before his glass, tying his necktie and chafing at the thought that
to-morrow must again be a blank day on which he could not see her--and
that only after the election could everything be settled. He was uneasy
and restless, he did not know why, with a sensation of something in the
air which he did not understand, but which made him by moments vaguely
unhappy. When he began to dress he had seen from his window, or thought
he saw, old Jean Moffatt, with a huge umbrella, standing at the corner
of the path which led into the woods, and had sent down his man in great
eagerness to ask if any note had come for him, thinking the old woman
might have been Love’s messenger for lack of a better. But there was no
note, and Val consoled himself, in that delicious sense of the poetic
elevation of being in love which is so sweet to girls and boys, with
thinking that his Violet was so much the centre of his thoughts as to
throw her sweet shadow upon everything. Few people fully estimate the
happiness of a young lover, even when separated from the beloved object,
in being able to make such delightful reflections. Val dressed and came
down-stairs, all unconscious of what it was which had made the rain beat
in upon the carpet in the drawing-room. “Why, you must have had the
windows open! What an idea in such a night--with the wind due west!” he
said. But even Mary, though she gave him a warning look which he could
not understand, said nothing to him; and dinner passed off as usual,
though somehow more quietly. Lord Eskside was tired--worn out with his
long day’s work. “And I am tired too,” said my lady; “it is the weather,
I suppose. I think we should all go early to bed, to be fresh for
to-morrow.” When the gentlemen were left alone, the old lord called Val
to him. “We will take our wine in the library; I have a great deal to
say to you, my boy,” he said, leading the way into his own particular
retirement. And then the worst moment of Val’s life came to him
unawares. He felt already that there was something to be revealed, from
the moment they entered the room in which he had always received his
admonitions when a child, and which was associated to him--but up to
this time how lightly!--with all the clouds and shadows of his early
life.

“Sit down here, Val,” said the old lord. “You must pluck up a heart, for
there’s something unpleasant coming. Not of any consequence, or that can
affect you seriously--but very unpleasant. Val, in every election
there’s things of this kind,” he continued, slowly unfolding a paper.
“I’ve seen a great deal worse. I’ve seen ill deeds, that a man had
forgotten for twenty or thirty years, raked up to bring shame on his
grey hairs. Thank God, there’s nothing of that kind possible with you!
But it’s unpleasant enough, unpleasant enough.”

“For heaven’s sake, sir, tell me what it is at once! Don’t keep me in
this suspense.”

“Val,” said the old lord, almost sternly, “no passion, sir! none of your
outbursts! I’ll almost think it’s true, and that you’re not of my race,
if you cannot set your teeth and bear it like a man.”

After this adjuration, which was very necessary, I think Val would have
let himself be torn to pieces sooner than “give way.” He read the paper
in the dim library, lighted only round the table at which they sat, the
wall all dark with books, the dark curtains drawn over the windows, the
fire without a glimmer in it. Lord Eskside sat watching the lad from
under his shaggy eyebrows. So far as he was himself concerned, the old
lord had worn out all capacity of feeling in the work he had gone
through that day. He had revealed to his friends, in full detail, what
he considered as the shame of his family, and had done so like a Stoic,
without showing any emotion; but now he watched Val, tender as a mother
over her baby, following the boy’s eyes from line to line, his starts of
indignation and pain, the furious colour that came over his face, the
quick-drawn panting breath, which showed the immense constraint he put
on himself. Lord Eskside put out his hand once or twice, and laid it on
Val’s arm with an instinctive caress, which from him was more than an
embrace would have been from another. Val took a long time to read it,
for the struggle was hard; not that the sense of it did not flash into
his mind almost in a moment, with all those curious sensations of
familiarity--as if it had happened before, or as if we had known and
expected it all our lives--which so often attend a great event. When he
laid it down at last, he turned to his grandfather, his face partially
distorted by that strange dilation of suppressed pain which seems to
change every line of the countenance. “This, then, I suppose, was what
my father meant,” he said.

“Your father! What did he say? Did he warn you? Val, I would not be hard
upon your father--but we are reaping the whirlwind, you and me, for the
wind he has sown.”

“He told me that all a man’s antecedents, all the secrets of his life
were raked up. He should have said, the secrets of other people’s
lives,” said Val, with a short and bitter laugh. Then he added,
dropping his voice, “I suppose it is all true.”

“All true to the facts, that is the devilishness of it. Val, can your
recollection carry you further back than your coming here?”

Val shook his head. A deep, hot, crimson flush covered his face. How
could he put into shape the vague reminiscences as of a dream--of
childish wanderings, sports, and troubles. He recollected nothing that
could be put into words, and yet something like the confused images of a
dream.

“Is she living still--my mother?” he said, in a very low voice.

“For all we know,” said Lord Eskside. “If she was dead, I think we must
have heard somehow. I have often thought you ought to be told, Val. God
knows, many a hard hour’s thinking it’s given me. You had a brother,
too. Probably he is dead long ago; for children die, I hear, like sheep,
with all the exposure of that wild life.”

Val shuddered in spite of himself. His brother had faded away altogether
out of his recollection, and he felt but little interest in the
suggestion of him. No doubt he must be dead long ago. Val could not
realise himself in such a relationship. It was impossible. He escaped
from the thought of it. The thought of a mother, and such a mother, was
sufficiently bewildering and painful.

“But there is time enough for considering this part of the subject,”
said the old lord. “In the mean time, Val, I’ve been at Castleton,
working hard all day. I have seen almost everybody it was important to
see.”

“Why did you not take me with you? If I had but known----”

“It was better you should not know. I did better without you. They all
know the true state of the case now--and you are prepared to meet them.
And, Val, I may say to you, which is of more importance than saying it
to them--that though that devilish paper is true enough, I am as sure
you are my son Richard’s son, as if you had never left my sight since
the day you were born.”

Val looked at him with hasty surprise. The tears came in a rush to the
young man’s eyes. “Do you need to tell me this, grandfather?” he cried
piteously, and covered his face with his hands. All that he had read had
not made his position real to him, like those words from the old man,
whom he had so confidently laid claim to all his life.

“No, no, no! I was wrong--forgive me,” cried the old lord. “But come,
Val,” he added, quickly; “we must meet this difficulty with our best
courage. We must not allow it to weigh us down. When you face the public
to-morrow, there must be no sign either of depression or of passion. You
must keep steady--as steady as you were before you knew a word of
it--and confident as at the nomination; there must be no change. Can you
trust yourself to meet your enemies so? It is the only way.”

The lad put his hand into the old man’s and grasped it, crushing the
feeble fingers. “I will,” he said, setting his teeth. This was almost
all that was said between them. When they parted for the night, the old
lord took him by the shoulders, shaking him, as he pretended. This
gentle violence was the greatest demonstration of tenderness of which,
in his old-fashioned reserve, he was capable. “Go to your bed, my boy,
and rest well before to-morrow’s trial,” he said.

All this time there had not been a word said about the author of the
placard which, next morning as they drove into Castleton, was to be seen
on every wall, in every village, near every house they passed. Valentine
recognised, with a heightened colour, the first copy of it he saw, but
said not a word, restraining himself, and turning his eyes away. In
Castleton the whole town was placarded with it, and the streets brimming
over with excitement. Wherever the carriage passed with its four horses,
the groups which were gathered round, reading it, would stop, and pause,
and turn to gaze at the handsome young fellow, the very flower of the
country, who yet might not be Mr Ross after all, but only some chance
child--a vagrant of the street. Valentine did all that man could do to
banish from his face every appearance of knowing what these looks meant,
or of being affected by them; but how hard it is to do this with the
certainty that everybody around you knows that you know! He made a brave
stand; he smiled and bowed to the people he knew, and spoke here and
there a cheerful word, restraining his sense of shame, his wounded
pride, the horror in his mind, with a strong hand. But his young face
had lost its glow of healthful colour, the circles of his eyes seemed
somehow expanded, and his nostrils quivered and dilated like those of a
high-bred horse at a moment of excitement. The effect upon his face was
curious, giving it a certain elevation of meaning and power--but it was
the power of nature at its utmost strain, so quivering with the tension
that one pull tighter of the curb, one step further, might burst the
bond altogether. The polling had already begun when they reached
Castleton, but the voters in the Ross interest flagged--nobody could
tell how. Mr Seisin’s name was above that of Val when the state of the
poll was published. This, everybody said, told for nothing; for, as it
was well known, Mr Seisin had not the shadow of a chance. His supporters
had been probably polled at once, to strike a bold keynote, and prove
that there were still possibilities, even in Eskshire, for the Liberal
party. It told for nothing, they all said to each other, surrounding
Lord Eskside, who sat somewhat grim and silent, in the committee-room;
but the men there assembled, though stanch as partisans could be,
undeniably grew anxious as the moments went on. It was impossible there
to ignore the attack, which had never been mentioned by any of his
family to Valentine, except on the previous night, when he was told of
it solemnly. Here it was of course the chief subject of discussion; and
though he took no part in the talk, he had to hear it referred to
without flinching. “Depend upon it,” said Sir John, “it’s a sign of
weakness; it is an expedient of despair. They know their cause is
desperate, and they don’t mind what they say.” But reassuring as this
was, a cold shiver of alarm began to run through the party. One man
stole out after another to see what news there was, to send off
messengers hither and thither. The county was stanch;--of that there
could be no doubt. Nothing would induce the Eskshire men to give their
votes to Mr Seisin; but their minds might have been so affected by this
sudden assault, coming just at the critical moment when there was no
time to contradict it, that, bewildered and uncertain, they might
refrain from voting at all.

Twelve o’clock! The business of the election seemed to have come to a
pause. One individual now and then came up to the polling-booths.
Already a great yellow placard, “What has become of the Tory voters?”
had flashed out upon the walls. A dramatic pause fell into the midst of
the excitement. The people of Castleton looked on curiously, as if they
had been at a play. Even the crowds in the streets slackened--almost
disappeared. When Valentine walked up the High Street to speak to Lady
Eskside, who sat trembling and pale at the window of the Duke’s Head,
looking on, he was taken no more notice of than on the most ordinary
occasion. For one thing, a smart shower had come on, and the idlers had
taken refuge under the porches of the houses, and at the shop-doors,
where they gazed at him calmly, without a cheer, without a salutation.
Lady Eskside, looking out of the window, watched all this with an aching
heart. It seemed to her that all was over. She could not take her
eyes from the impertinent placard opposite on the Liberal
headquarters--“Seisin, 355; Ross, 289.” The yellow ribbons seemed to
flaunt at her; her very heart was sick; and the dullness of mental
suffering crept over her old frame. “Oh, Val, my dear, I wish this was
over,” she said, taking his hand between hers. “Never fear, grandma,” he
said, smiling at her dimly, as if from the midst of a dream. He scarcely
knew what he was saying; and so far as he was conscious of the words, he
did not believe them. The young man gave a glance across at the other
window, but Violet was not there, which was a kind of vague consolation
to him. He held the old lady’s hand, and tried to smile, and talk, and
encourage her, without the least idea what he said.

At that moment the tide turned. The impatient little rattle of a small
pony-carriage came up the long street, heard rattling over every
particular stone all the way up, so great was the stillness of this
strange moment of suspense. The pony-carriage drew up before the Duke’s
Head, and Dr Rintoul, who lived in one of the new villas on Lord
Eskside’s feus, got out and walked towards the polling-booth. His
daughter, who had driven him, stood up--a large woman, bigger than the
pony she drove--with a wave of her whip, on which there streamed a blue
ribbon. “Good morning, Lady Eskside,” cried Miss Rintoul. “We are all
Liberals, but we hate a mean advantage, and all blows in the dark. I’ve
driven papa over to vote for Ross for ever, against all your sneaking
enemies!” Miss Rintoul was not afraid of the sound of her own voice--she
had outlived all such weaknesses. She said out what she had to say
roundly, seeing no reason to be ashamed of it, standing up as on a
platform, and waving her whip with the blue ribbon. Her vigorous voice
caught the capricious ear of the crowd; for just at that moment the
shower had stopped, the sun shone out, and the bystanders began to burst
out from their hiding-places. “Ross for ever!”--two or three caught up
the cry. It was echoed with a lusty roar from the Edinburgh road, whence
a string of hackney-cabs, and an old coach which had once plied between
Lasswade and Princes Street, and bore their names emblazoned on it, came
clattering full speed round the corner. “Down with Pringle, and Ross for
ever!” cried the Lasswade men, packed like herrings in their cabs. Blue
flags streamed from the dusty roofs; familiar faces, hot and breathless,
but beaming, looked up at the old lady and her boy. The shout ran down
the length of the High Street, and called out the committee-men to their
balcony. When Val turned away, moved by the restlessness of excitement,
his way down the street was a triumph: the crowd divided to let him
pass, cheered him, held out damp hands to be shaken, and strewed his
path, so to speak, with smiles. He was received by his committee almost
with embraces, with shaking of hands, and general tumult, half-a-dozen
speaking together.

“All right, Mr Ross, all right! all right, my lord!” said one eager
Castleton supporter. “The Lasswade men have come--Loanhead’s on the
road--and there’s a perfect regiment coming up the water. Hurrah for
Ross, and fair play for ever! Pringle will have little to brag of his
day’s work.”

“He’ll have got us the best majority we’ve had yet,” cried another; “it
was too barefaced, and him the next heir.” The room, which had been half
empty, began all at once, no one knew how, to surge and overflow with
enthusiastic supporters. Val felt himself tossed about on the crest of
this wave of triumph. He began to get dizzy with excitement, with the
sight of the groups pouring along the street towards the polling-booths,
all in his interest, and with the agitation and tumult of talk about
him. Long before the close of the poll his victory was secure.

But while the excitement of the crisis thus settled into assurance,
another excitement rose in the young man’s mind. All round him, loud and
low, in every different tone, he heard the name of Pringle identified
with the assault which had shaken all the foundations of his life. He
had said nothing about its effect upon his mind;--had even postponed
realising it, at his grandfather’s entreaty, and the still greater
urgency of circumstances, which compelled him to put a bold face on the
matter, and show no emotion to the world. But all the while he knew that
the stroke, though he had no time to think of it, had struck at his very
heart. He had not slept all the previous night; he had made such a
tremendous effort of self-control as his young frame and undisciplined
mind were scarcely capable of; and the reaction was beginning to set in.
Every faculty, every feeling, began to concentrate in the sense of
injury which he had shut out of his mind by such an effort while
necessity required it--of injury, and of that passionate impulsive rage
which was the weak point of his character. From the moment when he fully
realised who it was that had struck this dastardly blow at him, his
blood had begun to boil in every vein. Pringle! that was the man--his
pretended friend, his relation, a man who had smiled upon him, eaten
with him, called him by friendly names, sought him out. I cannot tell
how it was that Violet, and everything connected with her, disappeared
altogether at this crisis from the young man’s agitated mind. He never
paused to think that it was Vi’s father against whom his whole
passionate soul rose up in one longing to punish and avenge. She and
everything gentle in his life disappeared and was swept away, the
burning tide of fury being too strong for them. Before his confused
eyes, while the very different scenes of the day were still going on
around him, another panorama seemed to be passing, mixed up somehow with
the actual events, the central figure in which was always this man,
looking like a friend, yet preparing this deadliest sting for him. That
burning sense of the intolerable which is in all human affairs the most
intolerable of sensations, came upon Val with a force which he seemed
helpless to resist. He felt that he could not bear this injury--he could
not pass over it, let it go by as if it had not been. His arm tingled to
make some stroke. An agitation of haste and anxiety to get through his
present business, that he might be free for the other, took hold of him.
He went on, doing everything required of him, smiling, shaking hands,
speechifying, he could not tell what, answering to the necessities of
his position like a man in a dream, and hearing a confused din in his
ears of cheers and plaudits, of meaningless talk, congratulations, pæans
of victory, through all of which he tried to rush, faster and ever
faster, longing to have it over, to get away--to fly at the throat of
his enemy. And yet I don’t think that he betrayed himself. He was
excited, but what so natural?--and perhaps worn out with his excitement,
to the eyes of one or two close observers. “Get him away as soon as you
can--he’s overdone,” Sir John said to the old lord. “Tut,” said Lord
Eskside, himself feeling ten years younger in the fulness of his
triumph, “no fear of Val; his blood is up, and he can stand anything.”
Thus the triumphant day came to an end.

The carriage stood in front of the Duke’s Head, Lady Eskside and Mary
Percival having already taken their places in it, awaiting the new
Member and his party, who came up the street, a little murmuring crowd,
buzzing forth satisfaction, pride, and mutual plaudits. Val was carried
along in the midst of it, more silent than any, feeling almost at the
end of his forces, and sick with eagerness to get free. It was at this
unhappy moment that a party of young men, recently arrived, came down
the street, meeting Valentine and his body-guard. The first of these was
Sandy Pringle--the son, not the father. He had come straight from
Edinburgh to ascertain the result of the election, knowing nothing
whatever of all that had happened till he heard his own name in every
mouth, denounced, by this time, by both sides alike. Sandy, as was
natural, was deeply excited: he would not allow the universal censure.
“If my father were here he would disprove it,” he had been saying, but
vainly. He came straight up in front of Lord Eskside upon the narrow
pavement, blocking up the way with his broad shoulders and
well-developed form. “Lord Eskside,” he cried, “I appeal to you for
justice. I hear my father’s name in every mouth----”

“Stand aside, sir!” cried Val, in a voice so loud and harsh, and so full
of emotion, that it seemed to silence every sound about him. The
bystanders felt as one man that something was coming. All the young
man’s fictitious composure was gone, the veins were swollen on his
forehead, his paleness changed into crimson, his eyes flashing fire.
Sandy Pringle looked at him with angry surprise.

“I will stand aside when I please,” he said--“no sooner. Lord Eskside,
my father----”

“Oh, your father!” cried Val. He stepped out from the group with a
movement as swift as lightning. A few words were interchanged, too
quick, too furious, for any one to recollect afterwards; and before any
of their friends could interfere,--before, indeed, the little group
around could divine what was wrong--young Pringle, who was twice as
heavy a man as his opponent, fell suddenly without a word, struck down
by one tremendous blow. “Pass on, gentlemen,” cried Valentine, quivering
with passion; “no man shall stop Lord Eskside in the public streets
while I am by!”

I must not attempt to describe the tumult which ensued, or how Val was
surrounded and forced away by one party, and Sandy, who sprang to his
feet with a mixture of amazement and rage which could not be put into
words, was caught by another, everybody eager and vigilant as soon as
the harm was done. “I am at Mr Pringle’s service, however he chooses and
whenever he chooses,” cried Val, half mad with passion, as they hurried
him away.



CHAPTER XXIX.


Mr Pringle had prepared his stroke for years; he had pondered it in his
mind ever since he knew of Lord Eskside’s hopes in respect to the
election. He had written the letter itself over and over in his mind,
getting a kind of secret joy out of it, all the more intense that nobody
was in the least aware of this private vengeance of his own. Even now
nobody was aware of it, except by conjecture. As it was intended for the
gratification of his personal feelings rather than for the advantage of
his party, he had taken none of them into his counsel: they were as much
taken by surprise as were his opponents; and when they had time to
reflect and to see the state of public feeling, Mr Seisin and his party
condemned and repudiated the attack, though for one moment they had
hesitated over it, not sure whether a stroke so telling might not be
justifiable, seeing that, politically speaking, the means are justified
by the end. Finding, however, as was soon apparent, that it brought
about no revolution in the feeling of the county, but rather the
reverse, the party to which Mr Pringle belonged denounced and repudiated
the performance as heartily as could be desired; and Mr Seisin himself
“begged emphatically to protest against an attack so thoroughly against
his principles, and trusted his honourable opponent would not connect
himself or his party with any such anonymous slander.” This was clearly
the _amende honorable_ on Mr Seisin’s part; and the Liberals turned as
fiercely upon Mr Pringle for disgracing them, as their antagonists did
for traducing their candidate. He was given up on all hands. I do not
believe, however, that he either knew of, nor cared for this, at the
moment at least. Something much more terrible had fallen upon the
man--something which threatened him the moment he had let the winged
shaft fly from his hand, but which came down with unimaginable force,
now when it had flown into the world, never to be recalled. He had
brooded over it, prepared it, taking a fearful joy out of the intention,
for years; but the moment it was done, the man was penitent and ashamed.
On the morning after its publication he was more completely struck down
with horror and shame than even the family he attacked--so much so that
he forgot to think of appearances, or to do anything which should divert
suspicion from him. He who had taken so prominent a part hitherto did
not even go to Castleton on the election day. He gave no vote; he
abandoned his good name and his friends together. Some one of the old
divines, in quaint familiarity with the Prince of Darkness, tells his
readers, if I remember rightly, how Satan sometimes puts so big a stone
into the hands of a sinner that it slays himself. This was what poor Mr
Pringle had done. He might have got through a hundred little efforts of
malice without much after-suffering, but this tremendous javelin struck
himself first, not his enemy, to the ground.

The Hewan was a miserable house during the night previous to the
election, after the letter, which was the source of all this trouble,
came into it. “This is your writing, Alexander!” his wife had cried,
when she read it. She waited for a denial, but none came. It was his
writing, then! She had thought it, but she had hoped to be contradicted.
I dare not repeat what this good wife and upright woman said to her
husband after so terrible a discovery. I should not like to describe
such a punishment. Mrs Pringle fell upon the unfortunate culprit, in all
the mingled wrath of his own wife, compromised by his personal disgrace,
and Vi’s mother, concerned for her child’s happiness. “You have shamed
us all; you have put a stigma on my boys that years will not wear out;
and you have ruined my Violet, and broken her heart!” she cried,
indignant. It was after this scene that poor little Vi, lonely and
miserable, stole down through the rain, old Jean bearing her company, to
beg Lady Eskside’s pardon. No one knew of this forlorn expedition except
old Mrs Moffatt, who knew that poor Vi was in trouble without knowing
why. When Violet left the house her mother had retired to her room with
a headache; her father had shut himself up in the new dining-room. The
house was wretched, and the child still more wretched. No such domestic
commotion had ever happened before in the house. Violet had not known
what to do. She had her private misery to swell to overbrimming the
trouble which her friendly young soul would have felt even in a case
less intimately affecting her. She gave up her own happiness without a
struggle, or at least so she thought, as she hastened down the rough
paths through the woods, with her hood over her bright hair, and old
Jean toiling after her with her big umbrella. She thought she gave it up
without hope or question. Poor Vi! for when the old lady, who had always
been so kind, made no movement of affection towards her, when she turned
away without a sign, Violet felt for the first time all the bitterness
of being without hope. She had meant to give Val up, and her happiness
and her life--but, alas, poor little Violet! I fear she had not thought
of being taken at her word. In her little breaking heart there had
survived an unspoken hope that Lady Eskside would gather her up into her
kind old arms, kiss her, forgive her, and make everything again as
though this misery had never been. At twenty it is so easy to believe
that everything can be made up, if only those who have the power could
be persuaded to have the will also. It was not till Lady Eskside turned
away that Violet felt that this thing was, and could not be mended. She
rushed out again into the rain and night in a real despair, of which her
former anguish had only been the similitude. Wretchedly, in a silence
which she could scarce keep from breaking with sobs, she fought her way
through the rain among the bare trees, her eyes so full of bitter tears
that she could see nothing. Ah, what a difference from the day before,
when Val was by her side, whom her father had injured, striking at him
cruelly in the dark, slandering him before all the world! “One thing is
good, at least--it is soon over, soon over!” poor Vi said in her heart.

Next day this unhappy family met estranged, saying nothing to each
other, and worn out with the tumult of the past night. Mrs Pringle
waited, expecting her husband to set off to Castleton for the election
all the morning through, but she would not condescend to ask him if he
were going. He did not go. Shame had taken hold upon the man. He shut
himself up in the room which he had built, and saw no one except at
luncheon, when they met and sat down together, making a pretence to eat,
without exchanging a word which could be avoided.

“How long is this to last, mamma?” said Violet, as they sat together on
the embankment, looking down the vale of Esk, with all its trees
beginning to grow green, and the turrets of Rosscraig shining in the
sun.

“How can I tell?” said Mrs Pringle; “as long as your father chooses, I
suppose. God knows what has come over him, Vi. He has done this for his
party, destroying all our peace of mind, and now he will not even go to
give his vote. I do not know what can have come over him. Sometimes I
think it must be illness,” said poor Mrs Pringle, drying her eyes.
Compunctions were beginning to steal upon her too, and meltings of heart
towards the sufferer.

“By this time it must be settled,” said Violet, looking down the valley
with tears in her eyes which hid it from her, and with quivering lips;
“and oh, mamma, if Val has lost!”

“He has not lost,--you may be sure of that,” said her mother. “But,
Violet, my darling, don’t say Val any more. You must make up your mind
that _that’s_ all over, Vi. They would never suffer it--I could not
myself in their place.”

Violet looked at her mother with her lips quivering more and more. “I
know,” she said, with an attempt at a smile. Too well she knew. She had
not said anything about her visit to Lady Eskside. Why should she? Her
heart was too sick and sore to be able to enter into prolonged
confidences; and what was the use?

Sandy got home almost as soon as the Eskside party did with their four
horses. He had thrown himself free as soon as he could of the friends
who had flung themselves upon him to “hinder mischief,” as they said.
“Mischief? what mischief?” he cried, fiercely; “do you think I am going
to make a fool of myself fighting a duel with Val Ross?” He was too
dangerous an antagonist, notwithstanding the humiliation which, taken at
unawares, he had sustained, to dispose any one to renew the quarrel on
Val’s behalf; and he had shaken them off and hastened home, possessed by
many painful thoughts. It was not until he had got miles from Castleton
on an unfrequented road that he ventured to stop and read the paper
which, up to this moment, he had only glanced at. Deeply though he felt
the affront he had received, I think the wound this paper gave him was
deeper still. He too judged, as everybody did, that it was his father’s
writing, his father’s attempt anonymously and under pretext of serving
his party, to give a deadly personal blow to the young man whom he had
always looked upon as his own and his son’s supplanter. Sandy’s sense of
humiliation, of bitter pain and discomfiture, grew as he approached
home. How was he to meet his father, to meet them all; for what more
likely than that mother and sister in the heat of controversy had taken
his father’s side? Every step he took towards the Hewan made him think
less of Val’s sin against him and more of his father’s, which was a
worse sin against him (Sandy) and all his brothers than it was against
Val. The time of dinner was approaching when he reached the Hewan, and
no one was visible. Sandy went to his room to dress, and I need not say
that his mother went to him there and told him her story, and had his in
return. They exchanged sentiments as they exchanged confidences; for Mrs
Pringle, forgetting her husband’s offence, on which she had dwelt so
long, was seized with a violent indignation against Val, who had
insulted her boy. But Sandy, poor fellow, forgot Val’s offence
altogether, and forgave him, in horror of the greater offence. Never had
there been such a dinner eaten by the Pringle family, who up to this
moment had been a model of family union. “I suppose you have heard how
things went at Castleton,” the father said, not looking at his son. “I
have been there,” said Sandy, pointedly, “and I am glad to say that Val
Ross was returned by the largest majority that has been known since
’32.” “Glad! why should you be glad?” cried Mr Pringle; and this was all
that was said. Afterwards, when he withdrew again into his loneliness,
Mrs Pringle’s heart failed her. She had never quarrelled with her
husband before, and she could not bear it. She went to the room where he
had shut himself up, and after an hour or two emerged again tearful but
smiling. During this interval the brother and sister were left alone,
and Sandy told Violet his story, over which she wept, poor child,
crying, “Oh, dear Sandy!” and “Oh, poor Val!” “I think you think as much
of him as you do of me,” her brother said, not knowing whether to be
offended with Violet, or to take the side of his assailant too.

“Oh, Sandy, have I not reason?” cried poor Vi, hiding in her soft heart
the deeper reason which only her mother knew. “Was he not always like
another brother to me--and to us all?”

“That’s true,” said Sandy, softened and thoughtful; “he was always fond
of you.”

This was balm to poor Vi, who could suffer herself to cry a little when
Sandy was so ignorant and so kind. “He was fond of--us all,” said
Violet; “do you mind how good he was to the children? Never till now was
he unkind to any one. I am sure he is like to break his heart already
for what he has done.”

“He must say so then. He was a hasty beggar always,” Sandy admitted,
“and it was enough to drive a man out of his wits; but why should he
have laid hands on me? What had I done? You are a girl, Vi, you don’t
understand; but, by Jove! to stand being struck--by another fellow, you
know.”

“And hadn’t he been struck, and far deeper? Oh Sandy, only think--all
that about his mother, and about his coming here! I don’t think he knew
of it, or remembered. And to be exposed to the whole county, everybody,
all these great people, and all the poor folk--everybody! Oh, poor Val,
poor Val!”

Sandy was half inclined to cry too, he was so miserable. He got up and
walked about the room, his mind disturbed between the insult to himself
and the far deeper insult which Val had first received.

Violet got up too after a while, and stole her arm softly within his.
“What shall you do?” she said, looking up to him with her appealing
eyes.

“Oh, Vi, how can I tell?” cried the young man. “I’d like to kick him,
and I’d like to go down on my knees to him. What am I to do? Till to-day
I would have stood up for Val Ross against the world. Why did he insult
me before everybody? I forgive him; but I know no more what to do than
you can tell me. One thing,” he said, with a short laugh of disdain, “I
certainly shall not make a fool of myself, and fight a duel, which is
what I suppose he meant. I am not such a ridiculous idiot as to do
that.”

“A duel!” cried Violet, with a suppressed scream, holding fast by his
arm.

“No, I am not such an idiot as that,” said Sandy; “though I suppose that
is what he must have meant.”

“He did not know what he was saying,” said Violet. “Oh, Sandy dear, you
are brave enough and strong enough to be able to forgive him. Oh, Sandy,
will you forgive him? I should not be quite so miserable to-night if you
would promise: forgive him, that he may forgive poor papa.”

“Why should you be so miserable, Vi?” said her brother, looking
earnestly into her face; but fortunately for poor Violet, her mother
here made her appearance, and the conversation was stopped. The girl
stole away to her little room soon after--the room with the attic window
which commanded the view of Esk and its valley, which had been hers
since she was a child. It was a moonlight night, and the sometimes
golden turrets of Rosscraig shone out silvery from among the clouds of
leafless trees. Vi pretended to be asleep when her mother came into her
room on her way to her own, feeling unable to bear another word; but
after that visitation was over, the girl got up in her restlessness and
wrapped herself in her warm dressing-gown, and sat by the window
watching the steadfast cloudless shining of that white moon in the
great, blue, silent heavens, over the dark and dreamy earth. How
different it was from the sunshine, with all its sudden gleams and
shadows, its movements of life and mirth, its flutterings and happy
changes! The moon was as still as death, and as unchangeable, throwing
her paleness over everything. The girl’s sad soul played with this fancy
in a melancholy which was deep as the night, yet, like the night, not
without its charm. She sat thus so long that she lost note of time, too
wretched to go to bed,--sleepless, hopeless, as she thought; now and
then looking wistfully at the silver turrets, thinking, oh if she could
only speak one word to Val! only say good-bye to him, though it must be
for ever. Notwithstanding these thoughts, it was with a pang of fright
beyond description that she saw, quite suddenly, a dark figure rising
over the dyke on to the little platform upon which the Hewan stood.
Violet was so much alarmed that it did not occur to her who it was who
thus invaded the safe retirement of the place in the middle of the
night. She would have screamed aloud had she not been too much
frightened to scream. Was it a ghost? was it a robber? She forgot her
misery for the moment in her terror; then suddenly felt her misery flood
back upon her heart, changed into a desperate joy. It was no ghost nor
robber, but Val, poor Val. He climbed up noiselessly and sat down upon
the edge of the dyke, with his face turned to the house--in all that
quiet, silent, lifeless world, the only living thing, doing nothing to
attract attention, scarcely moving, looking at her window in the
moonlight. She watched him for a time, with her heart leaping wildly to
her mouth. All was perfectly still, the household asleep, not a stir to
be heard anywhere but that of the soft night-wind sighing through the
trees. Her heart yearned over her young lover in the pathetic silence of
this night-visit, which seemed made without any hope of seeing her,
without hope of anything--only, like herself, out of the sick
restlessness of misery. She opened her window softly, and put out her
head. When he saw this, he rose with a start and came towards her. The
night-wind blew softly, the trees rustled, a whisper of sound was in the
air, like the breath of invisible spectators standing by.

“Oh, Val, is it you?”

“It is me,” said Val “I came to look at your window before I went away.”

“Where are you going?” she whispered in alarm.

“Somewhere. I don’t know; I don’t care,” said the lad. “I cannot bear
it. How can I face the world any more? I wish I could die and be done
with it all; but you can’t die when you please. I wanted to say good-bye
to you somehow. Vi, dear Vi, don’t forget me altogether; and yet it
would be better that you should forget me,” he added, drearily. Oh, if
she had been but near to him to console him! It was hard to hear him
speak in this miserable tone, and have no power so much as to touch his
hand.

“How can you speak of forgetting?” said poor Vi; “as if I could ever
forget! But, Val, I know you ought not to think of me any more.”

“I wish I might not think of anything long,” he said. “God help us, Vi!
everything seems over. Tell Sandy I am sorry I struck him. I was mad. He
can call me a coward if he likes, and say I ran away.”

“Oh, Val, Sandy is sorry too; he would ask your pardon too. Val, for
pity’s sake try and think of us no more; but don’t go away--don’t go
away!” cried Vi.

Another faint sound, as of some one stirring in the house, here caught
the ears of both. Val looked up in the moonlight, which shone for a
moment upon his face, holding out his hands and waving a farewell to
her. “Good-bye, good-bye,” his moving lips seemed to say; or was it a
tremulous kiss they sent her through the sorrowful sighing night? In
another moment he had disappeared as he came. Vi sat trembling and
weeping silently at her window, watching him disappear into the
darkness--trembling as if with guilt when she heard another window
thrown open, and the sound of her mother’s voice. “I am sure I heard a
step on the gravel,” Mrs Pringle said, looking out. But the white
moonlight shone so full and broad over the cottage and its surroundings,
that it was evident no nocturnal visitor was there. “I suppose it must
have been my imagination,” she added, drawing in her head, and bolting
and barring the window. It was long before Violet dared do the same, or
dared to make even so much noise as rise from her chair. She sat there
half the night through, crying silently, chilled and miserable. Only two
nights before, how happy had she lain down!--happy as a child--far
happier than any queen! and now it was all over. Even Val himself saw
and acknowledged that it was so;--all over, as if it had been a tale
read out of a book; and how soon the longest tale comes to an end!

Violet told her mother next morning of this nocturnal visit. She would
rather, had she dared, have told Sandy, and kept it back from her
mother, who was too angry in consequence of Val’s assault upon her son
to do him full justice--but dared not, fearing her brother’s questions,
to which she could give no answer. And then dead silence--one of those
blank intervals of existence which are perhaps the hardest to bear--fell
upon the poor little girl at the Hewan. When the rest of the family went
back to Edinburgh, she begged to be allowed to stay behind for a day or
two. I cannot tell for what reason, for probably Vi would have been
less miserable at home among her brothers and her occupations. But at
Vi’s age one does not wish to forget one’s misery--one prefers to take
the full good of it. She secured that advantage, poor child! After the
events, which had crowded on each other, came silence and stillness, so
complete that they weighed upon her like a positive burden, not a mere
negation of movement or sound. The long spring days, bright and
cold--the long days of rain, when she stood at the window and watched
the showers falling over the valley with all its trees, sometimes
crossed by a sunbeam, and gleaming under it, but most frequently falling
in a mist of moisture, dull, persistent, untouched by any light. Even
the news of the village scarcely reached her, and nearly a week elapsed
before Violet heard as a piece of public news that Mr Ross had been
obliged to leave home on business--that he had not even been present at
the great dinner at Castleton, which was given in honour of his
election. But not even Mary Percival came up to the Hewan through the
woods in that first week of silence, which almost killed Vi. They were
all too angry, too deeply offended, and at the same time too anxious
about Val, concerning whom Lady Eskside smiled and told stories of the
urgent business which compelled his absence, but of whose whereabouts
they knew nothing, and had heard nothing since the night when he went
away.



CHAPTER XXX.


On the evening of the day after the election, Richard Ross, in Florence,
received two telegrams,--one from his father, announcing the result of
the election, sent off from the nearest telegraphic station, in Lord
Eskside’s own name, and with full official pomp. The other was from
Edinburgh, from “Catherine Ross,” asking “Is the boy with you? He has
left us, and we don’t know where he has gone. Write at once, or come.”
These two announcements threw the clearest light upon each other to
Richard. He said to himself that what he had predicted had
happened--that his son had been assailed by the story of his birth, and
that in shame and rage he had fled as _she_ did. Valentine had not paid
his father that long visit for nothing. The _dilettante_ had found out
that he was a man after all, with some remnants in him of human feeling.
A man’s child brings back this consciousness more easily than his
parents do, by some strange law of nature which is very hard upon the
old. Probably had Richard gone back to Eskside, he would have been
impatient of the old house and its unchangeable order before he had been
two days there, and as glad as ever to get away. But Valentine had
interfered with none of his habits; he had amused him, he had aroused a
spark of paternal pride in his mind, which was so little affected by
such emotions; and when the boy went away he missed him, and wondered at
himself for doing so. And he had taken an interest of a much stronger
character than he could have believed possible in the election. He said
to himself now, that he knew and had always predicted what would happen,
and a pang of anxiety sprang up within him, the strangest feeling to
make itself felt within the polished bosom of a man of the world. Tut!
he said to himself; what was he anxious about? a boy who was not a
simple rustic from the country, but a man of Eton and Oxford, “up” to
everything. He laughed at his own weakness. That very night he was
dining out at a brilliant party, the most brilliant that could be
collected in the highest circle of Florence at the time of her last
revived and temporary magnificence. He was astonished at himself to
think how dull he found it. The ladies were less fair, the talk less
witty, the diamonds less bright, than he had ever known them. What was
the matter with Richard? “You look depressed and out of sorts,” some one
said to him next morning. “Oh no, not I; it is a bad dinner I had
yesterday.” A bad dinner! He trembled after he had said it, wondering if
perhaps his questioner would take the trouble to inquire where he dined.
But it was not the dinner which was in fault. He felt himself asking
himself in the midst of it--where was the boy? what had become of him?
What might Valentine have done if he had been assailed by something
specially hard to bear? He was uneasy and restless all night, slept
badly, and again asked himself, as soon as he woke, where was the boy?
“Confound the boy! he can take care of himself better than I could,”
Richard said to himself under his breath; but all his reasoning did
nothing for him. He was anxious, uneasy, as parents so often are; his
imagination in spite of him strayed into a thousand wonderings; he had
to call himself back, even when in the middle of a despatch, from those
ridiculous questionings about Val; and at last the commotion in his mind
became more than he could comfortably bear.

Nor was it only Valentine who had roused the life which had half
congealed within his father’s veins. The photograph which chance had
thrown into his hands had not been without its effect in rousing him.
When he murmured _maladetta!_ between his closed teeth, he was as much
in earnest as a man can be when he looks, disenchanted, and with all the
glamour gone out of his middle-aged eyes, upon the fair face, no longer
so fair, which had made havoc with his youth. But somehow the knowledge
that he had that scrap of paper in his desk affected Richard in a way
which no one who knew him could have believed possible. He had no
portrait of her--nothing by which he could recall her face; and this
glimpse of her--so unexpected, so changed, and yet so unmistakable--the
face of the woman who was her, yet not her--the same creature whom he
had married, yet another being of whom he knew absolutely nothing--had
moved him as I suppose nothing else connected with her could have done.
He would have been as intolerant now of any attempt to recall his
affections to her as when Lady Eskside tried, and failed, to rouse him
to interest in his wife. Even had any other creature been aware of the
existence of the portrait--had any one known that he had kept and
secured it, and would take it out now and then, with a half sneer on his
face, to look at it, when he was certain no one could disturb
him--Richard would have been as hard, as unyielding, as defiant as ever.
But the fact that no one knew opened his heart so far. Sometimes he
would say to himself with a curious subdued laugh, “Looks as if she had
been a lady!” The thought filled him with a strange amusement, a
satirical sense of the incongruities of life. She whom it had been
impossible to tame into any semblance of quiet, vagrant-born and
vagrant-bred, a wild creature of the woods as long as she was in the
atmosphere where a lady’s demeanour was necessary; and now, in a sphere
where it was not necessary--where it brought remark upon her--facing him
with that still look, which (he could not deny) was full of a wild
gravity and dignity;--he laughed at the strange thought, but the
sentiment his laugh expressed was not mirthful: it was the only way in
which he could embody the grotesque sense of confusion and bewilderment
that rose in his mind. Would she bear that same aspect of dignity, he
wondered, if he saw her? Would she know him at a glance, as he had
recognised her? Did she know Val? The little picture was like a romance
to him. It worked upon him as nothing in his life had done for years.

Did she know Val?--how curious was the inquiry!--had she any intentions,
any hopes, about the other boy--he whose figure, stooping on the little
pier to push off somebody’s boat, was all his father knew of him? His
father! Can you imagine, dear reader, the strange thrill that went
through the man of the world, in spite of himself, when he thought of
this “other boy”? The elegant calm of the accomplished diplomatist, who
had lived for nothing but the State and society, fine talk and fine
people, and pictures and china, for years, was completely disturbed and
broken up by this invasion of unusual thought, and something which he
tried to persuade himself was simply curiosity and not feeling. He had
written at once, as I have said, to his confidential solicitor, bidding
him to inquire into all the particulars he had learned from Val, and to
ascertain the facts in strictest secrecy, without doing anything to
awaken the woman’s suspicions, and to keep an eye upon the mother and
son, taking care that they did not escape him again, but were always
within reach if wanted. When he had done this, he thought that he had
done all it was his duty to do. They did not require anything from
him--neither help nor supervision. They had sufficed to themselves for
so many years, and doubtless could do so still; and all that _he_ wanted
(he said to himself) was to know where to lay his hand upon them for
Val’s sake--to be able to prove his complete identity at any moment. For
this purpose it was enough to know where the mother was, and to take
care that she never again stole out of their ken, either by her
wandering tastes or by the final way of death. This was all that was
necessary in Val’s interest. And yet, after a while, it did not content
Richard. He felt an uneasiness take possession of him; not that he
wanted anything to say to the woman who had worked him so much harm, or
wished to acknowledge and bind to himself the uncultured young
tradesman, who was his son also as well as Val. No instinct of
paternity moved him here. “The other boy” could, he was sure, be nothing
but a bore to him--a creature whom he must be ashamed of. A girl might
have been different,--might have been capable of training; but a boy who
had spent all his youth as, at best, a working man, earning his bread
day by day--no, he could not suppose himself to be moved by any
inclination towards these unknown persons. He was only anxious to know
where they were, to be able to lay his hand upon them when necessary,
nothing more. All that he desired was that they should remain unknown in
the condition they had chosen, neither troubled by him nor troubling
him, only ready to be produced on Val’s behalf, should that be needful.
What other feeling could he be expected to entertain.

But, reasonable as all this sounded, some disturbance, for which he
could not account, had got into Richard Ross’s soul. He could not tell
what he wanted. Movement he supposed, change, even the bore of giving up
the life he preferred, and visiting home, and seeing with his own eyes
what had happened and what was happening. He would not like it, he knew,
when he was there, but still, perhaps, it would do him good to go. His
digestion (he thought) must have got out of order--a certain monotony
had crept into his life. That which he possessed seemed less desirable
than usual; that which was out of his reach more attractive. The
telegram about Val gave the last touch to his uneasiness. Yes, he
thought it would be better to go. He could bring Val to his senses, no
doubt, better than anybody else could, and it would please the old
people, and the change would be good for his own health. He made up his
mind quite suddenly, and concluded all his arrangements in twenty-four
hours, and set out for England. But in order to do what he intended
quite effectually he made a curious _détour_ on the way. He went to the
little village on the coast where his children had been born. I think it
was the lovely little town of Santa Margherita, on the eastern Riviera,
or some other of the little glimpses of Paradise there. The children had
been baptised by the English chaplain from Genoa, and he turned aside to
get the register of their baptism with a business-like precaution for
which he smiled at himself. He felt that he could do this more quietly,
with less likelihood of attracting curiosity, in his own person, than if
he had done it by letter. He got the copy and attestation properly
drawn out and in full legal form, and carried them away with him,
without even examining the packet, intending to hand it over to his
father, whose orderly soul would be satisfied. And thus prepared and
ready for any emergency, he went home.

He found only his mother at Rosscraig. The old lord had gone, very
unhappy and anxious, to London, hoping for some news of the boy. He had
now been nearly a week absent, and nothing had been heard of him; and
Lady Eskside met her son with worn looks and a miserable excitement,
which already seemed to have worn her strength out more than the
pressure of years had done. Even in the act of welcoming her son, her
eyes and ears were on the alert, watching doors and windows with
feverish eagerness. “I know I am foolish,” she said, with a wan smile;
“for, indeed, Val is well enough able to take care of himself, as you
say. He is not a rustic--no, nor a simpleton, nor one unused to the
world. No, Richard, I know: nothing of all that. Of course, his training
has just been of the kind to make him able to take care of himself; and
for a young man at his age to be away from home a week is nothing so
wonderful. Yes, yes; you are right. I know you are right, and I am
foolish, very foolish; but I cannot help it, my dear--it is my nature.
You can’t reason anxiety down. Oh, I wish I could help it! I know I am
unjust to my poor Val.”

“Well, mother, boys will be boys, and they must have their swing, you
know,” said Richard, despising himself for the words without meaning,
which were no more satisfactory to himself than to her. “Besides, I
suppose he has always been a steady fellow hitherto,” he added, “which
should make you less anxious now.”

“Oh, always, always,” she cried, almost with tears; “no one could be
more trustworthy. My poor old lord is very unhappy, Richard; he is as
foolish as me; because he has always been so good, we think he should
continue the same for ever--never step out of the beaten path for a
moment, or take his own way;” and she tried to laugh at her own
foolishness, but breaking down in that, was so much nearer crying that
she walked to the window instead, and looked out with an eager
wistfulness that had become habitual to her, looking if possibly some
one at that very moment might be arriving with news.

“Does anybody know?” he asked.

“We have taken every precaution,” said Lady Eskside. “We gave it out he
had been called away by you on family business. I drove into Edinburgh
myself, and went to the telegraph office on foot, Richard, and gave them
the family name--no title, as you would see, that the telegraph people
might not know--for how could I tell if they might spread it? I don’t
think anything is suspected out of doors, but I could not say for the
servants. They always find out what is doing. They read it in your face,
in the hour you go to bed, in the way you take your dinner. That
Margaret Harding knows I am unhappy is plain enough; but I am not sure
that she knows what is the cause.”

“Oh, you may take that for granted too,” said Richard; “they find out
all one is thinking. Never mind, mother; everything in this world is
like the dew. It dries up and disappears, so that you could not tell
where it had been. Now tell me what clue you have, and where you think
he is likely to have gone.”

“We have no clue at all,” said the old lady. “Had he gone to see any of
his friends we should have heard of him ere now; and had he gone abroad,
Richard, he would have gone to you. That is one of the hardest things of
all--we don’t know where to look for him. Your father is in London,
wandering about.”

“Did you ever think of Oxford?” said Richard.

“Oxford?--what would he do in Oxford? He has no friends he is fond of
there. His friends were lads of his own standing, who left Oxford when
he did. It never occurred to me; but, my dear, if you think it’s a
likely place, we’ll send there at once.”

Lady Eskside put out her hand to ring the bell. If Siberia or Egypt had
been suggested to her, I think she would have rung the bell all the
same, and directed some one at a half-hour’s notice to go.

“What are you going to do, mother? do you mean to send Harding to Oxford
to look for Val?”

She smiled a forlorn smile as she saw the foolishness of her instinctive
movement; and then Richard explained to her that he would go, having
some reasons of his own for thinking it possible that Val might have
gone to Oxford, as well as some business to do there in his own person.
“But you will let no business detain you if you do not find the boy?”
Lady Eskside said, and listened with an impatience she could not
conceal while Richard explained that business must be done whatever
Valentine might do. “Besides, you don’t think that a young man like
Valentine--a newly elected member of Parliament, and your grandson--can
be lost like a child, mother?” he said, half laughing, though he was not
without anxiety too. I am afraid the old lady felt his ease, and gentle
way of taking this tremendous calamity, jar upon her; and she was so
anxious that he should set out at once to look for her lost child, that
Richard was affronted too, and with some reason. He was less annoyed by
her evident preference of Val to himself than he had been fifteen years
ago; but it still struck him half whimsically, half painfully. He
remained all night after his long journey, almost against her will. She
could think of nothing but Val; and when he was ready to start next day,
all that she said and seemed to think was about her darling. “You will
telegraph to me at once, if you hear anything? Oh, my dear, think how
hard it is to be left here in the quiet, hearing nothing, not able to do
anything, but wait!” she said; and was restless all the morning, and
afraid that he would be late for the train. Richard could not help
making a few reflections on the subject as he went away. He was not so
deeply attached to his son as to tremble for his safety as Lady Eskside
did: and he was not so much devoted to his mother as to feel very deeply
her abandonment of himself altogether, and substitution of Valentine in
his stead. But in his comparative calm he noted and made reflections on
the subject more than he could have done had his interest been more
deeply engaged. It was a curious psychological inquiry to him;--and at
the same time he felt it a little. It gave him an odd prick which he had
not expected. “After all,” he said to himself, “the Palazzo Graziani is
the place for me.”

He set out for Oxford about noon. His mother could scarcely forgive him
that, because of mere unwillingness to be disturbed a little earlier
than usual, he had missed the early train. “Oh,” she said to herself,
“when would I have been kept from my boy for the sake of an hour’s
longer lie in the morning!” She was relieved to get him out of the house
at last, bearing a hundred messages for Val if he should be found, and
under solemn charges to telegraph at once to her the result of his
mission--glad, very glad, to get him out of the house, though he was her
only son, whom she had not seen for years. I suppose few things could
make a man feel more small than the fact that his mother was absolutely
indifferent to him,--could scarcely even see him, indeed, except by the
borrowed light of his son. Richard went away smiling to himself over
this curious fact, but slightly wounded at the same time, and set off
for Oxford with many thoughts in his heart. He was letting himself drift
unconsciously to the place in which that woman was. Should he see her?
and if he saw her, should he make himself known to her? or what would
happen? He could not tell. There was no love, not even the ashes of a
dead one, in his heart. What could that love be which Richard Ross once
felt for a tramp-girl, without education of any kind--a fair weed
without any soul? It had dried up and left no remnant behind. But he was
curious, very curious; what had time done, perhaps, for the creature
whom _he_ had been able to do nothing for? “Looks as if she had been a
lady once.” These careless words of Val’s had influenced his father more
than anything more serious. He wanted to know how this strange result
had come about.

Lady Eskside watched the carriage roll over the Lasswade bridge, on its
way to the railway station; and after it had passed, still sat musing at
the high window of the turret, from whence she could see it. She saw
people, too far off to be distinguishable, passing the bridge from time
to time, and watched them with a feverish anxiety till she could see
which way they took--the road to Rosscraig, or away on the other side to
the village, and to Castleton. She thought no longer of her son, her
Richard, who had once been the most important object in the world to
her. Her heart went past him, impatiently thinking of another more
dear--of her boy who was in danger or trouble somewhere, the child of
her heart and her old age. While she still sat thus musing, with a sick
heart and longing eyes, at the window, she heard Harding’s slow steps,
with his creaking boots, come toiling up-stairs to call her. There had
been so many false alarms, that she sat still languidly with her hands
crossed in her lap, and her eyes still fixed on the bridge, till he came
to the door of the turret-room, and it was only when her ear detected
something strange in the sound of his voice that she looked round.
Harding certainly did not look himself; he had a startled half-scared
expression in his eyes, and his rosy cheeks were paled, as with a tint
of blue over the pink. “If you please, my lady,”--he began in a
tremulous voice.

“What is it, Harding?” She rose up very alert and ready, trembling too,
but not showing it, for she had not taken any one into her confidence,
nor permitted it to be seen how anxious she was.

“There is a young--gentleman down-stairs, my lady; wishes to speak to
you--if you please.”

“A young gentleman! who, Harding?”

“I don’t know, my lady; leastways, his face it is familiar to me, I
won’t deny, but I can’t put a name to it. It’s familiar to me, but I
don’t know as I ever saw him before.”

“How can you know him, then?” said my lady, trying to smile; “you have
perhaps seen a picture in these days when everybody is photographed.
And, Harding, what does he want with me?”

“Very likely your ladyship is right,” said Harding; “everybody has their
photograph, it is true. I’d like to know what your ladyship thinks. I’ve
put him in the morning-room to wait.”

“If he is a gentleman, you should have taken him to the library or the
drawing-room,” said Lady Eskside, going calmly down-stairs. I wonder if
it is any news? she said to herself, and did not, I think, give any
further attention to old Harding’s apparent curiosity about the visitor.
What time had she to think about any stranger, except to consider
whether he brought her news or not? and quite likely it was but some
tradesman from Edinburgh--some indifferent person. She turned round as
she went down-stairs to ask if he had given his name.

“He said his name was Brown; but your ladyship wouldn’t know it, as he
was a stranger to your ladyship,” said Harding. This quickened Lady
Eskside’s step. It might then be news after all.

The little morning-room was small and bare, a room in which tradespeople
and visitors on business were received. Over the mantelpiece there hung
a boyish portrait of Val, an indifferent picture, banished here as not
worthy a place elsewhere. When Lady Eskside entered the room, her
visitor had his back to her, looking at this picture. He did not hear
her come in, and she stood a second, silent, waiting till he should
observe her; but getting impatient, said hastily, “You wanted to see
me?”

“I beg your pardon,” said the young man, turning sharply round. Good
God! who was it? The old lady fell back as far as the wall would let
her, with a loud cry. She held out her hands, half holding him off, half
inviting his approach. “Who are you? who are you?” she cried, her heart
leaping to her throat.

“I beg your pardon, ma’am,” said the youth. He did not know whether he
ought to have said “my lady,” and hesitated. “I hope I have not
frightened you. I came to say that Mr Ross----”

Was it possible that Val, her darling, had gone out of her mind in that
moment of wonder? She scarcely heard what he said, though they were
words which would have raised her to the height of excitement had any
one else said them. She came forward to him with the same wild wonder in
her eye, with her hands uplifted. “For God’s sake, boy, who are you? who
are you?” she said.

Richard had gone away from her only an hour before, a middle-aged man
for whom her feelings were scarcely those of a mother’s impassioned
love; yet here Richard stood before her, her true Richard, the boy who
had been her adoration and her pride a quarter of a century ago. Her
head reeled; the light swam in her eyes; life seemed to turn round with
her; and everything became a dream. “For the love of God! who are you?”
she cried.



CHAPTER XXXI.


When Valentine disappeared in the moonlight from the Hewan, his mind was
in a state happily very unusual to youth, but to which youth adds all
the additional bitterness of which it is capable. He was not only
outraged, wounded to the quick, every comfort and consolation taken from
him for the moment, but his heart and imagination had no refuge to fall
back upon, no safe shelter which he could feel behind him whatever might
happen. Everything he was familiar with and every being he loved was
involved in the catastrophe that had overwhelmed him. In other
circumstances, had anything equally dreadful befallen him at home, he
would have had his young love to fall back upon, and his tender,
sympathising Violet, whose soft eyes would have given a certain
sweetness even to misery itself; or had Violet failed him, he might have
had at least the tender peacefulness of the old home, the old people who
adored him, and to whom he was all in all. But in this horrible crisis
everything seemed gone from him. The very thought of home made his heart
sick; he had been shamed in it, and made a shame to it; and poor Lord
Eskside’s kind mistaken assurance, so tenderly and solemnly made, that
in his own mind there was not a doubt of Val’s identity, had almost
broken the poor young fellow’s heart. Heaven above! what must his
condition be, when his grandfather, the old lord himself, whose idol he
was, had to say this to him? When the recollection recurred to Val, it
was with all the fainting sickness of soul with which a deathblow is
received. It was not a deathblow, but in his misery this was how he felt
it. And Violet was separated from him, it seemed for ever, by her
father’s enmity and unprovoked assault; and if that had not been enough,
by his own mad assault upon Sandy, who, he knew well enough, was his
friend, and would never have harmed him. This completed, he felt, his
isolation and miserable loneliness; he had nowhere to turn to for
relief. Once indeed he thought of his father; but had not his father
prophesied to him how it would be? and could he go now and tell him all
had happened as he prophesied, and yet expect consolation?

Thus poor Val felt the ground cut from under his feet; he had nowhere to
turn to, no one to fall back upon. For my part, I think this makes all
the difference between the bearable and the unbearable in human trouble.
This is what clothes in armour of proof a man who has a wife, a woman
who has a child. Something to fall back upon, something to turn to,
whatever your ill is, to find support, backing, consolation. Poor boy!
he gazed round him with hot eyes, hopeless and unrefreshed, and saw
nowhere to go, no one to throw himself on. It was not that he doubted
the love of his grandparents, who had never given him a moment’s cause
to distrust them; but there it was that his wound had been given him,
and he wanted to get away, to get away! to look at it from a distance
and see if perhaps it might be bearable--but found nowhere to go to, no
one to receive him. And the kind reader must remember what blood Val had
in his veins before he condemns him--wild blood, oftentimes almost more
than he could struggle against even in his calmest moments, and a heart
full of chaotic impulses, now fired by misery and left to torment him
like a pack of demons. He did not know what to do, nor what he wanted to
do; but something must be done, and at once, for to keep still was
impossible. Therefore as movement was the best thing for him at all
events, he walked to Edinburgh through the moonlight, through the
tranquil country roads, on which he met no one, through still villages
where all the world was asleep. Now and then a watchful dog, roused by
the passing step, barked at him as he went along, which seemed somehow
to give him an additional conviction of being a castaway, abandoned by
all the world--but that was all. Deep silence surrounded him, a still,
soft night, but chill with a cold that went to his heart; and the moon
was cold and the world slept, and nobody cared what Valentine might do
with himself--Val, who had been so loved, so cared for, and who was so
sure three days ago that the whole world took an interest in him, and,
in its heart, was on his side!

I do not know precisely why he went to Oxford--probably because he was
accustomed to go there, and it gave him less trouble to think of that
place than of anywhere else when the moment came to decide where he was
going--for I don’t think it was any conscious recurrence of mind to
friendly Dick and his mother. He was too unhappy to remember them.
Anyhow he went to Oxford--where he arrived half dead with fatigue and
misery. He had not eaten, he had not slept, since Lord Eskside gave him
that paper in the library, and he had been subject to all the excitement
of the election while in this state. He went to bed when he got to the
hotel, to the astonishment of the inn people, for he had not even a bag
with him, no change of dress, or any comfort--and spent the night in a
confused stupor, full of dreams, which was not sleep. Next morning he
got up late, went down to the river side, hardly knowing what he was
about, and got into a boat mechanically, and went out upon the river. As
it happened, of all days in the year this was Easter Monday, a day when
many rude holiday parties are about, and when the Thames is generally
avoided by well-informed persons. It was crowded with boats and noisy
parties, heavy boatloads, with rowers unfit for the responsibility they
had undertaken--the kind of people who cause accidents from one year’s
end to another. Val did not think of them, nor, indeed, of anything. I
doubt even whether he was capable of thought: his pulse was galloping,
his head throbbing, his eyes dull and red, and with an inward look,
seeing nothing around.

Unfortunately, as it happened, Dick was not on the wharf at the moment
to notice who was going or coming, and was quite unaware of the presence
of his young patron. Dick’s mother, however, was standing in her little
garden, looking out over the wall. She had no one to look for now, but
still her eyes kept their wistful habit, and the even flow of the stream
and perpetual movement seemed to soothe her. She was standing in her
abstracted way, one arm leaning upon the little gate, gazing without
seeing much,--not at the familiar Thames, but into the unknown. She came
to herself all at once with a start, which made the gate quiver: came to
herself? nay--for herself, poor soul, had not much share in her thoughts
then--but came back to consciousness of the one thing which seemed to
give life a certain reality for her. All in a moment, as if he had
dropped from the skies, she saw Valentine stepping into his boat; how he
had come there, where he was going, she could not tell; but there he
stood, wavering slightly as he stepped into the light outrigger, swaying
it dangerously to one side, in a way very unlike Val. Her heart sprang
up in her breast, her whole nature came to life at the sight of him, and
at something, she could not tell what, in the look of him--something
uncertain, helpless, feeble. Her figure lost its droop, her head its
musing attitude. She stood alert, in the intensest eager attention and
readiness for everything, watching her boy.

Val paddled out into the stream, poising his long oars, I cannot tell
how, in a vague uncertain way, as if he did not well know which end of
them was in his grasp. Then he let himself float down past her, feebly
steering himself, but doing little more; and then some sudden idea
seemed to come to him--or was it rather a cessation of ideas, a trance,
a faint? He stopped his boat in the middle of the crowded river, and lay
there with long oars poised over the water--wavering, reflected in it
like the long dragon-fly wings--his figure bent a little forward, his
face, so far as she could see it, blank and without expression. There he
came to a dead stop, of all places in the world--in the middle of the
stream, in the middle of the crowd--taking no notice of passing boatmen
who shouted to him, “Look ahead!” and had all the trouble in the world
to steer their course about him and keep out of his way. A thrill of
strong anxiety came into the woman’s mind--anxiety such as had never
moved her before. Heretofore she had been passive, doing nothing, taking
no active part in any one’s affairs. This stir of life was such that it
set her into sudden energetic movement almost unawares. She went outside
her gate, and closed it behind her, watching intently, her heart beating
high in her breast, and a sense as of some coming emergency upon her.
There he sat in his boat, lying still upon the shining water, the long
oars with a faint flutter in them as if held in unsteady hands, not
straight and motionless as they ought to be--and crowds of unwary boats,
ignorantly managed, stumbling about the stream, boats all ripe and ready
for an accident, with people in them shouting, singing, jumbled
together. There was a small green eyot, a bundle of waving willows,
nothing more, just in front of Valentine’s boat, which was a partial
shield to him; but what had happened to Val that he lay thus, taking no
precaution, with the long oars trembling in his hands?

“Look ahead there! look ahead, sir!” cried the men on the river. Val
never moved, never turned to see what it was. What did it matter to him
(the watcher thought), a capital swimmer, if anything did happen? How
foolish she was to be afraid! Just then a great lumbering boat, with
four oars waving out of it in delightful licence and impartiality, like
the arms of a cuttlefish, full of holiday folk, came up, visible behind
the eyot. There was a jar, a bump, a shout. “It ain’t nothing, he swims
like a duck,” cried some voice near her. She could not tell who spoke;
but through the dazzle in her eyes she saw that the long oars and the
slim boat had disappeared, and that the holiday party--shouting,
struggling about the river--were alone visible. Swim? Yes, no doubt he
could swim; but the woman was his mother--his mother! She gave a great
cry, and rushed with one spring into the punt that lay moored at the
steps immediately in front of her door. She was not like one of you
delicate ladies, who, all the same, would have done it too, had your boy
been drowning. She knew how to do a great many rough, practical things.
She pushed the big boat into the stream, and with her big pole, flying
like a mad creature, was under the green willows looking for him before
any one else could draw breath.

And it was well for Val, poor boy, that though he did not know it, his
mother was by, with divination in her eyes. The best swimmer on the
Thames could not have contended with the stupor of fever that was on
him. When his boat was upset, rousing him out of a bewildering dream, he
gave but one gasp, made one mechanical clutch at something, he knew not
what, that was near him, and then was conscious of nothing more. His
limbs were like steel, his head like lead. There was no power in him to
struggle for his life. The boatmen about who knew him did not stir a
step, but sat about in their boats, or watched from the rafts, perfectly
easy in their minds about the young athlete, to whom a drench in the
Thames was nothing. Only the woman, who was his mother, knew that on
that particular day Val would sink like a stone. She was at the spot
with the punt before any one knew what she was doing, but not before one
and another had asked, calling to each other, “Where is he? He is too
long under water. He don’t remember it’s March, and cold.” “He’ll get
his death of cold,” said one old boatman. “Man alive!” cried out
another, jumping over the boats that lay drawn up upon the rafts, “out
with a boat!--he’s drowning. Out with your boat!”

What Val had clutched at was the root of one of the willows. He caught
it without knowing, clenched it, and when he sank, sank with his
drooping head on the damp soil of the eyot--into the water to his lips,
but yet supported and moored, as it were, to life and safety by the
desperate grasp he had taken of the willow. There the woman found him
when she reached the spot. He had fainted with the shock, and lay there
totally helpless, the soft wavelets floating over his dark curls, his
face half buried in the soft, damp soil, like a dead man, making no
effort to save himself.

She gave a cry which echoed over all the river. People a mile off heard
it, and shivered and wondered--a cry of longing and despair. But before
even that cry had roused the echoes, several boats had shot forth to her
aid. The men did not know what had happened, but something had happened;
they came crowding about her, while she, half sunk in the soft slime,
dragged up in her arms out of the water the unconscious figure. She had
his head on her arm, holding him up, half on land half in water, when
they got to her. She was paler than he was, lying there upon her, marble
white in his swoon. “Is he dead?” they said, coming up to her with
involuntary reverence. She looked at them piteously, poor soul, and held
the inanimate figure closer, dragging, to get him out of the water. Her
pale lips gave forth a low moan. No one asked what right this strange
woman had to look so, to utter that hopeless cry. No one even said, “He
is nothing to her;” they recognised the anguish which gave her an
unspoken, unasked right to him, and to them, and to all they could do.
And nothing could be easier than to draw him from the river, to place
him in the punt, where she sat down beside him, and with a gesture of
command pointed to her house. They took him there without a word. “Carry
him in,” she said, and went before to show them the room. “Go for a
doctor.” They obeyed her as they would have obeyed Lady Eskside herself.
They thought Val was dead, and so did she. She stood and looked at him,
when they rushed away to get help for her, in a misery of impotence and
longing beyond all words to say. Oh, could she do nothing for him!
nothing! She would have given her life for him; but what is a poor
mother’s life, or who would accept so easy a ransom? She could only
stand and gaze at him in hopeless, helpless, miserable anguish, and
wring her hands. She did not know what to do.

Fortunately, however, the doctor came very speedily, and soon engaged
all her powers. He turned away the good fellows who had fetched him, and
called the servant from the kitchen. “Quick, quick! every moment he
remains in this state makes it worse for him,” said the man, who knew
what could be done; and, though he was kind and pitiful, had no sword on
his breast piercing him through and through. Val came back to life after
a while, and to semi-consciousness. She had not expected it. She had
obeyed the doctor’s orders in a stupor, docile but hopeless; but what a
tumult, what a tempest woke and raged in her as she saw life come back!
She kept quiet, poor soul, not daring to say a word; but her joy worked
through her veins like strong wine; and she felt as if she could
scarcely keep standing, scarcely hold her footing and her composure
against the rapture that seemed to lift her up, to make a spirit of her.
Saved! saved!--was it possible? She had borne speechless the passion of
her anguish, but it was harder to fight with and keep down the tumult of
her joy.

“Come here,” said the doctor, speaking in peremptory tones, as it was
natural when addressing a person of her class. “I want to speak to you
down-stairs. Sit down. Have you any wine in the house? where do you keep
it? Be still, and I’ll get it myself. Now take this; what’s the matter
with you? Did you never see a man nearly drowned before?”

“No,” she said, faintly, keeping up her struggle with herself. She
wanted to cry out, to laugh, to dance, to shout for joy; but before the
man who eyed her so strangely, she had to keep still and quiet. She put
the wine aside. “I don’t want anything,” she said.

“Your pulse is going like a steam-engine,” said the doctor; “cry, woman,
for God’s sake, or let yourself out somehow. What’s the matter with you?
Can’t you speak?--then cry!”

She sank down on her knees; her heart was beating so that it seemed, to
struggle for an exit from her panting, parched lips. “I think I’m
dying--of joy!” she said, almost inaudibly, with a sob and gasp. “Poor
creature, that is all you know,” said the doctor, shaking his head; “he
is not round the corner yet, by a long way. Look here, do you know
anything about nursing, or do you often give way like this? On the
whole, I had better have him moved at once, and send for a nurse.”

“A nurse!” she said, stumbling up to her feet.

“Yes, my good woman. You are too excitable, I can see, to look after
him. There’s something the matter with him. I can’t tell what it is till
I see him again. Who is he? but how should you know? He had better go to
the hospital, where he can be well looked to----”

“Sir,” she said, eagerly, “I’m myself now. I am not one to get excited.
I thought he was dead; and you brought him back; God bless you! He has
been as good as an angel to my boy. I’ll nurse him night and day and
never give way. Let him stay here.”

“You are not strong enough; you’ll get ill yourself,” said the doctor.
“Then you know who he is? Be sure you write to his friends at once. But
he’d much better go to the hospital; you’ll get ill too----”

“No, no,” she said; “no, no. I never was ill. It was I who got him out
of the water. I’m strong; look, doctor, what an arm I have. I can lift
him if it’s wanted. Let him stay; oh, let him stay!”

“Your arm is all very well, but your pulse is a different thing,” said
the doctor. “If you go and fret and excite yourself, I’ll have him off
in an hour. Well, then, you can try. Come and let us see how he is
getting on now.”

“They are as like as two peas,” he said to himself, as he went away.
“He’s somebody’s illegitimate son, and this is his aunt, or his sister,
or something, and he don’t know. God bless us, what a world it is! but
I’d like to know which he’s going to have, that I may settle what to
do.”



CHAPTER XXXII.


I am afraid I cannot tell any one “which” it was that poor Val had, not
having any medical knowledge. He was very ill, and lay there for the
week during which Dick was absent on his master’s affairs, knowing
nobody, often delirious, never himself, unable to send any message, or
even to think of those he had left behind, who knew nothing of him. He
talked of them, raved about them when his mind wandered, sometimes
saying things which conveyed some intelligence to the mind of the
anxious woman who watched over him, and often uttering phrases which she
listened to eagerly, but which were all blank and dark to her. Poor
soul! how she watched, how she strained her ear for every word he said.
Her own, thus, once more; thus at last in her hands, with none to come
between them; dependent on her--receiving from her the tendance of weary
days and sleepless nights. Receiving from her, not she from him--eating
her bread even, so to speak, though he could eat nothing--living under
her roof--dependent on her, as a son should be on a mother. I cannot
describe the forlorn sweetness there was to her in this snatch of
nature, this sudden, unexpected, impossible crisis which, for the time,
gave her her son. I do not know if it ever occurred to her mind that the
others who had a right to him might be wondering what had become of
their boy. Even now her mind was not sufficiently developed to dwell
upon this. She thought only that she had him--she, and no other. She
closed her doors, and answered all questions sparingly, and admitted
nobody she could help; for what had anybody to do with him but she?
When the doctor asked if she had written to his friends, she nodded her
head or said “Yes, yes,” impatiently. His friends! who were they in
comparison to his mother? They had had him all his life--she had him for
so short a time, so very, very short a time!--why should any one come
and interfere? She could get him everything he wanted, could give up all
her time to watch him and nurse him. Once she said, when the doctor
pressed her, “I have let his mother know;” and he was satisfied with the
reply. “If his mother knows, of course it is all right,” he said. “Oh
yes, yes,” she cried, “his mother knows;” and what more was necessary?
She had not the faintest intention of revealing herself to him
afterwards, of taking the advantage of all she was doing for him. No! it
seemed to her that she could die easier than say to Val, “I am your
mother;” a subtle instinct in her--delicacy of perception communicated
by love alone--made her feel that Val would receive the news with no
delight--that to be made aware that she was his mother would be no joy
to him; and she would have died rather than betray herself. But to have
him there, unconscious as he was, “wandering in his mind,” not knowing
her, or any one--but yet with her as if he had been a baby again,
dependent on her, receiving everything from her! No words can say what
this was. She passed the time in a strange trance of exquisite mingled
pleasure and pain; suffering now and then to see him ill, to feel that
he did not know her, and if he knew her, would not care for her;
suffering, too, from the sleepless nights to which she was totally
unaccustomed, and the close confinement to one room, though scarcely
realising what it was that made her head so giddy and her sensations so
unusual; but all the time and through all the suffering rapt in a haze
of deep enjoyment--a happiness sacred and unintelligible, with which no
one could intermeddle; which no one even knew or could understand but
herself. She had no fear for Valentine’s life; though the doctor looked
very grave, it did not affect her; and though her brain was keen and
clear to understand the instructions he gave, and to follow them with
pertinacious, unvarying, almost unreasoning exactitude, she did not
study his looks, or ask with brooding anxiety his opinion, as most other
women in her circumstances would have done. She never asked his opinion,
indeed, at all. She was merely anxious, not at all afraid; or if she
was afraid, it was rather of her patient getting well than dying. The
doctor, who was the only one who beheld this strange sickbed, was more
puzzled than tongue could tell. What did the woman mean? she was utterly
devoted to the sick man--devoted to him as only love can be; but she was
not anxious, which love always is. It was a puzzle which he could not
understand.

In a week Dick came back. He had been away on his master’s business,
being now a trusted and confidential servant, with the management of
everything in his hands. It was Easter week, too, and his business had
been combined with a short holiday for himself. His mother was not in
the habit of writing to him, though she did, in some small degree at
least, possess the accomplishment of writing--so that he came home,
utterly ignorant of what had happened, on one of those chilly March
evenings when the light lengthens and the cold strengthens, according to
the proverb. Dick was tired, and the landscape, though it was home,
looked somewhat dreary to him as he arrived; the river was swollen, and
muddy, and rapid; the east wind blanching colour and beauty out of
everything; a pale sunset just over, and a sullen twilight settling
down, tinting with deep shadows and ghastly white gleams of light the
cold water. He shivered in spite of himself. The door was not standing
open as usual, nor was there any light in the little parlour. He had to
stand and knock, and then, when no one answered, went round to the back
door (which was his usual entrance, though he had chosen the other way
to-night) to get in. The kitchen was vacant, the maid having gone to the
doctor’s for poor Val’s medicine. Dick went into the parlour, and found
it dreary and deserted, looking as if no one had been there for months.
Finally, he went up-stairs, and found his mother at the door of a
bedroom coming to meet him. “I thought it must be you,” she said, “but I
could not leave him.” “Leave him? Leave whom, mother? what do you mean?”
he said, bewildered. “Hush, hush,” she cried, looking back anxiously
into the room she had just left; then she came out closing the door
softly after her. “Come in here,” she said, opening the next door, which
was that of his own room. “I can speak to you here; and if he stirs I’ll
hear him.” Dick followed her with the utmost astonishment, not knowing
what his mother meant, or if she had gone out of her wits. But when he
heard that it was Mr Ross who lay there ill, and that his mother had
saved his young patron’s life, and was now nursing him, with an
absorbing devotion that made her forget everything else, Dick’s mind was
filled with a strange tumult of feeling. He showed his mother nothing
but his satisfaction to be able to do something for Mr Ross, and anxiety
that he should have everything he required; but in his heart there was a
mixture of other sentiments. He had not lost in the least his own
devotion to the young man to whom (he always felt) he owed all his good
fortune; but there was something in his mother’s tremulous impassioned
devotion to Valentine that had disturbed his mind often, and her looks
now, engrossed altogether in her patient, thinking of nothing else, not
even of Dick’s comfort, though she knew he was to return to-day,
affected him, he could scarcely tell how. When he had heard all the
story, he laid his hand kindly on her shoulder, looking at her. “You are
wearing yourself out,” he said; “you are making yourself ill. But it’s
all right; to be sure, when he was taken ill like this, he could go
nowhere but here.”

“Nowhere,” she said with fervour. “Here it’s natural; but never mind me,
boy, I’m happy. I want nothing different. It’s what I like best.”

“I’ll just step in and look at him, mother.”

“Not now,” she said quickly, with an instinct of jealous reserve. She
did not want any one to interfere--not even her boy. Then she
added--“He’s sleeping. You might wake him if he heard another step on
the floor. Go and get your supper, Dick; you’re tired--and maybe after,
if he wakes up----”

“Is there any supper for me?” said Dick, half laughing, but with a
momentary sensation of bitterness. He felt ashamed of it the moment
after. “Go in, go in to him, mother dear,” he said. “You’re in the right
of it. I’ll go and get my supper; and after that, if he wakes I’ll see
him--only don’t wear yourself out.”

“I do nothing but sit by him--that’s all; doing nothing, how could I
wear myself out?” she said. “But oh, I’m glad you’re home, Dick; very
glad you’re home!”

“Are you, mother?” Dick said, with a vague smile, half gratified, half
sceptical. Perhaps she did not hear him, for she was already in Val’s
room, watching his breathing. Dick went down-stairs with the smile still
upon his face, determined to make the best of it--for after all Mr Ross
had the best right to everything that was in the house, since, but for
him, that house would never have belonged to Dick at all. He called the
maid, who had come back, to get him his supper, and stepped outside
while it was getting ready, to take counsel of the river and the skies,
as he had done so often. It was now almost dark, and the river gleamed
half sullen, under skies which were white and black, but showed no
warmer tinge of colour. Heavy clouds careered over the blanched and
watery firmament--a dreary wind sighed in the willows on the eyot. They
did not give cheery counsel, that river and those trees. But Dick soon
shook off this painful jealousy, which was not congenial to his nature.
What so natural, after all, as that she should give her whole mind to
the sufferer she was nursing, even at the risk of momentarily neglecting
her son, who was quite well, and could shift for himself? Dick laughed
at his own foolishness, and felt ashamed of himself that he could have
any other feeling in his mind but pity and interest. He stole up, after
his meal, to look into the sickroom, and then the tenderest compassion
took possession of him. Val was lying awake with his eyes open but
seeing nothing--noticing no one. Dick had never seen him otherwise than
in the full flush of strength and health. A pang of terror and love took
possession of him. He thought of all Val had done for him, since they
met, boys, on the river at Eton, generously exaggerating all his
boy-patron’s goodness, and putting his own out of sight. The tears came
to his eyes. He asked himself with awe, and a pang of sudden pain and
terror, could Valentine be going to die? His mother sat quite motionless
by the bedside, with her eyes fixed on the patient. There was in her
face no shadow of the cloud which Dick felt to be hanging over the room,
but only a curious dim beatitude--happiness in being there--which the
young man divined but could not understand.

Dick stole down again quietly to the little parlour, where his lamp gave
a more cheerful light to think by than the eerie river. It would be
absurd were I to deny that his mind had been troubled by many painful
and anxious thoughts touching the connection of his mother with the
Rosses. He thought he had come to a solution of it at last. In his
class, as I have already said, people accept with comparative calm many
things which in higher regions would be considered very terrible. Dick
had made up his mind, after many thoughts, to a conclusion such as would
have horrified and driven desperate a man differently brought up. He
concluded that most likely Val’s father was his own father--that his
mother had been very young, beautiful, and easily deceived, and that he
himself was the son of this unknown “gentleman.” Dick was not ashamed of
the supposed paternity. It had given him a pang when he thought it out
at first; but to a lad who has been born a tramp, things show
differently, and have other aspects from that which they bear to the
rest of the world. Putting feeling aside, this was what he thought the
most probable solution of the mystery; and Val, she knew, was this man’s
son, and therefore he had a fascination for her. Probably, Dick thought,
with a little pang, Val was like his father, and reminded her of him;
and it did wound the good fellow to think that his mother could forget
and set aside himself for the stranger who was nothing to her, who
merely reminded her of a lover she had not seen for years and years.
When he thought of his own problematical relationship to Valentine, his
heart softened immensely. To think that it was to his brother he owed so
much kindness--a brother who had no suspicion of the relationship, but
was good to him out of pure generosity of heart and subtle influence of
nature, was a very affecting idea, and brought a thrill to his breast
when it came into his mind.

These were the conclusions he had hammered out by hard thinking from the
few and very misty facts he knew. Some connection there clearly was, and
this seemed so much the most likely explanation. Dick thought no worse
of his mother for it; he knew her spotless life as long as he could
remember--a life remarkable, even extraordinary, in her class--and his
heart swelled with pity and tenderness at thought of all she must have
come through. He had too much natural delicacy to ask her any questions
on such a subject; but since he had (as he thought) found out, or rather
divined this secret, it had seemed to account for many peculiarities in
her. It explained everything that wanted explanation--her extraordinary
interest in Val, her fear of encountering the lady who had been with
him, her strange lingerings of manner and look that did not belong to
her class. Dick thought this all over again, as he sat in the little
parlour gazing steadily into the lamp; and, with a strange emotion in
which pain, and wonder, and pity, and the tenderest sympathy, were all
mingled together, tried to make himself master of the position. His lip
quivered as he realised that in reality it might be his brother, his
father’s son, who lay unconscious in the little room up-stairs. No doubt
Val was like his father--no doubt he recalled to the woman, who had once
been proud (who could doubt?) of being loved by a “gentleman,” the
handsome, noble young deceiver who had betrayed her. But Dick did not
use such hard words; he did not think of any betrayal in the case. He
knew how tramp-girls are brought up, and only pitied, did not blame, or
even defend, his mother. It seemed to him natural enough; and Val no
doubt recalled his handsome father as homely Dick never did and never
could do. Poor Dick! if there was a little pang in this, it was merely
instinctive and momentary. The thought that Val might be--nay, almost
certainly was--his father’s son, half his brother, melted his heart
entirely. He would have sat up all night, though he was tired, if his
mother had permitted him. His brother! and in his ignorance, in his
youthful kind-heartedness, how good he had been! They had taken a fancy
to each other the moment they set eyes upon each other, Dick remembered;
and no wonder if they were brothers, though they did not know. The good
fellow overcame every less tender feeling, and felt himself Val’s vassal
and born retainer when he thought of all that had come and gone between
them. He scarcely slept all night, making noiseless pilgrimages back and
forward to the sick-room, feeling, unused as he was to illness, as if
some change might be taking place for better or worse at any moment; and
though he had as yet no real clue to the devotion with which his mother
watched the sufferer, he shared it instinctively, and felt all at once
as if the central point of the universe was in that uneasy bed, and
there was nothing in the world to be thought of but Val.

“Mother, you’ve sent word to--his friends?” Dick had some feeling he
could not explain which prevented him from saying “his father.” This was
early next morning, when she had come out to say that Val was asleep,
and had spent a better night.

She looked at him with a look which was almost an entreaty, and shook
her head. “No--don’t be vexed, Dick; I’m bad at writing--and besides, I
didn’t want no one to come.”

“But they must be anxious, mother. Think! if it had been yourself; and
you know who they are. If it wasn’t far off in the north, I’d go.”

“Ah,” she said, with a gasping, long-drawn breath--“If it must be done,
that’s the way, Dick. I’m bad at writing, and a letter would frighten
’em, as you say.”

“I didn’t say a letter would frighten. Mother, I can write well enough.
It’s Lord Eskside--I recollect the name. Tell me where, and I’ll write
to-day.”

“No,” she said, “no; a letter tells so little--and oh! I don’t want ’em
to come here. There’s things I can’t tell you, boy--old things--things
past and done with. You’ve always been a good son, the best of sons to
me----”

“And I’ll do anything now, mother dear,” said poor Dick, moved almost to
tears by the entreaty in her face, and putting his arm round her to
support her; “I’ll do anything now to give you a bit of ease in your
mind. You’ve been a good mother if I’ve been a good son, and never
taught me but what was good and showed me an example. I’ll do whatever
you would like best, mother dear.”

He said this, good fellow, to show that he found no fault with her if it
was shame that kept her from speaking to him more openly. But she who
had no shame upon her, no burden of conscious wrong, did not catch this
subtle meaning. She was not clear enough in her mind to catch hidden
meanings at any time. She took him simply at his word.

“Dick,” she said softly, entreating still, “he’s better--he’ll get
well--why shouldn’t he get well? he’s young and strong, the same age as
you are--a bit of an illness is nothing when you’re young. He’ll get
well fast enough; and then,” she said, with a sigh, “he’ll go and tell
his people himself. What is the use of troubling you and me?”

Dick shook his head. “They must be told, mother,” he said. “I’ll write;
or if you like, I’ll go.”

She gave a long weary sigh. She was reluctant, he thought, to have any
communication with those unknown people, Val’s father, and perhaps his
mother, some great lady who would have no pity for the woman thus
strangely thrown in her son’s path. This was quite natural, too, and
Dick, in his tender sympathy with her, entered into the feeling. His
tenderness and compassion made a poet of him; he seemed to see every
shade of emotion in her disturbed soul.

“Mother, dear,” he said again, still more gently, “you don’t want to
have aught to do with them? I can understand. Tell me where it is and
I’ll go. The master will let me go easy. We’re not busy yet. I’ll see
the doctor, and go off directly; for whether you like it or not, it’s
their right, and they ought to know.”

“Well, well,” she said, after a pause, “if it must be, it must be. I’ve
never gone against you, Dick, and I won’t now; and maybe my head’s dazed
a bit with all the watching. It makes you stupid like.”

“You’ll be ill yourself, mother, if you don’t mind.”

“And if I was!” she cried. “If they take him, what does it matter? and
they’re sure to take him. Dick, it’s like taking the heart out of my
bosom. But go, if you will go.”

“I must go, mother,” he said, sorrowfully. This passion was strange to
him--hurt him even in spite of himself. Because Val was like his father!
The depth of the passionate interest she had in him seemed so
disproportionate to the cause.

But when Dick saw the doctor, he was more and more determined to go. The
doctor told him that in another week the crisis of the fever might
come--one week had passed without any change, and the sufferer was
embarked upon the dark uncertain tideway of another, which might be
prolonged into another still; but this no one could tell. “I thought
your mother had let his friends know--she told me so,” he said. “They
ought to be made aware of the state he is in,--they ought to be here
before the week is out, when the crisis may come.”

“But you don’t think badly of him, doctor?” said Dick, with tears in his
eyes. The mother had never asked so much, the doctor reflected; and he
felt for the young man who felt so warmly, and was interested in the
whole curious mysterious business, he could scarcely tell why.

“Your mother is a capital nurse,” he said, assuming a confidence he
scarcely felt, “and please God, he’ll pull through.”

“Oh, thank you, doctor!” cried honest Dick, drying his eyes, and
feeling, as do all simple souls, that it was the doctor who had done it,
and that this vague assurance was very sure. He went to see Valentine
after, who, he thought, gave him a kind of wan smile, and looked as if
he knew him, which Dick interpreted, knowing nothing about it, to be a
capital sign; and then he extorted from his mother directions for his
journey. Reluctantly she told him where to go.

“Oh, Dick,” she said, “you’ll do it, whether I will or not--and there’s
things will come of it that you don’t think of, and that I don’t want to
think of; but don’t you name me, boy, nor let ’em know about me. Say
your mother--I’m just your mother, that’s all. And if they come, I’ll
not see ’em, Dick. No, I’m not going away; don’t look scared at me. I
haven’t it in me now to go away.”

“Take care of yourself, mother,” he said; “don’t watch too long, nor
neglect your food. I’ll not be long gone; and _I’ll_ take care of you
whoever comes; you needn’t be afraid.”

She shook her head, and followed him with mournful eyes. She did not
know what she feared, nor what any one could do to her; but yet in her
ignorance she was afraid. And Dick went away still more ignorant,
determined to keep her secret, but feeling in his superior knowledge of
the world that it was a secret which no one would care to penetrate.
“Gentlemen” seldom try, he knew, to find out a woman thus abandoned, or
to burden themselves with her, or any others that might belong to her.
He smiled even at the idea. “They”--and Dick did not even know who they
were--would think of Val only, he felt sure, and inquire no further. He
was still more completely set at rest when he discovered that it was
Val’s grandmother he was going to see--the old lady who had sent him a
present when he was a boy, by Valentine’s hands. Dick somehow had no
notion that this old lady was in any way connected with himself, even
assuming, as he did, that his own divinations were true. She was a
stranger, and he went quite calmly into her presence, not doubting
anything that might befall him there.



CHAPTER XXXIII.


Richard Ross left Lasswade as Dick Brown entered it, totally unconscious
of him or his errand. They passed each other on the bridge,--the father
in the carriage, with his servant on the box, and a hundred delicate
comforts about him; the son trudging along the muddy road, somewhat
tired from jolting all night in a third-class carriage, but refreshed by
the “good wash” which, almost more than his breakfast, had set him up
again to encounter strangers. He was well dressed, in something of the
same mode as Val, whose coats he had worn when he was a lad, and whom he
unconsciously copied; and though there was a something about him which
indicated his lower position, or rather an absence of something which
externally marks “a gentleman,” his open countenance and candid
straightforward look gave the merest stranger who looked at him a
confidence in Dick, and conferred upon him a distinction of his own.
Richard Ross, however, did not so much as notice the young man as he
drove to the railway. He was not anxious about Val in the sense in which
his mother was anxious; but his mind was strangely disturbed and
jumbled--turned upside down, so to speak. All the common conditions of
life had changed for him;--his repose of twenty years was broken, and
his thoughts sent back upon the early beginning of his career, when he
was so different a man. To be driven back at forty-five to the thoughts
and feelings of twenty-five, how strange it is!--and stranger to some
men than to others. To those who have lived but little in this long
stretch of existence the return costs less; but Richard Ross had not
changed by the action of years only--he was another man; everything in
him was altered. And yet he was going back, as it were, to twenty-five,
to look at the passion and folly and infatuation of that period of his
existence; but with the interval so clearly marked, not only in himself,
but in all the others concerned.

Richard was not old, nor did he feel old: in himself he was conscious,
not of decay, but of progress. He looked back upon himself at that early
age, not with envy, as so many men of the world do, but with a wondering
contempt. What a fool he had been! Was it possible that he could ever
have been such a fool? Or must it not rather have been some brother,
some cousin, some other, not himself, who had been such an idiot?--some
visionary man, whose faults somehow had fallen upon _his_ shoulders?
This was the feeling in his mind, though, of course, he knew very well
that it was an absurd feeling. And then, with a curious wonder and
bewildering sense of suppressed agitation, he remembered that he was
going to see _her_. Should he know her after three-and-twenty years?--he
had recognised her picture, which was strange enough;--and would she
know him? And must they meet, and what would they say to each other?
There had never been very much to say, for she was incapable of what he
called conversation; and, except words of fondness and attempts at
instruction, it had been impossible for him, a cultivated and fastidious
man, to have any real intercourse with the wild creature of the woods
whom he never even succeeded in taming. What should he find to say to
her now, or she to him? The inquiry thrilled him strangely, giving him
that bewildering sense of unreality which mixes so deeply in all human
emotion. His brain seemed to turn round when he thought of this possible
interview. Was she a real being at all, or was he real who was thinking?
Had that past ever been? Was it not an imagination, a dream? Ah! it does
not even require such a long interval as twenty years to bring this
strange giddiness on the soul. That which we have lost, did we ever have
it?--the happiness, the life, the other who made life and happiness? I
know some houses now, occupied by strange people, whose very names I
can’t tell you, where yet I feel my own old life must be in full
possession of the familiar place, while this dim ghost of me outside
asks, Did it ever exist at all? Richard felt this all the more strongly
that he was not an imaginative man by nature. He felt his head swim and
the world go round with him, and would not believe that the young fool
who had borne his name three-and-twenty years before, was or could have
been him. But yet he was going to see _her_, the other dream, in whom
there was not, nor ever had been, any reality. On the whole, instead of
perplexing himself with such thoughts it is better for a man to read in
the railway, if he can manage it, even at the risk of hurting his eyes,
which require to be _ménagés_ at forty-five; or if that will not do, to
close his eyes and doze, which is perhaps, where it is practicable, the
best way of all.

He got to Oxford the next day in the afternoon--another pale, somewhat
dreary afternoon of March, typical day of a reluctant spring, with dust
in the streets, and east wind spreading a universal grey around,
ruffling the river into pale lines of livid light and gloomy shade, and
pinching all the green buds spitefully back to winter again. Heavy
clouds were rolling over the heavens when he made his way down to the
wharf. His old Oxford recollections and Val’s indications guided him. He
knew the boating wharf of old, though he had never himself been aquatic
in his tastes. And there was the little house with its narrow strip of
garden towards the river, in which a few sickly primroses were trying to
flower. No one had thought of the garden since Val’s accident, and
already it had a neglected look. “Who lives there?” he asked of a
bargeman who was lounging by. “It’s Brown’s, as is head man at
Styles’s,” was the answer. “Head man at Styles’s! I thought a woman
lived there,” said Richard. Then he suddenly recollected himself. “I had
forgotten the boy,” he added, under his breath. How strange it was! and
this was his son too--his son as well as Val! But, to tell the truth,
for the moment he had forgotten the boys, the known and the unknown. He
had forgotten that Val was lost, and that he had come here in search of
him. He was only conscious, in a strange suppressed haze of excitement,
that probably she was within these walls--she--the woman of whom he had
said _maladetta_; of whom Val had said that she looked as if she had
been a lady. This strange notion made him laugh within himself even now.

It was about five in the afternoon, still good daylight, though the day
was a dim one. The maid, who was but a maid-of-all-work, and no better
than her kind, had taken advantage of the entire absence of supervision,
and was out somewhere, leaving the garden-gate and front-door both open.
Richard went up to the door with a certain hesitation, almost
diffidence, and knocked softly. He did not want to have any one come,
and it was a relief to him when a sufficient interval had elapsed
without any response, to justify him, as he thought, in going into the
house. Then he stepped across the threshold, casting a glance behind to
see if any one outside observed him; and seeing no one, he went
in--first to the little parlour, which had been “cleaned up,”
fortunately, that morning. It was a strange little room, as I have
already said, with tokens in it of instinctive good taste struggling
against circumstances. Richard closed the door behind him, and looked
round it with a curious irregularity in his heart’s beats. He sat down,
somehow not feeling equal to anything more, and gazed at those little
familiar evidences of the kind of being who had been living here. It
was, in reality, Dick who had left his traces all about, but Richard
Ross knew nothing about Dick, and had at the present moment very little
curiosity as to that unknown and unrealised person. He thought only of
_her_: somehow Val’s description, at which he had laughed within himself
so often, and at which still he tried to laugh feebly, seemed less
impossible here. A lady might have lived within these four walls, at the
little window which looked out upon the river. The arrangements of the
room--its books (which no one read), its pretty carvings and nicknacks
(for which Dick alone was responsible)--fitted into the conventional
idea of a poor gentlewoman’s tastes, which even Richard, though he ought
to have known better, had received into his mind. The embroidered shawl
which covered the little table caught his eye as it had caught his
mother’s--he, too, remembered it; and that undoubted sign of her made
his heart beat loudly once more.

He seemed to be all alone in the solitary house--there was not a sound:
he had come in and taken possession, and nobody offered to interfere
with him. After a little time, however, he began to realise that the
position was rather a strange one; and recovering himself from the
curious spell under which he had fallen, he opened the door softly and
listened. Then it seemed to him that he heard some faint stir up-stairs.
Accordingly he went up the narrow winding staircase, feeling somehow
that in this place he could go where he would, that it was not the house
of a stranger. He went up, wondering at himself, half bold, half
hesitating, and opened the first door he came to. It was the room in
which Valentine lay sick--his boy whom he sought. Richard opened the
door softly. Everything was very still in it. The patient slept; the
watcher, poor soul, in her exhaustion, perhaps was dozing by him, lulled
by the profound quiet; or else her brain was confused by the long
nursing, and was not easily roused except by the patient, whose lightest
movement always awakened her attention. And the light was dim, the
blind drawn down, every possibility of disturbance shut out. Richard
stood like one spellbound, and looked at them. His heart gave a wild
leap, and then, he thought, stood still. He recognised Val in a moment,
and so perhaps had some anxiety set at rest; but indeed I doubt whether,
in the strange excitement in which he found himself, anxiety for Val
told for much. She sat by the bedside in a large old-fashioned chair,
high-backed and square-elbowed, which made a frame to her figure. Her
eyes were closed, but the intent look in her face, which gave it an
interest even to the mere passer-by, was there in a softened form,
giving a pure and still gravity, almost noble, to its fine lines; the
hair was smoothed off her forehead; the white kerchief, which was her
usual head-dress, tied loosely about her head; her hands, glimmering
white in the partial darkness, crossed upon her lap. Richard stood
still, not daring to breathe, yet catching his breath and hearing his
heart beat in spite of himself, afraid to disturb her, yet wondering
what she would say to him, how she would look at him when she was
roused, as she must be. He was much and strangely agitated; but the
reader must not suppose that it was any wild renewal of old love, any
passion, or even the agitation of longing and tenderness, which so moved
him. He was curious beyond anything he could say--troubled by the sight
of her, strangely eager to know what kind of being this was. She was
another from the girl he had known, though the same. She of time past
had been a wild thing out of the woods, not much above the birds or
other woodland creatures. All her humanity, all her development of mind
and heart, had come since then; and of this human soul, this developed
being, he knew nothing, absolutely nothing; and a thirst came upon him
to find out, the intensest curiosity to know, what manner of woman she
was.

All at once she opened her eyes and saw him; but did not start or cry,
for, waking or sleeping, Valentine was her first object, and she would
not have disturbed him had all heaven and earth melted and given way
round about her. She opened her eyes and saw a man looking at her. She
raised her head, and knew who it was. The blood rushed back to her heart
in a sudden flood, making it beat hard and loud against her side, taking
away her breath; but she did nothing more than rise softly to her feet
and look at him. Yes, it was he. She knew him, as he had known her, at
once. She had expected him. Without any knowledge where he was, or how
he could hear, she had yet felt sure that he must come. And therefore
she was scarcely surprised; she had the advantage of him so far. She
knew him, though to him she was an unknown creature--knew him
ignorantly, not having been able to form any judgment of his character;
yet had as much acquaintance with him as her mind was capable of; while
he had no acquaintance with her. She rose up to meet him, and stood
wistful, humble, yet with something which looked like pride in her erect
figure, and that face which had changed so strangely since he knew it.
They stood on either side of the bed upon which their son was lying,
scrutinising each other in that strange pathetic gaze. Were there things
to be repented of, even in her dim soul?--I cannot tell. She did not
think of judging herself. What she felt was that he was here, that she
was in his power, and all that was hers; that she was not strong enough
to resist him, whatever he might do; that the known and actual had come
to an end for her, and all the future was dark in his hands. A dim
anguish of fear and impotence came over her. He might send her away from
the boy; he might change her life all at once as by the waving of a
wand. She looked at him piteously, putting her hands together unawares;
but while she was thus startled into painful life, plunged into the
anxious disquietude of ignorance, roused to fear and uncertainty, not
knowing what was to be done with her, she was at the same time
incapacitated from any evidence of emotion, silenced, kept still, though
her heart beat so; speechless, though the helpless cry of appeal was on
her lips--because she would not wake Val, who was sleeping, and,
whatever she might be capable of otherwise, could not, would not disturb
the weary rest of the boy.

At length he waved his hand to her impatiently, calling her to follow
him out of the room. He did not know what to say to her. Words had gone
from him too, though from other reasons; but he could not stand there,
however bewildering were his feelings, looking at this woman, who was so
familiar to him and so unknown. She followed him noiselessly, not
resisting, and they stood together on the narrow landing outside, close
to each other, her dress almost touching him, her quick breath crossing
his. What were they to say to each other? She was not capable of
embarrassment in the simplicity of her emotions. But Richard standing
by her, man of the world as he was, was totally helpless in this
emergency. His gaze faltered; he turned his eyes from her; he trembled,
though only he himself was conscious of it. To be so close to her
affected him with a hundred complicated feelings. What could he say?
Faltering, his lips scarcely able to form the confused words, he asked
faintly, “How long has he been ill? how long has he been here?”

“Ten days,” she answered, briefly. She did not hesitate, nor cast down
her eyes. She answered with a kind of despairing calm; for to be sure it
was certain he would take the boy away, and she had nothing else in her
mind. Her own standing in respect to him--the attitude of his mind
towards her--her position in the world as it depended on him--all these
were nothing to her. She was thinking of the boy, of nothing else.

“He has been very ill; what is it? Have you a doctor for him?” said
Richard, getting used to the suppressed sound of his own voice. He was
speaking like a man in a dream, struggling against some necessity which
forced him to say this. It was not what he wanted to say. Had he been
able to manage himself, to do as he wished, he would have said something
to her very different--something kind--something to show her that he was
not sorry he had seen her again--that he was not angry, but came to her
with friendly feelings. But he could not. The only words he could manage
to get out were these bare business-like questions, which he might have
put to a nurse--only that if she had been a mere nurse, a stranger who
had been kind to his boy, Richard would have been full of gratitude and
thanks. He felt all this, but he could not help it; and the more he
wished to say, the less he said.

He felt this to the bottom of his heart; but she did not feel it all.
She took the questions quite naturally, and answered them with calm
simplicity. “The doctor comes twice a-day. He’ll be here soon. I cannot
keep the name of it in my mind. Sitting up of nights makes me stupid
like; but when he comes, you’ll hear.”

Then there was a pause. She stood before him, with her hands clasped,
waiting for what he was going to say. She had no thought of resisting or
standing on her rights, for had she not given up the boy long ago?--and
waited with keen but secret anguish for the sentence which she believed
he must be about to pronounce. The door was open behind her. While she
stood waiting for Richard’s words, her ear was intent upon Val, ready to
hear if he made the slightest movement. Between these two things which
absorbed her, she was completely occupied. She had no leisure to think
of herself.

But he who was alive to all the strange troubles of the position, at
what a disadvantage he was! His embarrassment and overwhelming
self-consciousness were painful beyond description, while she was free
from self altogether, and suffered nothing in comparison. While she
stood so steadily, a tremulous quiver ran through his every limb. He was
as superior to her as it is possible to conceive, and yet he was
helpless and speechless before her. At last he made out, faltering, the
confused words, “Do you know who he is?”

“Yes, I know,” she said, with a panting breath. A gleam of light came
over her face. “I have known him ever since he was a boy. He’s been
Dick’s friend. No lad had ever a better friend. They took a fancy to
each other the first day. I heard his name--it’s seven years since--and
knew.”

“And you told--Val----”

She gave a slight start, and looked at him reproachfully, appealingly,
but made no other reply. This look disturbed Richard more and more.
There was in it a higher meaning than any he seemed capable of. He felt
that from some simple eminence of virtue, impossible to him to conceive,
she looked down upon him, quietly indignant of, yet half pitying, his
suspicions of her. And, in fact, though she was not capable of any
sentiments so articulate, these, in a rudimentary confusion, were the
feelings in her mind.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, humbly. “Then he knows nothing? And the
other, the younger--he who is with you----”

How he faltered! man of the world, and highbred gentleman as he was; he
did not know how to put the inquiry into words.

“Oh,” she said, roused from her stillness of expectation, “don’t meddle
with Dick! Oh! sir, leave my boy alone! You don’t know--no one knows but
me--how good he is. He’s put up with all my wild ways. He’s been willing
to give up all he likes best for me; but God’s given me strength, and
I’ve mastered myself. I’ve stayed quiet, though it went near to kill
me,” she said, clasping her hands tightly; “I wouldn’t shame him, and
take his home from him. Oh, don’t meddle with Dick! He’s happy now.”

Her entreating look, her appeal to his generosity, her absolute
detachment from all emotion except in connection with her children,
worked upon Richard in the strangest way. They moved him as he had never
thought to be moved. His heart swelled, and filled with a novel emotion.
“Is this all you think of?” he said, with, in his turn, a strange tone
of reproach in his voice--“only of the children! when we meet like this
after so many--so many years!”

She raised her eyes to him, wondering. I think she scarcely understood
what he could mean. Her mind was so deeply occupied with other thoughts,
that the tide of feeling which encountered hers was driven back by the
meeting. “I’m not clever,” she said, in a very low voice. “I’m
ignorant--not fit to talk to you.”

“But you know me?” he said, driven to his wits’ end. She looked up at
him quickly, with a strange suffusion in her eyes, a momentary dilation.
She did not mean it to be reproachful this time. Then she said
quickly--“We’ll trouble no one, Dick and me. He’s well off, and doing
well. If you will let the other stay till he’s better--who could nurse
him as I would?--and leave Dick alone. I’ll trouble nobody, nobody!”

“Myra,” said Richard, more moved than he could say. It was not love so
much as a strange reluctance to be so powerless--a curious longing to
get some sign of feeling from her. He could not bear the composure in
her eyes.

She gave a low cry, and made a step backwards, withdrawing from him; and
at that moment a faint sound from within the sick-room caught her ear.
Her expression, which had changed for the moment, came back again to
that of the patient sick-nurse, the anxious watcher. “He’s stirring,”
she said. “He wants me. I mustn’t leave him. I’ve been too long away.”

To describe the feelings of Richard Ross when she left him outside the
door of the room in which his son lay ill is more than I am able for.
Not since she had fled from him at first, three-and-twenty years ago,
had there been such a tumult in his mind;--not the sharp tumult of
passion and grief, but the strangest maze of embarrassment, pain,
defeat, surprise--and yet for the moment relief. Passion was altogether
out of his way nowadays--I don’t know that he was capable of it; but all
the secondary emotions were warm in him. He had been playing with the
thought of this woman for a long time, saying _maladetta_, yet scarcely
meaning it--wondering, half attracted in spite of himself, and beyond
measure curious to know what changes time had wrought in her, and how
far Valentine’s unconscious judgment was true. During this long
succession of thoughts, his semi-hatred of her as the curse of his life
had strangely evaporated, he could not have told how. And from the
moment when he had received that first sudden shock which was given him
by the little photograph, down to the present time when she left him
standing outside the door, Richard had been the subject of a mental
process of the most complicated and mysterious kind. From that first
simple introduction of the idea of her, not as a past curse, but as a
living and known human being, his thoughts had gone through a long
dramatic course, picturing her, realising her, following the unknown
line of her existence--making acquaintance with her image, so to speak.
She had never been quite absent from his mind since Valentine had
reintroduced her to it. He had imagined (in spite of himself) how she
would look, what she would say and do--had even pictured to himself how
she would meet him, perhaps with terror, perhaps with penitence, with a
developed sense of the grievous harm she had done him, and capacity at
last to understand how much he had sacrificed for her. If she had grown
into an intelligent being, with that look Valentine described, “as if
she had once been a lady,”--which was so curious, so bewildering a
travesty of all fact--this was how she must have learned to feel; and no
doubt Richard thought her first meeting with him would be trying for
both, but most trying for her as the one most certain to betray
emotion--the wrong-doer in whose awakened mind all feeling must be more
strong. He had opened the very door of the room in which she sat with
this expectation--nay certainty--in his mind. Now she had left him, and
he stood bewildered, confounded, excited, not knowing what to think, and
still less what to do. Was it possible that she had not a thought for
him, this woman who had destroyed his life?--no feeling that she had
destroyed it?--no desire for his forgiveness, no eagerness to make up,
no tremulous impassioned anxiety as to what he would think of her? For
all these feelings he had given her credit, and curiously, with an
interest which attracted him in spite of himself, had speculated how she
would show them. But now!

After a little pause, Richard Ross, Secretary of Legation at Florence,
her Majesty’s future representative to some crowned head, went quite
humbly down the little creaking staircase. He knew how to deal with
Prime Ministers, and would not have allowed himself to be put down by
Prince Bismarck himself; but he was utterly discomfited by Dick Brown’s
mother, and stole down-stairs with his heart beating, and the most
unexampled commotion in his whole being. When he thought of it, he even
laughed at himself feebly, so confounded was he. What was to be done
now? He could not steal away as he had come, with no result to his
visit. Now that they had met, and looked each other in the face again,
they could not part simply with nothing further said. Was it for him to
make advances? to propose some ground of meeting? though he was the
wronged person, and though she ought in reality to approach him on her
knees. When he got down-stairs, he paused again to think what he would
do. And it was only then that it occurred to him that his mission here
was not to reconcile himself to her, but to inquire after Valentine.
Strange! He had seen Valentine lying ill--he had even asked questions
about him--and yet his son’s state, or his son’s existence, had made no
impression whatever on his mind. In the curious ferment and tumult of
his feelings, it occurred to him to remember the half amusement, half
pain, with which he had felt two days ago that his mother hustled him
off, scarcely having patience to let him eat and rest, in order that he
might see after Val; and here was his wife treating him in the same
way--thrusting him aside, postponing him altogether! There was a
whimsical aggravation in this double slight which made him laugh even
now; and then a sudden heat flamed all over his frame, like a sudden
blaze scorching him; his wife! He had used the words unconsciously,
unawares--not _maladetta_!--not the woman who had been his curse. In the
curious excitement of that thought, he went in once more to the little
parlour, and sat down instinctively to get quiet and calm himself; and
then, catching at the first straw of reason which blew his way in this
strange tempest of feeling, he decided that he must wait there, now that
he was there, till the doctor came.



CHAPTER XXXIV.


One nail strikes out another, the Italians say. It was not wonderful
that Richard Ross should feel this, seeing that the subject which
concerned his own individual life most closely was that which drove out
of his mind all immediate recollection of the other which was the object
of his journey. But that the strange and startling apparition of the new
figure which suddenly confronted her should have driven the recollection
of Valentine out of Lady Eskside’s head, was much more wonderful--for
her heart was rent with anxiety about Val; whereas Richard was only
vaguely, lightly affected by that anxiety; and there was no such magic
of old associations, old passions, curiosity, and that baffled sense of
impotence which provokes the mind to put forth its whole powers, in her
mind as in his. But for the moment Lady Eskside forgot her beloved boy,
and her devouring anxiety; forgot everything but the shock and startling
sensation produced upon her by this face which suddenly looked at her,
meeting her gaze calmly, unaware of its own power. When she brought Dick
Brown to a stop in his explanations by her eager, almost wild question,
“Who are you?” the subject which up to that moment had been engrossing
her whole mind departed wholly out of it. Poor Val, lying upon his
mother’s bed! He was wronged even by those who loved him best--he was
forgotten, if only for a moment, in the strain and stress of affairs
more urgent; but happily did not know it. Dick was very much
embarrassed, good fellow, to find himself suddenly elevated into a place
of such importance, and to be asked so passionately, so urgently, who he
was. Nothing in the world more easy than to give an account of himself.
He smiled, involuntarily, at the anxiety in Lady Eskside’s face.

“It is very easy to tell you that, ma’am,” he said. “I didn’t send my
name, thinking you wouldn’t know. I’m Richard Brown, head man now at Mr
Styles’s, the boat-builder at Oxford, and for three years at Goodman’s,
at Eton. That is all about me.”

“What is it?” said the old lady. “No, I am not deaf--you need not speak
loud; but say it again. Richard? Yes, yes; of course it could be
nothing but Richard. And you came to tell me that? Is your mother
living? is she still living? and where is she? Was it she that sent you
here?”

“I came to tell you about Mr Ross----”

“Boy,” said Lady Eskside, “don’t trifle with me. This was what drove my
darling away. Is the woman living, and do you know where she is? Your
face tells a great deal,” she went on, “but not all. Where is your
mother? Did she send you? Is she near? Oh, for God’s sake, if you have
any pity, tell me! What with one trouble and another, I am near at an
end of my strength.”

“Mr Ross is ill, ma’am,” said Dick, much bewildered, but holding fast to
his mother’s _consigne_, not to say anything about her. “He is lying ill
at our--at my house.”

“What could he be but ill,” cried the old lady, drying her eyes, “after
all that has come and gone? But don’t think that I’ll let you go now.
Richard, perhaps you are ignorant, perhaps you don’t know how important
it is--but oh, for God’s sake, tell me? Have you got her? have you got
her safe this time? Come near to me; you have a kindly face,” my lady
went on, looking closely at him with the tears in her eyes. “A face I
knew as well as I know myself; but kind and young, like what he was
before the world touched him. Sit down here; and oh, my bonnie man, have
confidence in me!”

She laid her delicate old hand upon his arm; she bent towards him, her
face all tremulous with emotion, tears in her eyes, her lips quivering,
her voice pathetic and tender as the cooing of a dove. Dick looked at
her in return with respectful sympathy, with natural kindness, but with
a half smile of wonder. What was it she wanted of him? What could he
respond to such an appeal?

“I don’t know, ma’am, what I can do for you, what I can tell you,” he
said; “I’m but a working man, not educated to speak of. There is nothing
particular about me that I should confide in any one; but if you’ll tell
me what it is you want, I’ve nothing to conceal neither,” the young man
said with a gentle pride, so innocent and honest that it made his smile
all the brighter. “You are welcome, ma’am, if you care for it, to know
everything about me.”

“I do care for it,” she said, keeping her hand upon his arm. She had
made him sit beside her on the little sofa, and her eyes were so intent
upon his face, that he scarcely knew how to sustain the gaze. He paused
a little to think what he could say first.

“I don’t know what to tell you, ma’am,” he said, with a laugh; “it’s all
in what I’ve said already. Except about Mr Ross--perhaps that is what
you mean; I can’t say, and you can’t think what he’s done for me. My
life is more a story about him than anything about me,” said Dick, with
a generous glow coming over his face, “since the day I first met him on
the river----”

“That was--how long ago?”

“He wasn’t in the boats till the year after,” said Dick, availing
himself of the easiest mode of calculating. “It’s about seven years
since--we were both boys, so to speak. He took to me somehow, ma’am--out
of his own head--by chance--so some folks says----”

Under other circumstances no story could have been so interesting to
Lady Eskside, but at present her mind was too much disturbed to follow
it. She interrupted him hastily--“And your mother! what of her? You tell
me nothing about her! Was she there as well as you?”

Dick felt as it is natural to feel when you are interrupted in a
congenial story, and that your own story, the most interesting of all
narratives. He repeated--“My mother!” in a tone of disappointment. How
his mother could be more interesting to any one than Mr Ross and
himself, and that tale of their meeting, which he had already told
successfully more than once, Dick did not know.

“Yes, your mother! Tell me her name, and how she brought you up, and
where she is living--for she is living, you said? Tell me! and after
that,” said Lady Eskside, in an unconsciously insinuating tone, “I shall
be able to listen to you about my poor Val, and all that you have had to
do with him. Ah! be sure that is what I would like best! but the other,
the other is more important. Where is she? What does she call herself?
How did she bring you up? Oh! don’t lose time, my good boy, but tell me
this, for I must know!”

Dick became much confused and disturbed, remembering his mother’s
caution to him not to mention her. He could not understand why she
should thus be dragged into question. But she had evidently expected it,
which was very perplexing to him. He faltered a little in his reply.

“My mother--is just my mother, ma’am. She lives with me; she’s nursing
Mr Ross now.”

The old lady gave a cry, and grasped him by the arm. “Has she told him?”
she cried. “Does Val know?”

“Know what?” said Dick, in amaze. She gazed at him intently for a
moment, and then all at once fell a-crying and wringing her hands.

“Is my boy ill?” she said. “What is the matter with him? how soon can we
go to him? Will you take me there, Richard, as quick as we can go? Your
mother is nursing him--you are sure? and you don’t know anything she
could have told him? Oh, let us go! there is not a moment to lose.”

She got up hastily to ring the bell, then sat down again. “There will be
no train--no train till to-night or to-morrow; oh, these trains, that
have always to be waited for! In old days you could start in your
post-chaise without waiting a minute. And, poor lad, you will want a
rest,” she added, turning to look at him, “and food. Oh, but if you knew
the fever in my mind till I am there!”

“Don’t be too anxious,” said Dick, compassionately, understanding this
better; “the crisis cannot come for four days yet, and the doctor says
my mother is an excellent nurse, and that he’ll pull through.”

Lady Eskside rose again in her restlessness and rang the bell. “Bring
something for this gentleman to eat,” she said, when Harding appeared;
“bring a tray to the dining-room; and get me the paper about the trains;
and let none of the other fools of men come about me to stare and
stare!” she cried, fretfully. “Serve us yourself. And bid your wife come
here--I have something to say to her.”

“To the dining-room, my lady?”

“Didn’t I say here!” cried Lady Eskside. “You’re all alike, never
understanding. Send Marg’ret here.”

Mrs Harding must have been very close behind, for she followed almost
instantly. She gave a little cry at sight of Dick. I fear this was not
so independent a judgment as Lady Eskside supposed, for of course her
husband had suggested the resemblance she was called upon to remark;
but, at the same time, she had no unbounded confidence in her husband’s
judgment, and was upon the whole as likely as not to have declared
against him. Lady Eskside turned sharply round upon her. “What are you
crying out about, Marg’ret? I expected a woman like you to have more
sense. What I wanted to tell you was, that I am going away for a day or
two. Well; why are you staring at a stranger so?”

“Oh, my lady!” cried Mrs Harding, “it’s no possible but what you
see----”

“Ay, ay--I see, I see,” cried Lady Eskside, moved to tears; “well I see!
and if it please God,” she added, devoutly, “I almost think the long
trouble’s over. Marg’ret, you’ll not say anything; but I have no doubt
you know what it has been this many a year.”

“Oh, my lady! yes, my lady! How could I be in the house and no know?”

“It is just like you all!” cried Lady Eskside, with another sudden
change of sentiment; “prying into other folk’s business, instead of
being attentive to your own; just like you all! But keep your man quiet,
Marg’ret Harding, and hold your tongue yourself. That’s what I think,”
she went on, softly, “but nothing’s clear.”

Dick sat and listened to all this, wondering. He thought she was a very
strange old lady to change her tone and manner so often; but there was
enough of sympathetic feeling in him to show that, though he could not
tell how she was moved, she was much moved and excited. He was sorry for
her. She had so kind a look that it went to his heart. Was it all for
Val’s sake? and what did she mean about his mother? Somehow he could not
connect his own old suspicions as to who his father was with this
altogether new acquaintance. He got confused, and felt all power to
think abandoning him. In everything she said, it was his mother who
seemed to have the first place; and Dick felt that he knew all about his
mother, though his father was a mystery to him. Of what importance could
she be--a tramp, a vagrant, a woman whom he himself had only been able
to withdraw from the fields and roads with difficulty--what could she be
to this stately old lady? Dick, for his part, was deeply confounded, and
did not know what to think.

She came up to him with a tremulous smile when the housekeeper went
away. “Richard,” she said, speaking to him as if (he thought) she had
known him all his life--“if I am right in what I think, you and I will
be great friends some day. Was it you that my boy wrote about, that he
was so fond of when he was at Eton?--oh, how blind I have been!--that
had a mother you were very good to? My man, was that you?”

“Yes, ma’am--my lady--I suppose it was me----”

“That worked so well, and raised yourself in the world? that he was
going to see always, till some fool, some meddling fool that knew no
better,” cried Lady Eskside, “wrote to my old lord to stop it? But I
thank God I did not stop it!” said my lady, the tears running down her
cheeks. “I thank the Lord I had confidence in my boy! Richard! it was
you that all this happened about? You are sure it was you?”

“There could not be two of us,” he said, his face lighted up with
feeling; for Dick, good fellow, though he did not know why she was
crying, felt something rise in his throat at the sight of the old lady’s
tears. “Yes, ma’am--I mean, my lady.”

“Don’t call me my lady, my bonnie man! call me--but never mind--we’ll
wait awhile; we’ll do nothing rash,” cried Lady Eskside. “You’re hungry
and tired all this time, while I’ve been thinking of myself and of Val,
and not of you. Come and have something to eat, Richard; and then you’ll
take me to my boy.”

But Lady Eskside was two or three years over seventy. She was worn out
with anxiety, and now with the sudden excitement of this visitor. She
had taken neither food nor sleep, much as her years required all natural
support, since Val had disappeared; and before her preparations could be
made, she herself allowed that to attempt to travel by the night train
would be foolish and unavailing. “I don’t want to die before it’s all
settled,” she said, smiling and crying. “We’ll have to wait till
to-morrow.” And Dick, who had travelled all night, was very willing to
wait. She sat by him and talked to him while he had his meal, and for an
hour or more after; and though Dick was not stupid, he was a child in
the hands of the clever old lady, who recovered all her spirit now that
her anxiety was removed, and this wonderful power of setting everything
right was put into her hands. Lady Eskside was but human, and, so far as
she was aware, no one but herself had the faintest inkling of this
blessed way of clearing up the troubles of the family, or knew anything
of Dick Brown and his mother. She felt that she had found it out, that
it would be her part to clear it all up, and the thought was sweet to
her. And as for her anxiety, Dick made so light of Valentine’s illness,
which he had himself ceased to be alarmed about, that Lady Eskside felt
almost happy to hear of the fever which supplied her with a reason for
Val’s silence without communicating any alarm to her mind. Very soon she
knew everything about Dick,--more than he knew himself--his tramp-life,
his wanderings with his mother, his longings for something better, for a
home and settled dwelling-place. And Dick, without knowing, made such a
picture of his mother as touched the old lady’s heart. “She used to sit
at the window and watch for the boat. That was the first thing that
reconciled her a bit,” said Dick. “She used to watch and watch for Mr
Ross’s boat, and sit like a statue when we’d started him, to see him
come back. She always took a deal of interest in Mr Ross.”

“Did she ever tell you why?”

“Because he was so kind,” said Dick. “I’ve thought often there was more
in it than that; but what could a fellow say to his mother, ma’am? I
wasn’t one to worry her with questions. That’s how she used to sit
watching. Mother is strange often; but there never was any harm in her,”
said Dick, fervently--“never! The others would hold their tongues when
she was by--I’ve thought of it often since; and when she saw my heart
was set on settling down, she gave into it, all on my account--though
what she liked was different. That is what I call a good woman!” he
cried, encouraged by the attention and sympathy with which his story was
received. Lady Eskside thus learnt more in an hour of the woman who had
cost her so dear, than she could have done otherwise in years. She found
out everything about her. She even got to feel for and pity the
mother--ignorant, foolish, unwitting what harm she was doing--who thus
kept to her savage point of honour, and never betrayed herself nor
claimed her son. Dick, unconscious, told everything. It was only on
thinking it over after that he remembered again his mother’s charge not
to say anything of her. “Say only it’s your mother.” Well! he said to
himself, he had said no more. It was as his mother that he had spoken of
her, and as that alone. He knew her in no other character. He had spoken
of her life, her habits, her goodness; but he had told nothing more.
There was not, indeed, anything more to tell, had he wished to betray
her.

In the afternoon, Lady Eskside was persuaded to go and rest--a repose
which she wanted mightily--and Dick was left alone. It was then that he
began to think that possibly he had been indiscreet in his revelations;
and he was somewhat frightened, to tell the truth, when he found himself
left in the great drawing-room alone. He did not know whether it would
be right for him to wait there, where Lady Eskside left him, until she
came back. He felt a little doubtful whether he might examine the great
cabinets, and all the curious things he saw, and which fired him with
interest. He could not do them any harm, at last he reflected; and he
did not think the kind old lady would object. So he got out his
note-book, and made little drawings of various things that struck his
fancy. The wonder being over for the moment, and the pressure of Lady
Eskside’s questions, Dick’s mind gladly retired from it altogether, and
returned to easier everyday matters. That this discovery, whatever it
was, should make any difference in his life, did not seem to him at all
a likely idea; nor did such a notion seriously enter his mind. And no
thought of the possible transference of his own lowly and active life to
such surroundings as those which were now about him, ever occurred to
Dick. He would have been extremely amused by the idea. But he made a
note in his book--a rough little drawing, yet quite enough to be a guide
to him--of sundry little “details”--arrangements of brackets and
shelves, which he thought might be adapted even to his little place on a
small scale. He had his eyes always about him, ready to note anything of
the kind; and though he smiled to himself at the idea of copying in his
tiny parlour what he saw in this great room, yet he made his drawings
all the same, with his rough workman’s pencil. The drawings were very
rough, but he knew how to work from them, and in his mind’s eye already
saw a homely imitation of the objects he admired figuring upon his low
walls. He even thought it would amuse Val, when he got better, to see in
the boatman’s parlour a humble copy of the brackets in Rosscraig.

And after this, as one of the windows was open, he strayed out, with
some perturbation, lest he should be taking too much upon him, and
wandered through the shrubberies, and out into the woods. It was a soft
spring afternoon, the sun near its setting, the trees showing a faint
greenness, the sound of the Esk filling the air. The river was full and
strong, swelled by the spring rains, and by the melting of all the early
frosts. It made a continuous murmur, filling the whole soft universe
around with an all-pervading sound. Dick had almost forgotten what the
woods were like in the early spring; and the charm of the stillness and
the woodland rustle, the slanting lines of light, the bright gleams of
green, the tender depths of shadow, stole into his heart. He had a
still, profound, undemonstrative enjoyment of nature, loving her without
being able to put his love into words; and the beauty of those irregular
banks, all broken with light and shade, topped with trees which threw up
their tall columns towards the sky, waiting till the blessing of new
life should come upon them--delighted the young man, who for years had
known no finer scenery than the unexciting precincts of the Thames. Dear
Thames, kind river, forgive the words!--ungrateful words to come from
the lips of one who owes thee untold pleasures; but soft meadows and
weeping willows, and all the gentle lights and shadows of the level
stream, looked tame beside the foaming, tumbling river, rushing with
shouts among its rocks, singing over its pebbles, leaping and hurrying
onward through all those bold braes that hemmed it in, and played
perpetual chase and escape with the brown torrent. The trees on Eskside
were not the grand broad placid trees to which Dick was used. Red firs,
with the sun on their great russet pillars; white birches, poising
daintily on every fairy knowe; pale ash-trees, long-limbed and
bare--mixed with the few oaks and beeches, and gave a different
character to the scene; and here and there a bold bit of brown rock, a
slip of red earth, the stony course of a burn which went rattling in hot
haste to join the Esk, crossing the path and toppling down in dozens of
tiny waterfalls--all these were like nothing he had ever seen before. He
strayed on a little further and a little further, by bypaths of which
Val knew every curve and corner, under trees, every one of which, could
they have spoken, would have asked for news of their young lord.
Sometimes it occurred to him, with a sense of additional pleasure, that
all this would one day belong to his young patron. Would Val ever ask
him to come here, he wondered? then “Lord bless me!” said Dick to
himself, “why should he?” “He’ll always be kind and good as long as he
lives; but why should he ask the like of me?” and he laughed at his own
absurdity. But what with these thoughts, and what with no thought at
all, mere pleasure, which perhaps carries farthest, he went on, much
farther than he knew, as far as the linn and the two great beeches which
had played so great a part in Val’s life. Just before he reached that
point he was stopped by a sudden sound which startled him, which had a
distinct tone of humanity in it, and did not spring from the fresh and
free nature about. It was the sound of a sob. Dick stood still and
looked about him, with recollections of his own childhood rising fresh
into his mind, and a tender thought of finding some poor little tired
wanderer under some tree, crying for weariness. But he could see
nothing, and presently went on again, persuading himself that his ears
must have deceived him. He went on, himself rousing intermittent echoes,
for his step was sometimes inaudible on the mossy turf, and sometimes
sent thrills of sound all through the wood, as his foot crashed on a
fallen branch, or struck the pebbles aside in a little shower.

When he got to the linn he paused for some time on the edge of the
river, struck by the beauty of the place; and only when he was passing
on, perceived behind him, all at once, somebody sitting at the foot of
one of the trees--a little figure muffled in a blue cloak, and leaning
against the hole of one of the big beeches. Dick made an unconscious
exclamation--“I beg your pardon!”--and went hastily on, half frightened
lest he should have disturbed some one who had a better right to be
there than he had. But this incident broke the spell of his wandering,
and recalled him to the thought that he was far from Rosscraig, and that
it would be safer to turn back as he had come, than to risk losing his
way. Perhaps a little curiosity about the solitary figure under the tree
had something to do with this prudent thought; but his curiosity was
lessened by a second glance he had stolen through the trees, which
showed him that it was a lady who sat there. Had it been a tramp-woman,
Dick might have shown his sympathy; but upon a lady, even one in
trouble, he could not intrude; and yet he could not help being
interested. Could it be from her that the sob had come? and why should
she be crying here, all alone, like an enchanted princess? He knew
little about enchanted princesses, but he had a tender, heart, and the
sob had troubled him. He went back again, passing slowly, trying to make
out, without staring--which was not consistent with Dick’s idea of
“manners”--who it was, and what she was doing under the shadow of the
tree. The soft grass glade between these two giants of the wood was
lighted up by a slant ray of the sun which slid all the way down the
high bank on the other side of Esk, to pour that oblique line of glory
under the great sweeping boughs over the greensward. She was seated out
of the sunshine, but with her face turned towards the light, and it
seemed to Dick that it was a face he had seen before. I do not think the
fact that it was a young face, and a fair one, touched him so much as
that it was very pale and mournful, justifying his idea that the sob
must somehow have belonged to it. How he would have liked to linger, to
ask what was the matter! He would have done so, had she not been a lady;
but Dick knew his place. His surprise was great, however, when, as soon
as his back was turned, he heard a stir, a sound of footsteps, a faint
call, which seemed addressed to him. He turned round quickly. The girl,
whoever she was, had risen from her seat. She had come out of the shade
into the sunshine, and was standing between the trees, with the light
upon her, catching a glittering edge of hair, and giving a hem of
brightness to one side of her figure, and to the outlines of the blue
cloak. “I beg your pardon; did you call me?” said Dick, shy but eager.
Perhaps she had lost her way. Perhaps she wanted help of one kind or
another. Then the little woodland lady beckoned to him timidly. I think,
if it had not been for the anxiety and longing that swelled her heart
wellnigh to bursting, Violet would never have had the courage thus to
appeal to a stranger in the wood.



CHAPTER XXXV.


She advanced a step to meet him, timid, yet with that confidence which
social superiority gives: for Dick, I am bound to confess, though I love
him, was not one of those wonderful beings who bear the exterior of a
fine gentleman even in a workman’s clothes. He was not vulgar in any
respect, being perfectly free from every kind of pretension, and with
all the essence of fine manners--that politeness of the heart which
neither birth nor education by themselves can give; but though, as I
have said, his dress was to a certain degree copied from
Valentine’s--who possessed the _je ne sais quoi_ in perfection--and was
quite well made and unobtrusive, yet I am obliged to allow that Dick had
not that mysterious something which makes a gentleman. You could have
found no fault with his appearance, and to look at his candid
countenance was to trust him; but yet he had not the _je ne sais quoi_,
and Violet knew that, conventionally speaking, she was addressing one
who was “not a gentleman” this fact gave her a degree of freedom in
calling him which she would scarcely have felt with a stranger of her
own class. But more than that, Violet had recognised Dick. It was some
years since she had seen him, but she remembered him. Not all at once,
it is true. When he appeared first, before he saw her, she had felt as
he did, that she had seen his face before; but ere he passed again, she
had made out where and how it was that she had seen him; for it must be
recollected that Violet’s heart was full to overflowing with thoughts of
Val, of whom this stranger, so suddenly and strangely appearing, was a
kind of shadow in her mind. The whole scene, in which she had seen this
stranger, came before her as by a flash of light, after five minutes’
pondering within herself--for from the first glance she had felt that he
was somehow associated with Valentine. What could bring him here, this
boatman from the Thames? Her heart was breaking for news of her young
lover, so dismally parted from her, whom she must never see again (she
thought); but only to hear his name, to know where he was, would be
something. She would not have betrayed herself to “a gentleman,” to one
of Val’s friends and equals; but of “Mr Brown”--she remembered even his
name by good fortune--she might make her inquiries freely. So, urged by
the anguish in her poor little breast, Vi took this bold step. She had
been sitting thus for hours crying all alone, and thinking to herself
that this horrible blank was to go on for ever, that she would nevermore
hear of him even--and I have not the heart to blame her for appealing
thus to the first possibility of help. She made a step forward and
looked at him with a pitiful little smile. “Perhaps you do not
remember,” she said, “but I think I am sure it is you. I never forget
people whom I have once seen. Did not you row us once, on the Thames, at
Eton--my father and----”

“Oh yes, ma’am, to be sure!” cried Dick. “I knew that I had seen you
before.” He was a little confused, after his experience with Lady
Eskside, how he ought to address a lady, but after reflection decided
that “ma’am” must always be right; for had he not heard the Queen
herself addressed by the finest of fine ladies as “Ma’am”?

“Yes; and I remember you,” said Vi. Then she made a pause, and with a
wistful glance at him, and a sudden flush which went as quickly as it
came, added--“I am Mr Ross’s cousin.”

“I recollect now,” cried Dick. “He was so set on it that you should see
everything. I think he was a bit better when I left.”

“Better!” cried Violet, clasping her hands together; “was he----” She
was going to say, was he ill? and then reflected that, perhaps, it was
best not to betray to a stranger how little she knew of him. So she
stood looking up in his face, with great eyes dilated. Her eyes had been
pathetic and full of entreaty even when poor Vi was at her happiest. Now
there is no telling how beseeching those pretty eyes were, with the
tears stealing into them, making them bigger, softer, more liquid and
tender still. This look quite made an end of poor Dick, who felt
disposed to cry too for company, and was aware of some strange, unusual
movements in his own good heart.

“Don’t you fret,” he said soothingly; “I brought the old lady the news
this morning. He had an accident, and his illness was sudden. But it had
nothing to do with the accident,” he added. “Don’t be frightened, ma’am.
It’s some fever, but not the worst kind; and the doctor told me himself
that he’d pull through.”

“Oh, Mr Brown!” cried poor Vi. She dropped down upon a fallen tree, and
began to cry, so that he could scarcely look at her for pity.

“Indeed you must not be frightened,” said Dick. “I am not anxious a bit,
after what the doctor told me. Neither is the old lady up there at the
Castle--Lady Eskside. She is going with me to-morrow morning to help to
nurse him. Mother has him in hand,” Dick added with a little pride, “and
he’s very safe with her. Don’t fret like this--now don’t! when I tell
you the doctor says he’ll pull through!”

“Oh Val, Val, my Val!” cried poor little Violet. It was not because she
was frightened; for at her age--unless experience has taught
otherwise--getting better seems so necessary, so inevitable a conclusion
to being ill. She was not afraid of his life; but her heart was rent
with pity, with tenderness, with that poignant touching remorse, to
which the innocent are liable. All that had gone before, all that
Valentine had suffered, seemed to come back to her. It was not her
fault, but it was “our” fault. She seemed to herself to be involved in
the cause of it, though she would have died sooner than harm him. Her
lips began to quiver, the tears rained through the fingers with which
she tried to hide her piteous streaming eyes. “Oh Val, Val, my Val!” she
cried. It was “our” fault; her father had done it, and even good Sandy
had had his share; and herself, who had twined her foolish little life
with his, so that even parting with her had been another complication in
Valentine’s woes. She seemed to see him looking up at her in the
moonlight, bidding her good-bye. Oh, why did he think of her? why did he
take that trouble for her? She scarcely heard Dick’s anxious attempts at
consolation. She was not thinking of the future, in which, no doubt--how
could she doubt it?--Valentine would get better; but of the past and of
all that made him ill. Her tears, her abandonment to that sorrow, her
attempts to command herself, went to Dick’s heart. He stood looking at
her, wondering wistfully for the first time in his life over the
differences in men’s lots. If he (Dick) were to fall ill, his mother, no
doubt, would be grieved; but Dick knew that it would create no commotion
in the world; would not “upset” any one as Val’s illness did. Naturally,
the good fellow felt, Mr Ross was of much more importance than he was,
or could ever be; but still----

“Oh, how foolish you must think me!” cried Violet, drying her eyes. “It
is not that I am frightened. It is because I know all that made him ill.
Oh, Mr Brown, tell me about it--tell me everything! He is my cousin, and
he has always been like my--brother. He used to bring me here when I was
a child. You can’t think how everything here is full of him--and then
all at once never to hear a word!” Between every broken sentence the
tears fell in little bright showers from Violet’s eyes.

Dick sat down on the same fallen tree, but at a respectful distance, and
told her all he knew--which was not everything, for his mother had not
entered into details, and he knew little about the incident on the
river, and her share in it. Violet listened, never taking her eyes from
his face, which was hard upon Dick, yet not undelightful to him. He had
gone through a great many experiences that morning. But even Lady
Eskside’s strange emotion, her curiosity about himself, and agitated
manner, had not the same effect as this still more unexpected and
strange encounter. He sat, at first rather awkwardly, upon the edge of
his end of the tree, with his face turned towards her, but not always
bold enough to look at her. The slant of the sunbeam, which was
gradually dying off the scene, fell in the middle between them like a
rail of gold, separating them from each other. Across this heavenly line
of separation her eyes shone like stars, often bewildering Dick, though
he kept pretty straight in his narrative, taking as little account as
possible of the occasional giddiness that came over him, and the
dazzling sensation in his eyes. Violet, interrupting him now and then by
a brief question, sometimes crying softly under her breath, gave her
entire attention to every word; and Esk ran on through all, with a
murmur as of a third person keeping them company; and the wood
contributed those numberless soft sounds which make up the silence of
nature, enveloping them in an atmosphere of her own. Dick was not much
given to poetry, but he felt like something in a fairy tale. It was an
experience altogether new and strange; for hitherto there had been no
enchantments in his life. How different it was to her and to him! To the
young man, the first thrill of romance, the first touch of magic--the
beginning of all sweet delusions, follies, and dreams; to the girl, an
imperfect, faltering narrative, filled out by imagination, a poor,
blurred picture--better, far better, indeed, than nothing, and giving
her for the moment a kind of miserable happiness, but in itself nothing.
It is frightful to think at what a disadvantage people meet each other
in this world. Dick’s life, which had all been honest prose up to this
moment, became on the spot, poetry; but, poor fellow, he was nothing but
prose, poor prose to Vi, to whom these woods were full of all the lyric
melodies of young life. She listened to him without thinking of him,
drinking in every word and not ungrateful, any more than she was
ungrateful to the fallen tree, or the beech boughs that sheltered her.
Nay, she had a warmer feeling, a sense of grateful friendship, to Dick.

“Mr Brown,” she said, when his tale was done, “I am very, very thankful
to you for telling me. I should never have known but for you. For I
ought to say that my people and Val’s people--I mean my cousin’s--are
not quite--quite good friends. I must not say whose fault it is,” said
Vi, with a suppressed sob; “and I don’t see Lady Eskside now--so without
you I should not have known. Mr Brown! would you mind writing--a little
note--just two lines--to say how he is when you get back?”

“Mind!” said Dick. “If you will let me----”

“And you can tell him when he gets well,” cried the girl, her voice
sinking very low, her eyes leaving Dick’s face, and straying into the
glow of sunshine (as he thought) between the two great trees--“you can
tell him that you met me here; and that I was thinking of him, and was
glad--glad to hear of him----” To show her gladness, Violet let drop two
great tears which for some time had been brimming over her eyelids. “It
is dreadful to be parted from a friend and to hear no word; but now that
I know, it will not be so hard. Mr Brown, you will be sure to send just
two lines, two words, to tell me----”

Here her voice faltered, and lost itself in a flutter of suppressed
sound--sobs painfully restrained, which yet would burst forth. She did
her very best, poor child, to master them, and turning to Dick with a
pathetic smile, whispered as well as she could--“I can’t tell you how it
all is. It is not only for Val being ill. It is everything--everything
that is wrong! Papa, too--but I can’t tell you; only tell him that you
met Violet at the linn.”

“I will tell him everything you have said. I will write, if you like,
every day,” cried poor Dick, his heart wrung with sympathy--and with
envy as well.

“Would that be too much?” she asked, with an entreating look. “Oh, if it
would not be too much! And, Mr Brown, perhaps it will be best to send it
to mamma. I cannot have any secrets, though I may be unhappy. If you
will give me a piece of paper, I will write the address, and thank
you--oh, how I will thank you!--all my life.”

Dick, who felt miserable himself, he could scarcely tell why, got out
his note-book, with all the rough little drawings in it of the brackets
at Rosscraig. He had not known, when he put them down, how much more was
to befall him in this one brief afternoon. She wrote the address with a
little hand which trembled.

“My hand is so unsteady,” she said. “I am spoiling your book. I must
write it over again. Oh, I beg your pardon; my hand never used to shake.
Tell Val--but no, no. It is better that you should not tell him anything
more.”

“Whatever you bid me I will tell him. I will do anything, everything you
choose to say,” said Dick, in his fervour. She gave a surprised wistful
look at him, and shook her head.

“I must think for both of us,” she said; “and Val is very hasty, very
rash. No, you must not say anything more. Tell him I am quite well if he
asks, and not unhappy--not very unhappy--only anxious to know; and when
he is well,” she said, with a reluctant little sigh, “you need not mind
writing any more. That will be enough. It is a terrible thing when there
are quarrels in families, Mr Brown.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Dick, who knew nothing about families, nor about
quarrels, but followed with a curious solemnity the infantine angelical
wisdom and gravity of her face.

“A terrible thing when people try to hurt each other who ought to love
each other; and some of us must always pay for it,” said poor Violet, in
deep seriousness--“always, always some one must suffer; when it might be
so different! If you are going back to Rosscraig, you should go before
the sun sets, for it is far, when you don’t know the way.”

“And you?” said Dick, rising in obedience to this dismissal, yet longing
to linger, to prolong the conversation, and not willing to allow that
this strange episode in his life had come to an end.

“My way is not the same as yours,” she said, holding out her hand with
gentle grandeur, like a little princess, sweet and friendly, but
stooping out of a loftier region, “and I know every step. Good-bye, and
thank you with all my heart. You must keep this path straight up past
the firs. I am very, very glad I was here.”

“Good-bye, Miss Violet,” said Dick. It gave him a little pleasure to say
her name, which was so pretty and sweet; and he was too loyal and too
respectful to linger after this farewell, but walked away as a man goes
out of a royal presence, not venturing to stay after the last gracious
word has been said. He could not bear to go, but would not remain even a
moment against her will. When he had gone a little way he ventured to
turn back and look--but nothing was visible except the trees. She had
disappeared, and the sunshine had disappeared; it seemed to Dick’s
awakened fancy as if both must have gone together. The last golden arrow
of light was gliding from the opposite bank of the river, and the glade
between the bushes lay dim in the greyness of the evening. What a change
it made! He went on with a sigh. Violet had gone back to the foot of the
tree, and was waiting there till he should be out of sight; and Dick
divined that this was the case, and that she wanted no more of him.
Well! why should she want any more of him? She was a lady, quite out of
Dick’s way, and she had been very sweet to him--as gracious as a queen.
Between this impersonation of sweet youth, and the other figure, old
Lady Eskside, with her dignity and agitated kindness, Dick was
wonderfully dazzled. If all ladies were like these, what a strange sort
of enchantment it must be to spend one’s life in such society. Dick had
never known any woman but his mother, whom he loved, and upon whose will
he had often been dependent, but to whom he was always in some degree
forbearing and indulgent, puzzled by her caprices, and full of that
tender patience towards her which has in its very nature something of
superiority; and to find himself suddenly in the society of these two
ladies, one after the other, both taking him into their confidence,
betraying their feelings to him, receiving, as it were, favours at his
hand, had the most curious effect upon his mind.

Dick had never felt so melancholy in his life as when Violet thus sent
him away; and yet his head was full of a delicious intoxication, a sense
of something elevated, ethereal, above the world and all its common
ways. Should he ever see her again, he wondered? would she speak to him
as she had done now, and ask his help, and trust to his sympathy? Poor
Dick had not the remotest idea that these new sensations in his mind,
this mixture of delight and of melancholy, this stirring up of all
emotions, which made his long walk through the woods feel like a
swallow-flight to him, had anything to do with the vulgar frenzy he had
heard of, which silly persons called falling in love. He had always felt
very superior and rather contemptuous of this weakness, which young men
of his class feel, no doubt, in its more delicate form, like others, but
which is seldom spoken of among them in any but that coarse way which
revolts all gentle natures. So he was totally unwarned and unarmed
against any insidious beginnings of sentiment, and would have resented
indignantly the idea that his tender sympathy with this little lady, who
had opened her heart to him, had anything whatever in it of the
character of love. How could it have?--when the very foundation of this
strange sweet revelation to him of an utterly new kind of intercourse
and companionship, was the love, or something that he supposed must be
love, between Mr Ross, his patron, and this little princess of the
woods? What a lucky fellow Mr Ross was, Dick thought, with the
tenderest, friendliest version of envy that ever entered a man’s bosom!
and then it occurred to him, with a little sigh, to think that the lots
of men in this world were very different; but he was not, he hoped, so
wretched a fellow as to grudge his best friend any of the good things
that were in his share. Thus he went back to Rosscraig with his mind
entirely filled with a new subject--a subject which made him less
sensitive even than he was before to any new light upon his own
position. He looked at Violet’s writing in his note-book with very
bewildering feelings when he got at night to the luxurious room where he
was to sleep. She had written the address very unsteadily, then crossed
it out, and repeated it with great care and precision--Mrs Pringle,
Moray Place, Edinburgh. Though it slightly chilled him to think that
this was her mother’s name, not her own, yet the sense of having this
little bit of her in his breast-pocket was very delightful and very
strange. He sat and looked at it for a long time. On the page just
before it were these notes he had made of the brackets in the great
drawing-room. These were the tangible evidences of this strange mission
of his, and sudden introduction into a life so different from his own.
It just crossed his mind to wonder whether these scratches on the paper
would be all, whether he might look them up years hence to convince
himself that it was not a dream. And then poor Dick gave a great sigh,
so full and large, expanding his deep bosom, that it almost blew out his
candles; whereupon he gave a laugh, poor fellow, and said his prayers,
and got to bed.

As for Lady Eskside, she showed more weakness that particular evening
than had been visible, I think, all her life before. She could not
sleep, but kept Mrs Harding by her bedside, talking, giving her
mysterious but yet intelligible confidences. “You’ll set to work,
Marg’ret, as soon as I’m gone, to have all the new wing put in order,
the carpets put down, and the curtains put up, and everything ready for
habitation. I cannot quite say who may be coming, but it is best to be
ready. My poor old lord’s new wing, that gave him so much trouble! It
will be strange to see it lived in after so many years!”

“Indeed, and it will that, my lady,” said Mrs Harding, discreet and
cautious.

“It will that! I don’t suppose that you take any interest,” said Lady
Eskside, “beyond just the furniture, and so forth?--though you’ve lived
under our roof and ate our bread these thirty years!”

Mrs Harding was a prudent woman, and knew that too much interest was
even more dangerous than too little. “The furniture is a great thought,”
she said demurely, “to a person in my position, my lady. If you’ll mind
that I’m responsible for everything; and I canna forget it’s all new,
and that there is aye the risk that the moths may have got into the
curtains. I’ve had more thought about these curtains,” said the
housekeeper, with a sigh, “than the Queen hersel’ takes about the
state.”

“You and your moths!” said my lady, with sharp scorn. “Oh, Marg’ret
Harding, it’s little you know about it! If there was any way of keeping
the canker and the care out of folk’s hearts! And what is it to you that
I’m standing on the verge of, I don’t know what--that I’ve got the
thread in my hand that’s failed us so long--that maybe after all, after
all, my old lord may get his way, and everything be smooth, plain, and
straight for them that come after us? What’s this to you? I am a foolish
old woman to say a word. Oh, if my Mary were but here!”

“My lady, it’s a great deal to me, and I’m as anxious as I can be; but
if I were to take it upon me to speak, what would I get by it?” said Mrs
Harding, driven to self-defence. “The like of us, we have to know
everything, and never speak.”

“Marg’ret, my woman, I cannot be wrong this time--it’s not possible that
I can be wrong this time,” said Lady Eskside. “You were very much struck
yourself when you saw the young--when you saw my visitor. I could see it
in your face--and your husband too. He’s not a clever man, but he’s been
a long time about the house.”

“He’s clever enough, my lady,” said the housekeeper. “Neither my lord
nor you would do with your owre clever men, and I canna be fashed with
them mysel’. Now, my man, if he’s no that gleg, he’s steady; and I’m aye
to the fore,” said Mrs Harding, calmly. This was a compensation of
nature which was not to be overlooked.

“You see, you knew his father so well,” said Lady Eskside, with an
oracular dimness which even Mrs Harding’s skill could scarcely
interpret; and then she added softly, “God bless them! God bless them
both!”

“My lady,” said the housekeeper, puzzled, “you’ll never be fit to travel
in the morning, if you don’t get a good sleep.”

“That’s true, that’s true; but yet you might say, God bless them. The
Angel that redeemed us from all evil, bless the lads,” murmured the old
lady, under her breath. “Good night. You may go away, you hard-hearted
woman; I’ll try to sleep.”



CHAPTER XXXVI.


Lord Eskside was seated in a little dingy sitting-room in Jermyn Street.
Once upon a time, long years ago, the Esksides had possessed a
town-house in a region which is no longer habitable by lords and ladies;
but as they had ceased for years to come for even that six weeks in
London which consoles country families with a phantasmagoric glimpse of
“the world,” the town-house had long passed out of their hands. Lord
Eskside had spent this dreary week in rooms which overlooked the dreary
blank wall of St James’s, with its few trees, and the old gravestones
inside--not a cheerful sight for an old man whose last hopes seemed to
be dying from him. He had employed detectives, had advertised with
immense precaution in the newspapers, and himself had wandered about the
town, night and day, seeking his boy; while all the time, the few people
whom he met when he appeared at rare intervals in such streets as are
frequented by anybody worth speaking of, paid him compliments on his
grandson’s success, and hoped that Val, when he appeared in the House of
Commons, would show himself worthy of his race. “I expect him to do us
credit,” the old lord said, working his shaggy eyebrows in such a way
that his acquaintances thought he had some nervous complaint, and shook
their heads, and wondered that “in his state of health” he should be in
town alone. What bitter pangs were in his heart when he said these
words! The boy had done them credit all his life up to this moment. If
it was not the loftiest kind of reputation which Val had acquired, it
was yet a kind highly estimated in the world, and which young men
prized; and no stain had ever touched that bright young reputation, no
shadow of shame ever lighted upon it. And now! These congratulations,
which in other circumstances would have been so sweet to him, were gall
and bitterness. What if Val had disappeared like his mother, with the
same indifference to the claims of life and duty which that
undisciplined, uneducated woman had shown? What if, crushed by the
revelations so suddenly made to him, he were now--instead of taking the
manly way, facing the scandal and living it out--to give in, and fail,
and leave his place to be occupied by others? The thought of that
election declared void for which he had struggled so stoutly, and of
some one else coming in upon Val’s ruin, triumphing in his downfall, was
sharp as a poisoned sword in the old man’s heart. Lady Eskside thought
chiefly of the boy himself, and of what he might do in his despair; but
the public downfall which seemed imminent, added pangs even more bitter
to her husband’s sufferings. His adversary had done all that an
adversary might; but no adversary could harm Lord Eskside and break his
heart as his boy could. The old lord was very strong upon race. It was
one of the objects of his fullest faith. He believed not only in the
efficacy of being well-born, but extended that privilege far beyond the
usual limits allowed to it. He had faith in the race of a ploughman as
well as in that of his own noble house. But the blood in the veins of
his boy had come from a race of wanderers--a species, indeed, not a race
at all--made up by intermixtures of which neither law nor honour took
note; and how could he tell that the honest ichor of the Rosses would
predominate over the influence of that turbid mixture? Already it was
evident enough that the vagabond strain had not lost its power. He had
feared it all Val’s life, and sternly repressed it from his boyhood up;
but repression had now ceased to be possible, and here was the evil in
full force.

Lord Eskside had a very distinct ideal of life, and one of his theories
was that no man could be a man who was not capable of setting his face
hard against difficulty and fighting it out. To flee was a thing
impossible to him; but Valentine had fled, and what but his vagrant
blood could be to blame? It did not occur to the old lord that his own
son, in whom there was no vagrant blood, had fled more completely than
poor Val--turning his back upon his country, and hiding his shame in
unknown regions and unknown duties. Richard’s desertion had wounded his
father to the quick in its time; but Val had obliterated Richard, and
now he scarcely recollected that previous flight. It never occurred to
him to think that Richard’s example had put it into the boy’s mind to
abandon his natural place, and flee before the sudden mortification and
downfall. With strange pain, and anxiety deeper than words, he set
everything down to the unfortunate mother. Her wild blood--the blood of
a creature without reason, incapable of that supreme human faculty of
endurance, which was to Lord Eskside one of the highest of
qualities--was at the bottom of it all. If he could but find the boy in
time to exert his old influence over him, to induce him to make a stand
against the coward principle in his mind, to bring him back to his duty!
Lord Eskside thought of Val as an old soldier might think of a
descendant who had turned his back upon an enemy. Shame, and love eager
to conceal the shame--sharp personal mortification and the sting of
wounded pride, battling with tenderness unspeakable, and anxious longing
at any cost, at all hazards, to wipe out this stain and inspire the
unfortunate to redeem himself: these were the feelings in his mind. The
sharpest ingredient in such a cup of bitterness is, that the parent well
knows he cannot work out redemption for his boy. No other but the boy
himself can do that. Prayers, and tears, and atonements, and
concealments, and all the piteous expedients of human love and misery,
cannot do it. No man can redeem his brother. The coward must himself
prove that he has overcome his cowardice; the man who has failed must
himself turn back the tide of fortune and win. And I do not know
anything more pathetic in nature than the brave old hero trying hard to
put his own heart of gold into the leaden bosom of some degenerate boy;
or the pure strong woman labouring to inspire with her own white fervent
soul some lump of clay that has been given to her--God knows how--for a
daughter. This was how the old lord felt. If he could but put himself,
his old steadfast heart, his obdurate courage, his dogged strength of
purpose, into the boy! If there was but any way to do it!--transfusion
of spirit like that fanciful medical notion of transfusion of blood.
Lord Eskside would have given his old veins to be drained--his aged
frame to be hacked as any physician pleased--would have had his very
heart taken out of his breast had that been possible--to give the best
of it to Val; but could not, heaven help us!--could only sit and think
what impotent words to say, what arguments to use, when he should find
him, to make the boy stand and endure like a man.

He was sitting thus, his head leaning on his hand, his shaggy eyebrows
so bent over his eyes that you scarcely could see them glimmer in the
caverns below, though there was a painful suffusion in them which
glistened when the light caught it. A claret-jug was on the table and a
single glass. He had dined late, after being out all day, and was worn
out by the sickness of hope deferred, and the heaviness of
disappointment. There was a little fire smouldering in the grate, but he
had thrown the window open with an irritable impatience of the close
small shut-up room. The distant sounds of the streets still came in,
though the full tide of traffic was over. There was still a roll and
murmur of distant carriages and voices, the hum of that sea which calls
itself London. The old lord paid no attention. He was going over ideas
which he had pondered again and again, anxiously, but with a certain
languor and hopelessness in his heart. If he heard the carriage stop
below, the sound of the opening door, he took no notice. What was it to
him? Carriages stopped continually all through the evening. People were
always coming and going. What could it matter to him--a stranger, alone?

He sat facing the door; it was a habit he had fallen into since he came
here--not with any expectation, but only in case--for, to be sure, some
visitor might come, some one with news might come, though he did not
look for anything. Even the sound of steps and voices coming up-stairs
did not excite him, it was so usual. All at once, however, he roused
himself. The door was thrown wide open, without any preliminary, and
Lady Eskside walked straight in, her old eyes shining, her figure
dilating with triumph, like a figure in a procession. The sight of her
startled her husband beyond expression, yet not so much as did the other
figure behind her. “You, Catherine, you? and you’ve got him!” he cried;
for there was a certain general resemblance in height and form between
Dick and Val. “I’ve got him!” said Lady Eskside, standing aside with
that extraordinary air of triumph, to show to her husband the figure of
a timid young man, respectful and hesitating, who looked at him with
blue eyes, half deprecating, half apologetic. Lord Eskside’s heart,
which had jumped high, sank down in his breast. He gave but one look at
the stranger whom, at first, he had taken for Valentine. “Good Lord! do
you mean to drive me mad? My lady! is this what you bring me for Val?”
he cried; and turned his back upon the new-comer with feverish
irritability, feeling the disappointment go to his very heart.

“Oh, my dear, forgive me!” cried Lady Eskside; “I was not thinking of
Val for the moment. Look at him, look at him! look at the boy again!”

“You were not thinking of Val? In the name of heaven, who else was there
to think of?” said her husband. He was almost too angry to speak--and so
sick with his disappointment, that he could have done something cruel to
show it, had the means been in his way.

“Forgive me!” said my lady, putting her hand upon his arm; “but there’s
news of Val. I have brought you news of him. He’s ill--in his bed with
fever; oh! when I think of it, I am half frantic to find how long it
takes, with all their bonnie railways! But he’s safe. It had been more
than he could bear. My poor boy!--he’s been ill since the day he left
us. What ails you? what ails you, my old man?”

“Nothing,” he said, fumbling, with his hands clasped, his shaggy
eyebrows concealing any gleam of the light underneath, his lips
quivering--“nothing.” It took him a minute to recover himself, to get
over the sudden stilling of the storm within him, and the sudden calm
that came after so much trouble. The change seemed to stop his breath,
but not painfully, and rolled off loads as of Atlas himself--more than
the world--from his shoulders. “Wait a moment,” said Lord Eskside, his
eyebrows gradually widening; “what did you say it was? I did not catch
it clearly; ill, in his bed?”

“But nothing to be frightened about--nothing to alarm us----”

“I am not alarmed, I am not alarmed!” said the old lord. To tell the
truth, he was giddy with the sudden cessation of pain. “There,
Catherine! it’s you I ought to think of, after such a journey,” he
added, quickly coming to himself. “Sit down and rest; no doubt you’re
very tired. Ill--in his bed? Then it’s all accounted for; and God be
thanked!” said Lord Eskside. He said this under his breath, and drew a
chair close to the smouldering fire, and put his old wife into it,
grasping her by both the arms for a moment, which was his nearest
approach to an embrace.

“But you have not given a look or a thought to--him I brought with me,”
said the old lady, grasping him in her turn with a forcible yet
tremulous hold.

“Him you’ve brought with you?” Lord Eskside turned round with a scowl
from under his shaggy eyebrows, which meant no harm, but was one of his
devices to conceal emotion. He saw a fair-haired timid young man
standing irresolute near the door, evidently very uneasy to find himself
there, and not knowing what to do. He had Lady Eskside’s shawl on his
arm, and a helpless, apologetic, deprecating look on his face. The old
lord did not know what to make of him. Was it a new servant, he asked
himself for a moment? But the stranger did not look like a servant.
“Here is somebody waiting,” he said, in as quiet a tone as possible, for
he did not want to show the impatience he felt.

“Is that all you say?” cried my lady, in keen tones of disappointment.
“Oh, look at him--look at him again!”

“Sit down,” said the old lord, abruptly. “It is clear Lady Eskside means
you to stay, though she is too tired to introduce you. I ask your pardon
for not knowing your name. My lady, as you and I have much to say to
each other, and the night is far on, could not this business wait?”

“Oh,” cried Lady Eskside with a groan, “is that all--is that all you
say?”

“My lady,” said Dick, emboldened to the use of this title by hearing it
used by no less a personage than Lord Eskside himself, “I beg your
pardon; but isn’t it best for me to go? I will come back for you in the
morning before the train starts. I would rather go, if you don’t mind.”
Dick had never felt himself so entirely out of his element, so painfully
_de trop_, in his life. He was not used to this feeling, and it wounded
him mightily--for he, too, had some pride of his own. And he had not
come seeking any favour, but rather conferring one, taking a great deal
of trouble voluntarily, of his own will, for what was no advantage to
him. And then Dick had been made much of these two days--he had found
himself elevated into a vague region of mystery, where he met with
nothing but kind interested looks, phrases full of meaning which he
could not penetrate, but which all tended to make him feel himself of
importance. He seemed now for the first time to come down to common life
after this curious episode, and the shock was rude. He did not like it;
he felt less inclined than usual to put up with anything that was
disagreeable. He felt angry even, though he did not wish to show it.
What was this old lord to him that he should linger about like a
servant, waiting for a word?

“Oh, hush, hush!” said the old lady; “look at him again! You don’t think
I would come all this way for nothing--me that have not travelled for
years. Look at him--look at him again.”

“Do you call Valentine nothing? or have you gone out of your wits?” said
the old lord, pettishly. “I think the young man is very sensible. Let
him come back to-morrow. We have plenty to think of and plenty to talk
of to-night.”

Lady Eskside was so deeply disappointed that her courage failed her; she
was very tired, and so much had happened to take away her strength. The
tears came into her eyes, and it was all she could do to keep herself
from mere feeble crying in her weakness. “Sit down, Richard,” she said.
“Oh, my dear, my dear, this is not like you! Can you see nothing in him
to tell the tale? I have it all in my hands. Listen to me: I know where
she is; I am going to find her: I can make everything clear. It’s
salvation for us all--for Val, God bless him! and for this one----”

“For what one?” cried Lord Eskside hoarsely under his breath.

“Oh!” cried Lady Eskside, almost with violence, thrusting her husband
away from her, “can you not see? must I summer it and winter it to
you--and can you not see? Richard, my man,” she added, rising up
suddenly, and holding out both her hands to Dick, “you’re full of sense,
and wiser than I am. Don’t stay here to be stared at, my dear, but go to
your bed, and get a good night’s rest. The woman told me there was a
room for you. See that you have everything comfortable; and good night!
We’ll go down to my boy in the morning, you and me; and God bless you,
my good lad! You’ll be a comfort to all of us, father and mother, and
your grandparents, though they may not have the sense to see. Good
night, Richard, my man--good night!”

“What does all this mean, my lady?” said Lord Eskside. He had watched
her proceedings with growing excitement, impatience, and an
uncomfortable sense of something behind which he did not understand.
“You’re not a foolish woman to torment me with nonsense at such a
moment. What does it mean?”

“If you had ever looked at the boy, you would have seen. It is Richard
himself come back,” cried the old lady: “Richard, not what he is now, as
old a man as you and me, and tashed and spotted with the world; but my
son as he was, when he was the joy of our hearts, before this terrible
marriage, before anything had happened, when he was just too good, too
kind, too stainless--or so at least you said; for me, I never can see,
and never will see,” cried Lady Eskside, indignantly, “that it is not a
man’s crown and glory, as well as a woman’s, to be pure.”

“My lady! my lady!” said the old lord. He was walking about the small
room in his agitation; his under lip thrust out, his eyebrows in motion,
his hands deep in his pockets. “What do you mean?” he cried. “Have you
any foundation, or is it all another wild fancy about a likeness? A
likeness!--as if in anything so serious you could trust to that.”

“Do you mean to tell me you did not see it?” she said.

“Oh, see it! My lady,” said the old lord, ungenerously, with a snort of
contempt, “you saw a likeness in Val when he came, a dark boy, with eyes
like black diamonds, and curly brown hair, to Richard. You said he was
his father’s image.” The old man ended with an abrupt short laugh.
“Catherine, for heaven’s sake, no more fancies! Have you any foundation?
and the lad not even a gentleman,” he added under his breath.

“If you go by the clothes and the outside,” cried the old lady,
contemptuous in her turn, “how could he be a gentleman? That poor
creature’s son--nothing but a tramp--a tramp! till the fine nature in
him came out, and he stopped his wandering and made a home for his
mother. Was that like a gentleman or not? He’s told me everything, poor
boy,” she went on, her tone melting and softening, “without knowing
it--every particular; and I am going to find her to clear it all up.
When Val gets well, there shall be no more mystery. We’ll take his
mother home in the eye of day. She must be a changed woman--a changed
woman! He’s told me everything in his innocence--how she would sit and
watch Val in his boat, but never said a word. God bless her! for she’s
been faithful to what light she had.”

“What is all this you are saying?” said Lord Eskside. He was utterly
subdued. He drew a chair close to hers and sat down, humbly putting his
hand on her arm. “Catherine, you would not speak to me so if there was
not something in it,” he said.

The old pair sat up together far into the night. She told him everything
she had found out, or thought she had found out; and he told her what he
had been doing, and something of the things he had been thinking--not
all, for my lady had never had those fears of Val’s courage and strength
which had undermined the old lord’s confidence. But when she told him,
weeping and smiling, of the alliance between the two boys, so unwitting
of their close relationship, and of the mother’s speechless adoration at
a distance of the child she had given up, Lord Eskside put his hand over
his face, and his old wife, holding his other hand, felt the quiver of
emotion run through him, and laid her head upon his shoulder, and wept
there; sweet tears! as when they were young and happiness sought that
expression, having exhausted all others. “My dear, we’ll have to die and
leave them soon,” she said, sobbing, in his ear.

“Ay, Catherine! but we’ll go together, you and me,” said the old lord,
pressing the hand that had held his for fifty years; and they kissed
each other with tremulous lips; for was not the old love, that outlasted
both sorrow and joy, more sacred, more tender, than any new?

Dick presented himself next morning in time for the train; but he was
not quite like himself. He had been put on the defensive, which is not
good even for the sweetest nature. Lady Eskside had bewildered him, he
felt, with mysterious speeches which he could not understand--making
him, in spite of himself, feel something and somebody, he could not tell
why; and by so doing had put him in a false position, and subjected him
to unjust slight and remark. He had not wanted to thrust himself, a
stranger, into the interview between my lord and my lady. She had made
him follow her against his will, and Dick felt aggrieved. It was not his
doing. “Why did she drag me in where I was not wanted?” he said to
himself. He was too faithful and loyal not to keep his appointment with
her, though the idea of leaving a note and hurrying away to his work did
cross his mind. His work, after all, was the thing that was most
important. _That_ would not deceive him, as the ladies most likely
would, old and young, who had established a claim upon Dick’s services,
he knew not how. What were ladies to him? He must go back to his work.
It was with this sentiment clouding his face that he presented himself
next morning, having breakfasted half-sulkily by himself. It is hard for
the uninitiated to tell which is virtuous melancholy and which is
sulkiness, when an early access of that disorder comes on; Dick felt
very sad, and did not suspect himself of being sulky; he knocked very
formally at the door of Lord Eskside’s little sitting-room. The old lord
himself, however, came forward to meet him, with a changed countenance.
He held out his hand, and looked him in the face with an eager interest,
which startled Dick. “Come in, come in,” said Lord Eskside; “my lady is
getting ready. We are all going together.” The old man held his hand
fast, though Dick was somewhat reluctant. “I was startled last night,
and could not understand you--or rather I could not understand _her_.
But you must not bear me any malice,” he said, with a strange sort of
agitated smile, which was bewildering to the young stranger.

“I don’t bear any malice,” said Dick, brightening up; “it would not
become me; and to you that are--that belong to Mr Ross.”

“Yes, I belong to Mr Ross--or Mr Ross to me, it doesn’t much matter
which,” said Lord Eskside. “You’ll understand better about that
by-and-by; but, Richard, my lady’s old, you know, though she has spirit
for twenty men. We must take care of her--you and me.”

“Surely,” said Dick, bewildered; and then my lady herself appeared, and
took a hand of both, and looked at them, her bright old eyes shining. “I
can even see another likeness in him,” she said, looking first at Dick
and then at Lord Eskside; and the old lord bent his shaggy eyebrows with
a suppressed snort, and shook his head, giving her a look of warning.
“Time enough,” he said--“time enough when we are there.” Dick went in
the same carriage with them, and was not allowed to leave them, though
his own idea was that he ought to have travelled with Harding, who had
accompanied Lady Eskside; and they talked over him in a strain full of
strange allusions, which made him feel that he did not know what was
going to happen--speaking of “her” and “them,” and giving glances at
Dick which were utterly bewildering to him. “Here is a packet Richard
left for me, though I have never had the heart to look at it,” Lord
Eskside said--“the certificate of their birth and baptism.” “And that
reminds me,” said my lady, “where is Richard? did he go to you? did you
see him? I would not wonder but he is passing his time in London,
thinking little of our anxiety. God send that he may take this news as
he ought.”

Richard! there was then another Richard, Dick thought. He had been
roused, as was natural, by the sound of his own name, but soon
perceived, with double bewilderment, that it was not to him, but some
other Richard, that the conversation referred.

“You are doing him injustice,” said Lord Eskside; “he came yesterday,
but I did not see him. I was out wandering about like an old fool. He
left the packet and a note for me, and said he was going to Oxford. To
be sure, it was to Oxford he said; so we’ll see him, and all can be
cleared up, as you say, at once.”

“To Oxford!” cried Lady Eskside, a sudden pucker coming into her
forehead. “I mind now--that was what he said to me too. Now, what could
_he_ be wanting at Oxford?” said the old lady with an impatient look.
She said no more during the journey, but sat looking out from the window
with that line of annoyance in her forehead. It felt to her somehow
unjustifiable, unnecessary, that Richard should be there, in the way of
finding out for himself what she had found out for him. The thought
annoyed her. Just as she had got everything into her hands! It was not
pleasant to feel that the merest chance, the most trivial incident, a
meeting in the streets, a word said, might forestall her. My lady was
not pleased with this suggestion. “Talk of your railways,” she
said--“stop, stopping, every moment, and worrying you to death with
waiting. A post-chaise would be there sooner!” cried Lady Eskside.



CHAPTER XXXVII.


Dick became in a manner the head of the expedition when the party
reached Oxford; his foot was on his native heath; he knew where to take
the two old people, both of whom became more and more agitated in their
different ways, as they approached to the end of their journey. He put
them into a cab; and getting on the box himself, had them driven to the
river-side. Lady Eskside grasped her old lord’s hand, as they sat there
together, jolting through the streets, going to this strangest incident
of their lives. She was trembling, though full of resolute strength. The
emergency was too much for her nerves, but not for her brave old heart,
which beat high with generous courage, yet with a sense of danger not to
be despised or overlooked. How was she to meet and master this untamed
creature of the wilds? how secure her that she might not escape again?
and how make the revelation to her son who had got to hate his wife, and
to Valentine who knew nothing of his mother? Lady Eskside, with a
mixture of pride and terror, felt that it was all in her own hands. She
must do everything. The thought made her tremble; but it gave her a
certain elation which the reader will understand, but which I cannot
describe--which was not vanity nor self-importance--but yet a distinct
personal pleasure and satisfaction in being thus able to set everything
right for her children. I don’t doubt that she had some idea that only
her own penetrating eye could have made sure of Dick’s identity, and
only her close questioning could have elicited from him so many certain
proofs; and it seemed so just, so right, such a heavenly recompense for
what she had suffered, that to her hands and no other should be given
the power of setting all right. Lord Eskside was less excited. He was
thinking more of the boy, less of the circumstances in which he was
about to find him, and the thrill in his old frame was almost entirely
that of natural anxiety to know how Val was. Dick on the box was not
without his tremor too. He did not know what his mother would think of
this visit--if it would terrify her, if she would think he had been
unfaithful to the charge she had laid upon him not to speak of her. He
stopped the cab when they reached the river-side; and, scarcely knowing
what he was about, handed Lady Eskside out. “I’ll go round by the back
and open the door: that’s the house,” he said, hoarsely; and left them
standing by the edge of the grey Thames, which, still somewhat swollen
with spring rains, ran full and swift, sweeping round the eyot with all
its willows faintly green, upon which, though they did not know it, poor
Val had stranded. The sun was shining brightly, but still the river was
grey; and Lady Eskside shivered and trembled with that chill of anxiety
and excitement which is more penetrating than cold. “This is where Val
brought me,” said the old lady, as they walked tremulously to the door.
“Yes, yes, I mind it all--and there was a shawl like one of mine upon a
table. Yes, yes, yes,” she said to herself, almost inarticulate--“my own
shawl! Oh, how was it I was so foolish, and did not see at once that it
must be _her_; and she had fled out of the place not to see me? It all
comes back! She must have known it was me. It’s nothing, nothing, my
dear! I’m trembling, it’s true--how can I help it! But all the time I am
steady, steady as a rock; you need not be feared for me.”

“I wonder if he is in one of these rooms,” said the old lord, looking
wistfully at the upper windows. They opened the garden gate, not without
difficulty, for they were both very tremulous, and went in to the little
garden where there was a pale glow of primroses. There they stood for
perhaps a moment looking towards the house, waiting for Dick to open to
them, breathless, feeling the great crisis to be near. Lady Eskside
clung still to her old lord’s arm. He was not a pillar of strength, and
shook, too, in his old age and agitation; but there was strength as well
as comfort in the mere touch--the sense of standing by each other in
those hardest moments, as in all others. As they stood thus waiting, the
door opened, and some one came out, walking towards them. He strolled
out with one hand in his pocket, with the air of a man issuing forth
from his own house. It was not Dick coming to open to them, to admit
them. Lady Eskside dropped her husband’s arm, and gave a strange cry--a
cry of astonishment and confused dismay, half querulous, half violent.
Hot tears came rushing to her eyes in the keen disappointment, mingled
with wonder, which penetrated her mind. She clasped her hands together
almost with a movement of anger--“Richard, _Richard_!” she cried.

He stood for a moment silent, looking at them, confused too. “My father
and my mother,” he said to himself under his breath. Then he tried to
rally his powers, and put on a smile, and look composed and
self-possessed, which he was not; but instead of succeeding in this
attempt, grew hot and red, though he was old enough to have been done
with such vanities. “This is a very unexpected meeting,” he said.
“Mother, excuse me if I am startled. Nothing was further from my
thoughts than to see you here.” Then he stopped short, and made a gulp
of agitation and resumed again. “You have heard that Valentine is here?
He is just the same; we must wait for the crisis. He is taken good care
of----”

“Richard!” said his mother--“oh, none of your pretending to me--for
God’s sake tell us the truth! Do you _know_?--or is it by chance you
have come here?”

“It will be better to come into the house, my lady,” said Lord Eskside.

I scarcely think she heard what he was saying. She put her hand upon her
son’s arm, grasping him almost harshly. She was too much excited to be
able to contain herself. She had forgotten Val, whom the old lord was
longing for. “Do you know, or do you not know?” she cried, her voice
growing hoarse. Dick, who had come to the door a minute later than
Richard, stood upon the threshold looking at them with a wondering
countenance. But no one saw or noticed Dick. He saw the old people
absorbed with this new personage, whose back was turned to him, and whom
he had never seen before. The mystery was thickening, for here now was
another in it, and more and more it grew incomprehensible to Dick. His
was not one of the spirits that love mystery. He was open as the day,
straightforward, downright. His heart sickened at this maze, at all
those difficulties, at the new people who had thus come into his life.
He stood looking at them painfully with a confusion in all his thoughts
which utterly disconcerted and disturbed him. Then he turned abruptly on
his heel and went away. Where? To his work; that at least never
disappointed nor confused him. No strangers came into it to tangle the
threads, to turn it all into chaos. He had heard how Valentine was, and
that the crisis had not yet come; and he was half indignant, half sad,
in his sense of a disturbance which was wholly unaccountable and
unjustifiable. The house was his--Dick’s--it did not belong to the
stranger who had preceded him to the door, and was standing there now
in colloquy with the old couple, who evidently had forgotten Dick. What
right had they to take him up and cast him down--to take possession of
his house, which had cost him dear, which was his, and not theirs, as if
he were nothing in it? Dick strode away, more hurt, angry, and “put
out,” than he had ever been in his life. He threw off his Sunday coat
(none the better for these railway journeys), and hastily putting on his
working-jacket, hurried off to the rafts. There a man could always find
something to occupy him--there was honest work, uncomplicated by any
bewilderments. He went and thrust himself into it, almost forgetting
that he was head-man in his anxiety to dislodge all these disturbing
questions from his mind, and to feel himself in reality what he was.

“I think,” said Richard, not without excitement himself, but trying hard
not to show his rapid changes of colour, his breathless heat and
agitation, “that my father gives good advice, and that you ought to come
into the house, where at least we can talk with quiet and decency. There
is no reason why you shouldn’t come in,” he said, with nervous
vehemence, pushing open the door behind him; “or the Queen, for that
matter, if she were here. The mistress of it is as spotless as any one
of you. That much I may say.”

Lady Eskside did not say another word. She grasped her old lord’s arm
again, and suffered herself to be led into the little parlour, which she
had seen before on another occasion, little thinking whose house it was.
Her eye, I need not say, was caught at once by the little shawl on the
table. She pointed at it hastily to her husband, who stared, totally
unaware what it was to which his attention was directed. They put her
into an old carved chair, which was one of poor Dick’s latest
acquisitions before all this wonderful commotion began. Richard,
scarcely knowing what he was doing, led the way, introduced them into
the strange little room, as a man does when he is in his own house. He
had got to feel as if it were his own house. Already he had passed many
hours there, feeling himself no intruder. He received his mother and
placed her in Dick’s easy-chair as he might have received her in the
Palazzo Graziani; and the old lady, with her keen eyes, caught at this,
though he was as unconscious of it as a man could be.

“You are at home here,” she said to him, with keen suspicion--“it’s no
strange place to you, Richard, though it’s strange, strange, to my old
lord and me. What does it mean, man?--what does it mean? Have you known
all the time? Have you been keeping it secret to drive us wild? What is
it?--what is it you mean?”

“Where is the boy?” said Lord Eskside. “I do not enter into this
question between your mother and you. You will satisfy us both,
doubtless, about the mystery,--which, as you all well know, is a thing I
abhor. Richard,” said the old man, with a break in his voice, “I want to
see the boy.”

“Listen first, sir,” said Richard, indignant; “how my mother has found
out, I don’t know; but she is right. Chance--or Providence, if you like
the word better--has thrown Val into his--mother’s hands. I guessed it
when I saw you at Rosscraig, and I came here at once and found it was
so----”

“You guessed it? God forgive you, Richard! You’ve known, then, all the
time? you’ve exposed us and Val to abuse and insult, and maybe killed
the lad and broken my old lord’s heart. Oh, God forgive you, Richard! is
this the way you’ve done your duty to us and your boy?”

Lady Eskside wrung her hands. Her old face flushed and grew pale; hot
tears filled her eyes. Something of personal disappointment was in the
pang with which she felt this supposed deception. Women, I fear, are
more apt to think of deception than men. Lady Eskside, in the sharpness
of her disappointment, rashly jumped to the conclusion that Richard’s
knowledge was not an affair of yesterday; that there was something
behind more than had been told to her; that perhaps, for anything she
could tell, he had been visiting this woman, who was his lawful wife, as
if the tie between them had been of quite a different character; or
perhaps, even--who knows?--was trying to palm upon them as his wife some
one who did not possess any right to that title. In suspicion, as in
other things, it is the first step that costs the most. Lord Eskside did
not go so far as his wife did, but the thought began to penetrate his
mind too, that if Richard had known this, even for a day, without
disclosing it, he had exposed them to cruel and needless pain.

“Catherine,” said the old lord, “we need not quarrel to make matters
worse. If he recognises his wife and his other son at last, and it is
true that they are here, let us give our attention to make sure of
that, and prevent trouble in the future. It is not a question of
feeling, but of law and justice. Yes, no doubt, feeling will come in;
but you cannot change your son, my lady, any more than he can change his
father and mother, which, perhaps, he would have little objection to do.
We must put up with each other, such as we are.”

“You do me injustice, sir,” cried Richard; “both you and my mother.
There has been no deception in the matter. You shall hear how it
happened afterwards; but in the meantime it is true that she is here,
mother. I met her at Val’s bedside two days ago for the first time,
without warning. I believe if I had given her warning she would have
escaped again--but for Val. I am not made of much account between you,”
said Richard, with a painful smile. “I have little occasion to be vain.
You, my mother, and her, my--wife; what you think of is not me, but
Val.”

“Oh Richard! you would aye have been first with me if you would have let
me,” said Lady Eskside, as ready to forgive as she had been to censure,
her heart melting at this reproach, which was true. As for the old lord,
he was not so easily moved either to blame or to pardon. He got up and
walked about the room while Richard, still flushed with excitement and a
certain indignation, told them the story of the photograph, and his
recognition of his wife’s face so strangely brought before him by his
son. Richard gave his own version of the story, as was natural. He
allowed them to perceive the violence of the shock this discovery had
given him, without saying very much on the subject; and described how,
though incapable of anything else in the excitement of the moment, he
had put force upon himself to make his wife’s residence known to his
lawyer, and to have a watch kept upon her movements. What he said was
perfectly true, with just that gloss which we all put upon our own
proceedings, showing them in their best aspect; and Lady Eskside
received it as gospel, taking her son’s hand into her own, following
every movement of his lips with moist eyes, entering with tender and
remorseful sympathy into those hidden sentiments in his mind which she
had doubted the existence of, and which, up to this moment, he had never
permitted her to see. Her husband, however, walked about the room while
the tale went on, listening intent, without losing a word, but not so
sympathetically--staring hard at Dick’s homely ornamentations, his bits
of carving, his books, all the signs of individuality which were in the
place. I don’t know that he remarked their merits, though he walked from
one to another, with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, and stared
almost fiercely at the carving, with eyes wellnigh hidden under his
shaggy brows. He did not say anything while Lady Eskside, weeping and
smiling, made her peace with her son. When she cried, “Oh yes, my dear,
my dear, I understand!” he only worked his expressive eyebrows, giving
no articulate evidence of emotion. “Val is up-stairs, I suppose? I am
going to see him,” was all he said in the pause after Richard’s story
concluded. Lord Eskside climbed up the narrow wooden staircase with a
shrug of his shoulders. He was not satisfied with his son’s story, as
his wife had been. He opened one door after another before he found the
room in which Val was lying. To see the boy stretched there on the bed,
with vacant eyes, half dozing, half waking, but quite unconscious of his
visitor, went to the old lord’s heart far more than Richard’s story had
done. “If he had spoken out like a man, this might have been spared,” he
said to himself; and bent over Val’s bed to hide the momentary
contortion of his features, which brought the water to his eyes. “My
poor lad!” he said, with hidden anguish, scarcely noticing for the first
moment the nurse on the other side of the bed. She rose with a sudden
dilation of terror in her eyes. She had never seen Lord Eskside, and did
not know who he was; but felt by instinct that he had been brought
hither by the terrible wave of novel events which was about to sweep
over her head, and that he had come to take away from her her boy.

Lord Eskside looked at her across the bed where Val was lying. He made
her a low bow, with that courtly politeness which now and then the
homely old lord brought forth, like an old patent of nobility. But it
was difficult for him to know what to say to her--and she gave him no
assistance, standing there with a look of panic which disturbed the
still, abstracted dignity of her ordinary aspect. “I am afraid I have
startled you,” he said, his voice softening. “Don’t be alarmed. I am
your--husband’s father. I am sorry, very sorry, that we never met
before.”

She made no answer, but only a slight tremulous movement intended for a
curtsey; then some sense of the necessities of her position, struggling
with her fright, she said faintly, “He is just the same--on Saturday
he’ll be better, please God.”

“On Saturday he’ll be better! God bless you, my dear! You seem sure? How
can you be sure?” cried the old lord, with his eyelids all puckered
together to hide the moisture within.

She put up her hand with a warning gesture. “Hush,” she said; “it makes
him restless when he hears a voice”--then a curious, exquisite twilight
seemed to melt over her face as if some last reflections of a waning
light had caught her, illuminating her for the moment with the tenderest
subdued radiance--“except mine,” she added in tones so low as to be
almost inaudible. The old lord was deeply touched. What with his boy’s
condition, which was worse than he expected, and this voice of great,
subdued, and restrained feeling--emotion that had no object but to
conceal itself--all his prejudices floated away. He was not in the least
conscious of being affected by the beauty which was concealed, too, like
the emotion--indeed he would have denied that she had any beauty; but
the suppression of both and ignoring of them by their possessor had a
great effect upon him; for there was nothing in the world more noble in
the eyes of the old Scots lord than this power of self-restraint. He
went round to her softly, walking with elaborate precaution, and took
her hand for a moment; “God bless you!” he said; then, with another look
at Val, he left the room. He himself, even with all the self-control he
had, might have broken down and betrayed the passionate love and anxiety
in him had he waited longer there.

Lady Eskside was seated in the parlour alone when he entered; she was
leaning back in Dick’s great chair, with her handkerchief to her eyes.
“He has gone to get the doctor, that we may know everything exactly,”
she said. “He” had changed to her. She had taken back her own son, her
very child, into her heart, (had he not the best right?) and it was
Richard who was “he,” not any one else. She was so tender, so happy, so
deeply moved by this revolution, that she could scarcely speak to her
husband, who, she felt instinctively, had not been subjected to the same
wonderful change.

“I have just seen him--and his mother,” said Lord Eskside.

“Seen _him_--the boy? Oh my poor Val!” cried the old lady, weeping; and
then she raised her hands and turned to her husband with something which
was half an apology and half a reproach. “I feel as if I had got my
Richard back--our own boy--and I don’t seem able to think of anything
else--not even Val.”

Lord Eskside took another turn round the little parlour. “I don’t want
to hurt your feelings, my lady,” he said; “but if Richard had had the
sense to write to you or me when he wrote to that fine London solicitor
of his, all this might have been spared. Sandy Pringle’s miserable
letter, and all that stramash about the election, and my poor Val’s
fever--maybe his life----”

“His life! his life!” she said, starting up in alarm from her chair.

“Who can say? It’s in God’s hands, not ours. His mother says he’ll be
better on Saturday,” Lord Eskside said, turning away.

Meanwhile Dick had thrown himself with a certain passion into his work,
feeling a curious reluctance which he had never experienced before to
receive the orders of the customers, and to run hither and thither
launching boats into the water, drawing them up again, dealing out oars
and cushions as he had done for years. If he could have pushed out on
the stream himself as Val had done, if he could have rowed a race for
life or death with some rival oar, that would have calmed him more than
anything. Gentlemen like Val, Lord Eskside’s heir, future possessor of
all those lovely woods, and of the grey old house full of beautiful
things, which was so fresh in Dick’s memory, could afford to calm
themselves down in that way. But Dick, who was only a working man, could
not afford it. To him his work was everything, and to that alone, when
all his nerves were tingling, could he resort to bring him down again
from any fanciful strain of emotion. He ought to be glad to have it to
do, Dick felt; for had he been idle, it seemed to him that the beating
of his heart would have driven him wild. Now, let it swell as it would,
he had enough to do to keep him occupied, and no time to think, heaven
be praised! It was, as it happened fortunately, a very busy day. Dick
forgot his dinner-hour--forgot everything but the necessity for exertion
to keep him from himself. Sometimes he ordered his subordinates about
almost fiercely, speaking to them as he had never been heard to speak
before. Sometimes, not thinking, he would rush himself to do their work,
while they stood by astonished, with a manner so unusual that no one
knew what to make of him. Was it possible that the fever was “catching,”
and that Dick too was going to have it?

But it was a very busy day, and there was plenty of work for everybody,
which is a thing that stops speculation. In the afternoon Lord Eskside,
straying about the place, found himself on the rafts. He had not
intended to go there, nor did he know when he got there what he wanted.
The old lord was very restless, anxious, and unhappy. He could do
nothing indoors--not even keep still and out of the way, which is the
first duty of man in a house where sickness is; and the unfamiliar place
did not tempt him to walk as he might have done at home. He had done
what he could to occupy himself after the brief interview with the
doctor, who could say nothing more than had already been said, that no
change could come until Saturday, when, for good or evil, the crisis
might be looked for. After this Lord Eskside went to the hotel where
Richard was living, and engaged rooms, and did what he could for the
comfort of his wife, who had come here in her old age without any
attendant. But when this slender business was accomplished, he had
nothing further to do. He could not keep indoors in Dick’s little
parlour, which they had taken possession of, none of them reflecting
that there was another proprietor whose leave had not been asked or
given; nor could he linger at the outer door, where Harding hung about
in attendance. The old lord had no heart to say anything to Harding; he
went to the rafts at last in simple restlessness, having, I almost
think, forgotten all about Dick. I suppose it diverted him for the
moment from his own heavy thoughts and painful tension of suspense, to
see the movement in this busy place--the coming and going--the boats run
out into the stream with a pleasant rustle--the slim outriggers now and
then carried back all wet and dripping to the boathouses, as one party
after another came in. The stir of indifferent cheerful life, going on
carelessly all the same under the eyes of a spectator paralysed by
anxiety and distress, has a curious bewildering effect upon the mind. He
had been there for some minutes before he even noticed Dick’s presence
at all.

He perceived him at last with, a thrill of surprise. Dick had
transmogrified himself; in his working dress he looked more “a
gentleman” than he had done in his Sunday coat. He had a straw hat
instead of the black one, a blue flannel coat, and noiseless white
boating shoes. The excitement against which he was struggling gave a
double animation to his aspect, and made him hold himself more erect
than usual, with all the energy of wounded pride. Lord Eskside felt that
it must be some consciousness of his true position that gave to Dick’s
youthful figure that air of superiority which certainly he had not
noticed in him before; but it was in reality a contrary influence, the
determination to show that he held his own natural position unaffected
by all the mysterious hints he had listened to, and found in his work a
blessed refuge from the mystery which he did not understand, but was
impatient of, and despised. Dick passed Lord Eskside over and over
again, in his manifold occupations, touching his hat, as he did so, but
taking no further notice of his travelling companion. The old lord, on
his side, made no demonstration of interest; but he took up a position
on the edge of the wharf, and followed the young fellow with his eyes.
Dick had pushed back his hat, showing his fair locks and open face; he
was never still for a moment, darting hither and thither with lithe
light frame, and feet that scarcely seemed to touch the boards. How
workmanlike he was, in his element, knowing exactly what to do, and how
to direct the others who looked to him! and yet, Lord Eskside thought,
so unlike any one else, so free in his step, so bold in his tranquil
confidence, so much above the level of the others. He sat down on a
bench close by, and knitting his heavy brows, sat intent upon that one
figure, watching him more and more closely. There were a great many
boating men about, for it was just the opening of the season, and some
of them were impatient, and none were especially disposed to respect the
feelings even of the head man at Styles’s. “Here, you, Brown,” said one
young man in flannel; “Brown, I say! Can’t the fellow hear? Are we to
wait all day?” “Look alive, can’t you?” shouted a second; “he’s not half
the handy fellow he was.” “Spoilt by the undergrads,” said another;
“he’s the pet of all the Eton men.” “Brown, Brown! By Jove! I’ll speak
to Styles if this goes on. You, Dick! can’t you hear?”

I don’t know if Dick felt any annoyance at their impatient outcries, or
resented such an address in Lord Eskside’s presence. But he came to the
call, as was his duty, his cheeks a little flushed, but ready to do
whatever was wanted of him. “Here, Brown,” said the boating man,
carelessly; but he never ended his order. For, before another word could
be said, Lord Eskside, glooming, with knitted brows, came hurriedly up
to Dick, and put his arm through his. “This is no occupation for you,”
said the old lord. “It is time that this was over;” and before the eyes
of the astonished lookers-on, he led him away, too much astonished for
the moment to resist. “Who is the old fellow?” asked the boating men;
and when (for rank will out, like murder) it was whispered who “Brown’s
friend” was, a sudden awe fell upon the rafts. A lord! and he had put
his arm familiarly into Dick Brown’s, and carried him off, declaring
this to be no work for him! What could it mean? The effect produced by
Val’s accident was nothing to the ferment which rose, up and down the
river-side, when it was known that a lord--an old lord--not one of your
wild undergrads--had walked off Styles’s raft, in broad daylight,
arm-in-arm with Dick Brown.



CHAPTER XXXVIII.


Violet went back to Edinburgh the day after her meeting in the woods
with Dick. Her heart was so full of what she had heard, that it was all
she could do to keep the particulars from old Jean, who was her guardian
and companion when, in her trouble, poor child, she managed to escape
for a day or two to the Hewan. By a strong effort she kept from talking
over the details with her homely old friend; but she could not keep from
her the fact that Val was ill. I need not say that Jean knew well enough
that there was “something wrong” between the two families--a thing she
had been aware of, with the curious instinct which all our servants
possess--almost before they knew it themselves. And by this time, of
course, Jean knew all that popular opinion said about Mr Pringle’s
supposed guilt in respect to the election; and she was aware that there
had been painful scenes in the house, and that neither his wife, nor his
sons, nor his daughter “held with” the unlucky culprit, who, since the
election, had gone about with drooping head “as if he was gaun to be
hanged,” old Jean said. Jean was very much shocked and distressed when
she heard of Val’s illness. “I thought there was something out o’ the
ordinary,” she said; “him away when there was yon grand dinner, and a
strange look about the house a’thegether. Ye may aye ken when the
family’s in trouble by the look o’ the house. Poor callant! there’s
naething like trouble of mind for bringing on thae fevers; you may take
my word, Miss Violet, it’s something about that weary election. Eh, what
creatures men are! Can they no fecht fair, and take their neives to ane
anither, instead of casting up auld ill stories? They say that’s women’s
way; for my part, I’m of the opinion that if women are ill with their
tongues, men are waur.”

“But fevers are not brought on by trouble of mind,” said Violet,
endeavouring to argue against her own inmost convictions. “Fevers are
brought on by--oh, by very different things, by bad air, and---- you may
read it all in the papers---- Oh, I hope, I hope it is not that, Jean!”

“If you put your faith in the papers,” said Jean, contemptuously, “that
say one thing the day, and another the morn, just as it suits them! Oh
ay, they’ll tell you an honest midden is waur than an ill story, that
creeps into the heart and saps the strength. I’m fond o’ the fresh air
mysel. We’re used to it here up at the Hewan, and it’s like meat and
drink; but if some ill-wisher was to rake up a nasty story about my auld
man that’s in heaven, or my John, what do you think would harm me maist,
Miss Vi’let--that, or a’ the ill smells in Lasswade? and I’ll no say but
what that corner by the smiddy is like to knock you down--though Marion
Miller’s bairns, so far as I can see, are no a prin the waur.”

Violet did not venture upon any reply, for, indeed, it seemed to her
innocent soul that mental causes were far more likely to make one ill
than those vulgar evils upon which the newspapers insisted. For her own
part, she felt very sure, as old Jean did, that Val’s illness arose from
the misery and excitement of the election, and not from any lesser
cause. I suppose this was quite foolish, and that the poor young member
for Eskshire must have gone into some cottage, or passed by some drain
in the course of his canvassing, which was the real occasion of his
fever. My ignorance is too great on such subjects to warrant me in
venturing the supposition that the other part of him, that mental part
so much discredited and put out of court in the present day--the one
thing about us which nobody can quite account for--had anything to do
with it. But Violet and old Jean, both of them as ignorant as myself
though more courageous--and both convinced in their different ways that
this special development of protoplasm called by ignorant persons their
mind, is the most important part of us--unhesitatingly ignored the
drain, which no doubt did the mischief, and set down Val’s fever to his
misery with all the evident precision of cause and effect. Violet could
not say any more to the old woman whose remarks she neither dared to be
sympathetic with or irritated by, since either demonstration would have
betrayed her father, who had done it all. So she hurried home next
morning, attended by her maid, breathless till she reached the mother,
the natural receiver of all her plaints and troubles. Mrs Pringle saw
there was something to tell from the first glance at Violet’s
countenance, in which all her emotions writ themselves easily to the
accustomed eye. She sent her up-stairs to “take off her things,” and
followed her, hoping that old Lady Eskside might perhaps have met the
child somewhere, and melted towards her, the only imaginable way in
which any renewal of friendship could be possible. When she heard what
it was, however, Mrs Pringle shook her head. “My dear,” she said, “you
are letting your feelings run away with you. Men don’t get ill and take
fevers from excitement except in novels. No doubt there must be
something wrong about Rosscraig; these old houses are never quite to be
depended upon. God knows that letter has done you and me harm enough,
more harm than it could do to Valentine--but we have taken no fever. I
am very sorry for him, poor fellow; but he’s young, and has a good
constitution--no doubt he’ll pull through; and my Vi must not cry like
this for a man that is nothing to her,” the good mother said,
proudly--putting her handkerchief and her hand, which was still softer,
across Violet’s streaming eyes to stop her tears.

“Oh, mamma, how can I help it?” sobbed poor Vi.

“My darling, you must help it. I am not saying it will be easy. Me
myself, with children of my own that take up my mind, I find myself
thinking of that poor boy when I have plenty other things to think of.
Ah, Violet, you kiss me for that! but, my dear, ask yourself--after what
has come and gone--how could it ever, ever be?”

“No one wants it to be!” said Violet, with one of her vehement impulses
of maiden pride, raising her head from her mother’s shoulder with a hot
angry flush covering her face; “but one does not cease--to take an
interest--in one’s--friend, because of any quarrel. I am friends with
him for ever, whatever happens. No one can say anything against that.
And we are cousins, whatever happens. I told Mr Brown so.”

Mrs Pringle shook her head over the friendship and cousinship which
continued to take so warm “an interest” in Val; but she was wise and
made no further remark. “I wonder who this Mr Brown may be?” was all she
said, and instantly set her wits to work to find something for Violet to
do. In a house where there were so many boys this was not difficult; and
it cannot be questioned that at this crisis of her young existence the
Hewan would have been a much less safe residence for Violet than Moray
Place.

The next two days were each made memorable by a note from Dick. These
missives were couched almost in the same words, and Violet, reading them
over and over again, could extract nothing from them more than met the
eye. Dick, in a very careful handwriting, too neat perhaps, and legible,
wrote as follows:--

     “MADAM,--Mr Ross is just the same. This is not to be wondered at,
     as I told Miss Violet that there could be no change till Saturday.
     With your permission I will write again to-morrow.--Your obedient
     servant,

                                                       “RICHARD BROWN.”

Even Mrs Pringle could find nothing to remark upon in this brief
epistle. “I wonder how he knows your name?” was all she said, and Violet
did not feel it necessary to enter into any particulars on this point.
The second bulletin was just like the first. Mrs Pringle had this note
in her pocket in the evening after dinner when her husband came up to
her with an excited look, and thrust the little local Eskside paper, the
‘Castleton Herald,’ into her hand. “Look at this!” he said, pointing
out a paragraph to her with a hand that trembled. How glad she was then
that the news conveyed no shock to her, and that Violet knew with
certainty the state of the matter which the newspaper unfolded so
mysteriously! “We regret to learn,” said the ‘Herald,’ “that the new
member for the county, Mr Ross, whose election so very lately occupied
our pages, lies dangerously ill in England of fever--we suppose of that
typhoid type which has lately made so much havoc in the world, and
threatened still greater havoc than it has made. We have no information
as to how the disease was contracted, but in the meantime Lasswade and
the neighbourhood have been thrown into alarm and gloom by the sudden
departure of such members of the noble family of Eskside as were still
remaining at Rosscraig. We trust before our next week’s issue to be able
to give a better account of Mr Ross’s state.”

“I knew Val was ill,” said Mrs Pringle, composedly; “Violet heard of it
at Eskside.” She could not refrain from a stroke of vengeance as she
handed the paper back to him. “I hope you are satisfied with your
handiwork now,” she said.

“My handiwork?”

“Just yours,” said Mrs Pringle--“just yours, Alexander; and if the boy
should die--which as good as him have done--what will your feelings be?”

“My feelings!” said Mr Pringle; “what have I to do with it?--did I give
him his fever? Of course it must have been bad air or some
blood-poisoning--or something. These are the only ways in which fever
communicates itself;” but as he spoke (for he was not a bad man) his
lips quivered, and there was a tremor in his voice.

“It is easy to say that--very easy to say it--and it may be true; but if
you take the heart and strength out of a man, and leave him no power to
throw off the ill thing when it comes? Alexander,” said Mrs Pringle,
solemnly, “I will never hold up my head again in this world if anything
happens to Val!”

“You speak like a fool--or a woman! It comes to much the same thing,”
cried her husband; and he went away down-stairs and shut himself into
his library quivering with the hot sudden rage which belongs to his
conscience-stricken state. How miserable he was, trying to study a case
in which he had to speak next day, and able to understand nothing
except that Valentine Ross was ill, perhaps dying, and through his
means! He had never meant that. He had meant to have his revenge for an
imaginary wrong, and many little imaginary slights, and perhaps to make
his young supplanter lose his election; but that he might put Val’s life
in danger or injure him seriously had never entered into Mr Pringle’s
thoughts. He tried to persuade himself that it was no concern of his,
pursuing in an undercurrent, as his eyes went over his law-papers, all
the arguments about sanitary dangers he had ever read. “What a fool I am
to think that could have had anything to do with it!” he cried, throwing
away his papers when he could bear it no longer, and beginning to pace
up and down his room. What a burning restless pain he had at his heart!
He cast about him vaguely in a kind of blank hopelessness what he could
do, or if he could do anything. This he had never meant. He would not
(he said to himself) have hurt Val or any one, for all the Eskside
estates ten times over; and if anything happened to the boy he could
never hold up his head again, as his wife said.

Mr Pringle had been wretched enough since that miserable election day.
He had been conscious that even his own friends looked coldly upon him,
suspecting him of something which went too far for ordinary political
animosity or the fair fighting of honourable contest; and feeling that
his own very family, and even the wife of his bosom, were against him,
though Mrs Pringle, after her first very full and indignant expression
of her opinion, had said no more on the subject. Still he had not her
moral support, a backing which had scarcely ever failed him before; and
he had the sense of having broken all the ties of friendship with the
Eskside family--old ties which, though he did not love the Rosses, it
was painful altogether to break. He had thrown away those ties, and made
his adversaries bitter and his friends suspicious. So little was Mr
Pringle a bad man, that he had pursued these thoughts for a long time in
his secret heart without recollecting that, should Valentine die, he
would be reinstalled in his position as heir-presumptive. When this
suddenly flashed upon him, he threw himself in his chair and covered his
face with his hands. In that case it would be murder, mere murder! it
would be as if he had killed the boy for the sake of his inheritance.
This startled him beyond anything I can say. Perhaps the profoundest
and most impassioned of all the prayers that were said that night for
Val’s recovery rose in a sudden anguish of remorse and surprised guilt
from the heart of Val’s enemy. He shook like a man struck with palsy;
his nerves contracted; the veins stood out on his forehead. He had never
meant to harm the boy--never, never, God knows!--except in some
momentary way, by a little shame, a little disappointment, which could
have made no real difference in so happy and prosperous a life. The pain
of this thought gripped him as with the crushing grasp of a giant. What
could he do, he said to himself, writhing in his chair--what could he do
to make amends? If he could but have believed in pilgrimages, how gladly
would he have set out bare-footed to any shrine, if that would have
brought back the young life that was in danger! Heaven help him! of all
the people concerned there was no one so entirely to be pitied as poor
Mr Pringle, lying there prostrate in his chair without any strength left
in him, bodily or mental, or any one to back him up, saying to himself
that perhaps it might be that he had murdered Val. He seemed to see
before his eyes the bold handsome boy, the fine young fellow all joyous
and triumphant in the glory of his youth; and was it his hand--a man
with children of his own whom he loved--that had stricken Valentine
down?

Next day--next “lawful day,” as we say in Scotland, for a Sunday
intervened--Mr Pringle broke down in his case before the courts, and
looked so distracted and miserable that the very Lords of Session took
notice of it. “Sandy Pringle is breaking up early,” Lord Birkhill said
to Lord Caldergrange; “he never had any constitution to speak of.”
“Perhaps it is family affection and anxiety about young Ross of
Eskside,” said Lord Caldergrange to Lord Birkhill; and these two learned
authorities, both old enough to have been Sandy Pringle’s father,
chuckled and took snuff together over his family affection and his early
breakdown. The news from the ‘Castleton Herald’ about Val’s illness was
copied that morning into all the Edinburgh papers. Mr Pringle himself,
being of the Liberal party, saw only the ‘Scotsman,’ where it was simply
repeated; but when he was leaving the Parliament House, his son Sandy
came to him with the ‘Courant,’ which, as everybody knows, is the
Conservative paper,--the one in which a _communiqué_ from the Eskside
party would naturally appear. “Have you seen this, sir?” said Sandy,
not, his father thought, without a glimmer of vindictive satisfaction.
They were all against him, wife and children, friends and circumstances.
But the paragraph in the ‘Courant’ was one of a very startling
description, and had already woke up the half of Edinburgh--everybody
who knew or professed to know anything of the Eskside family--to wonder
and interest. The ‘Courant’ gave first the paragraph from the ‘Herald,’
then added another of its own. “We are glad to be able to add that more
favourable news has been received this morning of Mr Ross’s condition.
The crisis of the fever is now past, and all the symptoms, we
understand, are hopeful.” Then came the further information, which took
away everybody’s breath. “We are authorised to state,” said the
‘Courant,’ “that Mr Ross, whose severe illness at such an interesting
juncture of his life has called forth so much public interest and
sympathy, was fortunately at the house of his mother, the Hon. Mrs
Richard Ross, in Oxford, when the first symptoms of fever made their
appearance, and accordingly had from the first every medical attention,
as well as the most devoted nursing which affection could give.”

The paper fell out of Mr Pringle’s hand when he had read this. Sandy
grasped him by the arm, thinking he would have fallen too. “For heaven’s
sake,” cried Sandy, in a fierce whisper, “don’t make an exhibition of
yourself _here_!” Mr Pringle did not answer a word, not even to the
apologies with which, when they were safe out of the crowded precincts
of the Parliament House, his son followed these hasty unfilial words. He
went home to Moray Place in a condition of mind impossible to describe,
feeling himself like a man caught in a snare. The Hon. Mrs Richard Ross,
his mother! Had he really read those words in black and white? Were they
no fiction, but true? His heart was relieved a little, for Val was
better; but how could he ever extricate himself from the labyrinth he
had got into? He had defied the Rosses to produce this mother, and her
appearance seemed to Mr Pringle to close up every place of repentance
for him, and to put him so terribly in the wrong that he could never
face his friends again, or the public which knew him to be the author of
that fatal letter to the electors of Eskshire. Surely no sin ever had
such condign and instantaneous punishment. He was not a murderer, that
was a thing to be thankful for; but he could be proved a liar--a maker
of cruel, unfounded statements--a reporter of scandals! He shut himself
up in his library, making some pretence of work to be done. As for
Sandy, he did not go in at all, being angry and unhappy about the whole
business. That Valentine’s mother should be found, and his rights, which
Sandy had never doubted, fully established, he was heartily glad of. Mrs
Pringle’s wise training had saved Sandy from even a shadow of that folly
of expectation which had so painfully affected his father; but Sandy was
indignant beyond description, hurt in his pride, and mortified to the
heart, that his father should have put himself in such a mean position.
I do not think there was any tingling recollection in him of the blow
Val had given him. If he had borne malice, it would have vanished
utterly at the first mention of Val’s illness; but he did not bear any
malice. He bore another burden, however, more heavy--the burden of shame
for his father’s unwarrantable assault, which, out of respect for his
father, he could not openly disown, but must share the disgrace of,
though he loathed the offence. I think Sandy may be excused if he felt
himself too cross, too wretched in his false position, to face the rest
of the household, and convey to them this startling news.

They had, however, their news too, scarcely less startling. It was the
Monday after the Saturday on which Val had passed the crisis of his
fever, and Sunday had been very trying to these two women in its entire
cessation of news, as Sunday so often is in cases of anxiety. When
Dick’s letter at last came, there was something in it which they
scarcely noticed in their first agitation of joy, but which, by dint of
much reading, came out very strongly at last to their puzzled
perceptions. There was an indescribable indefinite change in their
correspondent’s style. But the reader shall judge for himself what this
was.

     “DEAR MADAM,--I am happy to be able to tell you that the crisis is
     over, and Valentine is decidedly better. Perhaps you are aware that
     all the family are here. He has recognised us all, and, though
     weak, will soon regain his strength, the doctor thinks. Other
     things have happened, of a very wonderful kind, which I can
     scarcely write about; but I hope it may now be possible that I may
     one day see you, and explain everything to Miss Violet which she
     may wish to know. I do not like to run the risk of agitating
     Valentine by telling him that I am writing, but, if you will
     permit me, I will write again; and I hope you will always be so
     very kind as to think of me, whatever may be the change in
     circumstances, as yours and Miss Violet’s obedient servant,

                                                             “RICHARD.”

“What does it mean?” said Mrs Pringle. “I am afraid the young man is
taking too much upon himself. To sign himself just ‘Richard’ to you and
me, is a piece of presumption, Vi; and to call Lord Eskside’s grandson
‘Valentine!’ I am not bigoted about rank, as you know; but this is too
much.”

Violet was confounded too. “Perhaps in nursing he has got familiar
without knowing it,” she said. “Oh, mamma, you could not think he was
presumptuous if you had seen Mr Brown.”

“That is all very well, my dear,” said Mrs Pringle. “I believe he is a
good young man; but perhaps it was a little rash to take him into your
confidence. I think I heard your papa come in. Go and see if he is in
the library. It might be a comfort to him to know that Val is better.
Go; and if you see an opportunity, tell him. Say I have had a
letter;--that is all that it is needful to say.”

Violet, though reluctant, obeyed; and Mrs Pringle read Dick’s letter
again, not knowing what to make of it. What did he mean by signing
himself “Richard”? and calling Val by his Christian name? Her conclusion
was, that this boatman, in whom Violet had so rashly put confidence, was
presuming upon the girl’s openness and innocence. Mrs Pringle thanked
heaven that her child “had the sense” to ask him to write to her mother,
who was quite safe, and quite able to manage any presuming person. She
could not make up her mind about this, feeling an uneasy consciousness
in the letter of something unexplained, something more than met the eye,
to which, however, she had no clue; but she resolved, at least, that
this young man should have no further encouragement; that she would
herself write to him, thanking him for his communication, and politely
dropping him, as a woman of Mrs Pringle’s age and condition knows how to
do. Perhaps it had been imprudent of Violet to refer to him at all; but
happily it was an imprudence of which no further harm need come.

Meanwhile Violet went down-stairs to the library, somewhat tremulous,
and half afraid of the morose tones and look into which of late her
father had fallen. When she went in, he snatched up some of his papers,
and pretended to be studying them very closely; the ‘Courant’ lay at his
side upon the writing-table; but it was the law-papers, and not the
‘Courant,’ which Mr Pringle pretended to read. Violet made a shy circle
round the table, not knowing if she might venture to speak. Her courage
failed her, until she suddenly remarked, underneath the shadow of the
hand which supported his head, that her father was watching her, and
that his face was very grey and pallid in the noonday light. This gave
her resolution enough to conquer her timidity. She went up to him, and
put her hand softly on his shoulder.

“Papa,” she said, “I came to tell you that Valentine is better to-day.
Mamma has just had a letter----”

“I know he is better,” said Mr Pringle, with a sigh; and then he pointed
out to her the notice in the paper. “He is better; but there is more
behind--more than we know.”

Vi read the paragraph wondering. It did not affect her except with
surprise. “His mother?” she said; “I never knew----” and then she
bethought herself suddenly of all that had passed, and of that fatal
attack upon Valentine which had (no doubt) brought on his fever, and
which threatened to separate him from her for ever. “Oh, papa!” she
cried suddenly, with a flash from her eyes which seemed to scorch the
culprit like a gleam of angry yet harmless lightning; then she added,
looking at him fixedly, with indignant firmness: “But you are glad of
this? glad he is better? glad his mother is found, and that everything
will go well?”

Mr Pringle paused a moment looking at her. He was afraid to contradict
her. He answered hurriedly, half servilely: “Yes, yes--I’m glad;” then,
with a groan--“Vi, I am made a fool of. I am proved a poor, mean, paltry
liar; that was never what I meant to be. Perhaps I said more than was
right; but it was for justice, Vi--yes, it was for justice, though you
may not believe what I say.”

If you consider all that Violet had suffered, you will perceive how hard
it was for her all at once to look upon this question impartially, to
believe what her father said. She turned away her head from him in
natural resentment. Then her tender heart was touched by the tones of
wretchedness in his voice.

“Yes,” he said, getting up from his chair, “you may think it was all ill
feeling--and so many think; but it was for justice too. And now,
apparently, things are turning out as I never expected. I did not
believe in this woman, and God knows whether it may not be a cheat
still. But if this is true that they are bold enough to put in the
newspaper, then,” said Mr Pringle, with a groan, “I’m in the wrong, my
dear--I am in the wrong, and I don’t know what to do.”

He sank down again, leaning his head on the table, and hiding his face
in his hands. Vi’s heart melted altogether. She put her soft arm round
his neck, and bent down her head upon his. She did not feel the
bitterness of being in the wrong. It seemed to her innocent soul that
there was so easy a way to shake off that burden. She clasped her father
round the neck and whispered consolation. “Papa, dear! you have nothing
to do but to say this to them. Oh, what makes you think you don’t know
what to do? Say you were wrong, and that you are sorry! One is so
certain that this must be the right thing.”

He shook her away not unkindly but with a little impatience. “You don’t
know--you are too young to know,” he said.

“Papa, can there be any doubt?” said Violet, in the majesty of her
innocence. “When one has done wrong, one undoes it, one confesses that
it was wicked. What else? Is it not the first lesson one learns in
life?” said the girl, serene in perfect certainty, and sadly superior to
her age, in what she considered her experience of that existence of
which she already knew the sorrows. She stood over him as grave and
sweet as an angel, and spoke with entire and childlike confidence in her
abstract code. “We all may be wrong,” said Violet, “the best of us; but
when we find it out we must say so, and ask pardon of God and of those
whom we have wronged, papa. Is there any other way?”



CHAPTER XXXIX.


Of all the persons involved at this crisis, I think the most to be
sympathised with was honest Dick, who wrote the letter over which Mrs
Pringle pondered out of such a maze and confusion of feeling as seldom
arises without personal guilt in any mind. From his very first glimpse
of the new personage introduced into his little world--the stranger who
had suddenly appeared to him when he went to open his own door to Lady
Eskside, standing between him and her, anticipating and forestalling
him--a glimmering instinctive knowledge who this stranger was had
flashed into Dick’s mind. Already the reader is aware he had thought it
probable that Valentine’s father was also his own father, and had
endeavoured to account to himself for his mother’s strange behaviour on
this score. I cannot quite describe the feelings with which Dick, with
his tramp-traditions, regarded such a supposed father. What could “the
gentleman,” who had been his mother’s lover, be to him? Nothing, or less
than nothing--not “the author of his being,” as our pious grandfathers
used to say; but something much more like an enemy, a being half
malignant, half insulting, with whom he had nothing to do, and towards
whom his feelings, if not those of mere indifference, would be feelings
of repulsion and instinctive dislike. He felt no shame on his mother’s
account or his own; but for the other who had left that mother and
himself to take their chance in the woods or on the streets, he was
ashamed of his connection with him, and felt mortified and humbled by
the mere suggestion of his existence. So long as he kept out of the way,
Dick could refrain from thinking of this unknown parent; but the moment
he appeared, he woke a hundred lively emotions in the bosom of his son.
Dislike, annoyance, a sense of pride injured, and secret humiliation,
came to him at the first glance of Richard Ross. This was his feeling
before any hint of the real state of affairs had reached him. The old
lord had not made the disclosure that first day, but waited until the
crisis of Valentine’s fever was over. Then he called to Dick to go out
with him, and there, on the bank of that river which had witnessed all
the changes in his fortune, this last and most extraordinary change was
revealed to the bewildered young man. Dick’s mind was already excited by
the painful interval of suspense which had occurred; and when this
revelation was made to him, the confusion in his thoughts was
indescribable. That he was Valentine’s brother--not secretly and
guiltily, but in the eye of day--that the great house which he had
looked upon with so much awe and admiration was his home--that all the
accessories and all the realities of wealth and rank were his, actually
his--relatives, connections, leisure, money, luxury,--was more than he
could understand. He did not believe it at first. He thought the old
lord had gone mad, that he had been seized with some sudden frenzy, that
he had altogether misconceived the relationship between his son, the
gentleman whom Dick disliked and suspected of being his father, and the
poor lad who never had known what a father was. “I think I know what you
mean. I had got to suppose he was my father for some time,” said Dick,
bluntly, “but not in that way. You are mistaken, sir; surely you are
mistaken.”

“How could I be mistaken? are there more ways of being your father than
one?” said the old lord, half amused by the lad’s incredulity. Dick
shook his head; he was better informed than Lord Eskside, who was so
much his senior. He knew things which it was impossible the other could
know--but how was he to say them? It did not occur to him even now that
there was any relationship between the father of Richard Ross and
himself, even though he was prepared to believe that he himself was
Richard Ross’s son.

“I don’t understand you, any more than you understand me,” said Lord
Eskside, “and I don’t wonder that you’re confounded; but, nevertheless,
what I have told you is true. I am your grandfather, Dick. Ah, that
takes you by surprise? Now, why, I would like to know? since you believe
my son is your father, though ‘not in that way’----”

“My lord,” said Dick, “I beg your pardon; but there’s ways of being a
man’s son without being anything to his relations, and that’s what I am
thinking of. In my class we understand that such things are--though
perhaps they oughtn’t to be.”

“But, you gomeral, you belong to my class, and not to your own!” said
the old lord, feeling, with a mixture of pain and amusement and
impatience, his own ignorance before the superior and melancholy
knowledge of life possessed by this boy. “What must I say to convince
you? You are Valentine’s twin brother; do you not see what that means?
and can you suppose that anything in the world but a boy’s mother would
nurse Val as that woman is doing?--besides, he’s her living picture,”
said Lord Eskside, abruptly, and not without a grudge. He said it to
convince this boy, who was a genuine Ross, without dispute or doubt; but
even now it gave him a pang to acknowledge that his Val was like the
tramp-mother, and not like the noble race of which his father came.

Dick stopped short, and put out his hand blindly as if to save himself
from falling. This was a new view of the subject altogether. He could
understand the relationship through the father; but--his mother!
Valentine! What did it all mean? He caught his breath, and something
like a sob came from his breast “I can’t understand it--I can’t
understand it!” he cried, feeling choked as well as blinded; air failing
him, sight failing him, and the whole steady earth turning round and
round. When he recovered himself a little he turned to Lord Eskside, who
was watching him closely from under his shaggy eyebrows. “Don’t say
anything more, sir,” he cried with an effort which was almost piteous.
“Let me try to make it out--I can’t all at once.”

“Go home, my lad,” said the old lord, kindly patting him on the
shoulder, “and think it out at your leisure.”

“Thank you, sir--thank you,” cried Dick; and he turned back without
another word, and hurried to his little bedroom, which was next door to
the one in which Valentine lay. Ought he to have been overwhelmed with
delight and joy? Instead of being a nobody, Dick Brown, Styles’s
head-man, he was Richard Ross, Lord Eskside’s grandson, a person of
importance, the son of a future baron; superior to all his old
surroundings, even to most of his old patrons. But Dick was not glad at
first, not even when he had fully realised this wonderful news, and
allowed to himself that, Lord Eskside having told it, it must be true.
He had found a family, a name, a position in the world; but he seemed to
have lost himself. He sat down on his bed in the small room which he had
himself furnished with a hundred little graces and conveniences, and of
which a week ago he had been proud, and covered his face with his hands.
But for his manhood, he could have sobbed over this extraordinary break
and stop in his life; and at the first he was no more able to reconcile
himself to being Dick Brown no longer, than Mr Richard Ross would have
been able to reconcile himself to descending into the place of Styles’s
head-man! The change was as great one way as another; indeed I think the
higher might have been better able to come down than the lower, who did
not understand how he was to mount up, and in whose modest, simple soul
there rose on the moment impulses of pride he had never been conscious
of possessing. Here, in his natural sphere, he was respected, thought
well of, and everybody was aware how well he fulfilled his duties,
bearing himself like a man, whatever he had to do. But this new world
was all dark to him, a place in which he would have no guidance of
experience, in which he would be judged according to another standard,
and looked down upon. I do not mean to paint Dick as a perfect being,
and this sense of natural pride, this personal humiliation in his social
rise, gave him a pang which was at least as respectable as other pangs
of pride. He did not know how long he sat there pondering blankly,
forecasting with sombre thoughts an unknown future. He had lost himself,
whom he knew, and he could not tell how the new self whom he did not
know would be able to harmonise his life. He was still sitting there,
with his hands over his eyes, when a faint sound in the room roused him,
and, looking up, he saw his mother, who had entered softly, and now
stood looking at him. He returned her look seriously for a moment before
he spoke.

“Mother, is this true?”

“Yes,” she said, clasping her hands as if she would have wrung them.
“Yes, boy, yes; it’s true. I gave up the one, because I thought he had a
right to one; and I kept you, Dick. I was your mother that bore you, and
sure I had a right to you.”

“Just a word more, mother,” said Dick, softly, “not to vex you: the
little chap that died--was it _him_?--the one that you said died?”

“He died to me,” she cried--“to me and to you. I never, never thought to
set eyes on him again. I gave him up, free. Dick, that night on the
river, when you helped him with his boat----”

“Yes, mother?”

“I should ha’ gone away then. I should have taken you off, my boy, and
never let you know him; but it got into my head like wine,” she cried;
“the sight of him, Dick, so handsome and so kind! and to think he was
my lad, mine, all the same as you. And he’d look at me in such a way,
wondering like, as nobody but him ever looked--as if he wanted to ask,
who are you? who are you?--what are you to me? Many and many a day I’ve
caught his eye; and nobody but me knew why the lad looked like that--him
least of all--only me. It got into my head, Dick, watching him. I
couldn’t go. And then to see you two together that were never meant to
be together all your lives!”

“You mean, mother, that were born never to be separate?” said Dick.

“Yes, lad, yes; that is what I mean,” she cried, dropping into a chair,
and covering her face with her apron. For a moment there was that in
Dick’s heart which kept him from speaking, from trying to comfort her.
The best of us now and then must think of ourselves. Dick was too much
confused in mind to blame his mother, but it gleamed across him, among
so many other thoughts--if it was to be that he was not Dick Brown, how
much better it would have been that he had never been Dick Brown; this
is a confused sentence, but it was thus that the thought passed through
his mind. The loss of himself, and even of “the little chap that died,”
pained him--and this loss was for no reason, it seemed--for how much
better would it have been had he always known the truth! This kept him
for a moment from saying anything to her--but only for a moment; then he
rose and went to his mother, laying his hand on her shoulder--

“It’s all very confusing, mother,” he said; “but it’s best you did not
go away. I’ve got most of my happiness in life from knowing--him. The
pity is you ever did go away, mother dear; but never mind; anyhow,
though all the rest is changed, there’s nothing changed between you and
me.”

“Oh, my lad!” she cried, “they’ll take you from me--they’ll take you
both from me, Dick.”

“They can’t do that,” he said with a smile, soothing her; “you forget
we’re _men_, mother. Take heart. So he’s the little chap that died? I
always thought there was something about him different from all the
other gentlemen,” said Dick, melting. “The first time I set eyes on him,
I fancied him--and he me,” he added after a little pause, the moisture
creeping to his eyes; “which was more strange; for what was I that he
should take notice of me? The first time he saw you, mother, he was so
struck he could scarcely speak; and said, Why didn’t I tell him you were
a lady----”

“Me!” she cried, looking up; “me--a lady----”

“That was what he said--he knew better than the like of us,” said Dick.
Then, after a pause, the good fellow added, with self-abnegation like
that of old Lord Eskside, for he did not like to acknowledge this any
more than his grandfather did; “and they say he’s your living picture,
mother--and it’s true.”

“Oh, Dick! oh, my boy, my Val, that I’ve carried in my arms and nursed
at my breast!--but he’ll never know his mother. Come, Dick, come, as
long as we’ve the strength. We’ll go away, lad, you and me----”

“Where, mother?”

“Out, out, anywhere--to the road. It’s there I belong, and not in
houses. Before they take you both from me--Dick, Dick, come!--we’ll go
away, you and me.”

She started up as she spoke and caught at his arm--but, giddy and weak
with long watching and the fatigue, which in her excitement she had not
felt, dropped heavily against him, and would have fallen had he not
caught her. “It’s nothing; it’s a dizziness,” she murmured. “I’ll rest a
moment, and then we’ll go.”

Dick laid her tenderly upon his bed. “You’re overdone, mother dear,” he
said; “and this house is mine whatever happens, and you’re the queen in
it, to do what you please. When you’re rested, we’ll think what to do.
Besides, he may want us yet,” he added, forcing a smile; “he is not out
of the wood yet that we should run away from him. Mother, though he’s
my--brother, as you all say, I don’t seem to know his name.”

The mother, lying down on her son’s bed, with Dick’s kind face bending
over her, gave way to a soft outburst of tears. “He is Val,” she said.
“Dick and Val--Dick and Val. Oh, how often I’ve said them over!--and one
to him and one to me. That was just; I always knew that was just!” she
cried.

It seemed to Dick when he went out of the room, leaving her behind him
to rest, that years had passed over him since he took refuge there.
Already this strange disclosure was an old thing of which there could be
no doubt. Already he was as certain that he was no longer Dick Brown of
Styles’s, as he was of his existence--and would have been sharply
surprised, I think, had any one called him by that name: and as a
consequence of this certainty he had ceased to consider the change in
himself. Something else more interesting, more alarming, lay before
him--a new world, a family of which he knew nothing, a father whom he
disliked to think of. Even Val, whom he knew, would be changed to him.
He had felt for him as a brother before he knew; would he be a brother
now? or would the very bond of duty, the right Dick had to his
affection, quench that warm sweet fountain of boyish kindness which had
risen so spontaneously, and brightened the young wanderer’s life? Then
there was his mother to think of among all these strange unknown people.
He had understood very imperfectly the story Lord Eskside had told him;
and now he came to think of it, why was it that she, so young as she
must have been, had fled from her husband? What reason could she have
had for it, unless her husband treated her unkindly? This idea roused
all the temper (there was not much) in Dick’s honest nature. No one
should treat her unkindly now, or look down upon her, or scorn her
lowliness! With a swelling heart Dick made this vow to himself. He would
have to defend her, to protect her honour, and credit, and independence;
and then, on the other hand, he would have to stand against herself, her
wild impulse of flight, her impatience of control. Already he felt that,
though it was but an hour or two since he had been Dick Brown, he could
never be Dick Brown again; and though he would not have his mother
crossed or troubled, still she must not, if he could help it, fly and
turn everything into chaos any more.

Care thus rose upon Dick on every side as he forecasted his new life;
but it had to be faced, and he did so with steady valour. He went softly
to the door of the sick-room and looked in to see if anything was
wanted. Val, very weak and spent, but conscious, and noting what went on
with eager curiosity, saw him, and, smiling faintly, beckoned to him
with his hand. Lady Eskside was seated in the place so long occupied by
his other nurse, bending fondly over her boy. She said, “Come in,” but
with a half-jealous, half-fretful tone. She thought it was the mother,
and the old lady was jealous, though she would not have willingly
betrayed it, longing just for one hour to have her boy to herself. Val
held out his thin hand, and said, “Brown, old fellow! how pleasant it
is to see you again!” “I am glad you are better,” said Dick, feeling
cold and hard as the nether millstone. It was not Val who had changed,
but himself. Then he went out of the room with a sensation of meanness
and misery, and going down-stairs, wrote that letter in which, for the
first time, he called his brother by his name. In the midst of this a
sudden softening came to him. He put down his pen, and his dry eyes grew
moist, and an infinite sweetness stole into his heart. Now he should see
her again, speak to her perhaps, be a friend of hers. He finished his
letter hastily, but how could he sign it? What name had he but his
Christian name? He could not put a false name to her; so he ended his
letter hastily, and went out to post it, as he always did, himself. And
then another thing happened to him, a new step in his career.

In the little dark passage at the foot of the stairs, he met Richard
face to face: they had scarcely met before, but they could not pass each
other now that they knew each other, and each knew that the other knew.
It was a strange meeting to be the first between a father and son, but
yet there was a kind of advantage in getting it over, which Richard was
quick to perceive. In his heart he was little less embarrassed than his
son was; but he was a man of the world, and knew how to behave in an
emergency with that ease of speech, which looks half miraculous to the
inexperienced. He held out his hand to his son at first without saying
anything, and poor Dick felt in spite of himself the strangest thrill of
unexpected feeling when he put out with hesitation his hard workman’s
hand into that white and soft yet vigorous clasp. Then Richard spoke:

“My father has told you what we are to each other,” he said. “My boy, I
do not blame your mother; but it is not my fault that I see you now for
the first time. But I know you a little--through Val, your brother: who
found you by instinct, I suppose, after we had all searched for you in
vain.”

Dick’s countenance was all aglow with the conflict of feeling in him;
his voice laboured in his throat with words that would not come. The
contrast between his own difficulty of speech and the ease of the other
unmanned him altogether. “I--I have known--him--a long time,” was all he
could stammer forth.

“Thank heaven for that!” said Richard, with a gleam of real pleasure;
and with another pressure of his hand he let his new son go. Dick went
out to post his letter strangely excited but subdued. What it was to be
a gentleman, he thought! and this was his father, _his_ father! A new
pride unknown to him before came into existence within him, a glimmer
which lighted up that dim landscape. After all, the new world, though it
was so strangely mysterious and uncertain, was it not more splendid,
more beautiful to the imagination, than the old world could ever have
been?

Val made slow but sure progress towards recovery, and the family lived a
strange life in attendance upon him, occupying Dick’s little parlour all
day, and returning to the hotel for the night. The intercourse between
them was of a peculiar character. Dick, watching intently, jealous for
his mother, soon perceived that she was of much more importance to the
others than he thought possible, and had his fears appeased. He watched
her almost as if she had been his young sister, and Richard Ross her
lover, eager to note if they met, and when and how; but, as it happened,
they scarcely met at all, she keeping to the sick-room above, he to the
parlour below. As for Dick himself he became Val’s slave, lifting him
when he was first moved, helping him continually, indispensable to his
invalid existence. He called for “Brown” when he woke in the morning,
and ordered him about with an affectionate imperiousness which was at
once provoking and delightful to Dick. But Val was much more mysterious
in the looks with which he regarded “Brown’s mother.” He did not talk to
her much, but watched her movements about the room with a
half-reverential admiration. “She will wear herself out. She is too good
to me; you ought to make her go and rest,” he said to Dick; but he was
uneasy when she left him, and impatient of any other nursing. He
half-frightened half-shocked Lady Eskside by his admiration of her. “How
handsome she is, grandmamma!” he whispered in the old lady’s ear. “How
she carries herself! Where could Brown’s mother get such a way of
walking? I think she must have been a princess.” “Hush, my darling,
hush!” said my lady. “Nonsense! I am all right; I don’t mean to hush any
more,” said Val. “I think she is handsomer than any one I ever saw.”
This Lady Eskside put up with, magnanimously making up her mind that
nature spoke in the boy’s foolish words; but it was hard upon her when
her old lord began to blow trumpets in honour of Dick, who took walks
with him when he could be spared from Valentine, and whom in his
enthusiasm he would almost compare advantageously with Val! It was true,
that it was she herself who had first pressed Dick’s claims upon him;
but with Val just getting better, and doubly dear from that fact, who
could venture to compare him with any one? She liked Dick--but Lord
Eskside was “just infatuated” about him, my lady thought. “He reminds me
of my father,” said the old lord. Now this father was the tenth
lord--him of the dark locks, by means of whom she had always attempted
to account for Valentine’s brown curls, and whose portrait her son
Richard disrespectfully called a Raeburn. She gave a little gulp of
self-control when she heard these words. “Make no comparisons!” she
cried, “or you’ll make me like the new boy less, because I love the old
one more. To me there will never be any one in the world like my Val.”
Lord Eskside shrugged his old shoulders, and went out for another walk
with Dick.

At last the day arrived when Valentine was pronounced well enough to
have the great disclosure made to him. For two or three days in
succession he had been brought down-stairs and had enjoyed the sight of
the old world he knew so well, the river and the trees seen from the
window, and the change--with all the delight of convalescence. And
wonderfully sweet, and imperious, and seductive he was to them all, in
that moment while still he did not know, holding his _levée_ like a
sovereign, not enduring any absence. On that important morning when the
secret was to be disclosed to him, he noted with his usual imperious
friendliness the absence of “Brown’s mother” from the group that
gathered round him, and sent Dick off for her at once. “Unless she is
resting she must come. Ask her to come; why should she be left out?”
said Val, in his ignorance; which made the others look at each other
with wondering eyes. She came in at Dick’s call, and seated herself
behind backs. She had put off her nursing dress, and wore the black gown
and white net kerchief on her fine head, which added so much to the
impressive character of her beauty. Amid all these well-born people
there was no face in itself so striking and noble. The Rosses were all
quite ordinary, except Val, who had taken his dark beauty from her. She,
poor ignorant creature, made up of impulses, without a shadow of wisdom
or even good sense about her, looked like a dethroned queen among them:
which shows, after all, how little looks matter--an argument which would
be very powerful if it were not so utterly vain.

“Val,” said Lord Eskside, who was the spokesman, as became his position,
“I hope you are getting back your strength fast. The doctor tells us we
may now make a disclosure to you which is very important. I do not know
how you will take it, my boy; but it is so great, and of so much
consequence, that I cannot keep it from you longer. Val----”

“Is it something about Violet?” said Valentine, the little colour there
was paling out of his face.

“About--whom?”

“About Violet,” he repeated, with a stronger voice. “Listen, sir; let me
speak first;” and with the sudden flush of delicate yet deep colour
which showed his weakness, Val raised his head from the sofa, and swung
his feeble limbs, which looked so preternaturally long, to the ground.
“I have not said anything about her while I have been ill, but it is not
because I forgot. Grandfather, Violet and I made up our minds to marry
each other before that confounded election. If her father did write that
letter, it’s not her fault; and I can’t go on, sir, now I’ve come to
myself, not another day, without letting you know that nothing, nothing
in the world can make me change to Vi!”

There was a pause of astonishment so great that no one knew what to say:
this sudden introduction of a subject altogether new and unsuspected
bewildered the others, whose minds were all intent on one thing. Val was
as one-idea’d as they were; but his idea was not their idea; and the
shock of the encounter jarred upon them, so curiously sudden and out of
place it seemed. Lady Eskside, who sat close by him, and to whom this
was no revelation, was more jarred even than the rest. She put her fine
old ivory hand on his arm, with an impatient grasp. “This is not the
question--this is not the question,” she said.

Val looked round upon them all, and saw something in their looks which
startled him too. He put back his legs upon the sofa, and the flush
gradually went off his cheek. “Well,” he said, “well; whatever it is I
am ready to hear it--so long as I make sure that you’ve heard me
first.”

“Valentine,” said his father, “at your age some such piece of
foolishness always comes first; but this time you have got to see the
obverse of the medal--the other end of all this enthusiasm. It is my
story, not your own, that you have to think of. Kind friends of course
have told you----”

“Richard,” said Lord Eskside, “this is not the way to enter upon a
subject so important. Let me speak. He knows my way best.”

Richard turned away with a short laugh--not of amusement indeed, but
full of that irritated sense of incongruity which gives to anger a kind
of fierce amusement of its own. Lord Eskside cleared his throat--he
preferred to have the matter in his own hands.

“Friends have told you little,” he said; “but an enemy, Val, the enemy
whose daughter you have just told us you want to marry--but that’s
neither here nor there--let you know the story. Your father there,
Richard Ross, my son, married when he was young and foolish, like you.
It was not an equal marriage, and the--lady--took some false notion into
her head, I know not what, and left him--taking her two babies with her,
as you have heard. These two babies,” said the old lord, once more
clearing his throat, “were your brother and you--so much as this you
know.”

Here he stopped to take breath; he was gradually growing excited and
breathless in spite of himself.

“We could not find you, though we did our best. We spared no trouble,
either before you were brought home or after. Now, my boy, think a
little. It is a very strange position. You have a brother somewhere in
the world--the same flesh and blood, but not like you; a mother----” He
instinctively glanced at the woman who sat behind backs, like a marble
statue, immovable. The crisis became too painful to them all. There was
a stir of excitement when Lord Eskside came to this pause. His wife put
her hand on his, grasping it almost angrily in the heat of suspense.
Richard Ross began to pace about the room with restless passion.

“Go on, oh, go on!” cried my lady, with a querulous quiver in her voice.
I am not sure that the old lord, though so much excited himself, had not
a certain pleasure in thus holding them all hanging on his breath.

“In good time--in good time,” he said. “Valentine, it may be a shock to
you to find out these relations: it cannot be but a great surprise. You
are not prepared for it--your mind is full of other things----”

“For God’s sake, sir,” cried Richard, “do not drive us all mad!
Valentine, make up your mind for what you have to hear. Your mother is
found----”

“And your brother,” cried Lady Eskside, rushing in unconsciously as the
excitement grew to a crisis. “Your brother, too! Oh, my boy, bear up!”

Dick had been standing by, listening with I know not what fire in his
heart: he could bear it no longer. The shock and suspense, which were as
great to him as to Valentine, had not been broken in his case by any
precautions; and it hurt his pride bitterly, on his mother’s account as
well as his own, that the knowledge of them should be supposed such a
terrible blow to Val. He stepped forth into the middle of the room (his
own room, in which they made so little of him), his honest face glowing,
his fair, good-humoured brows bent, almost for the first time in his
life,--

“Look here,” he said, hoarsely; “there is more than him to be thought
of. If it’s hard upon him, he’s a man, and he’ll bear it like a man. Mr
Ross, look here. I’m Dick Brown, sir, your humble servant; I’m the lad
you made a man of, from the time we were boys till now. You’ve done for
me as the Bible says one brother should do for another,” said Dick, the
tears suddenly starting into his eyes, and softening his voice, “without
knowing; and now they say we’re brothers in earnest. Perhaps you’ll
think it’s poor news; as for me, I don’t mind which it is--your brother
or your servant,” said Dick, his eyes shining, holding out both his
hands; “one way or other, I couldn’t think more of you than I do now.”

Valentine had been lying motionless on his sofa, looking from one to
another with large and wondering eyes. It is needless to say that amid
so many different narrators he had already divined, even before Dick
spoke, the solution of this mystery; and it had given him sufficient
shock to drive the blood back wildly to his heart. But he had time to
_prendre son parti_, and he was too much of a man not to bear it like a
man, as Dick said. When his new brother held out his hands, a sudden
suffusion of colour came to Val’s face, and a smile almost of infantile
sweetness and weakness. He took Dick’s hands and pulled himself up by
them, grasping them with an eager pressure; then changing, in his
weakness, took Dick’s arm, upon which he leant so heavily that the
young man’s whole heart was moved. Familiar tenderness, old brotherhood,
and that depth of absolute trust which no untried affection can possess,
were all involved in the heavy pressure with which Val leant on Dick’s
arm; but he did not say anything to him. His eyes went past Dick to the
other side of the room, whither he walked feebly, leaning on his
brother’s arm. When they came in front of their mother the two young men
stopped. With her old abstracted gaze modified by an indescribable
mixture of terror and longing, she turned to them, pushing back her
chair unconsciously, almost retreating as they approached. Val could not
speak all at once. He looked at her eagerly, tenderly. “Is it true?” he
said; “are you my--mother?” The words were spoken slowly one by one, and
seemed to tingle through the air _staccato_, like notes of music. All
the others turned towards this central scene. Lady Eskside sat leaning
forward in her chair, crying to herself, her streaming eyes fixed upon
them. The old lord walked to the window, and, turning his back, looked
out fiercely from under his shaggy eyebrows. Dick, supporting his
brother on his arm, stood very erect and firm, while Val wavered and
swayed about in his weakness. One great tear ran slowly down Dick’s
cheek. They were all spectators of what was about to happen between
these two.

The mother stood out as long as she could, holding herself back,
labouring to restrain herself. Then all at once her powers failed her.
She started to her feet with a great cry, and throwing her arms round
them both, pressed them together in a passionate embrace, kissing first
one and then the other, wildly. “My two lads!” she cried; “my two
babies!--my children--my own children! Only for once,--only for this one
time!”

“Mother!” cried Val, faintly, dropping on the floor in his weakness, and
drawing her into her seat. And there he lay for another moment, his head
upon her breast, his arms round her. Her face was like the face of a
saint in ecstasy. She pressed his dark curls against her bosom and
kissed them, lifting the heavy locks up one by one--her eyes brimming
with great tears which did not fall--saying again and again, under her
breath, “For once--only for this once!” while Dick stood over them,
sobbing, guarding them, as it seemed, from all other contact. I do not
know how many seconds of vulgar time this lasted. It was, and it was
over. Suddenly she raised Valentine from her lap, and loosened his arms.
“Dick, put him back upon the sofa; he’s overdone,” she said, putting him
into his brother’s charge. She stood perfectly still, her hands clasped
in nervous self-restraint, looking after the two for a moment; watching
till her patient was laid at ease upon his couch. Then she turned
suddenly, subdued and still, to Richard, who had been looking on like
the rest--“Now I’m ready,” she said, very low. “I’ll go where you
please. There is one for you and one for me. I will never go back of my
word to do you a wrong. It’s good of you to let me kiss my lad once,
only once! And now I’ll trouble him and you no more.”

“Myra!” said Richard, coming forward to her. She had risen up, and stood
like a stately wild creature, ready for flight. He took her hand in
spite of her resistance, and I cannot describe the strange emotion,
sympathy, almost tenderness, and hot provocation in Richard’s face. He
was more touched at heart than he had been for years, and he was more
angry and provoked at the same time. “Myra,” he said, “can you think of
nothing but your children? Have you forgotten that you are my wife, and
that I have some claim upon you too?”

She stood silent, holding back: then lifting her eyes looked at him
pathetically. I think a faint sense of duty had begun to dawn in her
mind; and her look was pathetic, because she knew of no response to make
to him. She had no desire to humiliate her husband by her
indifference--such a thought was far beyond her; but there was no reply
to him in her mind. Perhaps he perceived this, and made a sudden effort
to save his pride by appearing to ignore her silence. He drew her hand
suddenly and impatiently within his arm, and led her forward to his
mother’s side--“Myra,” he said quickly, “it is of the first importance
for your children--for Val and Dick whom you love--and especially for
Val, the eldest, that you should remain with us, and go away no more.”

Lady Eskside rose to receive her; they had met by Val’s bedside many
times before, but the old lady had feared to say anything to alarm the
worn-out watcher. She rose now, looking at her with wistful anxiety,
holding out her hands. My lady’s eyes were still full of tears, and her
fair old face tremulous with emotion and sympathy. She took into her
own the wanderer’s reluctant hands--“Oh,” she said, anxiously, “listen
to what Richard says to you, my dear! You will get to know us by-and-by,
and find out that we are your friends--my old lord and me; but your boys
you love with all your heart already. Myra, listen! It is of the
greatest importance to your children that you should stay with us and
never leave us more--and, above all, for the eldest--above all, my dear,
for Val.”

She gave one half-frightened glance round as if to see whether there was
any escape for her. Then she said, very low--“I will do whatever you
please--but it is Dick who is the eldest, not Val.”

“What!” they all cried, pressing round her--all but Val, who lay still
on his sofa, and Dick, who stood over him; the two young men did not
even notice what was going on. But Lord Eskside came from the window in
one stride, and Richard grasped her arm in sudden terror: “What is
that?--what is that she says?” cried the old lord.

“God bless _my_ lads!” she said, gaining possession of herself, looking
at the two with a smile on her face. She was calm, as utter ignorance,
utter foolishness could be; then she added, with a soft sigh, of
something that looked like happiness in her ignorant composure--“But it
is Dick who is the eldest, and not Val.”



CHAPTER XL.


It was the beginning of May when the party went home, and everything was
green on Eskside. Were I to describe all that happened before they left
Oxford, so strange a family group as they were--the old Lady Eskside
with the tramp-woman, the high-bred Secretary of Legation, along with
Styles’s head man--and how they managed to exist together, the lion with
the lamb--I should require a volume. But this would weary the reader,
who can easily imagine for himself that any happiness which might be
produced by this reunion of the divided family was counterbalanced by
many circumstances which were not happy. The grandparents, I think,
would have been really happy in the removal of all mystery from their
family story, the complete establishment of the rights and heirship of
their beloved Val, and the winning qualities of Dick, but for the sudden
chaos into which they were replunged by the mother’s calm declaration of
Dick’s seniority. Its effect upon them was indescribable. Richard, with
his diplomatic instincts, seeing that his sons had not paid any
attention to, or even heard, this extraordinary statement, hushed it up
with an impetuous and peremptory promptitude which took even his father
and mother by surprise, and silenced them. “Not another word,” he
whispered to them; “not a word! the boys have heard nothing; for the
present let nothing more be said;” and the old couple, in the suddenness
of this strange juncture, let themselves be overruled, and left the
guidance in his hands. As for the mother herself, she attached no weight
to the circumstance. She was too ignorant to know, and too much
abstracted in her mind to think, that it made any difference which was
the eldest. She had not kept Dick for that reason, nor had she left Val
at Rosscraig with any intention of avenging herself upon the family by
thus substituting the youngest for the just heir, which was the first
thought that crossed Lady Eskside’s mind. No; she had been guided by
mere chance, as we say, snatching up the one boy instead of the other in
her despair, for the most trivial reason, as the reader may recollect.
And even now it did not occur to her that what she had said was of any
consequence, though she saw it affected the others in some
incomprehensible way. Her mind had no capacity for entering upon such a
question. She was far more deeply moved by the chance that Valentine
might be tired out--more solicitous to know whether it was time for his
beef-tea. Richard kept his parents quiet until Val had gone to bed, and
Dick to sit by him and read to him, when the three had an anxious
consultation; and the packet of papers which Richard had brought from
Italy, and which up to this moment had remained unopened, was examined,
and found to confirm, with frightful accuracy, the statements of the
mother. There it was incontestable, Dick was set down as the eldest,
notwithstanding the impression upon Richard’s mind which, on Val’s first
appearance, had led to the mistake.

This confirmation subdued them all into a kind of despair. Lord and Lady
Eskside, both at different times, had received Dick into their
affections, as they thought, and acknowledged, with a certain pride, his
natural worthiness. But when it appeared possible that this new and
unknown boy (though they liked him) might put himself in the place of
their Valentine--the child of their old age, the light of their
eyes--their hearts sank within them. All their satisfaction and
enthusiasm was chilled, nay, frozen; they sat and looked at each other
blankly, their gladness turned into dire disappointment and heaviness.
Then it was that Richard urged upon them the necessity of silence. “Let
us take time to think,” he said; “time is everything. Val, it is clear,
can bear no further excitement; it might be fatal to him; nor can it be
good for the other boy. He is an honest, kind fellow; but how can we
tell if his head is strong enough to bear such a change of fortune? Let
him get used to the part of younger brother first. For heaven’s sake,
let us hold our tongues, and say nothing more about it now.”

Lord Eskside shook his head; but my lady seconded her son, alarmed at
the idea he had skilfully brought forward of danger to Val. “Yes, he is
a good honest fellow,” they both said, but with an involuntary grudge
against Dick, as if it could be his fault; and the papers were put up
carefully in Lord Eskside’s despatch-box, and the news still more
closely locked in the bosoms of the three who knew the secret. But it is
astonishing how their knowledge of this took all heart out of their
conscientious effort to adapt themselves to the new state of things.
Valentine, whatever his internal difficulties were, accepted the
position much more easily. His illness softened it to him, and had
already produced that familiar intercourse with his mother and brother,
which the mere discovery that they were his mother and brother could not
have brought about; and the happiness of convalescence which glorified
all the circumstances about him, made it still more easy. He lived a
life of delightful idleness, feeling nothing but benevolence and
kindness for every created thing, how much more for his tender nurses
and companions?--getting well, eating and sleeping, and loving idle
talk, and to have all his people about him. He was so much a child in
this, that even his father, whom Val had never been familiar with, came
in for a share of his sociable affectionate desire to be always
surrounded by the group of those who belonged to him. He called for
everybody, with that regal power which is never possessed in such
perfection as by an invalid, to whom all who love him are bound by a
hundred ties of gratitude and admiration for having been so good and so
clever as to get well. He could not bear a look too serious, a clouded
face, and was himself as cheerful as the day, enjoying everything. Dick,
I need not say, had told him of that meeting with Violet, and of his
letters to her, and by this means Val had got up a spring of private
delight for himself--carrying on a limited but charming correspondence,
which, indeed, was all on one side, but which still gave him infinite
pleasure. “Keep up the Brown delusion, Dick,” he said, with infinite
relish of the fun, “till we go home; and then we’ll tell her. What a
joke, to be sure, that you should ever have been Brown!” And indeed this
was already the aspect the past had taken to both the young men; and it
was the strangest absurd thing, scarcely comprehensible, how they could
ever have believed it. The two had no share in the perturbation of their
elders. Good Dick was, as he had said, more the servant of that young
demigod and hero than if he had not been his brother. He did everything
for him--read to him, talked to him, brought him the news, and lived
over again every day of their intercourse since that day when they first
“took a liking to each other.” How strange it all seemed--how
extraordinary, and yet how natural--in face of this broad and obvious
explanation, which made everything plain!

I need not say that it was also the idea of Richard Ross to put into the
Edinburgh paper that cunning intimation that the young member for
Eskshire had been taken ill at the house of his mother, the Hon. Mrs
Richard Ross, at Oxford. Scarcely a soul who read that intimation ever
thought of anything but the luxurious and dignified dwelling which an
Hon. Mrs Ross would ordinarily inhabit; and the people who knew Oxford
tried hard to recollect whether they had ever met her, and where her
house was. The county in general was much perplexed and much affected by
this notice. It seemed impossible to believe that there was any specious
falsehood in so matter-of-fact a paragraph. “The old stories must all be
false,” one said to another; “Richard’s wife has been living separate
from her husband, that is all.” “But no one ever heard who she was,” the
doubting ones said; though even the greatest sceptic added, “I will ask
my son if he has ever met her in society.” Thus Richard’s diplomacy had
full success. He followed it up by other delicate touches, bulletins of
Valentine’s recovery, and tantalising hints such as only local gossip
can permit, and which were reserved for the pages of the ‘Castleton
Herald’--of the happy domestic _rapprochements_ which the Editor was
delighted to hear Mr Ross’s illness, otherwise so regrettable, was
likely to bring about. All this made a great commotion in the district.
You may think it was beneath the dignity of a man of Richard Ross’s
pretensions to descend to such means of breaking to the public a great
family event, which might otherwise have been differently interpreted;
but your great man, and especially your _diplomate_ and courtier, is
always the one most disposed to make use of flunkeyism and the popular
love of gossip. It is a sign, perhaps, of the cynical disregard of this
elevated class of mortals for ordinary people; anyhow, they rarely
hesitate to avail themselves of means which would wound the pride of
many less exalted persons. Life, like dreams (to which, heaven knows, it
bears in all matters so close a resemblance), goes by contraries. What
the poor and simple scorn, the rich and wise employ.

The Eskshire people, however, were destined to yet another sensation
more startling than this. It was in the nature of a recantation, and few
recantations have excited more local interest. I will not attempt to
describe all the motives and influences which were supposed to have
brought it about--for the reader is better informed, and knows that it
was brought about very simply, as perhaps some of his own good deeds
are, by the intervention and pertinacity of a slim girl with a soft
voice and a pair of pleading eyes. Nobody on Eskside knew that Violet,
at the point of the sword as it were, had extracted an apology from her
father. It appeared on the walls in the shape of a placard, about the
middle of April, and was sent by post to all the influential persons in
the district. Lasswade was white with it, every bit of fence possessing
the paper. It was addressed, like another notable letter, to the
Electors of Eskshire; but it was much shorter than the former one. What
it said was as follows:--

     “GENTLEMEN,--It will be within the recollection of all of you that,
     a few months ago, I thought it my duty to address to you a letter
     concerning the standing and pretensions of Mr Valentine Ross, now
     Conservative member for this county. It seemed right that you
     should take into consideration what then appeared to me the very
     doubtful proofs of Mr Ross’s identity. I am strongly opposed to him
     and his family in politics; and I confess I thought it my duty to
     indicate to you in the distinctest manner how poorly supported by
     fact were his claims to your confidence. I am a Whig, and Mr Ross
     is a Tory, and I do not pretend to be above the ordinary tactics of
     electioneering, which have been pushed to further lengths than were
     possible to me, by men of much higher worldly pretensions than
     myself. But whether as Whig or as Tory, I hope it will always be an
     Englishman’s highest boast to be an honest man; and circumstances
     have convinced me that it is my duty to convey to my brother
     electors an Apology for statements which I formerly made to them
     under the influence of a mistake, and which I now find are less
     certain than I then thought them. It is no disgrace to any man to
     have fallen into a mistake, if, when he discovers it, he takes
     pains to undo any mischief it may have produced.

     “With this preface I will simply say, that though it is quite true,
     as I stated, that Mr Valentine Ross appeared at his grandfather’s
     house in a very strange and suspicious way, the inference I drew
     from that is, I have reason to believe, incorrect. It does not
     become me to enter into the private history of a family so well
     known in this county; but I believe steps will shortly be taken to
     remove all possibility of doubt upon the subject; and I can only
     say that I for one am now convinced that our new member has the
     fullest right to the name he bears. These important facts have only
     come to my knowledge within the last fortnight; and I consider it
     my duty, putting aside all false pride, which so often hinders a
     man from acknowledging a mistake publicly made, at once to
     communicate this discovery to the electors of Eskshire. I am as far
     from agreeing with Mr Ross and his family politically as I ever
     was; but I cannot continue to do a social injury to any man after I
     have found out that my impression was a mistaken one. If I have
     conveyed a prejudice against Mr Valentine Ross to the mind of any
     brother elector, I can only add that I am unfeignedly sorry for it.

                                                  “AN ESKSIDE ELECTOR.”

This was the first thing that met the eyes of the travelling party
when--duly heralded by the Castleton paper, which in its last issue had
announced the approaching return of “Lord and Lady Eskside, the Hon.
Richard and Mrs Ross, Mr Valentine Ross, M.P. for Eskshire, and Mr
Richard Ross the younger”--they arrived at Lasswade. The old lord
himself was the first to read it when they got out at the little railway
station on the new branch line, which, as everybody knows, is still a
mile or two distant from the village. There were two carriages
waiting--the great barouche, which was Lady Eskside’s favourite, and a
vehicle of the genus dog-cart for “the boys;” and the usual little
commotion which always attends an arrival left a few minutes to spare
while the carriage drew up. Lord Eskside came and took his old wife by
the arm, and led her to the place where this address, blazoned in great
letters, “To the Electors of Eskshire,” held a prominent position. “Is
it something new?” she asked with a sickness at her heart; “oh, don’t
let Val see it!” When she had read it, however, the old pair looked at
each other and laughed with tremulous enjoyment. I am afraid it did not
occur to them to look at this as a high-minded atonement, or to see any
generosity in the confession. “Sandy Pringle is worsted at last,” the
old lord said, with a gleam of light from under his eyebrows. But the
exhilaration of unquestionable victory filled their hearts, and made
them forget for the moment the other drawbacks which attended their
return.

With this sense of having beaten their adversary strong in their minds,
they no longer hesitated to drive home through Lasswade, which they had
not intended to do; where they had a most flattering reception. What
with the curiosity excited by this probable _éclaircissement_ of a
romantic story and the eagerness of everybody to see Richard Ross’s
wife, and the new excitement produced by that placard on the
walls--which most people, I fear, received as Lord Eskside received
it--every one was agog. It was not a formal entrance with triumphal
arches, &c., for this is not a kind of demonstration very congenial to
the natural independence of the Lowland Scotch mind, which is much
disposed to be friendly towards its great neighbours, but very little
disposed to feudal notions of the respect due to a superior. Willie
Maitland, it is true, had once thought of suggesting something of the
sort, but he had fortunately forborne; and accordingly, though there
was an absence of flags and decorations, a very warm spontaneous welcome
was given to the travellers. They stopped at the door of the Bull, and
the carriage was instantly surrounded by a genial crowd, attracted, it
is true, quite as much by a desire for information, as by a wish to do
honour to Lord Eskside’s family; and there, sure enough, by my lady’s
side sat the unknown Mrs Ross, looking out with large eyes, in which a
certain terror and wonder combated the look of abstraction which was
habitual to them. She had been here before--how well she remembered how!
not in the chief street, honoured of everybody, but dragging through the
muddy roads, dull and despairing, with her two crying children. The cold
wild March night of her recollection was not more unlike the soft
sunshine of this May-day, than was her own position now and then. Was
she more happy? She did not ask herself the question. Only people in a
more or less artificial state of self-consciousness do ever ask
themselves if they are happy or not; the uninstructed soul takes life as
it comes. But her aspect impressed the people of Lasswade. They
concluded that she was “not very happy with her husband;” and as Richard
was not popular in the county he despised, this rather prepossessed the
popular mind in her favour; but that this woman had ever been the
“beggar-wife” of the popular legend, the county ever after refused to
believe.

The Dowager-Duchess had driven into Lasswade, of course “by accident,”
on that afternoon, and so had Sir John and his lady; and it is
astonishing how many other carriages of lesser potentates the Eskside
party met on their way home. It was a fine day to be sure; everybody was
out; and every separate detachment of anxious neighbours had its own
remarks to make. “The second son looks a fine lad,” the good people
said; for indeed Dick had beamed with grateful smiles upon every one who
had a welcome for Val. And thus the family, at last united, with glad
welcome of all their neighbours, and retractation of their enemy’s
slanders, made their way home. “You see we’ve brought Sandy Pringle to
his marrow-bones, my lord!” cried Willie Maitland the factor, my lord’s
right-hand man, as they drove away from the door of the Bull. “Ay, ay,
the auld sneck-drawer!” said Lord Eskside in his glee. This was all Mr
Pringle made by his apology. Val, I am happy to say, was otherwise
disposed--he took it generously touched by the confession, not
triumphing in it, as extorted from his assailant; and his explanation of
the placard, which he too had read eagerly to his brother and confidant,
was made in a very different tone. “I knew old Pringle was a good
fellow,” said Val; “he was forced to it by his party; but the moment he
hears the truth he comes forward and owns it like a man. Our fathers and
mothers think differently from us, Dick, old fellow. They think because
old Pringle is out of it so long as you and I are to the fore, that
therefore he must be our enemy. I always knew it was nothing of the
sort, but only a party move,” said Valentine, flourishing his whip with
that delicious sense of generous superior wisdom which dwells in the
bosom of youth; and then he added, softly, “After this, surely they
can’t make any more row about Violet and me.”

“I should think not,” said Dick, with a sigh; the sight of those Eskside
woods, where he had seen her, came back to his mind with a strange
thrill. What a moment of enchantment that had been! He had never hoped
it would come back again. How could he wish it to come back, when only
by injury to Val it could ever bring any happiness to him? And, to be
sure, he had only seen Violet twice, never long enough to----“What a
lucky fellow you are!” was what he said.

“Am I not?” cried Val, in his frank happiness; “I should think this was
the very last stone rolled out of my way.”

There had been a great commotion in Rosscraig, preparing everything for
the family party; the new wing had been opened, the carpets put down,
the curtains up, and everything arranged according to Lady Eskside’s
orders. The new wing had all kinds of conveniences in it--sitting-rooms
for the young couple for whom it was prepared, nurseries for the
children, everything that could help to make it agreeable to a son’s
family under the same roof with his father and mother. But as it
happened now, both Richard and Valentine preferred to keep their old
rooms; and the new wing was given up to Dick and his mother, to whom it
appeared a wilderness of grandeur, confusing and blank in its extent and
wealth. It had windows which looked down upon the wooded bank of the
Esk, and windows which looked to the great door and court-yard, and a
suite of rooms through which you could wander from one side to another,
for it ran all the breadth of the house. I am not sure that these two,
transported into that luxurious place, did not feel the change more
painfully and strangely than its natural occupants would have done had
they been suddenly dismissed to Styles’s river-side cottage. The mother
felt it most of all. She sat in her own rooms almost all the day,
patiently receiving the visits of her sons and of Lady Eskside, but
never seeking them in the other portions of the house--brightening to
see Val, but saying little even to him. She was chilled and stifled by
all these fine surroundings. Often she would rise and fling the windows
open, or pull at the curtains instinctively, as if to pull them down. “I
can’t breathe,” she would sometimes say to Dick, with a plaintive tone
in her voice. Her life, such as it was, was gone from her. She was quite
submissive, doing all that was asked of her, attempting no resistance. I
cannot explain the entire cessation now of the struggle which she had
kept up so long, any more than she could. Fate was too strong for her,
and her strength was waning; but when she yielded, she yielded
altogether, unreasoning and unreasonably, as she had struggled--her mind
was not capable of compromise, or of making the best of a position. When
she gave in she dropped her arms entirely, and with her arms her
strength.

And strangely enough, Val, the sight of whom had kept her alive, lost
his power now over his mother, and Dick, who was her own, became all in
all to her. She was happy only when her familiar companion was by her,
and could not be persuaded to go out except with Dick. Sometimes when
they wandered into the woods a gleam of something like pleasure would
come upon her face. There was one knoll which they found out by chance
in the very heart of the trees, a little bank which, when they
discovered it first, was covered with late primroses. The trees were
very thick round, and the sun came late, and penetrated but a short time
through the heavy boughs; and this, I suppose, kept them later in
blooming than their rustic neighbours. It is long, long since I have
seen these flowers; and perhaps it is the misty glory of that
morning-time of childhood that makes me feel there never were any such
primroses before or after in this commonplace world--so large, so
spotless, so full of sweetness, instinct with a lovely life of their
own, friends rather than flowers. Their long stalks thrilled with a
youthful force of existence, their green cool leaves overlapped each
other, glistening with heavenly dew, their celestial petals were not
like pale gold or soft velvet, which are the first vulgar images one
thinks of, but like themselves only--primroses, the very essence of
spring and fragrance and everlasting youth. When I shut my eyes I can
see them still, lifting up their lovely heads out of their leaves,
looking you and heaven in the face with all the candour of innocence,
though it is, oh, so many years since they and I saw each other! When
Dick and his mother, wandering through the woods, came to this bank, it
seemed to touch her heart as nothing had done. She sat down on the grass
and gazed at the flowers in a transport. “If we were as we used to be,”
she said, “oh, Dick, my lad, how you would have run to the cart for a
basket! It seems no more than waste to gather them now. What would we do
with them? there’s grander flowers in all the rooms; they’d be like you
and me, Dick, out of our place. Flowers were always what I liked. I
never was one for saying much,” she went on, reflectively, “but a basket
of primroses, that speaks for itself.”

“How you go back upon the old days, mother! said Dick, regretfully, and
perhaps with a slight reproach.

“Yes, lad; I liked them best. It’s heavy on me to be shut up in houses.
I was never used to it,” she said, with a sigh.

“But you can put up with it, mother?--you _will_ put up with it?--for
the sake of Val--and me.”

A gleam came from her eyes--a sparkle of tenderness and light. “I’ll do
what’s best,” she said--“whatever is best:” then with a sudden rush of
tears, “You may let me think of the old days, Dick; for my strength’s
changed, and my mind’s changed, and I never can go back to them--never
no more--even if I would.”

“But, mother,” said Dick, “it used to keep you happy to see Val only on
the river, once a-day or twice a-day, in his boat. I did not know why it
was then; but I saw it; and now you’ve got him altogether----”

“Ah, it’s different, it’s different!” she cried; “can’t you see, lad?
Then he was none o’ mine--he was his father’s; it was more than I could
have hoped for to see him like that--it kept me alive. Now he’ll come to
me when I like, Dick; and kind he looks and kind he speaks, God bless
him! He’d do himself an injury to please me; but ah, it’s different! If
I could take them to the market in a basket, and sell a bunch here and
a bunch there, that’s what I would like,” she went on with a sudden
change of tone, drawing the flowers through her thin hands.

It was with a kind of despair that Dick took her home. She was getting
thin visibly, he thought. She would sit at the window for hours
together, gazing, seeing nothing. For the first few days she suffered
herself to be taken to the family meals, but this evidently agitated her
beyond endurance, and had to be given up. What was to be done? Not one
of them could tell, or indeed form an idea; the only thing that could be
trusted in was time, which might possibly bring back a subdued harmony
to those chords which at present were all ajar; but for the moment there
seemed little hope even of that. All the restlessness of old came back
to her. When the active habits of her life at Oxford became unnecessary,
the self-restraint she had learnt there failed her also. She took to
talking (when she did talk) of nothing but the tramp-life, which seemed
to have suddenly come into prominence in her mind. Now and then she
dozed in the long afternoons, and Dick heard her murmuring in her sleep
about the long road, and how far it was, and the lad that was tired.
Poor Dick’s satisfaction in his new circumstances was suddenly subdued
by this. It did not occur to him that she was ill; he thought it was one
of the old fits coming on, in which he had always felt the dreadful risk
there was that she might go secretly away from him, and never be heard
of more. To be sure, he comforted himself by thinking these fits had
always gone off again, and so perhaps would this one now.

Thus the family life recommenced under its changed circumstances. I
doubt whether any one in the great house was happy. The old people had a
secret in their keeping, which destroyed their peace, and which must
produce further troubles still; and Dick had his mother, whose state
alarmed him: and Richard Ross was in a position very difficult for a man
to bear, totally ignored by his wife, yet feeling a curious secret
attraction towards her, and a half-whimsical half-tragical wonder
whether they were ever to be drawn closer, or if all was over between
them. Valentine, the happiest of the party, was not without his troubles
too, for he had written to Violet, and received no reply, and at the
Hewan there was no intelligence to be obtained of her. Thus they had all
enough to do to carry on the possibilities of living; and the great
happiness and good fortune which had come to them, scarcely looked for
the moment like good fortune at all.



CHAPTER XLI.


A short time after their return, Valentine made up his youthful mind
that he could bear his share of these uncertainties no longer. He had
been to the Hewan again and again; now he set off to Moray Place itself,
saying nothing to his relations, except to Dick, who winced, but kept
his counsel. But all the ardent young lover made by his persistence was
an interview with Mrs Pringle, who received him stiffly, and declined to
answer any inquiries about Violet, who was absent from home. “I do not
suppose your family would be pleased if they knew; and my family would
be still less pleased, that Violet should be held cheap,” said Mrs
Pringle. “If you will believe me, Valentine, I think it is much better
that there should be no more about it;” and all Val’s remonstrances and
pleadings were of no avail. He came back miserable and dejected, and
strayed out to the woods, in which there is always some consolation for
a heart-broken lover. Val went as far as the linn, that he might see the
place at least where he had been so happy. Was it possible, after all he
had gone through, that his love and his happiness were to end like a
dream, and every link to be snapt between him and Vi? When he approached
that spot which was so full of associations, he too heard sounds, as
Dick had done, which told of some human intrusion into this realm of
woodland and waters. It was not a sob this time that Val heard. It was a
sound of low voices--women’s voices--talking in a half-whisper, as if
they feared to be discovered. Drawing near, trembling, like a thief, he
saw under the big beech-branches a corner of a blue dress, showing from
behind one of them. This made his heart beat; but the blue gown might
not be Vi’s blue gown; and anyhow there were two of them, as the voices
testified, so that caution was needful. Another step, however, relieved
him of his doubts. In front of him, on the green bank on the
river-side, sat Mary Percival, with her face turned towards some one
unseen, to whom she was talking. “My dear, he has had plenty of time to
write to you, and he has not done so. If you will believe me, Vi, I
think it is a great deal better there should be no more about it.” These
were, though Mary did not know it, the self-same words under which Val
was suffering. The repetition of them drove him beyond himself. He gave
a shout of indignant protestation, and rushing between the two
astonished ladies, caught her of the blue dress rudely, suddenly, in his
arms.

But do not think Violet was half so much surprised as middle-aged Mary
was, to whom this interruption was quite unlocked for. She did not know
even that “the family” had arrived at Rosscraig--Lady Eskside, amid all
this tumult of events, having become remiss in her correspondence, and
Val’s letters to Violet having been, if not suppressed, yet detained at
Moray Place during the girl’s absence. Even if the family had returned,
Mary felt there were a hundred chances to one that Val would not be
there precisely at the right moment to meet her and her companion. In
Mary’s own case things had never happened just at the right moment; and
therefore she had acquiesced with little difficulty in Violet’s prayer
that she might be allowed “one look” at the linn. Violet had been sent
to Mary to be taken care of--to be kept out of danger; and this, I am
ashamed to say, was how Miss Percival, who had a strong vein of romance
in her, notwithstanding all her good sense, fulfilled her trust. She saw
her folly now when it was too late.

“Valentine!” she cried, “how dare you--how dare you do _that_--when her
parents do not know?”

“Her parents!” said Val, equally indignant; “what do I care for her
parents, or any one’s parents? I am a man, old enough to know my own
mind, and so is Vi. Can parents make us happy?” said the young man, with
that cruel frankness which seems so easy to the young, and is so hard
upon the old. “Vi, my darling, you know you are mine--you won’t let
parents or any one come between you and me?”

Vi did not say a word--there was no need for anything so feeble as
words. She clung to him, gazing at him, holding one of his arms fast
with her small hands clasped round it. She had been sure he would come;
in her heart she had been so wicked as to smile at Mary’s faith the
other way, though she did not say a word of the sweet confidence in her
own mind. And Mary, who had not been so treated by Providence, and whose
love had not been happy, felt a hot flush of anger against the girl who
stood there before her with ineffable smiles, not objecting to the young
man’s impetuosity, not even answering him a word.

“Violet!” she cried, “come away this instant. Do you know that you are
defying both your mother and me?”

“You have always been my enemy, Mary,” cried Val passionately, “and I
don’t know why, for I have always liked you. Vi, you are not going to do
what she tells you--to follow her instead of me?”

“I am not going to follow any one,” said Vi, detaching herself from his
arm with much dignity; then she stood at a little distance, and looked
at him with tender glowing eyes. “Oh, Val!” she cried, “but I am glad to
see you! I thought you would never come. I knew you would be here
to-day. Val, are you well--are you quite well? Oh, what a weary, weary
time it has been, when I thought I would never see you more!”

“Then you were thinking of me? and you don’t mean to cast me off, Vi?”

“I--cast you off!--that is likely! Mary, you never were Val’s enemy,
though he says so, in his hasty way--he was always hasty. He made me
give him my promise here, beneath this tree. I cannot take back my word;
I cannot say one thing to you and another to him; and you never scolded
me when I said--I--cared for Val, Mary! not a word! She only cried and
gave me a kiss.”

“And she ought to give me a kiss too,” said bold Val, going up to Miss
Percival, whose heart was melting altogether away in her bosom, and
whose efforts to look stern were becoming almost ludicrous. The
audacious boy went up to her, while Vi looked on thunderstruck at his
boldness, and kissed Mary’s cheek, which flushed crimson under the
touch, making that middle-aged woman look a girl again. “How dare you?”
she cried, putting up her hand to push him away; but Mary’s strength was
not able to resist this. “God bless you!” she said, next moment, the
tears coming to her eyes, “you bold boy! How dare you kiss me? Though I
am your enemy, I’ve thought of you and prayed for you morning and night
ever since I parted from you, Val.”

“I know that very well,” said the young man, composedly; “for whatever
you may say, how could you be my enemy when I am fond of you? You have
not the heart not to help us, Mary. Come and sit down again and let us
think what to do. Here is where we played truant when we were children.
Here is where you brought us, Mary--_you_--when we were older; and here
is where Vi gave me her promise. This is the place of all others to meet
again. As for any pretence of separating us, how can any one do it?
Think a little,” said Val, standing before the fallen tree on which Vi
had sat with poor Dick, and from which she now regarded him with soft
eyes suffused with light and happiness. “Could they be hard upon _her_,
for the first time in her life, and break her heart? Is that reasonable?
As for me,” the young man said, raising his head, while the two women
looked at him with tender envy and admiration, “there is no interference
possible. I am a man and my own master. So now that you are convinced,”
cried Valentine, putting himself beside Violet on the old trunk, which,
old as it was, had put forth young shoots of life and hope to make
itself fit for the throne of so much love and gladness, “let us consider
what is the best means to clear these trifling temporary obstructions
out of our way.”

I don’t think there is anything so silken-green, or that makes so tender
a canopy over your head, and shows the sky so sweetly through them, as
young beech-leaves in May, just shaken out of their brown busks, and
reclothing, as if with tenderest ornaments of youth, the big branches
that bear them. Stray airs rustled through them; stray sunbeams, for the
day was cloudy, came and went, penetrating now and then through the soft
canopy--punctuating with sudden glow of light some one or other of those
bold arguments of Val’s, which told so well upon his sympathetic
audience. Though Violet was not one of the worshipping maidens of modern
story, but thought of Val only as Val, and not as a demigod, the soft
transport of reunion, the glow of tender trust and admiration with which
she regarded that delightful certainty of his, which no terrors shook,
gave to her soft face a look of absolute dependence and devotion. She
looked up to him, as they sat together holding each other’s hands like
two children, with a sentiment which went beyond reason. He was no
wiser nor cleverer, perhaps, than she was; but he looked so strong and
so sure, so much above feminine doubts and tremblings, that the mere
sight of him gave confidence. As for Mary, seated on the green bank in
front of these two, who was ever so much wiser and cleverer than Val (he
had few pretensions that way), she, too, felt, with a kind of
philosophical amusement at herself, the same sense of added confidence
and moral strength as she looked at the boy whom she had watched as he
grew up, and chided and laughed at--whose opinion on general subjects
had no particular weight with her, yet who somehow gave to her
experienced and sensible middle-age a sensation of support and
certainty, which the wisest reason does not always communicate. Mary
looked at the two seated there together, hand in hand, half-children,
half-lovers, under the soft shadow of the young beech-leaves, with that
“smile on her lip and tear on her eye” which is the most tender of all
human moods. Pity and envy, and amusement, and an almost veneration,
were in her thoughts. How innocent they were! how sure of happiness! how
absolute in their trust in each other! and, indeed (when the case was
fairly set before them), in everybody else. Notwithstanding the one
terrible shock his faith had received--a shock which happily had worked
itself out in bodily illness, the most simple way--Val was still of
opinion that, if you could but get to the bottom of their hearts, all
the world was on his side. He had no fear of Violet’s mother, though for
the moment she had crushed him; and, to tell the truth, after his fever,
Val had altogether forgotten Mr Pringle’s offence against him, and all
the harm it had brought. Now that offence was more than past, for had it
not been confessed and atoned for, a thing which makes a sin almost a
virtue? Nor was he alarmed when he thought of the old people at
Rosscraig, who had humoured and served him all his life. What was there
to fear? “It would be against all reason, you know,” said Val, “if our
course of true love had run quite smooth. We were miserable enough one
time to make all right for the future; but if you mean to be miserable
any more, Vi, you must do it by yourself, for I shan’t take any share.”

When a young man thus makes light of all difficulties, what can a
sympathetic woman do? Before many minutes had passed, Miss Percival
found herself pledged to brave Violet’s father and mother and overcome
their objections. “They have never crossed her in their lives, and why
should they now?” said Valentine, with good sense, which no one could
gainsay.

When this chief subject had been fully discussed, and all their plans
settled, both the ladies drew close to him with breathless interest,
while he told them the story of his own family. How Dick was his
brother, which made Violet start and clasp her hands, saying, with a
sudden outcry, “I always knew it!” and how his mother had come back with
them--had come home. It was Mary who, much more than these two young
people, who were so sure of each other, had her heart played upon like
an instrument that day. She sat quite still and never said a word, while
the story was told. I cannot describe her feelings towards the woman who
(she felt, though she would not have acknowledged it) had been in the
very bloom of her youth preferred to herself. It was not her fault; up
to this moment the woman who was Richard’s wife had never so much as
heard of Mary’s existence; no blame could possibly attach to her. A
strange mingling of curiosity about her, interest, half-hostile, in her,
wondering indignation, disapproval, proud dislike, all softening back
into curiosity again, were in Miss Percival’s mind; but no one knew how
she rung the changes upon these different sentiments as she sat quite
still and quiet, listening, now and then asking a question, feeling as
if her own life had come to some strange crisis, although she had
absolutely nothing to do with it, not so much as one of the servants in
the house. And then Valentine’s way of speaking of his mother--the
lower, hushed, respectful tone, the half-mystery, half-reverence, which
he seemed disposed to throw around this gipsy, this tramp who had given
them all so much trouble--gave Mary a secret offence, all the more sharp
that she felt his feeling to be quite right and just and natural, and
would not for the world have expressed her own. Just now, half an hour
ago, he had put her in the place of his mother--had taken her interest
for granted, had kissed her (the spot burned on Mary’s cheek at the
thought), and appealed to that strange sentiment in her heart which he
seemed to be unconsciously aware of--that sense of the possibility that
she might have been his mother, which was always more or less in her
mind in Val’s presence. He had taken possession of her in this way, of
her sympathy and help, telling her what she was to do, and how to do
it, amusing her by his arbitrariness, while he melted her heart by his
affectionate confidence. And now all at once, in the same breath almost,
he began to talk of his real mother, this woman whom no one knew, who
had done him and his family all the harm possible, and now was brought
back almost in triumph to reap--not the whirlwind after having sown the
wind--but happiness and calm weather, notwithstanding all her folly and
ill-doing. Mary sat in a maze, in a dream, while all this went through
her mind, yet with all her faculties alert, hearing everything and
feeling everything. She was hurt even by Val’s description of his
mother’s beauty, which filled Vi with such admiring interest. “Oh, how I
should like to see her!” cried Violet. “You shall both see her,” said
Valentine, with the arbitrary determination to give pleasure of a young
prince. How Mary’s heart swelled! But if these two children had guessed
what was going on in her mind, with what wondering grieved disapproval
they would have looked upon her, troubled by a sense of natural
incongruity that a woman of her age could possibly feel so! She felt
this along with all the rest; and, in short, she was conscious of so
many different sentiments, that all her vigour and natural power went
out of her. Her heart was being lacerated by a hundred needle-points and
pin-pricks--like a pin-cushion, she said, faintly trying to laugh to
herself.

Val went with them to their carriage, which was waiting at the lower
edge of the woods, in the opposite direction from Rosscraig, and took a
farewell, which he declared to be the merest temporary good-bye, but
which once more made Violet’s eyes tearful. Vi grew less certain as she
lost sight of him. Various unexpected results had followed the
publication of that Apology, which in her youthful heat and energy she
had almost forced her father into writing. Even Mrs Pringle had not seen
the necessity for it so clearly as Violet did; and the world in general
on both sides of the question had taken it, as Lord Eskside did, as a
formal retractation, a bringing down to his marrow-bones of Sandy
Pringle, rather than as the prompt and frank and generous apology of one
gentleman to another. Some had said that it was fear of an action for
libel which had moved him to such a step; others, with a frank
malediction, had d----d him for not standing to what he said. Nobody
had appreciated his motive, or understood Violet’s childlike reasoning
on the abstract principle, that when you have done wrong and know it,
there is no course possible but to confess, the wrong and ask pardon of
the injured person. This, I fear, is not a course of action at all
congenial to the ordinary code; and Mr Pringle, though carried away by
the impetuosity of his daughter, had by this time repented his _amende
honorable_ quite as much as he repented the evil he had done. To suffer
for doing wrong is reasonable; but it is hard to be punished for doing
right, and fills the sufferer’s heart with bitterness.

Mr Pringle had been very penitent towards poor Val before the days of
the Apology; but now, in the sharpness of the sting of unappreciated
virtue, he was furious against him. Violet knew this only too well, and
her courage oozed out of her finger-ends as she saw the young hero
disappear into the woods. “Do you think--do you really think--it is all
as certain as he says?” she said to Miss Percival, with tears in her
soft eyes, which had been so bright with happiness and courage a moment
before.

As for Valentine, he strode home through the woods very triumphant and
joyful, as became a young lover; but sobered as he drew near home. He
made up his mind to go at once into the matter, and extort a consent
from everybody; but as he drew near and nearer to the turrets of
Rosscraig, it became more and more apparent to him that there would be
no small trouble and pain involved; and he began to feel how
disagreeable it is to displease and vex the people most near to you,
even in order to secure for yourself the person dearest and nearest of
all. This thought did not subdue his resolution, but it subdued his
step, which became less and less rapid. Nothing in this world would have
induced him to give up Vi; but he did not like to defy his old
grandfather, to make my lady set her lips firm in that way he knew so
well. He wished intensely that Vi and he could have been happy without
that; but still, as it had to be done some time or other, it was better,
much better, that it should be done at once. So, after walking very
slowly the last mile of the way, he suddenly, to use his own
phraseology, “put on a spurt,” and skimmed over the last quarter of a
mile, making up his mind, as if for an operation, to get it over. He
walked straight into the library, still flushed from his long walk, and
somewhat to his surprise found all the family authorities collected
there, my lord and my lady and his father, all apparently engaged in
some mysterious consultation. Val remarked with bewilderment that his
father, so placid usually and indifferent, was flushed like
himself,--though with speech, not exercise,--and that Lord and Lady
Eskside had both a doubtful tremulous aspect, and looked morally cowed,
not convinced. To tell the truth, they had been arguing the question
over again, whether it was possible to keep the secret of Dick’s
seniority from the two young men. It was Richard’s desire that this
should be done; but he had not convinced the others either of the
possibility or expediency of it, though, for the moment, they had come
to a conditional bargain to say nothing unless circumstances should
arise which made the disclosure necessary. This supposed emergency was
to be left to each one’s private judgment, I suppose, and therefore the
secret was pretty sure of rapid revelation; but still the old pair were
not satisfied. “Good never came of falsehood, or even, that I know, of
the mere _suppressio veri_,” Lord Eskside had said, shaking his head,
just as Val came in; and they all turned to look at him, with a little
wonder and excitement; for he looked indeed very like a man who had
found something out, coming in hot haste to tell it, and ask, Is this
true? The old lord and his wife looked at each other, both of them
leaping to the conclusion that this was so, and that Val had discovered
the secret; and they were not sorry, but gave a little nod of secret
intelligence to each other. Poor Val! poor boy! it was another trial for
him; and yet it was best, far best, that he should know.

“Grandfather,” said Val, plunging at once into the subject, bringing in
an atmosphere of fresh air and youthful eagerness with him, “I have come
to tell you at once of something that has happened to me. It is strange
to find you all sitting here, but I am heartily glad of it. My lady, you
know how long it is since I first spoke to Violet----”

“Oh, Violet!” cried my lady, with an impatient movement of her head and
stamp of her foot upon the carpet; “Lord bless us! is it this nonsense
he has got in his head again?”

“You may call it nonsense if you like,” said Val, seeing somehow that
what he had said was not what they expected, and unconsciously, in an
under-current of thought, wondering what it was they had expected; “it
is not nonsense to me. I went to Moray Place this morning, having heard
nothing of her for a long time--and there Mrs Pringle received me very
coldly----”

“That was unfortunate,” said Richard with a smile, which his son called
a sneer; “that an Edinburgh lawyer’s wife should receive Lord Eskside’s
grandson coldly, was, no doubt, something very miserable indeed--enough,
I suppose, to justify this excitement,” and he looked at Val with an
amused scrutiny from head to foot, which made the young man wild with
irritation. He had stumbled into a burn on his way home, and had left,
there was no denying it, one huge muddy foot-print on the spotless
carpet, which had at once caught his father’s fastidious eye.

“The Edinburgh lawyer’s wife may not be much to you, sir,” said Val,
“but she is a great deal to me; for she has my future wife’s comfort and
happiness in her hand. I want to let you know at once that my mind is
quite made up and decided. I told you so before. What is the use of
wearing our hearts out by waiting and waiting?” cried Val, turning from
one to another. “You are good and kind, why should you make me
miserable? In everything else you have always tried to make me happy;
you have listened to what I had to say; you have been always reasonable;
why should you shut your hearts against me now, in the one matter that
is most important to me, in that which must decide my happiness or
misery all my life?”

“The argument is well put,” said the old lord, with exasperating
composure; “but, Val, how can you tell at your age what is, or what is
not, to decide the happiness of your life?”

“And don’t you see, Val,” said my lady, more sympathetically, “that it
is just because it is so important that we cannot give our consent so
easily? Oh, my dear, if you had wanted the moon we would have tried to
get it for you; think, then, how strong a motive it must be that makes
us cross you now!”

“What is the motive?” said Val, with sudden dramatic force, waiting
solemnly for an answer. The two old people looked at each other again
and trembled. What could they answer to this impetuous boy? The motive
was that Violet was not a great match for him, such as they had hoped
for--not any one who would bring him wealth or distinction, but only a
girl whom he loved; and they quailed before the boy’s look. If they had
been a worldly pair the answer would have been easy; but these two
high-minded old people, who had trained him to scorn all that was mean,
and to hold love high and honour, how were they to state this plain fact
to a young lover of three-and-twenty? They did not know what words to
use in which to veil their motive and give it some sort of grandeur
worthy the occasion; and, unfortunately, Val saw his advantage as
clearly as they saw the disadvantage under which they lay.

“You speak like a foolish boy,” said his father. “It is enough that we
think this match a very unfit one for you, and I hope you have sense
enough yourself to see its unsuitability. Who is this girl? an Edinburgh
lawyer’s daughter--a man who has attacked your family in the basest and
most treacherous way----”

“But who has apologised!” cried Val; “who has confessed he was wrong and
begged pardon----”

“The more fool he,” said Richard, “not to have strength of mind to stick
to his slander when he had committed himself to it. Apology!--you mean
retractation--extorted, no doubt, from him by fear of his pocket. It
would be more dignified, no doubt, to pay the twopence-ha’penny he can
afford to give her, as his daughter’s portion, rather than as damages in
a court of law.”

“If it is a question of twopence-ha’penny,” said Val, with a violent
flush of sudden anger.

“My boy, you must not use that tone here,” Lord Eskside interposed.
“Your father is right. Is it your enemy that you want to ally yourself
with? he that raked up the whole old story of your coming here, and
tried to ruin you with it, using his falsehood for your destruction----”

“Grandfather,” said Val, still flaming with nervous passion, “the sting
of that story, I have always understood, was that it was not false but
true.”

“Val!” cried Lady Eskside; but there was a pause after this--and I think
in the very heat of the discussion the old lord felt with secret
pleasure that his boy had already made more than one point, even though
it was against himself. Twice over Val had silenced the opposing forces.
Now, but to live to see him facing the House of Commons like this, who
could tell, from the Treasury bench itself! This delightful secret
suggestion crept into Lord Eskside’s heart, like a warm wind loosening
the frosts.

“Then if you will only consider,” said Val, changing his indignant tone
for one of soft conciliation and pleading, “there is no one in Scotland,
so far as I can see, so free to choose for myself as I am. If you were
not what you are, sir, the first man in the county, as you ought to
be--if my father were not what he is, distinguished in other circles
than ours--then, perhaps, I, who as yet am nobody, might have required
to look outside, to get crutches of other people’s distinctions; but as
it is, what does it matter? We are rich enough, we are more independent
than the Queen, who, poor lady, must always consider other people, I
suppose; whereas I, who am your grandson--and your son, sir--I,” cried
Val, “am more free than a prince to ask for love only and happiness!
Give them to me,” he said, holding out his hands with natural eloquence
to the two old people, who sat looking at him, afraid to look at each
other; “you never in all my life refused me anything before!”

I cannot tell how it was that this natural noble attitude in which his
son stood, asking, like a loyal soul as he was, for that consent,
without which he could not be wholly happy, to his happiness--affected
almost to rage the mind of Richard, whose mode had been entirely the
reverse; who had plucked in hot haste, without sanction or knowledge of
any one, the golden apples which had turned to ashes and bitterness. To
marry as he had done, wildly, hotly, in sudden passion,--is not that
much more easily condoned by the great world in which he lived, which
loves a sensation, than a respectable mediocre marriage, equally removed
from scandal and from distinction? To marry a gipsy, or an opera-dancer,
or a maid-of-all-work, is more pardonable, as being a piquant rebellion
against all law and order, than it is to marry a virtuous person out of
the lower circles of good society, sufficiently well-born and well-bred
to make no sensation. The lawyer’s daughter was gall to Richard. He
interposed with one of those sudden fits of passionate irritability to
which his smooth nature was liable.

“Do not let this folly go any further, Val. We all know what is meant by
these ravings about love and happiness. Whatever place I may have gained
among men it is not from having been my father’s son; neither will that
serve you as you think. Lord Eskside’s grandson!” said Richard, with
scorn on his lip; “how much will that do for the younger of you
two--the one who is not the heir,” he continued, with rising
energy--“the one who has a second son’s allowance, a second son’s
position; the one--whom we have all agreed in cheating out of his
rights----”

“Dick?” said Val, with hesitation and wonder. He looked round upon them
all, and saw something in their eyes which alarmed him he could not tell
why. “Is it Dick?”

“Valentine,” said his father, suddenly coming up to him, seizing his
arm, “it is not for me to speak to you of the miseries of a foolish
marriage; but look here. Give up this boyish folly. You have a
foundation, as you say, built up by those who have gone before you; you
may make any match you please; you may cover all that has gone before
with the world’s pardon and more than pardon. I look to you to do this.
I can give you opportunities--you will have countless opportunities;
give up this girl who is nobody--or if you refuse----”

“What then, sir, if I refuse?” Val loosed his arm from his father’s hold
and stood confronting him, steadfast and erect, yet surprised and with a
novel kind of pain in his eyes. The two old people gave one look at each
other, then paused breathless to hear what was to come next, both of
them aware that Richard, diplomatist as he was, forgot himself
sometimes, and perceiving that the crisis, which in their previous talk
they had prepared for, had now arrived.

“Then,” said Richard--he paused a moment, and all the old prick of a
jealousy which he had despised himself for feeling, all the old jars of
sensation at which he had tried to laugh, which had arisen out of the
perpetual preference of Val to himself, surged up for one moment in his
temper rather than his heart. The weapon lay at his hand so ready; the
boy was somehow so superior, so irritating in his innocence. His face
flushed with this sudden impulse to humiliate Val. “Then,” he said,
“perhaps you will pause when I tell you, for your good, that you have
totally mistaken your own position; that you are not the great man you
think yourself; that though you have condescended to your brother, and
patronised him, and been, as it were, his good genius, it is Dick who is
Lord Eskside’s heir, and not you.”

Lady Eskside started with a low cry. It was because Dick had come in a
moment before at the door, in front of which his father and brother
were standing; but Richard thought her exclamation was because of what
he said, and turned to her with a smile which it was not good to see.

“Yes, mother,” he said, “you wished him to know. _Benissimo_! now he
knows. He has been the grand seigneur, and Dick has been nobody. Now the
positions are reversed; and I hope his magnanimity will bear it. Anyhow,
now, with his second son’s allowance, he will be obliged to pause in
this mad career.”

“Is it so?” said Val, going forward to the table, and, I confess,
leaning upon it a hand which trembled--for he had been thunderstruck by
this revelation--“is it so?” No one spoke; and poor Val, standing there
with his eyes cast down, had, I avow it, a bitter moment; but the very
sting of the shock stimulated him, and called all his faculties
together. After that minute, which felt like a year, he raised his head
with a glimmer of painful moisture in his eyes, but a faint smile.
“Well,” he said, “at all events there can never more be any doubt about
me, who I belong to, or what position I hold. I wish Dick all the luck
in the world, and he deserves it. He’ll be sorrier than I am,” said Val.
“What, grandmamma, crying! Not a bit of it! I shall be as happy as the
day is long with my second son’s allowance; and Vi!--for of course,” he
added, with a bright defiant smile all round, “there can be no possible
objection to Vi now.”

Dick had been standing quite still behind, moved not by curiosity, but
by that respectful attention to the preoccupation of the others, which I
suppose his former lowliness had put into him, though it is the highest
grace of a gentleman. He had heard everything, indeed, but his mind was
too full of something else to care for what he had heard. He broke in
here, with a new subject, in a voice hoarse with anxiety and emotion.
“Has any one seen my mother?” said Dick. “I have been all over the house
looking for her, high and low.”



CHAPTER XLII.


That had been a weary morning in the new wing. Dick had gone to
Edinburgh with his brother, half by way of seeing the beautiful town,
half to console Val, who was very eager and anxious. With a curious
interest he had walked about Moray Place, to which he had directed his
letters in the strange old time when he was still Dick Brown,--a time
which it gave him a certain vertigo to think of. And I am sorry to say
that Val, in the heat of disappointment, when he came out from Mrs
Pringle’s presence, forgot that his brother was walking about on the
other side of the square waiting for him, and had rushed back to
Lasswade without ever thinking of Dick. When he saw that he had been
forgotten, Dick too made his way to the railway, and went back; but it
was afternoon when he arrived at Rosscraig. He had never left his mother
for so long a time before, and this, no doubt, had its effect upon her.
She was alone in the beautiful rooms of the new wing all the morning. It
was like a silent fairy palace, where everything was done by mysterious
unseen hands; for the sight of servants fretted her, and she would not
admit any personal attendance. She had grown feeble in that lonely
splendour without any notice being taken of it; for Dick, with the
inexperience of youth, made no observations on the subject, and to Lady
Eskside, who visited her every day, she asserted always that she was
quite well. More feeble than ever she had got up that morning, and
dressed herself as usual, and taken her sparing breakfast with Dick.
After the first few days, Lady Eskside had yielded to this arrangement,
seeing it impossible, at least for the moment, to habituate the newcomer
to the family table. “If it is such a distress to her, why should we
force her to it?” said my lady, not without offence; and the poor soul
was grateful for the exemption. “Don’t find fault with me, Dick,” she
said to him faintly; “it can’t be for long. I’ll get used to it, and
easy in my mind before long;”--and therefore she had been sorrowfully
left to herself in the beautiful new rooms furnished for her
three-and-twenty years before. When Dick left her she went to a little
room in the front part of the wing, which looked out upon the great door
and court, where she sat watching till the two young men went away, and
waved her hand in answer to their salutations. Valentine had already
paid her a visit in the morning, a visit which he never neglected; and
wherever they were going, the young men never forgot to look up to that
window from which it was her pleasure to watch their movements, one of
the few pleasures she had.

When they had left the house she had no more interest in it. She
wandered back again through various empty rooms to the great handsome
sitting-room which had a light-some bow-window looking out upon the
sloping bank of wood down to where the Esk foamed and tumbled below. Had
she had any work to do, as in the days when she was Dick’s housekeeper,
and kept all his treasures in order, and prepared his simple meals, she
might have forgotten herself and got through the weary hours. But she
had nothing to do, poor soul! She sat down in the window, and passed she
did not know how long a time there, gazing vaguely out, sometimes
thinking, sometimes quite vacant: in so hazy a state was her mind that
it seemed to her sometimes that soft Thames flowed at her feet instead
of the brawling Esk; and that she was waiting till Mr Ross’s boat should
come down the gentle river. Poor bewildered soul! a haze of times and
places, of the vacant present, and the gleams of interest which had been
in the past, possessed her mind; she scarcely could have told where she
was had any one asked her. The silence grew painful to her brain, and
reeled and rustled round her in eddies of suppressed sound all centring
in herself; and now and then the light swam in her eyes, and darkened,
and there was an interval in which everything was black around her, and
all that she was aware of was that rustle, overpowering in its
intensity, of the silence, raying out in circles, like those in water,
from her brain. I almost think she must have lapsed into some kind of
faint, without knowing it, in those moments. About noon Lady Eskside
came to see her, and did, as she always did, her very utmost to win some
sort of hold upon her. She talked to her of the boys, of Val who must
soon go to London, of trifles of every description, working hard to
rouse her to some interest. “I wish you would come with me,” my lady
said; and she was glad afterwards that she had said it. “I am alone, and
we would be cheerier together, we two women, when all the others are
away. Won’t you come with me, Myra? My woman, you look lonely here.” “I
am used to be alone,” she said quite gently, but without moving; and
half provoked, half sorry, the old lady had at last gone away,
despairing in her mind, and wondering whether it had been kind to bring
this wild creature here even in her subdued state, and whether she would
ever find any comfort in her life. “Perhaps when Richard goes,” Lady
Eskside said to herself; for Richard’s influence did not seem to be
advantageous to his wife, though he was very careful, very anxious, not
to step over the distance which she had tacitly placed between them,
though strangely tantalised and excited by it, as his mother saw. What
was to be done? The old lady shook her head, and took refuge with her
old lord in the library, not saying anything to him to vex him, for what
could he do? but finding a little consolation in her own vexation and
perplexity in being near him. How different that silent support and
society was from the solitude in the new wing, and even from Richard’s
dainty and still retirement, where he wrote his letters, with his
noiseless Italian servant close at hand to answer every call! It eased
my lady’s old heart, which had felt so many pains, only to walk into the
library where her old lord sat, and put up the window, or down the
window, and look at the letters on his table, and say something about
the weather or the garden--just as it eased Lord Eskside, when he was in
any perplexity, to go into the drawing-room, and pronounce the novel on
her table to be “some of your rubbish, my lady,” and let her know that
the glass was falling, and that she had better take precautions about
her drive. Lady Eskside wondered with a sigh whether it would ever be
possible to bring her new guest--her strange daughter-in-law--into the
household life. She meant nothing but kindness towards her; but there
was--how could she help it?--a little impatience in the sigh.

After that visit the recluse in the new wing was left to herself again,
and all kinds of strange thoughts came up into her heart. They were not
so articulate as Lady Eskside’s; but somehow there arose in her, as the
old lady went away, a curious reflection of her impatience, an
incoherent desire to call her back again. She sat and listened to her
steps going all the way along the corridor, and down the stair, and
never opened her lips nor made a movement to detain her; and yet there
rose in her mind a mute cry, could the dull air but have carried it
without any action of hers. She caught the sound of Lady Eskside’s sigh,
and, for the first time, a dim understanding of it seemed to dawn upon
her mind. Why could not she go with her--make herself one with the
others? The thought was very shadowy and vague, like a suggestion some
unseen observer had made to her; but it raised a visionary ferment in
her soul, a gasping for breath, as if she already felt herself confined
within an atmosphere where she had no room to breathe.

Then she took refuge in her own room in this painful rush of new
feeling. The curtains at the windows, the hangings of the bed, the
draperies everywhere, seemed to shut her in and cut short her breath.
The great glass which reflected her figure from head to foot, the other
lesser ones which multiplied her face, glancing back resemblances at her
as if she, in her solitude, had grown into half-a-dozen women, affected
her imagination wildly. She left that room like one pursued--pursued by
herself, always the worst ghost of solitude. Then she went to the little
room with the window which commanded the great door. Perhaps by this
time the boys might be come back; and the boys formed her bridge, as it
were, into the world, her sole link of connection with life in this
artificial phase. A little warmth, a little hope, came into her as she
sat down there and strained her eyes to watch for some sign of their
coming. After a while, the door opened and Richard came out. He stood on
the great steps for a moment, putting on his gloves, then, looking up,
saw her, and took off his hat to her; then he made a pause, as if in
doubt, drew off the gloves again, and went back into the house. At this
sight a sudden wild panic came upon her. She thought he was coming to
see her, which indeed was the purpose with which he had turned back. She
sprang up, her heart beating, and flying through the lonely rooms,
seized a shawl which lay on a chair, and darted down a little stair in
the turret which led into the woods. Her excitement carried her on for
some distance before her breath failed her altogether, though her heart
beat loud in her bosom, like some hard piston of iron, swinging and
creaking in fierce unmanageable haste. She had got into the shrubberies,
not knowing where she went, and sank down among the bushes to rest, when
her strength failed. The thought of meeting her husband now, with nobody
by, drove her wild. She had lived under the same roof with him for days
at Oxford, and thought little of it, being occupied with other matters;
but deadly panic, as of a wild deer flying from the hunter, had seized
upon her now. She never asked herself what harm he could do her. She
feared nothing actual, but, with overwhelming blind terror, she feared
the future and the unknown.

Oh, how many thoughts came rushing upon her as she lay crouched together
on the cool earth among the bushes!--thoughts half made out, not one
altogether articulate--gleams of a consciousness that this was folly,
that it was impossible, that she must get the better of herself, that
the fever in her soul must be chased away, and could not be submitted
to. “I must change--I must make a change!” she moaned to herself. A
whole new being, a new creature, with dim evolutions of reason, dim
perceptions of the impossible, seemed to be rising up in her, blotting
out the old. Her faults, her follies, her wild impulses, the savage
nature which could endure no restraint, had all come to a climax in her;
and reason, which had struggled faintly in the old days, and won her to
so many sacrifices, had at last got the balance in hand, I think, and
the power to decide what could and what could not be. Yet, when she had
got her breath a little, she stumbled to her feet, and went on.

When Dick came back she was not to be found in her rooms, which troubled
him greatly; for she had never before gone out by herself. He searched
through every corner, then went to the other parts of the house--to the
drawing-room, to Lady Eskside’s rooms, to Val’s--hopeless of finding
her, indeed, yet so confident that something must have happened, that no
marvel would have surprised him. When he burst into the library he was
in despair. And this new alarm, so suddenly introduced among them,
diverted them at once from the other subject, which had lost its
enthralling and exciting power now that the secret had been made known.
Richard Ross had not been spending a pleasant afternoon. He was excited
by Val’s defiance, and he had been excited before. He turned very pale
as Dick spoke. He knew that his wife had fled out of the house to avoid
him--a thing which, naturally enough, had tried his temper greatly.
Where had she gone? He remembered that when he looked down the winding
staircase in the turret, through which she had evidently fled, the fresh
air blowing in his face had brought with it a sound of the Esk tumbling
over its rocks. This had not alarmed him then, and he had scorned to
follow the fugitive, or to force her into an interview she avoided, in
this way; but now suddenly it returned to him with an indescribable
shock of terror. He went out without saying a word to any one, moved by
sudden panic. The others started to explore the woods; the idea of the
river did not occur to either of the young men, who knew her better than
Richard did. They set off both together; while Lord Eskside, with the
servants, undertook to search the gardens and shrubberies nearer home.
“Oh, God forgive her if she’s gone away again!” cried the old lady,
wringing her hands. “I can’t think that she’s gone away,” said Dick. His
face was very grave. He scarcely said a word to Val, who went with him,
and who tried anxiously to ascertain from him what it was he really
feared. Dick kept silent, his heart too strained and sore for speech.

As for Val, he was swept out of one excitement and plunged into another
without a moment’s interval to take breath in, and the fresh air did him
good. I need not say of a public-school boy and well-trained “man,” that
he had picked himself up, to use an undignified but useful expression,
ere now, and betrayed, neither in look nor tone, the sudden blow he had
received. For that grace, if no other, let our English education be
blessed. Val had no idea of contending, of “making a row,” or of bearing
malice. If the right was Dick’s, why, then, the right was Dick’s,--and
there was nothing more to be said. If his mind was momentarily weak and
unable to seize all that was going on, he did not show it, except by a
certain mental feebleness and want of his usual energy, which made him
disposed to take Dick’s lead rather than to form any opinion of his own.
But even this lasted only a short time. “Come,” said Val, drawing a long
breath, “why should we be so downhearted? She has gone out to take the
air--to enjoy the--good weather.”

He had meant to say the beautiful afternoon; but then it suddenly
occurred to him that the day was dull and cloudy, and that the gleams of
sunshine which had been so sweet were gone.

“She never took her walk without me before,” said Dick. “Oh, why did I
stop away so long? I can’t tell you what a weight I have here at my
heart.”

“Cheer up, old fellow!” said Val, thrusting his arm into his brother’s:
“things will go better than you think. What harm could happen? She was
not ill; and the woods are innocent woods, with no precipices in them,
or pitfalls. I roamed about them all day long when I was a child, and
nothing ever happened to me.”

Dick shook his head; but he was cheered in spite of himself, and began
to have a little hope. The woods were alive with sound on that dim
afternoon. The sun, indeed, was not shining, but the atmosphere was soft
with spring, and all the light airs that were about came and rustled in
the leaves, and tossed the light twigs which could not resist them. The
birds were twittering on every branch, scarcely singing, for they missed
the sun, but getting through all that melodious dramatic chatter which
they do ordinarily in the early morning, before their professional life,
so to speak, as minstrels of the universe, has begun. Everything was
soft, harmonious, subdued--no high notes, either of colour or sound, but
every tone gentle, low, and sweet. Even Esk added with a mellow note his
voice to the concert. It seemed impossible to conceive of anything
terrible, any grief that rends the heart, any failure of light and life,
upon such a subdued and gentle day. The young men went far,--much
further, alas! than they needed to have gone--almost as far as the
linn,--before Dick remembered that it was impossible she could have
walked to that distance. “I am thinking of her as she was in the old
times,” said Dick, “when she would get over a long bit of road, always
so quiet, not one to talk much, looking as if she saw to the end,
however far it was; but she couldn’t do that now. Now I think of it,”
said Dick, “she’s failed these last days.”

“I do not think it, Dick. Your fears make you see the gloomy side of
everything.”

“It ain’t my fears; it’s somehow borne in upon me. Please God,” said
Dick, devoutly, “that we find her, she shan’t be left to herself again
without being looked after. No, no one is to blame--except me that
should have known.”

“Do you think it has harmed her to bring her here?” Val spoke humbly,
with a sudden sense of some failure on his own part of duty towards her;
for indeed he had taken his mother’s strange ways for granted, as
children so often do.

“It couldn’t be helped, anyhow,” said Dick--“she had to come;” and then
he paused and thought all at once of the bank of primroses, which was a
mile at least nearer home than they were now. He put his hand on Val’s
arm, and turned back. “I have thought of a place to look for her,” he
cried.

The spot was deep in the silence of the woods, great trees standing
round about, one a huge old beech, every branch of which looked like a
tree in itself. Underneath it, in a curious circle, was a ring of
juniper-bushes, deep funereal green, contrasting with the lighter silken
foliage above. Close to this rose the low knoll, a deeper cool green
than either, all carpeted with the primrose-leaves. Something red lying
there showed a long way before they reached the knoll through the trees;
but it was not till they were quite close to it that they saw her whom
they sought. She was lying in a natural easy attitude reclined on the
green bank. With one hand she seemed to be groping for something among
the leaves, and it was only when they were within sight that she dropped
back as if in fatigue, letting her head droop upon the rich herbage.
“Mother!” Dick cried; but she did not move. Her consciousness was gone,
or going. How long she had been there no one ever knew. Her strength had
failed entirely when she had sat down among the flowers, after
struggling through the bushes as on a pilgrimage to that natural shrine
which had caught her sick fancy. She had a few of the primroses in her
lap, and one or two in her hand. The very last, one large star-like
flower just out of her reach, was the only other that remained, and she
had fallen as if in an overstrain, trying to reach this. Her face was
perfectly pallid, like white marble, contrasting with the brilliant
colour of her shawl, as she lay back among the leaves. Her eyes were
open, and seemed to be looking at the boys as they approached; but there
was no intelligence or consciousness in them. Her lips were parted with
a long-drawn struggling breath.

“Mother!” Dick cried, kneeling down by her side. She stirred faintly,
and tried to turn towards the voice. “Mother, mother!” he repeated
passionately; “you’re tired only? not ill, not ill, mother dear?”

Once more she made a feeble effort to turn to him. “Ay, Dick,” she said,
“ay, lad--that’s--what it is. I’m tired--dead tired; I don’t know--how I
am to get afoot--again.”

“Don’t lose heart,” he cried, poor fellow--though every look he gave her
took all heart from him--“there’s two of us here to help you, mother,
Val and me. Try to rouse up once more, for Val’s sake, if not for mine.”

She made no answer to this appeal; perhaps she was past understanding
it; her fingers fumbled feebly with the primroses; “I came out--for some
flowers,” she said,--“but I didn’t bring--no basket; ay, lad--it is a
long way--and it’s dark. Is there a tent--Dick? or where are we--to
sleep to-night?”

“Mother, mother dear--home is close by--for God’s sake come home!”

“That----I will!” she said, her voice low and dull and broken,
contrasting strangely with the apparent heartiness of the words. Then
she raised her head feebly for a moment, and looked at them with her
eyes expanding in great circles of light--light which was darkness; and
then dropped back again heavily, upon the green primrose-leaves.

“Has she fainted?” said Valentine, in terror.

“Go and fetch some one!” cried Dick, imperiously commanding his brother
for the first time--“something to carry her home.” He was master of the
moment, in his sudden perception, and in the grief which he only could
fully feel. He did not say what had happened, but he knew it to the
depths of his heart. She had not fainted. She had got away where this
time no one could follow her, or bring her back any mo