A CANADIAN HEROINE.
THE AUTHOR OF "LEAVES FROM THE BACKWOODS."
"Questa chiese Lucia in suo dimando, E disse: Or ha bisogno il tuo fedele Di te, e io a te lo raccomando."—Inferno. Canto II.
"Qu'elles sont belles, nos campagnes; En Canada qu'on vit content! Salut o sublimes montagnes, Bords du superbe St. Laurent! Habitant de cette contree Que nature veut embellir, Tu peux marcher tete levee, Ton pays doit t'enorgueillir."—J. Bedard.
IN THREE VOLUMES. VOL. I.
LONDON: TINSLEY BROTHERS, 8, CATHERINE STREET. STRAND. 1873. [All rights Reserved.]
PRINTED BY TAYLOR AND CO., LITTLE QUEEN STREET, LINCOLN'S INN FIELDS.
A CANADIAN HEROINE.
It was near sunset, and the season was early summer. Every tree was in full leaf, but the foliage had still the exquisite freshness of its first tints, undimmed by dust or scorching heat. The grass was, for the present, as green as English grass, but the sky overhead was more glorious than any that ever bent above an English landscape. So far away it rose overhead, where colour faded into infinite space, that the eye seemed to look up and up, towards the Gate of Heaven, and only through mortal weakness to fail in reaching it. Low down around the horizon there was no blue, but pure, pale green depths, where clouds floated, magnificent in deep rosy and golden splendour. Under such skies the roughest landscape, the wildest forest, softens into beauty; such light and colour, like fairy robes, glorify the most commonplace; but here, earth lent her own charms to be decked by heaven.
Through a quiet landscape went the river—the grand silent flood which by-and-by, many miles further on its course, would make Niagara. Here it flowed calmly, reflecting the sunset, a giant with its energies untaxed and its passions unroused—a kindly St. Christopher, yet capable of being transformed into a destroying Thor. Far away, seen over a low projecting point of land, white sails gleamed now and then, as ships moved upon the lake from whence the river came; and nearer, upon the great stream itself, a few boats were idling. In the bend formed by the point, and quite near the lake, lay a small town, its wooden wharves and warehouses lining the shore for some distance. Lower down, the bank rose high, dropping precipitously to the water's edge; and nearer still, the precipice changed to a steep, but green and wooded bank, and here, on the summit of the bank, stood Mrs. Costello's cottage.
It was a charming white nest, with a broad verandah all embowered in green, so placed as to look out upon the river through a screen of boughs and flowers. If you had seen Mrs. Costello and her daughter sitting upon the verandah, as they were tolerably sure to be found every day while summer lasted, you would have owned that it would be hard to find a prettier picture set in a prettier frame.
This evening they were there alone. Mrs. Costello had her work-table placed at the end nearest the river, and her rocking-chair beside it. Some knitting was in her hands, but she could not knit, for her ball of wool was being idly wound and unwound round her daughter's fingers.
Sitting on a footstool, leaning back against her mother's knee, was this daughter—a child loved (it could almost be seen at a glance) with an absorbing, passionate love. A girl of seventeen, just between child and woman, who seemed to have been a baby but yesterday, and who still, in the midst of her new womanly grace, kept her caressing baby ways. Something unusual, not only in degree but in kind, belonged to her brilliant beauty, and set it off. The marvellous blackness of hair and eyes was so soft in its depth, the tint of her skin so transparent in its duskiness, her slight figure so flexible, so exquisite in its outlines, that it was impossible not to wonder what the type was which produced so perfect an example. Spanish it was said to be, but the child was Canadian by birth, and her mother English; it was clear that whatever race had bestowed Lucia's dower of beauty, it had come to her through her father.
Mother and daughter often sat as now, silent and idle both; Lucia dreaming after her girlish fashion, and Mrs. Costello content to wait and let her life be absorbed in her child's. But to-night Lucia was dreaming of England, the far-away "home" which she had never seen, but of which almost all her elder friends spoke, and where her mother's childhood and girlhood had been passed. She still leaned her head back lazily as she began to talk.
"Are English sunsets as lovely as ours, Mamma?"
Mrs. Costello smiled. "I can't tell," she said; "they are as lovely to me,—but I only see them in memory."
"You have often talked about going home, when shall it be?"
"I have talked of your going, not of mine—that will never be."
"Mamma!" Lucia raised her head. She looked at her mother inquiringly, but somehow she felt that Mrs. Costello could not talk to her just then. A troubled expression crossed her own face for a moment, then she put down the ball of wool and laid her arms caressingly round her mother's waist.
But both again remained silent for many minutes, so silent that the faint wash of the river against the bank sounded plainly, and a woodpecker could be heard making his last tap-tap on a tree by the garden-gate.
By-and-by Mrs. Costello spoke again, as if there had been no interruption. "But about this picnic, Lucia; do you think it would be a great sacrifice to give it up?"
"A great sacrifice? Why, mamma, you must think me a baby to ask such a question. I stayed away from the best one last summer without breaking my heart."
"Last summer I thought you too young for large parties, but this year I have let you go—and, indeed, I do not forbid your going this time. Understand that clearly, my child. I have only fancy, not reason, to set against your wishes."
"Mother, you are not fanciful. Since you wish me to stay at home, I wish it also. Forget the picnic altogether."
She sprang up, kissed her mother's forehead, and darted away to the further end of the verandah, bursting out into a gay song as she leaned over to gather a spray of pale prairie roses that climbed up the trellis-work. The pretty scentless blossoms were but just caught, when a rattling of wheels was heard on the stony lane which led from the high-road to the cottage.
"Who can be coming now? Margery is out, mamma, and the gate is fastened; I must go and open it."
She darted into the house on her errand—for the principal entrance was in the gable end of the building—but before she had had time to cross the parlour and hall to the outer door, the little garden-gate opened, and a very pretty woman in a grey cloak and straw hat came through, and up the verandah steps with the air of a person perfectly at home.
Mrs. Costello rose to meet her with an exclamation.
"Mrs. Bellairs! We never thought of it being you. Lucia is gone to open the gate."
"I found the little one open; so I left Bella to take care of Bob, and came round. In fact, I ought not to be here at all, but as I wanted to persuade you about to-morrow, I ran away the moment dinner was over, and must run back again instantly."
"Sit down, at any rate, while you are here."
She sat down, and taking off her hat, threw it on the floor.
"How delicious this is! I believe you don't know what heat means. I have been half dead all day, and not a moment's rest, I assure you, with the people continually coming to ask some stupid question or to borrow something. The house is half stripped now and I fully expect that before to-morrow night it will be emptied of everything movable in it."
"You are surely getting up something more elaborate than usual; do you expect to have so much pleasure?"
"Oh, I suppose the young people do. Of course, staid matrons like you and me," with a gay laugh, "cannot be quite so sanguine; but, however, they do expect great fun, and I came to implore you to let Lucia come. I assure you I won't answer for the consequences if she does not."
"Lucia shall go if she wishes it." Mrs. Costello spoke gravely, and stopped abruptly. She resumed, "You know I never leave home; and it may be excused to a mother who sees nothing of the world, to fear it a little for her only child."
"Such a child, too! She is growing perfectly lovely. But, then, dear Mrs. Costello, the very idea of calling our tiny backwood's society, 'the world;' and as for Lucia, if you will not come with her, I promise, at any rate, to take the same care of her as I will of my Flo when she is big enough to face our great world."
She spoke laughing, but with some earnestness under the sparkle of her bright eyes; and immediately afterwards rose, saying, "I suppose Bella cannot leave Bob, and Lucia will not leave Bella, so I must go to them; and if Lucia pleases, she may come to-morrow?"
"Yes, yes; I am foolish. She shall come, I promise you for her. And, indeed, I ought to thank you also."
"No, no; I can't expect to be thanked for committing a theft. Good-bye. I shall send Bella to fetch her. Good-bye."
She took up her hat, gave her friend a kiss, and ran down the steps and out again, through the wicket by which she had entered. A minute after the sound of her little carriage rolling away was heard, and Lucia came back flushed and puzzled.
"But, mamma, you have been overpersuaded. Indeed; I do not want to go."
"I think you do, darling; or will do by-and-by. I have quite changed my mind, and promised Mrs. Bellairs to send you to her in the morning; so now all you have to do is to see that your things are ready. Two toilettes to prepare! What an event for such a country girl as you! Come in and let us see."
"Mamma, you know my things are all ready. I don't want to go in. I don't want to go."
"Lucia! Are you changeable, also, then?"
"No, mamma. At least not without cause."
Mrs. Costello smiled, "What is the cause at present?"
Lucia moved impatiently. "Oh, it is so stupid!" she said.
"What is stupid? A picnic?"
"No, people," and she laughed half shyly, half saucily, and blushed deeper still.
"Bella has been telling me—;"
"Telling you what, my child? That people are stupid?"
Lucia sat down again in her old place, and pulled her mother back into hers. Then with her two elbows resting on Mrs. Costello's lap, and her red cheek hidden by her hands, she answered, with a comical sort of disdain and half-affected anger,
"Mamma, just think. At Mrs. Bellairs' to-day, at dinner, Mr. Percy was asking questions about what was going to be done to-morrow, and he did not seem to think, Bella said, that the picnic would be much fun, but he was greatly amused by the idea of dancing in a half-finished house, and wanted to know where they would find enough ladies for partners; so Mr. Bellairs said there were plenty of partners in the neighbourhood, and pretty ones, too; and Mr. Percy made some speech about being already quite convinced of the beauty of the Cacouna ladies. You know the kind of thing a man would say when Mrs. Bellairs and Bella were there. But Mr. Bellairs told him he had not yet seen a fair specimen; but that there was a little half Spanish girl here who would show him what beauty meant. Mamma, was it not dreadfully stupid of him?" And Lucia, in spite of her indignation, could not restrain a laugh as she looked, half shy, half saucy, into her mother's face.
Mrs. Costello laughed too; but there was as deep a flush on her cheek as on her daughter's, and her heart throbbed painfully.
"Well," she said, "but this rara avis was not named?"
"Yes she was. Oh! I can't tell you all; but you know Maurice was there, and Mr. Bellairs told Mr. Percy that he ought to be the best qualified to describe her, because he saw her every day. Then Mr. Percy asked what was her name, and Mr. Bellairs told him. But when Mr. Percy asked Maurice something, he only said, 'Do you believe people can be described, Mr. Percy? I don't; and if I did, I should not make a catalogue of a lady's qualities for the benefit of others.'"
"Well done, Lucia, most correctly reported. Who has been telling tales?"
An unsuspected listener stepped out with these words from the dark parlour on to the verandah; but Lucia, springing up at the sound of his voice, flew past him and disappeared.
He came forward, "Don't be angry, Mrs. Costello. I met Margery at the gate, and she sent me in. I assure you I did not hear more than the last sentence; yet, you see I met with a listener's fate."
"I don't see it at all. On the contrary, you did hear good of yourself."
"I am glad you think so. Lucia is to be with Mrs. Bellairs to-morrow?"
"Yes. She says at present that she will not, but we shall see."
"I left early, and met Mrs. Bellairs and Miss Latour on the way. They told me they had been here."
Maurice leaned against a pillar of the verandah and was silent, his eyes turned to the door through which Lucia had vanished.
The new guest was much too intimate for Mrs. Costello to dream of "making conversation." She sat quite still looking out.
By this time sunset had entirely faded from the sky, and a few stars were beginning to twinkle faintly; but the rising moon, herself invisible, threw a lovely silver brightness over the river and made a flitting sail glimmer out snowy white as it went silently with a zigzag course up the stream. Between the river and the cottage every object began to be visible with that cold distinctness of outline which belongs to clear moonlight,—every rail of the garden fence, every plant that grew beyond the shadow of the building. A tall acacia-tree which stood on one side waved its graceful leaves in the faint breeze, and caught the light on its long clusters of creamy blossom.
Everything was so peaceful that there seemed, even to herself, a strange discord between the scene within and the heavy pain that sunk deep into her heart this evening—a trembling sense of dread—a passionate yet impotent desire to escape. She pressed her hand upon her heart. The motion roused her from her reverie which indeed had lasted but a minute—one of those long minutes when we in one glance seem to retrace years of the past, and to make a fruitless effort to pierce the veil of the future. She rose, and, bidding her companion "Come in," stepped into the little parlour.
A shaded lamp had been brought in and placed on the table, but the flame was turned down so as to throw only a glimmering light just around it. Mrs. Costello turned it up brightly, and opening the door of the adjoining room, called Lucia, who came, slow and reluctant, at the summons. Maurice pushed forward a little chintz-covered chair into its accustomed place by the table, and looked at the wilful girl as much as to say, "Be reasonable and make friends," but she did not choose to see.
"I can't sit indoors," she said, "it is too hot;" so she went and sat down on the doorstep.
Maurice gave a little impatient sigh, and dropped into a chair which stood opposite to Mrs. Costello, but turned so that without positively looking round, he could see the soft flow of Lucia's muslin dress, and the outline of her head and shoulders.
He had brought, as usual, various odds and ends of news, scraps of European politics or gossip, and morsels of home intelligence, such as women who do not read newspapers like to be told by those who do, and he began to talk about them, but with no interest in what he said; completely preoccupied with that obstinate figure in the doorway. By-and-by, however, the figure changed its position; the head was gradually turned more towards the speakers, and Maurice's as gradually was averted until the two attitudes were completely reversed; he and Mrs. Costello appeared to be engrossed in the subject of a conversation which had now grown animated, while Lucia, from her retreat, stole more and more frequent glances at the visitor. At length she rose softly, and stealing, with the shy step of a child who knows it has been naughty, to her own chair, she slipped into it. A half smile came to Maurice's lips, but he knew his old playfellow's moods too well to take the least notice of her movement, and even when she asked him a question, he simply answered it, and did not even look at her in doing so.
An hour passed. Lucia had entirely recovered from her little fit of sulkiness, and, to the great content of Maurice, was, if possible, even more sweet and winning than usual; but nothing had been said of the next day's plans. When the young man rose to leave, however, Lucia followed him out to the verandah to look at the moonlight.
"We shall have a fine day to-morrow" he said.
"Oh, Maurice," she answered, quickly, as if she had been waiting for the opportunity of speaking, "I am sure mamma does not want me to go, and I would so much rather stay at home. Will you go and tell Mrs. Bellairs in the morning for me?"
"Impossible! Why Lucia, this is a mere fancy of yours."
"Indeed it is not. I am quite in earnest."
"But, my dear child, Mrs. Bellairs has your mother's promise, and I do not see how you can break a positive engagement without better reason."
She stood silent, looking down.
"Are you thinking of that foolish conversation at dinner to-day? I wonder Mrs. Bellairs should have repeated it."
"It was Bella Latour who told me."
"Ah," said Maurice, "I forgot her. Of course it was. Well, at any rate, think no more of it."
"That's very easily said," she answered dolorously "but I do think it's not right," she added with energy, the hot colour rushing into her cheeks, "to speak about one so. It is quite impertinent."
Maurice laughed. "Upon my word I believe very few young ladies would agree with you; however, I assure you it would be giving the enemy an advantage to stay away to-morrow, and I suppose, if I constitute myself your highness's body-guard, you will not be afraid of any more impertinence of the same kind."
He said "Good-night," and ran down the steps. As he passed along the path under the verandah where she stood, she took one of the half-faded roses from her belt and flung it at him. He caught it and with mock gallantry pressed it to his heart; but as he turned through the wicket and along the footpath which led to his home close by, he continued twirling the flower in his fingers. Once it dropped, and without thinking he stooped, and picked it up. He carried it into the house with him, and into his own room, where he laid it down upon his writing-table and forgot it.
Meanwhile, Margery had fastened doors and windows at the cottage, and soon all was silent and dark, except the glimmer of Mrs. Costello's lamp which often burned far into the night. Lucia had been long asleep when her mother stole into her room for that last look which it was her habit to take before she lay down. It was a little white chamber which had been fitted up twelve years before for a child's use; but the child had grown almost into a woman, and there were traces of her tastes and occupations all about. There was a little book-shelf, where Puss in Boots, and Goldsmith's History of England, still kept their places, though the Princess had stepped in between them; there was a drawing of the cottage executed under Maurice's teaching; here was a little work-basket, and there a half-written note. Enough moonlight stole in through the window to show distinctly the lovely dark face resting on the pillow, and surrounded by long hair, glossy, and black as jet. Mrs. Costello stood silently by the bedside.
A kind of shudder passed over her. "She is lovely," she said to herself; "but that terrible beauty! If she had had my pale skin and hair, I should have feared less; but she has nothing of that beauty from me. Yet perhaps it is the best; the whole mental nature may be mine, as the whole physical is——" Her hand pressed strongly upon her heart. "I have been at peace so long," she went on, "yet I always knew trouble must come again, and through her; but if it were only for me, it would be nothing. Now she must suffer. I had thought she might escape. But it is the old story, the sins of the fathers——Can no miseries of mine be enough to free her?"
She turned away into her own room, and shut the door softly, so as not to wake her child; yet firmly, as if she would shut out even that child from all share in her solitary burden.
Maurice's prediction of a fine day proved true. At twelve o'clock the weather was as brilliant as possible; the sky blue and clear, the river blue and glittering. The Mermaid, a small steamer, lay in the wharf, gaily decorated with flags; and throngs of people began to gather at the landing and on the deck. Among a group of the most important guests, stood the acknowledged leader of the expedition, the 'Queen of Cacouna,' Mrs. Bellairs. She was talking fast and merrily to everybody in turn, giving an occasional glance to the provision baskets as they were carried on board, and meantime keeping an anxious look-out along the bank of the river, for the appearance of her own little carriage, which ought to have been at the rendezvous long ago.
A very handsome man stood beside her. He was of a type the more striking because specimens of it so rarely found their way in to the fresh, vigorous, hard-working Colonial society. Remarkably tall, yet perfectly proportioned, the roughest backwoodsman might have envied his apparent physical strength; polished in manner to a degree which just, and only just, escaped effeminacy, the most spoiled beauty might have been proud of his homage. At present, however, he stood lazily enough, smiling a little at his hostess' vivacity, exchanging a word or two with her husband, or following the direction of her eyes along the road. At last a cloud of dust appeared. "Here they are, I believe," cried Mrs. Bellairs. "Ah! Maurice, I ought to have sent you, two girls never are to be trusted." Mr. Percy turned round. He was conscious of a little amused curiosity about this Backwoods beauty, and, at hearing this second appeal to Maurice where she was concerned, it occurred to him to look more attentively than he had done before at the person appealed to. They were standing opposite to each other, and they had three attributes in common. Both were tall, both young, and both handsome. Percy was twenty-eight, and looked more than his age. Maurice was twenty-four, and looked less. Percy was fair—his features were admirable—his expression and manner had actually no other fault than that of being too still and languid. Maurice had brown hair, now a little tossed and disordered (for he had been busy all morning on board the boat), a pair of brown eyes of singular beauty, clear and true, and a tolerable set of features, which, like his manner, varied considerably, according to the humour he happened to be in. Percy was a man of the world, understood and respected "les convenances," and never shocked anybody. Maurice knew nothing about the world, and having no more refined rule of conduct than the simple one of right and wrong, which is, perhaps, too lofty for every-day use, he occasionally blundered in his behaviour to people he did not like. At present, indeed, for some reason, by no means clear to himself, he returned the Englishman's glance in anything but a friendly manner.
Bob, the grey pony, trotted down the wharf with his load. Half-a-dozen idlers rushed forwards to help the two girls out of the carriage, and into the boat. Bob marched off in charge of a groom; the paddles began to turn, the flags waved, the band struck up, and the boat moved quickly away down, the stream.
Mrs. Bellairs, relieved from her watch, had sunk into a chair placed on deck, and sent her husband to bring the truants. Maurice remained beside her, and when the rest of the group had a little separated, he bent down and said to her,
"Dear Mrs. Bellairs, don't scold Lucia if the delay is her fault. She had some objection to leaving her mother to-day, and even wanted me to excuse her to you."
"She is a spoiled child," was the answer. "But, however, I will forgive her this once for your sake."
Mr. Percy certainly had not listened, but as certainly he had heard this short dialogue. He was rather bored; he did not find Cacouna very amusing, and had not yet found even that last resource of idle men—a woman to flirt with. He was in the very mood to be tempted by anything that promised the slightest distraction, and there was undeniably something irritating in the idea of there being in the neighbourhood one sole and unapproachable beauty, and of that one being given up by common consent to a boy, a mere Canadian boor! Of course he could not understand that no one else could have seen this matter in the light he did; that everybody, or nearly everybody, thought of Maurice and Lucia as near neighbours and old playfellows, and no more. So he felt a very slight stir of indignation, which, in the dearth of other sensations, was not disagreeable. But then probably the girl was quite over-praised; no beauty at all, in fact. People in these outlandish places did not appreciate anything beyond prettiness. "Here she comes."
He almost said the words aloud as Mr. Bellairs brought her forward, but instantly felt disgusted with himself, and stepped back, almost determined not to look at her at all; yet, after all, he was positively curious, and then he must look at her by-and-by. Too late now,—she was talking to Maurice,—always Maurice,—and had her back completely turned; there was nothing visible but the outline of a tall slight figure. "Not ungraceful, certainly; but Mrs. Bellairs is graceful, and Miss Latour not bad; it must be walking so much. What a gorilla that fellow looks! The women here are decidedly better than the men."
His soliloquy stopped short. Lucia had turned to look at something, and their eyes met. A most lovely crimson flush rushed to her cheeks, and gave her face the only beauty it generally wanted; she instantly turned away again, but Mr. Percy's meditations remained suspended. A few minutes afterwards he walked away to the other end of the boat, and Lucia felt relieved when she caught sight of his tall figure towering among a cloud of muslins and feathers, quite out of hearing. Maurice brought her a stool, and she sat peaceably leaning against the bulwarks, and enjoying the bright day and swift motion, until they reached the small woody island where the party were to dine.
The boat was soon deserted, and the gentlemen occupied themselves in arranging the hampers and packages near to the place chosen for dinner. Then three or four of the most capable being left in charge of the preparations, the rest dispersed in all directions until they should be summoned to their meal.
A number of the young girls, under the guidance of Bella Latour, crossed the island to the edge of a tiny bay, where they stained their fingers with wild strawberries, and washed them in the river. They collected enough fruit to fill all the large leaves they could find, and then sat down under the shade of a tree to enjoy their spoil and "a good talk." This highest of feminine delights, however, was not left uninterrupted. Half-a-dozen gentlemen made their appearance, carrying bows, arrows, targets, etc., and seeking a good place for an impromptu archery-ground. Everybody sprang up, the ground was chosen, bows and arrows distributed, and shouts of laughter began to follow each shot of the unpractised archers. Of the whole group, Bella, Lucia, and May Anderson, a little yellow-haired Scotch girl, were the only ones who had even attempted to shoot before. May was the first whose arrow touched the target at all, and her success was followed by other failures, until Lucia's turn came. Lucia, to confess the truth, was a little out of humour still. She was not enjoying herself at all, though it would have puzzled her to say why, and she took the bow that was offered her, and stepped forward to her place in the laziest way imaginable. A considerable number of lookers-on had by this time gathered round the clear space, and just as she was carelessly raising her bow she caught sight of Mrs. Bellairs' grey cloak, and Mr. Percy's tall figure beside it.
"The fop!" she said to herself. "He thinks we are all half savages," and with the energy of her ill-humour she suddenly changed her attitude, drew her bow, and sent her arrow straight to the centre.
Of course it was all chance. Nobody was more astonished than herself, but at any rate it was a success, and success is always agreeable. Before she had time to peril her new reputation by a second trial, the boat-bell rung to announce dinner, and everybody returned to the place which had been chosen for the meal.
All picnics have a strong family likeness: even in Canada there is nothing new in them. Mr. Percy hated picnics, and found this one neither more nor less stupid than usual. The slight fillip which Lucia had innocently given to his bored faculties, soon subsided. He sat near her at dinner, and thought her stupid; he noticed too that she wore her hat badly, and had a very countrified air, "of course."
The boat returned up the river much more slowly than it had gone down. The elder people were tired, and the younger ones began to think of the evening, and to reserve themselves for it. The band played at intervals, with long pauses, as if the musicians were tired too. Mrs. Bellairs had resumed her chair on deck, but some of the elder ladies were gathered round her; Bella and Lucia sat together in one corner. Dr. Morton, the most desirable parti in Cacouna, was literally, as well as figuratively, at Bella's feet, and Maurice leaned on the railing beside them. Mr. Percy was happier than he had been all day; he had been taken possession of by a pretty young matron—an Englishwoman, who still talked of "home," and they had found out some mutual acquaintance, of whom she was eager to hear news. Yet he was not too much engrossed to perceive the group opposite to him, or even to keep up a kind of half-conscious surveillance over them. At the landing the party dispersed, almost all to meet again in the evening at the unfinished house, which had been appropriated for a ball-room. Mrs. Bellairs drove her sister and Lucia home, leaving Mr. Bellairs and Mr. Percy to follow; and when they arrived, the ladies had shut themselves up in their rooms, to drink tea and rest before dressing.
At nine o'clock, while Mr. Percy was finishing his toilette, his host knocked at the door. "Are you ready?" he asked. "Elise was anxious to see the rooms before anybody arrived, so she and the girls are gone some time ago with Maurice Leigh."
"Gone! Why, Bellairs, what hours do people keep in Canada?"
"In Cacouna they keep reasonable ones, my good cousin; we begin to dance at nine and finish soon after twelve. That accounts for the young people being young. But come, if you are ready."
The house where the dance was to take place stood on a slight elevation, so that its unglazed windows, blazing with light, shone out conspicuously and lighted the approaching guests as they wound their way among the rough heaps of mortar, planks, and various debris left by the workmen. The two gentlemen made their way readily to the open door, and stepped at once into full view of the ball-room.
It was a space of about fifty feet long and thirty wide, running all across the house from back to front. Chandeliers of most primitive construction had been hung from the roof, and so skilfully decked with green that the rough splinters of wood which formed them were completely hidden. Flags and garlands ornamented the rough brick walls, and with plenty of light and flowers, and no small amount of taste and skill, the volunteer decorators had in fact succeeded in making out of rather unpromising materials, a very gay and brilliant-looking saloon.
A small space near the door had been railed off, and served as a passage to the dressing-rooms, from which sounds of voices and laughter came merrily, though the ball-room itself was at present quite empty.
"Your neighbours are not quite so punctual as you would have me believe," said Mr. Percy; "there is not even a fiddler visible."
At that moment Mrs. Bellairs put her head out of a dressing-room. "Oh, William!" she said, "I'm so glad you are come. Have you seen Maurice or Henry Scott?"
"No indeed. Where are your fiddlers?"
"Just what I want to know. When we came they had not arrived, and Henry was gone to look for them. Maurice only waited a few minutes, and finding they did not come, he went too. What shall we do?"
"Wait, I suppose. They are sure to be here immediately. I only hope they will arrive tolerably sober."
Mrs. Bellairs shrugged her shoulders and retreated. Mr. Percy smiled rather contemptuously.
"Do these accidents often happen?" he asked.
"Dear me! no. I never knew anything to go wrong where Elise had the management, before. But I must go and look if they are coming."
He hurried out, but scarcely passed the doorway when the lost musicians appeared, under the guidance of Maurice and Henry Scott. They were not, perhaps, quite beyond suspicion as to sobriety, but there was no fear of their being unable to do their duty reasonably well. The happy news of their arrival being made known by the commencement of a vigorous tuning, the doors of the dressing-rooms opened, and the ball-room began to fill.
The common opinion of Cacouna had undoubtedly been that Mr. Percy—the Honourable Edward Percy, whose name was in the Peerage—would dance the first quadrille with Mrs. Bellairs. But sovereigns are permitted to be capricious, especially female ones, and the Queen of Cacouna was not above the weaknesses of her class. Perhaps Mr. Percy—who was certainly bored himself—bored her a little. At any rate she signified her intention of bestowing her hand upon an elderly gentleman, the owner of the house, to whom, as she said, they were so much indebted for his kindness in allowing them to metamorphose it as they had done.
The gentleman, thus left at liberty to choose his own partner, found his eyes turning naturally to Lucia; but before he had quite made up his mind, Maurice came up to her.
"Lucia," he said, "I shall be obliged to give up my quadrille. It is a great nuisance; but keep the next for me, will you not?"
She nodded and smiled, and he hurried off.
Mr. Percy still stood undecided. His cousin touched him on the shoulder, "Are not you going to dance?" he asked.
"I suppose so," with the slightest possible shrug. "Miss Costello, if you are disengaged, will you dance this quadrille with me?"
Lucia turned when he spoke. The same deep crimson flush came to her face as when their eyes had first met that morning. She felt angry with him for asking her, and with Maurice for having left her free. She longed to say to him some of the civil impertinences women can use to men they dislike, but she was too great a novice, and found no better expedient than to accept the invitation as coolly as it was given. Probably, however, Mr. Percy attributed her blush to a cause very different from its real one; or else there was something soothing and agreeable in finding himself in possession of incomparably the prettiest partner in the room, for he began almost immediately to feel less bored, and positively roused himself to the extent of making some exertion to please his reluctant companion.
Now, it was all very well for Lucia to be cross, and to nurse her crossness to the last possible minute, but a girl of sixteen, however pretty and however spoiled, is not generally gifted with sufficient strength of mind or badness of temper, to remain quite insensible to the good qualities of a handsome man, who evidently wishes to make himself agreeable to her. When the man in question is the lion of the day, probably his success becomes inevitable; at all events, Lucia gradually recovered her good humour, and kept up her part of the broken chat possible under the circumstances, with enough grace and spirit to give to her extraordinary beauty the last crowning charm which Percy had not, until then, found in it.
Thus they finished their quadrille in good humour with each other, but as they left their place to rejoin Mrs. Bellairs, Maurice Leigh came into the room by a side door. The sight of him reminded Mr. Percy of the short dialogue he had heard.
"You are engaged for the next quadrille, are you not?" he asked Lucia.
"Yes, to Maurice. I promised it to him instead of the first."
"You were to have danced this one with him, then?"
She laughed. "It is a childish arrangement of ours," she said; "we agreed, long ago, always to dance the first quadrille together, and everybody knows of it, so no one asks me for that."
"I wonder at his being willing to miss his privilege to-night; you must be very indulgent, not to punish him."
"Oh! you know he is acting as a kind of steward to-night and has so many things to do. It was not his fault."
"And you would have waited patiently for him?"
"Patiently? I don't know. Certainly I should have waited, for no one but a stranger would have asked me to dance."
"I hope, however, you forgive me."
They had reached Mrs. Bellair's, and she only answered by a smile as she sat down. A minute after, she was carried off by another partner, and Mr. Percy took possession of the vacant place.
The evening passed on. At the end of it, Mr. Percy, shut up in his own room, surprised himself in the midst of a reverie the subject of which was Lucia Costello; he actually found himself comparing her with a certain Lady Adeliza Weymouth, of whom he had been supposed to be epris the season before. But then Lady Adeliza had no particular claim to beauty; she was "distinguished" and of a powerful family; as for Lucia, on the other hand, she was——There! it was no use going off into that question. A great deal more sense to go to bed.
Meantime Lucia, under Maurice's escort, was on her way home. They had started, talking gaily enough, but before half the distance was passed they grew silent.
After a long pause Maurice asked, "Are you very tired?"
Lucia's meditation had carried her so far away that she started at the sound of his voice.
"Tired? oh, no! At least not very much."
"And you have enjoyed the day after all?"
"Pretty well. Not much, I think."
"I thought you looked happy enough this evening. Come, confess you are glad you did not stay at home."
"Indeed, I will not; mamma, I am sure, wished me to stay?"
"Yet she made you come."
"Yes, because she thought I wanted to do so. Maurice, do you think she looks ill?"
"No, I have not noticed it. Does she complain?"
"Mamma complain! A thing she never does. But it seems to me that something is different. I can't tell what. She goes out less than ever, and seems to dislike my leaving her." Lucia longed to say, "She has some trouble; some heavy anxiety; can you guess what it is?" but she had an instinctive consciousness, that even to this dear and tried friend, she ought not to speak of a subject on which Mrs. Costello was invariably silent. Even to herself, a certain darkness hung over her mother's past life; there were years of it of which she felt utterly ignorant. Whatever was the cloud of the present, it might be connected with the recollections of those years; this thought checked her even while she spoke.
Whether Maurice had any similar reason for reticence or not, he only said, "I do not think she would hide anything from you which need give you uneasiness. I advise you not to torment yourself causelessly."
"I am not tormenting myself; but I think yours is a miserable plan. You would have people feel no sympathy for the troubles of others, unless they can be paraded in so many words."
"Decidedly you must be very tired, or you would take the trouble to understand me better."
He put down his whip, to draw her cloak more closely round her, for the dewy night air was chill, but she pushed it away.
"I am quite warm, thank you. How long the road seems to-night! Shall we ever be at home?"
"We are almost there. See, that is your own acacia-tree."
"I am so glad. Don't turn up the lane. I can run up there perfectly well by myself."
"Indeed you will not. Sit still, if you please."
"How tiresome you are, Maurice! You treat me just as if I were a baby."
"Do I? A bad habit, I suppose. I will try to cure myself."
His tone was so quiet, so free from either ridicule or anger, that she grew more impatient still.
"Now pray do let me get out. I can see Mr. Leigh's light burning still, as well as mamma's. They must both be tired of waiting. Why does your father always sit up for you, Maurice? Is he afraid to trust you?"
"Lucia!" His tone was angry now, and silenced her. In another minute they stopped at the gate of the cottage.
Mrs. Costello had heard the sound of their wheels, and instantly opened the door. Lucia's half-formed intention of making some kind of apology for her petulance, had no time to ripen. Maurice helped her down without speaking, bade her good night, exchanged a word or two with her mother, and drove slowly away again.
Mother and daughter went in together to Lucia's room; but Mrs. Costello, noticing that her child looked pale and weary, left her almost immediately. Lucia instantly flew to the window. The farmhouse where Mr. Leigh and Maurice lived was so near that the lights in its different windows could be plainly distinguished. After a moment, the one which had been burning steadily as they passed the house, flickered suddenly, disappeared, and then, shone more brightly through the opening door.
"He is at home," said Lucia to herself. "Poor Maurice, how good he is! What on earth made me so cross?"
She continued to watch. Presently the light which had returned to the sitting-room vanished altogether, and a fainter gleam stole out from what she knew to be the window of Maurice's room. She said "Good-night" softly, as if he could hear her, dropped her curtain, and was soon fast asleep.
That night Mrs. Costello's lamp was extinguished long before Maurice's. Tired and dispirited, he had seated himself before his little writing-table, and given himself up to a dream of no pleasant kind. It was so completely the habit of his life to think of Lucia that it would have been strange if her image had not been prominent in his meditations; but to-night for the first time he tried to get rid of this image. He was used to her whims and changing moods, to her waywardness and occasional tyranny. When he was a boy they had often quarrelled, and taxed the efforts of his sister Alice, Lucia's inseparable friend, to reconcile them; but since his long absence at college, and, above all, since Alice's death, they had ceased to torment each other. The relations of master and pupil had been added to those of playfellows, and their intercourse had run on so smoothly that until to-night Maurice had never known his charge's full power to irritate him. Like most persons of steady and equable temperament, he felt deeply annoyed, even humiliated, by having been surprised into impatience and anger; he was doubly displeased with himself and with Lucia. Yet, as he thought of her his mood softened; she was only a child, and would be good to-morrow. But then she could not always be a child—a girl of sixteen ought to be beginning to be reasonable; and then she did not look such a child. He had been struck by that idea at one particular moment of this very evening. It was when he had returned to the ball-room at the close of the first quadrille, and had met Lucia walking up the room with Mr. Percy. They had been talking together with animation; Lucia was a little flushed, and looking more lovely than usual. Mr. Percy, for his part, appeared to have forgotten his cool, almost supercilious manner, and to be occupied more with her than with himself.
Maurice felt his cheek grow red as he recalled the picture. He moved impatiently, and in doing so, displaced some loose papers, which slipped to the ground. In stooping to gather them up, his hand touched a dead flower, which had fallen with them. It was Lucia's rose. He was just about to throw it down again, when his hand stopped. "She spoke of something different," he muttered; "are the old times coming to an end, I wonder? Times must change, I suppose." He sighed, and instead of throwing the rose away, he slipped it into an envelope and locked it into his desk.
The Honourable Edward Percy was the younger son of the Earl of Lastingham, and might therefore be readily excused if he considered himself a person of some importance in a country where a baronetcy is the highest hereditary dignity, and where many of the existing "honourables" began life as country storekeepers or schoolmasters. It is true that in his own proper orbit, this luminary appeared but a star of small magnitude, his handsome person and agreeable qualities making slight compensation for a want of fortune which he had always considered a special hardship in his own case; regarding himself as admirably fitted by nature for spending money, and knowing by experience that his abilities were totally inadequate to saving it. His family was not rich; so far from it, indeed, that the great object of the Earl had been to marry his daughters like Harpagon's "sans dot," a task which was not yet satisfactorily accomplished; and all he had been able to do for his younger son, had been to use the very small political influence he possessed, to start him in life as an attache.
So the young man had seen various Courts, and improved his French and German; and at nearly thirty years of age he had begun to think that it was time to take another step in life.
This idea was strengthened by a short conversation with his father. He had paid a visit to Lastingham with the double object of attending the marriage of one of his sisters, and of trying to persuade the Earl to pay some inconvenient debts. But the moment he mentioned, with due caution, this second reason for his arrival, he found it a hopeless cause. He represented that his income was small, and his prospects of advancement extremely slender.
"Marry," said the Earl.
"Thank you. I would rather not. I want to get rid of my incumbrances, not to increase them."
"Marry," repeated the Earl.
"But whom?" asked his son, staggered by this oracular response.
"She's fifty, at least."
"And has a hundred thousand pounds."
"She would not have me."
"You are growing modest."
"Not in that respect. She has refused half-a-dozen offers every season for the last twenty years."
"What would be the use of that?"
"Too many sons in the way."
"Lady Adeliza Weymouth?"
Percy made a slight grimace.
"She is a year older than I am, and has a red nose; otherwise——"
"You had better think of it, at any rate," said the Earl, "and try if she will have you. Depend upon it, a sensible marriage is the best thing for you."
On which advice the son had dutifully acted. Fortune favoured him so far as to give him opportunities of cultivating the good graces of Lady Adeliza, and matters appeared to be going on prosperously. It seemed, however, that either the gentleman found wooing in earnest to be a more fatiguing business than he had anticipated, or he thought that a short absence might increase the chances in his favour, for on the slightest possible pretence of being sent out by Government he started off one day for Canada.
Now, when Lord Lastingham had spoken so wisely about a sensible marriage, he had been drawing lessons from his own experience. The late Countess had been a very charming woman, of good family, but, like her daughters, "sans dot;" and the infatuation which caused so imprudent a connection not having lasted beyond the first year of matrimony, the Earl had had plenty of time to repent and to calculate, over and over again, how different the fortunes of his house might have been, had he acted, himself, upon the principles he recommended to his son. It was with some displeasure that he heard Edward's intention of giving up, for a while, his pursuit of a desirable bride, and this displeasure was not lessened by hearing that the truant intended prolonging his expedition, for the purpose of visiting his mother's nephew, William Bellairs.
The journey, however, was made without any opposition on the Earl's part. Mr. Percy spent a few weeks in Quebec, then the seat of Government, and travelling slowly westward arrived finally at his cousin's house at Cacouna. Mr. Bellairs was a barrister in good practice; his pretty wife, a Frenchwoman by descent, had brought him a fortune of considerable amount for the colonies, and knew how to make his house sufficiently attractive. Both received their English relative with hearty hospitality, and thus it happened that the even current of Cacouna society was disturbed by the appearance of a visitor important enough to be a centre of attraction.
The morning after the picnic Mr. Bellairs proposed to his guest that they should drive along the river-bank to some rapids a few miles distant, which formed one of the objects to which visitors to Cacouna were in the habit of making pilgrimages. They went accordingly, in a light waggon, and having duly admired the rapids, and the surrounding scenery, started for home. Their way led past the Leighs' house and the end of the lane leading to Mrs. Costello's. Mr. Bellairs pointed them both out to his companion.
"Do you see that cottage close to the river? That is the nest of the prettiest bird in Cacouna; and in this long white house to the right lives my most hopeful pupil and my wife's right hand, Maurice Leigh."
"Miss Costello told me they were near neighbours," said Mr. Percy. "Has she no father or brother, that she seems to be so much the property of this pupil of yours?"
"No, indeed, poor girl! Her father died, I believe, when she was an infant. Mrs. Costello came here twelve years ago, a widow, with this one child."
"Is young Leigh any relation?"
Mr. Bellairs laughed. "Not at present certainly, though I have thought it would come to that by-and-by. It is only a case of devoted friendship. Alice Leigh, Maurice's sister, and Lucia used to be always together; but poor Alice died, and I suppose Maurice felt bound to make up to Lucia for the loss."
"Who or what are the Leighs then? It is a queer-looking place."
"Mr. Leigh is an Englishman; he came out here many years ago with a young wife; she is dead and so are all her children except Maurice. Father and son live there together alone."
"I don't of course pretend to know how you manage such things in Canada, but it appears to me that a beautiful girl, like Miss Costello, might expect a better match, at least if one is to judge of the Leighs by their house."
"I am not sure that we should call Maurice a bad match for any girl. With a fair amount of brains, and a great capacity for work, he would be sure to get on in a country like ours, even if he were less thoroughly a good fellow. He has but two faults; he is too scrupulous about trifles, and a little too Quixotic in his ideas about women. However, my wife will never let me say that."
The subject did not interest Mr. Percy; he began to ask questions about something else, and they soon after reached home. Later in the day Mrs. Bellairs met him coming in extremely bored from her husband's office.
"I am going to pay some visits," she said, "are you disposed to go with me?"
"Most thankfully," he answered. "I have been listening to half-a-dozen cases of trespass, not a single word of which I could understand. It will be doing me the greatest kindness to take me into civilized society."
"I thought," she said laughing, "that you came to the backwoods to escape civilized society."
"If I did," he replied, handing her into the pony-carriage, "it is quite clear that I made a happy mistake."
"I am going first," she said, as soon as Bob was fairly in motion, "to the Parsonage. Mr. and Mrs. Bayne were to have been with us yesterday, but one of the children was ill, and I must inquire after it."
Mr. Percy's politeness just enabled him to suppress a groan. He had seen Mrs. Bayne once, and not been delighted,—and a sick child! However, duty before all. They stopped at the gate of the Parsonage. It was a tolerably large house, standing on a sloping lawn, overlooking the river on one side and the little town on the other; but the lawn was entered only by a wicket, so that Bob had to be fastened to the railing, while the visitors walked up to the house.
The moment they were seen approaching three or four children ran out of the hall, where they were playing, and fell upon Mrs. Bellairs.
"Don't eat me," she cried, kissing them all in turn. "Which is the invalid? Where is mamma?"
"It was Nina," shouted a chorus; "she fell into the river. Mamma's in the house."
By this time they had reached the door, and Mrs. Bayne appeared, having been attracted by their voices. She was a little woman, thin and worn, so worn indeed, by many children and many cares, that she looked fifty instead of thirty-five. She had on a faded dress, and her collar and cuffs had been soiled and crumpled by the attacks of her younger boys and girls, especially the fat baby she held in her arms; but she had long ago ceased to be embarrassed by the shabbiness of her toilette, or the inevitable disorder of her sitting-room. She found seats for her guests, and to do so pushed into the background the baby's cradle and an old easy-chair, in which the luckless Nina was sitting bundled up in shawls.
Mrs. Bellairs took the baby, which instantly became absorbed in trying to pull out the long feather of her hat, drew her chair close to the little invalid, and began to inquire into the accident. Mr. Percy, determined to make the best of his circumstances, endeavoured to make friends with the heir of the house, a sturdy boy of nine or ten, but as the young gentleman declined to do anything, except put his finger in his mouth and stare, he found himself without other occupation than that of listening to the conversation of the two ladies.
"It was the night before last," Mrs. Bayne was saying; "they were playing on the bank, and Miss Nina chose to climb into a tree that overhangs the river. Of course when she got up, the most natural thing in the world was that she should slip down again, but unluckily she did not fall on the grass, but into the water."
Mrs. Bellairs shuddered. "What an awful risk!"
"My dear, they are always running risks. I am sure among the seven there is always one in danger."
"Well, Charlie ran to the study to his papa, and when Mr. Bayne went out, there was Nina, who had been partly stunned by her fall, beginning to float away with the current. Fortunately she had fallen in so near the edge that the water was very shallow, and if she had been in possession of her senses, she might have dragged herself out I dare say; but, you know, the current is very strong, and her papa had to get into the river a little lower down and catch her as she was passing."
"And she was insensible?"
"Not quite when they brought her in, but then unluckily her wetting brought on ague again, and she was shivering all night."
"Poor Nina!" and Mrs. Bellairs turned to the miserable pale child, who looked as if another shivering fit were coming on. "You must make haste and get better, and come and stay with Flo for a while. We never have ague."
"You are fortunate," sighed Mrs. Bayne. "I wish that wretched swamp could be done something to."
"So do I, with all my heart. I must tease William into giving the people no rest until they do it."
"You will be doing us and our poor neighbours at the shanties no small service. Ague is dreadfully bad there just now."
A frantic pull at Mrs. Bellairs' hat from the baby interrupted the conversation, and the visitors rose to go.
When they were once more on the road Mrs. Bellairs turned laughingly to her companion, "Tell me," she said, "don't you agree with me that a visit to the Parsonage furnishes a tolerably strong argument in favour of a clergy such as the Roman Catholic?"
"That is, an unmarried one? Are many of your clergymen's wives like Mrs. Bayne?"
"If you mean are they worn out, overworked women? Yes, I believe so. How can they help it indeed, when one hundred a year is a very ordinary amount for a clergyman's income?"
Mr. Percy shrugged his shoulders. "I agree with you entirely. No man ought to marry under those circumstances. But I wish you would enlighten me on one point,—what are shanties?"
"Log-houses of the roughest possible kind, such as are built in the woods for the gangs of lumberers; that is, you know, the men who cut down the trees and prepare them for shipping."
"But Mrs. Bayne said something about shanties near here."
"Yes. Beyond their house, there lies, along the river, a swamp of no great extent, which ought to have been drained long ago. Beyond that, on the edge of the bush, is a large saw-mill, and the families of the men employed at this mill live in shanties close by. Every spring and autumn the sickness among them is terrible, and sometimes there are bad cases all through the summer. But you may imagine what it is among those people in their wretched damp, unventilated homes, when even the Baynes suffer as poor little Nina is doing now, and did most of the spring."
"Delightful country!" said Mr. Percy, "and people positively like to live here."
"Yes!" replied Mrs. Bellairs, with spirit, "and with good cause. As for what I have been telling you, has not England been quite as bad? I have heard that in Lincolnshire, and the adjoining counties, not a lifetime ago, ague was as prevalent as in our worst districts. The same means which destroyed it there, will do so here; the work is half accomplished already, for this very road on which we are driving was, twenty years ago, little better than a bog along which it was not safe for a horse to pass."
"Wonderful energy your people must have, certainly. Where are we going next?"
Mrs. Bellairs was provoked. She was an ardent lover of her country; and to talk of its advantages and disadvantages with an interested companion was to her a keen pleasure; the intense indifference of Mr. Percy's reply, therefore, made her regard him for a moment with anything but goodwill. She gave Bob a sharp "flick" with her whip, and paused a minute before answering; when she did speak, it was with a little malice.
"I suppose you have not yet had time to call on Maurice Leigh? I can take you there now if you like. I often go to see old Mr. Leigh."
"Thank you. I saw young Leigh just now at William's office."
"I am going to the Cottage then, that is, Mrs. Costello's."
They were almost at the turning of the lane as she spoke, and directly after came in sight of the pretty low house, standing in a perfect nest of green. They stopped at the gate; and Margery, a decent middle-aged woman, immediately came out to open it. She took hold of the pony like an old acquaintance, and fastened him to a post in such a way that he could amuse himself by nibbling the grass which grew along the little-frequented path; then smoothing down her white apron, ushered the visitors into the parlour. The room was very dark, the Venetian shutters being closed and blinds drawn down to keep out the glare and heat of the day, but the flicker of a white dress on the verandah showed where the two ladies were to be found. Mrs. Bellairs stepped out, and was greeted by a cry of delight from Lucia.
"Oh, you are good! Is Bella here?"
"Bella is gone to the Scotts', but Mr. Percy is with me."
Lucia grew demure instantly, as the second guest came forward. "Mamma is there," she said, and made room for them to pass along the verandah.
Mrs. Bellairs presented her companion to her friend, and more chairs were brought out, that the new-comers might enjoy the cool breeze and shade. Mr. Percy might have preferred a seat near Lucia; fortune, however, placed him beside her mother, and, like a wise man, he applied himself to make the best of his position. How little trouble this cost him he did not discover until afterwards; but, in fact, he had rarely met with a woman who, by her own personal qualities, was so well fitted to inspire feelings of both friendship and respect as this quiet undemonstrative Mrs. Costello.
Lucia and Mrs. Bellairs meantime had discussed yesterday and its doings, and passed to other plans of amusement—rides, drives, and fishing parties. Time passed, as pleasant times often do, without anything particular being said or done, to mark its flight, and the call had lasted nearly an hour before it came to a close.
When it did, permission had been wrung from Mrs. Costello for Lucia to spend a long day with Mrs. Bellairs, at a farm in the country, which belonged, jointly, to her and her sister. The whole family were to drive out from Cacouna in the morning, calling for Lucia, and were to bring her back in the evening.
"Let us go this way," said Mrs. Bellairs, turning to the steps which led down into the garden. Lucia followed her. "You have not seen my new roses," she said. "Do come and look at them."
"Bella told me you had some fine ones," answered Mrs. Bellairs, "but I have not patience to look at my neighbours' flowers this year, mine have been such a failure."
"These certainly are not a failure," said Mr. Percy, as they reached a bed of beautiful roses in full bloom. "Have you any flower-shows in Canada? You ought to exhibit, Miss Costello."
Lucia laughed. "What chance should I have? They say an amateur never can compete with a professed gardener, and ours is all amateur work."
"Is it possible? Do you mean to say that you do actually cultivate your flowers with your own hands?"
"Certainly, with a little help from my friends." She was about to say "from Maurice," but changed the phrase. "If you saw me at work here in the mornings, you would at least give me credit for trying to cultivate them."
"Should I? You tempt me to take a peep into your Eden some morning when you are gardening."
"Pray don't," she answered, laughing. "The effects would be too dreadful."
"What would they be?"
"The moment you caught sight of my working costume you would be seized with such a horror of Backwoods manners and customs that you would fly, not only from Cacouna, but from Canada, at the expense of I do not know what business of State."
"I wonder why you, and so many of your neighbours, seem to think of an Englishman as if he were a fine lady. That has not generally been the character of the race."
Lucia felt inclined to say, "We do not think so of all Englishmen;" but she held her tongue. Either intentionally, or by accident, Mr. Percy had stood, during this short dialogue, in such a manner as to prevent her from following Mrs. Bellairs when she turned back from the rose-bed; and, in spite of her sauciness, she was too shy to make any effort to pass. He moved a little now, and she had half escaped, when he said, "I have not seen a really beautiful rose in Canada till now; may I have one?"
She was obliged to go back and gather one of her pet flowers for him; then choosing another for Mrs. Bellairs, she carried it to her friend, who, by this time had reached the pony-carriage, and was just taking her seat.
Lucia gave her the rose, and then remained standing by the little gate until Bob's head was turned towards home, when his mistress suddenly checked him.
"Oh! Lucia," she called out, "I had nearly forgotten; will you give Maurice a message for me?"
"Yes, if I see him," and for the first time in her life, Lucia blushed at Maurice's name. But then Mr. Percy was looking at her.
"'If you see him,'" laughed Mrs. Bellairs "tell him, please, that I want him to pay me a little visit to-morrow morning before he goes to the office. Say that it is very important and will only detain him a few minutes."
"Mind you don't forget. Good-bye."
"'Maurice,' 'Maurice,'" said Lucia, pettishly to herself. "It seems as if there was no one in the world but Maurice."
There was an odd coincidence at that moment between Lucia's thoughts and Mr. Percy's; neither, however, said anything about them to their companions.
Mrs. Costello was quietly knitting, when her daughter came slowly back, up the steps of the verandah, but Lucia was too restless and dissatisfied to sit down. She wanted something, and had not the least idea what. At last, she began to think that staying at home all day had made her feel so cross and uncomfortable.
"Mamma, do come for a walk," she said, putting her arm round her mother. "Come, I am tired of the house."
"You are tired, darling, I believe. Remember how late you were last night. But it is tea-time now."
"Oh, what a nuisance! I can go out afterwards, though."
"Yes, I dare say Maurice will walk with you."
"Mamma, I think I shall go to bed."
"In the meantime sit down here and talk to me."
She dropped down on the floor, and laid her head on her mother's lap.
"Talk to me, mamma. Talk about England."
An old, old theme. Mother and daughter had talked about England, the far-away Mother Land, many many hours full of pleasure to both; to one the subject had all the enchantment of a fairy tale, to the other of the tenderest and sweetest recollections. Lucia had heard, over and over again, each detail of the landscape, each incident in the history, of her mother's birthplace; she knew the gentle invalid mistress and the kind stern master, her grandfather and grandmother; she had loved to gather into her garden the flowers which had grown about the grey walls of the old house by the Dee; the one wish she had cherished from a child was to see with living eyes all that was so familiar to her fancy. But to-day, though she said, "Talk about England," it was not of all this she wished to hear; and an instinctive feeling that it was not, kept Mrs. Costello from speaking. She laid her hand gently upon her child's head and remained silent. Lucia was silent, also. She wanted her mother to talk, yet hesitated to ask her the questions she wanted answered. At last she said abruptly,
"Mamma, did you ever gossip?"
Mrs. Costello laughed.
"Do you think I never do now, then? I am afraid I cannot say as much for myself."
"I never hear you. But when you were a girl, you must have heard things about people."
"No doubt I did. And I suppose that, as I lived in almost as quiet a neighbourhood as this, I must have been curious and interested about a new-comer, much as you are."
Lucia turned her head a little, and smiled to herself.
"And then?" she said.
"Then most likely I asked questions, and found out all I could about the new-comer, which, I suppose, you have been doing about Mr. Percy. Bella Latour ought to be a good authority."
"I have not asked any questions. I thought perhaps you might know something about him, or at least about his family."
"About him I certainly know nothing. It is twenty years since I left England, and he would then be only a child. His father I have seen two or three times. Mr. Percy resembles him extremely."
"Was he a handsome man, then?"
"Very handsome. And Lady Lastingham was said to be a most beautiful woman."
"You never saw her?"
"No, she died young. Lord Lastingham married her, as people said, for love; that is to say, her great beauty tempted him. They were very poor, and he was not of a character to bear poverty. She was good and amiable, but he wearied of her, and scarcely pretended to feel her death as a loss."
"Oh! mamma, how could that be possible? if he married her for love?"
"For what he called love, at least. There are men, my child, and perhaps women also, whose only kind of love is a fancy, like a child's for a toy. They see something which attracts them; they try their utmost to obtain it. If they fail, they soon forget their disappointment; if they succeed, they are delighted for the moment, until, the novelty having worn off, they discover that they have paid too dearly for their gratification, and throw aside their new possession in disgust."
Mrs. Costello spoke earnestly, and with a kind of suppressed passion. It seemed as if her words had an application beyond Lucia's knowledge; yet they awed her strangely. Could they be true? Who then could be trusted? for according to her mother's story, Lord Lastingham had not merely deceived his wife, he had deceived himself also, with this counterfeit love. She fell into a reverie, which lasted till the noise of cups and saucers, as Margery brought in tea, put it to flight.
Two or three weeks passed. The inhabitants of Cacouna had grown accustomed to the sight of Mr. Percy's tall figure, as he lounged from his cousin's house to his office, or rode and drove with Mrs. Bellairs. From different causes, the project of spending the day at the farm, as well as some other schemes of amusement, had been deferred, and, with one or two exceptions, all was going on as usual. The most notable of these exceptions was in the life at the cottage, formerly so calm, so regular, so smooth in its current. Now a change had crept over both mother and daughter, and the very atmosphere of the house seemed to have changed with them.
In Lucia, even a casual visitor would have remarked the difference. Her beauty seemed suddenly to have burst from bud into blossom; her childishness of manner had almost left her; her voice, especially in singing, had grown more full and musical.
In Mrs. Costello, the change was the reverse of all this. Mrs. Bellairs and Maurice Leigh, the two people, who, except her daughter, loved her best, grieved over her unrested, pallid face, and noticed that her soft brown hair had more and more visible streaks of grey. They thought her ill, and each had said so, but she answered so positively that nothing was the matter, that they were unable to do more than seem to accept her assurances. But to Lucia, when, with a tenderness which seemed to have grown both deeper and more fitful, she would implore to be told the cause of such evident suffering, Mrs. Costello gave a different answer.
"I have told our friends the truth," she said; "I am not ill in body, but a little anxious and disturbed in mind. Have patience for a while, my darling, the time for you to share all my thoughts is, I fear, not far distant."
So Lucia waited, too full of life and happiness herself to be much troubled even by the shadow resting on her mother, and growing daily more absorbed in a strange new delight of her own—seeing all things through a new medium, and filling her heart too full of the joy of the present, to leave room in it for one grave fear of the future.
Wonderful alchemy of the imagination, which can draw from a nature ignoble, and altogether earthly, nourishment for dreams so sweet and so sunny! Lucia's fancy had made for her a picture, such as most girls make for themselves once in their lives, and the portrait was as unfaithful as the original himself could have desired. Mr. Percy had become almost a daily visitor at the Cottage. Attracted by Lucia's beauty, he came, as he would have said, had he spoken frankly, to amuse himself during a dull visit, with no thought but that of entertaining himself and her for the moment. But, in fact, the magnet had more power over him than he knew; he came, because, without a much stronger effort of self-denial than was possible to him, he could not stay away. And though he thought himself free, Lucia had in her heart an unacknowledged sense of power over him; the old ability to torment, which she had so often exercised on Maurice in mere girlish playfulness. Once or twice she had purposely exerted this power over her new acquaintance, but not with her old carelessness; too deeply interested in the question of how far it extended, she used it with trembling as a dangerous instrument which might fail, and wound her in its recoil. But as days passed on, and each one brought him to the Cottage, or found Lucia with Mrs. Bellairs, and therefore in his society, it began to seem incredible that his coming was an event of only a few weeks ago; the past seemed to have receded, and this present, so bright and perfect, to be all her life. Yet, in truth, she had no notion of anatomizing her thoughts or feelings. They had come to be largely, almost wholly occupied by a new inmate, but she was simply content that it should be so, without once considering the subject.
One person, however, spent many bitter thoughts upon this recent change. To Maurice Leigh every day had brought a more thorough knowledge of Lucia's infatuation and of his own loss. He had loved her almost all his life, and would love her faithfully now, and always; but he began to be aware now, that he required more of her than the affection which he could still claim; that he wanted her daily companionship; her sympathy in all that interested him; her confidence with regard to all that concerned herself. He wanted all this; but he could do without it: he could love her and wait, if that were all. But what was hardest, nay, almost unendurable, was the anticipation of her day of disenchantment, when she must see the truth as he saw it now, and find herself thrown aside to learn, in solitude and suffering, how blindly she had suffered herself to be duped by a fair appearance. For, of course, Maurice was unjust. Seeing Lucia daily as she grew up, he had no idea how much the charm of her grace and beauty had influenced even him, and failed utterly to estimate their effect upon others. He said to himself that Mr. Percy was a mere selfish fop, who, tired of the amusements of Europe and too effeminate for the hardier enjoyments of a new country, was driven by mere emptiness of head to occupy himself with the pursuit of the prettiest woman he met with.
Meanwhile Mr. Percy came and went, and found in his visits to the Cottage an entirely new kind of distraction. It was strange to him to find himself welcomed and valued, genuinely, if shyly, for his own sake. He had known vulgar women, who had flattered him because he was the son of an earl; and prudent ones who gave him but a carefully measured civility, because he was a portionless younger son. Here he knew that both facts were absolutely nothing; and egotist as he was, this knowledge stirred most powerfully such depths as his nature possessed. In Lucia's presence he became almost as unworldly as herself; he gave himself up half willingly, half unconsciously to the enjoyment of feelings which no woman less thoroughly simple and natural could have awakened; but, it is true that when he left her he left also this strange region of sensations—he returned precisely to his former self.
The only person, perhaps, who did him strict and complete justice was Mrs. Costello. She, who had peculiar reasons for looking with unspeakable terror upon the suitors whom her child's beauty was certain to attract, had weighed each look, word, gesture—gleaned such knowledge as she could of his life, past and present, and judged him at last with an accuracy which her intense interest in the subject made almost perfect. Over this result she both rejoiced and lamented; but for the present the one idea most constantly and strongly present to her was that Lucia must pass by-and-by, only too soon, out of the sweet hopes and dreams of girlhood, into the deep shadow which continually rested upon her own heart. She knew how youth, which has never suffered, rebels with passionate struggles against its first sorrows. She lived over and over again in imagination her child's predestined trial.
But away from the unquiet household at the Cottage, there was beginning to be much gossip with regard to all these things, and many speculations of the usual kind as to the issue of Mr. Percy's undisguised admiration for the beauty of Cacouna. Bella Latour was questioned on all sides, and finding the general thirst for information a source of considerable amusement, she did not scruple to supply her friends with plenty of materials for their comments. From Maurice Leigh, no such satisfaction was to be obtained—the most inveterate news-seekers gained nothing from him.
A party of young people were collected one evening at Mrs. Scott's—a house about a mile from Cacouna, in the opposite direction to the Cottage. Lucia had been invited, but Maurice, who arrived late, had brought a hasty note from her, excusing herself on the plea of her mother's not being well. Little notice was taken at the time, for all knew that Mrs. Costello had been looking ill lately, and it was therefore probable enough that she might be too much indisposed for Lucia to leave her. But later in the evening, when they were tired with dancing, a group of girls began to chatter as they sat in a corner.
"I wonder what is the matter with Mrs. Costello," said one. "Lucia seems to me to go out very little lately."
"She is better employed at home," replied another.
"You should have brought Mr. Percy, Bella," said Magdalen Scott.
"You did not invite him; and beside, I think we are better off without him."
"Why? Don't you like him?"
"Tolerably well, but I am getting tired of him."
"Tired of him already?"
"I'm not like you, Magdalen; I could not be content to spend my life looking at one person."
Magdalen blushed a little, but answered rather sharply,
"You mean to be an old maid, I suppose, then?"
"I think I shall. At any rate, I should if I were to be always required to be looking at or thinking about a man when I had married him."
Mrs. Scott here called her daughter away, and May Anderson asked,
"Why are you always teasing Magdalen so, Bella? She does not like it, I am sure."
"She should not be so stupid. Magdalen thinks her whole business in life is to sit still and look pretty for her cousin Harry's benefit. I wish she would wake up."
"Harry is quite content seemingly. He told George that he thought her prettier than Lucia Costello."
"What idiots men are!" said Bella. "I don't believe they ever care about anything except a pretty face; and they have not even eyes to see that with."
"They seem to see it well enough in some cases. I do not know what there is in Lucia except her prettiness to attract them, and she never has any want of admirers. There's Maurice Leigh perfectly miserable about her this minute, and Mr. Percy, they say, continually running after her."
"My dear May, you need not trouble your head about Maurice Leigh; he is quite able to take care of himself, and would not be at all obliged to you for pitying him. As for Mr. Percy, the mere idea of his running anywhere or after anything!"
"Well, is not he perpetually at the Cottage?"
"He was not there yesterday."
"No, because Lucia was in Cacouna. I passed your house in the afternoon, and saw them both in the garden."
"They are both fond of flowers."
"I hear he goes to help her to garden."
"Mr. Percy help anybody!"
"To hinder, then; I dare say Lucia finds it equally amusing."
"Where is he this evening? Did he go with Mr. and Mrs. Bellairs?"
"No. And I was afraid I should have to stay at home and do the honours; but he had heard that I intended being here, and was polite enough to insist on my coming. He was out when I left."
"At the Cottage, of course. No wonder Lucia could not come."
While her friends thus charitably judged her, Lucia was, in truth, painfully and anxiously occupied by the illness of her mother. Mr. Percy, aware of her engagement for the evening, had ridden over early in the afternoon and spent an hour or two lounging beside her, at the piano or on the verandah. At last, when it grew nearly time for her to start for Mrs. Scott's, he rose to go.
"Come into the garden for a minute," he said. "It is growing cool now, and the air from the river is so pleasant."
She obeyed, and they wandered down the garden together. But the minute lengthened to twenty before they came back, and parted at the wicket. Lucia went slowly up the steps, disinclined to go in out of the sunshine, which suited her mood. Mrs. Costello had left her chair and her work on the verandah and gone indoors. Lucia picked up a fallen knitting-needle, and carried it into the parlour; but as she passed the doorway she saw her mother sitting in her own low chair, her head fallen forward, and her whole attitude strange and unnatural.
Lucia uttered a cry of terror; she sprang to Mrs. Costello's side, and tried to raise her, but the inanimate figure slipped from her arms. She called Margery, and together they lifted her mother and laid her on her bed. The first inexpressible fear soon passed away—it was but a deep fainting fit, which began to yield to their remedies. As soon as this became evident, Lucia had time to wonder what could have caused so sudden an illness. She remembered having seen a letter lying on the table beside her mother, and the moment she could safely leave the bedside she went in search of it. It was only an empty envelope, but as she moved away her dress rustled against a paper on the floor, which she picked up and found to be the letter itself. Without any other thought than that her mother must have received a shock which this might explain, she opened the half-folded sheet and hastily read the contents. They were short, and in a hand she knew well—that of a clergyman who was an old and trusted friend of Mrs. Costello. This was his letter:—
"My dear friend,
"I was just about writing to say that I would obey your summons, and steal two or three days next week from my work to visit you, when a piece of information reached me, which has caused me, for your sake, to defer my journey. Perhaps you can guess what it is. You have too often expressed your fears of C.'s return to be surprised at their fulfilment, but I grieve to have to add to your anxieties at this moment by telling you that he is really in this neighbourhood. I have not seen him, but one of my people, Mary Wanita, who remembers you affectionately, brought me the news. You may depend upon my guarding, with the utmost care, my knowledge of your retreat; but I thought it best to prepare you for the possibility of discovery, lest he should present himself unexpectedly to you or to Lucia. If the matter on which you wished to consult me is one that can be entrusted to a letter, write fully, and I will give you the best advice I can; but send your letter to the post-office at Claremont, on the American side, and I will myself call there for it. I shall also post my letters to you there for the present.
"With every good wish for you and for your child, believe me, sincerely yours, "A. STRAFFORD."
Lucia had looked for a solution of the mystery, but this letter was none. Rather it was a new and bewildering problem. That it was the immediate cause of her mother's illness was evident enough, but why? Who was "C."? Why did she fear his return? What could be the fear strong enough to induce such precautions for secrecy? Her senses seemed utterly confused. But after the first few minutes, she remembered that Mrs. Costello had probably meant to keep her still ignorant of a mystery to which she had, in all the recollections of her life, no single clue—she might therefore be still further agitated by knowing that she had read this letter. "I must put it aside," she thought, "and not tell her until she is well again."
She slipped the letter into her pocket, scribbled her note to Mrs. Scott, and returned to the invalid's room. The faintness had now quite passed away, and Lucia thought, as she entered, that her mother's eyes turned to her with a peculiar look of inquiry. Happily the room was dark, so that the burning colour which rose to her cheeks was not perceptible; for the rest, she contrived to banish all consciousness from her voice, as she said quietly, "I have been writing to Mrs. Scott, to say I cannot leave you to-night."
"I am sorry, dear; you would have enjoyed yourself, and there is no reason to be anxious about me."
"I am very glad I was not gone. Can you go to sleep?"
"Presently. I think I dropped a letter—have you seen it?"
Lucia drew it from her pocket. "It is here, I picked it up."
Mrs. Costello held out her hand for it. She looked at it for a moment, as if hesitating—then slipped it under her pillow.
Both remained silent for some time; Mrs. Costello, exhausted and pale as death, lay trying to gather strength for thought and endurance, longing, yet dreading, to share with her daughter the miserable burden which was pressing out her very life. Lucia, half hidden by the curtain, sat pondering uselessly over the letter she had read; feeling a vague fear and a livelier curiosity. But a heart so ignorant of sadness in itself, and so filled at the moment with all that is least in accord with the prosaic troubles of middle life, could not remain long fixed upon a doubtful and uncomprehended misfortune. Gradually her fancy reverted to brighter images; the sunny life of her short experience, the only life she could believe in with a living faith, had its natural immutability in her thoughts; and she unconsciously turned from the picture which had been forced upon her—of her mother shrinking terrified from a calamity about to involve them both—to the brighter one of her own happiness which that dear mother could not help but share. So strangely apart were the two who were nearest to each other.
Mrs. Costello was the first to rouse herself.
"Light the lamp, dear," she said, "and let us have tea. I suppose I must not get up again."
"No indeed. I will bring my work in here and sit by you."
"Will Maurice be here to-night?"
"He is at the Scotts."
"True, I forgot. We shall be alone, then?"
It was a question; a month ago it would have been an assertion; and Lucia answered, "Yes."
"Then we may arrange ourselves here without fear of interruption," Mrs. Costello said more cheerfully. "Bring a book, instead of your work, and read to me."
She did not then intend to explain Mr. Strafford's letter. Lucia had almost hoped it, but on the other hand she feared, as perhaps her mother did, to renew the afternoon's excitement.
So, after tea, she took the last new book and read. Mrs. Costello lay with her face shaded; she had much to think of,—only old debatings with herself to go over again for the thousandth time; but all her doubts, her wishes, her fears quickened into new life by the threatened discovery, of which the letter lying under her pillow had warned her; and the changes which a multitude of recollections brought to her countenance were not for her child, still ignorant of all the past, to see.
The evening passed quickly in this tumult of thoughts. Lucia was interested in her story, and read on until ten o'clock, when Margery came in.
"Mr. Maurice, Miss Lucia. He came in at the back, just to ask how your mamma is. Will you speak to him?"
Lucia went out. Maurice was standing in the dark parlour, and she almost ran against him. He put his hand lightly on her shoulder, as he asked his question.
"She is better, very much better," she answered. "But I was frightened at first."
"Do you think it is only a passing affair? Are you afraid to be alone to-night?"
"Not at all. Oh! Maurice, why do you ask such a question? She was quite well this morning."
"She has not looked well for some time. But I did not mean to alarm you, only to remind you that if you should want anything, I am always close at hand."
He had alarmed her a little for the moment. She thought, "I have been occupied with myself, and she has been ill perhaps for days past." Maurice felt her tremble, and blamed himself for speaking. At that instant they seemed to have returned to their old life. The very attitude in which they stood, in which they had been used to have their most confidential chats, had lately been disused; and to resume it, and with it the old position of adviser and consoler, was compensation for much that he had suffered. He felt that Lucia was looking anxiously up at him—that she had for the moment quite forgotten all except her mother and himself.
"The weather has been so hot," he said, searching for something to hide his thoughts, "it is not wonderful for any one to be weakened by it. No doubt, that was the reason of Mrs. Costello's illness." Lucia remembered the letter and was silent. Then she said, "Have you really thought her looking ill lately?"