E-text prepared by Robin Eugene Escovado
DINAH MARIA MULOCK CRAIK
Author of John Halifax, Gentleman, &c., &c., &c. New York Harper & Brothers, Publishers Franklin Square.
Inscribed affectionately to John and Lucy
"So I will do my best a gude wife to be, For Auld Robin Grey is vera kind to me."
"I think this will do, my dear; just listen;" and in a mysterious half whisper, good Mrs. Ferguson, wife of James Ferguson, the well-to-do silversmith and jeweler, of High Street, Avonsbridge, read aloud from the sheet of paper in her hand:
"'On the 21st instant, at the University Church, Avonsbridge, by the Reverend John Smith, the Reverend Arnold Grey, D.D., Master of Saint Bede's College, Avonsbridge, to Christian, only child of the late Edward Oakley, Esq., of that place.' Will it do? Because, if so, James will send it to 'The Times' at once."
"Better ask Dr. Grey first," answered the bride.
As she spoke, Dr. Grey turned round from the window where he had been conversing—that is, responding to conversation—with Mr. Ferguson, chiefly on the weather; for it was a snowy December day.
This precise moment, half an hour after his marriage—his second marriage—is hardly a fair time to describe Dr. Arnold Grey; suffice it to say that he was a gentleman apparently about forty-five, rather low in stature, and spare in figure, with hair already thin and iron-gray. The twenty-five years between him and his newly-married wife showed plainly—only too plainly—as she stood, in all her gracefulness of girlhood, which even her extreme pallor and a certain sharp, worn, unnaturally composed look could not destroy. He seemed struck by this. His face clouded over for a minute, and he slightly sighed. But the pain, whatever it was, was only momentary. He looked like a man who was not in the habit of acting hastily or impulsively—who never did any thing without having previously fully counted the cost.
"What were you saying, Mrs. Ferguson?" said he, addressing her with the grave and somewhat formal politeness which was his natural manner, but which always somewhat awed that rather vulgar, though kind-hearted and well-meaning woman.
She put the paper into his hands. "It's the notice for 'The Times;' James and I made it up last night. James thought it would save you trouble, master—" Mrs. Ferguson always hesitated between this common University custom of address and plain, "Dr. Grey."
"Thank you; Mr. Ferguson is always kind," returned the Master of Saint Bede's.
"You see," continued Mrs. Ferguson, lowering her tone to a confidential whisper, "I thought it was better only to put 'Edward Oakley, Esq.,' and nothing more. Wouldn't you like it to be so, sir?"
"I should like it to be exactly as—" he paused, and the color rushed violently over his thin, worn, and yet sensitive face, as sensitive as if he had been a young man still—"exactly as Mrs. Grey pleases."
Mrs. Grey! At the sound of her new name Christian started, and she, too, turned scarlet. Not the sweet, rosy blush of a bride, but the dark red flush of sharp physical or mental pain, which all her self-control could not hide.
"Poor dear! poor dear! this is a great change for her, and only a year since her father died," said Mrs. Ferguson, still in that mysterious, apologetic whisper. "But indeed, my love, you have done quite right in marrying; and don't fret a bit about it. Never mind her, sir; she'll be better by-and-by." This oppression of pity would have nerved any one of reserved temperament to die rather than betray the least fragment of emotion more. Christian gathered herself up; her face grew pale again, and her voice steady. She looked, not at Mrs. Ferguson, but at the good man who had just made her his wife—and any one looking at him must have felt that he was a good man—then said, gently but determinedly,
"If Dr. Grey has no objection, I should like to have stated my father's occupation or my own. I do not wish to hide or appear ashamed of either."
"Certainly not," replied Dr. Grey; and, taking up the pen, he added, "Edward Oakley, Esq., late organist of Saint Bede's." It was the last earthly memento of one who, born a gentleman and a genius, had so lived, that, as all Avonsbridge well knew, the greatest blessing which could have happened to his daughter was his death. But, as by some strange and merciful law of compensation often occurs, Christian, inheriting mind and person from him, had inherited temperament, disposition, character from the lowly-born mother, who was every thing that he was not, and who had lived just long enough to stamp on the girl of thirteen a moral impress which could resist all contamination, and leave behind a lovely dream of motherhood that might, perhaps— God knows!—have been diviner than the reality.
These things Dr. Grey, brought accidentally into contact with Christian Oakley on business matters after her father's lamentable death, speedily discovered for himself; and the result was one of those sudden resolves which in some men spring from mere passion, in others from an instinct so deep and true that they are not to be judged by ordinary rules. People call it "love at first sight," and sometimes tell wonderful stories of how a man sees, quite unexpectedly, some sweet, strange, and yet mysteriously familiar face, which takes possession of his fancy with an almost supernatural force. He says to himself, "That woman shall be my wife;" and some day, months or years after, he actually marries her; even as, within a twelvemonth, having waited silently until she was twenty-one, Dr. Grey married Christian Oakley.
But until within a few weeks ago she herself had had no idea of the kind. She intensely respected him; her gratitude for his fatherly care and kindness was almost boundless; but marrying him, or marrying at all, was quite foreign to her thoughts. How things had come about even yet she could hardly remember or comprehend. All was a perfect dream. It seemed another person, and not she, who was suddenly changed from Mrs. Ferguson's poor governess, without a friend or relative in the wide world, to the wife of the Master of Saint Bede's.
That she could have married, or been thought to have married him, for aught but his own good and generous self, or that the mastership of Saint Bede's, his easy income, and his high reputation had any thing to do with it, never once crossed her imagination. She was so simple; her forlorn, shut-up, unhappy life had kept her, if wildly romantic, so intensely, childishly true, that, whatever objections she had to Dr. Grey's offer, the idea that this could form one of them—that any one could suspect her—her, Christian Oakley—of marrying for money or for a home, did not occur to her for an instant. He saw that, this lover, who, from his many years of seniority, and the experience of a somewhat hard life, looked right down into the depths of the girl's perplexed, troubled, passionate, innocent heart, and he was not afraid. Though she told him quite plainly that she felt for him not love, but only affection and gratitude, he had simply said, with his own tender smile, "Never mind—I love you;" and married her.
As she stood in her white dress, white shawl, white bonnet—all as plain as possible, but still pure bridal white, contrasted strongly with the glaring colors of that drawing-room over the shop, which Poor Mrs. Ferguson had done her luckless best to make as fine as possible, her tall, slender figure, harmonious movements and tones, being only more noticeable by the presence of that stout, gaudily-dressed, and loud- speaking woman, most people would have said that, though he had married a governess, a solitary, unprotected woman, with neither kith nor kin to give her dignity, earning her own bread by her own honest labor, the master of Saint Bede's was not exactly a man to be pitied.
He rose, and having silently shown the paper to Christian, enclosed it in an envelope, and gave it to Mr. Ferguson.
"Will you take the trouble of forwarding this to 'The Times,' the latest of all your many kindnesses?" said he, with that manner, innately a gentleman's, which makes the acknowledging of a favor appear like the conferring of one.
Worthy James Ferguson took it as such; but he was a person of deeds, not words; and he never could quite overcome the awe with which, as an Avonsbridge person, he, the jeweler of High Street, regarded the master of St. Bede's.
Meanwhile the snow, which had been falling all day, fell thicker and thicker, so that the hazy light of the drawing-room darkened into absolute gloom.
"Don't you think the children should be here?" said Mrs. Ferguson, pausing in her assiduous administration of cake and wine. "That is—I'm sure I beg your pardon, master—if they are really coming."
"I desired my sisters to send them without fail," quietly replied the master.
But another half hour dragged heavily on; the bridegroom's carriage, which was to take them across country to a quiet railway station, already stood at the door, when another carriage was heard to drive up to it.
"There they are!" cried Mrs. Ferguson; and the bride, who had been sitting beside her on the sofa, passive, silent, all but motionless, started a little.
"Oh, I'm so glad!" she said, in the first natural tone that had been heard in her voice all day. "I did so want to see the children."
Dr. Grey went out of the room at once, and Mrs. Ferguson had the good sense to follow, taking her husband with her. "For," as she said afterward, "the first sight of three stepchildren, and she, poor dear, such a mere girl, must be a very unpleasant thing." For her part, she was thankful that when she married James Ferguson he was a bachelor, with not a soul belonging to him except an old aunt. She wouldn't like to be in poor Mrs. Grey's shoes—"dear me, no!"—with those two old ladies who have lived at the Lodge ever since the first Mrs. Grey died. She wondered how on earth Miss Oakley would manage them. And upon James Ferguson's suggesting "in the same way as she managed every body," his wife soundly berated him for saying such a silly thing, though he had, with the usual acuteness of silent people, said a wiser thing than he was aware of.
Meantime Christian was left alone, for the first time that day, and many days; for solitude was a blessing not easy to get in the Ferguson's large, bustling family. Perhaps she did not seek it—perhaps she dared not. Anyhow, during the month that had been occupied with her marriage preparations, she had scarcely been ten minutes alone, not even at night, for two children shared her room—the loving little things whom she had taught for two years, first as daily, and then as resident governess, and to whom she had persisted in giving lessons till the last.
She stood with the same fixed composedness—not composure—of manner; the quietness of a person who, having certain things to go through, goes through them in a sort of dream, almost without recognizing her own identity. Women, more than men, are subject to this strange, somnambulistic, mental condition, the result of strong emotion, in which they both do and endure to an extent that men would never think of or find possible.
After a minute she moved slightly, took up and laid down a book, but still mechanically, as if she did not quite know what she was doing until, suddenly, she caught sight of her wedding-ring. She regarded it with something very like affright; tried convulsively to pull it off; but it was rather tight; and before it had passed a finger-joint she had recollected herself and pressed it down again.
"It is too late now. He is so good—every body says so—and he is so very good to me."
She spoke aloud, though she was alone in the room, or rather because she was alone, after a habit which, like all solitarily reared and dreamy persons, Christian had had all her life—her young, short life—only twenty-one years—and yet it seemed to her a whole, long, weary existence.
"If I can but make him happy! If what is left to me is only enough to make him happy!"
These broken sentences were repeated more than once, and then she stood silent as though in a dream still.
When she heard the door open, she turned round with that still, gentle, passive smile which had welcomed Dr. Grey on every day of his brief "courting" days. It never altered, though he entered in a character not the pleasantest for a bridegroom, with his three little children, one on either side of him, and the youngest in his arms.
But there are some men, and mostly those grave, shy, and reserved men, who have always the truest and tenderest hearts, whom nothing transforms so much as to be with children, especially if the children are their own. They are given to hiding a great deal, but the father in them can not be hid. Why should it? Every man who has anything really manly in his nature knows well that to be a truly good father, carrying out by sober reason and conscience those duties which in the mother spring from instinct, is the utmost dignity to which his human nature can attain.
Miss Oakley, like the rest of Avonsbridge, had long-known Dr. Grey's history; how he had married early, or (ill-natured report said) been married by, a widow lady, very handsome, and some years older than himself. However, the sharpest insinuations ever made against their domestic bliss were that she visited a good deal, while he was deeply absorbed in his studies. And when, after a good many childless years, she brought him a girl and boy, he became excessively fond of his children. Whether this implied that he had been disappointed in his wife, nobody could tell. He certainly did not publish his woes. Men seldom do. At the birth of a third child Mrs. Grey died, and then the widower's grief; though unobtrusive, was sufficiently obvious to make Avonsbridge put all unkindly curiosity aside, and conclude that the departed lady must have been the most exemplary and well-beloved of wives and mothers.
All this, being town's talk, Christian already knew; more she had never inquired, not even when she was engaged to him. Nor did Dr. Grey volunteer any information. The strongest and most soothing part of his influence over her was his exceeding silence. He had never troubled her with any great demonstrations, nor frightened her with questionings. From the time of their engagement he had seemed to take every thing for granted, and to treat her tenderly, almost reverently, without fuss or parade, yet with the consideration due from a man to his future wife; so much so that she had hardly missed, what, indeed, in her simplicity she hardly expected, the attention usually paid to an affianced bride from the relatives of her intended. Dr. Grey had only two, his own sister and his late wife's. These ladies, Miss Gascoigne and Miss Grey, had neither called upon nor taken the least notice of Miss Oakley. But Miss Oakley—if she thought about the matter at all— ascribed it to a fact well recognized in Avonsbridge, as in most University towns, that one might as soon expect the skies to fall as for a college lady to cross, save for purely business purposes, the threshold of a High Street tradesman. The same cause, she concluded, made them absent from her wedding; and when Dr. Grey had said simply, "I shall desire my sisters to send the children," Christian had inquired no farther. Only for a second, hanging on the brink of this first meeting with the children—her husband's children, hers that were to be—did her heart fail her, and then she came forward to meet the little group.
Letitia and Arthur were thin, prim-looking, rather plain children; but Oliver was the very picture of a father's darling, a boy that any childless man would bitterly covet, any childless woman crave and yearn for, with a longing that women alone can understand; a child who, beautiful as most childhood is, had a beauty you rarely see— bright, frank, merry, bold; half a Bacchus and half a Cupid, he was a perfect image of the Golden Age. Though three years old, he was evidently still "the baby," and rode on his father's shoulder with a glorious tyranny charming to behold.
"Who's that?" said he, pointing his fat fingers and shaking his curls that undulated like billows of gold.
"Papa, who's that?"
Hardly could there have been put by anyone a more difficult question. Dr. Grey did not answer, but avoided it, taking the whole three to Christian's side, and bidding them, in a rather nervous voice, to "kiss this lady."
But that ceremony the two elder obstinately declined.
"I am a big boy, and I don't like to be kissed," said Arthur.
"Nurse told us, since we had no mamma of our own, we were not to kiss any body but our aunts," added Letitia.
Dr. Grey looked terribly annoyed, but Christian said calmly, "Very well, then shake hands only. We shall be better friends by-and-by."
They suffered her to touch a little hand of each, passively rather than unwillingly, and let it go. For a minute or so the boy and girl stood opposite her, holding fast by one another, and staring with all their eyes; but they said nothing more, being apparently very "good" children, that is, children brought up under the old-fashioned rules, which are indicated in the celebrated rhyme,
"Come when you're called, Do as you're bid: Shut the door after you, And you'll never be chid."
Therefore, on being told to sit down, they gravely took their places on the sofa, and continued to stare.
The father and bridegroom looked on, silent as they. What could he say or do? It was the natural and necessary opening up of that vexed question—second marriages, concerning which moralists, sentimentalists, and practical people argue forever, and never come to any conclusion. Of course not, because each separate case should decide itself. The only universal rule or law, if there be one, is that which applies equally to the love before marriage; that as to a complete, mutual first love, any after love is neither likely, necessary, nor desirable; so, to anyone who has known a perfect first marriage—the whole satisfaction of every requirement of heart and soul and human affection—unto such, a second marriage, like a second love, would be neither right nor wrong, advisable nor unadvisable, but simply impossible.
What could he do—the father who had just given his children a new mother, they being old enough not only to understand this, but previously taught; as most people are so fatally ready to teach children, the usual doctrine about step-mothers, and also quite ready to rebel against the same?
The step-mother likewise, what could she do, even had she recognized and felt all that the children's behavior implied?
Alas! (I say "alas!" for this was as sad a thing as the other) she did not recognize it. She scarcely noticed it at all. In her countenance was no annoyance—no sharp pain, that even in that first bridal hour she was not first and sole, as every woman may righteously wish to be. There came to her no sting of regret, scarcely unnatural, to watch another woman's children already taking the first and best of that fatherly love which it would be such exquisite joy to see lavished upon her own. Alas! poor Christian! all these things passed over her as the wind passes over a bare February tree, stirring no emotions, for there were none to stir. Her predominating feeling was a vague sense of relief in the presence of the children, and of delight in the exceeding beauty of the youngest.
"This is Oliver. I remember you told me his name. Will he come to me? children generally do," said she in a shy sort of way, but still holding out her arms. In her face and manner was that inexplicable motherliness which some girls have even while nursing their dolls —some never; ay, though they may boast of a houseful of children— never!
Master Oliver guessed this by instinct, as children always do. He looked at her intently, a queer, mischievous, yet penetrating look; then broke into a broad, genial laugh, quite Bacchic and succumbed. Christian, the solitary governess, first the worse than orphan, and then the real orphan, without a friend or relative in the world, felt a child clinging round her neck—a child toward whom, by the laws of God and man, she was bound to fulfill all the duties of a mother—duties which, from the time when she insisted on having a "big doll," that she might dress it, not like a fine lady, but "like a baby," had always seemed to her the very sweetest in all the world. Her heart leaped with a sudden ecstasy, involuntary and uncontrollable.
"My bonny boy!" she murmured, kissing the top of that billowy curl which extended from brow to crown—"my curl"—for Oliver immediately and proudly pointed it to her. "And to think that his mother never saw him. Poor thing! poor thing!"
Dr. Grey turned away to the window. What remembrances, bitter or sweet, came over the widower's heart, Heaven knows! But he kept them between himself and Heaven, as he did all things that were incommunicable and inevitable, and especially all things that could have given pain to any human being. He only said on returning,
"I knew, Christian, from the first, that you would be a good mother to my children."
She looked up at him, the tears in her eyes, but with a great light shining in them too.
"I will try."
Poor Christian! If her hasty marriage, or any other mistake of her life, needed pardon, surely it might be won for the earnest sincerity of this vow, and for its self-forgetful, utter humility—"I will try."
For another half hour, at her entreaty, the children staid, though Letitia and Arthur never relaxed from their dignified decorum farther than to inform her that they were sometimes called "Titia" and "Atty;" that their nurse was named Phillis; and that she had remained in the carriage because "she said she would not come in." Still, having expected nothing, the young step-mother was not disappointed. And when the three left, Oliver having held up his rosy mouth voluntarily for "a good large kiss," the sweetness of the caress lingered on her mouth like a chrism of consecration, sanctifying her for these new duties which seemed to have been sent to her without her choice, almost without her volition; for she often felt, when she paused to thing at all, as if in the successive links of circumstances which had brought about her marriage, she had been a passive agent, led on step by step, like a person half asleep. Would she ever awake?
When Mrs. Ferguson, re-entering, ready with any amount of sympathy, found the young step-mother kissing her hand to the retreating carriage with a composed smile, which asked no condolence, and offered no confidences, the good lady was, to say the least, surprised. "But," as she afterward confessed to at least two dozen of her most intimate friends, "there always was something so odd, so different from most young ladies about Miss. Oakley." However, to the young lady herself she said nothing, except suggesting, rather meekly, that it was time to change her dress.
"And just once more let me beg you to take my shawl—my very best— instead of your own, which you have had a year and a half. Ah!" sighing, "if you had only spent more money on your wedding clothes!"
"How could I?" said Christian, and stopped, seeing Dr. Grey enter. This was the one point on which she had resisted him. She could not accept her trousseau from her husband's generosity. It had been the last struggle of that fierce, poverty-nurtured independence, which nothing short of perfect love could have extinguished into happy humility, and she had held to her point resolute and hard; so much so, that when, with a quiet dignity peculiarly his own, Dr. Grey had yielded, she had afterward almost felt ashamed. And even now a slight blush came in her cheek when she heard him say cheerfully,
"Do not trouble her, Mrs. Ferguson, about her shawl. You know I have taken her—that is, we have taken one another 'for better, for worse,' and it is little matter what sort of clothes she wears."
Christian, as she passed him, gave her husband a grateful look. Grateful, alas! Love does not understand, or even recognize, gratitude.
But when the door closed after her, Dr. Grey's eyes rested on it like those of one who misses a light.
He sat down covering his mouth—his firmly-set but excessively sensitive month with his hand, an attitude which was one of his peculiarities; for he had many, which the world excused because of his learning, and his friends—well, because of himself.
If ever there was a man who without the slightest obtrusiveness, or self- assertion of any kind, had unlimited influence over those about him, it was Arnold Grey. Throughout a life spent entirely within the college walls, he had, from freshman to fellow, from thence to tutor, and so on to the early dignity of mastership, the most extraordinary faculty of making people do whatsoever he liked—-ay, and enjoy the doing of it. Friends, acquaintances, undergraduates, even down to children and servants, all did, more or less, sooner or later, the good pleasure of Dr. Grey. Perhaps the secret of this was that his "pleasure" was never merely his own. None wield such absolute power over others as those who think little about themselves.
Had circumstance, or his own inclination, led him out farther into the world, he might have been noticeable there, for he had very great and varied acquirements—-more acquirements perhaps, than originalities. He had never written a book, but he had read almost every book that ever was written—or, at least, such was the belief current in Avonsbridge. In his study he was literally entombed in books—- volumes in all languages—and Avonsbridge supposed him able to read them all. How far this was a popular superstition, and to what length his learning went, it is impossible to say. But nobody ever came quite to the end of it. He was a silent, modest man, who never spoke much of what he knew, or of himself in any wise. His strongest outward characteristic was quietness, both of manner, speech, motions, springing, it appeared, out of a corresponding quietness of soul. Whether it had been born with him, or through what storms of human passion and suffering he had attained to this permanent central calm, who could say? Certainly nobody knew or was likely to know; for the Master of Saint Bede's was a person, the depth of whose nature could not be fathomed easily with any line. Possibly because, old as he was, it happened, as does happen in some lives, that the right plumb-line, by the right hand, had never been dropped yet.
As he sat, his grave eyes fixed on the ground, and his mouth covered by the long thin brown hand—the sort of hand you see in mediaeval portraits of student-gentlemen—nothing of him was discernible except the gentleman and the student. Not though he sat waiting for his "two- hours' wife," whom undoubtedly he had married for love—pure love— the only reason for which anyone, man or woman, old or young, ought to dare to marry. That he could feel as very few have the power to feel, no one who was any judge of physiognomy could doubt for a moment; yet he sat perfectly quiet—the quietness of a man accustomed to something safer and higher than self-suppression—self-control. When Mr. Ferguson came in, he rose and began to speak about the weather and local topics as men do speak to one another—and better that they should!—even at such crises as weddings or funerals.
And Christian his wife?
She had run up stairs—ran almost with her former light step, for her heart felt lightened with the childish smile of little Oliver—to the attic which for the last nine months she had occupied—the nursery, now made into a bedroom, and tenanted by herself and the two little Fergusons. No special sanctity of appropriation had it; a large, somewhat bare room, in which not a thing was her own, either to miss or leave behind. For, in truth, she had nothing of her own; the small personalities which she had contrived to drag about with her from lodging to lodging having all gone to pay debts, which she had insisted —and Dr. Grey agreed—ought to be paid before she was married. So he had taken from her the desk, the work-table, and the other valueless yet well-prized feminine trifles, and brought her, as their equivalent, a sum large enough to pay both these debts and all her marriage expenses, which sum she, ignorant and unsuspicious, took gratefully, merely saying "he was very kind."
She now looked round on her sole worldly possessions—the large trunk which contained her ordinary apparel, and the smaller one, in which were packed all she needed for her fortnight's marriage tour. Her traveling dress lay on the bed—a plain dark silk—her only silk gown except the marriage one. She let Mrs. Ferguson array her in it, and then, with her usual mechanical orderliness, began folding up the shining white draperies and laying them in the larger trunk.
"Shall I send that direct to the Lodge, my dear?"
Christian looked up absently.
"To Saint Bede's Lodge—you know—that it may be ready for you when you come home?"
Home—that blessed word which should send a thrill to the heart of any bride. Alas! this bride heard it quite unheeding, saying only, "Do what you think best, Mrs. Ferguson."
And then she proceeded to fasten her collar and complete the minutiae of her dress with that careful neatness which was an instinct with Christian, as it is with all womanly women, though how this poor motherless girl had ever learned womanliness at all was a marvel. She answered chiefly in soft monosyllables to the perpetual stream of Mrs. Ferguson's talk, till at last the good soul could no longer restrain herself.
"Oh, my dear, if you would only speak—only let out your feelings a little; for you must feel this day so; I'm sure I do, just as if it were my own wedding day, or Isabella's, or Sarah Jane's. And when they do come to be married, poor lambs! I hope it will be as good a match as you are making—only, perhaps, not a widower. But I beg your pardon. Oh, Miss Oakley, my dear, we shall miss you so!"
And the good woman, who had a heart—and hearts are worth something—clasped the orphan-bride to her broad bosom, and shed over her a torrent of honest tears.
"Thank you," Christian said, and returned the kiss gently, but no tears came to her eyes.
"And now," added Mrs. Ferguson, recovering herself, "I'll go and see that every thing is right; and I'll get my warm tartan shawl for you to travel in. It is a terrible snowy day still. You'll come down stairs presently?"
But the instant Mrs. Ferguson was gone Christian locked the door. The same look, of more than pain—actual fear—crossed her face. She stood motionless, as if trying to collect herself, and then, with her hands all shaking, took from her traveling-trunk a sealed packet. For a second she seemed irresolute, and only a second.
"It must be done—it is right. I ought to have done it before—Good-by forever."
Good-by to what—or to whom?
All that the fire revealed, as she laid the packet on it, stirring it down into a red hollow, so that not a flickering fragment should be left unconsumed, were four letters—only four—written on dainty paper, in a man's hand, sealed with a man's large heraldic seal. When they were mere dust, Christian rose.
"It is over now—quite over. In the whole world there is nobody to believe in—except him. He is very good, and he loves me. I was right to marry him—yes, quite right."
She repeated this more than once, as if compelling herself to acknowledge it, and then paused.
Christian was not exactly a religious woman—that is, she had lived among such utterly irreligious people, that whatever she thought or felt upon these subjects had to be kept entirely to herself—but she was of a religious nature. She said her prayers duly, and she had one habit—or superstition, some might sneeringly call it—that the last thing before she went on a journey she always opened her Bible; read a verse or two, and knelt down, if only to say, "God, take care of me, and bring me safe back again;" petitions that in many a wretched compelled wandering were not so uncalled for as some might suppose. Before this momentous journey she did the same; but, instead of a Bible, it happened to be the children's Prayer-Book which she took up; it opened at the Marriage Service, which they had been inquisitively conning over; and the first words which flashed upon Christian's eyes were those which had two hours ago passed over her deaf ears, and dull, uncomprehending heart—
"For this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother, and be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh."
She started, as if only now she began to comprehend the full force of that awful union—"one flesh" and "till death us do part."
Mrs. Ferguson tried the door, and knocked.
"Dr. Grey is waiting, my dear. You must not keep your husband waiting."
"My husband!" and again, came the wild look, as of a free creature suddenly caught, tied, and bound. "What have I done? oh what have I done? Is it too late?"
Ay, it was too late.
Many a woman has married with far less excuse that Christian did— married for money or position, or in a cowardly yielding to family persuasion, some one who she knew did not love her, or whom she did not love, with the only sort of love which makes marriage sacred. What agonies such women must have endured, if they had any spark of feminine feeling left alive, they themselves know; and what Christian, far more guiltless than they, also endured during the three minutes that she kept Mrs. Ferguson waiting at the locked door, was a thing never to be spoken of, but also never to be forgotten during the longest and happiest lifetime. It was a warning that made her—even her—to the end of her days, say to every young woman she knew, "Beware! Marry for love, or never marry at all."
When she descended, every ray of color had gone out of her face—it was white and passionless as stone; but she kissed the children all around, gave a little present to Isabella, who had been her only bridesmaid, shook hands and said a word or two of thanks to honest James Ferguson, her "father" for the day, and then found herself driving through the familiar streets—not alone. She never would be alone any more.
With a shudder, a sense of dread indescribable, she remembered this. All her innocent, solitary, dreamy days quite over, her happiness. vanished; her regrets become a crime. The responsibility of being no longer her own, but another's—bound fixedly and irrevocably by the most solemn vow that can be given or taken, subject to no limitations. provisions, or exception while life remained. Oh. it was awful—awful!
She could have shrieked and leaped out of the carriage, to run wildly anywhere—to the world's end—when she felt her hand taken, softly but firmly.
"My dear, how cold you are! Let me make you warm if I can."
And then, in his own quiet, tender way, Dr. Grey wrapped her up in her shawl and rolled a rug about her feet. She took no notice, submitted passively, and neither spoke a word more till they had driven on for two or three miles, into a country road leading to a village where Avonsbridge people sometimes went for summer lodgings.
Christian knew it well. There, just before her father's death, he and she had lived, for four delicious, miserable, momentous weeks. She had never seen the place since, but now she recognized it—every tree, every field, the very farm-house garden, once so bright, now lying deep in snow. She began tremble in every limb.
"Why are we here? This is not our right road. Where are we going?"
"I did not mean to come this way, but we missed the train, and cannot reach London tonight; so I thought we would post across country to E_," naming a quiet cathedral town, "where you can rest, and go on when or where you please. Will that do?"
"You are not dissatisfied? We could not help missing the Train, you see."
The quick, sharp, querulous answers—that last refuge of a fictitious strength that was momentarily breaking down—he saw it all, this good man, this generous, pitiful-hearted man, who knew what sorrow was, and who for a whole year had watched her with the acuteness which love alone teaches, especially the love which, coming late in life, had a calmness and unselfishness which youthful love rarely possesses. The sort of love which, as he had once quoted to her out of an American book, could feel, deeply and solemnly, "that if a man really loves a woman, he would not marry her for the world, were he not quite sure he was the best person she could by any possibility marry"—that is, the one who loved her so perfectly that he was prepared to take upon himself all the burden of her future life, her happiness or sorrow, her peculiarities, shortcomings, faults, and all.
This, though he did not speak a word, was written, plain as in a book, on the face of Christian's husband, as he watched her, still silently, for another mile, till the early winter sun-set, bursting through the leaden-colored, snowy sky, threw a faint light in at the carriage window.
Christian looked up, and closed her eyes again in a passive hopelessness sad to see.
Her husband watched her still. Once he sighed—a rather sad sigh for a bridegroom, and then a light, better and holier than love, or rather the essence of all love, self-denial and self-forgetfullness, brightened up his whole countenance.
"How very tired she is; but I shall take care of her, my poor child!"
The words were as gentle as if he had been speaking to one of his own children, and he drew her to him with a tender, protecting fatherliness which seemed the natural habit of his life, such as never, in her poor, forlorn life, had any one shown to Christian Oakley. It took away all her doubts, all her fears. For the moment she forgot she was married, forgot everything but his goodness, his tenderness, his care over her, and her great and sore need of the same. She turned and clung to him, weeping passionately.
"I have nobody in the world but you. Oh, be kind to me!"
"I will," said Arnold Grey.
"You'll love me yet! And I can tarry Your love's protracted growing: June reaped that bunch of flowers you carry From seeds of April's sowing."
Saint Bede's is one of the most ancient of the minor colleges of Avonsbridge. Its foundress's sweet, pale, suffering face, clad in the close coif of the time of the wars of the Roses, still smiles over the fellow's table in hall, and adorns the walls of combination-room. The building itself has no great architectural beauty except the beauty of age. Its courts are gray and still, and its grounds small; in fact, it possesses only the Lodge garden, and a walk between tall trees on the other side of the Avon, which is crossed by a very curious bridge. The Lodge itself is so close to the river, that from its windows you may drop a stone into the dusky, slowly rippling, sluggish water, which seems quieter and deeper there than at any other college past which it flows.
Saint Bede's is, as I said, a minor college, rarely numbering more than fifty gownsmen at a time, and maintaining, both as to sports and honors, a mild mediocrity. For years it had not sent any first-rate man either to boat-race, or cricket-ground, or senate-house. Lately, however, it had boasted one, quite an Admirable Crichton in his way, who, had his moral equaled his mental qualities, would have carried all before him. As it was, being discovered in offenses not merely against University authority, but obnoxious to society at large, he had been rusticated. Though the matter was kept as private as possible, its details being known only to the master, dean and tutor, still it made a nine-day's talk, not only in the college, but in the town—until the remorseless wave of daily life, which so quickly closes over the head of either ill-doer or well-doer, closed completely over that of Edwin Uniacke.
Recovering from the shock of his turpitude, the college now reposed in peace upon its slender list of well-conducted and harmless undergraduates, its two or three tutors, and its dozen or so of gray old fellows, who dozed away their evenings in combination-room. Even such an event as the master's second marriage had scarcely power to stir Saint Bede's from its sleepy equanimity.
It was, indeed, a peaceful place. It had no grand entrance, but in a narrow back street you came suddenly upon its ancient gateway, through which you passed into a mediaeval world. The clock tower and clock, with an upright sundial affixed below it, marked the first court, whence, through a passage which, as is usual in colleges, had the hall on one hand and the buttery on the other, you entered the second court, round three sides of which ran cloisters of very ugly, very plain, but very ancient architecture. In a corner of these cloisters was the door of the Lodge—the master's private dwelling.
Private it could hardly be called; for, like all these lodges of colleges, it had an atmosphere most anti-home like, which at first struck you as extremely painful. Its ancientness, both of rooms and furniture, added to this feeling. When you passed through the small entrance hall, up the stone staircase, and into a long, narrow, mysterious gallery, looking as it must have looked for two centuries at least, you felt an involuntary shiver, as of warm, human, daily life brought suddenly into contact with the pale ghosts of the past. You could not escape the haunting thought that these oaken tables were dined at, these high-backed chairs sat upon, these black-framed, dirt-obscured portraits gazed at and admired by people, once flesh and blood like yourself, who had become skeletons—nay, mere dust, centuries before you were born. Also, that other people would be dining, sitting, gazing, and talking in this very same spot long after you yourself had become a skeleton in your turn.
This impression of the exceeding mutability of all things, common to most very old houses, was stronger than ordinary in this house, whose owners did not even hold it by ancestral right, so as to find and leave behind some few ancestral ties and memories, but came and went, with all that belonged to them; the only trace of their occupancy and themselves being a name on the college books, or a solitary portrait on the college wall. The old dervish's saying to the Eastern king, "Sire, this is not a place, but a caravanserai," might have been applied here only too truly. It was not a home, it was the lodge of a college.
Until eighteen months ago, the date of Dr. Grey's appointment, there had not been a woman's face or a child's foot about it for a hundred and fifty years. All the masters had been unmarried—grim, gray fellows— advanced in years. Dr. Arnold Grey, whose fellowship had terminated early, and who had afterward been tutor and dean, was the youngest master that had ever been known at Saint Bede's; and his election might consequently have been unpopular had he not been personally so much liked, and had there not happened immediately afterward that scandal about Edwin Uniacke. Therein he acted so promptly and wisely, that the sleepy, timid old dons as well as the Uniacke family—for the lad was highly connected—were thankful that this unlucky business had not occurred in the time of the late master, who was both old and foolish, and would have made it the talk of all England, instead of hushing it up, with the prudent decision of Dr. Grey, so that now it was scarcely spoken of beyond the college walls.
Solemn, quiet, and beautiful, as if they had never known a scandal or a tragedy, slept those old walls in the moonlight, which streamed also in long bars from window to window, across the ghostly gallery before mentioned. Ghostly enough in all conscience; and yet two little figures went trotting fearlessly down it, as they did every night at eight o'clock, between the two ancient apartments now converted into dining-room and nursery. The master's children were too familiar with these grim, shadowy corners to feel the slightest dread besides, they were not imaginative children. To Arthur, an "ally taw," that is, a real alabaster marble, such as he now fumbled in his pocket, was an object of more importance than all the defunct bishops, archbishops, kings, queens, and benefactors of every sort, whose grim portraits stared at him by day and night. And Letitia was far more anxious that the candle she carried should not drop any of its grease upon her best silk frock, than alarmed at the grotesque shadows it cast, making every portrait seem to follow her with his eyes, as old portraits always do. Neither child was very interesting. Letitia, with her angular figure and thin light hair, looked not unlike a diminished spectral reflection of the foundress herself—that pale, prim, pre-Raphaelitish dame who was represented all over the college, in all sizes and varieties of the limner's art. Arthur, who hung a little behind his sister, was different from her, being stout and square; but he, too, was not an attractive child, and there was a dormant sullenness in his under lip which showed he could be a very naughty one if he chose.
"I told you so, Titia," said he, darting to an open door facing the staircase at the gallery's end. "There's papa's study fire lit. I knew he was coming home to-night, though aunts won't let us sit up, as he said we should. But I will! I'll lie awake, if it's till twelve o'clock, and call him as he passes the nursery door."
"You forget," said Titia, drawing herself up with a womanly air, "papa will not be alone now. He may not care to come to you now he has got Mrs. Grey."
"You know aunts told us always to call her so. I'm sure I don't want to call her any thing. I hate her!"
"So do I," rejoined the boy, doubling up his fist with intense enjoyment. "Wouldn't I like to pitch into her for marrying papa! But yet," with a sudden compunction, "she gave us lots of cake. And she looked rather jolly, eh?"
"Jolly! You boys are so vulgar," said the little lady, contemptuously. "But I dare say you'll like her, for aunts say she is quite a vulgar person. As for me, I don't mean to take any notice of her at all."
"A deal she'll care for that! Who minds you? you're only a girl."
"I'm glad I'm not a big, ugly, dirty-handed, common boy." Arthur's reply was short and summary, administered by one of those dirty hands, as he was in the habit of administering what he doubtless considered justice to his much cleverer, more precocious, and very sharp-tongued sister, even though she was "a girl." It was the only advantage he had over her and he used it, chivalry not being a thing which comes natural to most boys, and it, as well as the root and core of it, loving-kindness, not having been one of the things taught in these children's nursery.
Letitia set up an outcry of injured innocence, upon which nurse, who waited at the foot of the stairs, seeing something was amiss, while not stopping to discover what it was, did as she always did under similar circumstances—she flew to the contending parties and soundly thumped them both.
"Get to bed, you naughty children; you're always quarreling," rang the sharp voice, rising above Letitia's wail, and Arthur's storm of furious sobs. The girl yielded, but the boy hung back; and it was not until after a regular stand-up fight between him and the woman—a big, sturdy woman too—that he was carried off, still desperately resisting, and shouting that he would have his revenge as soon as ever papa came home.
Letitia followed quietly enough, as if the scene were too common for her to trouble herself much about it. The only other witness to it was the portrait of the mild-faced foundress, which seemed through the shadows of centuries to look down pitifully on these motherless children, as if with a remembrance of her own two little sons, whose sorrowful tale—is it not to be found in every English History, and why repeat it here?
Motherless children indeed these were, and had been, pathetically, ever since they were born. All the womanly bringing up they had had, even in Mrs. Grey's lifetime, had come from that grim nurse, Phillis.
Phillis was not an ordinary woman. The elements of a tragedy where in her low, broad, observant, and intelligent forehead, her keen black eyes, and her full-lipped, under-hanging mouth. Though past thirty, she was still comely, and when she looked pleasant, it was not an unpleasant face. Yet there lurked in it possibilities of passion that made you tremble, especially considering that she had the charge of growing children. You did not wonder at her supremacy in the nursery, but you wondered very much that any mother could have allowed her to acquire it.
For the rest, Phillis had entered the family as Letitia's wet-nurse, with the sad story of most wet-nurses. Her own child having died, she took to her foster-child with such intensity of devotedness as to save Mrs. Grey all trouble of loving or looking after the little creature from henceforward. And so she staid, through many storms and warnings to leave, but she never did leave—she was too necessary. And, in one sense, Phillis did her duty. Physically, no children could be better cared for than the little Greys. They were always well washed, well clad, and, in a certain external sense, well managed. The "rod in pickle," which Phillis always kept in the nursery, maintained a form of outward discipline and even manners, so far as Phillis knew what manners meant; morals too, in Phillis's style of morality. Beyond that Phillis's own will—strong and obstinate as it was—made laws for itself, which the children were obliged to obey. They rebelled; sometimes they actually hated her, and yet she had great influence over them—the earliest and closest influence they had ever known. Besides, the struggle had only begun when they were old enough to have some sense of the difference between justice and injustice, submission compelled and obedience lawfully won; to infants and little children Phillis was always very tender—nay, passionately loving.
As she was to Oliver, who, wakening at the storm in the nursery, took to sleepy crying, and was immediately lulled in her arms with the fondest soothing; the fiercest threatenings between whiles being directed to Letitia and Arthur, until they both slunk off to bed, sullen and silent—at war with one another, with Phillis, and with the whole world.
But children's woes are transient. By-and-by Titia's fretful face settled into sleepy peace; the angry flush melted from Arthur's hot cheeks; Oliver had already been transferred to his crib; and Phillis settled herself to her sewing, queen regnant of the silent nursery.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ghostly gallery, sat, over the dining- room fire, the two other rulers, guardians, and guides of these three children—"the aunts"—Miss Gascoigne and Miss Grey; for these ladies still remained at the Lodge. Dr. Grey had asked Christian if she wished them to leave, for they had a house of their own near Avonsbridge, and she had answered indifferently, "Oh no; let them do as they like." As she liked did not seem to enter into her thoughts. Alas! that sacred dual solitude, which most young wives naturally and rightfully desire, was no vital necessity to Christian Grey.
So the two ladies, who had come to the Lodge when their sister died, had declared their intention of remaining there, at least for the present, "for the sake of those poor, dear children." And, dressed in at their best, they sat solemnly waiting the arrival of the children's father and step-mother—"that young woman," as they always spoke of her in Avonsbridge.
What Dr. Grey had gone through in domestic opposition before he married, he alone knew, and he never told. But he had said, as every man under similar circumstances has a right to say, "I will marry," and had done it. Besides, he was a just man; he was fully aware that to his sisters Christian was not—could not be as yet, any more than the organist's daughter and the silversmith's governess, while they were University ladies. But he knew them, and he knew her; he was not afraid.
They were a strong contrast, these two, the ladies at the Lodge. Miss Grey, the elder, was a little roly-poly woman, with a meek, round, fair- complexioned face, and pulpy soft-hands—one of those people who irresistibly remind one of a white mouse. She was neither clever nor wise, but she was very sweet-tempered. She had loved Dr. Grey all her life. From the time that she, a big girl, had dandled him, a baby, in her lap; throughout her brief youth, when she was engaged to young Mr. Gascoigne, who died; up to her somewhat silly and helpless middle- age, there never was anybody, to Miss Grey, like "my brother Arnold." Faithfulness is a rare virtue; let us criticise her no more, but pass her over, faults and all.
Miss Gascoigne was a lady who could not be passed over on any account. Nothing would have so seriously offended her. From her high nose to her high voice and her particularly high temper, every thing about her was decidedly prononc. There was no extinguishing her or putting her into a corner. Rather than be unnoticed—if such a thing she could ever believe possible—she would make herself noticeable in any way, even in an ill way. She was a good-looking woman, and a clever woman too, only not quite clever enough to find out one slight fact—that there might be any body in the world superior to herself.
"Set down your value at your own huge rate, The world will pay it"
—for a time. And so the world had paid it pretty well to Miss Gascoigne, but was beginning a little to weary of her; except fond Miss Grey, who still thought that, as there never was a man like "dear Arnold," so there was not a woman any where to compare with "dear Henrietta."
There is always something pathetic in this sort of alliance between two single women unconnected by blood. It implies a substitution for better things—marriage or kindred ties; and has in some cases a narrowing tendency. No two people, not even married people, can live alone together for a number of years without sinking into a sort of double selfishness, ministering to one another's fancies, humors, and even faults in a way that is not possible, or probable, in the wider or wholesomer life of a family. And if, as is almost invariably the case— indeed otherwise such a tie between women could not long exist—the stronger governs the weaker, one domineers and the other obeys, the result is bad for both. It might be seen in the fidgety restlessness of Miss Gascoigne, whose eyes, still full of passionate fire, lent a painful youthfulness to her faded face, and in the lazy supineness of Miss Grey, who seemed never to have an opinion or a thought of her own. This was the dark side of the picture; the bright side being that it is perfectly impossible for two women, especially single women, to live together, in friendship and harmony, for nearly twenty years, without a firm basis of moral worth existing in their characters, producing a fidelity of regard which is not only touching, but honorable to both.
They sat, one on either side the fire, in the long unbroken silence of people who are so used to one another that they feel no necessity for talking, until Miss Gascoigne spoke first, as she always did.
"I wonder what Dr. Grey meant by desiring the children to be kept out of their beds till his return. As if I should allow it! And to order a tea-dinner! No wonder Barker looked astonished! He never knew my poor sister have anything but a proper dinner, at the proper hour; but it's just that young woman's doing. In her position, of course she always dined at one o'clock."
"Very likely," said Miss Grey, assentingly. Dissent she never did, in any thing, from any body, least of all from Miss Gascoigne.
That lady fidgeted again, poked the fire, regarded herself in the mirror, and settled her cap—no, her head-dress, for Miss Grey always insisted that "dear Henrietta" was too young to wear caps, and admired fervently the still black—too black hair, the mystery of which was only known to Henrietta herself.
"What o'clock is it? half-past nine, I declare. Most annoying—most impertinent—to keep us waiting for our tea in this way. Your brother never did it before."
"I hope there is no accident," said Miss Grey, looking up alarmed. "The snow might be dangerous on the railway."
"Maria, if you had any sense—but I think you have less and less every day—you would remember that they are not coming by rail at all—of course not. On the very first day of term, when Dr. Grey would meet so many people he knew to have to introduce his wife! Why, everybody would have laughed at him; and no wonder. Verily, there's no fool like an old fool."
"Henrietta!" pitifully appealed the sister, "you know dear Arnold is not a fool. He never did a foolish thing in his life, except, perhaps, in making this unfortunate marriage. And she may improve. Any body ought to improve who had the advantage of living constantly with dear Arnold."
Miss Gascoigne, always on the watch for affronts, turning sharply round, but there was not a shadow of satire in her friend's simplicity. "My dear Maria, you are the greatest—"
But what Miss Grey was remained among the few bitter speeches that Miss Gascoigne left unsaid, for at that moment the heavy oak door was thrown wide open, and Barker, the butler (time-honored institution of Saint Bede's, who thought himself one of its strongest pillars of support), repeated, in his sonorous voice,
"The master and Mrs. Grey."
Thus announced—suddenly and formally, like a stranger, in her own house—Christian came home.
The two maiden aunts rose ceremoniously. Either their politeness sprang from their natural habit of good-breeding, or it was wrung from them by extreme surprise. The apparition before them—tall, graceful, and dignified—could by no means be mistaken for any thing but a lady—such a lady as Avonsbridge, with all its aristocracy of birth and condition, rarely produced. She would have been the same even if attired in hodden gray, but now she was well-dressed in silks and furs. Dr. Grey had smiled at the modest trousseau, and soon settled every thing by saying, "My wife must wear so and so." In this rich clothing, which set off her fair large Saxon beauty to the utmost advantage, Christian quite dazzled the eyes of the two ladies who had so persistently called her "that young woman." Any person with eyes at all could see that, except for the difference in age, there was not the slightest incongruity between (to follow Barker's pompous announcement) "the master and Mrs. Grey."
Dr. Grey's personal introduction was brief enough: "Christian, these are my sisters. This is Maria, and this is Henrietta—Miss Gascoigne."
Christian bowed—a little stately, perhaps—and then held out her hand, which, after a hesitating glance at Miss Gascoigne, was accepted timidly by Miss Grey. "I couldn't help it, my dear" she afterward pleaded, in answer to a severe scolding; "she quite took me by surprise."
But in Miss Gascoigne's acuter and more worldly nature the surprise soon wore off, leaving a sharp consciousness of the beauty, grace and dignity—formidable weapons in the hands of any woman, and especially of one so young as the master's wife. Not that her youth was now very noticeable; to any one who had known Christian before her marriage, she would have appeared greatly altered, as if some strange mental convulsion had passed over her—passed, and been subdued. In two weeks she had grown ten years older—was, a matron, not a girl. Yet still she was herself. We often come to learn that change—which includes growth—is one of the most blessed laws in existence; but it is only weak natures who, in changing, lose their identity. If Dr. Grey saw, what any one who loved Christian could not fail to have seen, this remarkable change in her, he also saw deep enough into her nature neither to dread it nor deplore it.
A few civil speeches having been interchanged about the weather, their journey, and so forth, the master, suddenly looking round him, inquired. "Maria, where are the children?"
"I sent them to bed," said Miss Gascoigne, with dignity. It was impossible they could be kept up to this late hour. "My poor sister would never allow it."
The color flashed violently over Dr. Grey's face. With the quick, resolute movement of a master in his own house, he crossed the room and rang the bell.
"Barker, inquire of nurse if the children are in bed. If not, say I wish them sent down to me; otherwise I will come up to them immediately."
The answer to this message was awaited in most awkward silence. Even Miss Gascoigne seemed to feel that she had gone a bit too far, and busied herself over the tea equipage; while Miss Grey, after one or two deprecating looks at dear Arnold, began knitting nervously at her eternal socks—-the only aunt-like duty which, in her meek laziness, she attempted to fulfill toward the children.
For Christian, she sat by the fire, where her husband had placed her, absently taking in the externalities—warm, somber, luxurious—which, in all human probability, was now her home for life. For life! Did that overpowering sense of the inevitable—so maddening to some, so quieting to others—cause all small things to sink to their natural smallness, and all painful things to touch her less painfully than otherwise they would have been felt? It might have been.
Barker returned with the information that all the children were fast asleep, but nurse said, "Of course Dr. Grey could come up if he pleased."
"Let me go too," begged Christian. "Little Oliver will look so pretty in his bed."
Dr. Grey smiled. It was a rare thing to be a whole fortnight away from his children, and all the father's heart was in his loving eyes. "Come away, then," he said, all his cheerful looks returning. "Aunts, you will give us our tea when we return."
"Well, she does make herself at home!" cried Miss Gascoigne, indignantly, almost before the door had closed.
Miss Grey knitted half a row with a perplexed air, and then, as if she had lighted upon a perfect solution of the difficulty, said lightly, "But then, you see, dear Henrietta, she is at home."
Home! Through that chilly gallery, preceded by Barker and his wax- lights; stared upon by those grim portraits, till more than once she started as if she had seen a ghost; up narrow, steep stone stair-cases, which might lead to a prison in a tower or a dormitory in a monastery— any where except to ordinary, natural bedchambers. And when she reached them, what gloomy rooms they were, leading one out of another, up a step and down a step, with great beds that seemed only fit to lie in state in, after having turned one's face to the wall and slipped out of weary life into the imagined freedom of the life beyond. Home! If that was home, Christian shivered.
"Are you cold? Barker, send Mrs. Grey's maid with her warm shawl. Every body feels the Lodge cold at first, but you will get used to it. Wait one minute," for she was pressing eagerly to the gleam of light through the half-opened nursery door. "My wife!"
"Yes Dr. Grey."
As he put his hands on her shoulders, Christian looked into his eyes— right into them, for she was as tall as he. There was a sad quietness in her expression, but there was no shrinking from him, and no distrust.
"My wife need never be afraid of any thing or any body in this house."
"I know that."
"And by-and-by, many things here which feel strange now will cease to feel so. Do you believe this?"
She smiled—a very feeble smile; but, at least, there was no pretense in it.
"One thing more. Whatever goes wrong, you will always come at once and tell it to me—to nobody in the world but me. Remember."
Dr. Grey leaned forward and kissed his wife in his inexpressibly tender way, and then they went in together.
Letitia and Arthur occupied two little closets leading out of the nursery, which seemed spacious enough, and ancient enough, to have been the dormitory of a score of monks, as very likely it was in the early days of Saint Bede's. Phillis, sewing by her little table in the far corner, kept guard over a large bed, where, curled up like a rose-bud, flushed and warm, lay that beautiful child whom Christian had thought of twenty times a day for the last fortnight.
"Well, Phillis, how are you and your little folk?" said the master, in a pleasant whisper, as he crossed the nursery floor.
He trod lightly, but either his step was too welcome to remain undiscovered, or the children's sleep had been "fox's sleep," for there arose a great outcry of "Papa, papa!" Oliver leaped up, half laughing, half screaming, and kicking his little bare legs with glee as his father took him in his arms; Arthur came running in, clad in the very airiest costume possible; and Letitia appeared sedately a minute or two afterwards having stopped to put on her warm scarlet dressing-gown, and to take off her nightcap—under the most exciting circumstances, Titia was such an exceedingly "proper" child.
What would the Avonsbridge dons have said—the solitary old fellows in combination-room—and, above all, what would the ghosts of the gloomy old monks have said, could they have seen the Master of Saint Bede's, with all his children round him, hugging him, kissing him, chattering to him, while he hung over them in an absorption of enjoyment so deep that, for a moment, Christian was unnoticed? But only for a moment; and he turned to where she stood, a little aloof, looking on, half sadly, and yet with beaming, kindly eyes. Her husband caught her hand and drew her nearer.
"Children, you remember this lady. She was very good to you one day lately. And now I want you to be very good to her."
"Oh yes," cried Oliver, putting up his mouth at once for a kiss. "I like her very much. Who is she? What is her name?"
Children ask sometimes the simplest, yet the most terrible of questions. This one seemed literally impossible to be answered. Dr. Grey tried, and caught sight of his daughter's face—the mouth pursed into that hard. line which made her so exactly like her mother. Arthur, too, looked sullen and shy. Nobody spoke but little. Oliver, who, in his innocent, childish way, pulling Christian's dress, repeated again, "What is your name? What must Olly call you?"
Whatever she felt, her husband must have felt and known that this was the critical moment which, once let slip, might take years afterward to recall. He said, nervously enough, but with a firmness that showed he must already have well considered the subject,
"Call her mamma."
There was no reply. Christian herself was somewhat startled, but conscious of a pleasant thrill at the sound of the new name, coming upon her so suddenly. Strange it was; and ah! how differently it came to her from the way it comes upon most women—gradually, deliciously, with long looking forward and tremulous hope and fear—still it was pleasant. The maternal instinct was so strong that even imaginary motherhood seemed sweet. She bent forward to embrace the children, with tears in her eyes, when Letitia said, in a sharp, unchildlike voice,
"People can't have two mammas; and our mamma is buried in the New Cemetery. Aunts took us there yesterday afternoon."
Had the little girl chosen the sharpest arrow in her aunts' quiver—nay, bad she been Miss Gascoigne herself, she could not have shot more keenly home. For the dart was barbed with truth—literal truth; which, however, sore it be, people in many difficult circumstances of life are obliged to face, to recognize, and abide by—to soften and subdue if they can—but woe betide them if by any cowardly weakness or shortsighted selfishness, they are tempted to deny it as truth, or to overlook and make light of it.
Painful as the position was—so painful that Dr. Grey was quite overcome by it, and maintained a total silence—Christian had yet the sense to see that it was a position inevitable, because it was true. Bitterly as the child had spoken—with the bitterness which she had been taught—yet she had only uttered a fact. In one sense, nobody could have two mothers; and Christian, almost with contrition, thought of the poor dead woman whose children were now taught to call another woman by that sacred name. But the pang passed. Had she known the first Mrs. Grey, it might not have been so sharp; in any case, here was she herself—Dr. Grey's wife and the natural guardian of his children. Nothing could alter that fact. Her lot was cast; her duty was clear before her; she must accept it and bear it, whatever it might be perhaps, for some reasons, it was the better for her that it was rather hard.
She looked at her husband, saw how agitated he was, and there seemed to come into her mind a sort of inspiration.
"My child," she said, trying to draw Letitia toward her, "you say truly. I am not your own mamma; no one ever could be that to you again; but I mean to be as like her as I can. I mean to love you and take care of you; and you will love me too by-and-by. You can always talk to me as much as ever you like about your own mamma."
"She doesn't remember her one bit," said Arthur, contemptuously.
"Oh, yes I do," cried Letitia. "She was very pretty, and always wore such beautiful gowns."
Again there was a silence, and then Christian said,
"I think, if the children do not dislike it, that as they always called Mrs. Grey 'mamma,' they had better call me 'mother.' It is a pleasanter word than step-mother. And I hope to make myself a real mother to them before very long."
"I know you will," answered Dr. Grey, in a smothered voice, as he set down little Oliver, and, kissing the children all round, bade nurse carry them off to bed once more—nurse, who, standing apart, with her great black eyes had already taken the measure of the new wife, of the children's future, and of the chances of her own authority. Not the smallest portion of this decision originated in the fact that Christian, wholly preoccupied as she was, quitted it without taking any notice of her—Phillis—at all.
Dr. Grey preceded his wife to a room, which, in the long labyrinth of apartments, seemed almost a quarter of a mile away. A large fire burnt on the old-fashioned hearth, and glimmered cheerily on the white toilet- table, crimson sofa, and bed. It was a room comfortable, elegant, pleasant, bright, thoroughly "my lady's chamber," and which seemed from every nook to welcome its new owner with a smile.
"Oh, how pretty!" exclaimed Christian, involuntarily. She was not luxurious, yet she dearly loved pretty things; the more so, because she had never possessed them. Even now, though her heart was so moved and full, she was not insensible to the warmth imparted to it by mere external pleasantnesses like these.
"I had the room newly furnished. I thought you would like it," said Dr. Grey.
"I do like it. How very kind you are to me!"
She looked around the room, and there, in one corner, just as if she had never parted from them, were all the old treasures of her maidenhood— desk, work-table, chair. She guessed all the secret. Once, perhaps, she might have burst into tears—heart-warm tears; now she only sighed.
"Oh, how good you are!"
Her husband kissed her. Passively she took the caress, and again she sighed. Dr. Grey looked at her earnestly, then spoke in much agitation—
"Christian, tell me truly, were you hurt at what occurred just now? I mean in the nursery."
"No, not in the least. It was inevitable."
"It was. Many things in life, quite inevitable, have yet to be met and borne, conquered even, if we can."
"Ay, if we can!"
And Christian looked up wistfully, almost entreatingly, to her husband, who, she now knew, and trembled at the knowledge, so solemn was the responsibility it brought, had loved her, and did love her, with a depth and passion such as a man like him never loves but one woman in all his life.
"Christian," he began again, with an effort, "I want to say something to you. Once in my life, when I was almost as young as you are, I made a great mistake. Therefore I know that mistakes are not irretrievable. God teaches us sometimes by our very errors, leading us through them into light and truth. Only we must follow Him, and hold fast to the right, however difficult it may be. We must not be disheartened: we must leave the past where it is, and go on to the future; do what we have to do, and suffer all we have to suffer. We must meet things as they are, without perplexing ourselves about what they might have been; for, if we believe in an overruling Providence at all, there can be no such possibility as 'might have been.'"
"That is true," said Christian, musingly. She had never known Dr. Grey to speak like this. She wondered a little why he should do it now; and yet his words struck home. That great "mistake"—was it his first marriage? which, perhaps, had not been a happy one. At least, he never spoke of it, or of his children's mother. And besides, it was difficult to believe that any man could have loved two women, as, Christian knew and felt, Dr. Grey now loved herself.
But she asked hint no questions; she felt not the slightest curiosity about that, or about any thing. She was like a person in a state of moral catalepsy, to whom, for the time being, every feeling, pleasant or painful, seems dulled and dead.
Dr. Grey said no more, and what he had said was evidently with great effort. He appeared glad to go back into ordinary talk, showing her what he had done in the room to make it pretty and pleasant for his bride, and smiling over her childish delight to see again her maiden treasures, with which she had parted so mournfully.
"You could not think I meant you really to part with them, Christian?" said he. "I fancied you had found out my harmless deceit long ago. But you are such an innocent baby, my child—as clear as crystal, and as true as steel."
"Oh no, no!" she cried, as he went out of the room—a cry that was almost a sob, and might have called him back again—but he was gone, and the moment had passed by. With it passed the slight quivering and softening which had been visible in her face, and she sunk again into the impassive calm which made Christian Grey so totally different, from Christian Oakley.
She rose up, took off her bonnet and shawl, and arranged her hair, looking into the mirror with eyes that evidently saw nothing. Then she knelt before the fire, warming her ice-cold hands on which the two- weeks' familiar ring seemed to shine with a fatal glitter. She kept moving it up and down with a nervous habit that she was trying vainly to conquer.
"A mistake," she muttered, "Perhaps my marriage, too, was a mistake, irretrievable, irremediable, as he may himself think now, only he was too kind to let me see it. What am I to do? Nothing. I can do nothing. 'Until death us do part.' Do I wish for death—my death, of course—to come and part us?"
She could not, even to herself, answer that question.
"What was he saying—that God teaches us by our very errors—that there is no such thing as 'might have been?' He thinks so, and he is very wise, far wiser and better than I am. I might have loved him. Oh that I had only waited till I did really love him, instead of fancying it enough that he loved me. But I must not think. I have done with thinking. It would drive me out of my senses."
She started up, and stood gazing round the cheerful, bright, handsome room, where every luxury that a comfortable income could give had been provided for her comfort, every little fancy and taste she had been remembered, with a tender mindfulness that would have made the heart of any newly-married wife, married for love, leap for joy, and look forward hopefully to that life which, with all its added cares, a good man's affection can make so happy to the woman who is his chosen delight. But in Christian's face was no happiness; only that white, wild, frightened look, which had come on her marriage day, and then settled down into what she now wore—the aspect of passive submission and endurance.
"But I will do my duty. And he will do his, no fear of that! He is so good—far better than I. Yes, I shall do my duty?"
"Faith, hope, and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."
There is a deeper meaning in this text than we at first see. Of "these three," two concern ourselves; the third concerns others. When faith and hope fail, as they do sometimes, we must try charity, which is love in action. We must speculate no more on our duty, but simply do it. When we have done it, however blindly, perhaps Heaven will show us the reason why.
Christian went down stairs slowly and sadly, but quite calmly, to spend—and she did spend it, painlessly, if not pleasantly—the first evening in her own home.
"When ye're my ain goodwife, lassie, What'll ye bring to me? A hantle o'siller, a stockin' o' gowd? 'I haena ae bawbee.'
"When ye are my ain goodwife, lassie, And sit at my fireside, Will the red and white meet in your face? 'Na! ye'll no get a bonnie bride.'
"But gin ye're my ain goodwife, lassie, Mine for gude an' ill, Will ye bring me three things lassie, My empty hame to fill?"
"A temper sweet, a silent tongue, A heart baith warm and free? Then I'll marry ye the morn, lassie, And loe ye till I dee."
Avonsbridge lay still deep in February snow, for it was the severest winter which had been known there for many years. But any one who is acquainted with the place must allow that it never looks better or more beautiful than in a fierce winter frost—too fierce to melt the snow; when, in early morning, you may pass from college to college, over quadrangles, courts, and gardens, and your own footsteps will be the only mark on the white untrodden carpet, which lies glittering and dazzling before you, pure and beautiful as even country snow.
A little later in the morning you may meet a few gyps and bedmakers coming round chance corners, or descending mysterious stairs; but if you go beyond inhabited precincts, down to the river-side, you are almost sure to be quite alone; you may stand, as Christian was accustomed to do, on any one of the bridges which connect the college buildings and college grounds, and see nothing but the little robin hopping about and impressing tiny footprints after yours in the path, then flying on to the branches of the nearest willow, which, heavy with a weight that is not leaves, but snow, dips silently into the silenced water.
Or you may gaze, as Christian gazed every morning with continually new wonder, at the colors of the dawn brightening into sunrise, such as it looks on a winter's morning—so beautiful that it seems an almost equal marvel that nobody should care to see it but yourself, except perhaps a solitary gownsman, a reading man, taking his usual constitutional just as a matter of duty, but apparently not enjoying it the least in the world.
Not enjoying it—the sharp fresh air, which braces every nerve, and invigorates every limb, causing all the senses to awake and share, as it were, this daily waking up of Nature, fresh as a rose? For what rosiness, in the brightest summer days, can compare with that kiss of the winter's sun on the tree-tops, slowly creeping down their trunks and branches? And what blueness, even of a June sky, can equal that sea of space up aloft, across which, instead of shadows and stars, pink and lilac morning clouds are beginning to sail, clearer and brighter every minute? As they have sailed for the last four centuries over the pinnacle of that wondrous chapel, which has been described in guide- books, and pictured in engravings to an overwhelming extent, yet is still a building of whose beauty, within and without, the eye never tires.
Christian stood watching it, for the hundredth time, with that vague sensation of pleasure which she felt at sight of all lovely things, whether of nature or art. That, at least, had never left her; she hoped it never might. It was something to hold by, though all the world slid by like a dream. Very dreamy her life felt still, though she had tried to make it more real and natural by resuming some of her old ways, and especially her morning walk, before the nine o'clock breakfast at the Lodge.
She had made a faint protest in favor of an earlier hour than nine, and begged that the children might come down to breakfast; she craved so to have the little faces about the table. But Miss Gascoigne had said solemnly that "my poor dear sister always breakfasted at nine, and never allowed her children to breakfast any where but in the nursery." And that reference, which was made many times a day, invariably silenced Christian.
She had now been married exactly four weeks, but it seemed like four years—four ages—as if she hardly remembered the time when she was Christian Oakley. Yet now and then, in a dim sort of way, her old identity returned to her, as it does to those who, after a great crisis and uprooting of all life, submit, some in despair, some in humble, patience, to the inevitable.
This good time, this lucid interval, so to speak, usually came to her in the morning, when she took her early walk in the familiar places; for to Christian familiarity only made things more dear. Already she was beginning to find her own nooks, and to go about her own ways in those grim college rooms, which grew less ghostly now that she knew them better. Already she was getting a little used to her new home, her formal dignities, and her handsome clothes. It was a small thing to think of, perhaps, and yet, as she walked across the college quadrangles, remembering how often she had shivered in her thin shawl along these very paths, the rich fur cloak felt soft and warm, like her husband's goodness and unfailing love.
As she stepped with her light, firm tread across the crinkling snow, she was—not unhappy. In her still dwelt that wellspring of healthy vitality, which always, under all circumstances, responds more or less to the influence of the cheerful morning, the stainless childhood, of the day. No wonder the "reading man" who had been so insensible to the picturesque in nature, turned his weary eyes to look after her, or that a bevy of freshmen, rushing wildly out of chapel, with their surplices flying behind them like a flock of white—geese?—should have stopped to stare, a little more persistently than gentlemen ought, at the solitary lady, who was walking where she had a perfect right to walk, and at an hour when she could scarcely be suspected of promenading either to observe or to attract observation. But Christian went right on, with perfect composure. She knew she was handsome, for she had been told so once; but the knowledge had afterward become only pain. Now, she was indifferent to her looks—at least as indifferent as any womanly woman ever can be, or ought to be. Still, it vexed her a little that these young men should presume to stare, and she was glad she was not walking in Saint Bede's, and that they were not the men of her own college.
For already she began to appropriate "our college"—those old walls, under the shadow of which all her future life must pass. As she entered the narrow gateway of Saint Beck's, and walked round its chilly cloisters, to the Lodge door, she tried not to remember that she had ever thought of life as any thing different from this, or had ever planned an existence of boundless enjoyment, freedom, and beauty, travel in foreign countries, seeing of mountains, cities, pictures, palaces, hearing of grand music, and mingling in brilliant society—a phantasmagoria of delight which had visited her fancy once—was it only her fancy?—and vanished in a moment, as completely as the shadows projected on the wall. And here she was, the wife of the Master of Saint Bede's.
"I was right—I was right," she said to herself in the eagerness of a vain assurance. "And whether I was right or wrong matters not now. I must bear it—I must do my duty—and I will!"
She stood still a minute to calm herself, then knocked at the Lodge gate. Barker opened it with that look of grieved superior surprise with which he always obeyed any novel order, or watched the doing of any deed which he considered lowered the dignity of himself and the college.
"A beautiful morning, Barker!"
"Is it, ma'am? So one of the bedmakers was a-saying;" as if to imply that bedmakers were the only women whose business it was to investigate the beauties of the morning.
Christian smiled; she knew she was not a favorite with him; indeed, no women were. He declared that no petticoat ought ever to be seen within college boundaries. But he was a decent man, with an overwhelming reverence for Dr. Grey; and so, though he was never too civil to herself, Christian felt a kindness for honest old Barker.
She was a minute or two late; the master had already left his study, and was opening the large book of prayers. Nevertheless, he looked up with a smile, as he always did the instant his wife's foot entered the door. But his sister appeared very serious, and Miss Gascoigne's aspect was a perfect thundercloud, which broke into lightning the instant prayers were over.
"I must say, Mrs. Grey, you have a most extraordinary propensity for morning walks. I never did such a thing in all my life, nor Maria either."
"Probably not," answered Christian, as she took her seat before the urn, which gave her the one home-like feeling she had at the Lodge. "Different people have different ways, and this has always been mine."
"Because it does me good, and harms nobody else," said Christian, smiling.
"I doubt that, anyhow; you never will make me believe it can be good for you to do a thing that nobody else does—to go wandering about streets and colleges when all respectable people are still in their beds. To say the least of it, it is so very peculiar."
The tone, more even than the words, made Christian flush up, but she did not reply. She had already learned not to reply to these sharp speeches of Miss Gascoigne's, which, she noticed, fell on every body alike. "What Miss Grey bears, I suppose I can," thought she to herself when many times during the last two weeks she had been addressed in a manner which somewhat surprised her, as being a mode of speech more fitting from a school-mistress to a naughty school-girl than from a sister to a young wife, or, indeed, from any lady to any other lady—at least, according to her code of manners.
"You may talk as you like!" continued Miss Gascoigne, glancing at the far end of the room, where the master was deeply busied in searching for a book, "but I object to these morning walks; and I am certain Dr. Grey also would object, if he knew of them."
"He does know."
"And does he approve? Impossible! Only think, Maria, if our poor dear sister had done such a thing!"
"Oh, hush, Henrietta!" cried Maria, appealingly, as Dr. Grey came back and sat himself placidly down at the breakfast-table, with his big book beside him. He had apparently not heard a single word.
Yet he looked so good and sweet—yes, sweet is the only fitting word; a gentle simplicity like a child's, which always seemed to hover round this bookish learned man—that the womenkind were silenced—as, by a most fortunate instinct, women generally are in presence of their masculine relatives. They may quarrel enough among themselves, but they seem to feel that men either will not understand it or not endure it. That terrible habit of "talking over" by which most women "nurse their wrath and keep it warm," is happily to men almost impossible.
Breakfast was never a lively meal at the Lodge. After the first few days Dr. Grey took refuge in his big book, which for years Miss Gascoigne averred he had always kept beside him at meal-times. Not good behavior in a paterfamilias, but the habit told its own tale. Very soon Christian neither marveled at nor blamed him.
Never in all her life, not even during the few months that she lived with the Fergusons, had she sat at a family table; yet she had always had a favorite ideal of what a family table ought to be—bright, cheerful, a sort of domestic altar, before which every one cast down his or her offering, great or small, of pleasantness and peace; where for at least a brief space in the day all annoyances were laid aside, all stormy tempers hushed, all quarrels healed; everyone being glad and content to sit down at the same board, and eat the same bread and salt, making it, whether it were a fatted calf or a dinner of herbs, equally a joyful, almost sacramental meal.
This was her ideal, poor girl! Now she wondered as she had done many times since her coming "home," if all family tables were like this one—shadowed over with gloomy looks, frozen by silence, or broken by sharp speeches, which darted about like little arrows pointed with poison, or buzzed here and there like angry wasps, settling and stinging unawares, and making every one uncomfortable, not knowing who might be the next victim stung. True, there was but one person to sting, for Miss Grey never said ill-natured things; but then she said ill-advised and mal-apropos things, and she had such an air of frightened dumbness, such a sad, deprecatory look, that she was sometimes quite as trying as Miss Gascoigne, who spoke out. And oh, how she did speak! Christian, who had never known many women, and had never lived constantly with any, now for the first time learned what was meant by "a woman's tongue."
At first it simply astonished her. How it was possible for one mortal member to run on so long without a pause, and in such ugly and uneasy paths—for the conversation was usually fault-finding of persons or things—passed her comprehension. Then she felt a little weary, and half wished that she, too, had a big book into which she could plunge herself instead of having to sit there, politely smiling, saying "Yes," and "No," and "Certainly." At last she sank into a troubled silence tried to listen as well as she could, and yet allow the other half of her mind to wander away into some restful place, if any such place could be found. The nearest approach to it was in that smooth, broad brow, and kindly eyes, which were now and then lifted up from the foot of the table, out of the mazes of the big book, at the secret of which Christian did not wonder now.
And he had thus listened patiently to this mill-stream, or mill-clack, for three weary years! Perhaps; for many another year before; but into that Christian would not allow her lightest thoughts to penetrate: the sacred veil of Death was over it all.