By The Author Of
'John Halifax, Gentleman'
DINAH MARIA CRAIK, AKA: Dinah Maria Mulock
With Illustrations By Walter Crane
Macmillan And Co.
INSCRIBED TO M, P.,
MEMORIAL OF THE FRIENDSHIP OF A LIFETIME
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
The husband's farewell
"She began leisurely to read"
"Will you accept it, with my love?"
Arrival at Kingcombe Holm
Along the road
—If there ever was a woman thoroughly like her name, it was Agatha Bowen. She was good, in the first place—right good at heart, though with a slight external roughness (like the sound of the g in her name), which took away all sentimentalism. Then the vowels—the three broad rich a's—which no one can pronounce with nimini-pimini closed lips—how thoroughly they answered to her character!—a character in the which was nothing small, mean, cramped, or crooked.
But if we go on unfolding her in this way, there will not be the slightest use in writing her history, or that of one in whom her life is beautifully involved and enclosed—as every married woman's should be—
He was still in clouded mystery—an individual yet to be; and two other individuals had been "talking him over," feminine-fashion, in Miss Agatha Bowen's drawing-room, much to that lady's amusement and edification. For, being moderately rich, she had her own suite of rooms in the house where she boarded; and having no mother—sorrowful lot for a girl of nineteen!—she sometimes filled her drawing-room with very useless and unprofitable acquaintances. These two married ladies—one young, the other old—Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Thornycroft—had been for the last half-hour vexing their very hearts out to find Agatha a husband—a weakness which, it must be confessed, lurks in the heart of almost every married lady.
Agatha had been laughing at it, alternately flushing up or looking scornful, as her mouth had a natural propensity for looking; balancing herself occasionally on the arm of the sofa, which, being rather small and of a light figure, she could do with both impunity and grace; or else rushing to the open window, ostensibly to let her black kitten investigate street-sights from its mistress's shoulder. Agatha was very much of a child still, or could be when she chose.
Mrs. Hill had been regretting some two or three "excellent matches" of which she felt sure Miss Bowen had thrown away her chance; and young Mrs. Thornycroft had tried hard to persuade her dearest Agatha how very much happier she would be in a house of her own, than as a boarder even in this excellent physician's family. But Agatha only laughed on, and devoted herself more than ever to the black kitten.
She was, I fear, a damsel who rather neglected the bienseances of life. Only, in her excuse, it must be allowed that her friends were doing what they had no earthly business to do; since; if there is one subject above all upon which a young woman has a right to keep her thoughts, feelings, and intentions to herself, and to exact from others the respect of silence, it is that of marriage. Possibly, Agatha Bowen was of this opinion.
"Mrs. Hill, you are a very kind, good soul: and Emma Thornycroft, I like you very much; but if—(Oh! be quiet, Tittens!)—if you could manage to let me and 'my Husband' alone."
These were the only serious words she said—and they were but half serious; she evidently felt such an irresistible propensity to laugh.
"Now," continued she, turning the conversation, and putting on a dignified aspect, which occasionally she took it into her head to assume, though more in playfulness than earnest—"now let me tell you who you will meet here at dinner to-day."
"Major Harper, of course."
"I do not see the 'of course' Mrs. Thornycroft," returned Agatha, rather sharply; then, melting into a smile, she added: "Well, 'of course,' as you say; what more likely visitor could I have than my guardian?"
"Trustee, my dear; guardians belong to romances, where young ladies are always expected to hate, or fall in love with them."
Agatha flushed slightly. Now, unlike most girls, Miss Bowen did not look pretty when she blushed; her skin being very dark, and not over clear, the red blood coursing under it dyed her cheek, not "celestial, rosy red," but a warm mahogany colour. Perhaps a consciousness of this deepened the unpleasant blushing fit, to which, like most sensitive people at her age, she was always rather prone.
"Not," continued Mrs. Thornycroft, watching her,—"not that I think any love affair is likely to happen in your case; Major Harper is far too much of a settled-down bachelor, and at the same time too old."
Agatha pulled a comical face, and made a few solemn allusions to Methuselah. She had a peculiarly quick, even abrupt manner of speaking, saying a dozen words in the time most young ladies would take to drawl out three; and possessing, likewise, the rare feminine quality of never saying a word more than was necessary.
"Agatha, how funny you are!" laughed her easily-amused friend. "But, dear, tell me who else is coming?" And she glanced doubtfully down on a gown that looked like a marriage-silk "dyed and renovated."
"Oh, no ladies—and gentlemen never see whether one is dressed in brocade or sackcloth," returned Agatha, rather maliciously;—"only, 'old Major Harper' as you are pleased to call him, and"——
"Nay, I didn't call him very old—just forty, or thereabouts—though he does not look anything like it. Then he is so handsome, and, I must say, Agatha, pays you such extreme attention."
Agatha laughed again—the quick, light-hearted laugh of nineteen—and her brown eyes brightened with innocent pleasure.
Young Mrs. Thornycroft again looked down uneasily at her dress—not from overmuch vanity, but because her hounded mind recurred instinctively from extraneous or large interests to individual and lesser ones.
"Is there really any one particular coming, my dear? Of course, you have no trouble about evening dress; mourning is such easy comfortable wear." (Agatha turned her head quickly aside.) "That handsome silk of yours looks quite well still; and mamma there," glancing at the contentedly knitting Mrs. Hill—"old ladies never require much dress; but if you had only told me to prepare for company"——
"Pretty company! Merely our own circle—Dr. Ianson, Mrs. Ianson, and Miss Ianson—you need not mind outshining her now"——
"No, indeed! I am married."
"Then the 'company' dwindles down to two besides yourselves; Major Harper and his brother."
"Oh! What sort of a person is the brother?"
"I really don't know; I have never seen him. He is just come home from Canada; the youngest of the family—and I hate boys," replied Agatha, running the sentences one upon the other in her quick fashion.
"The youngest of the family—how many are there in all?" inquired the elder lady, her friendly anxiety being probably once more on matrimonial thoughts intent.
"I am sure, Mrs. Hill, I cannot tell. I have never seen any of them but Major Harper, and I never saw him till my poor father died; all which circumstances you know quite well, and Emma too; so there is no need to talk a thing twice over."
From her occasional mode of speech, some people might say, and did say, that Agatha Bowen "had a temper of her own." It is very true, she was not one of those mild, amiable heroines who never can give a sharp word to any one. And now and then, probably from the morbid restlessness of unsatisfied youth—a youth, too, that fate had deprived of those home-ties, duties, and sacrifices, which are at once so arduous and so wholesome—she had a habit of carrying, not only the real black kitten, but the imaginary and allegorical "little black dog," on her shoulder.
It was grinning there invisibly now; shaking her curls with short quick motion, swelling her rich full lips—those sort of lips which are glorious in smiles, but which in repose are apt to settle into a gravity not unlike crossness.
She was looking thus—not her best, it must be allowed—when a servant, opening the drawing-room door, announced "Visitors for Miss Bowen."
The first who entered, very much in advance of the other, appeared with that easy, agreeable air which at once marks the gentleman, and one long accustomed to the world in all its phases, especially to the feminine phase; for he bowed over Agatha's hand, and smiled in Agatha's now brightening face, with a sort of tender manliness, that implied his being used to pleasing women, and having an agreeable though not an ungenerous consciousness of the fact.
"Are you better—really better? Are you quite sure you have no cold left? Nothing to make your friends anxious about you?" (Agatha shook her head smilingly.) "That's right; I am so glad."
And no doubt Major Harper was; for a true kind-heartedness, softened even to tender-heartedness, was visible in his handsome face. Which face had been for twenty years the admiration of nearly every woman in every drawing-room he entered: a considerable trial for any man. Now and then some independent young lady, who had reasons of her own for preferring rosy complexions, turn-up noses, and "runaway" chins, might quarrel with the Major's fine Roman profile and jet-black moustache and hair; but—there was no denying it—he was, even at forty, a remarkably handsome man; one of the old school of Chesterfield perfection, which is fast dying out.
Everybody liked him, more or less; and some people—a few men and not a few women, had either in friendship or in warmer fashion—deeply loved him. Society in general was quite aware of this; nor, it must be confessed, did Major Harper at all attempt to disprove or ignore the fact. He wore his honours—as he did a cross won, no one quite knew how, during a brief service in the Peninsula—neither pompously nor boastingly, but with the mild indifference of conscious desert.
All this could be at once discerned in his face, voice, and manner; from which likewise a keen observer might draw the safe conclusion that, though a decided man of fashion, and something of a dandy, he was above either puppyism or immorality. And Agatha's rich Anglo-Indian father had not judged foolishly when he put his only child and her property in the trust of, as he believed, that rare personage, an honest man.
If the girl Agatha, who took honesty as a matter of course in every gentleman, endowed this particular one with a few qualities more than he really possessed, it was an amiable weakness on her part, for which, as Major Harper would doubtless have said with a seriously troubled countenance, "no one could possibly blame him."
In speaking of the Major we have taken little notice—as little, indeed, as Agatha did—of the younger Mr. Harper.
"My brother, Miss Bowen. He came home when my sister Emily died." The brief introduction terminated in a slight fall of voice, which made the young lady look sympathisingly at the handsome face that took shades of sadness as easily as shades of mirth. In her interest for the Major she merely bowed to his brother; just noticed that the stranger was a tall, fair "boy," not at all resembling her own friend; and after a polite speech or two of welcome, to which Mr. Harper answered very briefly, she hardly looked at him again until she and her guests adjourned to the family drawing-room of Dr. Ianson.
There, the Major happening to be engrossed by doing earnest politeness to Mrs. Thornycroft and her mother, Agatha had to enter side by side with the younger brother, and likewise to introduce him to the worthy family whose inmate she was.
She did so, making the whole circuit of the room towards Miss Jane Ianson, in the hope that he would cast anchor, or else be grappled by that young lady, and so she should get rid of him. However, fate was adverse; the young gentleman showed no inclination to be thus put aside, and Miss Bowen, driven to despair, was just going to extinguish him altogether with some specimen of the unceremonious manner which she occasionally showed to "boys," when, observing him more closely, she discovered that he could not exactly come under this category.
His fair face, fair hair, and thin, stripling-like figure, had deceived her. Investigating deeper, there was a something in his grave eye and firmly-set mouth which bespoke the man, not the boy. Agatha, who, treating him with a careless womanly superiority that girls of nineteen use, had asked "how long he had been in Canada?" and been answered "Fifteen years,"—hesitated at her next intended question—the very rude and malicious one—"How old he was when he left home?"
"I was, as you say, very young when I quitted England," he answered, to a less pointed remark of Miss Ianson's. "I must have been a lad of nine or ten—little more."
Agatha quite started to think of the disrespectful way in which she had treated a gentleman twenty-five years old! It made her shy and uncomfortable for some minutes, and she rather repented of her habit of patronising "boys."
However, what was even twenty-five? A raw, uncouth age. No man was really good for anything until he was thirty. And, as quickly as courtesy and good feeling allowed her, she glided from the uninteresting younger brother to the charmed circle where the elder was talking away, as only Major Harper could talk, using all the weapons of conversation by turns, to a degree that never can be truly described. Like Taglioni's entrechats, or Grisi's melodious notes, such extrinsic talent dies on the senses of the listener, who cannot prove, scarcely even explain, but only say that it was so. Nevertheless, with all his power of amusing, a keen observer might have discerned in Major Harper a want of depth—of reading—of thought; a something that marked out the man of society in contradiction to the man of intellect or of letters. Had he been an author—which he was once heard to thank Heaven he was not—he would probably have been one of those shallow, fashionable sentimentalists who hang like Mahomed's coffin between earth and heaven, an eyesore unto both. As it was, his modicum of talent made him a most pleasant man in his own sphere—the drawing-room.
"Really," whispered the good, corpulent Dr. Ianson, who had been laughing so much that he quite forgot dinner was behind time, "my dear Miss Bowen, your friend is the most amusing, witty, delightful person. It is quite a pleasure to have such a man at one's table."
"Quite a pleasure, indeed," echoed Mrs. Ianson, deeply thankful to anything or anybody that stood in the breach between herself, her husband, and the dilatory cook.
Agatha looked gratified and proud. Casting a shy glance towards where her friend was talking to Emma Thomycroft and Miss Ianson, she met the eye of the younger brother. It expressed such keen, though grave observance of her, that she felt her cheeks warm into the old, unbecoming, uncomfortable blush.
It was rather a satisfaction that, just then, they were summoned to dinner; Major Harper, in his half tender, half paternal manner, advancing to take her downstairs; which was his custom, when, as frequently happened, Agatha Bowen was the woman he liked best in the room. This was indeed his usual way in all societies, except when out of kindliness of heart he now and then made a temporary sacrifice in favour of some woman who he thought liked him best. Though even in this case, perhaps, he would not have erred, or felt that he erred, in offering his arm to Agatha.
She looked happy, as any young girl would, in receiving the attentions of a man whom all admired; and was quite contented to sit next to him, listening while he talked cheerfully and brilliantly, less for her personal, entertainment than that of the table in general. Which she thought, considering the dulness of the Ianson circle, and that even her own kind-hearted, long-known friend, Emma Thomycroft, was not the most intellectual woman in the world,—showed great good nature on the part of Major Harper.
Perhaps the most silent person at table was the younger brother, whose Christian name Agatha did not know. However, hearing the Major call him once or twice by an odd-sounding word, something like "Beynell" or "Ennell," she had the curiosity to inquire.
"Oh, it is N. L.—his initials; which I call him by, instead of the very ugly name his cruel godfathers and godmothers imposed upon him as a life-long martyrdom."
"What name is that?" asked Agatha, looking across at the luckless victim of nomenclature, who seemed to endure his woes with great equanimity.
He met her eye, and answered for himself, showing he had been listening to her all the time. "I am called Nathanael—it is an old family name—Nathanael Locke Harper."
"You don't look very like a Nathanael," observed his neighbour, Mrs. Thornycroft, doubtless wishing to be complimentary.
"I think he does," said Agatha, kindly, for she was struck by the infinitely sweet and "good" expression which the young man's face just then wore. "He looks like the Nathanael of Scripture, 'in whom there was no guile.'"
A pause—for the Iansons were those sort of religious people who think any Biblical allusions irreverent. But Major Harper said, heartily, "That's true!" and cordially, nay affectionately, pressed Agatha's hand. Nathanael slightly coloured, as if with pleasure, though he made no answer of any kind. He was evidently unused to bandy either jests or compliments.
If anything could be objected to in a young man so retiring and unobtrusive as he, it was a certain something the very opposite of his brother's cheerful frankness. His features, regular, delicate, and perfectly colourless; his hair long, straight, and of the palest brown, without any shadow of what painters would call a "warm tint," auburn or gold, running through it; his slow, quiet movements, rare speech, and a certain passive composure of aspect, altogether conveyed the impression of a nature which, if not positively repellant, was decidedly cold.
Agatha felt it, and though from the rule of opposites, this species of character awoke in her a spice of interest, yet was the interest of too faint and negative a kind to attract her more than momentarily.
In her own mind she set down Nathanael Harper as "a very odd sort of youth"—(a youth she still persisted in calling him)—and turned again to his brother.
They had dined late,—and the brief evening bade fair to pass as after-dinner evenings do. Arrived in the drawing-room, old Mrs. Hill went to sleep; Miss Ianson, a pale young woman, in delicate health, disappeared; Mrs. Ianson and Mrs. Thornycroft commenced a low-toned, harmless conversation, which was probably about "servants" and "babies." Agatha being at that age when domestic affairs are very uninteresting, and girlish romance has not yet ripened into the sweet and solemn instincts of motherhood, stole quietly aside, and did the very rude thing of taking up a book and beginning to read "in company." But, as before stated, Miss Agatha had a will of her own, which she usually followed out, even when it ran a little contrary to the ultra-refined laws of propriety.
The book not being sufficiently interesting, she was beginning, like many another clever girl of nineteen, to think the society of married ladies a great bore, and to wonder when the gentlemen would come up-stairs'. Her wish was shortly gratified by the door's opening—but only to admit the "youth" Nathanael.
However, partly for civility, and partly through lack of entertainment, Agatha smiled upon even him, and tried to make him talk.
This was not an easy matter, since in all qualities he seemed to be his elder brother's opposite. Indeed, his reserve and brevity of speech emulated Agatha's own; so they got on together ill enough, until by some happy chance they lighted on the subject of Canada and the Backwoods. Where is there boy or girl of romantic imagination who did not, at some juvenile period of existence, revel in descriptions of American forest-life? Agatha had scarcely passed this, the latest of her various manias; and on the strength of it, she and Mr. Harper became more sociable. She even condescended to declare "that it was a pleasure to meet with one who had absolutely seen, nay, lived among red Indians.'"
"Ay, and nearly died among them too," added Major Harper, coming up so unexpectedly that Agatha had not noticed him. "Tell Miss Bowen how you were captured, tied to the stake, half-tomahawked, etc.—how you lived Indian fashion for a whole year, when you were sixteen. Wonderful lad! A second Nathaniel Bumppo!" added he, tapping his brother's shoulder.
The young man drew back, merely answered "that the story would not interest Miss Bowen," and retired, whether out of pride or shyness it was impossible to say.
The conversation, taken up and led, as usual, by Major Harper, became a general disquisition on the race of North American Indians. Accidentally, or not, the elder brother drew from the younger many facts, indicating a degree of both information and experience which made every one glance with surprise, respect, and a little awe, on the delicate, boyish-looking Nathanael.
Once, too, Agatha took her turn as an object of interest to the rest They were all talking of the distinctive personal features of that strange race, which some writers have held to be the ten lost tribes of Israel. Agatha asked what were the characteristics of an Indian face, often stated to be so fine?
"Look in the mirror, Miss Bowen," said Nathanael, joining in the conversation.
"What do you mean?"
I mean, that were you not an Englishwoman, I should have thought you descended from a Pawnee Indian—all except the hair. The features are exact—long, almond-shaped eyes, aquiline nose, mouth and chin of the rare classic mould, which these children of nature keep, long after it has almost vanished out of civilised Europe. Then your complexion, of such a dark ruddy brown—your"——
"Stop—stop!" cried the Major, heartily laughing. "Miss Bowen will think you have learnt every one of her physical peculiarities off by heart already. I had not the least idea you were gifted with so much observation."
"Nay, do let him go on; it amuses me," cried the young girl, laughing, though she could not help blushing a' little also.
But Nathanael had "shrunk into his shell," as his brother humorously whispered to Agatha, and was not to be drawn out for the remainder of the evening.
The Harpers left early, thus affording great opportunity for their characters being discussed afterwards. Every lady in the room had long since declared herself "in love" with the elder brother; the fact was now repeated for the thousandth time, together with one or two remarks about the younger Harper, who they agreed was rather nice-looking, but so eccentric!
Miss Bowen scarcely thought about Nathanael at all; except that, after she was in bed, a comical recollection floated through other more serious ones, and she laughed outright at the notion of being considered like a Pawnee Indian!
Of all the misfortunes incidental to youth (falling in love included), there are few greater than that of having nothing to do. From this trial, Agatha Bowen, being unhappily a young lady of independent property, suffered martyrdom every day. She had no natural ties, duties, or interests, and was not sufficiently selfish to create the like in and about her own personality. She did not think herself handsome enough to be vain, so had not that sweet refuge of feminine idleness—dress. Nor, it must be dolefully confessed, was she of so loving a nature as to love anybody or everybody, as some women can.
Kind to all, and liking many, she was apparently one of those characters who only really love two or three people in the whole course of their existence. To such, life is a serious, perilous, and often terrible journey.
"Well, Tittens, I don't know, really, what we are to do with ourselves this morning," said Agatha, talking aloud to her Familiar, the black kitten, who shared the solitude of her little drawing-room. "You'd like to go and play downstairs, I dare say? It's all very nice for you to be running after Mrs. Ianson's wools, but I can't see anything amusing in fancy-work. And as for dawdling round this square and Russell Square with Jane Ianson and Fido—pah! I'd quite as soon be changed into a lapdog, and led along by a string. How stupid London is! Oh, Tittens, to think that you and I have never lived in the country since we were born. Wouldn't you like to go? Only, then we should never see anybody"——
The foolish girl paused, and laughed, as if she did not like to soliloquise too confidentially, even to a kitten.
"Which of them did you like the best last night, Tittens? One was not over civil to you; but Nathanael—yes, certainly you and that juvenile are great friends, considering you have met but four evenings. All in one week, too. Our house is getting quite gay, Miss Tittens; only it is so much the duller in the mornings. Heigho!
"Life's a weary, weary, weary, Life's a weary coble o' care."
"What's the other verse? And she began humming:
"Man's a steerer, steerer, steerer, Man's a steerer—life is a pool."
"I wonder, Tittens, how you and I shall steer through it? and whether the pool will be muddy or clear?"
Twisting her fingers in and about her pet's jetty for, Agatha sat silent, until slowly there grew a thoughtful shadow in her eyes, a forewarning of the gradual passing away of that childishness, which in her, from accidental circumstances, had lasted strangely long.
"Come, we won't be foolish, Tittens," cried she, suddenly starting up. "We'll put on our bonnets, and go out—that is, one of us will, and the other may take to Berlin wool and Mrs. Ianson."
The bonnet was popped on quickly and independently—Miss Bowen scorned to indulge in the convenience or annoyance of a lady's-maid. Crossing the hall, the customary question, "Whether she would be home to dinner?" stopped her.
"I don't know—I am not quite sure. Tell Mrs. Ianson not to wait for me."
And she passed out, feeling keener than usual the consciousness that nobody would wait for her, or look for her, or miss her; that her comings in and goings out were perfectly indifferent to every human being in the house, called by courtesy her "home." Perhaps this was her own fault, but she could not help it. It was out of her nature to get up an interest among ordinary people, where interests there were none.
Little more had she in the house whither she was going to pay one of her extempore visits; but then there was the habit of old affection, begun before characters develop themselves into the infinite variety from which mental sympathy is evolved. She could not help liking Emma Thornycroft, her sole childish acquaintance, whose elder sister had been Agatha's daily governess, until she died.
"I know Emma will be glad to see me, which is something; and if she does tire me with talk about the babies, why, children are better than Berlin wool. And there is always the piano. Besides, I must walk out, or I shall rust to death in this horrible Bedford Square."
She walked on, rather in a misanthropic mood, a circumstance to her not rare. But she had never known mother, sister, or brother; and the name of father was to her little more than an empty sound. It had occasionally come mistily over the Indian Ocean, in the shape of formal letters—the only letters that ever visited the dull London house where she spent her shut-up childhood, and acquired the accomplishments of her teens. Mr. Bowen died on the high seas: and when his daughter met the ship at Southampton, a closed black coffin was all that remained to her of the name of father. That bond, like all others, was destined to be to her a mere shadow. Poor Agatha!
Quick exercise always brings cheerfulness when one is young, strong, and free from any real cares; Agatha's imaginary ones, together with the vague sentimentalisms into which she was on the verge of falling, yet had not fallen, vanished under the influence of a cheerful walk on a sunny summer's day. She arrived at Mrs. Thornycroft's time enough to find that admirable young matron busied in teaching to her eldest boy the grand mystery of dining; that is, dining like a Christian, seated at a real table with a real silver knife and fork. These latter Master James evidently preferred poking into his eyes and nose, rather than his mouth, and evinced far greater anxiety to sit on the table than on the chair.
"Agatha, dear—so glad to see you!" and Emma's look convinced even Agatha that this was true. "You will stay, of course! Just in time to see James eat his first dinner, like a man! Now Jemmie, wipe his pretty mouth, and then give Auntie Agatha a sweet kiss."
Agatha submitted to the kiss, though she did not quite believe in the adjective; and felt a certain satisfaction in knowing that the title of "Auntie" was a mere compliment. She did not positively dislike children, else she would have been only half a woman, or a woman so detestable as to be an anomaly in creation; but her philoprogenitiveness was, to say the least, dormant at present; and her sense of infantile beauty being founded on Sir Joshua's and Murillo's cherubs, she had no great fancy for the ugly little James.
She laid aside her bonnet, and smoothing her curls in the nursery mirror, looked for one minute at her Pawnee-Indian face, the sight of which now often made her smile. Then she sat down to lunch with Emma and the children; being allowed, as a great favour, to be placed next Master James, and drink with him out of his silver mug. Miss Bowen accepted the offered honour calmly, made no remark, but—went thirsty.
For an hour or two she sat patiently listening to what had gone on in the house since she was there—-how baby had cut two more teeth, and James had had a new braided frock—(which was sent for that she might look at it)—how Missy had been to her first children's party, and was to learn dancing at Midsummer, if papa could be coaxed to agree.
"How is Mr. Thornycroft?" asked Agatha.
"Oh, very well—papa is always well. I only wish the little ones took after him in that respect."
Agatha, who was old enough to remember Emma engaged, and Emma newly married, smiled to think how entirely the lover beloved and the all-important young husband had dwindled into a mere "Papa;" liked and obeyed in a certain fashion, for Emma was a good wife, but evidently made a very secondary consideration to "the children."
The young girl—as yet neither married, nor in love—wondered if this were always so. She often had such wonderings and speculation when she came to Emma's house.
She was growing rather tired of so much domestic information, and had secretly taken out her watch to see how many hours it would be to dinner and to Mr. Thornycroft, a sensible, intelligent man, who from love to his wife had been always very kind to his wife's friends—when there came the not unwelcome sound of a knock at the hall-door.
"Bless me; that is surely the Harpers. I had quite forgotten Major Harper and the bears."
"An odd conjunction," observed Agatha, smiling.
"Major Harper, who yesterday, for the fifth time, promised to take Missy to the Zoological Gardens to see the bears. He has remembered it at last."
No, he had not remembered it; it would have been a very remarkable circumstance if he had; being a person so constantly full of engagements, for himself and others. The visitor was only his younger brother, who had often daundered in at Mrs. Thornycroft's house, possibly from a liking to Emma's friendly manner, or because, cast astray for a fortnight on the wide desert of London, he had, like Agatha, "nothing to do."
If Nathanael had other reasons, they, of course, never came near the surface, but lay buried under the silent waters of his quiet mind.
Agatha was half pleased, half disappointed at seeing him. Mrs. Thornycroft, good soul, was always charmed to have a visitor, for her society did not attract many. Only betraying, as usual, what was uppermost in her simple thoughts, she could not long conceal her regret concerning little Missy and the bears.
To Agatha's great surprise, Mr. Harper, who she thought, in his dignified gravity, would never have condescended to such a thing, volunteered to assume his brother's duty.
"For," said he, with a slight smile, "I have had too many perilous encounters with wild bears in America, not to feel some curiosity in seeing a few captured ones in England."
"That will be charming," cried Mrs. Thornycroft, looking at him with a mixture of respect and maternal benignity. "Then you can tell Missy all those wonderful stories, only don't frighten her."
"Perhaps I might She seems rather shy of me." And the adventurous young gentleman eyed askance a small be-ribboned child, who was creeping about the room and staring at him. "Would it not be better if"——
"If mamma went?"
"There, Missy, don't cry; mamma will go, and Agatha, too, if she would like it?"
"Certainly," Miss Bowen answered, with a mischievous glance at Nathanael. "I ought to investigate bears, if only to prove myself descended from a Pawnee Indian."
So, once more, the heavy nut-brown curls were netted up into the crown of her black bonnet, and her shawl pinned on carelessly—rather too carelessly for a young woman; since that gracious adornment, neatness, rarely increases with years. Agatha was quickly ready. In the ten minutes she had to wait for Mrs. Thornycroft, she felt, more than once, how much merrier they would have been with the elder than the younger brother. Also—for Agatha was a conscientious girl—she thought, seriously, what a pity it was that so pleasant and kind a man as Major Harper had such an unfortunate habit of forgetting his promises.
Yet she regretted him—regretted his flow of witty sayings that attracted the humorous half of her temperament, and his touches of seriousness or sentiment which hovered like pleasant music round the yet-closed portals of her girlish heart. Until suddenly—conscientiousness again!—she began to be aware she was thinking a deal too much of Major Harper; so, with a strong effort, turned her attention to his brother and the bears.
She had leant on Mr. Harper's offered arm all the way to the Regent's Park, yet he had scarcely spoken to her. No wonder, therefore, that she had had time for meditation, or that her comparison between the two brothers should be rather to Nathanael's disadvantage. The balance of favour, however, began to right itself a little when she saw how kind he was to Emma Thornycroft, who alternately screamed at the beasts, and made foolish remarks concerning them; also, how carefully he watched over little Missy and James, the latter of whom, with infantile pertinacity, would poke his small self into every possible danger.
At the sunken den, where the big brown bear performs gymnastic exercises on a centre tree, Master Jemmie was quite in his glory. He emulated Bruin by climbing from his feet into nurse's arms—thence into mamma's, and lastly, much to her discomfiture, into Miss Bowen's. The attraction being that she happened to stand close to the railing and next to Mr. Harper, who, with a bun stuck on the end of his long stick, had coaxed Bruin up to the very top of the tree.
There the creature swayed awkwardly, his four unwieldy paws planted together, and his great mouth silently snapping at the cakes. Agatha could hardly help laughing; she, as well as the children, was so much amused at the monster.
"Mr. Harper, give Missy your cane. Missy would like to feed bear," cried the mamma, now very bold, going with her eldest pet to the other side of the den, and attracting the animal thither.
At which little James, who could not yet speak, setting up a scream of vexation, tried to stretch after the creature; and whether from his own impetuosity or her careless hold, sprang—oh, horror!—right out of Agatha's arms. A moment the little muslin frock caught on the railing—caught—ripped; then the sash, with its long knotted ends, which some one snatched at—nothing but the sash held up the shrieking child, who hung suspended half way over the pit, in reach of the beast's very jaws.
The bear did not at once see it, till startled by the mother's frightful cries. Then he opened his teeth—it looked almost like a grin—and began slowly to descend his tree, while, as slowly, the poor child's sash was unloosing with its weight.
A murmur of horror ran through the people near; but not a man among them offered help. They all slid back, except Nathanael Harper.
Agatha felt his sudden gripe. "Hold my hand firm. Keep me in my balance," he whispered, and throwing himself over to the whole extent of his body, and long right arm, managed to catch hold of James, who struggled violently.
"Hold me tight—tighter still, or we are lost," said he, trying to writhe back again; his hand—such a little delicate hand it seemed for a man—quivering with the weight of the child.
She grasped him frantically—his wrist—his shoulder—nay,—stretching over, linked her arms round his neck. Something in her touch seemed to impart strength to him. He whispered, half gasping,—
"Hold me firm, and I'll do it yet, Agatha." She did not then notice, or recollect till long afterwards, how he had called her by her Christian name, nor the tone in which he had said it.
The moment afterwards, he had lifted the child out of the den, and poor Jemmie was screaming out his now harmless terror safe in the maternal arms.
Then, and not till then, Agatha burst into tears. Tears which no one saw, for the mother, hugging her baby, was the very centre of a sympathising crowd. Mr. Harper, paler than ordinary, leaned against the stone-work of the den.
"Oh, from what have you saved me?" cried Agatha, as after her thankfulness for the rescued life, came another thought, personal yet excusable. "Had Emma lost the child, I should have felt like a murderess to the day of my death."
Nathanael shook his head, trying to smile; but seemed unable to speak.
"You have not hurt yourself?"
"Oh no. Very little. Only a strain," said he as he removed his hand from his side. "Go to your friend: I will come presently."
He did come—though not for a good while; and Miss Bowen fancied from his looks that he had been more injured than he acknowledged; but she did not like to inquire. Nevertheless he rose greatly in her estimation, less for his courage than for the presence of mind and common sense which made it Valuable, and for the self-restraint and indifference which caused him afterwards to treat the whole adventure as such a trifling thing.
It was, after all, nothing very romantic or extraordinary, and happened in such a brief space of time, that probably the circumstance is not noted in the traditionary chronicles of the Zoological Gardens, which contain the frightful legend carefully related that day by several keepers to Mrs. Thornycroft—how a bear had actually eaten up a child, falling in the same manner into the same den.
But the adventure, slight as it may appear, made a very great and sudden difference in the slender tie of acquaintanceship, hitherto subsisting between Agatha and Major Harper's brother. She began to treat Nathanael more like a friend, and ceased to think of him exactly as a "boy."
Master James's mamma, when she at last turned her attention from his beloved small self, was full of thanks to his preserver. Mr. Harper assured her that his feat was merely a little exertion of muscular strength, and at last grew evidently uncomfortable at being made so much of. Returning home with them, he would fain have crept away from the scene of his honours; but the good-natured, motherly-hearted Emma implored him to stay.
"We will nurse you if you are hurt, which I am afraid you must be—it was such a dreadful strain! Oh, Jemmie, Jemmie!" and the poor mother shuddered.
"Indeed you must come in," added Miss Bowen kindly, seeing that Emma's thoughts were floating away, as appeared this time natural enough, to her own concerns. "You shall rest all the evening, and we will talk to you, and be very, very agreeable. Pray yield!"
Nathanael argued no more, but went in "quite lamb-like," as Mrs. Thornycroft afterwards declared.
This acquiescence in him was little rewarded, Agatha thought—for the evening happened to be duller even than evenings usually passed at the Thornycrofts'. The head of the household, being detained in the City, did not appear; and Mrs. Thornycroft's tongue, unchecked by her husband's presence, and excited by the event of the afternoon, galloped on at a fearful rapidity. She poured out upon the luckless young man all the baby biography of her family, from Missy's christening down to the infant Selina's cutting of her first tooth. To all of which he listened with a praiseworthy attention, giving at least silence, which was doubtless all the answer Emma required.
But Agatha, whose sympathy in these things was, as before said, at present small, grew half ashamed, half vexed, and finally rather angry—especially when she saw the pale weariness that gradually overspread Mr. Harper's face. More than once she hinted that he should have the armchair, or lie down, or rest in some way; but he took not the least notice; sitting immovably in his place, which happened to be next herself, and vaguely looking across the table towards Mrs. Thornycroft.
At nine o'clock, becoming paler than ever, he bestirred himself, and talked of leaving.
"I ought to be going too. It is not far, and as our roads agree, I will walk with you," said Agatha, simply.
He seemed surprised—so much so, that she almost blushed, and would have retracted, save for the consciousness of her own frank and kindly purpose. She had watched him closely, and felt convinced that he had been more injured than he confessed; so in her generous straightforward fashion, she wanted to "take care of him," until he was safe at his brother's door, which she could see from her own. And her solitary education had been conducted on such unworldly principles, that she never thought there was anything remarkable or improper in her proposing to walk home with a young man, whom she knew she could trust in every way, and who was besides Major Harper's brother.
Nor did even the matronly Mrs. Thornycroft object to the plan—save that it took her visitors away so early. "Surely," she added, "you can't be tired out already."
Agatha had an ironical answer on the very tip of her tongue: but something in the clear, "good" eye of Nathanael repressed her little wickedness. So she only whispered to Emma that for various reasons she had wished to return early.
"Very well, dear, since you must go, I am sure Mr. Harper will be most happy to escort you."
"If not, I hope he will just say so," added Agatha, very plainly.
He smiled; and his full, soft grey eye, fixed on hers, had an earnestness which haunted her for many a day. She began heartily to like Major Harper's brother, though only as his brother, with a sort of reflected regard, springing from that she felt for her guardian and friend.
This consciousness made her manner perfectly easy, cheerful, and kind, even though they were in the perilously sentimental position of two young people strolling home together in the soft twilight of a Midsummer evening: likewise occasionally stopping to look westward at a new moon, which peered at them round street-corners and through the open spaces of darkening squares. But nothing could make these two at all romantic or interesting; their talk on the road was on the most ordinary topics—chiefly bears.
"You seem quite familiar with wild beast life," Agatha observed. "Were you a very great hunter?"
"Not exactly, for I never could muster up the courage, or the cowardice, wantonly to take away life. I don't remember ever shooting anything, except in self-defence, which was occasionally necessary during the journeys that I used to make from Montreal to the Indian settlements with Uncle Brian."
"Uncle Brian," repeated Agatha, wondering whether Major Harper had ever mentioned such a personage, during the two years of their acquaintance. She thought not, since her memory had always kept tenacious record of what he said about his relatives—which was at best but little. It was one of the few things in him which jarred upon Agatha's feelings—Agatha, to whose isolation the idea of a family and a home was so pathetically sweet—his seeming so totally indifferent to his own. All she knew of Major Harper's kith and kin was, that he was the eldest brother of a large family, settled somewhere down in Dorsetshire.
These thoughts swept through her mind, as Agatha, repeated interrogatively "Uncle Brian?"
"The same who fifteen years since took me out with him to America; my father's youngest brother. Has Frederick never told you of him? They two were great companions once."
"Oh, indeed!" And Agatha, seeing that Nathanael at least showed no dislike, but rather pleasure, in speaking of his family, thought she might harmlessly indulge her curiosity about the Harpers of Dorsetshire. "And you went away with Mr. Brian Harper, at ten years old. How could your mother part with you?"
"She was dead—she died when I was born. But I ought to apologise for thus talking of family matters, which cannot interest you."
"On the contrary, they do—very much!" cried Agatha; and then blushed at her own earnestness, at which Nathanael brightened up into positive warmth.
"How kind you are! how I wish you knew my sisters! It is so pleasant to me to know them at last, after writing to them and thinking about them for these many years. How you would like our home—I call it home, forgetting that I have been only a visitor, and in a short time must go back to my real home, Montreal."
"Must you indeed!" And Agatha felt sorry. She had been at once surprised and gratified by the confidential way in which this usually reserved young man talked to her, and her alone. "Why do you live in America? I hate Americans."
"Do you?" said he, smiling, as if he read her thoughts. "But I have neither Yankee blood nor education. I was English born; brought up in British Canada, and by Uncle Brian."
He spoke the latter words with a certain proud affection, as if his uncle's mere name were sufficient guarantee for himself. Agatha secretly wondered what could possibly be the reason that Major Harper had never even mentioned this personage, whom Nathanael seemed to hold in such honour.
"Of course," he continued, "though I dearly like England, though"—and he sunk his voice a little—"though now it will be doubly hard to go away, I could never think of leaving Uncle Brian to spend his old age alone in the country of his adoption."
"No, no," returned Agatha, absently, her thoughts still running on this new Mr. Harper. "What profession is he?"
"Nothing now. He has led an unsettled life—always poor. But he took care to settle me in a situation under the Canadian Government. We both think ourselves well to do now."
Agatha's sense of womanly decorum could hardly keep her from pressing her companion's arm, in instinctive acknowledgment of his goodness. She thought his face looked absolutely beautiful.
However, restraining her quick impulses within the bounds of propriety, she walked on. "And so you will again cross that fearful Atlantic Ocean?" she said at length, with a slight shudder. The young man saw her gesture, and looked surprised—nay, gladdened. But nevertheless he remained silent.
Agatha did the same, for the mention of the sea brought back to her the one only noteworthy incident of her life, which had given her this strange antipathy to the sea and to the thought of traversing it. But this subject—the horrible bugbear of her childhood—she rarely liked to recur to, even now; so it did not mingle in her conversation with Mr. Harper.
At last Nathanael said: "I would it were possible—indeed I have often vainly tried—to persuade Uncle Brian to come back to England. But since he will not, it is clearly right for me to return to Canada. Anne Valery says so."
"Anne Valery!" again repeated Agatha, catching at this second strange name with which she was supposed to be familiar.
"What, did you never hear of her—my father's ward, my sister's chief friend—quite one of the family? Is it possible that my brother never spoke to you of Anne Valery?"
No, certainly not. Agatha was quite sure of that. The circumstance of Major Harper's having a friend who bore the very suspicious and romantically-interesting name of Anne Valery could never have slipped Miss Bowen's memory. She answered Nathanael's question in an abrupt negative; but all the way through Russell Square she silently pondered as to who, or what like, Anne Valery could be? finally sketching a fancy portrait of a bewitching young creature, with blue eyes and golden hair—the style of beauty which Agatha most envied, because it was most unlike herself.
Ere reaching Dr. Ianson's door, her attention was called to Mr. Harper, whose feet dragged so wearily along, that Agatha was convinced that, in spite of his efforts to conceal it, he was seriously ill. Her womanly sympathy rose—she earnestly pressed him to come in and consult Dr. Ianson.
"No—no. Uncle Brian and I always cure ourselves. As he often says, 'A man after forty is either a doctor or a fool.'"
"But you are only twenty-five."
"Ay, but I have seen enough to make me often feel like a man of forty," said he, smiling. "Do not mind me. That strain was rather too much; but I shall be all right in a day or two."
"I hope so," cried Agatha, anxiously; "since, did you suffer, I should feel as if it were all of my causing, and for me.
"Do you think I should regret that?" said the young man, in a tone so low, that its meaning scarcely reached her. Then, as if alarmed at his own words, he shook hands with her hastily, and walked down the square.
Agatha thought how different was the abrupt, singular manner of Nathanael from Major Harper's tender, lingering, courteous adieu. Nevertheless, she fulfilled her kind purpose towards the young man; and running to her own window, watched his retreating figure, till her mind was relieved by seeing him safely enter his brother's door.
A week—nay, more than a week slipped by in the customary monotony of that large, placidly genteel, Bedford Square house, and Agatha heard nothing of the house round the corner, which constituted one of the faint few interests of her existence. Sometimes she felt vexed at the lengthened absence of her friend and "guardian," as she persisted in considering him; sometimes the thought of young Nathanael's pale face crossed her fancy, awakening both sincere compassion and an uncomfortable doubt that all might not be going on quite right within the half-drawn window-blinds, at which she now and then darted a curious glance.
At last her curiosity or interest rose to such a pitch, that it is to be feared that Agatha in her independent spirit, and ignorance of, or indifference to the world, might have committed the terrific impropriety of making a good-natured inquiry at the door of this bachelor-establishment. She certainly would, had it consisted only of the harmless youth Nathanael; but then Major Harper, at the mention of whose name Mrs. Ianson now began to smile aside, and the invalid Jane to dart towards Agatha quick, inquisitive looks—No; she felt an invincible repugnance to knocking, on any pretence, at Major Harper's door.
However, having nothing to do and little to think of, and, moreover, being under the unwholesome necessity of keeping all her thoughts to herself, her conjectures grew into such a mountain of discomfort—partly selfish, partly generous, out of the hearty gratitude which had been awakened in her towards the younger brother since the adventure with the bear—that Miss Bowen set off one fine morning, hoping to gain intelligence of her neighbours by the round-about medium of Emma Thornycroft.
But that excellent matron had had two of her children ill with some infantine disease, and had in consequence not a thought to spare for any one out of her own household. The name of Harper never crossed her lips until Agatha, using a safe plural, boldly asked the question, "Had Emma seen anything of them?"
Mrs. Thorny croft could not remember.—Yes, she fancied some one had called—Mr. Harper, perhaps; or no, it must have been the Major, for somebody had said something about Mr. Nathanael's being ill or out of town. But the very day after that the measles came out on James, and poor little Missy had just been moved out of the night-nursery into the spare bed-room, etc. etc. etc.
The rest of Emma's information concerning her babies was, as they say in the advertisements of lost property, "of no value to anybody but the original owner."
Agatha bestowed a passing regret on young Nathanael, whether he were ill or out of town; she would have liked to have seen more of him. But that Major Harper should contrive to saunter up to the Regent's Park to visit the Thornycrofts, and never find time to turn a street-corner to say "How d'ye do" to her! she thought neither courteous nor kind.
There was little inducement to spend the day with Emma, who, in her present mood and the state of her household, was a mere conversational Dr. Buchan—a walking epitome of domestic medicine. So Miss Bowen extended her progress; took an early dinner with Mrs. Hill, and stayed all the afternoon at that good old lady's silent and quiet lodgings, where there was neither piano nor books, save one, which Agatha patiently read aloud for two whole hours—"The life of Elizabeth Fry." A volume uninteresting enough to a young creature like herself, yet sometimes smiting her with involuntary reflections, as she contrasted her own aimless, useless existence with the life of that worthy Quakeress—the prison-angel.
Having tired herself out, first with reading and then with singing—very prosy and lengthy ballads of the old school, which were the ditties Mrs. Hill always chose—Agatha departed much more cheerful than she came. So great strength and comfort is there in having something to do, especially if that something happens to be, according to the old nursery-rhyme—
Not for ourself, but our neighbour.
Another day passed—which being rainy, made the Doctor's dull house seem more inane than ever to the girl's restless humour. In the evening, at his old-accustomed hour, Major Harper "dropped in," and Agatha forgot his sins of omission in her cordial welcome. Very cordial it was, and unaffected, such as a young girl of nineteen may give to a man of forty, without her meaning being ill-construed. But under it Major Harper looked pathetically sentimental and uncomfortable. Very soon he moved away and became absorbed in delicate attentions towards the sick and suffering Jane Ianson.
Agatha thought his behaviour rather odd, but generously put upon it the best construction possible—viz. his known kind-heartedness. So she herself went to the other side of the invalid couch, and tried to make mirth likewise.
Asking after Mr. Harper, she learnt that her friend had been acting as sick-nurse, to his brother for some days.
"Poor fellow—he will not confess that he is ill, or what made him so. But I hope he will be about again soon, for they are anxiously expecting him in Dorsetshire. Nathanael is the 'good boy' of our family, and as worthy a creature as ever breathed."
Agatha smiled with pleasure to see the elder brother waxing so generously warm; but when she smiled, Major Harper sighed, and cast his handsome eyes another way. All the evening he scarcely talked to her at all, but to Mrs. and Miss Ianson. Agatha was quite puzzled by this pointed avoidance, not to say incivility, and had some thoughts of plainly asking him if he were vexed with her; but womanly pride conquered girlish frankness, and she was silent.
After tea their quartett was broken by a visitor, whom all seemed astonished to see, and none more so than Major Harper.
"Why, Nathanael, I thought you were safely disposed of with your sofa and book. What madness makes you come out to-night?"
"Inclination, and weariness," returned the other, indifferently, as, without making more excuses or apologies, he dragged himself to the arm-chair, which Miss Bowen good-naturedly drew out for him, and slipped into the circle, quite naturally.
"Well, wilful lads must have their way," cried his brother, "and I am only too glad to see you so much better."
With that the flow of the Major's winning conversation recommenced; in which current all the rest of the company lay like silent pebbles, only too happy to be bubbled round by such a pleasant and refreshing stream.
The younger Harper sat in his arm-chair, leaning his forehead on his hand, and from under that curve now and then looking at them all, especially Agatha.
At a late hour the brothers went away, leaving Mrs. and Miss Ianson in a state of extreme delight, and Miss Bowen in a mood that, to say the least, was thoughtful—more thoughtful than usual.
After that lively evening followed three dull days, consisting of a solitary forenoon, an afternoon walk through the squares, dinner, backgammon, and bed; the next morning, de capo al fine, and so on; a dance of existence as monotonous as that of the spheres, and not half so musical. On the fourth day, while Miss Bowen was out walking, Nathanael Harper called to take leave before his journey to Dorsetshire. He stayed some time, waiting Agatha's return, Mrs. Ianson thought; but finally changed his mind, and made an abrupt departure, for which that young lady was rather sorry than otherwise.
The fifth day, Emma Thornycroft appeared, and, strange to say, without any of her little ones; still stranger, without many references to them on her lips, except the general information that they were all getting well now.
The busy woman evidently had something on her mind, and plunged at once in medias res.
"Agatha, dear, I came to have a little talk with you."
"Very well," said Agatha smiling; calmly and prepared to give up her morning to the discussion of some knotty point in dress or infantile education. But she soon perceived that Emma's pretty face was too ominously important for anything short of that gravest interest of feminine life—matrimony; or more properly in this case—match-making.
"Agatha, love," repeated Emma, with the affectionate accent that was always quite real, but which now deepened under the circumstances of the case, "do you know that young Northen has been speaking to Mr. Thornycroft about you again."
"I am very sorry for it," was the short answer.
"But, my dear,'isn't it a great pity that you could not like the young man? Such a good young man too, and with such a nice establishment already. If you could only see his house in Cumberland Terrace—the real Turkey carpets, inlaid tables, and damask chairs."
"But I can't marry carpets, tables, and chairs."
"Agatha, you are so funny! Certainly not, without the poor man himself. But there is no harm in him, and I am sure he would make an excellent husband."
"I sincerely hope so, provided he is not mine. Come, Tittens, tell Mrs. Thornycroft what you think on the matter," cried the wilful girl, trying to turn the question off by catching her little favourite. But Emma would not thus be set aside. She was evidently well primed with a stronger and steadier motive than what usually occupied and sufficed her easy mind.
"Ah, how can you be so childish! But when you come to my age"—-
"I shall, in a few more years. I wonder if I shall be as young-looking as you, Emma?" This was a very adroit thrust on the part of Miss Agatha, but for once it failed.
"I hope and trust so, dear. That is, if you have as good a husband as I have. Only, be he what he may, he cannot be such another as my dear James."
Agatha internally hoped he might not; for, much as she liked and respected Emma's good spouse, her ideal of a husband was certainly not Mr. James Thornycroft.
"Tell me," continued the anxious matron, keeping up the charge—"tell me, Agatha, do you ever intend to marry at all?
"Perhaps so; I can't say. Ask Tittens!"
"Did you ever think in earnest of marrying? And"—here with an air of real concern Emma stole her arm round her friend's waist—"did you ever see anybody whom you fancied you could like, if he asked you?"
Agatha laughed, but the colour was rising in her brown cheek. "Tut, tut, what nonsense!"
"Look at me, dear, and answer seriously."
Agatha, thus hemmed in, turned her face full round, and said, with some dignity, "I do not know, Emma, what right you have to ask me that question."
"Ah, it is so; I feared it was," sighed Emma, not in the least offended. "I often thought so, even before he hinted"———
"Who hinted—and what?"
"I can't tell you; I promised not. And of course you ought not to know. Oh, dear, what am I letting out!" added poor Mrs. Thornycroft, in much discomfiture.
"Emma, you will make me angry. What ridiculous notion have you got into your head? What on earth do you mean?" cried Miss Bowen, speaking quicker than her usual quick fashion, and dashing the kitten off her knee as she rose.
"Don't be vexed with me, my poor dear girl. It may not be so—I hope not; and even if it were, he is so handsome, so agreeable, and talks so beautifully—I am sure you are not the first woman by many a dozen that has been in love with him."
"With whom?" was the sharp question, as Agatha grew quite pale.
"I must not say.—Ah, yes—I must. It may be a mere supposition. I wish you would only tell me so, and set my mind at rest, and his too. He is quite unhappy about it, poor man, as I see. Though, to be sure, he could not help it, even if you did care for him."
Agatha's storm of passion sank to a dead calm. She sat down again composedly, turning her flushed cheeks from the light.
"This is a new and very entertaining story. You will be kind enough, Emma, to tell me the whole, from beginning to end."
"It all lies in a nutshell, my dear. Oh, how glad I am that you take it so quietly. Then, perhaps it is all a mistake, arising from your hearty manner to every one. I told him so, and said that he need not scruple visiting you, or be in the least afraid that"——
"That I was in love with him? He was afraid, then? He informed you so? Very kind of him! I am very much obliged to Major Harper."
"There now—off you go again. Oh, if you would but be patient"
"Patient—when the only friend I had insults me!—when I have neither father, nor brother,—nobody—nobody"——
She stopped, and her throat choked; but the struggle was in vain; she burst into uncontrollable tears.
"You have me, Agatha, always me, and James!" cried Emma, hanging about her neck, and weeping for company; until, very soon, the proud girl shut down the floodgates of her passion, and became herself again. Herself—as she could not have been, were there a mightier power dwelling in her heart than pride.
"Now, Emma, since you have seen how the thing has vexed me, though not"—and she laughed—"not as being one of the many dozens of fools in love with Major Harper—will you tell me how this amusing circumstance arose?"
"I really cannot, my dear. The whole thing was so hurried and confused. We were talking together, very friendly and sociably, as the Major and I always do, about you; and how much I wished you to be settled in life, as he must wish likewise, being the trustee of your little fortune, and standing in a sort of fatherly relation towards you. He did not seem to like the word; looked very grave and very"—
"Compassionate, doubtless! Said 'he had reason to believe, that is to fear, I did not regard him quite as a father!' That was it, Emma, I suppose?"
"Well, my dear, I am glad to see you laughing at it I don't remember his precise words."
"Probably these: 'My dear Mrs. Thornycroft, I am greatly afraid poor Agatha Bowen is dying for love of me.' Very candid—and like a gentleman!"
"Now you are too sarcastic; for he is a gentleman, and most kind-hearted too. If you had only seen how grieved he was at the bare idea of your being made unhappy on his account!"
"How considerate!—and how very confidential he must have been to you!"
"Nay, he hardly said anything plainly; I assure you he did not. Only somehow he gave me the impression that he was afraid of—what I had feared for a long time. For as I always told you, Agatha, Major Harper is a settled bachelor—too old to change. Besides, he has had so many women in love with him."
"Does he count their names, one by one, on his fingers, and hang their locks of hair on his paletot, after the Indian fashion Nathanael Harper told us of?—Poor Nathanael!" And on her excited mood that pale "good" face rose up like a vision of serenity. She ceased to mock so bitterly at Nathanael's brother and her own once-honoured friend.
"I don't like your abusing Major Harper in this way," said Emma, gravely; "we all know his little weaknesses, but he is an excellent man, and my husband likes him. And it is nothing so very wonderful if he has been rather confidential with a steady married woman like me—just the right person, in short. It was for your good too, my dear. I am sure I asked him plainly if he ever could think of marrying you. But he shook his head, and answered, 'No, that was quite impossible.'"
"Quite impossible, indeed," said Agatha, her proud lips quivering. "And should he favour you with any more confidences, you may tell him that Agatha Bowen never knew what it was to be 'in love' with any man. Likewise, that were he the only man on earth, she would not condescend to fall in love with or marry Major Frederick Harper.—Now, Emma, let us go down to lunch."
They would have done so, after Mrs. Thornycroft had kissed and embraced her friend, in sincere delight that Agatha was quite heart-whole, and ready to make what she called "a sensible marriage," but they were stopped on the stairs by a letter that came by post.
"A strange hand," Miss Bowen observed, carelessly. "Will you go down-stairs, Emma, and I will come when I have read it."
But Agatha did not read it. She threw it on the floor, and turning the bolt of the door, paced her little drawing-room in extreme agitation.
"I am glad I did not love him—I thank God I did not love him," she muttered by fits. "But I might have done so, so good and kind as he was, and I so young, with no one to care for. And no one cares for me—no one—no one!"
"Young Northen" darted through her mind, but she laughed to scorn the possibility. What love could there be in an empty-headed fool?
"Never any but fools have ever made love to me! Oh, if an honest, noble man did but love me, and I could marry, and get out of this friendless desolation, this contemptible, scheming, match-making set, where I and my feelings are talked of, speculated on, bandied about from house to house. It is horrible—horrible! But I'll not cry! No!"
She dried the tears that were scorching her eyes, and mechanically took up her letter; until, remembering how long she had been upstairs, and how all that time Emma's transparent disposition and love of talk might have laid her and her whole affairs open before the Iansons, she quickly put the epistle in her pocket unread, and went down into the dining-room.
It was not till night, when she sat idly brushing out her long curls, and looking at her Pawnee face in the mirror—alas! the poor face now seemed browner and uglier than ever!—that Agatha recollected this same letter.
"It may give me something to think about, which will be well," sighed she; and carelessly pushing her hair behind her ears, she drew the candle nearer, and began leisurely to read.
The commencement was slightly abrupt:
"A month ago—had any one told me I should write this letter, I could not have believed it possible. But strange things happen in our lives—things over which we seem to have no control; we are swept on by an impulse and a power which most often guide us for our good. I hope it may be so now.
"I came to England with no intention save that of seeing my family, and no affection in my heart stronger than for them. Living the solitary life that Uncle Brian leads, I have met with few women, and have never loved any woman—until now.
"You may think me a 'boy;' indeed, I overheard you say so once; but I am a man—with a heart full of all a man's emotions, passionate and strong. Into that heart I took you, from the first moment I ever saw your face. This is just three weeks ago, but it might have been three years—I know you so well. I have watched you continually; every trait of your character—every thought of your mind. From other people I have found out every portion of your history—every daily action of your life. I know you wholly and completely, faults and all, and—I love you. No man will ever love you more than I.
"That you should have the least interest in me now, is, I am aware, unlikely; indeed, almost impossible; therefore I shall not expect or desire any answer to this letter, sent just before I leave for Dorsetshire.
"On my return, a week hence, I shall come and see you, should you not forbid it. I shall come merely as a friend, so that you need have no scruple in my visiting you, once at least. If afterwards, when you know me better, you should suffer me to ask for another title, giving to you the dearest and closest that man can give to woman—then—oh! little you think how I would love you, Agatha!
"Nathanael Locke Harper."
Agatha read this letter all through with a kind of fascination. Her first emotion was that of most utter astonishment. It had never crossed her mind that Nathanael Harper was the sort of being very likely to fall in love with anybody—and for him to love her! With such a love, too, that despite its suddenness carried with it the impression of quiet depth, strength, and endurance irresistible. It was beyond belief.
She read over again fragments of his own words. "I took you into my heart from the first moment I ever saw you;"—"I love you—no man will ever love you more than I." "Little you think how I would love you, Agatha!"
Agatha—who a minute before had been pondering mournfully that no one cared for her—that she was of no use to any one—and that no living soul would miss her, were her existence blotted out from the face of earth that very night!
She began to tremble; ay, even though she felt that Nathanael had judged correctly—that she did not now love him, and probably never might—still, overwhelmed with the sudden sense of his great love, she trembled. A strange softness crept over her; and for the second time that day she yielded to a weakness only drawn from her proud heart by rare emotions—Agatha wept.
To say that Agatha Bowen slept but ill that night would be unnecessary; since there is probably no girl who did not do so after receiving a first love-letter. And this was indeed her first; for the commonplace and business-like episode of young Northen had not been beautified by any such compositions. A second harmless adventure of like kind had furnished her with a little amusement and some vexation,—but never till now had her girlish heart been approached by any wooing which she could instinctively feel was that of real love. It touched her very much; for a time absorbing all distinct resolutions or intentions in a maze of pleasant, tender pity, and wonderment not unmixed with fear.
Half the night she lay awake, planning what she should do and say in the future; writing in her head a dozen imaginary answers to Mr. Harper's letter, until she recollected that he had expressly stated it required none. Nevertheless, she thought she must write, if only to tell him that she did not love him, and that there was not the slightest use in his hoping to be anything more to her than a friend.
"A friend!" She recoiled at the word, remembering how sorely her pride and feelings had been wounded by him she once held to be the best friend she had. She never could hold him as such any more. Her impulsive anger exaggerated even to wickedness the vanity of a man who fancied every woman was in love with him. She forgot all Major Harper's good qualities, his high sense of honour, his unselfish kindheartedness, his generous, gay spirit She set him down at once as unworthy the name of friend. Then—what friend had she? Not one—not one in the world.
In this strait, strangely, temptingly sweet seemed to come the words, "I love you; no man will ever love you better than I."
To one whose heart is altogether free, the knowledge of being deeply loved, and by a man whose attachment would do honour to any woman, is a thought so soothing, so alluring, that from it spring half the marriages—not strictly love-marriages—which take place in the world; sometimes, though not always, ending in real happiness.
Agatha began to consider that it would seem very odd if she wrote to Mr. Harper, in his home, among his family. Perhaps his sisters might notice her handwriting—a useless fear, since they had never seen it; and at all events it would be a pity to trouble his happiness in that pleasant visit, by conveying prematurely the news of his rejection. She would wait, and give him no answer for at least a day or two; it was such a bitter thing to inflict pain on any human being, especially on one so gentle and good as Nathanael Harper.
With this determination she went to sleep. She woke next morning, having a confused sense that something had happened, that some one had grieved and offended her; and—strange consciousness, softly dawning!—that some one loved her—deeply, dearly, as in all the days since she was born she had never been loved before. That even now some one might be thinking of her—of her alone, as his first object in the world. The sensation was new, inexplicable, but pleasant nevertheless. It made her feel—what the desolate orphan girl rarely had felt—a sort of tenderness for, and honouring of, herself. As she dressed, she once looked wistfully, even pensively, in the looking-glass.
"It is certainly a queer, brown, Pawnee face! I wonder what he could see in it to admire. He is very good, very! I wish I could have cared for him!"
Her heart trembled; all the woman in her was touched. But Agatha was resolved not to be sentimental, so she fastened her morning-dress rather more tastefully than usual, and descended to breakfast.
Beside her plate lay a letter, which was pretty closely eyed by the Ianson family, as their inmate's correspondence had always been remarkably small.
"A black edge and seal. No bad news, I hope, my dear Miss Bowen?" said the doctor's wife, sympathetically.
Agatha did not fear. Alas! in the whole wide world she had not a relative to lose! And, glancing at the rather peculiar hand, she recognised it at once. She remembered likewise, to account for the black seal, that one of the Miss Harpers had died within the year. So, whether from the spice of malice in her composition she wished to disappoint the polite inquisitiveness of the Iansons, or whether from more generous reasons of her own, Miss Bowen left her letter unopened until the meal was done; when, carelessly taking it up, she adjourned to her own sitting-room.
There was not the slightest necessity for any such precaution, as the missive contained merely these lines:—
"In my letter of yesterday—which I doubt not you have received, since I posted it myself—I omitted to say that not even my brother is aware of it, or of its purport; as I rarely inform any one of my own private affairs. Though, of course, I presume not to lay the same restriction on you. God bless you!"
The "God bless you!" was added hastily in less neat writing, as if the letter had been broken open to do it. The signature was merely his initials, "N. L. H.," and the date "Kingcombe Holm," which Agatha supposed was his father's house in Dorsetshire.
Then, even there, amidst his dear home circle, he had thought of her! Agatha was more moved by that trifling circumstance, and by the self-restraint and silence that accompanied it, than she would have been by a whole quire of ordinary love-letters.
He did not write again during seven entire days, and while this pause lasted she had time to think much and deeply. She ceased to play and talk confidentially with Tittens, and felt herself growing into a woman fast. Great mental changes may at times be wrought in one week, especially when it happens to be one of those not infrequent July weeks, which seem as if the sky were bent upon raining out at once the tears of the whole summer.
On the Friday evening, when Miss Bowen, heartily tired of her weather-bound imprisonment, stood at the dining-room window, looking out on a hazy, yellow glow that began to appear in the west, sparkled on the drenched trees of the square, and made little bright reflections on the rain-pools of the pavement,—there appeared a gentleman from the house round the corner, carefully picking his steps by the crossing, and finally landing at Doctor Ianson's door. It was Major Harper.
Agatha instinctively quitted the window, but on second thoughts returned thither, and when he chanced to look up, composedly bowed.
He was come to spend the evening as usual, and she must meet him as usual too, otherwise he might think—supposing he had not yet seen Emma Thornycroft, or even if he had,—might think—what made Agatha's cheek burn like fire. But she controlled herself. The first vehemence of her pride and anger was over now. She had discovered that the dawning inclination on which she had bestowed a few dreamings and sighings, trying, in foolish girlish fashion, to fan a chance tinder-spark into the holy altar-fire of a woman's first love—had gone out in darkness, and that her free heart lay quiet, in a sort of twilight shade, waiting for its destiny; nor for the last few days had she even thought of Nathanael. His silence had as yet no power to grieve or surprise her; if it struck her at all, it was with the hope that perhaps his wooing might die out of itself, and save her the trouble of a painful refusal. She had begun to think—what girls of nineteen are very slow to comprehend—that there might be other things in the world besides love and its ideal dreams. She had read more than usual—some sensible prose, some lofty-hearted poetry; and was, possibly, "a sadder and a wiser" girl than she had been that day week.
In this changed mood, after a little burst of well-controlled temper, a scornful pang, and a slight trepidation of the heart, Miss Agatha Bowen walked up-stairs to the drawing-room to meet Major Harper.
Her manner in so doing was most commendable, and a worthy example to those young ladies who have to extinguish the tiny embers of a month or two's idle fancy, created by an impressible nature, by girlhood's frantic longing after unseen mysteries, and by the terrible misfortune of having nothing to do. But Miss Bowen's demeanour, so highly creditable, cannot be set forward in words, as it consisted in the very simplest, mildest, and politest "How d'ye do?"
Major Harper met her with his accustomed pleasantly tender air, until gradually he recollected himself, looked pensive, and subsided into coldness. It was evident to Agatha that he could not have had any communication from Mrs. Thornycroft. She was growing vexed again, alternating from womanly wrath to childish pettishness—for in her heart of hearts she had a deep and friendly regard for the noble half of her guardian's character—when suddenly she decided that it was wisest to leave the room and take refuge in indifference and her piano. There she stayed for certainly an hour.
At length, Major Harper came softly into her sitting-room.
"Don't let me disturb you—but, when you have quite finished playing, I should like to say a word to you.—Merely on business," he added, with a slightly confused manner, unusual to the perfect self-possession of Major Harper.
Agatha sat down and faced him, so frigidly, that he seemed to withdraw from the range of her eyes. "You do not often converse with me on business."
He drew back. "That is true. But I considered that with so young a lady as yourself it was needless.—And I hate all business," he added, imperatively.
"Then I regret that my father burdened you with mine.
"No burden; it is a pleasure—if by any means I can be of use to you. Believe me, my dear Miss Bowen, your advantage, your security, is my chief aim. And therefore in this investment, of which I think it right to inform you"——
"Investment?" she repeated, turning round a childish puzzled face. "Oh, Major Harper, you know I am quite ignorant of these things. Do let us talk of something else."
"With all my heart," he responded, evidently much relieved, and turned the somewhat awkward conversation to the first available topic, which chanced to be his brother Nathanael.
"You cannot think how much I miss him in my rooms, even though he was such a short time with me. An excellent lad is N. L., and I hear they are making so much of him in Dorsetshire. They tell me he will certainly stay there the whole three months of his leave."
"Oh, indeed!" observed Agatha, briefly. She hardly knew whether to be pleased or sorry at this news, or by doubting it to take a feminine pride in being so much better informed on the subject than the Harper family.
"No wonder he is so happy," continued the Major, with one of his occasional looks of momentary, though real sadness. "Fifteen years is a long time to be away. Though I fear, I myself have been almost as long without seeing the whole family together."
"Are they all together now?"—Agatha felt an irresistible desire to ask questions.
"I believe so; at least my father and my three unmarried sisters. Old bachelors and old maids are plentiful in the Harper family. We are all stiff-necked animals; we eschew even gilded harness."
Agatha's cheek glowed with anger at this supposed benevolent warning to herself.
"I dare say your sisters are very happy, nevertheless; marriage is not always a 'holy estate,'" said she carelessly. "But there was some other Dorsetshire lady whom Mr. Harper told me of. Who is Anne Valery?"
Major Frederick Harper actually started, and the deep sensitive colour, which not even his forty years and his long worldly experience could quite keep down, rose in his handsome face.
"So N. L. spoke to you of her. No wonder. She is an—an excellent person."
"An excellent person," repeated Agatha mischievously. "Then she is rather elderly, I conclude?"
"Elderly—Anne Valery elderly! By Heavens, no!" (And the excited Major used the solitary asseveration which clung to him, the last trace of his brief military experience.) "Anne Valery old! Not a day older than myself! We were companions as boy and girl, young man and young woman, until—stay—ten—fifteen years ago. Fifteen years!—ah, yes—I suppose she would be considered elderly now."
After this burst, Major Harper sank into one of his cloudy moods. At last he said, in a confidential and rather sentimental tone, "Miss Valery is an excellent lady—an old friend of our family; but she and I have not met for many years. Circumstances necessitated our parting."
Agatha guessed the truth—or fancied she did; and her wrathful pride was up again. More trophies of the illustrious Frederick's unwilling slaughters—more heart's blood dyeing the wheels of this unconscious Juggernaut of female devotees! Yet there he sat, looking so pathetically regretful, as if he felt himself the blameless, helpless instrument of fate to work the sentimental woe of all womankind! Agatha was absolutely dumb with indignation.
She was a little unjust, even were he erring. It is often a great misfortune, but it is no blame to a good man that good women—more than one—have loved him; if, as all noble men do, he hides the humiliation or sorrow of their love sacredly in his own heart, and makes no boast of it. Of this nobility of character—rare indeed, yet not unknown or impossible—Frederick Harper just fell short. Kind, clever, and amusing, he might be, but he was a man not sufficiently great to be humble.
No more was said on the mysterious topic of Miss Anne Valery. Agatha was too angry; and the subject seemed painful to Major Harper. Though he did what was not his habit—especially with female friends—he endeavoured, instead of encouraging, to throw off his momentary sentimentality, and become his usual witty, cheerful, agreeable self.
Miss Bowen, even in her tenderest inclinings towards her guardian, had at times thought him a little too talkative—a little too much of the brilliant man of the world. Now, in her bitterness against him, his gaiety was positively offensive to her. She rose, and proposed that they should quit her own private room for the general drawing-room of the family.
The Iansons were all there, even the Doctor being prone to linger in his dull home for the pleasure of Major Harper's delightful company. There was another, too, the unexpected sight of whom made both Agatha and her companion start.
As she and the Major entered, there arose, almost like an apparition from his seat in the window-recess, the tall, slight figure of Nathanael.
"N. L.! Where on earth have you dropped from? What a very extraordinary fellow you are!" cried the elder brother.
"Perhaps unwelcome also," said the quiet voice.
"Unwelcome—never, my dear boy! Only next time, do be a little more confidential. Here have I been telling a whole string of apparent fibs about your movements—have I not Miss Bowen? Do you not consider this brother of mine the most eccentric creature in the world?"
Agatha looked up, and met the young man's eyes. Their expression could not be mistaken; they were lover's eyes—such as never in her life she had met before. They seemed constraining her to do what out of pity or mechanical impulse she at once did—silently to hold out her hand.
Nathanael took it with his usual manner. There was no other greeting on his part or hers. Immediately afterwards he slipped away to the very farthest corner of the room.
It would be hard to say whether Agatha felt relieved or disappointed at his behaviour; but surprised she most certainly was. This was not the sort of "lover's meeting" of girlish imaginings; nor was he the sort of lover, so perfectly unobtrusive, self-restrained, and coldly calm. She was glad she had not been at the pains to write the romantically pitiful, tender refusal, which she had concocted sentence by sentence in her deeply-touched heart, during that first wakeful night He did not seem half miserable enough to need such wondrous compassion.
Freed in a measure from constraint, she became her own natural self, as women rarely, indeed never, are in the presence of those they love, or of those by whom they believe themselves loved. Neither unpleasant consciousness rested heavily on Agatha now; her demeanour was therefore very sweet, candid, and altogether pleasing.
Major Harper even forgot his benevolent precautions on Miss Bowen's account, and tried to render himself as agreeable as heretofore, talking away at a tremendous rate, and with most admirable eloquence, while his brother sat silent in a corner. The contrast between them was never so strong. But once or twice Agatha, wearied out with laughing and listening, stole a look towards the figure that she felt was sitting there; and encountered the only sign Nathanael gave,—the unmistakeable "lover's eyes." They seemed to pierce into her heart and make it quiver—not exactly with tenderness, but with the strange controlling sense by which the love of a strong nature, reticent, and self-possessed even in its utmost passion—at times appears to enfold a woman—and any true affection, whether of lover or friend, to those who have never known it, and are unconsciously pining for lack of it, comes at first like water in a thirsty land.
Miss Bowen's frank gaiety died slowly away, and she fell into more than one long reverie, which did not escape the benign notice of her guardian. He grew serious, and made an attempt to remove from her his own dangerous proximity.
"Come, N. L., it is time we vanished. You have never told me the least fragment of news from home—that is, from Kingcombe."
"You were too much engaged, brother. But we have plenty of time."
"Kingcombe; is that the place your father lives at?" said Mrs. lanson, who took a patronising interest in the young man. "What a pretty name! Were you aware of it, Miss Bowen?"
Agatha, for her life, could not help changing colour as she answered "Yes," knowing perfectly well who was watching her the while, and that he and she were thinking of the same thing, namely, the brief note whose date was her only information as to the family residence of the Harpers.
"Kingcombe is as pretty as its name," observed the elder brother,—"a name more peculiar than at first seems. It was given by a loyal Harper during the Protectorate. It had been St. Mary's Abbey, but he, with pretended sanctimoniousness, changed the name, and called it Kingcombe Holm; as a gentle hint from the Dorsetshire coast to Prince Charles over the water. Ah! a clever fellow was my great-great-grandfather, Geoffrey Harper!"
All laughed at the anecdote, and the Iansons looked with additional respect on the man who thus carelessly counted his grandfathers up to the Commonwealth. But Mrs. Ianson's curiosity penetrated even to the Harpers of Queen Victoria's day.
"Indeed we can't let you two gentlemen away so early. If you have family matters to talk over, suppose we send you for half-an-hour to Miss Bowen's drawing-room! or, if they are not secrets, pray discuss them here. I am sure we are all greatly interested; are we not, Miss Bowen?"
Agatha made some unintelligible answer. She thought Nathanael's quick eyes darted from her to Mrs. lanson and back again, as if to judge whether, young-lady-like, she had told his secret to all her female friends. But there was something in Agatha's countenance which marked her out as that rare character, a woman who can hold her tongue—even in a love affair.
After a minute she looked at Mr. Harper gravely, kindly, as if to say, "You need not fear—I have not betrayed you;" and meeting her candid eyes, his suspicions vanished. He drew nearer to the circle, and began to talk.
"Mrs. lanson is very kind, but we need not hold any such solemn conclave, Frederick," said he, smiling. "All the news that I did not unfold in my letter of yesterday, I can tell you now. I would like every one here to be interested in our good sisters and in all at home."