FATED TO BE FREE
By JEAN INGELOW
Author of "Off The Skelligs," "Studies for Stories," "Mopsa the Fairy," Etc.
AUTHOR'S PREFACE TO THE AMERICAN EDITION
When authors attempt to explain such of their works as should explain themselves, it makes the case no better that they can say they do it on express invitation. And yet, though I think so, I am about to give some little account of two stories of mine which are connected together,—"Off the Skelligs," and "Fated to be Free."
I am told that they are peculiar; and I feel that they must be so, for most stories of human life are, or at least aim at being, works of art,—selections of interesting portions of life, and fitting incidents, put together and presented as a picture is; and I have not aimed at producing a work of art at all, but a piece of nature. I have attempted to beguile my readers into something like a sense of reality; to make them fancy that they were reading the unskillful chronicle of things that really occurred, rather than some invented story as interesting as I knew how to make it.
It seemed to me difficult to write, at least in prose, an artistic story; but easy to come nearer to life than most stories do.
Thus, after presenting a remarkable child, it seemed proper to let him (through the force of circumstance) fall away into a very commonplace man. It seemed proper indeed to crowd the pages with children, for in real life they run all over; the world is covered thickly with the prints of their little footsteps, though, as a rule, books written for grown-up people are kept almost clear of them. It seemed proper also to make the more important and interesting events of life fall at rather a later age than is commonly chosen, and also to make the more important and interesting persons not extremely young; for, in fact, almost all the noblest and finest men and the loveliest and sweetest women of real life are considerably older than the vast majority of heroes and heroines in the world of fiction.
I have also let some of the same characters play a part in both stories, though the last opens long before the first, and runs on after it is finished. It is by this latter device that I have chiefly hoped to give to each the air of a family history, and thus excite curiosity and invite investigation; the small portion known to a young girl being told by her from her own point of view and mingled into her own life and love, and the larger narrative taking a different point of view and giving both events and motives.
But in general, while describing the actions and setting down the words, I have left the reader to judge my people; for I think many writers must feel as I do, that, if characters are at all true to life, there is just as much uncertainty as to how far they are to blame in any course that they may have taken as there is in the case of our actual living contemporaries.
But why then, you may ask, do I write this preface, which must, if nothing else had done so, destroy any such sense of truth and reality? Why, my American friends, because I am told that a great many of you are pleased to wish for some explanation. I am sure you more than deserve of me some efforts to please you. I seldom have an opportunity of saying how truly I think so; and besides, even if I had declined to give it, I know very well that for all my pains you would still have never been beguiled into the least faith as to the reality of these two stories!
London, June, 1875.
I. A WATCHER OF LILIES II. THE LESSON III. GOLD, THE INCORRUPTIBLE WITNESS IV. SWARMS OF CHILDREN V. OF A FINE MAN AND SOME FOOLISH WOMEN VI. THE SHADOW OF A SHADE VII. AN OLD MAN DIGS A WELL VIII. THEY MEET AN AUTHOR IX. SIGNED "DANIEL MORTIMER."—CANADA X. CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES XI. WANTED A DESERT ISLAND XII. VALENTINE XIII. VENERABLE ANCIENTRY XIV. EMILY XV. THE AMERICAN GUEST XVI. WEARING THE WILLOW XVII. AN EASY DISMISSAL XVIII. A MORNING CALL XIX. MR. MORTIMER GOES THROUGH THE TURNPIKE XX. THE RIVER XXI. THE DEAD FATHER ENTREATS XXII. SOPHISTRY XXIII. DANTE AND OTHERS XXIV. SELF-WONDER AND SELF-SCORN XXV. THAT RAINY SUNDAY XXVI. MRS. BRANDON ASKS A QUESTION XVII. THE PLEASURES OF MEMORY XXVIII. MELCOMBE XXIX. UNHEARD-OF LIBERTIES XXX. A CHAPTER OF TROUBLES XXXI. A WOMAN'S SYMPATHY XXII. MR. BRANDON IS MADE THE SUBJECT OF AN HONOURABLE COMPARISON XXXIII. THE TRUE GHOST STORY XXXIV. VALENTINE AND LAURA XXXV. A VISIT TO MELCOMBE XXVI. A PRIVATE CONSULTATION XXXVII. HIS VISITOR
A WATCHER OF LILIES.
"Unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid."—Collect, English Communion Service.
In one of the south-western counties of England, some years ago, and in a deep, well-wooded valley where men made perry and cider, wandered little and read less, there was a hamlet with neither farm nor cottage in it, that had not stood two hundred and fifty years, and just beyond there was a church nearly double that age, and there were the mighty wrecks of two great oak-trees, said to be more ancient still.
Between them, winding like a long red rut, went the narrow road, and was so deeply cut into the soil that a horseman passing down it could see nothing of its bordering fields; but about fifty yards from the first great oak the land suddenly dipped, and showed on the left a steep cup-like glen, choked with trees, and only divided from the road by a few dilapidated stakes and palings, and a wooden gate, orange with the rust of lichens, and held together with ropes and bands.
A carriage-drive was visible on the other side of the gate, but its boundaries were half obliterated by the grass and weeds that had grown over it, and as it wound down into the glen it was lost among the trees. Nature, before it has been touched by man, is almost always beautiful, strong, and cheerful in man's eyes; but nature, when he has once given it his culture and then forsaken it, has usually an air of sorrow and helplessness. He has made it live the more by laying his hand upon it, and touching it with his life. It has come to relish of his humanity, and it is so flavoured with his thoughts, and ordered and permeated by his spirit, that if the stimulus of his presence is withdrawn it cannot for a long while do without him, and live for itself as fully and as well as it did before.
There was nothing to prevent a stranger from entering this place, and if he did so, its meaning very soon took hold of him; he perceived that he had walked into the world of some who were courting oblivion, steeping themselves in solitude, tempting their very woods to encroach upon them, and so swathe them as in a mantle of secrecy which might cover their misfortunes, and win forgetfulness both for their faults and for their decline.
The glen was about three hundred yards across, and the trees which crowded it, and overflowed its steep side encroaching over the flat ground beyond, were chiefly maples and sycamores. Every sunbeam that shot in served to show its desolation. The place was encumbered with fallen branches, tangled brushwood, dead ferns; and wherever the little stream had spread itself there was a boggy hollow, rank with bulrushes, and glorious with the starry marsh marigold. But here and there dead trees stood upright, gaunt and white in their places, great swathes of bark hanging loose from their limbs, while crowds of young saplings, sickly for want of space and light, thrust up their heads towards the sunshine, and were tied together and cumbered in their struggle by climbing ropes of ivy, and long banners of the wild black vine.
The ring of woodland was not deep, the domain was soon traversed, and then stepping out into a space covered with rank meadow grass, one might see the house which should have been its heart.
It was a wide, old, red brick mansion, with many irregular windows, no pane in which was more than two inches square. One end of it was deeply embedded in an orchard of pear and apple trees, but its front was exposed, and over the door might be seen the date of its building. The roof was high and sloping, and in its centre rose a high stack of brick chimneys, which had almost the effect of a tower, while under the eaves, at regular intervals, were thrust out grotesque heads, with short spouts protruding from their mouths. Some of these had fallen on the paving-flags below, and no one had taken them up. No one ever looked out of those front windows, or appeared to notice how fast the fruit-trees by the house, and the forest-trees from the glen, were reaching out their arms and sending forth their young saplings towards it, as if to close it in and swallow it up.
So still it looked with its closed shutters, that what slight evidence there was of its really being inhabited appeared only to make it yet more strange and alone; for these were a gaunt, feeble, old dog, who paced up and down the flags as if keeping guard, and a brass handle on the oaken door, which was so highly polished that it glittered and shone in the light.
But there was a great deal of life and company up aloft, for a tribe of blue pigeons had their home among those eaves and chimneys, and they walked daintily up the steep roof with their small red feet while they uttered their plaintive call to their young.
It was a strange fancy that prompted the cleaning of this door-handle. "I mun keep it bright," the old woman would say who did it, "in case anybody should come to call." No one but herself ever opened the door, nobody within cared that she should bestow this trouble. Nobody, for more than fifty years, ever had "come to call," and yet, partly because the feigning of such a possibility seemed to connect her still with her fellows of the work-a-day world, and partly because the young master, her foster-brother, whom she deeply loved, had last been seen by her with this door-handle in his hand, she faithfully continued every day to begin her light tasks by rubbing it, and while so doing she would often call to mind the early spring twilight she had opened her eyes in so long ago, and heard creaking footsteps passing down the stairs; and then how she had heard the great bolt of the door withdrawn, and had sprung out of bed, and peering through her casement had seen him close it after him, and with his young brother steal away among the ghostly white pear-trees, never to return.
"And I didn't give it a thought that they could be after aught worse than rook-shooting," she would murmur, "for all I heard a sort of a sobbing on the stairs. It was hard on poor old Madam though, never to take any leave of her; but all her life has been hard for that matter, poor innocent old critter. Well, well, I hope it's not a sin to wish 'em happy, spite of that bad action; and as for her, she's had her troubles in this world, as all the parish is ready to testify, and no doubt but what that will be considered to her in the world to come."
All the parish was always ready to testify that poor old Madam had had a sight o' troubles. All the parish took a certain awful pleasure in relating them; it was a sort of distinction to have among them such an unfortunate woman and mother, so that the very shepherds' and ditchers' wives plumed themselves upon it over those in the next parish, where the old Squire and his wife had never lost one of their many children, or had any trouble "to speak of." "For there was no call to count his eldest son's running off with a dairymaid, it being well beknown," they would observe with severity, "that his mother never would let e'er a one of the young madams as were suitable to marry him come nigh the house."
The dairymaid belonged to their parish, and so afforded them another ground of triumph over their rivals. "Besides," they would say, "wasn't their own church parson—old parson Green that everybody swore by—wasn't he distinctly heard to say to the young man's father, 'that he might ha' been expected to do wus'? They didn't see, for their parts, that aught but good had come of it neither; but as for poor old Madam, anybody might see that no good ever came nigh her. We must submit ourselves to the Almighty's will," they would add with reverence. They couldn't tell why He had afflicted her, but they prayed Him to be merciful to her in her latter end.
It was in old parson Green's time, the man they all swore by, that they talked thus; but when parson Craik came, they learned some new words, and instead of accepting trouble with the religious acquiescence of the ignorant, they began to wonder and doubt, and presently to offend their rivals by their fine language. "Mysterious, indeed," they would say, "is the ways of Providence."
In the meantime the poor old woman who for so many years was the object of their speculations and their sympathy, lived in all quietness and humbleness at one end of her long house, and on fine Sundays edified the congregation by coming to church. Not, however, on foot; her great age made that too much an exertion for her. She was drawn by her one old man-servant in a chair on wheels, her granddaughter and her grandson's widow walking beside her, and her little great-grandson, Peter, who was supposed to be her heir, bringing up the rear.
Old Madam Melcombe, as the villagers called her. She had a large frame, but it was a good deal bowed down; her face was wrinkled, and her blue eyes had the peculiar dimness of extreme old age, yet those who noticed her closely might detect a remarkable shrewdness in her face; her faculties were not only perfect, but she loved to save money, and still retained a high value for, and a firm grip of, her possessions. The land she left waste was, notwithstanding, precious to her. She had tied up her gate that her old friends might understand, after her eldest son's death, that she could not be tortured by their presence and their sympathy; but she was known sometimes by her grand-daughters to enlarge on the goodness of the land thereabouts, and to express a hope that when Peter's guardians came into power, they would bring it under the plough again. She went to church by a little footpath, and always conducted herself with great decorum, though, twice or thrice during the reading of the lessons, she had startled the congregation by standing up with a scared expression of countenance, and looking about her while she leaned on her high staff as if she thought some one had called her; but she was in her ninety-fifth year, and this circumstance, together with the love and pity felt for her, would easily have excused far greater eccentricities.
She had felt very keenly the desertion of her second and her fourth sons, who had run away from home when the elder was barely eighteen, and without previous quarrel or unkindness so far as was known; nor was it believed that they had ever come to see her since, or sought her forgiveness. Her eldest son, while still in the flower of his age, had died by his own hand; her youngest son had died in the West Indies, of fever; and the third, the only one who remained with her, had never been either a comfort or a credit to his family: he had but lately died, leaving a son and a daughter. Of these, the daughter was with her grandmother, and the son was just dead, having left an only child, his heir.
At one end of the house, as had been said, was an orchard, at the other was a large garden. If the desolate appearance of the house was likely to raise oppressive feelings in a stranger's mind, how much more this garden! It was a large oblong piece of ground, the walls of which enclosed the western end of the house completely. One of them ran parallel with the front, and a massive oaken door somewhat relieved its flat monotony; but this door afforded no ingress, it was bolted and barred from within.
The garden was that special portion of her inheritance on which the ancient owner rested her eyes; morning, noon, and evening she would sit gazing on its green fishpond, all overgrown with duckweed, on the lawn now fast being encroached on by shrubbery, and on the bed of lilies which from year to year spread and flourished.
But she never entered it, nor did any one else.
That end of the house had but four windows on the ground floor, and these were all strongly barred with iron, the places they lighted consisting of kitchen, offices, and a cider store-room. Above these on the first-floor were three pleasant rooms overlooking the garden, and opening on to a wooden gallery or verandah, at each end of which was an alcove of an old-fashioned and substantial description.
The gallery was roofed above, had a heavy oaken balustrade, and being fully ten feet wide afforded a convenient place in which the lonely old lady could take exercise, for, excepting on Sunday, she was scarcely ever known to leave her own premises. There also her little great-grandson Peter first learned to walk, and as she slowly passed from one alcove to the other, resting in each when she reached it, he would take hold of her high staff and totter beside her, always bestowing on her as much as he could of his company, and early showing a preference for her over his aunt and even over his mother.
Up and down the gallery this strange pair would move together, and as she went she gazed frequently over the gay wilderness below, and if she sat long in one of the alcoves, she would peer out at its little window always on the same scene; a scene in the winter of hopeless neglect and desolation. Dead leaves, dead dry stalks of foxgloves and mullens. broken branches, and an arbour with trellised roof, borne down by the weight of the vine.
But in spring and summer the place was gorgeous in parts with a confused tangle of plants and shrubs in flower. Persian lilacs, syringas, labernums made thickets here and there and covered their heads with bloom. Passion flowers trailed their long tendrils all over the gallery, and masses of snow-white clematis towered in many of the trees.
All distinction between pathway and border had long since been obliterated, the eyes wandered over a carpet of starred and spangled greenery. Tall white gladiolas shot up above it, and spires of foxgloves and rockets, while all about them and among the rose-trees, climbed the morning glory and the briony vine.
Stretching in front of the ruined arbour was a lawn, and along one edge of it under the wall, grew a bed of lilies, lilies of the valley, so sweet in their season, that sometimes the old lady's grand-daughters would affirm that a waft of their breath had reached them as they sat up in the gallery at work.
It was towards this spot that Madam Melcombe looked. Here her unquiet face was frequently turned, from her first early entrance into the gallery, till sunset, when she would sit in one of the alcoves in hot weather. She gave no reason for this watch, but a kindly and reverent reserve protected her from questions. It was felt that the place was sacred to some recollection of her youth, when her young children were about her, before the cruel desertion of two, the ceaseless quarrels of other two, and the tragic death of one of them, had darkened her days.
The one door in the wall being fastened, and the ground-floor at that end of the house having none but barred windows, it follows that the only entrance to the garden was now from this gallery. There was, indeed, a flight of steps leading down from it, but there was a gate at the top of them, and this gate was locked.
On the day of her eldest son's funeral, his stricken mother had locked it. Perhaps she scarcely knew at first that the time would never come when she should find courage again to open it; but she took away the key to satisfy some present distressful fancy, and those about her respected her desire that the place should not be entered. They did not doubt that there was some pathetic reason for this desire, but none was evident, for her son had gone down to his death in a secluded and now all but inaccessible part of the glen, where, turning from its first direction, it sunk deeper still, and was divided by red rocks from its more shallow opening.
A useless watch at best was hers, still of the terrace, and the arbour, and the bed of lilies; but as she got yet deeper down into the vale of years, those about her sometimes hoped that she had forgotten the sorrowful reason, whatever it might be, that drew her eyes incessantly towards them. She began even to express a kind of pleasure in the gradual encroachments of the lovely plants. Once she had said, "It is my hope, when I am gone, as none of you will ever disturb them."
Whatever visions of a happy youth, whatever mournful recollections of the sports of her own children, might belong to them, those now with her knew not of them, but they thought that her long and pathetic watch had at last become more a habit with her than any conscious recalling of the past, and they hoped it might be so.
The one sitting-room used by the family opened into the gallery, and was a good deal darkened by its roof. On one side of it was Peter's nursery, on the other his great-grandmother's chamber, and no other part of the house was open excepting some kitchen offices, and two or three bedrooms in the roof. The servants consisted of a nurse (herself an old woman), who sat nearly all day in the parlour, because her far more aged mistress required much attendance, a grey-headed housemaid, a cook, and a man, the husband of this last. His chief business was to groom the one horse of the establishment, and ride on it to the nearest town for meat, grocery, and other marketings.
The floor of the parlour was oak, which had once been polished; all the furniture was to the last degree quaint and old fashioned; the two large windows opened like double doors upon the gallery, and were shaded by curtains of Madras chintz. The chairs, which were inconveniently heavy, were also covered with chintz; it was frilled round them like a petticoat, and was just short enough to show their hideous club-feet. Over the chimney-piece was a frame, and something in it said to be a picture. Peter, when a very little child, used to call it "a picture of the dark," for it seemed to be nothing but an expanse of deep brown, with a spot of some lighter hue in one corner. He wished, he said, that they had put a piece of moon in to show how dark that country was. The old nurse, however, had her theories about this patch; she would have it that it was somewhat in the shape of a jacket; she thought it likely that the picture represented a hunt, and said she supposed the foremost horseman in his red coat was watering his horse in a pond. Peter and the nurse had argued together on this subject many times before the old lady was appealed to, but when they once chanced to ask her about the picture, she affirmed that the patch was a lobster, and that a sort of ring which seemed faintly to encircle it was the edge of a plate. In short, she declared that this was a Dutch picture of still life, and that in Peter's time, when he came to have it cleaned, it would prove to be worth money.
"And when will it be my time?" asked little Peter innocently.
"Hold your tongue, child!" whispered his mother; "it won't be your time till your poor dear grandmother's in heaven."
"I don't want her to go to heaven yet," said Peter in a plaintive tone (for he regarded her as much the best possession he had), and, raising his voice, he complained to her as to one threatening to injure him, "Grandmother, you don't want to go to heaven just yet, do you?"
"Lor bless the child!" exclaimed old Madam Melcombe, a good deal startled.
"No, don't," continued Peter in a persuasive tone; "stop here, but let me clean the picture, because I want to see that lobster."
"Now I tell you what," answered his great-grandmother rather sharply, "if you was to go and play in the gallery, it would be a deal better than arguing with me." So Peter departed to his play, and forgot the lobster for a little while.
But Peter was not destined that evening to please his great-grandmother, for he had no sooner got well into the spirit of his play in the gallery than he began to sing. "I'm a coward at songs," she would sometimes say; "and if it wasn't for the dear birds; I could wish there was no music in the world."
Her feeling was the same which has been beautifully described by Gassendi, who, writing in Latin, expresses himself thus:—
"He preferred also the music of birds to the human voice or to musical instruments, not because he derived no pleasure from these last, but because, after hearing music from the human voice, there remained a certain sustained agitation, disturbing attention and sleep; while the risings and fallings, the tones and changes and sounds and concords, pass and repass through the fancy; whereas nothing of the sort can be left after the warbling of birds, who, as they are not open to our imitation, cannot move the faculty of imagination within us." (Gassendi, in Vita Peireskii.)
In the garden was plenty of music of the sort that Madam Melcombe still loved. Peter could not shout in his play without disturbing the storm cock as he sat up aloft singing a love-song to his wife. As for the little birds, blackcaps haunted almost every bush, and the timid white-throat brooded there in peace over her half-transparent eggs.
So no one ever sang in old Madam Melcombe's presence unless Peter forgot himself, and vexed his mother by chanting out snatches of songs that he had caught up from the village children. Mrs. Peter Melcombe formed for herself few theories; she was a woman dull of feeling and slow of thought; she knew as a fact that her aged relative could not bear music. So, as a matter of duty and self-interest, she stopped her child's little voice when she could, and if he asked, "Why does grandmother cry when I sing?" she would answer, "Nobody knows," for she had not reflected how those to whom music is always welcome must have neither an empty heart nor a remorseful conscience, nor keen recollections, nor a foreboding soul.
Peter was a good little boy enough; he was tolerably well tamed by the constant presence of old age and, with the restraints it brought upon him, and having less imagination than falls to the lot of most children, he was the more affected by his position. When he strayed into a field of wheat, and there was waving and whispering above his head, it was not all one to him, as if he had been lost in some old-world forest, where uncouth creatures dwelt, and castles and caverns might be encountered before the stile. He could not see the great world out of the parlour window, and understand and almost inherit another world beyond the hills; as to the moon, the child's silver heaven, he never saw something marvellous and mild sitting up there and smiling to him to come.
But he was happy, and instead of the wide-open eyes of a child fed to the full with the wonders about him and within him, his eyes were shaded constantly by their light lashes; he enjoyed his play, but he blinked when day was at the full; and all his observations concerned realities. Some story had reached him about a ghost which had been seen in that immediate neighbourhood.
"Who cooks his dinner for him?" inquired the child.
"He has no dinner," answered the old housemaid.
"I don't want to see him, then," said the little winking, blinking philosopher; "he might ask me for some of mine."
But that was a height of prudence that he could not reach often, and he several times annoyed his mother and alarmed his aunt by asking questions about this ghost.
Laura Melcombe, Peter's aunt, acted as his governess, and took a certain pride and pleasure in his young intelligence. It was well that she had something real to interest her, for her character was in strong contrast to her nephew's. She lived mainly in an ideal world, and her life was fed by what she fetched up from the clod or down from the clouds. Chiefly by the former. She was "of imagination all compact;" but that is a very unlucky case where there is weak judgment, little or no keenness of observation, a treacherous memory, and a boundless longing for the good things of life. Of all gifts, imagination, being the greatest, is least worth having, unless it is well backed either by moral culture or by other intellectual qualities. It is the crown of all thoughts and powers; but you cannot wear a crown becomingly if you have no head (worth mentioning) to put it on.
Miss Laura Melcombe thought most of the young farmers in the neighbourhood were in love with her. Accordingly, at church or at the market-town, where she occasionally went on shopping expeditions, she gave herself such airs as she considered suitable for a lady who must gently, though graciously, repel all hopeless aspirations. She was one of those people to whom a compliment is absolute poison. The first man who casually chanced to say something to her in her early youth, which announced to her that he thought her lovely, changed her thoughts about herself for ever after. First, she accepted his compliment as his sincere and fervent conviction. Secondly, she never doubted that he expressed his continuous belief, not his feeling of the moment. Thirdly, she regarded beauty in her case as thenceforward an established fact, and not this one man's opinion. Fourthly, she spent some restless months in persuading herself that to admire must needs be to love, and she longed in vain to see him "come forward." Then some other casual acquaintance paid her a compliment, and she went through the same experience on his account, persuading herself that her first admirer could not afford to marry; and this state of things had now gone on for several years.
"Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell, think ye...."
Many and many an hour had Peter spent, when he was a very little boy, in gazing through the heavy banister-like railings of the gallery; and, as he grew older, in pensively leaning upon them, and longing in vain to get into the forbidden Paradise of the garden. The gallery floor being about twelve feet from the ground he could see the whole place from it. Oh the stores of nests that it must contain! the beautiful sharp sticks for arrows! the capital elder shoots, full of pith! how he longed to get at them for making pop-guns! Sometimes, when the pink hawthorns were in flower, or the guelder-roses, he would throw a ball at one of them just to see what showers of bloom would come down; and then what a commotion such an event would make among the birds! what chattering and chirping, and screaming and fluttering! But the experiment was rather a costly one, for the ball once thrown there was no getting it back again, it must lie and rot till the seams burst open, and birds picked the wool out for their nests.
Sometimes Peter would get a hook tied to the end of a long string, and amuse himself with what he called fishing, that is to say, he would throw out his line, and try to get it tangled in the slight branches of some shrub, and draw it up, with a few of the flowers attached; but with all his fishing he never got up any thing worth having: the utmost being a torn cabbage-rose, and two or three shattered peonies, leaf and root and all.
It is melancholy to think how much valuable property was engulphed in this untrodden waste, how many shuttlecocks, hit a little too hard, had toppled over and settled on some flowery clump, in full view of, but out of reach for ever of their unfortunate possessor; how many marbles had bounded over and leaped into the green abyss; how many bits of slate-pencil, humming-tops, little ships made of walnut-shells, and other most precious articles, had been lost there to human ken, and now lay hidden and mouldering away!
Sometimes when Peter had lost anything of more than common value, he would complain to his aunt, or his mother, and hint a humble wish that he could get it again. On such occasions his mother would remark, with a languid sigh, that it certainly did seem a pity such a fine piece of land should lie waste; but if Peter followed up the conversation by declaring that he could easily climb over the gate and get down into the garden if he might, he was immediately met by such stern rebukes from all parties, and such fervent assurances that if he ever dared to do such a thing he should certainly be sent to school, that he grew to the age of seven years with two deep impressions on his mind; first, that it would be very wicked to go down into the garden; second, that it would be very dreadful to be sent to school.
One very fine hot day in July Madam Melcombe had caused a table to be set in the gallery, that she might enjoy her early tea in the open air. Peter and the rest of the party were with her, and after a long silence he turned towards her and said, "Grandmother, there are no ghosts in our house, are there?"
"Ne'er a one," exclaimed the nurse with zealous promptitude, "they don't come to houses where good folks live."
"I wish they would," said Peter, thoughtfully, "I want to see one."
"What does he say?" asked the great-grandmother. The nurse repeated Peter's audacious remark; whereupon Madam Melcombe said briskly and sharply, "Hold your tongue, child, and eat your bread and milk like a Christian; you're spilling it on the floor."
"But I wish they would," repeated Peter softly; and finishing his bread and milk, he said his grace; and his fishing-rod being near at hand, he leaned his elbows on the balustrade, threw his line, and began to play at his favourite game.
"I think," he said, presently turning to his aunt, "I think, aunt, I shall call the garden the 'field of the cloth of gold;' it's so covered with marigolds just now that it looks quite yellow. Henry's tent shall be the arbour, and I'll have the French king's down in this corner."
On hearing this, his mother slightly elevated her eyebrows, she had no notion what he was alluding to; but his grandmother, who seemed to have been made rather restless and uneasy by his remarks about ghosts, evidently regarded this talk as something more of the same sort, and said to her granddaughter, "I wish, Laura, you wouldn't let him read such a quantity of fairy tales and heathenish nonsense—'field o' the cloth o' gold, indeed!' Who ever heard of such a thing!"
"He has only been reading the 'History of England,' grandmother," said Peter's aunt.
"I hadn't read anything out of that book for such a long time," said Peter; "my Bible-lesson to-day made me remember it. About that other field, you know, grandmother."
"Come, that's something like," said old Madam Melcombe. "Stand up now, and let me hear your Bible-lesson."
"But, grandmother," Peter inquired, "I may call this the 'field of the cloth of gold,' mayn't I?"
"O dear me, call it anything you like," she replied; "but don't stand in that way to say your task to me; put your feet together now, and fold your hands, and hold your head up. To think that you're the child's aunt, Laura, she continued fretfully, and should take no more heed to his manners. Now you just look straight at me, Peter, and begin."
The child sighed: the constraint of his attitude perhaps made him feel melancholy. He ventured to cast one glance at his fishing-rod, and at the garden, then looking straight at his great-grandmother, he began in a sweet and serious tone of voice to repeat his lesson from the twenty-seventh chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, the third to the tenth verse.
3. "Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders.
4. "Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that.
5. "And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.
6. "And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood.
7. "And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in.
8. "Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood unto this day.
9. "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value.
10. "And gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me."
What was this!—standing upright again, as she had done several times in the church—was she listening? It scarcely appeared that she was; she took first one hand from her staff, and looked earnestly at it, and then she took the other, and with wide-open eyes examined that also.
"O cruel, cruel," thought Peter's mother, when Peter had repeated a verse or two, "why did not Laura prevent this, she who knew what the child's lesson was?" and she sat cold and trembling, with an anguish of pity; but she felt that now it was too late to stop her boy, he must go on to the end. As to the nurse, she sitting there still, with her work on her knees, felt as if every word rose up and struck her on the face. He was slowly, pensively, and O so calmly, describing to the poor mother the manner of her son's death.
"That will do, master Peter," she exclaimed, the moment he had finished; and she snatched his hand and led him away, telling him to go and play in the orchard.
Peter was not destitute of gratitude, and as he made his exit, he thought, what a good thing it was that he did not say his lesson to his grandmother every day.
When the nurse turned again she observed that Madam Melcombe had tottered a step or two forward: her grand-daughter, and her grandson's widow were supporting her. One of them called to her to fetch some cordial, and this seemed to disturb the poor old woman, for she presently said slowly, and as if it caused her a great effort to speak,—
"What are they gone for? and what are you doing?"
"We're holding you up, grandmother; you tremble, dear; you can hardly stand. Won't you sit down?"
"Won't I what?" she repeated. "I don't hear;" and she began to move with their help and that of her staff to the balustrade.
The old fancy; the constant fancy; gazing at the bed of lilies, and talking to herself as, with her trembling hand to her brow, she peered out towards the arbour. They were words of no particular significance that she said; but just as the nurse came back bringing her a cordial, she turned round and repeated them distinctly, and with a solemnity that was almost awful.
"They all helped to dig it; and they know they did."
Words that appeared to be so far from the tragical recollection which must have first caused this disturbance in her poor mind; but her grand-daughter thought proper to make her some kind of answer.
"Did they, grandmother?" she said in a soothing tone, "and a very good thing too."
She stopped short, for upon the aged face fell suddenly such a look of affright, such renewed intelligence seemed to peer out of the dim eyes, and such defiance with their scrutiny, that for the moment she was very much alarmed.
"She's not quite herself. Oh, I hope she's not going to have a stroke!" was her thought.
"What have I been a saying?" inquired Madam Melcombe.
"You said it was a good thing they dug the lily bed," answered her grand-daughter.
"And nothing else?"
"No, ma'am, no," answered the nurse; "and if you had, what would it signify?"
Madam Melcombe let them settle her in her chair and give her her cordial, then she said—
"Folks are oft-times known to talk wild in their age. I thought I might be losing my wits; might have said something."
"Dear grandmother, don't laugh!" exclaimed her grandson's widow; "and don't look so strange. Lose your wits! you never will, not you. We shall have you a little longer yet, please God, and bright and sensible to the last."
"Folks are oft-times known to talk wild in their age," repeated Madam Melcombe; and during the rest of that evening she continued silent and lost in thought.
The next morning, after a late breakfast, her family observed that there was still a difference in her manner. She was not quite herself, they thought, and they were confirmed in their opinion when she demanded of her grand-daughter and her grandson's widow, that a heavy old-fashioned bureau should be opened for her, and that she should be left alone. "I don't know as I shall be spared much longer," said the meek nonogenarian, "and I've made up my mind to write a letter to my sons."
"My sons!" When they heard this they were startled almost as they might have been if she had had no sons, for neither of them had ever heard her mention their names. Nothing, in fact, was known concerning them in that house, excepting that what portion of success and happiness had been allotted to the family seemed all to have fallen to their share.
They were vastly unpopular in the hamlet. Not that any but the very old people remembered the day when they had first been missing, or what an extraordinary effect their behaviour had produced on their mother; but that the new generation had taken up her cause—the new parson also—and that the story being still often told had lost nothing in the narration.
Parson Craik had always been poor old Madam's champion since his coming among them. He had taken pains to ascertain the facts from the oldest Ledger's old wife, and when first he heard her tell how she had opened her door at dawn to let in her husband, during the great gale that was rocking the orchard trees and filling the air with whirls of blossom, that came down like a thick fall of snow, he made an observation which was felt at the time to have an edifying power in it, and which was incorporated with the story ever after. "And when I telled him how the grete stack of chimneys fell not half-an-hour after, over the very place where they had passed, and how they were in such a hurry to be off that they jumped the edge for fear us should stop them or speak to them. Then says Parson Craik to me, sitting as it might be there, and I a sitting opposite (for I'd given him the big chair), says he to me, 'My friend, we must lay our hands on our mouths when we hear of the afflictions of the righteous. And yet man,' says he, 'man, when he hears of such heartless actions, can but feel that it would have been a just judgment on them, if the wind had been ordained in the hauling of those chimneys down, to fling 'em on their undutiful heads.'"
Poor Madam Melcombe, her eldest son, whose heir she was, had caused the stack of chimneys to be built up again; but she was never the same woman from that day, and she had never seen those sons again (so far as was known), or been reconciled to them. And now she had desired to be left alone, and had expressly said, "I've made up my mind to write a letter to my sons."
So she was left alone and undertook, with trembling hands and dimmed eyes, her unwonted task. She wrote a letter which, if those about her could have seen it, would certainly have affected their feelings, and would perhaps have made them think more highly yet of her meek forgiving nature, for she neither blamed her sons nor reminded them of what they had done; but rather seemed to offer a strange kind of apology for troubling them, and to give a reason for doing so that was stranger still.
"Son Daniel and Son Augustus,—This comes from your poor unfortunate mother that has never troubled you these many, many years, and hoping you and your families are better than I am at present, son Daniel and you son Augustus; and my desire is both of you, that now you will not deny your poor mother to come and see her, but will, on receipt of this, come as soon as may be, for it's about my funeral that I want to speak, and my time is very short, and I was never used to much writing.
"If you don't come, in particular you, son Daniel, you will break your poor mother's heart.
"And so no more at present from her that never said an unkind word to you.
This letter was addressed to the elder son, went through the village post-office, and when its direction was seen, such interest was excited and so much curiosity, that half the women in the hamlet had been allowed to take a look at its cover before it was sent away.
Perhaps Madam Melcombe herself, when she sat expecting these long-lost sons to appear, was scarcely more agitated or more excited than were the people in that sequestered place. A good many cottagers were hanging about or looking out of the windows when they alighted, and going into the small inn called for spirits and water. It was known outside at once what they had asked for. No wonder they wanted some Dutch courage to take them into her presence, was the general thought.
Several little boys had gathered in front of the door longing, and yet dreading, to get a sight of them. Some inhabitants would have liked to hiss, but lacked unanimity or courage, nobody wanted to begin. Some would have liked to speak, but had not considered beforehand what to say.
The brothers came out, the children fell back; but one little fellow, a child five years old, with a sort of holy necessity upon him (as was supposed) to give his testimony, threw a very little bit of soft dirt at the legs of one of them.
This action was not noticed; and before the other little urchins had found time for aught more fruitful than regret that they had not done likewise, the gentlemen got into their post-chaise, and were driven to the old mansion.
And their mother?
She was quite alone, sitting in all state and expectation, in one of the alcoves, while the deep shadow of the house fell distinct and well defined over the wilderness of a garden.
Her senses were more acute than usual. She was grasping her long staff, and already wearying for them, when she heard the sound of wheels, and presently after a foot in her parlour, and the nurse appeared with two cards on a tray.
Mr. Mortimer, Mr. Augustus Mortimer. This formal introduction flurried Madam Melcombe a little. "The gentlemen are coming," the nurse almost whispered; and then she withdrew, and shutting the glass-doors behind her, left this mother to meet with these sons.
Whatever anxiety, whatever sensations of maternal affection might have been stirring within her, it is certain that her first feeling was one of intense surprise. The well-remembered faces that she had cherished now for much more than half a century—the tall, beautiful youth—the fine boy, almost a child, that had gone off with him, could they be now before her? She was not at all oblivious of the flight of time; she did not forget that the eldest of these sons was scarcely nineteen years younger than herself; yet she had made no defined picture of their present faces in her mind, and it was not without a troubled sense of wonder that she rose and saw coming on towards her two majestic old men, with hair as white as snow.
Her first words were simple and hesitating. She immediately knew them from one another.
"Son Dan'el," she said, turning to the taller, "I expect this is you;" and she shifted her staff to her left hand while he took the right; and then the other old man, coming up, stooped, and kissed her on the forehead.
Madam Melcombe shed a few tears. Both her sons looked disturbed, and very ill at ease. She sat down again, and they sat opposite to her. Then there was such a long, awkward pause, and her poor hand trembled so much, that at last, as if in order to give her time to feel more at ease, her younger son began to talk to her of her grand-daughter who lived with her, and of her little great-grandson, Peter Melcombe. He hoped, he said with gravity, that they were well.
There seemed to be nothing else that either of them could think of to say; and presently, helped by the rest their words gave her, Madam Melcombe recovered her self-possession.
"Son Dan'el," she said, "my time must be short now; and I have sent for you and your brother to ask a favour of you. I could not lie easy in my grave," she continued, "if I thought there would be nobody of all my children to follow me. I have none but poor Peter's daughter and grandson here now, and I hope you and Augustus and your sons will come to my funeral. I hope you'll promise me faithfully, both of you, that you'll certainly come and follow me to the grave."
A silence followed. The disappointment of both the sons was evident.
They had hoped, the younger remarked, that she might have had something else to say.
No, she had not, she answered. Where would be the good of that? They had written to her often enough about that.
And then she went on to repeat her request. There was nothing she would not do for them, nothing, if they would but promise to come.
"So be it," replied the elder; "but then, you must make me a promise, mother, in your turn."
"It isn't the land?" she inquired with humble hesitation. "I should be agreeable to that."
"No, God forbid! What you have to promise me is, that if I come to your funeral, you will make such a will that not one acre of the land or one shilling you possess shall ever come to me or mine."
"And," said the other promptly, "I make the same promise, on the same condition."
Then there was another pause, deeper and more intense than the first. The old mother's face passed through many changes, always with an air of cogitation and trouble; and the old sons watched her in such a suspense of all movement, that it seemed as if they scarcely breathed.
"You sent your cards in," she said as if with sudden recollection, "to remind me that you'd kept your father's name?"
"Nothing will ever induce either of us to change it," was the answer.
"You're very hard on me, son Dan'el," she said at last; "for you know you was always my favourite son."
A touching thing to say to such an old man; but there was no reply.
"And I never took any pride in Peter," she continued, "he was that undutiful; and his grandson's a mere child."
Still no reply.
"I was in hopes, if I could get speech of you, I should find you'd got reasonable with age, Dan'el; for God knows you was as innocent of it as the babe unborn."
Old Daniel Mortimer sighed deeply. They had been parted nearly sixty years, but their last words and their first words had been on the same subject; and it was as fresh in the minds of both as if only a few days had intervened between them. Still it seemed he could find nothing to say, and she, rousing up, cried out passionately,—
"Would you have had me denounce my own flesh and blood?"
"No, madam, no," answered the younger.
She noticed the different appellation instantly, and turning on him, said, with vigour and asperity,—
"And you, Augustus, that I hear is rich, and has settled all your daughters well, and got a son of your own, you might know a parent's feelings. It's ill done of you to encourage Dan'el in his obstinacy."
Then, seeing that her words did not produce the slightest effect, she threw her lace apron over her head, and pressing her wrinkled hands against her face, gave way to silent tears.
"I'm a poor miserable old woman," she presently cried; "and if there's to be nobody but that child and the tenants to follow me to the grave, it'll be the death of me to know it, I'm sure it will."
With an air of indescribable depression, the elder son then repeated the same promise he had given before, and added the same condition.
The younger followed his example, and thereupon humbly taking down the lace from her face, and mechanically smoothing it over her aged knees, she gave the promise required of her, and placed her hand on a prayer-book which was lying on the small table beside her, as if to add emphasis and solemnity to her words.
GOLD, THE INCORRUPTIBLE WITNESS.
After she had received the promise she desired from her sons—a promise burdened with so strange a condition—Madam Melcombe seemed to lose all the keenness and energy she had displayed at first.
She had desired above all things that honour should be shown to her in her death; her mind often occupied itself with strange interest and pertinacity on the details of her funeral. All her wishes respecting it had long been known to her granddaughters, but her eldest surviving son had never been mentioned by name to them. She always spoke of him as "the chief mourner."
Suddenly, however, it appeared to have occurred to her that he might not be present at it, after all. Everything must be risked to ascertain this. She must write, she must entreat his presence. But when he and his brother sent in their cards she, for the first time in her life, perceived that all she had done was useless. She saw the whole meaning of the situation; for this estate had come to her through the failure of heirs male to her father, and it was the provision of his will that she and her heirs should take back his name—the name of Melcombe.
She knew well that these two sons had always retained their father's name; but when they sent it in to her, she instinctively perceived their meaning. They were calling her attention to the fact, and she was sure now that they never meant to change it.
She had not behaved kindly or justly to her grandson's widow, for people had called little Peter her heir, and she had not contradicted them. But she had never made a will; and she secretly hoped that at the last something would occur to prevent her doing so.
Everything was absolutely in her own power, to leave as she pleased; but a half superstitious feeling prompted her to wait. She wished her eldest surviving son to inherit the estate; but sad reflection seemed to assure her that if it simply lapsed to him as heir-at-law, he would think that next thing to receiving it through a dispensation of Providence; and she was such an unhappy mother, that she had reason to suppose he might prefer that to a direct bequest from her. So she left the kindly women who shared her seclusion entirely unprovided for, and the long services of her old domestics unrewarded, in order to flatter the supposed prejudices of this unknown son, who was destined now to show her how little he cared for all her forethought, and all her respect for his possible wishes.
This was now over. She felt that she was foiled. She sat, leaning her chin on the top of her staff, not able to find anything more to say; and every moment they spent together, the mother and sons became more painfully embarrassed, more restless and more restrained.
In the meanwhile Peter's mother and aunt, just as unconscious that his heirship had ever been a doubt, as that it had been secured to him then and there, sat waiting below, dressed in their best, to receive these visitors, and press them to partake of a handsome collation that had been prepared by their mother's order, and was now spread for them with unwonted state and profusion in the best parlour.
This large room had not been used for forty years; but as it was always kept with closed shutters, excepting on those days when it received a thorough and careful cleaning, the furniture was less faded than might have been expected, and the old leather-backed chairs, ebony cabinets, and quaint mirrors leaning out from the walls, looked almost as fresh as ever.
"Only let me get speech of them," the mother had thought, "and all may yet come right between us; for it's a long time ago, a weary while since we parted, and they ought to find it easier to forget than I do!" Then she had charged her grand-daughter, when the lunch was ready, to ring a bell, and she would send them down. "Or even, mayhap, I may come down myself," she had added, "leaning on the arm of my son."
So the bell was rung, and Laura and Mrs. Peter Melcombe waited for the grandmother and her guests with no little trepidation.
They had not intended to be cordial. Their notion of their own part in this interview was that they should be able to show a certain courteous coldness, a certain calm gravity in their demeanour towards these two uncles, but neither of them knew much of the world or of herself. They no sooner saw the majestic old men come in without their mother than Laura, feeling herself blush down to her very finger tips, retreated into the background, and Mrs. Peter Melcombe, suddenly finding that she had forgotten what she had intended to say, could scarcely collect enough composure to answer the gentle courtesy of their rather distant greeting.
A sort of urban polish struck her country sense, making her feel at once that she was a rustic, and that they belonged to a wider and more cultivated world. She felt herself at a disadvantage, and was angry with herself that it should be so, in that house of all places in the world, where she had every right to hold up her head, and they had surely reason to be ashamed of themselves.
Peter was the only person present who was at ease; the unwonted joy of finding himself in the "great parlour" had excited him. He had been wandering about examining the china vases and admiring the little rainbows which sunshine struck out from the cut-glass borders of the mirrors.
He was very well pleased to include the two great-uncles among the new and interesting objects about him. He came up when called by one of them, answered a few simple questions with childlike docility, and made his mother more sure than before that these dignified old men were treating him, her sister-in-law, and herself, with a certain pathetic gentleness that was almost condescension.
Indeed, both the ladies perceived this, but they also saw that they could not play the part their old relation had assigned to them. Such a handsome collation as it was too, but each, after accepting a biscuit and a glass of cider (the very finest cider and more than ten years old), rose as if to take leave. One patted Peter on the head, and the other ordered the chaise. Neither Laura nor Mrs. Peter Melcombe could find courage to press them to eat, though their secluded lives and old-fashioned manners would have made them quite capable of doing so if they had felt at ease. They looked at one another as the two grand old men withdrew, and their first words were of the disappointment the grandmother would feel when she heard that they had hardly eaten anything at all.
Madam Melcombe, however, asked no questions. She was found by them when Mr. Mortimer and his brother had withdrawn sitting in her favourite alcove with her chin resting upon her staff. She was deep in thought, and excepting that she watched the chaise drearily as it wound down among the apple and pear trees and was lost to sight, she did not appear to be thinking of her sons. Nor did she mention them again, excepting with reference to her funeral.
"He's a fine man," she remarked in a querulous tone; "he'll look grand in his cloak and scarf when he stands over my grave with his hat off; and I think (though Dan'el, you understand is to be chief-mourner) that he and his brother had better follow me side by side, and their two sons after them."
How little Laura and Mrs. Peter Melcombe had ever thought about these old men, or supposed that they were frequently present to the mother's mind. And yet now there seemed to be evidence that this was the case.
Two or three guarded questions asked the next day brought answers which showed her to be better acquainted with their circumstances than she commonly admitted. She had always possessed a portrait in oils of her son Daniel. It had been painted before he left home, and kept him always living as a beautiful fair-haired youth in her recollection. She took pains to acquaint herself with his affairs, though she never opened her lips concerning them to those about her.
His first marriage had been disastrous. His wife had deserted him, leaving him with one child only, a daughter. Upon the death of this poor woman many years afterwards, he had married a widow whose third husband he was, yet who was still young, scarcely so old as his daughter.
Concerning this lady and her children the poor old mother-in-law continually cogitated, having a common little photographic likeness of her in which she tried to find the wifely love and contentment and all the other endearing qualities she had heard of. For at rare intervals one or other of her sons would write to her, and then she always perceived that the second Mrs. Daniel Mortimer made her husband happy. She would be told from time to time that he was much attached to young Brandon, the son of her first marriage, and that from her three daughters by her second marriage he constantly received the love and deference due to a father.
But this cherished wife had now died also, and had left Daniel Mortimer with one son, a fine youth already past childhood.
Old Madam Melcombe's heart went into mourning for her daughter-in-law whom she had never seen. None but the husband, whose idol she was, lamented her longer and more. Only fifty miles off, but so remote in her seclusion, so shut away, so forgotten; perhaps Mrs. Daniel Mortimer did not think once in a season of her husband's mother; but every day the old woman had thought of her as a consoler and a delight, and when her favourite son retired she soon took out the photograph again and looked sadly at those features that he had held so dear.
But she did not speak much of either son, only repeating from time to time, "He's a fine man; they're fine men, both of them. They'll look grand in their scarves and cloaks at my funeral."
It was not ordained, however, that the funeral should take place yet awhile.
The summer flushed into autumn, then the apples and pears dropped and were wasted in the garden, even the red-streak apples, that in all the cider country are so highly prized. Then snow came and covered all.
Madam Melcombe had been heard to say that she liked her garden best in winter. She could wish to leave it for good when it was lapped up under a thick fall of snow. Yet she saw the snow melt again and the leaves break forth, and at last she saw the first pale-green spires shoot up out of the bed of lilies.
But the longest life must end at last, the best little boys will sometimes be disobedient.
It appears strange to put these things together; but if they had anything to do with one another, Peter did not know it.
He knew and felt one day that he had been a naughty boy, very naughty, for in fact he had got down into the garden, but he also knew that he had not found the top he went to look for, and that his grandmother had taken from him what he did find.
This punishment he deserved; he had it and no other. It came about in this wise.
It was a sweet April day, almost the last of the month. All the cherry-trees were in full flower; the pear-trees were coming out, and the young thickets in the garden were bending low with lilac-blossom, but Peter was miserable.
He was leaning his arms over the balustrade, and the great red peonies and loose anemones were staring up at him so that he could see down into their central folds; but what is April, and what is a half-holiday, and what indeed is life itself when one has lost perhaps the most excellent top that boy ever spun, and the loudest hummer? And then he had taken such care of it. Never but once, only this once, had he spun it in the gallery at all, and yet this once of all misfortunes it had rolled its last circle out so far that the balustrade had struck it, and in the leap of its rebound it had sprung over.
At first he felt as if he should like to cry. Then a wild and daring thought came and shook at the very doors of his heart. What if he climbed over the gate and got down, and, finding his top, brought it up so quickly that no one would ever know?
His mother and aunt were gone out for a walk; his great-grandmother and the nurse were nodding one on each side of the fire. It was only three o'clock, and yet they had dined, and they were never known to rouse themselves up for at least half an hour at that time of day.
He took one turn along the gallery again, peeped in at the parlour window, then in a great hurry he yielded to the temptation, climbed over the wooden gate, got down the rotten old steps, and in two minutes was up to his neck in a mass of tangled blossoms. Then he began to feel that passion of deep delight which is born of adventure and curiosity. He quite forgot his top: indeed, there was no chance of finding it. He began to wade about, and got deeper and deeper in. Sometimes quite over-canopied, he burrowed his way half smothered with flowers; sometimes emerging, he cast back a stealthy glance to the gallery.
At last he had passed across the lawn, arrived almost at the very end of the garden, and down among the broken trellis-work of the arbour three nests of the yellow-hammer were visible at the same time. He did not know which to lay hands on first. He thought he had never been so happy in his life, or so much afraid.
But time pressed. He knew now that he should certainly climb over that gate again, though for the present he did not dare to stay; and stooping, almost creeping, over the open lawn and the bed of lilies, he began to work his way homeward by the wall, and through old borders where the thickest trees and shrubs had always grown.
At last, after pushing on for a little distance, he paused to rest in a clump of fir-trees, one of which had been dead for so many years that all its twigs and smaller boughs had decayed and dropped to the ground. Only the large branches, gaunt and skeleton-like, were left standing, and in a fork between two of these and quite within his reach, in a lump of soft felt, or perhaps beaver, he noticed something that glittered. Peter drew it away from the soft material it was lying among, and looked at it. It was a sort of gold band—perhaps it was gold lace, for it was flexible—he had often heard of gold lace, but had not seen any. As he drew it away something else that depended from a morsel of the lump of rag fell away from it, and dropped at his feet. It might have been some sort of badge or ornament, but it was not perfect, though it still glittered, for it had threads of gold wrought in it. "This is almost in the shape of an anchor," said Peter, as he wrapped the gold band round it, "and I think it must have been lost here for ages; perhaps ever since that old uncle Mortimer that I saw was a little boy."
So then with the piece of gold band wrapped round his hand he began to press on, and if he had not stopped to mark the places where two or three more nests were, he would have been quicker still.
On and on, how dangerously delightful his adventure had been! What would become of him if he could not get down to-morrow?
On and on, his heart beat with exultation; he was close to the steps and he had not been discovered; he was close to the top of them and had not been discovered; he was just about to climb over when he heard a cry that rang in his ears long after, a sharp, piercing cry, and turning he saw his great-grandmother in her cloak and hood standing in the entrance of the alcove, and reaching out her hands as if she wanted to come and meet him, but could not stir.
"Peter! Peter! Peter!" she cried, and her voice seemed to echo all over the place.
Peter tumbled over the gate as fast as he possibly could; and as she still cried, he ran to her at the top of his speed.
All in a moment she seemed to become quite still, and though she trembled as she seized him, she did not scold him at all; while he mumbled out, "I only just went down for a very little while. I only wanted just to look for my top; I didn't take any of the nests," he continued, mentioning the most valuable things he had been amongst, according to his own opinion.
His grandmother had let go his hand and raised herself upright; her eyes were on the bit of gold band. "What's that?" she said faintly.
"It's nothing particular," said Peter, unwinding it slowly from his hand, and humbly giving it up. "It's nothing but a little sort of a gold band and an ornament that I found stuck in a tree." Then Peter, observing by her silence how high his misdemeanour had been, began to sob a little, and then to make a few excuses, and then to say he hoped his grandmother would forgive him.
"I wish I hadn't done it," he next said. He felt that he could not say more than that, and he looked up at her. She was not regarding him at all, not attending to what he had said, her face was very white, she was clutching the bit of gold lace in her hand, and her wide-open eyes were staring at something above his head.
"Peter! Peter! Peter!" she cried again, in a strangely sharp and ringing voice. It seemed as it she would fall, and Peter caught hold of her arm and held her, while the thought darted through his mind, that perhaps she had called him at first because she was ill, and wanted him to hold her, not because she had observed his visit to the garden. He felt sure she could hardly stand, and he was very much frightened, but in a moment the nurse, having heard her cry, came running out, and between them they guided her to her chair in the alcove.
"I'm very sorry, grandmother," Peter sobbed, "and really, really I didn't take any nests or lilies or anything at all, but only that bit of stuff. I'll never do it again."
As he spoke he saw his mother and aunt coming up with looks of grief and awe, and on looking into his grandmother's face he beheld, child that he was, a strange shadow passing over it, the shadow of death, and he instinctively knew what it was.
"Can't you move poor grandmother out of the sun?" he sobbed. "Oh do! I know she doesn't like it to shine in her eyes."
"Hush! hush!" his mother presently found voice enough to say amid her tears. "What can it signify?"
After that Peter cried very heartily because everybody else did, but in a little while when his grandmother had been able to drink some cordial, and while they were rubbing her cold hands, she opened her eyes, and then he thought perhaps she was going to get better. Oh, how earnestly he hoped might be so!
But there was no getting better for Madam Melcombe. She sat very still for some minutes, and looked like one newly awakened and very much amazed, then, to the great surprise of those about her, she rose without any aid, and stood holding by her high staff, while, with a slightly distraught air, she bowed to them, first one and then another.
"Well, I thank you for all your kindness, my dears," she said, "all your kindness. I may as well go to them now; they've been waiting for me a long time. Good Lord!" she exclaimed, lifting up her eyes, "Good Lord! what a meeting it will be!"
Then she sank down into her chair again, and in a moment was gone.
SWARMS OF CHILDREN.
"As our hope is that this our sister doth."—Burial Service.
And now was to take place that ceremony to which Madam Melcombe's thoughts had so often been directed. She had tried to arrange that it should be imposing, and imposing indeed it was, but not by virtue of the profusion of the refreshment, not by the presence of the best hearse from the county town, the best mourning coaches, the grandest plumes, but by the unsolicited attendance of a great company of people come together to do homage to a life distinguished by its misfortunes, its patience, and its charities.
She had never been able to think of herself as taking part in that ceremony unconsciously; her orders had always been given as if by one who felt that if things were meanly done she should know it; but in taking care that refreshments should be provided for all the funeral attendants, she little thought that the whole parish, men and women, were to follow her, and most of them in tears. But it was so. The tenants had been invited; they walked after her in scarf and band, two and two, and after them, in such mourning as they could afford, came all the people, and pressed on in a procession that seemed to the real mourners almost endless, to look down upon her coffin and obtain a place near her grave.
It was out of doors, and all nature was in white. Round the churchyard pear-trees grew, and leaned their laden branches over its walls. Pear-trees, apple-trees, and cherries filled the valley and crowded one another up all the hills. Mr. Craik's voice, as he stood at the grave, also in white, was heard that quiet afternoon far and near. It was remarked on all sides how impressively he read, and there were plenty to be edified by the solemn words who had never heard his voice before, for many people had walked over from neighbouring parishes, and stood in groups at respectful distances.
All looked at the stranger-sons; they stood side by side, awe-struck, motionless, depressed. The old do not easily shed tears, but there was something in the demeanour of both these old men that was felt to tell of no common emotion. One of them seemed unable to look down into the grave at all, he kept his eyes and his face lifted up. The other, as little Peter stood crying by his side, put his hand down and let it rest on the child's uncovered head, as if to quiet and comfort him.
This little, half-unconscious action gave great umbrage to some of the spectators. "Hadn't the dear child allers been the biggest comfort to his grandmother, and why indeed wasn't he to cry as much as ever he liked? He had nothing to reproach himself with, and if he had had his rights, he would have been made chief mourner. Those that stood next the corpse had never been any comfort or pleasure to her, but that dear child had walked beside her to church ever since he had been old enough to go there himself."
"And so those were Daniel and Augustus Mortimer's sons. Very fine young gentlemen too, one of them not over young, neither; he looked at least thirty. Well, very mysterious were the ways of Providence! Poor Cuthbert Melcombe, the eldest son, had left neither chick nor child; no more had poor Griffith, the youngest. As for Peter, to be sure he had left children, but then he was gone himself. And these that had behaved so bad to their blessed mother were all she had to stand by her grave. It was very mysterious, but she was at rest now, and would never feel their undutifulness any more."
It was about four o'clock on that summer-like afternoon that the mourners came home from the funeral. The ladies for the sake of quiet retired with Peter to their rooms in the roof; the Mortimers, after partaking of a slight repast in the great parlour, stepped out and began to pace up and down before the house to refresh their spirits with a little air.
The will had been read in the morning, before the funeral took place. Valentine Mortimer and John Mortimer, the two grandsons, were both present. Valentine being a mere boy, barely eighteen, may well have been excused if he did not notice anything peculiar in the demeanour of the two old men; did not notice, as John Mortimer did, the restless excitement of both, and how they appeared to be sustaining and encouraging one another, and yet, when the important sentence came which left them without so much as a shilling, how bravely and soberly they took it, without the least betrayal of mortified feeling, without any change of countenance or even of attitude.
Valentine had often heard his father say that he had no expectations from his mother, that he was quite sure the property never would come to him. He had believed this, and excepting that he found the preamble of the will solemn and the reading impressive, he did not take any special interest in it.
Every shilling and every acre were left to little Peter Melcombe, his mother being appointed his sole guardian till he reached the age of twelve years, and a request being added that her dear son Daniel would see to the repairing of the house, and the setting in order of the garden and woodland.
"And yet not a shilling left to either of them," thought John. "I always fancied there was some estrangement—felt sure of it; but if my father and uncle were so far friendly with their mother that she could ask this favour, how odd that she leaves nothing, not so much as a remembrance, to either of them! The eldest son, by all accounts, was a very violent, overbearing man; I've heard my father say as much; but he has been dead so long that, if there was any estrangement on his account, they must have made it up long ago."
And now the funeral was over. John Mortimer, taking the youth with him, was walking about among the pear-trees close to the garden-wall, and the two old brothers, who appeared to have a dislike to being separated, even for a moment, were leisurely walking on, and in silence looking about them.
"I should like to get into the garden," said John Mortimer; "here's a door."
"But it's locked," remarked Valentine, "and Mrs. Peter Melcombe told me yesterday that none of them ever walked in it."
"Ah, indeed!" said John carelessly—he was far from giving a literal meaning to the information. "It looks a rotten old thing," he continued; "the key is in the house, no doubt, but I don't want to have the trouble of going in to ask for it."
"Perhaps it's not locked," said Valentine; "perhaps it only wants a push."
John and Valentine were standing among some cherry-trees, which, being thickly laden with their blossom, screened them from observation as far as the windows of the now opened house were concerned. John did push, and when the door creaked he pushed again, and the rotten old lock yielded, came away from the lintel, and as the two old fathers turned, they were just in time to see their sons disappear through the doorway and walk into the garden. With a troubled glance at one another, and an effort not to appear in haste, the fathers followed them.
"Can't we get them away?" exclaimed Mr. Mortimer; "can't we tell them to come out?"
"Certainly not, certainly not, brother," answered old Augustus, in a reassuring tone. "You'll not say a word to dissuade them from going wherever they please."
"No," said the other, in a nervous, hesitating manner. "You're quite right, Augustus; you always are."
"Is it not a strange place?" exclaimed John, as they walked forward and looked about them. "It seems to me that really and truly they never do enter it."
"Well, I told you so," answered Valentine. "It is on account of the eldest son. Miss Melcombe told me that he was a very eccentric character, and for many years before his death he made gardening his one occupation. He never suffered any one but himself to garden here, not even so much as to mow the grass. After he was dead the poor old grandmother locked it up. She didn't like any one else to meddle with it."
"Why, he was dead before I was born," exclaimed John, "and I am two-and-thirty. Poor soul! and she never got over that misfortune, then, in all those years. There's a grand pear-tree! lots of rotten fruit lying under it—and what a fine apple-tree! Is this of the celebrated 'redstreak' variety, I wonder, that Phillips praises so in his poem on cider."
"A poem on cider!"
"Yes, I tell you, a poem on cider, and as long as 'Paradise Lost.' It has some very fine passages in it, and has actually been translated into Italian. I picked up a copy of it at Verona when I was a boy, and learned a good deal of it by heart, by way of helping myself with the language. I remember some of it to this day:—
"'Voi, donne, e Cavalier del bel paese A cui propizio il ciel tanto concesse Di bene, udite il mio cantare,' &c., &c.
"I wonder, now, whether this is a redstreak."
As their sons talked thus the two fathers approached, and gravely looked on at this scene of riotous and yet lovely desolation. Nests with eggs in them adorned every little bush, vines having broken the trellis ran far along the ground. John, remembering that the place must have painful thoughts connected with their dead brother for his father and uncle, continued to talk to Valentine, and did not address either of them: and whatever they may have felt they did not say a word; but Valentine presently observed the bed of lilies, and he and John moved on together, the two fathers following.
They outwalked their fathers, and Valentine, stooping over the bed, gathered two or three of the lovely flowers.
"The poor old grandmother!" he observed. "Miss Melcombe told me she loved to watch this bed of lilies, and said only a few days ago, that she could wish they might never be disturbed."
He turned—both the old men stood stock still behind him, looking down on the lily-bed. Valentine repeated what Miss Melcombe had told him. "So no doubt, papa, you'll give orders that it shall not be touched, as you are going to have all the place put in order."
"Yes, yes, certainly my boy—certainly he will," said Uncle Augustus, answering for his brother.
Valentine was not gifted with at all more feeling or sentiment than usually falls to the lot of a youth of his age, but a sort of compunction visited him at that moment to think how soon they all, alive and well, had invaded the poor old woman's locked and guarded sanctuary! He stooped to gather another lily, and offered the flowers to his father. Old Daniel looked at the lilies, but his unready hand did not move forward to take them; in fact, it seemed that he slightly shrank back. With an instantaneous flash of surprise Valentine felt rather than thought, "If you were dead, father, I would not decline to touch what you had loved." But in the meantime his uncle had put forth a hand and received them. "And yet," thought Valentine, "I know father must have felt that old lady's death. Why, when he was in the mourning-coach he actually cried." And so thinking, as he walked back to the garden-door with John Mortimer, he paused to let John pass first; and chancing to turn his head for one instant, he saw his uncle stoop and jerk those lilies under a clump of lilac bushes, where they were hidden. Before either of the old men had noticed that he had turned, Valentine was walking with his cousin outside, but an uneasy sensation of surprise and suspicion haunted him. He could not listen to John Mortimer's talk, and when, the rest of the party had gone back to the house, he lingered behind, returned to the garden, and, stooping down for an instant, saw that it was as he had supposed; there, under the lilac bushes, were lying those gathered lilies.
So he went back to the house. The two grandsons were to return home that afternoon; the two sons were going to remain for a few days, that the wishes of the deceased might have prompt attention, as regarded the setting of the place in order. They were to sleep at the inn in the hamlet, by their own desire, that, as they said, they might not give trouble.
When Valentine entered the great parlour, his cousin was talking to Peter's mother, and in the presence of his father and uncle he was inviting her to let the boy come and stay awhile with his children shortly.
Mrs. Peter Melcombe hesitated, and observed that her dear child had never been away from her in his life, and was very shy.
"No wonder," quoth John Mortimer; "but I have several jolly little boys and girls at home; they would soon cure him of that."
Mrs. Peter Melcombe seemed pleased. She had taken a great fancy to the good-looking young widower; she remarked that Peter had never been used to playing with other children—she was half-afraid he would get hurt; but as Mr. Mortimer was so kind she would risk it.
"Poor little beggar!" said John Mortimer to his father, as they all walked to the inn together; "those two women will mope that boy into his grave if they don't look out."
"No, John," exclaimed his uncle, "I hope you really don't think so."
John, in spite of his youth, had some experience. He had already filled his house with little Mortimers. There were seven of them—some of the largest pattern, and with the finest appetites possible. So his opinion carried weight, and was at the same time worth nothing, for as his children had never but once had anything the matter with them, his general view of childhood was that if it had plenty to eat, a large garden to play in, and leave to go out in all weathers, it was sure to prosper, as in fact the little Mortimers did. They brought themselves up (with a certain amount of interference from their governess) in a high state of health and good-humour, and with no quarrelling to speak of, while the amount of sleep they got out of their little beds, the rapid skill with which they wore down their shoes, and the quantity of rice milk and roast meat they could consume, were a wonder to the matrons round.
"I see nothing special the matter with him," continued John Mortimer; "but one cannot help pitying a child that has no companions and no liberty. I thought I should like to plunge him for a little while into the sweet waters of real child-life, and let him learn to shout and stamp and dig and climb, as my little urchins do."
"But his mother is a poor, faded, fat creature," observed Valentine. "You'll see she won't let that boy go. You can no more get her to do a sensible thing than you can dry your face with a wet towel."
"Gently, sir, gently," said his father, not liking this attempt at a joke on a day which had begun so solemnly.
So Mr. John Mortimer presently departed, taking his handsome young cousin with him, and the old men, with heavy steps and depressed countenances, went into the inn and began anxiously to talk over the various repairs that would be wanted, and all that would have to be done in the garden and the grounds.
In the meantime it was known in the neighbourhood that parson Craik was going to preach a funeral sermon for poor old Madam the very next Sunday morning, and an edifying description of her death passed from mouth to mouth—how she had called her little great-grandson, Peter, to her as the child was playing near, probably that she might give him her blessing—how, when the nurse came running out, she had seen her looking most earnestly at him, but evidently not able to say a word. Afterwards, she had a little revived and had risen and beautifully expressed her gratitude to all about her for their long kindness and attention, and then, how, piously lifting up her hands and eyes, she had told them that she was now going to meet with those that she had loved and lost. "O Lord!" she had exclaimed, "what a meeting that will be!" and thereupon she had departed without a sigh.
For several days after this Mr. Mortimer and his brother went about the business left to them to do. They sent for an architect, and put the house into his hands to be thoroughly repaired. Mrs. Peter Melcombe was desirous not to leave it, and this they arranged to allow, giving orders that the apartments which the family had always occupied should remain untouched till the rest of the house was finished and ready for her. They also had the garden-door repaired to give her ingress, and the gallery-gate taken away. These same sons who for so many years had never come near their mother, seemed now very anxious to attend to her every wish; scarcely a shrub was cut down in the garden excepting in the presence of one of them, and when Mrs. Peter Melcombe especially begged that the grandmother's wish respecting the bed of lilies might be attended to, Mr. Mortimer, with evident emotion, gave orders to the gardener that it should not be touched.
And then Sunday came, and with it a trial that the two sons had not expected. It was announced by the churchwarden to the family, first to the ladies at the hall, and then to the gentlemen at the inn, that Mr. Craik was going to preach a funeral sermon. He did not wish, he said, to take them by surprise—he felt that they would wish to know. In his secret soul he believed that the old men would not come to hear it—he hoped they would not, because their absence would enable him more freely to speak of the misfortunes of the deceased.
But they did come. The manner of their coming was thought by the congregation to be an acknowledgment that they felt their fault. They did not look any one in the face; but with brows bent down, and eyes on the ground, they went to the places given them in the family pew, and when morning prayers were over and the text was given out, as still as stones they sat and listened.
"Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his."
The sermon was more full of eulogy than was in good taste, but the ladies of the family did not find it so; they wept passionately—so did many of the congregation, but the two sons, though their hands might plainly be seen to tremble, maintained a deep, distressed immobility, and because it was neither right to upbraid them to their faces, nor to judge them publicly, a piece of the sermon which concerned Madam Melcombe's sorrow, caused by their desertion, was mercifully left out.
That was the last the people saw of the brothers; they went away almost before it was light on Monday morning, and for a long time after, their faces, their words, and their every attitude, remained the talk of the place.
In the meantime, John Mortimer and Valentine had a very pleasant little excursion. As soon as they were out of the presence of their fathers, they naturally threw off any unusual gravity of demeanour, for though suitable to a solemn funeral, this might well pass away with it, as their grandmother had been a total stranger to them.
John hired horses, and they rode about the country together to see the rosy apple orchards; they inspected an old Roman town, then they went and looked at some fine ruins, and otherwise they enjoyed themselves for three days; for John had plenty of money, and Valentine was far from suspecting that not many months before his own father had dispossessed him, with himself, of an ample fortune and a good inheritance. He had always been brought up to understand that his father was not well off, and that he would have to work for his place in the world. John's place was made already—lucky for him! Lucky for Valentine, too, for John was very liberal to his young relative, and had taken him about with him more than once before.
So the first few days after the reading of that will were passed by Valentine in very good spirits, and with much self-gratulation on things in general. John invited him to stay at his house till his father came home, and Valentine accepting, they reached their station, and John was at once received into the bosom of his family, that is to say, he was pushed and pulled with difficulty into a very large carriage so excessively full of young Mortimers that it was perfectly impossible to add Valentine also.