EAST OF THE SHADOWS
MRS. HUBERT (Edith Noel) BARCLAY
"TREVOR LORDSHIP," "THE GIANT FISHER," "A DREAM OF BLUE ROSES," ETC.
"Dawn harbours surely East of the shadows." W.E.H.
HODDER AND STOUGHTON LIMITED
THE HEART OF BESSMOOR
A SQUARE IN THE PATCHWORK
THE MAJOR'S VISIT
ROPES OF GOSSAMER
HOPES FOR THE FUTURE
ISABELLA'S POINT OF VIEW
MARION SPEAKS HER MIND
"Her air, her manners, all who saw admired, Courteous though coy, and gentle, though retired: The joy of youth and health her eyes displayed, And ease of heart her every look conveyed."—CRABBE.
The porter slammed the door with all the unnecessary vehemence usual to his class and touched his hat, a shrill whistle sounded, the great engine gave several vehement not to say petulant snorts, and the long train glided slowly out of the terminus. Gaining speed with every second, it whirled along through the maze of buildings which form the ramparts of London—on past rows of dingy backyards where stunted bushes show no brighter colour than that of the family washing which they support every week—on through the suburbs where the backyards give place to gardens trim or otherwise, and beds of gay flowers supplant the variegated garments—on until at last it reached the open country, spreading fields and shady woodlands, where it seemed to settle to a steady pace that threw the miles behind it, as it rushed forward with mighty throb and roar.
Philippa Harford breathed a sigh of relief at finding herself alone in her compartment, and arranging her belongings round her with the method of an experienced traveller, she settled herself in a corner seat and took up her book. She did not read for long, however, for in a few moments her eyes wandered to the window and there fixed themselves on the swiftly passing landscape. She let her hands fall into her lap and sat thinking.
Some of her friends (or perhaps acquaintance would be the truer word) had been known to describe Philippa Harford as an "odd girl," and if this indefinite adjective meant that she was somewhat different from the majority of young women of her generation, there was truth in the description. For while freedom of action and of speech are notably characteristic of the young of the present day, there was about her a reserve, one might almost say a dignity, beyond her years. Where the modern girl will cheerfully collect friends haphazard by the roadside, Philippa allowed very few to pass the line which divides the stream of acquaintanceship from the deep waters of friendship.
There are, and always will be, some people who display to the world a formidable aspect, as it were a stone wall with a bristling row of broken bottles on the top, or an ugly notice board with injunctions, such as "Strictly Private," or "Keep off the Grass," but Philippa was not one of these. You might wander in her company along paths of pleasant conversation, through a garden where bloomed bright flowers of intelligence and humour, and it was only afterwards that you realised what in the enjoyment of the moment you had failed to notice, namely, that inside the garden a high hedge, which had appeared merely a pleasing background for the flowers, had completely hidden the part you most particularly wished to see, and that the paths had brought you out at the exact spot where you entered.
It was just because this hedge of gentle reticence denied to a curious mob admission to the inner sanctuary of her thoughts, that they designated her as "odd." They found it impossible to know just what she meant and felt and thought. In their own parlance "they got no further." But it must be added that no one attempted to deny the existence of the inner sanctuary.
In spite of this rather tantalising trait in her character she was popular—every one liked her, for her natural kindness of heart, combined with great charm of manner and more than ordinary good looks, made her gladly welcome wherever she went.
She was an excellent person to confide in, for she accepted the confidences of other women with sympathetic and frequently helpful interest; but when it came to returning those confidences—well, that was quite a different matter.
In her life Philippa had possessed few intimate friends, and the chief of them had been her father. From him she had inherited, with her dark hair and straight eyebrows, a certain direct outlook on life. It was not an attitude of superiority or even of conscious criticism, but more an instinct for the people and things which were, as she expressed it, "worth while," a keen desire for the very best, and a preference for doing without should that best be unobtainable.
Mr. Harford understood as did no one else the depth of pity and the enormous capacity for affection in the heart of his child, and had from her earliest youth striven to inculcate self-reliance and thoughtfulness. "Most women are frivolous and empty-headed fools," he would assert hotly, "with no strength of mind, and no notion of playing the game;" and yet, by one of those inexplicable contradictions with which men of his type so frequently give the lie to their expressed opinions, he had married a woman in whom the attributes he professed to admire were conspicuously lacking.
Graceful, charming, and extraordinarily attractive, but with no thought beyond the pleasures of the moment, Mrs. Harford fluttered through life like a butterfly.
Mr. Harford's diplomatic appointments had necessitated their living abroad, and for a surprising number of years his wife had been one of the acknowledged beauties of Europe. No one could have been prouder of her than was her husband, who was always her foremost and most devoted admirer. For him, her beauty and her charm never waned, and to the day of his death, which occurred some three years before my story opens, he had regarded her as a most precious possession, to be gazed at, caressed and guarded, if hardly to be depended on. For her part she returned him all the affection of which she was capable.
At the age of fourteen Philippa had been sent to school in England, and when she returned to her parents, who were then living in Berlin, the tender intimacy which had existed between father and daughter had lost nothing by absence, and their mutual devotion increased day by day.
It was soon after that a certain episode happened which, slight as it was, must be recorded, as it was not without effect on Philippa's development.
A man, attracted by the freshness and originality of the young girl, and possibly piqued by the fact that she gave him no encouragement, declared his affection and set himself deliberately to gain hers in return.
This was not to be done in a day, and presently his fickle fancy found a new attraction and he wearied of the game. His marriage with another woman came as a surprise to the community, who had been watching the affair with the usual interest evinced in such matters, and much indignation was expressed at his behaviour. There had been no engagement—it is doubtful if Philippa's heart had really been touched—but his protestations of devotion had been fervent and she had believed him, and her trust in her fellow-creatures suffered a shock.
It was unfortunate that Mr. Harford, with all his love for his child, had been unable to guard her from the experience, which could not fail to be hurtful to one of her over-sensitive nature, but he had been absent on a special mission at the time. Philippa's attitude towards the world in general, and towards men in particular, was changed; it became one of amused toleration. Men were interesting, certainly, and pleasant companions, but were not to be taken seriously or to be believed in.
Since then several eligible suitors had presented themselves, but they had never succeeded in convincing Philippa of their sincerity, and Mrs. Harford, whose idea of a good mother was one who successfully married off her daughter in her first, or at least her second, season, was doomed to disappointment.
Since her father's death Philippa had been with her mother, living in Paris, or Dresden, or on the Riviera, as the elder lady's wayward mind directed. Mrs. Harford, who had mourned her husband with all sincerity for longer than her friends anticipated, had recently married again. Philippa had just bade good-bye to the bridal pair, and seen them start off on their journey to St. Petersburg, where her stepfather, who was, as her father had been, in the Diplomatic Service, was attached to the Embassy as First Secretary.
She had no anxiety with regard to her mother's choice, nor fortunately did she feel any resentment that her beloved father should have been so easily replaced in her mother's affections. She realised clearly that Mrs. Harford, or, as we should call her now, Lady Lawson, having all her life depended absolutely on a man's care, was lost and unhappy without it, and she could only feel grateful that her choice had fallen on a man entirely able to give her all she wanted, and, so far as the future could be foretold, to make her life happy.
At all events her mother would continue in the same surroundings that she had enjoyed for many years, and in a position which she would undoubtedly fill to her own and every one else's satisfaction.
To be honest, Philippa, although fond of her mother, had found the last year or two very trying. For some time after her father's death their mutual grief and loss had drawn the two near together, but as Mrs. Harford's powers of enjoyment and her love of excitement reasserted themselves, Philippa had discovered that she was quite uninterested in her mother's pleasures, and that they had very little in common.
A constant round of gaiety such as the older woman revelled in was quite unsatisfying to her daughter. In consequence the girl was really lonely. She had not yet found an outlet for her desire to be of some use in the world, or to fill the void left by the loss of her father's constant companionship.
But just at this moment she was enjoying a certain sense of freedom which the shifting of the responsibility of her mother on to stronger shoulders had given her. She had, owing to the circumstances I have related, seen very little of her native country, although she had travelled widely on the Continent and in more distant lands, and she anticipated with keen enjoyment the visit she was about to pay to a friend who lived in the east of England.
This friend had been a school-fellow—that is to say, she had been one of the older girls when Philippa, a shy child of fourteen, had arrived, unhappy and awkward, among a crowd of new faces in an unknown land. Marion Wells, as she then was, was one of those people in whom the motherly instinct is strong, even in youth. She had taken Philippa under her wing, and being by no means daunted by an apparent want of response which she rightly attributed to its proper cause, a strong friendship had grown up between them, which had continued, in spite of meetings few and far between, until the present day.
Marion had married, very soon after leaving school, a man who, while invalided home from South Africa, had excited her first to pity and then to love. She mothered her big soldier regardless of his stalwart size and now perfect physique much in the same way in which she had mothered Philippa in her childhood, and her loving heart was still further satisfied by the possession of a son, now eight years old.
Bill Heathcote had retired from the army, and was living on a property to which he had succeeded on the death of his grandmother some three years ago.
Lady Lawson's last words returned to Philippa's memory: "Good-bye, my darling child. I do hope you will have a good time!"
She smiled at the recollection. A good time! It was an expression which had been very frequently on her mother's lips, as it is on the lips of so many people now-a-days. It may mean so many things. To Lady Lawson it meant a succession of social gaieties. Well, she thought with thankfulness, these were hardly to be expected at Bessacre.
Marion had expressly stated that Philippa must not look forward to anything of the kind. Their only excitements at this season of the year were a few garden parties which could hardly be called amusing, but that she might have plenty of golf if she cared for the game. Also, if time hung too heavily, they might indulge in the frantic dissipation of motoring over to Renwick and listening to the band on the pier.
Renwick, which had been a quiet fishing village a few years ago, was now metamorphosed with surprising rapidity, by the enterprise of its newly formed Parish Council, into a fashionable watering-place, with pier, concert-hall, esplanade and palatial hotels all complete, for the pleasure and comfort of the summer visitors, and also incidentally for the personal profit of the members of the aforesaid Council: a state of things much regretted by the residents in the neighbourhood, whose peace was disturbed during the holiday season by char-a-bancs and picnic parties. So much Marion Heathcote had explained in her last letter.
Philippa sat enthralled by the beauty of the country through which she passed. The wide-spreading cornfields, the cosy flint farm-houses, with their red roofs, the byres and orchards, the glitter of the placid Broads lying calm and serene under the summer sun, reeds and rushes reflected as in a mirror on the water, which was so still that hardly a ripple disturbed its even surface.
It was so utterly unlike anything she had ever seen that it possessed for her an intense fascination. Later, as she was approaching the end of her journey, her first view of the low heather-crowned hills made her heart thrill.
A freshness in the air, and the curious one-sided appearance of the wind-swept trees, made her aware of the nearness of the sea—then presently she saw it—just a line of deeper blue against the azure of the sky, with the square tower of Renwick Church girdled with clustering red roofs clearly visible in the middle distance.
In a few moments the train stopped, and she alighted at the station to find a carriage drawn by a fine pair of horses awaiting her.
The long drive in the cool of the waning sunlight was to her pure delight. The road led first through beautiful beechwoods, out into the open country where low banks, bright with wild flowers—scabious, willow-herb and yellow ragwort—divided the corn-fields, now golden and ready for harvest; up on to a wide heath where the bell heather flooded the landscape with glowing purple light—through pine-woods dim and fragrant—and so on until the carriage turned through a gateway, past a low lodge of mellow ancient brickwork, and entered a well-kept carriage drive.
A few minutes more and Philippa was being assisted out by her host, and warmly welcomed by Marion, to the accompaniment of the cheerful if noisy greetings of two West Highland terriers who squirmed and yapped in exuberant hospitality.
"At last," said Marion, embracing her fondly. "I expect you are very tired."
"Oh no," replied Philippa quickly, "I thoroughly enjoyed the journey—every moment of it."
"Come in and have some tea," said Major Heathcote.
"Isn't it too late for tea?"
"Never too late for tea with your sex, is it?" he returned, laughing. "I thought ladies always wanted tea!"
"Perhaps ours won't suit you," said Marion as they entered the hall. "Don't you like yours made in a samovar and flavoured with lemon?"
"Not a bit of it," rejoined Philippa. "Nice English tea with plenty of cream, please."
"I can promise you that. Just sit down here. Now, Bill, give her a cushion and hand her the scones. They are freshly made and hot. Try some honey with them, real heather honey from Bessmoor. Don't ask her any questions. Let her have her tea in peace, and then you can ask as many as you like."
"The atmosphere Breathes rest and comfort, and the many chambers Seem full of welcomes."—LONGFELLOW.
"Where is Dick?" asked Philippa presently. "I do so want to see him."
"Dickie is away, I am sorry to say," answered his mother mournfully. "We have all been staying with my sister in Yorkshire. Bill and I came home yesterday, but she persuaded me to let him stay for another week."
"It is so good for the little chap to be with other boys," said Major Heathcote. "He has no companions of his own age here. This neighbourhood is curiously short of boys."
"When will he be going to school?" inquired Philippa.
"Oh; not for two years at least," replied Marion quickly. "Don't let us talk of it; I dread the very idea of it."
"Poor little hen with one chick," her husband laughed good-humouredly. "You will hardly recognise Dick, Miss Harford. He has grown enormously since you last saw him. Let me see—that was three years ago, wasn't it?"
"Very nearly three years ago, in Gibraltar," assented Philippa.
"I began to think that Fate had a plot against us, and that we were never going to meet again," said Marion. "It is delightful to feel that you are here at last. I have so much to tell you that I hardly know where to begin."
"We must show you all round the old place to-morrow," said her husband, rising as he spoke. "But if we are going to dine to-night we ought to begin to think about dressing. Dinner is at a quarter to eight. We keep old-fashioned hours in these parts."
"Come along," said Marion, taking her friend's arm as they moved towards the wide staircase.
"What a lovely house, Marion!" exclaimed Philippa, turning to survey the hall in which they had been sitting.
This apartment had formed part of the original house built in Tudor times, and had remained unaltered, untouched, save for the hand of Time, which had darkened the oak panelling and the beams of the high timbered roof, in the dim recesses of which hung tattered banners—spots of colour in the gloom overhead.
Above the huge stone fireplace, which was large enough to have roasted the historic ox of mediaeval festivities, hung a portrait of the royal lady whose visit had given the house its name—Queen Elizabeth, represented in her famous gown, embroidered with eyes and ears—seeing all, hearing all!
Marion laughed as she pointed to it. "It is all very well to say that Good Queen Bess could never have visited half the places or slept in half the rooms which boast of her occupation, but she really did stay here. I'll show you her room to-morrow, and tell you all about it. I don't think you would care to sleep in her bed, although you may if you like. I wouldn't for worlds. It is too much like a catafalque. Now, here you are arrived at last."
"I don't believe I shall ever find my way down," said Philippa. "I never saw such passages. We seem to have walked for miles!"
"Oh! we haven't really. It is quite easy. You'll soon get used to it. You must turn twice to the right, that is all. But I'll come and fetch you, so as to make sure that you don't get lost. Are you certain that you have everything you want?"
"I am certain of it, in this charming room, and—— Oh, my dear! Violets! How do you manage to have violets at this time of year?"
Philippa buried her face in a fragrant bunch which stood in a vase on the dressing-table. "My favourite flower of all!"
"We always have them. There is a pitiful story attached to violets at Bessacre, but that again must wait until to-morrow. Now I must fly. I have only got twenty minutes to dress in, and Bill will be raging."
Philippa's maid had already unpacked, and she now quickly and deftly assisted her to dress. The girl's clothes had been a constant cause of irritation to her mother, whose taste for frills and fripperies did not agree with her daughter's preference for simplicity, but she had been reluctantly compelled to acknowledge that Philippa's style of dressing was becoming, even if it did not follow strictly the ever-varying dictates of fashion. Nothing could have suited her better than the picturesque gown of pale yellow chiffon which she now put on. It was very simply made, but the perfection of its simplicity, the draping of the fichu of old lace on the bodice, and the graceful lines of the soft material from waist to hem, betrayed its Parisian origin in every fold.
Round her neck Philippa fastened a narrow band of black velvet, and her only ornament was a small brooch of pearls set in the form of a heart. This trinket she had found in a dispatch-box belonging to her father, while going through some papers after his death, and it was one she frequently wore.
At the last moment, unable to resist the charm of her favourite flower, she secured the bunch of violets in the laces at her breast.
Then Marion's voice was heard outside the door, and telling her maid that she would not require her services again that night, that she need not wait up for her, Philippa hurried to meet her friend.
"Dear thing! How nice you look," was Marion's comment. "What a lovely frock."
"I am so glad you like it. Poor mamma! She said it was too Early Victorian for anything. She despairs over my frocks."
"It is perfect," said Marion decidedly. "Thank goodness you know what suits you, and haven't got your skirt tied in at the ankles so that you shuffle like a Japanese."
"Or hop like a kangaroo!" added Philippa, laughing.
They descended into the hall, where Major Heathcote was standing in front of a cheerful fire which, notwithstanding the time of year, was crackling and spluttering on the hearth.
"Don't be shocked," he said cheerfully. "I hope you are not one of those uncomfortable people who consider fires immoral between May and October. The evenings are none too warm in this realm where sunshine never lingers and summer is unknown, and this house is always cold, or I feel it so—probably because I have lived for so long in more sultry climes."
"Yes, I expect you miss the sunshine," said Philippa as they walked into the dining-room.
"No. Do you know, I don't. Here in England people can't understand that you can have too much of it. You get so weary of perpetual glaring sunshine, and unchanging blue sky. There seems to be no variety and no rest, I remember as I landed from the trooper at Southampton after the South African war, hearing a Tommy say with a sigh of relief, 'Thank Gawd for a blooming grey sky,' and I quite agreed with him."
"I love the sunshine," said Marion, "and certainly we don't get too much of it here."
"No," replied Philippa; "but you do get the most wonderful cloud effects. Driving here this evening the sky was perfectly beautiful—a great bank of clouds like mountains and soft fleecy ones touched with pink overhead."
"What Dickie used to call the weeny woolly ones," said Marion softly. "Dear little boy, I wish he were here now. I remember once when he was much smaller we were walking on Bessmoor where you get such a wonderful view—he looked up and said, 'Does God live up there?' and I said, 'Yes,' because it was the only answer you could give a baby to such a question. 'Above the weeny woolly clouds?' he persisted. 'Yes,' I said again. 'Then,' he said in an awe-struck voice, 'He must be very careful not to put His foot through!'"
"How curious a child's mind is," said Philippa, "At least not curious, but so perfectly literal."
"That is why it is so difficult to answer them," put in Major Heathcote. "He asks me the most appalling questions, and goes on asking them until I answer him. But don't encourage his proud mother," he added, laughing. "If you once allow her to talk about her precious boy you will never be able to switch her off on to any other topic of conversation."
"Well," retorted Marion, "I am sure Dickie is more interesting than the weather, and I always let you talk about that. Besides, don't you believe him, Philippa; he talks about our Dickie just as much as I do."
"Now tell me," said Major Heathcote presently, "what do you like to see and do while you are here? What is your particular line? I suppose you have one?—every one has now-a-days. Is it old furniture shops? If so we can motor over to Eastminster, where you can poke about in dust and dirt to your heart's content. Or is it something more learned—abbeys and architecture? If so there are Castle Hill and the ruins of Bessmoor Priory. Or pictures at Longmead—or scenery? Make your choice. The only things we can not supply are social functions. Our neighbours are few and far between, and many of them are away just now."
"You can strike the last items off your list," rejoined Philippa decidedly; "I certainly don't want them. I just want to be allowed to do nothing in particular except see a great deal of your lovely country in the quietest and laziest way possible, please. These little villages fascinate me—all clustering round a church which looks far too big and important for the number of cottages. Why have you so many churches about here? I counted eight on my way from the station."
"Ah!" was the reply, "times have changed in these parts since the days when the priors and monks raised these churches, and since the countryside was thickly populated. Silk and wool were staple industries here then. Many and various causes have brought about the change. First they say that the Black Death raged more violently here than in any other part of England, and second—— Excuse me!" Major Heathcote broke off suddenly as the butler handed him a telegram. "How did this come at this hour?"
"Miss Brooks sent it up, sir; Bailey's boy brought it on a bicycle—she thought——" The man's voice trailed away into silence at the look on his master's face.
Major Heathcote's eyes were fixed on the pink slip in his hand, and Philippa, who was watching him, saw his face darken suddenly and his rather square jaw shoot forward as a strong man's will in the face of danger.
Then he rose quickly and walked round to his wife.
"Old girl!" he said, "I am afraid the boy isn't very fit—Jack wires that he seems seedy, and that they have got a man over from York. Don't be anxious, it's probably nothing much—but I think I'll run up and see."
"Dickie! Oh, Bill!" faltered Marion. "What does he say? Let me see."
"That's all. Just 'Dickie doesn't seem well, have wired for Stevens from York,'" he repeated. His hand was tightly clenched on the crumpled ball of paper. "Wait a moment, darling. Let me think a minute——"
"Yes! Ford! The car round at once, please,"—he gave the order sharply,—"and bring me a Bradshaw. I think I can get to Eastminster in time to catch the 9.15, which should get to Carton Junction in time for the North Express. Now, dearest,"—he turned to his wife again,—"you must try not to be too anxious. I will——"
Marion had regained her composure, and rising she laid her hand on his arm. "All right, Bill," she interrupted quickly. "I'm coming—you are quite right—we must hope for the best. How long can you give me?"
"Very well. I won't keep you waiting." She was half across the room as she spoke.
"Is there anything I can do?" asked Philippa. It hardly seemed the moment to offer anything but the most practical form of sympathy to the man who stood motionless just as his wife had left him, with his eyes fixed upon the chair she had quitted. Her question recalled him to himself with a start, but he did not reply.
"I am afraid there was more in the telegram than you told Marion," she said gently.
"Yes," he answered huskily. "I won't tell her—yet. It said 'Come at once—very anxious.'" Then something between a sob and a groan burst from him, and he squared his shoulders. "But we must——" Then he turned and went away. The sentence wasn't finished. That obvious pitiful platitude with which most of us are only too sadly familiar—that phrase which comes most naturally to our lips when our hearts are torn and bleeding with anxiety and the very earth seems to rock beneath our feet. Often when we are tortured with enforced inaction and we do nothing—can do nothing—but hope for the best. So easy to say, but oh, how difficult to do!
Ten minutes later Philippa was standing at the front door where the car was waiting. She heard Marion's voice giving some hurried instructions to her maid and turned to meet her. "You are warm enough?" she asked. "Will you have a fur coat? Take mine."
"No, no," said Marion; "I have everything, thank you, dear." Then she lifted her face to Philippa and the two friends clung together for a moment in loving sympathy. Then she released herself. "Where is Bill?" she asked.
"I am here," he answered from close behind her. "Are you ready? That's right."
"And you, Philippa!" said Marion suddenly, "Forgive me! I—forgot. What will you do?"
"I shall be perfectly all right," said Philippa. "The only thing you can do for me is not to think about me at all."
She stooped to tuck the rug more closely as she spoke. Major Heathcote was already seated at the wheel. "I will telegraph," he said.
"Please do," replied Philippa, and in another moment the car was speeding down the drive, a dark shadow behind the radius of light thrown by its powerful lamps which shone a streak of gold upon the moonlit gravel.
Philippa watched it out of sight and then re-entered the house.
"Will you return to the dining-room, miss?" inquired the butler.
"No, thank you," she answered. In truth in the hurry and stress of the last few minutes the interrupted dinner seemed vague and far away.
"Perhaps you will take your coffee in the hall, miss," said the man, and in response to the suggestion Philippa seated herself in a deep arm-chair in front of the glowing logs. The two dogs, Spiker and Darracq, whimpering a little in the sure sympathy of faithful canine hearts, crept close beside her, and finally, after many restless turnings, curled themselves into two little balls in the fold of her gown.
All her thoughts were with her friends. She pictured them speeding through the clear moonlight, where the dark lines of the banks cut the silver flood on either side of the road—arriving at the railway station—God grant nothing occur to delay them—then the train, which even at express speed must seem to crawl on such an errand—and finally arriving—to find—what?—Ah! what?
It was easy to see that the joy of both parents centred in that one little life; no jesting could disguise the ring of love and pride in both voices as they spoke of Dickie. She recalled the instinctive, protective love clearly visible in tone and gesture as the two anxious souls had striven to give courage to each other. The eternal trinity of love—husband and wife and child—and the greater the love the greater the risk of sorrow and of loss. Ah! that might be so, but who would grudge the risk in the greater possession?
She put her empty cup on a table beside her, and folding her hands behind her head leaned back in her chair as thought after thought came crowding into her mind.
Her surroundings affected her—the ancient house with its atmosphere of the past—of people dead and gone—of joy and sorrow ever blending in lives lived out for good or ill. The weapons on the walls—the faded banners, relics of warfare, now hanging limp and tattered beneath the weight of years in this hall of peace—the peace of an English home. Home! The word had held no meaning for her of late. While her father had been alive, home to her had been with him, but even then it had no abiding-place; and since then, the charming apartment in Paris or the villa at Cannes with all their comfort and luxury seemed but to mock the word.
"No," she mused, "home for me should be England."
England and home, surely synonymous terms. And then, suddenly, a feeling of intense loneliness broke over her like a wave. She felt like a bit of driftwood, cast up upon a summer shore where flowers and verdure smiled on every side and all was peace; but at the next tide, once more the waters would engulf her and drag her back to the sparkling, restless ocean. She smiled to herself at the foolish simile even as she thought of it. It was absurd to compare the gay life to which she had been accustomed to an engulfing ocean; but never mind, for once she would give her thoughts a free rein and be honest with herself, and acknowledge that the life she had lived was utterly unsatisfying to her.
Was it merely the boredom of a blasee woman? Surely it was something deeper than that which she felt. Now, to state her case fairly—to balance the pros and cons—what had she to complain of? Was it reasonless discontent? She hoped not. Why, she had all, or nearly all that counts as the world reckons for happiness—youth, looks, intelligence to enjoy, money—surely a goodly array of pros; and also entire freedom to please herself and arrange her own comings and goings. Ah! she wasn't sure that this last item in the tale of her possessions did not go far to invalidate the rest. And yet only this morning she had rejoiced in her freedom, and now she had discovered, or thought she had, that here was the very root of her discontent. She did not want this boasted freedom now that she had got it, for, put into plain words, it meant that no one, not one human being, really minded whether she came or went, no one claimed the service she would so willingly have rendered to any one in a position to demand it.
How easy to say that life should mean service for others, but, so far as she was concerned, no one wanted of her more than the cheap small change of daily sociable intercourse, and what she longed to offer was both hands full of gold—pure gold. She thought of the women in the cottages she had passed that day, living hard, toilsome lives, but all for somebody—all working day and night that loved ones might be clothed and fed and comforted. Ah! that was the point, the crux of the whole matter.
And having thus arrived at the nature of her trouble, she turned her mind to finding a remedy. She arraigned herself at the bar of her conscience on a charge of idleness, but justice dismissed the accusation. Idle she was not, she never lacked occupations; her reading, her music, her sewing, for she was a skilled embroideress, more than filled her leisure hours. But who profited? Herself alone!
For a woman of her class what was there—what opening for the willing service of hand and heart? First and foremost, marriage. Well, marriage was, for her at all events, impossible without a great love to sanctify the bond, and love had not come to her. Had her mother spoken truly when she had reproved her for holding an ideal too high for this work-a-day world? Possibly.
Of course she might do as other women she knew of, who gave up their lives of ease and pleasure and spent their days in the crowded courts and alleys of great cities, waging war against the giants of dirt and ignorance and disease. Or, she thought whimsically, she could join the ranks of Women with a capital W, and hurl herself into a vortex of meetings and banner-wavings, like other unemployed. No, anything but that.
Poor souls, clamouring for place and power as they imagine it, without realising that even should they obtain beyond their wildest hopes, they are even now throwing away that priceless heritage of future generations—the dignity of their mothers. Those stately gentlewomen, our mothers and our grandmothers, living decorous and well-ordered lives, busy with manifold duties, wielding an influence impossible to over-estimate for good to their descendants, their country and the nation,—they are gone—their example is unheeded—their teaching is laid aside; but who will make good the loss to children yet unborn?
A log rolled from the fire with a soft crash, and Philippa roused herself. "Well," she said as she rose, "what is the use of thinking and wondering. 'Do the thing that's nearest,' which at the moment, my little dogs, is to go to bed!"
Spiker and Darracq uncurled themselves drowsily and sat up with questioning eyes. She rang the bell and delivered them into the butler's care, and then walked slowly up-stairs. The mood of her musings was still on her, and she was more than a little sleepy.
As she reached the top of the staircase she heard the man turn the switch, and the hall below her was plunged in sudden darkness. Before her the long corridor was dimly lighted by a few lights at a long distance from each other. All was very still. She heard the swish-swishing of her gown on the thick carpet and that was all. "How quiet," she thought, "so different from the glare in the passages of the hotel last night, with its echo of voices and perpetual banging of doors."
At the end of the gallery she turned to the right, and later to the right again, and twisting the handle of the first door on the left opened it wide. Instead of the firelight she expected the room was brilliantly lighted, and before she could move, a man who was standing in the centre started forward. His eyes met hers with a look in which love and longing and rapture were all blended. He moved quickly to her with outstretched hands. "Phil!" he said, "Phil! dear love! At last!"
"'Twas strange, 'twas passing strange. 'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful."—Othello.
Before Philippa, dazed by the sudden light and the utter unexpectedness of it all, could collect herself sufficiently to speak, he took both her hands in his with a movement infinitely tender and possessive, and drew her further into the room.
"They said you would not come. They lied. I knew they lied. Oh, Phil! the joy to see you. My sweet! My sweet!"
The girl made an effort to withdraw her hands. What had happened? What did it mean?
"Oh, no!" she stammered. "It is a mistake—I do not know—— You are mistaking me for somebody else. I——"
He held her hands closer, closer, until they were pressed against his breast.
"Mistake?" he echoed with a little sound—it was hardly a laugh—of triumph and content.
"Mistake! Love makes no mistake!" and all the while his eyes burnt into hers with an intensity of passion and of longing.
"But yes—" she faltered. It was difficult to find words against the ardour of his gaze. "Yes, I am Philippa Harford. I must have mistaken the room. Believe me, I am sorry——"
"Philippa Harford!" and again that little sound broke from him, half sob, half sigh, and clearly indicative of infinite joy, a joy too deep to be expressed in words. "My Phil!—as if I should not know! Sun in my shadows—light in my darkness—darkness which surrounded and overwhelmed, and in which I groped in vain, and only clung to you."
He spoke her name as if the very repetition of it told the sum of his content. "Phil!—and I not know!—and my love's violets!" Releasing one hand he touched the flowers she wore. "And the little heart—the same! Your heart and mine!"
He led her, compelled against her will, unresisting to a sofa. Philippa sank upon it overwhelmed and almost nerveless under the stress of his emotion. He placed himself beside her, half sitting, half kneeling at her feet.
"I do not know—was it yesterday I saw you, cool and sweet in your soft primrose gown? or was it long ago before the shadows fell? Ah, love—your eyes! your hair! And always in the darkness the sound of your voice—the touch of your dear hand."
Philippa felt her senses reeling. With an effort she tore her eyes from his and gazed round the room. What did it mean? What dream was it? Was she waking or sleeping?
Beside the sofa stood a table, and on it an easel supporting a picture of—oh no, it could not be herself!
She drew one hand—the other was still tightly clasped in his—across her eyes as if to brush away a veil of unreality which seemed to hang over everything, and looked again. But no, there was no mistaking it—the dark hair drawn loosely back from the brow—her hair—her face as she saw it daily in her mirror—even her dress; a touch of pale yellow lightly indicated the folds of soft lace—the bunch of violets; and there, in black letters of unmistakable clearness on the gilding of the frame, the one word "Philippa."
On the table in front of the portrait was a bowl of violets—nothing else—just as might stand the offering at some shrine.
Beyond this one great mystery the room itself was devoid of anything out of the ordinary. The walls were panelled in white with touches of a pale grey colour; there were a few pictures, not many. The two windows were hung with a bright chintz of a somewhat old-fashioned design which matched the coverings of chairs and sofa, but the curtains were not drawn and the blinds were up.
From where she sat Philippa could see the moonlight flooding the sleeping park-land, and in the distance a clump of elm-trees outlined clear and lacy in the silver light.
Before one of the windows stood a large table littered with papers, a tumbler of water holding some brushes, and a drawing-board. By the fireplace was a comfortable chair, and on the floor beside it, as if dropped by a sudden careless movement of the reader, a book face downwards; and with the curious involuntary attention to detail to which we are liable in moments of strain, she noticed, almost with annoyance, that some of the pages were turned back and creased by the fall.
The room told of nothing beyond an everyday homelike peace; there was nothing to help her elucidate the mystery.
And all the while the man at her feet was pouring out a stream of rapid, fervent words. "And still you did not come! Ah, love! the long, long shadows—purple shadows—mysterious, unfathomable. No sun, no warmth, excepting when I saw you in my dreams—distant, illusive. No brightness, only darkness, until you came. But I knew you would come. Dearest, love makes no mistake, does it? Such love as mine that calling—calling—must draw you to me at the last. My beautiful Phil! my dreams of you never equalled the dear nearness of you. The night is past—the shadows are swept away, for the dawn has come—the dawn that was so long in coming, for it could only break to the music of your footfall. Phil, why do you look at me like that?" he queried suddenly. "Is it possible that I have frightened you? God knows I did not mean to. Or was it yesterday, sweetheart, did I hurt you? Truly, dear one, I did not mean to. I said that you were cold—I did not blame you—I did not think of blaming you; but my love for you is so great, so overwhelming, that it is hard to be patient. I hunger so for the touch of your lips. Forgive me, sweet, forgive me. See! now I will be calm."
He rose to his feet and stood before her at a little distance.
"Listen," he said, "I have something to tell you. Do you remember that little song you used to sing to me, that I loved? Well, always in my dreams when I saw you, you were coming to me like that.
"'Through soft grey clouds the kind May sun was breaking, Setting ablaze the gold flower of the broom.'
Always with the violets at your breast in a flood of golden radiance. Coming!—but you never came. Always sunlight where you are, my Phil, even when the shadows were darkest. And now—you have come!"
As he stood before her Philippa was able for the first time to notice the personal appearance of this man—this total stranger who was laying his very heart bare to her bewilderment. He stood above the usual height and was thin to emaciation, but with something virile and active about him which belied the apparent delicacy of his frame. His face was pale and worn, and his hair, which was quite white, accentuated the darkness of his deep-set eyes. He was clean-shaven and his mouth was perhaps rather hard, but it softened to tenderness as he spoke. His whole form seemed to radiate with his feeling of joy in the reunion—a strength of feeling dominating and triumphing over any bodily weakness.
As he moved his position slightly, the light fell more fully upon his face, and she saw the line of a deep scar running from cheekbone to temple. Instinctively she wondered what fearful wound he could have sustained to leave a mark like that.
He was dressed for the evening, but wore a black velvet smoking jacket in place of the formal dress coat. It was impossible to tell his age. His figure might have been that of a man of five-and-twenty, but his face and hair might signify another ten or even fifteen years.
He ceased speaking, and with his last words a feeling of sudden emotion almost choked Philippa. It was as if the unreality of it all was passing away, and the knowledge came to her that she, Philippa, was listening to the outpourings of a man's inmost heart, of a love not intended for her. She had no right to listen. What was she doing here? She rose quickly.
"I must go now," she said, trying to control her voice and speak as if nothing unusual had occurred. She was so bewildered, it seemed the only way to treat the impossible situation. "I must go now. It is getting late." Even as she spoke the words their utter banality irritated her, but what could she do?
He moved forward. "Is it late?" he said. "Have I kept you too long? But you will come again to-morrow?" He took her hands, which were hanging nerveless at her sides—took them and held them close. "You will come?" he whispered passionately. "Ah, dear love! the shadows when you do not come!"
It was impossible to resist the appeal in his look and voice. "I will come," she answered very low.
He raised her hands and kissed first one and then the other.
"Good-night," he said tenderly. "God guard you, my dear love!"
Philippa broke from him, and turning swiftly, opened the door and passed out. Then she stopped abruptly, startled. On the threshold a woman was standing, a woman of advanced years and rather stern appearance. She wore a dark gown, and her grey hair was covered with a cap of some soft white material. She moved aside to allow the girl to pass, and then said in a cold and perfectly emotionless voice, "I will show you to your room."
Philippa followed her, blindly, stumblingly, for her knees were shaking now, and there was such an air of resentment in the other's demeanour that it jarred upon her overstrung nerves.
In silence they passed down the long corridor until they arrived at their destination. The woman flung the door open and switched on the light. The fire was burning brightly, and Philippa recognised her own belongings on the dressing-table, and her dressing-down and slippers warming at the hearth, with a throb of relief. She walked in and then turned and faced her guide, who looked at her, long and scrutinisingly, opened her lips as if about to speak, and then shut them with a snap, as if afraid that words might escape against her will—hesitated for a moment, and then walked out and closed the door in silence.
Philippa sank into a chair and buried her face in her hands. One question was ringing through her brain. "What did it mean? What could it mean?" The wildest and most impossible explanations presented themselves to her fevered mind. Had she ever been here before? Was she dreaming? Had she lost her memory? Had she ever seen him before? Who had painted her portrait—and when? Then another thought struck her: Was it possible that he was mad? But no, she dismissed it immediately. There had been so sign of madness in his behaviour or his actions. Excitement, yes, but quite controlled; and above all truth and sincerity and passionate devotion. There was no mistaking that. Whatever might be the explanation of the extraordinary happenings of the evening, one thing was beyond all argument, beyond all doubt, and that was the love this man bore to—whom? The woman whom he imagined her to be—who was it? Philippa Harford! But she was Philippa Harford. The name was not so common that Philippa Harfords were to be found readily to be confounded with one another. And the portrait!—there was the very heart of the mystery—the primrose gown—the violets. What was it he had said? "Love's violets!" and "The dark, dark shadows since they had met." And then—"yesterday,"—he had said they had met yesterday. What could it mean?
She pressed her hands closer against her aching temples. What was the secret of this extraordinary house? Was it all unreal? Had it never happened at all? Was it supernatural—a fevered vision of the brain—an apparition haunting the scenes of the past? Impossible!
And the woman? She at all events had been tangible and real. Why had she looked at her with eyes that held hatred—nothing more nor less than hatred, bitter and undisguised?
Who could she ask? whom could she turn to? For a moment she had a wild impulse to peal the bell and call for—whom? Somebody—anybody—to speak—to tell her she was awake—alive. Marion? but Marion was not here. Marion had gone with the big soldier husband whose mere presence in the house would, the girl felt, have been an assurance of security, of sanity. Violets! What had Marion said? "There is a sad story attached to violets at Bessacre." But she had not told her what it was. Why had she left her? And then she remembered the earlier events of the evening—Dickie—his illness—the telegram. It all seemed so distant. Marion had been in trouble and had left her. Then gradually the thought of her friend's anxiety had the result of restoring her to a more normal condition of mind.
She rose to her feet and prepared herself mechanically for her bed. When she laid her head at last upon the cool whiteness of her pillow, and closed her weary eyes, sleep was far from her. She saw only one face, heard only one voice. "Such love as mine must—calling—calling—draw you to me at the last. My sweet! my sweet!" Oh, the pity of it! the pity of it!
Was it a few minutes, or ages later—she could not tell—that suddenly she heard a door bang violently—once—twice? She heard a hurried step on the gravel below her window, and then a shout, and the sound of a horse galloping faster and faster into the distance. Then even the echo died away, and silence as of the dead remained. She strained her ears, shivering with nervousness and fatigue, but could hear no more, and after a while she sank into a troubled sleep.
"The eternal landscape of the past."—TENNYSON.
The next morning Philippa rose late and had breakfast in her own room. The night had brought no counsel, she was undecided as to the line of action she should take, and physically weary. She felt it impossible to ask questions of her maid, who might have gained information in the housekeeper's room; equally impossible to summon Ford the butler, excellent and confidential servant as he appeared to be. It was not a subject upon which she could touch, however distantly, with a subordinate. It had affected her too deeply, and yet she must know more.
She had no doubt but that the woman she had seen could enlighten her fully, but she was ignorant of her position in the house, and even had this not been the case, she shrank from demanding anything from one so obviously hostile to her.
She could not forget that she had made a definite promise to return; she wondered now how she could have done so, and yet at the time it had been impossible to deny the insistent appeal. She would keep that promise—on so much she was determined—but as to the manner of keeping it she could not tell.
Finally, a desire to be out of the house and under the open sky overcame her. She would go for a walk, and perhaps on her return something would guide her as to her next move.
Accompanied by her maid, who appeared to have mastered the topography of the corridors, she descended to the hall, and then she realised her mistake of the previous evening. Marion's instructions had been to turn twice to the right, a movement easy and successful this morning, but of course in ascending to her room the direction was reversed, and she should have turned twice to the left. A simple mistake, out of all proportion to the events which had followed upon it.
"I knew I should lose my way last night, miss," said Walker. "Them backstairs is bewildering; but I thought to myself, I'll be even with them somehow, so I just tied my handkerchief on a table-leg in the passage as I went down, and counted the doors, and when I came up and saw my handkerchief I knew I was all right. The head housemaid came up-stairs with me and she was most amused."
"I think it was very clever of you," said Philippa. "I wish I had done the same."
"I hope you'll have a pleasant walk, miss," said Walker, and with that she disappeared.
Philippa went to the front door, and stood on the step breathing in the freshness of the morning. The sun was shining brightly, the dew lay heavy on the lawns, and here and there a faint veil of mist was hovering, soon to be dispersed by the warmth of the new day. All Nature seemed refreshed and cleansed by the healing and rejuvenating power of the night.
The girl herself in her simple suit of white serge looked as fresh as the morning, although a careful observer might have noticed a shadow telling of mental disquiet under the clear steadfast eyes. "Exercise," she told herself, "that is the thing for me. I will explore this lovely garden."
She descended the steps and walked down the broad terrace which ran along the south side of the house. She had only gone a few yards when a sudden call behind her made her turn. A maid-servant ran to her—a young girl, evidently one of the under-servants. She was breathless with hurry or with fright, Philippa could not tell which, and almost incoherent. "Oh, miss," she cried, "please come! Please come at once! Mrs. Goodman wants you."
Philippa did not wait for any further explanation, but returned immediately. At a small door on the terrace stood the woman who had been her guide a few hours before, her face ashen, her eyes suffused with tears, her whole appearance tragic in the extreme. She seized Philippa by the hand and led her swiftly away. Between the sobs that were shaking her the girl made out a few words:
"Come—quickly—for God's sake!—he wants you. My boy! my boy!"
With a speed which seemed remarkable for one of her age she ran up the stairs, stumbling and sobbing as she went. Philippa put out an arm to steady her, feeling conscious of no surprise, no wonder, nothing seemed to matter except the urgent need for haste.
At last they reached the room, which she recognised. There were the same flowered chintzes, there was her portrait on the table.
A sound of voices came from an adjoining apartment, and the woman stopped to listen, raising her finger with a gesture commanding silence.
Suddenly a voice rang out, clear and peremptory. "Please ask Miss Harford to come here. Where is Goody? She will understand."
Then she ran forward, her hand on Philippa's arm, through the connecting door into the inner room. A strong pungent smell of restoratives filled the air. The figure on the bed was sitting upright, motioning to one side the nurse and an elderly man, presumably the doctor, who were trying in vain to soothe him. The next moment his strength failed—he fell backward on the pillows, and his face assumed a livid death-like hue.
"Too late! too late!" murmured Mrs. Goodman in a tone of anguish.
The doctor, who had been occupied in his attentions on the invalid, glanced up and met Philippa's eyes. He recoiled as if in surprise or horror, but in an instant his professional calm reasserted itself.
No sound broke the stillness of the room except the laboured breathing of the poor old woman. Philippa gazed at the still white face, perfectly still, perfectly white, and apparently lifeless. The nurse raised herself with a sigh which seemed to intimate that all further effort was useless.
The slow minutes passed, and with each moment a greyer shadow crept like a veil over the face of the dying man.
Suddenly Mrs. Goodman spoke, sharply, and in a voice that sounded strident in the silence.
"Speak to him! call him!" she said.
A clutch of emotion strangled Philippa; her one conscious feeling was pity—pity overwhelming and profound. Pity for the soul going out into the Great Unknown, lonely, unsatisfied, craving something which it seemed that only she could supply. She fell on her knees beside the bed, and laid her warm hands on the frail white ones which were growing cold, so cold.
She felt some one remove her hat, and then again came the prompting insistent voice at her elbow.
"Call him! Call him!——Francis!"
And then she called—all her sorrow for the sick and suffering, all her potential motherhood ringing in her young voice.
"Francis!" Then louder, "Francis! Can you hear me? Francis! It is Philippa!" Again the breathless silence. Then, intent only on the task of gaining a response, she slipped her arm under the pillow, and leaning her face closer and closer, she called again and again. Did an eyelid flicker? Was it imagination, or was the deathly pallor changing slightly? Were the shadows round the drawn mouth less dark?
The doctor with his fingers on the pulse bent forward. "Again!" he said gruffly. "Once more!"
And again the girl's voice rang through the silent room in urgent appeal: "Francis! Francis!"
One long breath—another—and the eyes opened—vague, unseeing, turning this way and that until they found what they sought, and in them slowly dawned the light of recognition. A little later—low, very low—a whisper, in which content and joy triumphed over weakness—clear enough to the anxious listeners: "Phil! Darling!"
Two hours later Philippa went to her room. The doctor had gone, to return at evening; the invalid was sleeping, for the moment all was as well as could be expected, and it was considered probable that he would sleep for some hours. Her limbs were stiff and cramped from the position in which she had remained, fearing that the slightest movement on her part would snap the frail thread which we call life. When it became evident that the sleep was sound and strengthening she had crept away.
Presently Mrs. Goodman entered, bearing a tray of food and a telegram.
"You must need food," she said. "I have brought it, and I have said you are not to be disturbed." Her voice was strained and trembling, but quite kindly.
Philippa opened the telegram. "Operation to-morrow—hopeful—will wire again." For a moment she could not think what it meant, then she remembered; but somehow it seemed trivial, of no importance. Nothing mattered just now but the explanation which must surely come. All else was far away, outside the radius of her mind.
The woman pressed food and wine upon her, and stood beside her as she ate. Then she removed the tray and placed in on a table, and returned to Philippa's side. Her face was working grievously, her limbs were shaking. Then, quite suddenly, she sat down and burst into tears—the slow, laboured weeping of the aged.
Philippa drew her chair closer, and laying a hand on her shoulder she waited, knowing instinctively that the tears would bring healing, and that the overstrained nerves must find relief before words would come.
At last she grew quieter, and said brokenly, "He knew me! You heard him! 'Goody! Goody will understand!' I that have nursed him and tended him from babyhood! And never to know me—never to know his old Goody all these weary years! At last! At last! Oh! if my lady were but here to see!"
"Will you try and realise that I know nothing?" Philippa said gently. "I lost my way last night and went into the wrong room, and found—him. I do not even know who he is, but he seemed to expect me. Try and tell me what it all means."
"First, will you please tell me who you are?" said Mrs. Goodman.
"I am Philippa Harford."
"Aye, Philippa Harford! How little I thought ever to speak that name again! You are Philippa Harford, that I know—it is written clearly on your face for all to see; but you are not the Miss Philippa I knew, although I had not imagined that two faces could be so much alike."
"My father was James Harford. He died a few years ago. I did not know there was another Philippa."
"James Harford!" echoed the woman. "That would be Mr. Jim."
Philippa rose to her feet, and walking over to the dressing-table returned with a photograph in her hand.
"This was my father," she said. "It is an old photograph."
Mrs. Goodman looked at it.
"Yes. Mr. Jim, we used to call him."
"You knew my father?"
"Aye, I knew him well. He was often here in the old days—they were boys together. He was two years older than Mr. Francis. Miss Philippa was his sister."
"Yes, she would be your aunt. And Mr. Francis loved her, and they were to be married—and then came the accident——" Mrs. Goodman stopped suddenly. "I can't bear to speak of it——"
"Try to tell me," urged Philippa. "Don't you see that I must know? I have never heard of my aunt. I never knew that my father had a sister."
"He had one sister. They often stayed here together. She was some years younger than he was, and he loved her dearly—until it happened."
"Until what happened?"
"The accident, and Mr. Francis' illness."
"Who is Mr. Francis?"
Mrs. Goodman dried her eyes and made a great effort at self-control.
"I will try and tell you the story from the beginning," she said. "Mr. Francis is the Major's uncle. He is the son of Lady Louisa Heathcote, my dear mistress, who was second wife to Richard Heathcote, the old squire. He—the old squire—was twice married, and his first wife was mother to William Heathcote, the Major's father. She was married to him about ten years, and then she died, and five or six years after he married Lady Louisa, my lady. Mr. Francis was her son, born in 1862. He was seventeen years younger than his half-brother, Mr. William, who was a soldier, and never lived much at home after his school-days. A splendid boy he was, Mr. Francis, and a splendid man—until he was six-and-twenty.
"I can see him now, as he started that morning. It was in June. I can see him now as clearly as I saw him then, riding out of the stable yard. I was watching him from my window. His horse was rearing and plunging, but he never minded that, for he was a beautiful rider. Miss Philippa, she was walking beside him, leading her great dog—a huge brute it was, very wild, and difficult to hold, and I think Mr. Francis must have known his horse was shy of it, for I heard him call to her! 'If you're coming down to the jumps, darling, don't bring the dog. This animal is quite excited enough already.' I heard her answer him: 'Oh, that's all right!' Quite carelessly she spoke—and then they passed out of sight. The last time I saw him ride." The old woman's voice faltered and broke. "Half-an-hour later they carried him in—that awful day!"
"What had happened?" asked Philippa gently, as the speaker paused.
"It was all through the dog. Mr. Francis had taken his horse once round the jumps—he always schooled his horses down there in the lower meadow—and then he came round the second time. He passed close to where Miss Philippa was standing, and her dog was so wild at the horse galloping past that it broke away from her, and tore like a mad thing after him. It overtook him just as he reached a jump. Some of the stablemen were watching from the top of the field, but they couldn't see exactly what happened. Some said the dog leaped right up at the horse, others that it merely frightened it and caused it to swerve, but in a moment they were on the ground, with Mr. Francis lying half under the horse.
"Before the men could reach the place the animal was up, but in its struggles it had kicked him terribly about the head. His body was not hurt. Dr. Gale soon came, and his father, the old doctor, too, and they sent for great men from London, but they all thought that he must die. My poor lady! I shall never forget her awful anxiety. He was just all the world to her, was Mr. Francis. Night after night she and I would sit outside his room, holding each other's hands like two children afraid of the dark. He had splendid nurses, I will say that, but they wouldn't have us in his room. I said it was cruel, but my lady said No. She said it was not a time to consider any one but him and what was good for him. She was a wonderfully brave lady, and wise."
"And Philippa?" asked the girl.
Mrs. Goodman hesitated, and into her face there crept the same dark look of hostility which it had worn on the previous evening. At last she answered coldly—
"Miss Philippa did not like illness."
"What do you mean?"
"She stayed a few days." Again the woman hesitated. Then her anger mastered her and she spoke scornfully and with intense bitterness. "She stayed a few days and then she left the house—said she could not do any good by staying. And Mr. Francis lying between life and death!"
She covered her face with her wrinkled hands and began to weep again, and it was some moments before she could proceed. When she did so, it was in a low, hurried tone, as though she wanted to get to the end of her story, as if the mere mention of the dreadful days which followed was more than she could bear.
"The time passed, and doctors came and went, and at last he recovered consciousness, but he wasn't the same. The first word he spoke was her name. After that he asked for her unceasingly. I remember a doctor coming—a very great man he was—and he said to my lady, 'I am hopeful, decidedly hopeful, but your son must be kept quiet, and perfectly contented. Where is this young lady he asks for? she must come immediately. If he is not kept quiet I will not answer for the consequences.'
"After he had gone, my lady turned to me. 'We will telegraph at once,' she said, 'Surely she will come.'
"Well she came, and she went to his room. He had been calling her just before, and when she came he did not know her. He was very ill that day, and he was wandering, and when he saw her he talked some childish nonsense about his boyhood.
"She didn't say a word as she came out, but that evening my lady spoke to her, and told her that she must have patience, that he would be better soon; but she only said, 'He is terribly disfigured.' Those were her very words. Not a word for the pity of it, or of comfort for his poor mother.
"The next morning his mind was clearer, and again he asked for her. She went to him, but she wouldn't go in without my lady went with her. He was lying quite still, but after a minute he opened his eyes and said, 'Phil, darling! where have you been? There is a nest in the holly-bush. I'll show it you after breakfast.' Of course it was just rambling talk, but the doctors said that the fact of his knowing her was a hopeful sign.
"She never spoke to him, or answered him as one must answer sick folk when they have fancies. She went away again the next day. My lady tried to reason with her—she thought she was frightened; but it was no use, she wouldn't listen.
"Then, after a few more days, my lady wrote. I saw the letter. It was pitiful, just a cry from her breaking heart imploring her to come back, saying that without her Mr. Francis would never get well. She wrote back saying that she would come when he was right in his mind. She just seemed determined not to understand that his mind never could get clear while he was fretting for her night and day. That is two-and-twenty years ago last June, and he has waited for her coming ever since."
"But I cannot understand it," said Philippa. "I cannot understand any woman not coming to the man she loved, however crazed he was. He wanted her!"
"Ah, that was just it!" answered Mrs. Goodman sadly. "I knew it all along, but my lady would not believe it until she was forced to do so. She never loved him; and it was proved at last, for about six months later she wrote to my lady and said she considered herself free—that of course it was dreadfully sad, but that she could not spend her life engaged to a hopeless invalid. Just a month after that she was married."
"Married!" echoed Philippa.
"She ran away with some man her family didn't approve of. She never had a heart, hadn't Miss Philippa."
"Then why did she become engaged to Francis Heathcote—if she did not care about him?"
"Well, you see, he was rich and very handsome, and there were plenty of young ladies who would have been glad to marry him. He was madly in love with her!"
"Where was my father in those days? Do you know?"
"He was abroad somewhere. My lady wrote to him, beseeching him to try and get Miss Philippa to come back. That was soon after the accident. He came to England, but he couldn't do any good. I did hear he quarrelled with his sister over it, and wouldn't see her or speak to her again. He was so fond of Mr. Francis.
"It is an old story now." The old woman sighed deeply. "I little thought to speak of it again. My lady never named her, and I hated her too much to wish to speak of her. She condemned my boy to years of prison—aye, and worse than prison. Of course I hated her. Even when I heard that she had died a few years after her marriage the hatred didn't die. I couldn't help it. You can't help your feelings. But I never spoke of her. If you can't say good of the dead you had best say nothing. When I saw you last night I really thought it was her. God forgive me! I think there was murder in my old heart! But now—you have come—and he will be content."
"In life there are meetings which seem like a fate."—OWEN MEREDITH.
The sun was low upon the horizon, casting cool shadows across the summer landscape, as Philippa walked out of the lodge gates the same evening, and turned up the road which climbed the incline leading up on to the moorland.
She had passed through many emotions in a short space of time, and she craved for solitude—to be at peace to think over the extraordinary events of the last few hours, and steady her mind, which seemed to be whirling under the strain she had endured.
The day had been hot, but now a cool breeze, very refreshing to the tired girl, was blowing in from the sea. She walked slowly along, thinking deeply, and as she thought, gradually little points of light shone out from the dim past, and played upon the story she had heard, and which had touched her so profoundly. Little actions of her father's—words which he had spoken, unheeded at the time, or at any rate not understood, now seemed to acquire a new meaning. She had been utterly ignorant of her aunt's existence, or if she had known her in early childhood, she had lost all recollection of her. Her father had never mentioned his sister.
One incident which had happened when she was about thirteen returned very clearly to her memory. A young friend had come to spend the afternoon with her, and as the two girls were playing in the school-room Mr. Harford had come in, and had joined in their game. He was always a delightful playmate, and they had welcomed him with glee. The fun was at its height when Philippa's friend, in the excitement of the moment, called to her, addressing her as Phil. Philippa well recalled how her father had risen from his chair, and in a voice so stern as to be utterly unlike his own, had said, "My daughter's name is Philippa, and I must ask you never to address her again as you did just now." The girl, taken aback and rather frightened at the displeasure she had all unintentionally provoked, apologised instantly, and Mr. Harford, realising that his rebuke must have seemed over severe for the innocent offence, patted her on the shoulder and begged her to think no more of the matter. But it was evident that he could not shake off the effect of the occurrence, the game came to an end, and shortly afterwards he left the room. At the time Philippa had wondered why the simple abbreviation of her name should have caused him so much distress, but the reason was very clear to her now. What painful memories it must have conjured up in a moment!
Also, she remembered a young secretary in Berlin whom they had known very intimately, Phil L'Estrange. Every one had called him Phil with the exception of her father, who had invariably addressed him as Philip, in spite of the young man's laughing assurance that he did not answer to the name.
"How could she have done it?" she murmured half aloud. "How could she have done it?" Twenty-two years of waiting! What a love this man must have given to the other Philippa—a love so strong that it dominated weakness of the body, and even of mind, and through all the long years burnt on with the same clear flame of youth.
Would he die now, this man who had waited so long?—would he die happy, satisfied that his love had come to him again? It was an absorbing thought. Why did these coincidences happen? Were they coincidences? Here was she, a stranger, with, it would seem, a human life hanging on her coming—at least it had appeared so this morning, when her voice had roused him from the lethargy of weakness which was drifting him out of life. And if he died, what would his meeting be with that Philippa who had passed before him into the Unknown, the land where there was no marriage or giving in marriage?
Yet, in that land of which we speak so glibly and picture each of us according to our personal fancy, and of which we are so absolutely ignorant—in that future state there surely must be love. Was a wonderful human love like this to come to an abrupt end—to be left behind with the body's frail shell? Surely not. Surely, although human, it held too much of the divine to perish with the earthly clay; and yet, if the love of Francis Heathcote passed with his spirit, how would he meet Phil? or, rather, how would she meet him? Would she be changed while he remained unaltered? Would heaven itself be heaven for him without her love? Oh, the awful mystery of the future life!
And—if he did not die? She stopped abruptly, and stood quite still as the recollection of the words which the old woman had spoken returned to her mind. "Now you have come, and he will be content."
What did she mean? What had she, the living Philippa Harford, to do with Francis Heathcote? a man of whose very existence she had been ignorant, known nothing, until yesterday—nothing.
And if clear reason asserted itself in his shadowed mind, as seemed possible, how could the truth be explained to him?
She walked on again overwhelmed by the difficulty of her position. Unthinkingly—unwittingly—she had, in the pitying impulse of the moment, drawn a fellow-soul back to earth and life. If she had not been there he must have died—so much was certain; and yet——
So engrossed had she been in her thoughts that she had paid no heed to the road along which she passed, but now, as she lifted her eyes and gazed round her, this way and that, as if seeking some solution of the problem that confronted her, she found that she had reached the moor.
Before her stretched a wide expanse of earth and sky, lit into splendour by the rays of the sun which was sinking, a ball of fire, into a sea of flame. So calm was the distant water that its unruffled surface mirrored the glory of the sky above it in wonderful tones of scarlet and orange and palest rose. The moor itself, brilliant with bell heather, seemed a magnificent robe clothing the world in regal purple; while across it, winding like a ribbon laid lightly over its richness, ran the road—further and further into the distance until it vanished from sight at the meeting-place of land and water. Philippa gazed entranced—her perplexities forgotten—her whole being stirred—uplifted by the beauty of the scene.
Even as she looked the vision changed. The sun dropped below the horizon, throwing, as it fell, great shafts of light like gleaming spears, up across the splendour to the azure overhead—spears which glittered for a moment, flashing a signal to herald the approach of the dusk which on the instant, as if in response to a command, threw a mysterious veil over the pageant of departing day.
No sound broke the stillness—the very earth was hushed.
Philippa gave a little shiver. It was as if with the waning of the glory something had passed from her spirit, leaving her strangely cold and small—an atom in an immeasurable loneliness.
Instinctively she turned to seek human companionship, as a child might turn to seek its mother's hand in a moment of awe. She searched in vain and could see no living thing, but presently she distinguished far off upon the road a figure which gradually she made out to be that of a woman walking towards her. Half impatient with herself at the relief which the sight afforded her, she watched intently.
The woman came steadily on, glancing neither to left nor right, but with her eyes bent upon the ground; and it was not until she was within a few yards of where the girl was standing that she became aware that she was not alone.
She raised her head, and met Philippa's gaze. A look of intense surprise and bewilderment came over her face; she started forward, and as she did so she caught her foot on some unnoticed stone, stumbled, and almost fell. Philippa made a movement towards her, but immediately the stranger recovered herself.
"You," she said, in a quick low tone, almost as if she was speaking unconsciously, her eyes all the while fixed in a curious, scrutinising stare upon Philippa's face. The girl showed no astonishment. There seemed no room for astonishment in the world of strange happenings in which she found herself, but before she could reply the woman spoke again.
"I am not mad, as you might easily imagine," she said. "Please forgive me, but—will you tell me who you are?"
"My name is Harford—Philippa Harford."
The other nodded. It was evidently the answer she had expected.
"For a moment I took you for—some one I used to know many years ago. Of course it is quite impossible that it should be her, but coming upon you suddenly like this surprised me out of my senses."
She was a tall, angular woman of what is sometimes called uncertain age, that is to say, she might have been anything from thirty to five-and-forty. She was dressed in a simple gown of brown holland, and it was singularly unbecoming to one of her complexion, for her hair was a faded, nondescript colour which might possibly have been red in early youth, and her skin was sallow and colourless.
Her face could not, even by the most charitable, have been called anything but plain—the cheekbones were high, the features rugged, the eyes small and light; but Philippa noted something very attractive in the expression. There was cleverness in the broad low brow under the wide-brimmed hat so deplorably innocent of all suggestion of prevailing fashion, and a whimsical twist about the corners of the mouth which showed its possessor to be rich in humour. And yet it was a sad face—in some indefinite way it suggested patience and expectancy. Just now the eyes were wistful, questioning.
"It must have been a relation of yours, I think," she was saying, "because her name was Philippa Harford too." It was an assertion, but Philippa answered the eyes rather than the words.
"She was my aunt."
"How the years go by, don't they?" The stranger seemed to be trying to lead the conversation away from the personal. "And one really doesn't notice their passing. One lies on the shelf and gets dusty as the world goes on. Are you going this way? May I walk with you? This is an unconventional meeting. Will you count it sufficient introduction that I knew your aunt many years ago? My name is Isabella Vernon, but that probably conveys nothing to you."
"By all means let us walk together," answered Philippa readily. "I had been watching the sunset, and the moor seemed so solitary."
"It is. That is why I love it. Dear Bessmoor. Ever changing, yet ever the same—suiting all moods—sympathetic—enveloping. I have a cottage in the heart of her, where I live the simple life, which I like, but which for most people is a synonym for few baths and many discomforts. Do you live near here?"
"No, I am only staying here."
"But you know this part of the country."
"No," replied Philippa again. "It is all new to me. I only arrived yesterday."
And in her heart she was thinking, "Here is some one who could probably tell me many things I want to know," and yet how impossible to speak of such matters to a stranger.
Isabella Vernon seemed anxious to make friends.
"If you do not know the neighbourhood, I will explain the geography," she said pleasantly. "This is an excellent point of view. See, over there,"—she indicated the direction with her hand as she spoke,—"on the other side of the moor lies the village of Denwick. It has a very fine church—you can just see the tower—and it used to be a place of some importance in the dim ages. There are villages dotted all over this part of the country, right down to the sea.
"'Renwick and Deanwick, Bessmoor and Ling, Northam and Southam lie all in a ring,'
as the country-people say about here. Eastminster is over there——" again she pointed. "On fine days you can see the spire of the cathedral, but not from here—from a point about two miles further across Bessmoor. If you are staying some time you ought to explore."
Again her eyes questioned, and Philippa answered—
"I do not know yet how long I shall stay."
"You will find many beautiful spots about here which will well repay a visit. Now, you can see Bessacre lying in the little hollow below us. The woods over there belong to—Major Heathcote——" She paused tentatively.
"Yes," said Philippa quietly; "I am staying there."
The other nodded. "I used to live with my aunt at a little house in the village—the Yew House it was called—you may have noticed it as you passed—but that was long ago. She has been dead for many years, and when she died I joined my father abroad. I used to know the High House very well once, but I do not know either Major or Mrs. Heathcote. I see so few people in these days. I have been living on Bessmoor for some time now. There used to be very large parties at the High House when Lady Louisa was alive, and—I suppose there are plenty of visitors there now?"
"No, I am the only visitor."
"Do they live all alone?" Isabella Vernon's voice was rather unsteady, and her eyes were still searching the girl's face.
"They have a little son," Philippa replied, "but he is not well just now. They are anxious about him."
"I am sorry," said the other simply. "We used to have very happy times in the old days when—your aunt stayed with Lady Louisa—and her brother too sometimes."
"He was my father. Did you know him?"
"Oh yes, I knew him quite well."
"He died some years ago."
"Ah! I had not heard. He and I were very good friends when we were young. But I don't suppose he remembered me."
"I do not think I ever heard him speak of you."
"No, very likely not. But I have a good memory, especially for my friends. One loses sight of people very easily, far too easily; and then it is difficult to find them again when one returns to England after a long absence. You have been a good deal abroad too, I expect."
"Yes, I have lived almost entirely abroad. So much so, in fact, that I am disgracefully ignorant about my native land. I hardly know it at all. I was so interested as I travelled down here, to see how utterly different it was to anything I had ever seen."
"I think that is the most interesting part of travelling," answered Isabella Vernon, smiling "The aspect of the different countries, I mean. Not the people, but the very earth itself. You cross a frontier and at once all seems changed. There may be hills and trees and water just as there have been before, but they have not in the least the same appearance. Of course there are some tiresome folks who are always seeing likenesses; they will tell you glibly that Canada reminds them of Cumberland, or South Africa of the Sahara, but that is merely because they are blind. Having eyes they see not the subtle characteristics of every land and miss its individuality. I have journeyed all round the globe, and now, as I sit by my own fireside and think of what I have seen, it is always some particular point about the look of a country that comes first into my mind. The peculiar ochre tint of the bare stretches of Northern China; the outlines of the hills in Japan—so irregular and yet so sharp, as though they had been cut out with a sharp pair of scissors in a shaky hand. The towering masses of the Rockies, where the strata runs all sideways, as if a slice of the very crust of the universe had been tilted up on edge by some gigantic upheaval.
"I don't know why, but these peculiarities, which some people call insignificant details, and some never notice at all, are for me the very places themselves. They rise instantly before my eyes when the name of the country is mentioned; just as when I was away the mere mention of the word "home" brought a vision of Bessmoor and its mysterious purple distance. But here I am letting my tongue run away with me, and making long speeches in the most unpardonable way. Forgive me. You must excuse a hermit who lives a solitary life. And here we are almost in the village. I won't come any further."
She stopped and held out her hand. "Good-bye," she said. "I hope you will let me see you again. I should so like to show you my cottage. Would you come?"
"I should like to, thank you," answered Philippa. "But I hardly know——" for all of a sudden the perplexities which had for a while been forgotten crowded into her mind again.
"Could you come to-morrow, do you think?" continued the other, speaking with some eagerness.
"Indeed I hardly know when I shall be able to get away. I will come if I possibly can, but——"
"Well, never mind," said Miss Vernon quickly. "Do not settle now, but come when you can. If you walk along this road I am pretty certain to see you. I spend my life on Bessmoor, and I should like to teach you to appreciate its beauties as they deserve."
"I shall certainly try to come, and I think you would find me a willing pupil," said Philippa with a smile. Then with a murmured word of thanks she walked quickly away, feeling suddenly afraid lest any further development should have arisen in her absence, for she had stayed away from the house longer than she had intended.
As she turned into the lodge gate she looked back. Isabella was standing where they had parted, gazing at her with the same intentness which had been so noticeable during their conversation; but now, she waved a friendly hand, and then she too turned and walked away up the hill.
"What does she know about it all, I wonder?" said the girl to herself. "How much could she tell me of the details I long to know? All the time she was speaking she seemed to be on the point of asking some question. What was it? and why did she seem so pitifully anxious to make friends with me?"
"When hope lies dead. Ah! when 'tis death to live And wrongs remembered make the heart still bleed, Better are sleep's kind lies for Life's blind need Than truth, if lies a little peace can give."—THEODORE WATTS-DUNTON.
As Philippa entered the hall of Bessacre High House the butler met her.
"Dr. Gale is here, miss," he said. "He wished me to say that he would be glad to speak to you when you came in."
"Certainly," she replied. "Where is the doctor?"
"In the library, miss. This way."
He conducted her to the door of the room and announced her. A man who had been seated by the writing-table rose to meet her, an elderly man with grizzled hair and beard and thick overhanging eyebrows.
"Miss Harford?" he said in a gruff, abrupt voice as he bowed.
"Yes," answered Philippa. "You wished to speak to me?"
"Please," he returned. "Won't you sit down? You must be tired, and I am afraid I must detain you for a little while."
She seated herself and waited, while the doctor stood before her, pulling fiercely at his ragged beard, and evidently at a loss for words.
When he spoke his manner was short and his tone rather harsh, but he gave her the impression of a man who was to be trusted. Rough, perhaps, but straightforward and honest, if somewhat unpolished. His first words strengthened her conclusion.
"There is no use in beating about the bush; let us come to the heart of the matter at once. What are you going to do?"
"What am I going to do?" repeated the girl in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that we are in your hands. On your decision the life of Francis Heathcote hangs. I understand from Mrs. Goodman that she has put you in possession of the facts of the case. I have just been speaking to her. I quite realise that the occurrence of to-day must have been a very trying one for you, as trying as it was unexpected. I cannot tell you what my feelings were when I saw you enter that room, for I didn't know of your existence, much less of your presence in this house; but the fact remains—Francis Heathcote has mistaken you for the woman he loved years ago, and for whose coming he has waited so long.
"Undoubtedly the realisation of his hopes has been a great shock to him, bodily, and mentally also, for the sight of you has had the effect of dispersing the cloud which has shadowed his brain for so long. He is now what may be called sane—perfectly sane—although the term is a misleading one, for he has never been insane, as we understand the word. His state has been curious. I can only describe it in the words I used just now. His mind has been shadowed—clouded by one idea, one obsession. And now, the sight of you, as he sees you, has removed the cloud; he is satisfied and sane."
"Will he recover?" asked Philippa gently.
"I cannot say. He is very weak. But this I can say—that so surely as he suffers another disappointment, or as he frets, and is not satisfied, so surely he will die."
The doctor fixed his eyes upon the girl's upturned face. Intense anxiety was written clearly upon his features; he tugged at his ragged beard even more fiercely than before.
"But how is it possible—— How can I——" she faltered, and he interrupted her vehemently—
"Don't decide—don't decide. Listen, and think of it—the pity of it! For over twenty years I have been attending Francis Heathcote and seen him constantly, with never a word of greeting from him, never a sign of recognition. He is not merely my patient, he is my boyhood's dearest friend, and since his accident I have watched him closely; at first with hope, but later—with despair. If you could have known him in early manhood, and then seen him struck down to the pitiful wreck of after years, you would appreciate what it has been for those who loved him—and we all loved him—to stand by and do nothing. He was the most lovable creature it has ever been my lot to know.
"Miss Harford,"—he dropped into a chair at her side and leaned towards her,—"to-night, when I went into his room, I thought he was sleeping, but he opened his eyes and saw me standing beside him, and then——" The doctor cleared his throat and steadied his voice, which was shaking with emotion—"'Hullo, Rob!' he said. It was only a whisper, but I tell you the old boyhood's name nearly did for me. 'Have I been dreaming, or was Phil here?'
"'Yes, she was here,' I answered as lightly as I could.
"'Will she come?' he asked eagerly.
"'She will come,' I said. 'But you have been ill, and you must get a bit stronger first.'"
The doctor paused, and for a few moments there was silence, broken only by the words he was muttering under his breath, "Hullo, Rob! Hullo, Rob!"
"May I ask a question?" said Philippa at last.
"Ask as many as you like," he replied quickly.
"Is his—condition—the state he has been in for all these years, I mean—is it—was it the result of the accident, or——"
"I think I know what you want to say. You want to know to what extent his long illness was due to the disappointment he suffered?"
"It is very difficult to say; but this I know, that had he been at the time of the accident a man of good physique—which he undoubtedly was—and had there been no adverse circumstances to complicate the case, he would have recovered, and in course of time have been as sound in brain as you or I. But quiet of mind, peace of mind, contentment, are absolutely essential to recovery in such cases, and these were exactly what he lacked. He fretted incessantly for the presence of the woman he cared for so deeply—this made rest impossible, and it became an obsession, a fixed idea, and his brain could not stand the strain. This is hardly a technical explanation, but I want to put it in such a way that you can understand."
"Would nothing have done him any good?" asked Philippa. "No treatment, or operation?"
"All that has been possible in the way of treatment has been carried out, but operation was out of the question; and, indeed, if it had been deemed advisable Lady Louisa would never have agreed to it. She said, and there was truth in her argument, that all the surgeons in the world could not restore him what he missed and craved for. And now—at last—it seems that a miracle has been performed, and you are here to save him."
"What do you want me to do?" she asked in a low voice.
"I want you to go to him, to be with him occasionally, to content him, to give him a little happiness—for all the years he has missed—a little happiness—until——"
"We can't think of the future; we must just go on from day to day. I know it is much to ask of you, a stranger, but I have no choice but to ask it. Think it over. For a day or two I can keep him quiet, but not for longer. Take a day or two to decide."
"I will think it over. I cannot decide now—indeed, indeed I cannot," said Philippa earnestly. "It is not that my heart is not wrung with pity. It is the most pitiful thing I ever heard of; and if I—a stranger, as you truly say—feel it pitiful, what must it be to you who have known him always?"
Tears were standing in her eyes. Apart from the tragedy there was something very touching in this man's affection and sorrow for his friend. Neither gruffness of tone nor shortness of manner could disguise the strength of the underlying feeling.