A Life's Eclipse, by George Manville Fenn.
This is a short book by G.M. Fenn's usual standards, but you will enjoy reading it. The hero is John Grange, a young gardener on Mrs Mostyn's estate, who finds himself to be in love with Mary Ellis, the daughter of the bailiff, James Ellis. But as he is no more than an under-gardener Ellis is angry with him for even thinking of Mary.
There is an accident when John has ascended a large cedar tree that had lost a bough in a gale, and a broken branch needed to be tidied up. John falls from where he was sawing, onto the ground, landing on his head. He recovers from the concussion, but is now blind.
His rival not only for Mary's hand but also for promotion to Head Gardener when Dunton, the present Head Gardener, now very old, dies, is Daniel Barnett, who of course gets the job. But he is a nasty man, not very good at his work, while the blind John can do his work almost as well as before, working by touch. Barnett plays a number of most unkind tricks on his rival John. Eventually John disappears without trace and rumour is rife that Daniel Barnett had made away with him, so that he might have a clear run to Mary's hand—not that Mary is interested in him.
There is a surprise ending to the story, of course.
All the characters are beautifully drawn, and this little book is quite a masterpiece. It was published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, and must have been within their guidelines, without being excessively pious. Do read it—it won't take you long. NH
A LIFE'S ECLIPSE, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
John Grange's brown, good-looking face turned of a reddish-brown in the cheeks, the warm tint mounting into his forehead, as he looked straight in the speaker's eyes, and there was a good, manly English ring in his voice as he said sturdily—
"I didn't know, Mr Ellis, that it was insolent for a man to come in a straightforward way, and say to the father of the young lady simply— yes, and humbly—'I love your daughter, sir.'"
"But it is, sir, downright insolence. Recollect what you are, sir, only an under-gardener living at the bothy on thirty shillings a week."
"I do recollect it, sir, but I don't mean to be an under-gardener always."
"Oh, indeed," said James Ellis sarcastically, "but poor old Dunton is not dead yet, and when he does die, Mrs Mostyn is quite as likely to appoint Daniel Barnett to his place as you, and if she takes my advice, she'll give the post to neither of you, but get some able, sensible man from Chiswick."
"But, Mr Ellis—"
"That will do, John Grange," said the owner of that name pompously. "I know what you are going to say. I am not ashamed of having been only a gardener once, but I am Mrs Mostyn's bailiff and agent now, sir, and, so to speak, your master. Let me hear no more of this nonsense, sir. That will do. But one moment. Have you had the—I mean, does Mary—I mean, does Miss Ellis know that you were going to speak to me this evening?"
"No, sir," said John Grange sternly. "I'm only an under-gardener, but I've heard that it was the proper thing to speak out openly first."
"Then Mary does not know that you—I mean, that you think about her?"
"I hope and believe she does; sir," said the young man warmly, and his eyes flashed, and a proud, joyful look came into his countenance.
"Then I beg you will not hope and believe anything of the kind, sir, again. My daughter will do precisely as I wish, and when I part with her, it will be to see her go to a substantial home. Good-evening!"
James Ellis tucked his walking-stick under his arm, took off his grey felt hat, drew a red silk handkerchief from the crown, rubbed his bald head, and made himself look hotter as he strode away, while after standing and watching him go toward the bailiff's cottage just outside the park fence at The Hollows on the hill slope, a quarter of a mile away, the young man uttered a sigh and turned in at an open doorway in a high wall, whose top was fringed with young shoots of peaches, nectarines, and apricots, suggestive of the horticultural treasures within.
"What a slap in the face!" he muttered. "Under-gardener! Well, that's all right. Give poor old Dunton's place to Dan Barnett! Here, I can't go in now, I must walk this off."
John Grange pulled the open door to, so that it fastened with a snap, and turned off to make for the woods, where he could think alone.
His way was for a couple of hundred yards toward the pretty villa known as the bailiff's cottage, and he had not gone half that distance when a sudden pang shot through him. For the place stood high, and he caught sight of two figures in the garden, one that of a man, the other that of some one in white muslin and a straw hat, coming toward the gate. The next minute the man was in the road, and half a minute later he was standing talking to Mrs Mostyn's agent, while the white muslin that had been so plainly seen amongst the shrubs had disappeared into the cottage.
John Grange's face grew dark with a look of despair, and he did not go off into the woods.
Dan Barnett, up there at the cottage talking to Mary, while he had been speaking to her father, and she had come down to the gate with her visitor.
Something very like a groan escaped the young man's lips as he crossed the road to lean his arms upon the gate, and looked over into the park, feeling more miserable than ever before in his life.
"I'm a poor, weak fool," he thought. "He's good-looking, and knows the way to a girl's heart. Better keep to my nailing and pruning. One from the father, two from Dan Barnett. Regular knock-down blows. Better get up again, go to work and forget it all—if I can."
"Nice evening, John Grange. Drop o' rain coming?"
"Eh? Yes, I think so, Tummus," said the young man, turning to the dry, quaint old fellow who had spoken, and who now screwed up the bark on his face—it more resembled that than skin—showed three or four ancient, yellow teeth, and jerked his right thumb over his shoulder.
"I say—see that? Young Dan Barnett going courtin', and now having it out with Miss Mary's dad. You mark my words, Mr John, sir, if poor old Dunton dies, and Dan Barnett steps into his shoes, there'll be a wedding yonder."
"Think so, Tummus?" said John Grange, with a forced smile.
"Aye, that's what I think, sir," said the old man, and then showing his gums as well as his teeth, he continued, "and I thinks this 'ere too— that if I'd been a young, good-looking chap like some one I know, I wouldn't ha' let Dan Barnett shoulder me out, and stand in first with the prettiest and best young lady in these parts. Evening!"
"Here, hi! You!" came from behind them, and the person in question strode up, looking frowning and angry.
"You ca' me, Mr Dan?"
"Yes; did you finish wheeling up that stuff?"
"Aye; I fishened it all 'fore I left work. Good-evening."
He left the two young men standing together, and there was a peculiar, malicious look in the fresh-comer's eyes as he gave John Grange a short nod.
"Mrs Mostyn say anything to you 'bout the cedar?"
"Yes; she said the broken stump was to be cut off to-morrow."
"Then you'd better get the ladders and ropes ready first thing."
"You mean we had better," said John Grange quietly.
"No, I don't. I'm not going to break my neck for thirty shillings a week. Heard how Dunton is?"
"Very bad. Doctor Manning was here again this evening."
"Well, he's nearly ninety—a man can't expect to live for ever. Time he did go."
John Grange walked away toward the head-gardener's cottage to ask for the last news, and Daniel Barnett stood watching him with a frown on his rather handsome features.
"Poor old Dunton!" said John Grange to himself; "we shall miss him when he's gone."
"Hang him!" muttered Barnett, "that's it. I saw him talking to the old man, but he hasn't won yet. Insolence, eh? I like that. The Barnetts are as good as the Ellis's, anyhow. Wait a bit, my lady, and I may take a bit of the pride out of you."
Some men have a habit of thinking across the grain.
At seven o'clock next morning John Grange felt better when he stood with Daniel Barnett, old Tummus, and Mary Ellis's father at the foot of the great cedar facing the house, a tree sadly shorn of its beauty by a sudden squall that had swept down the valley, and snapped off the top, where an ugly stump now stood out forty feet from the lawn.
Grange felt better, for in spite of his hectoring, triumphant manner, it was plain to see that Daniel Barnett had not sped well with Mary's father, whatever might have been his success with the lady herself.
James Ellis was no longer young, and early work before breakfast had grown distasteful; still, he had come to see the broken stump sawn off.
The ladder had been raised, and got into position, but it was too short by ten feet, and there was an awkward climb before the man who went up could use the saw or attach the rope to keep the sawn-off stump from falling with a crash.
"Well," said Ellis, "what are we waiting for?"
Old Tummus chuckled.
"Why when I first come to these here gardens five-and-forty years ago, I'd ha' gone up there like a squirrel, Mr Ellis, sir; but these here fine new-fangled gardeners can't do as we did."
"Better go up now," said Barnett.
"Nay, nay, my lad, sixty-eight's a bit too ripe for climbing trees, eh, Master Ellis?"
"Yes, of course," said the bailiff. "Come, get it done."
"Do you hear, John Grange?" said Barnett. "Up with you. Better hitch the rope under that big bough, and saw the next. Make it well fast before you begin to saw."
"I thought Mrs Mostyn told you to go up and cut it?" said Ellis pompously; "and I heard you tell her how you should do it?"
"Or have it done, sir. Here, up with you, John."
John Grange felt annoyed at the other's manner in the presence of the bailiff. There was a tone—a hectoring way—which nettled him the more that they were precisely equal in status at the great gardens; and, besides, there were Mary and old Tummus's words. He had, he knew, let this rather overbearing fellow-servant step in front of him again and again, and this morning he felt ready to resent it, as the blood came into his cheeks.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" cried Barnett. "Up with you!"
"If it was your orders, why don't you go?" retorted Grange.
Barnett burst into a hoarse fit of laughter, and turned to the bailiff.
"Hear that, sir? He's afraid. Ha-ha-ha! Well, well! I did think he had some pluck."
"Perhaps I have pluck enough," said the young man, "even if it is an awkward job, but I don't see why I'm to be bullied into doing your work."
"I thought so," continued Barnett, "white feather! Talk away, John, you can't hide it now."
Old Tummus showed his yellow stumps.
"He can't do it, Mr Dan," he chuckled. "You're the chap to go up. You show him how to do it."
"You hold your tongue. Speak when you're spoken to," said Barnett fiercely; and the old man chuckled the more as Barnett turned to John Grange.
"Now then, are you afraid to go up? Because if so, say so, and I'll do it."
John Grange glanced at the bailiff, and then stooped and picked up the coil of rope, passed it over his shoulder, and then seized the saw. He mounted the ladder, and clinging to the tree, stood on the last round, and then climbing actively, mounted the remaining ten feet to where he could stand upon a branch and attach the rope to the stump, pass the end over a higher bough and lower it down to the others. Then rolling his sleeves right up to the shoulder, he began to cut, the keen teeth of the saw biting into the soft, mahogany-like wood, and sending down the dust like sleet.
It was a good half-hour's task to cut it through, but the sturdy young fellow worked away till only a cut or two more was necessary, and then he stopped.
"Ready below?" he said, glancing down.
"All right!" cried Ellis. "Cut clean through, so that it does not splinter."
"Yes, sir," shouted Grange; and he was giving the final cuts, when for some reason, possibly to get the rope a little farther along, Barnett gave it a sharp jerk, with the effect that the nearly free piece of timber gave way with a sharp crash, just as John Grange was reaching out to give the last cut.
Cedar snaps like glass. Down went the block with a crash to the extent the rope would allow, and there swung like a pendulum.
Down, too, went Grange, overbalanced.
He dropped the saw, and made a desperate snatch at a bough in front, and he caught it, and hung in a most precarious way for a few moments.
"Quick!" he shouted to Barnett; "the ladder!"
Ellis and old Tummus held the rope, not daring to let go and bring the piece of timber crashing down. Barnett alone was at liberty to move the ladder; and he stood staring up, as if paralysed by the danger and by the thought that the man above him was his rival, for whose sake he had been, only a few hours before, refused.
But it was only a matter of seconds.
John Grange's fingers were already gliding over the rough bark; and before Barnett could throw off the horrible mental chains which bound him, the young man uttered a low, hoarse cry, and fell headlong through the air.
"How do you say it happened?"
Old Tummus was riding in the doctor's gig back to The Hollows after running across to the village for help; and he now repeated all he knew, with the additions of sundry remarks about these new-fangled young "harticult'ral gardeners who know'd everything but their work."
"Come right down on his head, poor lad," he said; "but you'll do your best for him, doctor: don't you let him slip through your fingers."
The doctor smiled grimly, and soon after drew up at the door in the garden wall, and hurried through to the bothy where John Grange had been carried and lay perfectly insensible, with Mrs Mostyn, a dignified elderly widow lady, who had hurried out as soon as she had heard of the accident, bathing his head, and who now anxiously waited till the doctor's examination was at an end.
"Well, doctor," said Mrs Mostyn eagerly, "don't keep me in suspense."
"I must," he replied gravely. "It will be some time before I can say anything definite. I feared fractured skull, but there are no bones broken."
"Thank heaven!" said Mrs Mostyn piously. "Such a frank, promising young man—such an admirable florist. Then he is not going to be very bad?"
"I cannot tell yet. He is perfectly insensible, and in all probability he will suffer from the concussion to the brain, and spinal injury be the result."
"Oh, doctor, I would have given anything sooner than this terrible accident should have occurred. Pray forgive me—would you like assistance?"
"Yes: of a good nurse. If complications arise, I will suggest the sending for some eminent man."
Many hours elapsed before John Grange opened his eyes from what seemed to be a deep sleep; and then he only muttered incoherently, and old Tummus's plump, elderly wife, who was famed in the district for her nursing qualities, sat by the bedside and shed tears as she held his hand.
"Such a bonny lad," she said, "I wonder what Miss Mary'll say if he should die."
Mary had heard the news at breakfast-time before her father had returned, but she made no sign, only looked very pale and grave. And as she dwelt upon the news she wondered what she would have said if John Grange had come to her and spoken as Daniel Barnett did on the previous evening.
This thought made the colour come back to her cheeks and a strange fluttering to her breast as she recalled the different times they had met, and John Grange's tenderly respectful way towards her.
Then she chased away her thoughts, for her mother announced from the window that "father" was coming.
A minute later James Ellis entered, to sit down sadly to his breakfast, his silence being respected by mother and daughter.
At last he spoke.
"You heard, of course, about poor Grange?"
"Yes. How is he?"
"Bad—very bad. Doctor don't say much, but it's a serious case, I fear. Come right down on his head, close to my feet. There—I can't eat. Only fancy, mother, talking to me as he was last night, and now lying almost at the point of death."
He pushed away cup and plate, and sat back in his chair.
"'In the midst of life we are in death,'" he muttered. "Dear, dear, I wish I hadn't spoken so harshly to him last night, mother. Fine, straightforward young fellow, and as good a gardener as ever stepped."
Mrs Ellis sighed and glanced at her daughter, who was looking wildly from one to the other.
"There; I'll get back. Ah! Who's this?"
It was Daniel Barnett, who had run up from the bothy; and Ellis hurried out to the door.
"What is it?" he cried anxiously.
"Old Hannah says, 'Will you come on:' She don't like the looks of him. He's off his head."
Ellis caught his hat from the peg, and glanced at Daniel Barnett with a peculiar thought or two in his head as the young man looked quickly at the door and window.
Barnett caught the glance and felt uncomfortable, for though sorry for his fellow-worker's accident, certain thoughts would intrude relating to his own prospects if John Grange were not at The Hollows.
They hurried down to the grounds, mother and daughter watching from the window, and in those few minutes a great change came over Mary Ellis's face. It was as if it rapidly altered from that of the happy, careless girl, who went singing about the house, to the thoughtful, anxious woman. Even her way of speaking was different, as she turned quickly upon her mother.
"What was father so angry about last night?" she said. "Did he have a quarrel with poor Mr Grange?"
"Well, hardly a quarrel, my dear. Oh, it was nothing."
"But he said he was sorry he spoke so harshly to him. Mother, you are keeping something back."
"Well, well, well, my darling, nothing much; only young men will be young men; and father was put out by his vanity and conceit. He actually got talking to father about you."
"About me?" said Mary, flushing, and beginning to tremble.
"Yes, my dear; and, as father said, it was nothing short of impudence for a young man in his position to think about you. I don't know what's come to the young men now-a-days, I'm sure."
Mary said nothing, but she was very thoughtful all that day, and during the days which followed, for she had found out the truth about herself, and a little germ that had been growing in her breast, but of which she had thought little till Daniel Barnett came up and spoke, and made her know she had a heart—a fact of which she became perfectly sure, when the news reached her next morning of the sad accident in the grounds.
Old Hannah's fears were needless, for the delirium passed away; and as the days glided by and poor Grange lay in his darkened bedroom, untiringly watched by old Tummus's patient wife, James Ellis used to take the tidings home till the day when in secret Mary went up afterwards to her own room to sink upon her knees by her bedside, and hide her burning face in her hands, as if guiltily, while she offered up her prayer and thanksgiving for all that she had heard.
For the doctor had definitely said that John Grange would not die from the effects of his fall.
"Thank you, Tummus, old man," said the patient, one evening about a fortnight after the accident; and he took a bunch of roses in his hand. "I can't see them, but they smell deliciously. Hah! How it makes me long to be back again among the dear old flowers."
"Aye, to be sure, my lad. You mun mak' haste and get well and get out to us again. Dan Barnett arn't half the man you are among the missus's orchardses. And look here, I want my old woman home again. You mun look sharp and get well."
"Yes: I hope the doctor will soon let me get up. God bless you, Hannah! You've been quite like a mother to me."
"Nonsense, nonsense, boy; only a bit o' nussing. Make haste and get well again."
"Aye, she'd be a good nuss if she warn't quite so fond o' mustard," said old Tummus. "It's allus mustard, mustard, stuck about you to pingle and sting if there's owt the matter. I like my mustard on my beef. And that's what you want, Master John—some good slices o' beef. They women's never happy wi'out giving you spoon meat."
"Hold your tongue, Tummus, and don't talk so much nonsense," said his wife.
"Nay, I arn't going to be choked. I s'pose Mrs Mostyn sends you jellies and chicken-broth, and the like?"
"Yes, every one is very kind," said Grange. "But look here, have you seen to the mushroom bed?"
"And those cuttings in the frames?"
"You mak' haste and get well, Master John, and don't you worry about nowt. I'm seeing to everything quite proper, for I don't trust Master Dan Barnett a bit. He's thinking too much o' finding scuses to go up to the cottage, and I know why. There, good-night. Get well, lad. I do want to see that bandage from over your eyes next time I come. Old Dunton's mortal bad, they say. Good-night."
It was a bad night for John Grange, who was so feverish that the doctor remarked upon it, and the progress was so poor during the next week that the doctor determined to have his patient up, and came one morning in company with the bailiff, talking to him seriously the while.
They were very kind to him, helping him to dress, and helped him at last into the outer room, where it was light and cool, and old Hannah, with a face full of commiseration, had placed an easy-chair for the pale, weak man, with his eyes and head bandaged heavily.
It so happened that just as John Grange lay back in the chair, while old Hannah stood with her handkerchief to her eyes, crying silently, and James Ellis was behind the chair looking very grave and stern, Daniel Barnett came up to the door of the bothy with a message, which he did not deliver, for the words he heard arrested him, and he drew back listening.
"Now, doctor, please," sighed Grange; "it has been so hard to bear all this long time, and I have been very patient. Let me have the bandage off, and, if it's only a glimpse, one look at the bright sunshine again."
There was silence for a moment, and then the doctor took the young man's hand, his voice shaking a little, as he said gravely—
"Grange, my lad, three weeks ago I felt that I could not save your life. God has heard our prayers, and let my poor skill avail. You will in a few weeks be as strong as ever."
"Yes—yes," said the patient, in tones of humble thankfulness, and then his lips moved for a few moments, but no sound was heard. Then aloud—"Believe me, doctor, I am grateful. But the bandage. Let me see the light."
"My poor fellow!" began the doctor, and old Hannah uttered a sob, "you must know."
"Ah!" cried John Grange, snatching the bandage from his eyes, the broad handkerchief kept there ever since the fall. "Don't—don't tell me that—I—I was afraid—yes—dark—all dark! Doctor—doctor—don't tell me I am blind!"
Old Hannah's sobs grew piteous, and in the silence which followed, James Ellis stole on tiptoe towards the window, unable to be a witness of the agony which convulsed the young man's face.
"Then it is true!" said Grange. "Blind—blind from that awful shock."
"Ah, here you are, Master Barnett," cried the voice of old Tummus outside. "The doctor. Is he coming over? 'Cause he needn't now."
"What is the matter?" said Ellis, stepping out, with Daniel Barnett backing away from the porch before him.
"Poor owd Dunton's gone, sir; dropped off dead ripe at last—just gone to sleep."
James Ellis looked Daniel Barnett in the eyes, and both had the same thought in their minds.
What a change in the younger man's prospects this last stroke of fate had made!
"I am very deeply grieved, Mr Manning," said Mrs Mostyn, as she sat in her drawing-room, holding a kind of consultation with the doctor and James Ellis, her old agent, and as she spoke, the truth of her words was very evident, for she kept applying her handkerchief to her eyes. "I liked John Grange. A frank, manly fellow, whose heart was in his work, and I fully intended, Ellis, that he should succeed poor old Dunton."
"Yes, ma'am; a most worthy young man," said the bailiff.
"Worthy? He was more than that. He was fond of his work and proud of the garden. Go in that conservatory, doctor, and look at my orchids. His skill was beyond question."
"Your flowers are the envy of the county, Mrs Mostyn," said the doctor.
"Ah, well! It is not my flowers in question, but this poor fellow's future. Do you mean to tell me that you can do nothing for him?"
"I regret to say that I must," said the doctor gravely. "We try all we can to master Nature's mechanism, but I frankly confess that we are often very helpless. In this case the terrible shock of the fall on the head seems to have paralysed certain optical nerves. Time may work wonders, but I fear that his sight is permanently destroyed."
"Oh, dear, dear, dear!" sighed Mrs Mostyn, down whose pleasant old face the tears now coursed unchecked; "and all to satisfy my whims—all because I objected to a ragged, broken branch. But, doctor, can nothing be done?"
"I can only recommend one thing, madam—that he should go up to one of the specialists, who will suggest that he should stay in his private infirmary."
"Well, why not?" said Mrs Mostyn eagerly.
"There is the expense, madam," said the doctor hesitatingly.
"Expense? Pooh! Fudge! People say I am very mean. Poor old Dunton used to say so, and James Ellis here."
"I beg your pardon, ma'am—" began the bailiff.
"Oh, don't deny it, James; you know you have. I heard of it over and over again, because I would not agree to some extravagant folly proposed by you or poor old Dunton for the estate or garden."
"Silence! I remember Dunton said I could spend hundreds on new orchids, and stinted him in help; and you were quite angry because I wouldn't have half-a-mile of new park palings, when the old mossy ones look lovely. But I'm not mean, doctor, when there is a proper need for outlay. Now you go at once and make arrangements for that poor young man to be taken up to town and placed in this institution. Mind, you are to spare no expense. It was my fault that poor Grange lost his sight, and I shall never love my garden again if his eyes are not restored."
The doctor rose, shook hands, and went away, leaving the bailiff with his mistress, who turned to him with her brow all in puckers.
"Well, James Ellis, I hardly know what to say. It is a dreadful shock, and I don't like to do anything hastily. If there was a prospect of poor Grange recovering I would wait."
The bailiff shook his head.
"Doctor Manning told me, ma'am, that he was afraid it was hopeless."
"And I'm afraid so too," said Mrs Mostyn, with a sigh.
"I can't superintend the garden myself, ma'am."
"No, Ellis, you have too much to do."
"And gardens are gardens, ma'am—ours in particular."
"Yes," said Mrs Mostyn, who was thinking of the poor fellow lying at the bothy in darkness.
"And with all those glass-houses and their valuable contents, a day's neglect is never recovered."
"No, James Ellis."
"The men, too, want some one over them whom they must obey."
"Of course—of course, Ellis. And you think Daniel Barnett is quite equal to the duties?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am. He is quite as good a gardener as John Grange, so I don't think you could do better, ma'am. You see we know him, that he is trustworthy and clever."
"Well, well, I'll think about it. I will not decide this morning; but I suppose it will have to be so. I can't go appointing another man directly the breath is out of poor old Dunton's body, and with that poor fellow lying there in misery. Come to me this day week, James Ellis, and I will give my decision."
The bailiff bowed and withdrew, to go straight to the gardens, where, quite by accident, of course, Daniel Barnett came along one of the paths, and met him, looking at him inquiringly; but Ellis did not say a word about the subject nearest then to the young man's heart. He asked how the grapes were looking, and had a peep at them and the melons. Then went on through the orchid-houses, reeking with heat and moisture, and at last stood still wiping his head in the hot sunshine.
"They do you credit, Barnett," he said. "I'm very glad to see how you have thrown yourself into the gap, and managed now poor John Grange is down; everything looks perfect. I see you have kept the men up to their work."
"Done my best, Mr Ellis, of course," said the young man.
"Of course, of course. I told Mrs Mostyn I was sure you would. There, I must be off. Good-morning."
He started off for the gate, and then turned.
"Oh, by the way, Barnett, poor John Grange is to be sent up to town. I thought you would like to hear. But don't say a word to him, and—er— I'm always at home of an evening if you care to step up and have a quiet pipe with me, and a bit of music before supper. Good-morning."
"The wind's changed," said Dan Barnett, with his face flushed up by the exultation he felt. "I'm safe two ways. Poor old Jack Grange! Well, we can't all win."
The week, had passed, and Daniel Barnett had been up to the cottage twice while John Grange lay in the dark. The welcome had been warm enough from James Ellis; Mrs Ellis had been lukewarm and wary.
"Ah, well, that will come," said the young man to himself on the previous evening, after he had received his instructions from the bailiff about the fly to the station, and his duties in taking charge of John Grange, and going up with him to the little private infirmary where he was to stay for a few months if necessary. "Poor chap! I'm sorry for him, but, as I said before, we can't all win."
The day for John Grange's departure had come, and he lay back upon a little couch fighting hard to bear his misfortune like a man, and think hopefully of his future. Mrs Mostyn had been to see him four times, and spoke in the most motherly way as she prophesied a successful issue to the journey; but only left him more low-spirited as he thought of Mary and his and her future.
The couch was close to the open window, where he could feel the warm sunshine, and old Hannah had left him for a short time alone to go and finish packing his little bag, while Daniel Barnett in his best was waiting to see James Ellis, when he came from the house, receive his final instructions, and then have the fly brought to the garden-door for John Grange.
He had quite half-an-hour to wait before Ellis appeared, and on joining him held out his hand.
"Good-bye, sir," said Barnett, "but I shall see you at the bothy. I'll take great care of the poor fellow."
"I meant to congratulate you, Dan Barnett, our new head-gardener," said Ellis. "Mrs Mostyn confirms your appointment. Success to you! Now come on to the bothy, and let's get that poor fellow off. I'll let him know of it by and by—not for a week or two yet."
But John Grange, as he lay there, was feeling sure that the appointment would be given to Barnett, and he only sighed in a hopeless way, and felt that it was just. And just then he heard a step and pulled himself together.
"Come in," he said, trying to speak cheerily. "No mistaking your fairy footsteps, Tummus. I thought you'd come and say good-bye."
"Aye, and come to the station too, my lad. And I mean to come up to the orspittle once a week, to bring you a bit o' fruit and a few flowers, if I have to walk."
"Thank you, old man; thank you."
"You need a bit o' comfort, my lad, and I want you to get right. That old 'ooman's drying hersen up wi' crying about you. There wean't be a drop o' mysture left in her by and by. Ah! It's a strange world."
"It never felt so beautiful before, old man," said John Grange sadly.
"Thought I'd try and comfort you up a bit. S'pose you know that Dan Barnett's safe to be the new head?"
"Yes, I suppose so, Tummus."
"Yah! Means ruins to the grand old place."
"Nonsense! Dan is a thoroughly good gardener when he likes."
"Aye, when he likes," said the old man; and he suddenly subsided into silence, which lasted some minutes, during which John Grange was very thoughtful. Then, suddenly starting, the invalid said—
"There, old fellow, don't run down a good man. It was to be."
There was a deep sigh.
"Don't do that, old chap," said John. "It isn't cheering. I don't mind it so very much. But you must go now; I want to think a bit before they fetch me. Good-bye, and thank you and your dear old wife for all she has done. It's no use to fight against it, old man; I'm going to be always in the dark, I know well enough, so you may as well try and train up some dog to lead me about when I come back, for Heaven only knows what's to become of me. But there, say good-bye. My old mother shan't have taught me to kneel down and say every night, 'thy will be done!' for nothing. There—shake hands and go," he said, trying to command his trembling voice—"before I break down and cry like a girl, just when I want to act the man."
He stretched out his hand again, and it closed, but not upon old Tummus's horny palm, but ringers that were soft and warm, and clung to his; and as that little, soft, trembling hand seemed to nestle there, John Grange uttered a hoarse cry.
"Who—who is this?" he whispered then.
For answer there was a quick, rustling sound, as of some one kneeling down by the couch, and then there was wild sobbing and panting as a soft, wet cheek was laid against his hands.
"Miss Ellis—Mary!" he cried wildly; and the answer came at once.
"Oh, John, John, I could not bear it—I could not let you go without one word."
In those few joyous moments the darkness became light, dazzling light, to John Grange; misery, despair, the blank life before him, had dropped away, and the future spread out in a vista wherein hope shone brightly, and all was illumined by the sweet love of a true-hearted woman.
He would have been less than man if he had not drawn the half-shrinking, half-yielding figure to his heart, and held Mary tightly there as, amidst tears and sobs, she confessed how she had long felt that he loved her, but doubted herself the reality of the new sensation which had made her pleased to see him, while when she met him as they spoke something seemed to urge her to avoid him, and look hard, distant, and cold. Then the terrible misfortune had come, and she knew the truth; the bud grew and had opened, and she trembled lest any one should divine her secret, till she knew that he was to go away believing that she might care for Daniel Barnett; in suffering and mental pain, needing all that those who cared for him could do to soften his pitiable case; and at last, believing that she alone could send him away hopeful and patient to bear his awful infirmity, she had cast off all reserve and come to say good-bye.
"And you will not think the less of me?" she whispered appealingly.
"Think the less of you!" he cried proudly; "how can you ask that? Mary, you send me away happy. I shall go patient and hopeful, believing that the doctors can and will give me back my sight, and ready to wait till I may come back to you, my own love—for I do love you, dear. This year past my every thought has been of you, and I have worked and studied to make myself worthy, but always in despair, for I felt that you could not care for one like me, and that—"
"How could you think it?" she whispered tenderly, as she nestled to him. "I never, never could have cared for him, John, nor for any one but you."
And for those brief minutes all was the brightest of life's sunshine in that humble room. There were tears in Mary's sweet grey eyes, and they clung upon the lashes and lay wet upon her cheeks; but that sunshine made them flash irradiant with joy before the black cloud closed in again, and John Grange's pale face grew convulsed with agony, as he shrank from her, only holding her hands in his with a painful clasp; while, as she gazed at him wildly, startled by the change, she saw that his eyes seemed to be staring wildly at her, so bright, unchanged, and keen that it was impossible to believe that they were blank, so plainly did they bespeak the agony and despair in the poor fellow's breast.
"John," she cried excitedly, "what is it? Shall I go for help? You are in terrible pain?"
"Yes, yes, dear," he moaned; "pain so great that it is more than I can bear. No, no, don't go, not for a minute, dear; but go then, never to come near me more. Don't, don't tempt me. God help me and give me strength."
"John, dear," he whispered piteously, as she clung to his hands, and he felt her press towards him till the throbbings of her heart beat upon his wrists.
"No, no," he groaned. "Mary, dear, let me tell you while I have strength. I should be no man if I was silent now. I shouldn't be worthy of you, dear, nor of the love you have shown me you could have given."
"Don't, don't speak to me like that," he groaned, "or you will make me forget once more, and speak to you as I did just now. I was half mad with joy, beside myself with the sweet delight. But 'tis taking a coward's, a cruel advantage of you in your innocence and love. Mary, Mary dear," he said faintly; and could those eyes which stared so blankly towards her have seen, he would have gazed upon the calm, patient face, upon which slowly dawned a gentle tenderness, as she bent lower and lower as if longing to kiss his hands, which she caressed with her warm breath, while she listened to his words.
"Listen, dear," he said, "and let me tell you the truth before you say good-bye, and go back to pray for me—for your own dear self—that we may be patient and bear it. Time will make it easier, and by and by we can look back upon all this as something that might have been."
"Yes," she said gently, and she raised her face a little as she knelt by the couch to gaze fondly in his eyes.
"I am going away, dear, and it is best, for what we have said must be like a dream. Mary, dear, you will not forget me, but you must think of me as a poor brother smitten with this affliction, one, dear, that I have to bear patiently to the end."
"Yes, John," she said, with a strange calmness in her tones.
"How could I let you tie yourself down to a poor helpless wretch who will always be dependent upon others for help? It would be a death in life for you, Mary. In my great joy I forgot it all; but my reason has come back. There is no hope, dear. I am going up to town because Mrs Mostyn wishes it. Heaven bless her for a good, true woman! But it is of no use, I know. Doctor Manning knows it well enough. My sight has gone, dear, and I must face the future like a man. You well know I am speaking the truth."
She tried to reply, but there was a suffocating sensation at her throat, and it was some moments before she could wildly gasp out—"Yes!"
Then the strange, sweet, patient look of calm came back, with the gentle pity and resignation in her eyes as she gazed at him with sorrow.
"There," he said, "you must go now. Bless you, Mary—bless you, dear. You have sent gladness and a spirit of hopefulness into my dark heart, and I am going away ready to bear it all manfully, for I know it will be easier to bear—by and by—when I get well and strong. Then you shall hear how patient I am, and some day in the future I shall be pleased in hearing, dear, that you are happy with some good, honest fellow who loves and deserves you; and perhaps too," he continued, talking quickly and with a smile upon his lip, as he tried to speak cheerfully in his great desire to lessen her grief and send her away suffering less keenly—"perhaps too, some day, I may be able to come and see—"
He broke down. He could, in his weak state, bear no more, and with a piteous cry he snatched away his hands and covered his convulsed features, as he lay back there quivering in every nerve.
And then from out of the deep, black darkness, mental and bodily, which closed him in, light shone out once more, as, gently and tenderly, a slight soft arm glided round his neck, and a cold, wet cheek was laid against his hands, while in low, measured tones, every word spoken calmly, almost in a whisper, but thrilling the suffering man to the core, Mary murmured—
"I never knew till now how much a woman's duty in life is to help and comfort those who suffer. John, dear, I have listened to everything you said, and feel it no shame now to speak out all that is in my heart. I always liked the frank, straightforward man who spoke to me as if he respected me; who never gave me a look that was not full of the reverence for me that I felt was in his breast. You never paid me a compliment, never talked to me but in words which I felt were wise and true. You made me like you, and now, once more, I tell you that when this trouble came I learned that I loved you. John, dear, this great affliction has come to you—to us both, and I know you will learn to bear it in your own patient, wise way."
"Yes, yes," he groaned; "but blind—blind! Mary—for pity's sake leave me—in the dark—in the dark."
She rose from her knees by his side, and he uttered a sob, for he felt that she was going; but she retained one of his hands between hers in a firm, cool clasp.
"No, dear," she said softly; "those who love are one. John Grange, I will never leave you, and your life shall not be dark. Heaven helping me, it shall be my task to lighten your way. You shall see with my eyes, dear; my hand shall always be there to guide you wherever you may go; and some day in the future, when we have grown old and grey, you shall look back, dear, with your strong, patient mind, and then tell me that I have done well, and that your path in life has not been dark."
"Mary," he groaned, "for pity's sake don't tempt me; it is more than I can bear."
"It is no temptation, John," she said softly, and in utter ignorance that there were black shadows across her and the stricken man, she bent down and kissed his forehead. "Last Sunday only, in church, I heard these words—'If aught but death part me and thee.'"
She sank upon her knees once more, and with her hands clasped together and resting upon his breast, her face turned heavenwards, her eyes closed and her lips moving as if in prayer, while the two shadows which had been cast on the sunlight from the door softly passed away, James Ellis and Daniel Barnett stepping back on to the green, and standing looking in each other's eyes, till the sound of approaching wheels was heard. Then assuming that they had that moment come up, James Ellis and the new head-gardener strode once more up to the door.
Ellis had been so thoroughly astounded upon seeing Mary kneeling by John Grange's side that he had made a quick sign to Barnett to come away; and as soon as they were at a short distance from the door he felt that his action had been ill-judged, and likely to excite the derision of his companion, whom he had begun now to think of as a possible son-in-law.
"Wretched—foolish girl!" he said to himself, and leading the way, they both entered the bothy.
"Mary!" he cried angrily, "I am here. What is the meaning of this?"
Daniel Barnett, who was quivering with jealous rage, expected to see the bailiff's daughter spring to her feet, flushed with shame and dread, at being surprised in such a position, but to his astonishment she hardly stirred, merely raising her head a little to look gently and sadly in her father's face as she said—
"I have come to bid poor John Grange good-bye."
"Without my leave!" stormed Ellis, "and like this. Mary! Shameless girl, have you taken leave of your senses?"
She smiled at him sadly, and shook her head.
"Disgraceful!" cried Ellis. "What will Mr Barnett—what will every one think of your conduct?"
He caught her hand in his rage, and drew her sharply away as he turned to John Grange.
"And you, sir, what have you to say? Your weakness and injury are no excuse. Everything possible has been done for you. We have all worked for you, and tried to lighten your affliction; even now I have come with Mr Barnett to see you off, and I find my kindness returned by a cruel, underhanded, cowardly blow."
"Mr Ellis," began John, with his pale face flushing and his dark eyes wandering as he tried to fix them upon the speaker's face.
"Silence, sir! How dare you! How long has this disgraceful business been going on?"
"Oh, father, father!" cried Mary, clinging to him; "pray, pray say no more. We are not alone."
"No," cried Ellis, who had now worked himself into a towering passion; "we are not alone. Mr Barnett is here, a witness to the way in which this man has prevailed upon you to set all common decency at defiance, and come here alone. How long, I repeat, has this disgraceful business been going on?"
Mary was about to speak, but at that moment John Grange raised himself upon his elbow and said firmly—
"One moment, please, Mr Ellis; this is a matter solely between you and me. If Daniel Barnett is here, surely it is his duty, as a man, to go."
"I don't take my instructions from you, sir," cried Ellis; "and I beg and desire that Mr Barnett will stay and hear what I have to say to you—you miserable, underhanded, contemptible hound."
John Grange flushed, and noted the "Mr" applied again and again to his fellow-worker, and a pang of disappointment shot through him as he fully grasped what it meant.
"You are angry and bitter, sir," he said, though calmly, "and are saying things which you will regret. There has been nothing underhanded. That I have long loved Miss Ellis, I am proud to say; but until this present time no word has passed between us, and I have never, as you know, addressed her as a lover."
"Oh yes, you say so," cried Ellis angrily. "You talked finely enough the other day, but what about now? So this is the way in which you carry out your high principles, deluding a silly child into coming here for this clandestine interview, and making her—a baby as she is, and not knowing her own mind—believe that you are a perfect hero, and entangling her with your soft speeches into I don't know what promises."
"It is not true, sir," said John Grange sadly.
"How do I know it is not true, sir? Bah! It is true! I come here and find you and this shameless girl locked in each other's arms."
"Father!" cried Mary, snatching away her hand, and before Ellis could arrest her, going back to John Grange's side to lay that hand upon his shoulder, "I cannot stand here and listen to your cruel, unjust words; John Grange is not to blame, it was my doing entirely."
"Shame upon you, then!"
"No, it is no shame," she cried proudly. "You force me to defend myself before another, and I will speak out now before the man who has for long enough pestered me with his attentions, and whom, during these past few days, you have made your friend and encouraged to come home; let him hear then that I feel it no shame to say I love John Grange very dearly, and that I would not let him leave here, weak, suffering, and in the dark, without knowing that his love was returned."
Then, bending down, she took John Grange's hand, and raised it to her lips.
"Good-bye!" she said softly.
"Mary!" cried her father, beside himself now with rage; and he once more snatched her away.
"Yes, father, I am ready," she said quietly; "and you, who are always so good and just, will tell John Grange that you have cruelly misjudged him, before he goes."
But James Ellis did not then, for drawing his child's arm through his own, he hurried her away from the bothy, and home in silence to the cottage, where she flung herself sobbing in her mother's arms, and crouched there, listening, while the angry man walked up and down, relieving himself of all he had seen.
Mrs Ellis's pleasant countenance grew full of puckers, and she sat in silence, softly patting Mary's shoulder with one hand, holding her tightly with the other, till her husband had ended with—
"Disgraceful—disgraceful, I say. I don't know what Mrs Mostyn would think if she knew."
"Well, I don't know, my dear," sighed Mrs Ellis, with the tears gently trickling down her cheeks, and dropping one by one like dew-drops on Mary's beautiful hair. "Mrs Mostyn has been a dear, good mistress to us."
"Yes, and a pretty business for her to hear—our child degrading herself like this."
"'Tis very sad, James, but Mrs Mostyn made a runaway match with Captain Mostyn."
"Eliza, are you mad too?"
"No, James, dear; but I'm afraid these are mysteries that men don't quite understand."
"But they do not, dear. If you remember, my poor dear dad and your father were very angry about your wanting me. Dad said you were only a common gardener, but I felt—"
"Woman, you are as bad as your daughter," raged James Ellis. "Was I a poor blind man?"
"No, my dear; for you always had very, very fine eyes, but—"
"Bah!" raged out James Ellis; and he went out and banged the door.
John Grange's journey to London was performed almost in silence, for as he sat back in the corner of the carriage, weak and terribly shaken by the scene through which he had passed, Daniel Barnett sat opposite to him, wishing that they did not live in a civilised country, but somewhere among savages who would think no ill of one who rid himself of a useless, troublesome rival.
But after a time rage gave way to contempt. He felt that he had nothing to fear from the helpless object in question. Mary never looked more attractive than when she stood up there defending the poor blind fellow before him.
"If I could only get her to be as fond of me, and ready to stick up for me like that!" he thought; and he softly rubbed his hands together. "And I will," he muttered. "She's very young, and it was quite natural. She'll soon forget poor old blind Jack, and then—but we shall see. Head-gardener at The Hollows, and James Ellis willing. I shall win, my lad, and step into the old man's shoes as well."
He parted from John Grange at the infirmary, and somehow the darkness did not seem so black to the sufferer for some days. For he was full of hope, a hope which grew stronger as the time went by. Then old Tummus came up to see him, and gladdened his heart with old-fashioned chatter about the garden, obstinately dwelling upon the "taters," and cabbages, and codlin and cat's-head apples, when the patient was eager to hear about the orchids, grapes, pines, and melons, which he pictured as he had seen them last.
But Mary's name was not mentioned, for John Grange had thought the matter out. It was impossible, he said, and time would soften the agony for both—unless his stay here proved of avail.
But the days glided by—a week—a fortnight—a month—then two months, during which specialists had seen him, consultations had been held; and then came the day when old Tummus was up in town again, with flowers and fruit, which John Grange took round the ward from patient to patient, walking slowly, but with little to show that he was blind, as he distributed the presents he had received, and said good-bye to his dark companions.
For the verdict had been passed by the profession who had seen him that they could do nothing, and Mrs Mostyn had sent word that Grange was to be fetched back, old Tummus and his wife gladly acceding to the proposal that the young man should lodge with them for a few weeks, till arrangements could be made for his entrance to some asylum, or some way hit upon for him to get his living free from the misery of having nothing to do.
"Cheer up, my lad!" said the old man, as they were on their way back.
"I do, old fellow," said John Grange quietly. "I have been two months in that place, and it has taught me patience. There, I am never going to repine."
"You're as patient as a lamb, my dear," said old Hannah the next day; "and it's wonderful to see how you go about and don't look blind a bit. Why, you go quite natural-like into our bit of garden, and begin feeling the plants."
"Yes," he said, "I feel happier then. I've been thinking, Hannah, whether a blind man could get his living off an acre of ground with plants and flowers that he could not see, but would know by the smell."
"Well, you do cap me, my dear," said the old woman. "I don't know." And then to herself, "Look at him, handsome and bright-eyed—even if he can't see, I don't see why he shouldn't manage to marry his own dear love after all. There'd be an eye apiece for them, there would, and an Eye above all-seeing to watch over 'em both."
And old Hannah wiped her own, as she saw John Grange stoop down and gently caress a homely tuft of southern-wood, passing his hands over it, inhaling the scent, and then talking to himself, just as Mrs Mostyn came up to the garden hedge, and stood watching him, holding up her hand to old Hannah, to be silent, and not let him know that she was there.
"Wait and see, my lad, wait and see," said James Ellis. "There, there: we're in no hurry. You've only just got your appointment, and, as you know well enough, women are made of tender stuff. Very soft, Dan, my boy. Bless 'em, they're very nice though. We grow in the open air; they grow under glass, as you may say. We're outdoor plants; they're indoor, and soft, and want care. Polly took a fancy to poor John Grange, and his misfortune made her worse. He became a sort of hero for her school-girl imagination, and if you were to worry her, and I was to come the stern father, and say, You must marry Dan Barnett, what would be the consequences? She'd mope and think herself persecuted, and be ready to do anything for his sake."
Daniel Barnett sighed.
"There, don't be a fool, man," said Ellis, clapping him on the shoulder. "Have patience. My Pol—Mary is as dear and good a girl as ever stepped, and as dutiful. What we saw was all sentiment and emotion. She's very young, and every day she'll be growing wiser and more full of commonplace sense. Poor John Grange has gone."
"But he has come back, and is staying with old Tummus."
"Yes, yes, I know, but only for a few days, till Mrs Mostyn has settled something about him. She's a dear, good mistress, Dan, and I'd do anything for her. She consulted me about it only the other day. She wants to get him into some institution; and if she can't she'll pension him off somewhere. I think he'll go to some relatives of his out Lancashire way. But, anyhow, John Grange is as good as dead, so far as your career is concerned. You've got the post he was certain to have had, for the mistress was very fond of John."
"Yes; he'd got the length of her foot, and no mistake, sir."
"Well, well, you can do the same. She loves her flowers, and poor John was for his age as fine a florist as ever lived. She saw that, and of course it pleased her. All you have to do is to pet her orchids, and make the glass-houses spick and span, keep the roses blooming, and— there, I needn't preach to you, Daniel, my lad; you're as good a gardener as poor John Grange, and your bread is buttered on both sides for life."
"Not quite, sir," cried the young man quietly.
"All right; I know what you mean."
"Then you consent, sir?"
"Oh, no, I don't. I only say to you, wait and see. I'm not going to promise anything, and I'm not going to have my comfortable home made miserable by seeing wife and child glum and ready to burst out crying. I'm not going to force that tender plant, Dan. Mary's a sensible girl, and give her time and she'll see that it is impossible for her to spend her life playing stick, or little dog, to a blind man. She shall see that her father wishes what is best for her, and in the end the pretty little fruit, which is only green now, will become ripe, and drop into some worthy young fellow's hands. If his name is Daniel Barnett, well and good. We shall see. All I want is to see my pet go to a good home and be happy."
Daniel Barnett held out his hand.
"No, no; I'm going to clinch no bargains, and I'm not going to be bothered about this any more. Your policy is to wait. The seed's sown. I dare say it will come up some day. Now then, business. About Maitland Williams?"
"Well, Mr Ellis, you know him as well as I do. Admiral Morgan can't give him a rise because the other men are all right, and he wants to be a step higher, and be all under glass. He has spoken to me twice. He says he wouldn't have done so, only poor John Grange was of course out of it, and he didn't think that we had any one who could be promoted."
"That's quite right. He has been to me three times, and I don't see that we could do better. Think you could get on with him?"
"Oh, yes, he's all right, sir."
"Very well, then; I'm going up to the house to see the mistress about the hay. Nixon wants to buy it again this year."
"And take all the mowing off our hands, sir?"
"Yes, I suppose you would rather not spare the men to make it ourselves."
"Well, sir, you know the season as well as I do. There's no end of things asking to be done."
"Yes, I shall advise her to let it go, and I'll ask her to sanction Williams being taken on. He says he can come and fill poor Grange's place at once."
They parted, Daniel Barnett to go and begin tying up some loose strands in the vinery, and trim out some side-growth which interfered with the ripening of the figs; James Ellis to walk up to the house and ask to see Mrs Mostyn, who sent out word by the butler that she would be in the library in a few minutes.
Meanwhile there had been tears and trouble at the cottage, and Mary was sobbing in her mother's arms.
"But it seems so hard, dear," she whispered; "he's there, and waiting hopefully in the dark for me to go to him and say a few kind and loving words."
"That you can't go and say, dear. I know—I know, but you cannot go, my darling. Now, just think a bit: you know what father would say. He is certain to know that you have been, and it would be like flying in his face. Now come, come, do be patient and wait. Some day, perhaps, his sight may come back, and if it did I'm sure father loves you too well to stand in the way of your happiness."
"But you don't think as he does, mother dear, so don't say you think he is right."
"I'm afraid I must, dear, much as it goes against me to say so. It couldn't be, Mary—it couldn't indeed, my dear; and you know what you told me—how sensible and wise poor John Grange spoke about it himself. It would be a kind of madness, Mary, dear: so come, come, wipe your poor eyes. God knows what is best for us all, and when the afflictions come let's try to bear them patiently."
"Yes, mother," cried Mary, hastily drying her eyes. "I will be patient and firm."
"And you see, dear, that it would not be right for you to go down to old Hannah's. It would be, as I said, like flying in the face of father, who, I'm sure, has been as nice as could be about all you did that day."
"Yes, mother," said Mary, with another sigh. "Then I will be patient and wait."
"That's right, my darling. And there, now I'll tell you something I heard from father. Poor John Grange is not forgotten; Mrs Mostyn is trying to place him in a home, and if she doesn't, he's to go to some friends, and she's going to pension him for life."
Mary sighed once more, a deeper, more painful sigh, one which seemed to tear its way through her heart, as in imagination she saw the fine manly fellow who had won that heart pursuing his dark road through life alone, desolate, and a pensioner.
Up at the house James Ellis was not kept waiting long before there was a rustling sound, and Mrs Mostyn came in through the French window from the conservatory, which ran along one side of the house.
She looked radiant and quite young, in spite of her sixty-five years and silver hair, and there was a happy smile upon her lip that brightened the tears in her eyes, as she nodded to her agent cheerfully, and held out a great bunch of newly-cut orchids, which she held in her hand.
"Smell those, James Ellis. Look at them. Are they not beautiful?"
"Yes, ma'am, and if you sent them to the Guildstone Show they'd take the first prize."
"And the plants come back half spoiled. No, I don't think I shall. I have them grown for their beauty and perfection, not out of pride and emulation. You never used to grow me and my dear husband such flowers when you were head-gardener, James."
"No, ma'am," said Ellis, smiling at his mistress, as she sat down, drew a great shallow china bowl to her side, and began to daintily arrange the quaint, beautifully-tinted blooms according to her taste; "no, ma'am, but there were no such orchids in those days."
"Ah, no! That's forty years ago, James Ellis. Well, what is it this morning?"
"About the big oak, ma'am. It is three parts dead, and in another year it will be gone. Of course, it's a bad time of year, but I thought if it was cut down now, I might—"
"Don't! Never say a word to me again about cutting down a tree, James Ellis," cried his mistress angrily.
The bailiff made a deprecating sign.
"Let them stand till they die. Tell Barnett to plant some of that beautiful clematis to run over the dead branches. No more cutting down dead boughs while I live."
"Very good, ma'am."
"Is that all?"
"No, ma'am; about the hay. Mr Nixon would be glad to have it at the market price."
"Of course, let Mr Nixon have all you can spare. And now I'm very busy, James Ellis—by the way, how is your wife, and how is Mary?"
"Quite well, thank you, ma'am," said the bailiff, hesitating, as he turned when half-way to the door.
"I am glad of it. Mind that Mary has what flowers she likes for her little greenhouse."
"Thank you, ma'am, she will be very pleased, but—"
"There was one other thing, ma'am. Daniel Barnett has been speaking to me about help, and there is one of Admiral Morgan's men wants to leave to better himself. I know the young man well. An excellent gardener, who would thoroughly suit. His character is unexceptionable, and he is an excellent grower of orchids."
"Oh!" said Mrs Mostyn sharply; "and you want me to engage him to take poor John Grange's place?"
"Yes, ma'am," said the bailiff respectfully. "The Admiral will recommend him strongly, and I don't think you could do better."
"Then I do," cried the lady, bringing down one hand so heavily upon the table that the water leaped out of the bowl on to the cloth. "James Ellis," she said, rising, "come with me."
The bailiff stared, and followed the rustling silk dress out through the French window, and along the tiled floors of the conservatory, to the angle where it turned suddenly and went along by the drawing-room.
There she stopped suddenly, with her eyes looking bright and tearful once more, as she pointed to the far end and whispered—
"Not do better, James Ellis? Man, what do you say to that?"
James Ellis did not say anything to "that" for a few moments, but stood rubbing the bridge of his nose with the hard rim of his hat, which he held in his hand.
For there, to his utter astonishment, was John Grange, bright-eyed, erect, and with his face lit up with eager pleasure, busily tying up a plant to the sticks from which its strands had strayed. A few pieces of raffia grass were hung round his neck, his sleeves were turned up, and, evidently in utter ignorance of the fact that he was being watched, he bent over the plant upon its shelf, and with deft fingers traced the course of this branch and that, and following all up in turn, tied those which were loose. After cutting the grass as he tied each knot, he examined the plant all over with his fingers till he found one wanton, wild, unnecessary shoot, and passing the knife-blade down to its origin, he was in the act of cutting it off when James Ellis made a gesture to stop him, but was arrested by Mrs Mostyn, who held up her hand and frowned.
By that time the shoot was neatly taken off—cut as a gardener can cut, drawing his knife slightly and cleverly across, making one of those wounds in the right place which heal so easily in the young skin.
Then Grange's hands played about the plant for a few minutes as he felt whether it was in perfect balance, and pressed it back a little upon the shelf, measuring by a touch whether it was exactly in its place.
Directly after he walked across that end of the conservatory without a moment's hesitation, stopped before the opposite stand, and stretched out his hand to place it upon a pot, about whose contents it began to stray, was withdrawn, extended again, and then wandered to the pots on either side; but only to be finally withdrawn, the poor fellow looking puzzled, and Mrs Mostyn smiled, nodded, and placing her lips close to the bailiff's ear, whispered—
"There used to be another of those white pelargoniums standing there."
By this time John Grange's hands were busy at a shelf above, and the lookers-on watched with keen interest for the result, for the flower he sought had been moved on to the higher range, and they were both wondering whether he would find it.
They were not long kept in suspense, for John Grange's hand touched one of the leaves the next moment, pressed it gently, raised it to his nose, and a look of satisfaction came into the poor fellow's face as, with a smile, he bent over, lifted the pot from its place, stood it on the floor, and went down on one knee to begin examining the plant all over with fingers grown white, soft, and delicate during his illness.
Mrs Mostyn kept on glancing brightly at James Ellis, as if she were saying, "Do you see that? Isn't it wonderful?" And the bailiff stared, and kept on rubbing his nose with the hard brim of his felt hat, while he watched John Grange's fingers run up the tender young shoots, and, without injuring a blossom, busy themselves among those where the green aphides had made a nursery, and were clustering thickly, drawing the vital juices from the succulent young stems. And then bringing all his old knowledge to bear, he knelt down on both knees, so that he could nip the pot between them with the plant sloping away from him, and with both hands at liberty, he softly removed the troublesome insects, those which he failed to catch, and which fell from their hold, dropping on to the floor instead of back among the leaves of the plant.
Every flower, bud, and shoot was examined by touch before the pot was once more stood upright, the various shoots tried as to whether they were properly tied up to their sticks, and then the young man rose, lifted a plant from the lower shelf, placed it where the pelargonium had stood, and lastly, after raising it from the floor, and smelling its leaves, arranged it in the place on the shelf where he had left it a couple of days before his accident.
The next minute he walked to where another was standing, as if led by a wonderful instinct, though it was only the result of years of care, application, and method, for he had worked in that conservatory till he knew the position of every ornamental plant as well as he knew its requirements, how long it would last, take to flower, and with what other kind he would replace it from one end of the year to the other.
Mrs Mostyn and her bailiff stood watching John Grange for quite half-an-hour, in what seemed to the latter almost a miraculous performance, and in those hasty minutes they both plainly saw the man's devotion to his work, his love for the plants he cultivated, and how thoroughly he was at home in the house and interested in what had taken place in his enforced absence. He showed them, by his actions, that he knew how much the plumbago had grown on the trellis, how long the shoots were that had been made on the layer, and his fingers ran from one mazy cluster of buds and flowers to another; hard-wooded shrubby stems were examined for scale, which was carefully removed; and every now and then he paused and placed his hands on the exact place to raise up some fragrant plant—lemon verbena or heliotrope—to inhale its sweet odour and replace it with a sigh of satisfaction.
James Ellis watched the young gardener, expecting moment by moment, and, in his then frame of mind, almost hoping to see him knock down some pot on to the tiled floor, or stumble over some flower-stand. But he watched in vain, and he thought the while that if John Grange, suffering as he was from that awful infliction, could be so deft and clever there amongst that varied collection of flowers, his work in the other houses among melons, pines, cucumbers, tomatoes, and grapes would soon grow simplicity itself, for, educated as he was by long experience, he would teach himself to thin grapes by touch, train the fruit-bearing stems of the cucumber and melon vines, and remove the unnecessary shoots of the tomatoes with the greatest ease. There would be a hundred things he could do, and each year he would grow more accustomed to working by touch. And as James Ellis thought, he, an old gardener, shut his eyes fast, and, in imagination, saw before him a fresh growing tomato plant, and beginning at the bottom, felt whether it was stiff and healthy. Then ran up his fingers past the few leaves to the first great cluster of large fruit, removed the young shoots which came from the axils of the leaves, and ran up and up the stem feeling the clusters gradually growing smaller till higher up there were fully-developed blossoms, and higher still tufts of buds and tender leaves with their surface covered with metallic golden down.
He started from his musing to gaze open-eyed at his mistress, who had touched his arm, and now signed to him to follow her softly back to the library window, and into the room.
"Why, James Ellis!" she said petulantly, "were you asleep?"
"No, ma'am, I was shutting my eyes to try how it would be amongst the plants."
"Ah," she said, with the tears now brimming up into her eyes; "isn't it wonderful? Poor fellow, I cannot tell you how happy it has made me feel. Why, James Ellis, I had been thinking that he had to face a desolate, blank existence, and I was nearly heart-broken about him, and all the time, as you saw, he was going about happy and light-hearted, actually smiling over his work."
"Yes, ma'am," said the bailiff rather gruffly, "it seems very wonderful. I don't think he can be quite blind."
"His eyes look as bright as any one else's, ma'am."
"You think then that he is an impostor?"
"Oh, no, ma'am, I wouldn't say that."
"No, James Ellis, you had better not," said his mistress tartly. "Well, you saw what he can do."
"Yes, ma'am, and I was very much surprised. I did not know he was here;" and Ellis spoke as if he felt rather aggrieved.
"I suppose not," said Mrs Mostyn dryly. "I saw him in old Tummus's garden yesterday, and I walked across and fetched him here this morning to see what he could do in the conservatory, and really, blind as he is, he seems more clever and careful than Daniel Barnett."
James Ellis coughed a little, in a dry, nervous way.
"And now I repeat my question, what do you say to that?"
"Well, ma'am, I—er—that is—"
"You want me to engage one of Admiral Morgan's men to take poor John Grange's place?"
"Yes, ma'am," said the bailiff, recovering himself; "and I don't think, you can do better."
"But I don't want another man."
The bailiff shrugged his shoulders, and looked deprecatingly at his mistress.
"I know you like the garden and houses to look well, ma'am, and we're two hands short."
"No, we are not, James Ellis. Old Dunton has done nothing in the garden but look on for years. I only wished for my poor husband's old servant to end his days in peace; and do you think I am going to supersede that poor fellow whom we have just been watching?"
"But, pardon me, ma'am, there are many things he could never do."
"Then Barnett must do them, and I shall make a change for poor John Grange's sake: I shall give up showy flowers and grow all kinds that shed perfume. That will do. It is impossible for Grange to be head-gardener, but he will retain his old position, and you may tell Barnett that Grange is to do exactly what he feels is suitable to him. He is not to be interfered with in any way."
"Yes, ma'am," said the bailiff respectfully.
"If he is so wonderful now, I don't know what he will be in a few months. Now, you understand: John Grange is to continue in his work as if nothing had happened, and—you here?"
For at that moment two hands busy tying up some loose strands of a Bougainvillea dropped to their owner's side, and poor John Grange, who had come up to the window unheard, uttered a low cry as he stood with his head bent forward and hands half extended toward the speaker.
"Mrs Mostyn—dear mistress," he faltered, "Heaven bless you for those words!"
"God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, John Grange," she said softly, as she laid her hand upon one of those extended toward her as if to reach light in darkness; "should not His servants strive to follow that which they are taught?"
The blank, bright eyes gazed wildly toward her, and then the head was bowed down over the hand which was touched by two quivering lips, as reverently as if it had been that of a queen.
Five minutes later James Ellis was on his way back to the gardens, thinking it was time that Mary went away from home to begin life as a governess, or as attendant to some invalid dame.
James Ellis went straight to the gardens, and had no difficulty in finding Daniel Barnett, whose voice he heard sounding loud, though smothered, in the closely-shut orchid-house, where he was abusing one of the under-gardeners.
"I don't care—I don't believe it," he cried angrily, as Ellis opened the door slowly; and then came: "Hi! What idiot's that? Don't let all the cold wind in out of the garden. I say that glossum and that cattleya has been moved. Hi! Are you going to shut that door? Oh, it's you, Mr Ellis. I thought it was one of the lads; they will not be careful with those doors."
"Send him away," said the bailiff.
"You can go," said Barnett shortly, to the man, "and mind, I mean to know who moved those orchids. It was done out of opposition. I changed 'em there, and that's where they're to stand."
"Well, I didn't move 'em," growled the man.
"Didn't move them, sir" cried Barnett; but at that moment the door was closed with a bang. "I shall have to get rid of that fellow, Mr Ellis. He don't like me being promoted, and he has been moving my orchids out o' orkardness. Ha, ha! Not so very bad, that."
"He did not move them," said Ellis grimly.
"Who did, then?"
"Yes; I dare say he has been here. He has been in the big conservatory ever so long, tying up plants and clearing off dead stuff."
"John Grange! What, has he got back his sight?"
"No; the mistress fetched him over from old Tummus's cottage, and he has been hard at work ever so long."
"But there wasn't no clearing up to do," cried Barnett, flushing angrily.
"Wasn't there? Well, he was at it, and you may tell that fellow he won't be wanted, for John Grange is going to stay."
Daniel Barnett said something which, fortunately, was inaudible, and need not be recorded; and he turned pale through the harvest brown sun-tan with mortification and jealous rage.
"Why, you don't mean to say, Mr Ellis, sir," he cried, "that you've been a party to bringing that poor creature back here to make himself a nuisance and get meddling with my plants?"
"No, sir, I do not," said the bailiff sharply; "it's your mistress's work. She has a way of doing what she likes, and you'd better talk to her about that."
He turned upon his heel and left the orchid-house, and as soon as he was gone the new head-gardener stood watching him till he was out of hearing, and then, doubling up his fist, he struck out from the shoulder at one of the offending pots standing at a corner—a lovely mauve-tinted cattleya in full blossom—and sent it flying to shivers upon the floor.
It was the kind of blow he felt in his rage that he would have liked to direct at John Grange's head, but as in his unreasonable jealous spite it was only a good-sized earthenware pot, the result was very unsatisfactory, for the flower was broken, the pot shattered, and a couple of red spots appeared on Daniel Barnett's knuckles, which began to bleed freely.
"That's it, is it?" he muttered. "He's to be kept here like a pet monkey, I suppose. Well, he's not going to interfere with my work, and so I tell him. Don't want no blind beggars about. A silly old fool: that's what she is—a silly old fool; and I should like to tell her so. So he's to come here and do what he likes, is he? Well, we shall see about that. It's indecent, that's what it is. Why can't he act like a man, and take it as he should, not come whining about here like a blind beggar of Bethnal Green? But if he can't see, others can. Perhaps Mr John Grange mayn't stop here very long. Who knows?" Daniel Barnett, for some reason or another, uttered a low-toned, unpleasant laugh, and then began to pick up the pieces of the broken pot, and examine the injured orchid, to see what portions would live; but after a few minutes' inspection he bundled all into a wooden basket, carried it out to the rubbish heap, and called one of the men to sweep up the soil upon the red-tiled floor.
The days glided by and John Grange's powers developed in a wonderful way. He busied himself about the glass-houses from morning to night, but he did not return to the bothy in the grounds, preferring to go on lodging with old Hannah and her husband.
At first the men used to watch him, leaving off their work to talk together when he passed down the garden, and first one and then another stood ready to lend him a helping hand; but this never seemed to be needed, Grange making sure by touching a wall, fence, shrub, or some familiar object whose position he knew, and then walking steadily along with no other help than a stick, and finding his way anywhere about the grounds.
"It caps me, lads!" said old Tummus; "but there, I dunno: he allus was one of the clever ones. Look at him now; who'd ever think that he was blind as a mole? Why, he walks as upright as I do."
There was a roar of laughter at this.
"Well, so he do," cried old Tummus indignantly.
"That ain't saying much, old man," said one of the gardeners; "why, you go crawling over the ground like a rip-hook out for a walk."
"Ah, never mind," grumbled old Tummus, "perhaps if you'd bent down to your work as I have, you'd be as much warped. Don't you get leaving tools and barrers and garden-rollers all over the place now."
"'Cause we, none on us, want to see that poor lad fall over 'em, and break his legs. Eh?"
No one did; and from that hour a new form of tidiness was observed in Mrs Mostyn's garden.
Daniel Barnett said very little, but quite avoided Grange, who accepted the position, divining as he did the jealous feeling of his new superior, and devoted himself patiently to such tasks as he could perform, but instinctively standing on his guard against him whom he felt to be his enemy.
A couple of months had gone by when, one day, Mrs Mostyn came upon Grange in the conservatory, busily watering various plants which a touch had informed him required water.
"Do you think it would hurt some of the best orchids to make a good stand full of them here for a couple of days, Grange?" said his mistress. "I have a friend coming down who takes a great deal of interest in these plants."
"There is always the risk of giving them a check, ma'am," said Grange quietly; "but if you wouldn't mind the place being kept rather close, and a little fire being started to heat the pipes, they would be quite right."
"Oh, do what you think best," said Mrs Mostyn, "and make me a good handsome show by the day after to-morrow. Just there, between these two windows."
"If you'll excuse me, ma'am, they would be better on the other side against the house. They would show off better, and be less likely to get a check if a window was opened, as might happen."
"Of course, John Grange. Then put them there. I want a good, brilliant show, mind, to please my friend."
"They shall be there, ma'am. I'll get a stand cleared at once, ma'am, and put the orchids on to-morrow."
By that evening one of the large stands was clear, all but a few flowers to keep it from looking blank, and late on the next afternoon Daniel Barnett encountered old Tummus.
"Hullo, where are you going with that long barrow?"
"Orchid-house, to fetch pots."
"Muster Grange wants me to help him make up a stand in the zervyturry."
Daniel Barnett walked off muttering—
"I'm nobody, of course. It ain't my garden. Better make him head at once."
"Beautiful! Lovely!" cried Mrs Mostyn, as she stood in front of the lovely bank of blossoms; "and capitally arranged, John Grange. Why, it is quite a flower show."
That evening the guest arrived to dinner in the person of a great physician, whose sole relaxation was his garden; and directly after breakfast the next morning, full of triumph about the perfection of her orchids, Mrs Mostyn led the way into the conservatory, just as John Grange hurried out at the garden entrance, as if to avoid being seen.
"A minute too late," said the doctor, smiling; "but I thought you said that the man who attends to this place was quite blind?"
"He is! That is the man, but no one would think it. Now you shall see what a lovely stand of orchids he has arranged by touch. It is really wonderful what a blind man can do."
"Yes, it is wonderful, sometimes," replied the visitor. "I have noticed many cases where Nature seems to supply these afflicted people with another sense, and—"
"Oh, dear me! Oh, you tiresome, stupid man! My poor flowers! I wouldn't for a hundred pounds have had this happen, and just too when I wanted it all as a surprise for you. That's why he hurried out."
"Ah, dear me!" said the great physician, raising his glasses to his eye. "Such lovely specimens, too. Poor fellow! He must have slipped. A sad accident due to his blindness, of course, while watering, I presume."
For there, on the red-tiled floor of the conservatory, lay an overturned watering-can, whose contents had formed a muddy puddle, in which were about a dozen broken pots just as they had been knocked down from the stand, the bulbs snapped, beautiful trusses of blossom shivered and crushed, and the whole display ruined by the gap made in its midst.
The tears of vexation stood in Mrs Mostyn's eyes, but she turned very calm directly as she walked back into the drawing-room and rang, looking white now with anger and annoyance.
"Send John Grange to the conservatory directly," she said to the butler, and then walked back with her guest.
Five minutes later John Grange came in from the garden, and the great physician watched him keenly, as the young man's eye looked full of trouble and his face twitched a little as he went towards where he believed his mistress to be.
"What is the meaning of this horrible destruction, Grange?" she cried.
"I don't know, ma'am," he replied excitedly. "I came in and found the pots all down only a few moments ago."
"That will do," she said sternly, and she turned away with her guest. "Even he cannot speak the truth, doctor. Oh, what cowards some men can be!"
Mrs Mostyn said but little more, though she thought a great deal. John Grange gave her his explanation. He had, he said, been into the conservatory twice that morning; and on the second visit brought the can of water to give the orchids a final freshening, when he felt something crush beneath his feet, and, startled and horrified at finding what was wrong, he had dropped the pot of water and added to the mishap.
Mrs Mostyn said, "That will do," rather coldly; and the young man went away crushed, feeling that she did not believe him, and that the morning's business had, in her disappointment, cast him down from his high position.
A day or two later he tried to renew the matter, but he received a short "That will do"; and, humbled and disheartened, he went away, feeling that his position at The Hollows would never be the same again.
It was talked over at the cottage, where Mary listened in agony.
"Pity he did not own to having met with an accident at once," said her father. "Of course it is no more than one expected, it was sure to come some time; but it was a pity he was such a coward and took, refuge in a lie. Just like a child: but, poor fellow, his accident has made him weak."
Mary flushed up in her agony and indignation, for it was as if her father had accused her of untruthfulness; but an imploring look from her mother, just as she was going to speak, silenced her, and she suffered to herself till her father had gone, and then indignantly declared that John Grange was incapable of telling a lie.
The trouble was discussed too pretty largely at old Hannah's cottage, where Tummus's wife gave it as her opinion that it was "one of they dratted cats." They was always breaking something, and if the truth was known it was "the missus's Prusshun Tom, as she allers called Shah."