HOW IT ALL CAME ROUND
MRS. L. T. MEADE
AUTHOR OF "GIRLS OF THE TRUE BLUE," "WILD KITTY," "A GIRL OF THE PEOPLE," ETC., ETC.
NEW YORK HURST & COMPANY PUBLISHERS
THE RICH CHARLOTTE.
The room had three occupants, two were men, the third a woman. The men were middle-aged and gray-haired, the woman on the contrary was in the prime of youth; she was finely made, and well proportioned. Her face was perhaps rather too pale, but the eyes and brow were noble, and the sensitive mouth showed indications of heart as well as intellect.
The girl, or rather young woman, for she was past five and twenty, sat by the fire, a book on her knee. The two men had drawn chairs close to a table. The elder of these men bore such an unmistakable likeness to the girl, that even the most casual observer must have guessed the relationship which existed between them. He was a handsome man, handsomer even than his daughter, but the same individualities marked both faces. While, however, in the woman all was a profound serenity and calm, the man had some anxious lines round the mouth, and some expression, now coming, now going, in the fine gray eyes, which betokened a long-felt anxiety.
The other and younger man was shrewd-looking and commonplace; but a very close observer of human nature might have said, "He may be commonplace, but do not feel too certain; he simply possesses one of those faces which express nothing, from which not the cleverest detective in Scotland Yard could extract any secret."
He was a man with plenty to say, and much humor, and at the moment this story opens he was laughing merrily and in a heart-whole way, and his older and graver companion listened with evident enjoyment.
The room in which the three sat bore evidence of wealth. It was a library, and handsome books lay on the tables, and rare old folios could have been found by those who cared to look within the carefully locked bookcases. Some manuscripts were scattered about, and by the girl's side, on a small table, lay several carefully revised proofs, and even now she was bending earnestly over a book of reference.
"Well, Jasper," said the elder man, when the younger paused for an instant in his eager flow of words, "we have talked long enough about that fine land you have just come from, for even Australian adventures can keep—I am interested in something nearer home. What do you say to Charlotte there? She was but a baby when you saw her last."
"She was five years old," replied Jasper. "A saucy little imp, bless you! just the kind that would be sure to grow into a fine woman. But to tell the truth I don't much care to look at her, for she makes me feel uncommonly old and shaky."
"You gave me twenty years to grow into a woman, uncle," answered the pleasant voice of Charlotte Harman. "I could not choose but make good use of the time."
"So you have, lass—so you have; I have been growing old and you have been growing beautiful; such is life; but never mind, your turn will come."
"But not for a long, long time, Lottie my pet," interrupted the father. "You need not mind your uncle Jasper. These little speeches were always his way. And I'll tell you something else, Jasper; that girl of mine has a head worth owning on her shoulders, a head she knows how to use. You will not believe me when I say that she writes in this magazine and this, and she is getting a book ready for the press; ay, and there's another thing. Shall I tell it, Charlotte?"
"Yes, father; it is no secret," replied Charlotte.
"It is this, brother Jasper; you have come home in time for a wedding. My girl is going to leave me. I shall miss her, for she is womanly in the best sense of the word, and she is my only one; but there is a comfort—the man she is to marry is worthy of her."
"And there is another comfort, father," said Charlotte; "that though I hope to be married, yet I never mean to leave you. You know that well, I have often told you so," and here this grave young girl came over and kissed her father's forehead.
He smiled back at her, all the care leaving his eyes as he did so. Uncle Jasper had sprung impatiently to his feet.
"As to the lass being married," he said, "that's nothing; all women marry, or if they don't they ought to. But what was that you said, John, about writing, writing in a printed book? You were joking surely, man?"
"No, I was not," answered the father. "Go and show your uncle Jasper that last article of yours, Charlotte."
"Oh, heaven preserve us! no," said uncle Jasper, backing a pace or two. "I'm willing with all my heart to believe it, if you swear it, but not the article. Don't for heaven's sake, confront me with the article."
"There's nothing uncommon in my writing for magazines, Uncle Jasper; a great many girls do write now. I have three friends myself who——"
Uncle Jasper's red face had grown positively pathetic in its agitation. "What a place England must have become!" he interrupted with a groan. "Well, lass, I'll believe you, but I have one request to make. Tell me what you like about your wedding; go into all the raptures you care for over your wedding dress, and even over the lucky individual for whom you will wear it; tell me twenty times a day that he's perfection, that you and you alone have found the eighth wonder of the world, but for the love of heaven leave out about the books! The other will be hard to bear, but I'll endeavor to swallow it—but the books, oh! heaven preserve us—leave out about the printed books. Don't mention the unlucky magazines for which you write. Don't breathe to me the thoughts with which you fill them. Oh, if there's an awful creature under the sun 'tis a blue-stocking, and to think I should have come back from England to find such a horror in the person of my own niece!"
THE POOR CHARLOTTE.
While this light and playful scene was being enacted in a wealthy house in Prince's Gate, and Charlotte Harman and her father laughed merrily over the Australian uncle's horror of authors and their works, another Charlotte was going through a very different part, in a different place in the great world's centre.
There could scarcely be a greater contrast than between the small and very shabby house in Kentish Town and the luxurious mansion in Kensington. The parlor of this house, for the drawing-rooms were let to lodgers, was occupied by one woman. She sat by a little shabbily covered table, writing. The whole appearance of the room was shabby: the furniture, the carpet, the dingy window panes, the tiny pretence of a fire in the grate. It was not exactly a dirty room, but it lacked all brightness and freshness. The chimney did not draw well, and now and then a great gust of smoke would come down, causing the busy writer to start and rub her smarting eyes. She was a young woman, as young as Charlotte Harman, with a slight figure and very pale face. There were possibilities of beauty in the face. But the possibilities had come to nothing; the features were too pinched, too underfed, the eyes, in themselves dark and heavily fringed, too often dimmed by tears. It was a very cold day, and sleet was beginning to fall, and the smoking chimney had a vindictive way of smoking more than ever, but the young woman wrote on rapidly, as though for bare life. Each page as she finished it, was flung on one side; some few fell on the floor, but she did not stop even to pick them up.
The short winter daylight had quite faded, and she had stood up to light the gas, when the room door was pushed slightly ajar, and one of those little maids-of-all-work, so commonly seen in London, put in her untidy head.
"Ef you please, 'em, Harold's been and hurt Daisy, and they is quarreling h'ever so, and I think as baby's a deal worse, 'em."
"I will go up to them, Anne, and you may stay down and lay the cloth for tea—I expect your master in early to-night."
She put her writing materials hastily away, and with a light, quick step ran upstairs. She entered a room which in its size and general shabbiness might better have been called an attic, and found herself in the presence of three small children. The two elder ran to meet her with outstretched arms and glad cries. The baby sat up in his cot and gazed hard at his mother with flushed cheeks and round eyes.
She took the baby in her arms and sat down in a low rocking-chair close to the fire. Harold and Daisy went on their little knees in front of her. Now that mother had come their quarrel was quite over, and the poor baby ceased to fret.
Seated thus, with her little children about her there was no doubt at all that Charlotte Home had a pleasant face; the care vanished from her eyes as she looked into the innocent eyes of her babies, and as she nursed the seven-months-old infant she began crooning a sweet old song in a true, delicious voice, to which the other two listened with delight:——
"In the days when we went gipsying, A long time ago."
"What's gipsying, mother?" asked Harold, aged six.
"Something like picnicking, darling. People who live in the country, or who are rich,"—here Mrs. Home sighed—"often, in the bright summer weather, take their dinner or their tea, and they go out into the woods or the green fields and eat there. I have been to gypsy teas; they are great fun. We lit a fire and boiled the kettle over it, and made the tea; it was just the same tea as we had at home, but somehow it tasted much better out-of-doors."
"Was that some time ago, mother?" asked little Daisy.
"It would seem a long, long time to you, darling; but it was not so many years ago."
"Mother," asked Harold, "why aren't we rich, or why don't we live in the country?"
A dark cloud, caused by some deeper emotion than the mere fact of being poor, passed over the mother's face.
"We cannot live in the country," she said, "because your father has a curacy in this part of London. Your father is a brave man, and he must not desert his post."
"Then why aren't we rich?" persisted the boy.
"Because—because—I cannot answer you that, Harold; and now I must run downstairs again. Father is coming in earlier than usual to-night, and you and Daisy may come down for a little bit after tea—that is, if you promise to be very good children now, and not to quarrel. See, baby has dropped asleep; who will sit by him and keep him from waking until Anne comes back?"
"I, mother," said Harold, and, "I, mother," said Daisy.
"That is best," said the gentle-voiced mother; "you both shall keep him very quiet and safe; Harold shall sit on this side of his little cot and Daisy at the other."
Both children placed themselves, mute as mice, by the baby's side, with the proud look of being trusted on their little faces. The mother kissed them and flew downstairs. There was no time for quiet or leisurely movement in that little house; in the dingy parlor, the gas had now been lighted, and the fire burned better and brighter, and Anne with most praiseworthy efforts, was endeavoring to make some toast, which, alas! she only succeeded in burning. Mrs. Home took the toasting-fork out of her hands.
"There, Anne, that will do nicely: I will finish the toast. Now please run away, and take Miss Mitchell's dinner up to her; she is to have a little pie to-night and some baked potatoes; they are all waiting, and hot in the oven, and then please go back to the children."
Anne, a really good-tempered little maid-of-all-work, vanished, and Mrs. Home made some fresh toast, which she set, brown, hot, and crisp, in the china toast-rack. She then boiled a new-laid egg, and had hardly finished these final preparations before the rattle of the latch-key was heard in the hall-door, and her husband came in. He was a tall man, with a face so colorless that hers looked almost rosy by contrast; his voice, however, had a certain ring about it, which betokened that most rare and happy gift to its possessor, a brave and courageous heart. The way in which he now said, "Ah, Lottie!" and stooped down and kissed her, had a good sound, and the wife's eyes sparkled as she sat down by the tea-tray.
"Must you go out again to-night, Angus?" she said presently.
"Yes, my dear. Poor Mrs. Swift is really dying at last. I promised to look in on her again."
"Ah, poor soul! has it really come? And what will those four children do?"
"We must get them into an Orphanage; Petterick has interest. I shall speak to him. Lottie?"
"Beat up that fresh egg I saw you putting into the cupboard when I came in; beat it up, and add a little milk and a teaspoonful of brandy. I want to take it round with me to little Alice. That child has never left her mother's side for two whole days and nights, and I believe has scarcely tasted a morsel; I fear she will sink when all is over."
Lottie rose at once and prepared the mixture, placing it, when ready, in a little basket, which her husband seldom went out without; but as she put it in his hand she could not refrain from saying——
"I was keeping that egg for your breakfast, Angus; I do grudge it a little bit."
"And to eat it when little Alice wanted it so sorely would choke me, wife," replied the husband; and then buttoning his thin overcoat tightly about him, he went out into the night.
The children were at last in bed, the drawing-room lodger had finished her dinner, the welcome time of lull in the day's occupations had come, and Mrs. Home sat by the dining-room fire. A large basket, filled with little garments ready for mending, lay on the floor at her feet, and her working materials were close by; but, for a wonder, the busy fingers were idle. In vain Daisy's frock pleaded for that great rent made yesterday, and Harold's socks showed themselves most disreputably out at heels. Charlotte Home neither put on her thimble nor threaded her needle; she sat gazing into the fire, lost in reverie. It was not a very happy or peaceful reverie, to judge from the many changes on her expressive face. The words, "Shall I, or shall I not?" came often to her lips. Many things seemed to tear her judgment in divers ways; most of all the look in her little son's eyes when he asked that eager, impatient question, "mother, why aren't we rich?" but other and older voices than little Harold's said to her, and they spoke pleadingly enough, "Leave this thing alone; God knows what is best for you. As you have gone on all these years, so continue, not troubling about what you cannot understand, but trusting to him."
"I cannot; I am so tired sometimes," sighed the poor young wife.
She was still undetermined when her husband returned. There was a great contrast in their faces—a greater almost in their voices, in the tone of her dispirited, "Well, Angus," and his almost triumphant answer,——
"Well, Lottie, that hard fight has ended bravely. Thank God!"
"Ah! then the poor soul has gone," said the wife, moving her husband's chair into the warmest corner.
"She has truly gone; I saw her breathe her last. But there is no need to apply the word 'poor' to her; she has done with all that. You know what a weakly, troubled creature she always was, how temptation and doubt seemed to wrap her round like a mist, and prevent her seeing any of the shining of the blue sky. Well, it all passed away at the last, and there was nothing but a steadfast looking into the very face of her Lord. He came for her, and she just stretched out her arms and went to Him. Thank God for being privileged to witness such a death; it makes life far more easy."
A little weariness had crept perceptibly into the brave voice of the minister as he said these last words. His wife laid her hand sympathizingly on his. They sat silent for a few moments, then he spoke on a different subject,——
"How is baby to-night, Lottie?"
"Better, I think; his tooth is through at last. He will have rest now for a bit, poor little darling."
"We must be careful to keep him from catching another cold. And how is Anne getting on?"
"As well as we can expect from such an ignorant little mite. And oh! Angus, the nursery is such a cold, draughty room, and I do—I do wish we were rich."
The last words were tumbled out with a great irrepressible burst of tears.
"Why, my Lottie, what has come to you?" said her husband, touched and alarmed by this rare show of feeling "What is it, dear? You wish we were rich, so do not I; I am quite content. I go among so very much poorer people than myself, Lottie, that it always seems to me I have far more than my fair share of life's good things; but, at any rate my Lottie, crying won't make us rich, so don't waste your strength over it."
"I can't help it sometimes, Angus; it goes to my heart to see you shivering in such a great-coat as you have just taken off, and then I know you want better food, and wine; you are so tired this moment you can scarcely speak. What a lot of good some port wine would do you!"
"And what a lot of good, wishing for it will do me! Come Lottie, be sensible; we must not begin to repine for what we have not got, and cannot get. Let us think of our mercies."
"You make me ashamed of myself, Angus. But these thoughts don't come to me for nothing; the fact is—yes, I will tell you at last, I have long been making up my mind. The truth is, Angus, I can't look at the children—I can't look at you and see you all suffering, and hold my peace any longer. We are poor, very—very—dreadfully poor, but we ought to be rich."
Such a speech, so uttered, would have called for reproof from Angus Home, had it passed the lips of another. But he knew the woman he had married too well not to believe there was reason in her words.
"I am sorry you have kept a secret from me," he said. "What is this mystery, Lottie?"
"It was my mother, Angus. She begged of me to keep it to myself, and she only told me when she was dying. But may I just tell you all from the very beginning?"
"Yes, dear. If it is a romance, it will just soothe me, for though I am, I own, tired, I could not sleep for a long time to come."
"First, Angus, I must confess to a little bit of deceit I practised on you."
"Ah, Lottie!" said her husband playfully, "no wonder you cried, with such a heavy burden on your soul; but confess your sins, wife."
"You know how it has always fretted me, our being poor," said Charlotte. "Your income is only just sufficient to put bread into our mouths, and, indeed, we sometimes want even that. I have often lain awake at night wondering how I could make a little money, and this winter, when it set in so very severe, set my thoughts harder to work on this great problem than ever. The children did want so much, Angus—new boots, and little warm dresses—and so—and so—one day about a month ago, Mrs. Lisle, who reads and writes so much, called, and I was very low, and she was kind and sympathizing; somehow, at last out it all came, I did so wish to earn money. She asked me if I could write a good clear hand, a hand easily read. I showed her what I could do, and she was good enough to call it excellent. She said no more then, but the next day she came early. She brought me a MS. written by a friend of hers; very illegible it was. She would not tell me the name of her friend, but she said she was a lady very desirous of seeing herself in print. If I would copy this illegible writing in my own good clear hand, the lady would give me five pounds. I thought of the children's boots and their winter dresses, and I toiled over it. I confess now that it was weary work, and tired me more than I cared to own. I finished it to-day; this evening, just before you came home, that task was done; but this morning I did something else. You know Miss Mitchell is always kind enough to let me see the Times. This morning Anne brought it down as usual, and, as I ran my eyes over it I was struck by an advertisement, 'A young lady living at Kensington wished for the services of an amanuensis, for so many hours daily. Remuneration good.' I could not help it, Angus, my heart seemed to leap into my mouth. Then and there I put on my bonnet, and with a specimen of my handwriting in my pocket, went off to answer the advertisement in person. The house was in Prince's Gate, Kensington: the name of the young lady who had advertised for my services was Harman."
"Harman! how strange, wife! your own name before you married."
"Yes, dear; but such a different person from me, so rich, while I am so poor; so very, very beautiful, and graceful, and gracious: she may have been a year or so younger than I, she was not much. She had a thoughtful face, a noble face. I could have drawn tears from her eyes had I described the little children, but I did not. It was delightful to look upon her calm. Not for worlds would I disturb it; and, Angus, I found out another thing—her name was not only Harman, but Charlotte Harman."
There was no doubt at all that the other Charlotte was excited now, the color had come into her cheeks, her eyes sparkled. Her husband watched her with undisguised surprise.
"I made a good thing of it Angus," she continued. "I am to go to Prince's Gate every morning, I am to be there at ten, and give my services till one o'clock. I am then to have lunch with the young lady, and for all this, and the enjoyment of a good dinner into the bargain, I am to receive thirty shillings a week. Does not it sound too good to be true?"
"And that is how we are to be rich, Lottie. Well, go on and prosper. I know what an active little woman you are and how impossible it is for you to let the grass grow under your feet. I do not object to your trying this thing, if it is not too much for your strength, and if you can safely leave the children."
"I have thought of the children, Angus; this is so much for their real interest, that it would be a pity to throw it away. But, as you say, they must not be neglected. I shall ask that little Alice Martin to come in to look after them until I am back every day; she will be glad to earn half-a-crown a week."
"As much in proportion, as your thirty shillings is to you—eh, Lottie? See how rich we are in reality."
Mrs. Home sighed, and the bright look left her face. Her husband perceived the change.
"That is not all you have got to tell me," he said.
"No, it is only leading up to what I want to tell you. It is what has set me thinking so hard all day that I can keep it to myself no longer. Angus, prepare for a surprise; that beautiful young lady, who bears the same name I bore before I was married—is—is—she is my near relation."
"Your near relation, Charlotte? But I never knew you had any near relations."
"No, dear, I never told you; my mother thought it best that you should not know. She only spoke to me of them when she was dying. She was sorry afterwards that she had even done that; she begged of me, unless great necessity arose, not to say anything to you. It is only because it seems to me the necessity has really come that I speak of what gave my mother such pain to mention."
"Yes, dear, you have wealthy relations. I don't know that it matters very greatly. But go on."
"There is more than that, Angus, but I will try to tell you all. You know how poor I was when you found me, and gave me your love and yourself."
"We were both poor, Lottie; so much so that we thought two hundred a year, which was what we had to begin housekeeping on, quite riches."
"Yes, Angus; well, I had been poor all my life, I could never do what rich girls did, I was so accustomed to wearing shabby dresses, and eating plain food, and doing without the amusements which seem to come naturally into the lives of most young girls, that I had ceased to miss them. I was sent to a rather good school, and had lessons in music and painting, and I sometimes wondered how my mother had money even to give me these. Then I met you, and we were married. It was just after our little Harold was born that my mother died."
"Yes, you went down into Hertfordshire; you were away for six weeks."
"I took Harold with me; mother was so proud of him. Whenever she had an easy moment, she used to like to have him placed on her knee. She told me then that she had a little son older than I, who died, and that our Harold reminded her of him. One night, I remember so well, I was sitting up with her. She had been going through great pain, but towards the morning she was easier. She was more inclined, however, to talk than to sleep. She began again speaking about the likeness between our Harold and my little brother who died.
"'I shall give you little Edgar's christening robe for Harold,' she said. 'I never could bear to part with it before but I don't mind his having it. Open my wardrobe, Charlotte, and you will find it folded away in a blue paper, in the small wooden box.'
"I did so, and took out a costly thing, yellow, it is true, with age, but half covered with most valuable lace.
"'Why, mother,' I exclaimed, 'how did you ever get such a valuable dress as this? Why, this lace would be cheap at a guinea a yard!'
"'It cost a great deal more than that,' replied mother, stroking down the soft lace and muslin with her thin fingers; 'but we were rich then, Lottie.'
"'Rich!' I said, 'rich! I never, never thought that you and I had anything to say to money, mother.'
"'You don't remember your father, child?'
"'No, mother,' I said; 'how could I? I was only two years old when he died.'
"Mother was silent after that, and I think she went into a doze, but my curiosity and wonder were excited, and I could not help seeking to know more.
"'I never knew that we were rich,' I said again the next day. 'Why did you never tell me before? The next best thing to enjoying riches would be to hear about them.'
"'I did not want to make you discontented, Lottie. I thought what you had never known or thought of you would never miss. I feared, my dear, to make you discontented.'
"'But I have thought of money,' I owned, 'I have thought of it lately a great deal. When I look at Angus I long to get him every luxury, and I want my little Harold to grow up surrounded by those things which help to develop a fine and refined character.
"'But they don't, Lottie; they don't indeed,' answered my dear dying mother. 'Riches bring a snare—they debase the character, they don't ennoble it.'
"'Mother,' I said, 'I see plainly that you are well acquainted with this subject. You will tell me, mother, what you know?'
"'Yes,' replied my mother; 'it won't do you the least good; but as I have said so much to you I may as well tell the rest.'
"Then, Angus, my mother told me the following story; it is not very long.
"She was an orphan and a governess when my father found her and married her—she was my father's second wife. She was much younger than he—he had grown-up sons—two grown-up sons at the time of his marriage; and they were very deeply offended at his thinking of a second marriage. So indignant were they that my father and they came to quite an open quarrel, and mother said that during the five years that my father lived she never saw either of her stepsons until just at the close. She was very happy as my father's wife; he loved her dearly, and as he had plenty of money she wanted for nothing. My father was an old man, as I have said, and he was tired of fuss, and also of much society; so though they were so rich mother lived rather a lonely life—in a large and beautiful place in Hertfordshire. She said the place was called the Hermitage, and was one of the largest and best in the neighborhood. At last my father fell ill, very ill, and the doctors said he must die. Then for the first time there came hastening back to the Hermitage the two elder sons—their names were John and Jasper—the eldest John, my mother said, was very handsome, and very kind and courteous to her. He was a married man, and he told mother that he had a little daughter much about my age, who was also called Charlotte. My father and his two sons seemed quite reconciled in these last days, and they spent most of their time with him. On the evening, however, before he died, he had mother and me with him alone. I sat on the bed, a little baby child of two, and my father held mother's hand. He told mother how much he loved her, and he spoke a very little about money matters.
"'John will make it all right for you, Daisy,' he said. 'John knows all about my wishes with regard to you and little Charlotte. I should like this little Charlotte and his to be friends; they are both called after my own mother, the best woman I ever met. You will bring up little Charlotte with every comfort and refinement, dear wife.'
"The next day my father died, and John and Jasper went to London. They did not even wait for the funeral, though Jasper came back for it. John, he told mother, was kept by the sudden dangerous illness of his wife. Jasper said that John felt our father's death most dreadfully. Mother had liked John, who was always very civil to her, but she could not bear Jasper: she said he seemed a cleverer man than his brother, but she never could get over a feeling of distrust towards him. The will was never read to my mother, but Jasper came back again from London to tell her of its contents, and then judge of her surprise—her name was not even mentioned, neither her name nor mine. She had been married without settlements, and every farthing of all my father's great wealth was left to his two sons, John and Jasper. Jasper expressed great surprise; he even said it was a monstrously unfair thing of his father to do, and that certainly he and his brother would try to rectify it in a measure. He then went back to London, and mother was left alone in the great empty house. She said she felt quite stunned, and was just then in such grief for my father that she scarcely heeded the fact that she was left penniless. Two days afterwards a lawyer from London came down to see her. He came with a message from her two stepsons. They were much concerned for her, and they were willing to help her. They would allow her, between them, as long as she lived the interest on three thousand pounds—on one condition. The condition was this: she was never to claim the very least relationship with them; she was to bring up her daughter as a stranger to them. They had never approved of their father's marrying her; they would allow her the money on condition that all connection between them be completely dropped. The day it was renewed by either mother or daughter, on that day the interest on the three thousand pounds would cease to be paid. My mother was too young, too completely inexperienced, and too bowed down with grief, to make the least objection. Only one faint protest did she make. 'My husband said,' she faltered, 'on the very last day of his life, he said that he wished my little Charlotte and that other Charlotte in London to be friends.' But the lawyer only shook his head. On this point his clients were firm. 'All communication between the families must cease.'
"That is the story, Angus," continued Charlotte Home, suddenly changing her voice, and allowing her eyes, which had been lowered during her brief recital, to rise to her husband's face. "My dear mother died a day or two afterwards. She died regretting having to own even what she did, and begging me not to think unkindly of my father, and not to unsettle your mind by telling you what could do no good whatever.
"'I do not think unkindly of my father, mother,' I answered, 'and I will not trouble my husband's mind, at least, not yet, never, perhaps, unless fitting opportunity arises. But I know what I think, mother—what, indeed, I know. That was not my father's real will; my brothers John and Jasper have cheated you. Of this I am very sure.'
"Mother, though she was so weak and dying, got quite a color into her cheeks when I said this. 'No, no,' she said, 'don't harbor such a thought in your heart—my darling, my darling. Indeed it is utterly impossible. It was a real, real will. I heard it read, and your brothers, they were gentlemen. Don't let so base a thought of them dwell in your heart. It is, I know it is, impossible.'
"I said no more to trouble my dear mother and shortly afterwards she died. That is six years ago."
TWO WAYS OF LOOKING AT IT.
After the story was finished the husband and wife sat for a long time side by side, in absolute silence. Both pairs of eyes were fixed on the glowing embers in the fire; the wife's reflected back both the lights and the shadows; they were troubled eyes, troubled with possible joy, troubled also with the dark feelings of anger. The husband's, on the contrary, were calm and steady. No strong hope was visiting them, but despair, even disquietude, seemed miles away. Presently the wife's small nervous fingers were stretched out to meet her husband's, his closed over them, he turned his head, met her anxious face, smiled and spoke.
"So it seems on the cards that you might have been rich, Lottie. Well, it was unjust of your father not to have made some provision for your mother and you, but—but—he has long been dead, the whole thing is over. Let it pass."
"Angus! do you know what I should like?" asked his wife.
"I should like to meet those two men, John and Jasper Harman, face to face, and ask them without the least preamble or preparation, what they have done with my father's real will?"
"Dear Lottie, you must get this strange idea out of your head. It is not right of you to harbor such thoughts of any men."
"I should like to look so hard at them," continued Charlotte, scarcely heeding her husband's words. "I know their eyes would flinch, they would be startled, they would betray themselves. Angus, I can't help it, the conviction that is over me is too strong to be silenced. For years, ever since my mother told me that story, I have felt that we have been wronged, nay, robbed of our own. But when I entered that house to-day and found myself face with my half-brother's daughter, when I found myself in the house that I had been forbidden to enter, I felt—I knew, that a great wrong had been committed. My father! Why should I think ill of my father, Angus? Is it likely that he would have made no provision for my mother whom he loved, or for me? Is it likely that he would have left everything he possessed to the two sons with whom he had so bitterly quarrelled, that for years they had not even met? Is it likely? Angus, you are a just man, and you will own to the truth. Is it likely, that with his almost dying breath, he should have assured my mother that all was settled that she could bring me up well, in comfort and luxury, that Charlotte Harman and I should be friends? No, Angus! I believe my father; he was a good and just man always; and, even if he was not, dying men don't tell lies."
"I grant that it seems unlikely, Lottie; but then, on the other hand, what do you accuse these men of? Why, of no less a crime than forging a will, of suppressing the real will, and bringing forward one of their own manufacture. Why, my dear wife, such an act of villainy would be not only difficult, but, I should say, impossible."
"I don't know how it was done, Angus, but something was done, of that I am sure, and what that thing was I shall live, please God, to find out."
"Then you—you, a clergyman's wife—the wife of a man who lives to proclaim peace on earth, good-will to men, you go into your brother's house as a spy!"
Mrs. Home colored. Her husband had risen from his chair.
"You shall not do that," he said; "I am your husband, and I forbid it. You can only go to the Harmans, if they are indeed the near relations you believe them to be, on one condition."
"And that?" said Charlotte.
"That you see not only Mr. Harman's daughter, but Mr. Harman himself; that you tell him exactly who you are.... If, after hearing your story, he allows you to work for his daughter, you can do so without again alluding to the relationship. If they wish it dropped, drop it, Lottie; work for them as you would for any other strangers, doing your best work bravely and well. But begin openly. Above all things thinking no evil in your heart of them."
"Then I cannot go on these conditions, Angus, for I cannot feel charity in my heart towards Mr. Harman. It seemed such a good thing this morning. But I must give it up."
"And something else will come in it's place, never fear; but I did not know until to-night that my Lottie so pined for riches."
"Angus, I do—I do—I want Harold to go to a good school, Daisy to be educated, little Angus to get what is necessary for his health, and above all, you, my dearest, my dearest, to have a warm overcoat, and port wine: the overcoat when you are cold, the port wine when you are tired. Think of having these luxuries, not only for yourself, but to give away to your poor, Angus, and I am sure we ought to have them."
"Ah, Lottie! you are a witch, you try to tempt me, and all these things sound very pleasant. But don't dream of what we haven't, let us live for the many, many things we have."
LOVE IN A DIAMOND.
The next day Angus Home went out early as usual, about his many parish duties; this was it was true, neither a feast nor a fast day, nor had he to attend a morning service, but he had long ago constituted himself chief visitor among the sick and poorest of his flock, and such work occupied him from morning to night. Perhaps in a nature naturally inclined to asceticism, this daily mingling with the very poor and the very suffering, had helped to keep down all ambitions for earthly good things, whether those good things came in the guise of riches or honors; but though unambitious and very humble, never pushing himself forward, doing always the work that men who considered themselves more fastidious would shun, never allowing his voice to be heard where he believed wiser men than he might speak, Mr. Home was neither morbid nor unhappy; one of his greatest characteristics was an utter absence of all self-consciousness.
The fact was, the man, though he had a wife whom he loved, and children very dear to him, had grown accustomed to hold life lightly; to him life was in very truth a pilgrimage, a school, a morning which should usher in the great day of the future. His mental and spiritual eyes were fixed expectantly and longingly on that day; and in connection with it, it would be wrong to say that he was without ambition, for he had a very earnest and burning desire, not only for rank but for kingship by and by: he wanted to be crowned with the crown of righteousness.
Angus Home knew well that to wear that crown in all its lustre in the future, it must begin to fit his head down here; and he also knew that those who put on such crowns on earth, find them, as their great and blessed Master did before them, made of thorns.
It is no wonder then that the man with so simple a faith, so Christ-like a spirit, should not be greatly concerned by his wife's story of the night before. He did not absolutely forget it, for he pondered over it as he wended his way to the attic where the orphan Swifts lived. He felt sorry for Lottie as he thought of it, and he hoped she would soon cease to have such uncharitable ideas of her half-brothers; he himself could not even entertain the notion that any fraud had been committed; he felt rather shocked that his Lottie should dwell on so base a thing.
There is no doubt that this saint-like man could be a tiny bit provoking; and so his wife felt when he left her without again alluding to their last night's talk. After all it is wives and mothers who feel the sharpest stings of poverty. Charlotte had known what to be poor meant all her life, as a child, as a young girl, as a wife, as a mother, but she had been brave enough about it, indifferent enough to it, until the children came; but from the day her mother's story was told her, and she knew how close the wings of earthly comfort had swept her by, discontent came into her heart. Discontent came in and grew with the birth of each fresh little one. She might have made her children so comfortable, she could do so little with them; they were pretty children too. It went to her heart to see their beauty disfigured in ugly clothes; she used to look the other way with a great jealous pang, when she saw children not nearly so beautiful as hers, yet looked at and admired because of their bright fresh colors and dainty little surroundings. But poverty brought worse stings than these. The small house in Kentish Town was hot and stifling in the months of July and August; the children grew pale and pined for the fresh country air which could not be given to them; Lottie herself grew weak and languid, and her husband's pale face seemed to grow more ethereal day by day. At all such times as these did Charlotte Home's mind and thoughts refer back to her mother's story, and again and again the idea returned that a great, great wrong had been done.
In the winter when this story opens, poverty came very close to the little household. They were, it is true, quite out of debt, but they were only so because the food was kept so scanty, the fires so low, dress so very insufficient to keep at a distance the winter's bitter cold; they were only out of debt because the mother slaved from morning to night, and the father ate less and less, having, it is to be feared, less and less appetite to eat.
Then the wife and mother grew desperate, money must be brought in—how could it be done? The doctor called and said that baby Angus would die if he had not more milk—he must have what is called in London baby-milk, and plenty of it. Such milk in Kentish Town meant money. Lottie resolved that baby Angus should not die. In answering an advertisement which she hoped would give her employment, she accidentally found herself in her own half-brother's house. There was the wealth which had belonged to her father; there were the riches to which she was surely born. How delicious were those soft carpets; how nice those cushioned seats; how pleasant those glowing fires; what an air of refinement breathed over everything; how grand it was to be served by those noiseless and well-trained servants; how great a thing was wealth, after all!
She thought all this before she saw Charlotte Harman. Then the gracious face, the noble bearing, the kindly and sweet manner of this girl of her own age, this girl who might have been her dearest friend, who was so nearly related to her, filled her with sudden bitterness; she believed herself immeasurably inferior to Miss Harman, and yet she knew that she might have been such another. She left the house with a mingled feeling of relief and bitterness. She was earning present money. What might she not discover to benefit her husband and children by and by?
In the evening, unable to keep her thoughts to herself, she told them and her story for the first time to her husband. Instantly he tore the veil from her eyes. Was she, his wife, to go to her own brother's house as a spy? No! a thousand times no! No wealth, however needed, would be worth purchasing at such a price. If Charlotte could not banish from her mind these unworthy thoughts, she must give up so excellent a means of earning money.
Poor Charlotte! The thoughts her husband considered so mean, so untrue, so unworthy, had become by this time part of her very being. Oh! must the children suffer because unrighteous men enjoyed what was rightfully theirs?
For the first time, the very first time in all her life, she felt discontented with her Angus. If only he were a little more everyday, a little more practical; if only he would go to the bottom of this mystery, and set her mind at rest!
She went about her morning duties in a state of mental friction and aggravation, and, as often happens, on this very morning when she seemed least able to bear it, came the proverbial last straw. Anne, the little maid, put in her head at the parlor door.
"Ef you please, 'em, is Harold to wear 'em shoes again? There's holes through and through of 'em, and it's most desp'rate sloppy out of doors this mornin'."
Mrs. Home took the little worn-out shoes in her hand; she saw at a glance that they were quite past mending.
"Leave them here, Anne," she said. "You are right, he cannot wear these again. I will go out at once and buy him another pair."
The small maid disappeared, and Charlotte put her hand into her pocket. She drew out her purse with a sinking heart. Was there money enough in it to buy the necessary food for the day's consumption, and also to get new shoes for Harold? A glance showed her but too swiftly there was not. She never went on credit for anything—the shoes must wait, and Harold remain a prisoner in the house that day. She went slowly up to the nursery: Daisy and baby could go out and Harold should come down to the parlor to her.
But one glance at her boy's pale face caused her heart to sink. He was a handsome boy—she thought him aristocratic, fit to be the son of a prince—but to-day he was deadly pale, with that washy look which children who pine for fresh air so often get. He was standing in rather a moping attitude by the tiny window; but at sight of his mother he flew to her.
"Mother, Anne says I'm to have new shoes. Have you got them? I am so glad."
No, she could not disappoint her boy. A sudden idea darted through her brain. She would ask Miss Mitchell, the drawing-room boarder, to lend her the three-and-sixpence which the little shoes would cost. It was the first time she had ever borrowed, and her pride rose in revolt at even naming the paltry sum—but, for the sake of her boy's pale face?
"I am going out to buy the shoes," she said, stooping down to kiss the sweet upturned brow; and she flew downstairs and tapped at the drawing-room door.
Miss Mitchell was a lady of about fifty; she had been with them now for nearly a year, and what she paid for the drawing-room and best bedroom behind it, quite covered the rent of the shabby little house. Miss Mitchell was Charlotte Home's grand standby; she was a very uninteresting person, neither giving nor looking for sympathy, never concerning herself about the family in whose house she lived. But then, on the other hand, she was easily pleased; she never grumbled, she paid her rent like clockwork. She now startled Lottie by coming instantly forward and telling her that it was her intention to leave after the usual notice; she found the baby's fretful cries too troublesome, for her room was under the nursery; this was one reason. Another, perhaps the most truthful one, was, that her favorite curate in St. Martin's Church over the way, had received promotion to another and more fashionable church, and she would like to move to where she could still be under his ministry. Charlotte bowed; there was nothing for it but to accept the fact that her comfortable lodger must go. Where could she find a second Miss Mitchell, and how could she possibly now ask for the loan of three and sixpence?
She left the room. Where was the money to come from to buy Harold's shoes? for that little pleading face must not be disappointed. This care was, for the moment, more pressing than the loss of Miss Mitchell. How should she get the money for her boy? She pressed her hand to her brow to think out this problem. As she did so, a ring she wore on her wedding-finger flashed; it was her engagement ring, a plain gold band, only differing from the wedding-ring, which it now guarded, in that it possessed one small, very small diamond. The diamond was perhaps the smallest that could be purchased, but it was pure of its kind, and the tiny gem now flashed a loving fire into her eyes, as though it would speak if it could in answer to her inquiry. Yes, if she sold this ring, the money would be forthcoming. It was precious, it symbolized much to her; she had no other to act as guard; but it was not so precious as the blue eyes of her first-born. Her resolve was scarcely conceived before it was put in practice. She hastened out with the ring; a jeweller lived not far away; he gave her fifteen shillings, and Charlotte, feeling quite rich, bought the little shoes and hurried home.
As she almost flew along the sloppy streets a fresh thought came to her. Yes! she must certainly decline that very excellent situation with Miss Harman. That sorely wanted thirty shillings a week must be given up, there was no question about that. Bitter were her pangs of heart as she relinquished the precious money, but it would be impossible for her to go to her brother's house in the only spirit in which her husband would allow her to go. Yes; she must give it up. When the children were at last fairly started on their walk she would sit down and write to Miss Harman. But why should she write? She stood still as the thought came to her to go to Miss Harman in person; to tell her from her own lips that she must not visit that house, or see her daily. She might or might not tell her who she really was; she would leave that to circumstances; but she would at least once more see her brother's house and look into the eyes of her brother's child. It would be a short, soon-lived-through excitement. Still she was in that mood when to sit still in inactivity was impossible; the visit would lead to nothing, but still she would pay it; afterwards would be time enough to think of finding some one to replace Miss Mitchell, of trying to buy again her engagement ring, of purchasing warm clothes for her little ones.
IN PRINCE'S GATE.
Having arranged her household matters, been informed of another pair of boots which could not last many days longer, seen to the children's dinner, and finally started the little group fairly off for their walk with Anne, Charlotte ran upstairs, put on her neat though thin and worn black silk, her best jacket and bonnet and set off to Kensington to see Miss Harman.
She reached the grand house in Prince's Gate about twelve o'clock. The day had indeed long begun for her, but she reflected rather bitterly that most likely Miss Harman had but just concluded her breakfast. She found, however, that she had much wronged this energetic young lady. Breakfast had been over with some hours ago, and when Mrs. Home asked for her, the footman who answered her modest summons said that Miss Harman was out, but had left directions that if a lady called she was to be asked to wait.
Charlotte was taken up to Miss Harman's own private sitting room, where, after stirring the fire, and furnishing her with that morning's Times, the servant left her alone.
Mrs. Home was glad of this. She drew her comfortable easy chair to the fire, placed her feet upon the neat brass rail, closed her eyes, and tried to fancy herself alone. Had her father lived, such comforts as these would have been matters of everyday occurrence to her. Common as the air she breathed would this grateful warmth be then to her thin limbs, this delicious easy chair to her aching back. Had her father lived, or had justice been done, in either case would soft ease have been her portion. She started from her reclining position and looked round the room. A parrot swung lazily on his perch in one of the windows. Two canaries sang in a gilded cage in the other. How Harold and Daisy would love these birds! Just over her head was a very beautifully executed portrait in oils of a little child, most likely Miss Harman in her infancy. Ah, yes, but baby Angus at home was more beautiful. A portrait of him would attract more admiration than did that of the proud daughter of all this wealth. Tears started unbidden to the poor perplexed mother's eyes. It was hard to sit quiet with this burning pain at her heart. Just then the door was opened and an elderly gentleman with silver hair came in. He bowed, distantly to the stranger sitting by his hearth, took up a book he had come to seek, and withdrew. Mrs. Home had barely time to realize that this elderly man must really be the brother who had supplanted her, when a sound of feet, of voices, of pleasant laughter, drew near. The room door was again opened, and Charlotte Harman, accompanied by two gentlemen, came in. The elder of the two men was short and rather stout, with hair that had once been red, but was now sandy, keen, deep-set eyes, and a shrewd, rather pleasant face. Miss Harman addressed him as Uncle Jasper, and they continued firing gay badinage at one another for a moment without perceiving Mrs. Home's presence. The younger man was tall and square-shouldered, with a rather rugged face of some power. He might have been about thirty. He entered the room by Miss Harman's side, and stood by her now with a certain air of proprietorship.
"Ah! Mrs. Home," said the young lady, quickly discovering her visitor and coming forward and shaking hands with her at once, "I expected you. I hope you have not waited long, John," turning to the young man, "will you come back at four? Mrs. Home and I have some little matters to talk over, and I daresay her time is precious. I shall be quite ready to go out with you at four. Uncle Jasper, my father is in the library; will you take him this book from me?"
Uncle Jasper, who had been peering with all his might out of his short-sighted eyes at the visitor, now answered with a laugh, "We are politely dismissed, eh? Hinton," and taking the arm of the younger man they left the room.
IT INTERESTS HER.
"And now, Mrs Home, we will have some lunch together up here, and then afterwards we can talk and quite finish all our arrangements," said the rich Charlotte, looking with her frank and pleasant eyes at the poor one. She rang a bell as she spoke, and before Mrs. Home had time to reply, a tempting little meal was ordered to be served without delay.
"I have been with my publishers this morning," said Miss Harman. "They are good enough to say they believe my tale promises well, but they want it completed by the first of March, to come out with the best spring books. Don't you think we may get it done? It is the middle of January now."
"I daresay it may be done," answered Mrs. Home, rising, and speaking in a tremulous voice. "I have no doubt you will work hard and have it ready—but—but—I regret it much, I have come to-day to say I cannot take the situation you have so kindly offered me."
"But why?" said Miss Harman, "why?" Some color came into her cheeks as she added, "I don't understand you. I thought you had promised. I thought it was all arranged yesterday."
Her tone was a little haughty, but how well she used it; how keenly Mrs. Home felt the loss of what she was resigning.
"I did promise you," she said; "I feel you have a right to blame me. It is a considerable loss to me resigning your situation, but my husband has asked me to do so. I must obey my husband, must I not?"
"Oh! yes, of course. But why should he object. He is a clergyman, is he not? Is he too proud—I would tell no one. All in this house should consider you simply as a friend. Our writing would be just a secret between you and me. Your husband will give in when you tell him that."
"He is not in the least proud, Miss Harman—not proud I mean in that false way."
"Then I am not giving you money enough—of course thirty shillings seems too little; I will gladly raise it to two pounds a week, and if this book succeeds, you shall have more for helping me with the next."
Mrs. Home felt her heart beating. How much she needed, how keenly she longed for that easily earned money. "I must not think of it," she said, however, shaking her head. "I confess I want money, but I must earn it elsewhere. I cannot come here. My husband will only allow me to do so on a certain condition. I cannot even tell you the condition—certainly I cannot fulfil it, therefore I cannot come."
"Oh! but that is exciting. Do tell it to me."
"If I did you would be the first to say I must never come to this house again."
"I am quite sure you wrong me there. I may as well own that I have taken a fancy to you. I am a spoiled child, and I always have my own way. My present way is to have you here in this snug room for two or three hours daily—you and I working in secret over something grand. I always get my way so your conditions must melt into air. Now, what are they?"
"Dare I tell her?" thought Mrs. Home. Aloud she said, "The conditions are these:—I must tell you a story, a story about myself—and—and others."
"And I love stories, especially when they happen in real life."
"Miss Harman, don't tempt me. I want to tell you, but I had better not; you had better let me go away. You are very happy now, are you not?"
"What a strange woman you are, Mrs. Home! Yes, I am happy."
"You won't like my story. It is possible you may not be happy after you have heard it."
"That is a very unlikely possibility. How can the tale of an absolute stranger affect my happiness?" These words were said eagerly—a little bit defiantly.
But Mrs. Home's face had now become so grave, and there was such an eager, almost frightened look in her eyes, that her companion's too changed. After all what was this tale? A myth, doubtless; but she would hear it now.
"I accept the risk of my happiness being imperiled," she said. "I choose to hear the tale—I am ready."
"But I may not choose to tell," said the other Charlotte.
"I would make you. You have begun—begun in such a way that you must finish."
"Is that so?" replied Mrs. Home. The light was growing more and more eager in her eyes. She said to herself, "The die is cast." There rose up before her a vision of her children—of her husband's thin face. Her voice trembled.
"Miss Harman—I will speak—you won't interrupt me?"
"No, but lunch is on the table. You must eat something first."
"I am afraid I cannot with that story in prospect; to eat would choke me!"
"What a queer tale it must be!" said the other Charlotte. "Well, so be it." She seated herself in a chair at a little distance from Mrs. Home, fixed her gaze on the glowing fire, and said, "I am ready. I won't interrupt you."
The poor Charlotte, too, looked at the fire. During the entire telling of the tale neither of these young women glanced at the other.
"It is my own story," began Mrs. Home: then she paused, and continued, "My father died when I was two years old. During my father's lifetime I, who am now so poor, had all the comforts that you must have had, Miss Harman, in your childhood. He died, leaving my mother, who was both young and pretty, nothing. She was his second wife, for five years she had enjoyed all that his wealth could purchase for her. He died, leaving her absolutely penniless. My mother was, as I have said, a second wife. My father had two grown-up sons. These sons had quarrelled with him at the time of his marrying my young mother; they came to see him and were reconciled on his deathbed. He left to these sons every penny of his great wealth. The sons expressed surprise when the will was read. They even blamed my father for so completely forgetting his wife and youngest child. They offered to make some atonement for him. During my mother's lifetime they settled on her three thousand pounds; I mean the interest, at five per cent., on that sum. It was to return to them at her death, it was not to descend to me, and my mother must only enjoy it on one condition. The condition was, that all communication must cease between my father's family and hers. On the day she renewed it the money would cease to be paid. My mother was young, a widow, and alone; she accepted the conditions, and the money was faithfully paid to her until the day of her death. I was too young to remember my father, and I only heard this story about him on my mother's deathbed; then for the first time I learned that we might have been rich, that we were in a measure meant to enjoy the good things which money can buy. My mother had educated me well, and you may be quite sure that with an income of one hundred and fifty pounds a year this could only be done by practising the strictest economy. I was accustomed to doing without the pretty dresses and nice things which came as natural to other girls as the air they breathed. In my girlhood, I did not miss these things; but at the time of my mother's death, at the time the story first reached my ears, I was married, and my eldest child was born. A poor man had made me, a poor girl his wife, and, Miss Harman, let me tell you, that wives and mothers do long for money. The longing with them is scarcely selfish, it is for the beings dearer than themselves. There is a pain beyond words in denying your little child what you know is for that child's good, but yet which you cannot give because of your empty purse; there is a pain in seeing your husband shivering in too thin a coat on bitter winter nights. You know nothing of such things—may you never know them; but they have gone quite through my heart, quite, quite through it. Well, that is my story; not much, you will say, after all. I might have been rich, I am poor, that is my story."
"It interests me," said Miss Harman, drawing a long breath, "it interests me greatly; but you will pardon my expressing my real feelings: I think your father was a cruel and unjust man."
"I think my brothers, my half-brothers, were cruel and unjust. I don't believe that was my father's real will."
"What! you believe there was foul play? This is interesting—if so, if you can prove it, you may be righted yet. Are your half-brothers living?"
"And you think you have proof that you and your mother were unjustly treated?"
"I have no proof, no proof whatever, Miss Harman, I have only suspicions."
"Oh! you will tell me what they are?"
"Even they amount to very little, and yet I feel them to be certainties. On the night before my father died he told my mother that she and I would be comfortably off; he also said that he wished that I and his son's little daughter, that other Charlotte he called her, should grow up together as sisters. My father was a good man, his mind was not wandering at all, why should he on his deathbed have said this if he knew that he had made such an unjust will, if he knew that he had left my mother and her little child without a sixpence?"
"Yes," said Miss Harman slowly and thoughtfully, "it looks strange."
After this for a few moments both these young women were silent. Mrs. Home's eyes again sought the fire, she had told her story, the excitement was over, and a dull despair came back over her face. Charlotte Harman, on the contrary, was deep in that fine speculation which seeks to succor the oppressed, her grey eyes glowed, and a faint color came in to her cheeks. After a time she said—
"I should like to help you to get your rights. You saw that gentleman who left the room just now, that younger gentleman, I am to be his wife before long—he is a lawyer, may I tell him your tale?"
"No, no, not for worlds." Here Mrs. Home in her excitement rose to her feet. "I have told the story, forget it now, let it die."
"What a very strange woman you are, Mrs. Home! I must say I cannot understand you."
"You will never understand me. But it does not matter, we are not likely to meet again. I saw you for the first time yesterday. I love you, I thank you. You are a rich and prosperous young lady, you won't be too proud to accept my thanks and my love. Now good-bye."
"No, you are not going in that fashion. I do not see why you should go at all; you have told me your story, it only proves that you want money very much, there is nothing at all to prevent your becoming my amanuensis."
"I cannot, I must not. Let me go."
"But why? I do not understand."
"You will never understand. I can only repeat that I must not come here."
Mrs. Home could look proud when she liked. It was now Miss Harman's turn to become the suppliant; with a softness of manner which in so noble-looking a girl was simply bewitching, she said gently——
"You confess that you love me."
Mrs. Home's eyes filled with tears.
"Because I do I am going away," she said.
She had just revealed by this little speech a trifle too much, the trifle reflected a light too vivid to Charlotte Harman's mind, her face became crimson.
"I will know the truth," she said, "I will—I must. This story—you say it is about you; is it all about you? has it anything to say to me?"
"No, no, don't ask me—good-bye."
"I stand between you and the door until you speak. How old are you, Mrs. Home?"
"I am twenty-five."
"That is my age. Who was that Charlotte your dying father wished you to be a sister to?"
"I cannot tell you."
"You cannot—but you must. I will know. Was it—but impossible! it cannot be—am I that Charlotte?"
Mrs. Home covered her face with two trembling hands. The other woman, with her superior intellect, had discovered the secret she had feebly tried to guard. There was a pause and a dead silence. That silence told all that was necessary to Charlotte Harman. After a time she said gently, but all the fibre and tune had left her voice,——
"I must think over your story, it is a very, very strange tale. You are right, you cannot come here; good-bye."
THE WOMAN BY THE HEARTH.
Mrs. Home went back to the small house in Kentish Town, and Miss Harman sat on by her comfortable fire. The dainty lunch was brought in and laid on the table, the young lady did not touch it. The soft-voiced, soft-footed servant brought in some letters on a silver salver. They looked tempting letters, thick and bulgy. Charlotte Harman turned her head to glance at them but she left them unopened by her side. She had come in very hungry, from her visit to the publishers, and these letters which now lay so close had been looked forward to with some impatience, but now she could neither eat nor read. At last a pretty little timepiece which stood on a shelf over her head struck four, and a clock from a neighboring church re-echoed the sound. Almost at the same instant there came a tap at her room door.
"That is John," said Charlotte. She shivered a little. Her face had changed a good deal, but she rose from her seat and came forward to meet her lover.
"Ready, Charlotte?" he said, laying his two hands on her shoulders; then looking into her face he started back in some alarm. "My dear, my dearest, something has happened; what is the matter?"
This young woman was the very embodiment of truth. She did not dream of saying, "Nothing is the matter." She looked up bravely into the eyes she loved best in the world and answered,——
"A good deal is the matter, John. I am very much vexed and—and troubled."
"You will tell me all about it; you will let me help you?" said the lover, tenderly.
"Yes, John dear, but not to-night. I want to think to-night. I want to know more. To-morrow you shall hear; certainly to-morrow. No, I will not go out with you. Is my father in? Is Uncle Jasper in?"
"Your father is out, and your uncle is going. I left him buttoning on his great-coat in the hall."
"Oh! I must see Uncle Jasper; forgive me, I must see him for a minute."
She flew downstairs, leaving John Hinton standing alone, a little puzzled and a little vexed. Breathless she arrived in the hall to find her uncle descending the steps; she rushed after him and laid her hand on his shoulder.
"Uncle Jasper, I want you. Where are you going?"
"Hoity-toity," said the old gentleman, turning round in some surprise, and even dismay when he caught sight of her face. "I am going to the club, child. What next. I sent Hinton up to you. What more do you want?"
"I want you. I have a story to tell you and a question to ask you. You must come back."
"Lottie, I said I would have nothing to do with those books of yours, and I won't. I hate novels, and I hate novelists. Forgive me, child. I don't hate you; but if your father and John Hinton between them mean to spoil a fine woman by encouraging her to become that monster of nature, a blue-stocking, I won't help them, and that's flat. There now. Let me go."
"It is no fiction I want to ask you, Uncle Jasper. It is a true tale, one I have just heard. It concerns me and you and my father. It has pained me very much, but I believe it can be cleared up. I would rather ask you than my father about it, at least at first; but either of you can answer what I want to know; so if you will not listen to me I can speak to my father after dinner."
Uncle Jasper had one of those faces which reveal nothing, and it revealed nothing now. But the keen eyes looked hard into the open gray eyes of the girl who stood by his side.
"What thread out of that tangled skein has she got into her head?" he whispered to himself. Aloud he said, "I will come back to dinner, Charlotte, and afterwards you shall take me up to your little snuggery. If you are in trouble, my dear, you had better confide in me than in your father. He does not—does not look very strong."
Then he walked down the street; but when he reached his club he did not enter it. He walked on and on. He puzzling, not so much over his niece's strange words as over something else. Who was that woman who sat by Charlotte's hearth that day?
CHARLOTTE CANNOT BEAR THE DARK.
The elder Mr. Harman had retired to his study, and Charlotte and her uncle sat side by side in that young lady's own private apartment. The room looked snug and sheltered, and the subdued light from a Queen's reading-lamp, and from the glowing embers of a half burned-out fire, were very pleasant. Uncle Jasper was leaning back in an armchair, but Charlotte stood on the hearthrug. Soft and faint as the light was, it revealed burning cheeks and shining eyes; but the old face these tokens of excitement appealed to remained completely in shadow.
Charlotte had told the story she had heard that day, and during its whole recital her uncle had sat motionless, making no comment either by word or exclamation.
Mrs. Home's tale had been put into skilful hands. It was well told—all the better because the speaker so earnestly hoped that its existence might turn out a myth—that the phantom so suddenly conjured up might depart as quickly as it had arrived. At last the story came to a conclusion. There was a pause, and Charlotte said,——
"Well, Uncle Jasper?"
"Well, Lottie?" he answered. And now he roused himself, and bent a little forward.
"Is the story true, Uncle Jasper?"
"It is certainly true, Charlotte, that my father and your grandfather married again."
"It is also highly probable that this young woman is the daughter of that marriage. When I saw her in this room to-day I was puzzled by an intangible likeness in her. This accounts for it."
"Then why——" began Charlotte, and then she stopped. There was a whole world of bitterness in her tone.
"Sit down, child," said her uncle. He pointed to a footstool at his feet. Whenever he came into this room Charlotte had occupied this footstool, and he wanted her to take it now, but she would not; she still kept her place on the hearth.
"I cannot sit," she said. "I am excited—greatly excited. This looks to me in the light of a wrong."
"Who do you think has committed the wrong, Charlotte?"
Before she answered, Charlotte Harman lit a pair of candles which stood on the mantelshelf.
"There, now," she said with a sigh of relief, "I can see your face. It is dreadful to speak to any one in the dark. Uncle Jasper, if I had so near a relation living all these years why was I never told of it? I have over and over again longed for a sister, and it seems I had one or one who might have been to me a sister. Why was I kept in ignorance of her very existence?"
"You are like all women—unreasonable, Lottie. I am glad to find you so human, my dear; so human, and—and—womanly. You jump to conclusions without hearing reasons. Now I will give you the reasons. But I do wish you would sit down."
"I will sit here," said Charlotte, and she drew a chair near the table. The room abounded in easy-chairs of all sizes and descriptions, but she chose one hard and made of cane, and she sat upright upon it, her hands folded on her lap. "Now, Uncle Jasper," she said, "I am ready to hear your reasons."
"They go a good way back, my dear, and I am not clever at telling a story; but I will do my best. Your grandfather made his money in trade; he made a good business, and he put your father and me both into it. It is unnecessary to go into particulars about our special business; it was small at first, but we extended it until it became the great firm of which your father is the present head. We both, your father and I, showed even more aptitude for this life of mercantile success than our father did, and he, perceiving this, retired while scarcely an old man. He made us over the entire business he had made, taking, however, from it, for his own private use, a large sum of money. On the interest of this money he would live, promising, however, to return it to us at his death. The money taken out of the business rather crippled us, and we begged of him to allow us to pay him the interest, and to let the capital remain at our disposal; but he wished to be completely his own master, and he bought a place in Hertfordshire out of part of the money. It was a year or two after, that he met his second wife and married her. I don't pretend," continued Uncle Jasper, "that we liked this marriage or our stepmother. We were young fellows then, and we thought our father had done us an injustice. The girl he had chosen was an insipid little thing, with just a pretty face, and nothing whatever else. She was not quite a lady. We saw her, and came to the conclusion that she was common—most unsuited to our father. We also remembered our own mother; and most young men feel pain at seeing any one put into her place.
"We expostulated with our father. He was a fiery old man, and hot words passed between us. I won't repeat what we all said, my dear, or how bitter John and I felt when we rode away from the old place our father had just purchased. One thing he said as we were going off.
"'My marrying again won't make any money difference to you two fellows, and I suppose I may please myself.'"
"I think my grandfather was very unjust," said Charlotte, but nevertheless a look of relief stole over her face.
"We went back to our business, my dear, and our father married; and when we wrote to him he did not answer our letters. After a time we heard a son had been born, and then, shortly after the birth of this child, the news reached us, that a lawyer had been summoned down to the manor-house in Hertfordshire. We supposed that our father was making provision for the child; and it seemed to us fair enough. Then we saw the child's death in the Times, and shortly after the news also came to us that the same lawyer had gone down again to see our father.
"After this, a few years went by, and we, busy with our own life, gave little heed to the old man, who seemed to have forgotten us. Suddenly we were summoned to his deathbed. John, your father, my dear, had always been his favorite. On his deathbed he seemed to have returned to the old times, when John was a little fellow. He liked to have him by his side; in short, he could not bear to have him out of his sight. He appeared to have forgotten the poor, common little wife he had married, and to live his early days over again. He died quite reconciled to us both, and we held his hand as he breathed his last.
"To our surprise, my dear, we found that he had left us every penny of his fortune. The wife and baby girl were left totally unprovided for. We were amazed! We thought it unjust. We instantly resolved to make provision for her and her baby. We did so. She never wanted to the day of her death."
"She did not starve," interrupted Charlotte, "but you shut her out, her and her child, from yourselves, and from me. Why did you do this?"
"My dear, you would scarcely speak in that tone to your father, and it was his wish as well as mine—indeed, far more his wish than mine. I was on the eve of going to Australia, to carry on a branch of our trade there; but he was remaining at home. He was not very long married. You don't remember your mother, Charlotte. Ah! what a fine young creature she was, but proud—proud of her high birth—of a thousand things. It would have been intolerable to her to associate with one like my stepmother. Your father was particular about his wife and child. He judged it best to keep these undesirable relations apart. I, for one, can scarcely blame him."
"I will not blame my father," said Charlotte. Again that look of relief had stolen over her face. The healthy tint, which was scarcely color, had returned to her cheek; and the tension of her attitude was also withdrawn, for she changed her seat, taking possession now of her favorite easy-chair. "But I like Charlotte Home," she said after a pause. "She is—whatever her mother may have been—quite a lady. I think it is hard that when she is so nearly related to me she should be so poor and I so rich. I will speak to my father. He asked me only this morning what I should like as a wedding present. I know what I shall like. He will give that three thousand pounds to Charlotte Home. The money her mother had for her life she shall have for ever. I know my father won't refuse me."
Charlotte's eyes were on the ground, and she did not see the dark expression which for a moment passed over Jasper Harman's face. Before he answered her he poked the fire into a vigorous flame.
"You are a generous girl, Lottie," he said then. "I admire your spirit. But it is plain, my dear, that money has come as easily to you as the very air you breathe, or you would not speak of three thousand pounds in a manner so light as almost to take one's breath away. But suppose—suppose the money could be given, there is another difficulty. To get that money for Mrs. Home, who, by the way, has her husband to provide for her, you must tell this tale to your father—you must not do that."
"Why not?" asked Charlotte, opening her eyes wide in surprise.
"Simply because he is ill, and the doctors have forbidden him to be in the least agitated."
"Uncle Jasper—I know he is not well, but I did not hear this; and why—why should what I have to say agitate him?"
"Because he cannot bear any allusion to the past. He loved his father; he cannot dwell on those years when they were estranged. My dear," continued old Uncle Jasper. "I am glad you came with this tale to me—it would have done your father harm. The doctors hope soon to make him much better, but at present he must hear nothing likely to give rise to gloomy thoughts; wait until he is better, my dear. And if you want help for this Mrs. Home, you must appeal to me. Promise me that, Lottie."
"I will promise, certainly, not to injure my father, but I confess you puzzle me."
"I am truly sorry, my dear. I will think over your tale, but now I must go to John. Will you come with me?"
"No, thanks; I would rather stay here."
"Then we shall not meet again, for in an hour I am off to my club. Good-night, my dear."
And Charlotte could not help noticing how soft and catlike were the footsteps of the old Australian uncle as he stole away.
JOHN AND JASPER HARMAN.
Jaspar Harman was sixty years old at this time, but the days of his pilgrimage had passed lightly over him, neither impairing his frame nor his vigor. At sixty years of age he could think as clearly, sleep as comfortably, eat as well—nay, even walk as far as he did thirty years ago. His life in the Antipodes seemed to have agreed with him. It is true his hair was turning gray, and his shrewd face had many wrinkles on it, but these seemed more the effects of climate than of years. He looked like a man whom no heart-trouble had ever touched and in this doubtless lay the secret of his perpetual youth. Care might sweep him very close, but it could not enter an unwelcome guest, to sit on the hearth of his holy of holies; into the innermost shrine of his being it could scarcely find room to enter. His was the kind of nature to whom remorse even for a sin committed must be almost unknown. His affections were not his strong point. Most decidedly his intellect overbalanced his heart. But without an undue preponderance of heart he was good-natured; he would pat a chubby little cheek, if he passed it in the street, and he would talk in a genial and hearty way to those beneath him in life. In business matters he was considered very shrewd and hard, but those who had no such dealings with him pronounced him a kindly soul. His smile was genial; his manner frank and pleasant. He had one trick, however, which no servant could bear—his step was as soft as a cat's; he must be on your heels before you had the faintest clue to his approach.
In this stealthy way he now left his niece's room, stole down the thickly carpeted stairs, crept across a tiled hall, and entered the apartment where his elder brother waited for him.
John Harman was only one year Jasper's senior, but there looked a much greater difference between them. Jasper was young for his years; John was old; nay, more—he was very old. In youth he must have been a handsome man; in age for every one spoke of him as aged, he was handsome still. He was tall, over six feet; his hair was silver-white; his eyes very deep set, very dark. Their expression was penetrating, kind, but sad. His mouth was firm, but had some lines round it which puzzled you. His smile, which was rare and seldom seen, was a wintry one. You would rather John Harman did not smile at you; you felt miserable afterwards. All who knew him said instinctively that John Harman had known some great trouble. Most people attributed it to the death of his wife, but, as this happened twenty years ago, others shook their heads and felt puzzled. Whatever the sorrow, however, which so perpetually clouded the fine old face, the nature of the man was so essentially noble that he was universally loved and respected.
John Harmon was writing a letter when his brother entered. He pushed aside his writing materials, however, and raised his head with a sigh of relief. In Jasper's presence there was always one element of comfort. He need cover over no anxieties; his old face looked almost sharp as he wheeled his chair round to the fire.
"No, you are not interrupting me," he began. "This letter can keep; it is not a business one. I never transact business at home." Then he added, as Jasper sank into the opposite chair, "You have been having a long chat with the child. I am glad she is getting fond of you."
"She is a fine girl," said Jasper; "a fine, generous girl. I like her, even though she does dabble in literature; and I like Hinton too. When are they to be married, John?"
"When Hinton gets his first brief—not before," answered John Harman.
"Well, well, he's a clever chap; I don't see why you should wait for that—he's safe to get on. If I were you, I'd like to see my girl comfortably settled. One can never tell what may happen!"
"What may happen!" repeated the elder Harman. "Do you allude now to the doctor's verdict on myself. I did not wish Charlotte acquainted with it."
"Pooh! my dear fellow, there's nothing to alarm our girl in that quarter. I'd lay my own life you have many long years before you. No, Charlotte knows you are not well, and that is all she need ever know. I was not alluding to your health, but to the fact that that fine young woman upstairs is, just to use a vulgar phrase, eating her own head off for want of something better to do. She is dabbling in print. Of course, her book must fail. She is full of all kinds of chimerical expedients. Why, this very evening she was propounding the most preposterous scheme to me, as generous as it was nonsensical. No, no, my dear fellow, even to you I won't betray confidence. The girl is an enthusiast. Now enthusiasts are always morbid and unhappy unless they can find vent for their energies. Why don't you give her the natural and healthy vents supplied by wifehood and motherhood? Why do you wait for Hinton's first brief to make them happy? You have money enough to make them happy at once."
"Yes, yes, Jasper—it is not that. It is just that I want the young man not to be altogether dependent on his wife. I am fonder of Hinton than of any other creature in the world except my own child. For his sake I ask for his short delay to their marriage. On the day he brings me news of that brief I take the first steps to settle on Charlotte a thousand a year during my lifetime. I make arrangements that her eldest son inherits the business, and I make further provision for any other children she may have."
"Well, my dear fellow, all that sounds very nice; and if Hinton was not quite the man he is I should say, 'Wait for the brief.' But I believe that having a wife will only make him seek that said brief all the harder. I see success before that future son-in-law of yours."
"And you are a shrewd observer of character, Jasper," answered his brother.
Neither of the men spoke for some time after this, and presently Jasper rose to go. He had all but reached the door when he turned back.
"You will be in good time in the city to-morrow, John."
"Yes, of course. Not that there is anything very special going on. Why do you ask?"
"Only that we must give an answer to that question of the trusteeship to the Rutherford orphans. I know you object to the charge, still it seems a pity for the sake of a sentiment."
Instantly John Harman, who had been crouching over the fire, rose to his full height. His deep-set eyes flashed, his voice trembled with some hardly suppressed anguish.
"Jasper!" he said suddenly and sharply; then he added, "you have but one answer to that question from me—never, never, as long as I live, shall our firm become trustees for even sixpence worth. You know my feelings on that point, Jasper, and they shall never change."
"You are a fool for your pains, then," muttered Jasper, but he closed the door rather hastily behind him.
"A PET DAY."
At breakfast the next morning Charlotte Harman was in almost wild spirits. Her movements were generally rather sedate, as befitted one so tall, so finely proportioned, so dignified. To-day her step seemed set to some hidden rhythmic measure; her eyes laughed; her gracious, kindly mouth was wreathed in perpetual smiles. Her father, on the contrary, looked more bent, more careworn, more aged even than usual. Looking, however, into her eyes for light, his own brightened. As he ate his frugal breakfast of coffee and dry toast he spoke:
"Charlotte, your Uncle Jasper came to me last night with a proposal on your behalf."
"Yes, father," answered Charlotte. She looked up expectantly. She thought of Mrs. Home. Her uncle had told the tale after all, and her dear and generous father would refuse her nothing. She should have the great joy of giving three thousand pounds to that poor mother for the use of her little children.
The next words, however, uttered by Mr. Harman caused these dreams to be dispelled by others more golden. The most generous woman must at times think first of herself. Charlotte was very generous; but her father's next words brought dimples into very prominent play in each cheek.
"My darling, Jasper thinks me very cruel to postpone your marriage. I will not postpone it. You and Hinton may fix the day. I will take that brief of his on trust."
No woman likes an indefinite engagement, and Charlotte was not the exception to prove this rule.
"Dearest father," she said, "I am very happy at this. I will tell John. He is coming over this morning. But you know my conditions? No wedding day for me unless my father agrees to live with me afterwards."
"Settle it as you please, dear child. I don't think there would be much sunshine left for me if you were away from me. And now I suppose you will be very busy. You have carte blanche for the trousseau, but your book? will you have time to write it, Charlotte? And that young woman whom I saw in your room yesterday, is she the amanuensis whom you told me about?"
"She is the lady whom I hoped to have secured, father, but she is not coming."
"Not coming! I rather liked her look, she seemed quite a lady. Did you offer her too small remuneration? Not that that would be your way, but you do not perhaps know what such labor is worth."
"It was not that, dear father. I offered her what she herself considered a very handsome sum. It was not that. She is very poor; very, very poor and she has three little children. I never saw such a hungry look in any eyes as she had, when she spoke of what money would be to her. But she gave me a reason—a reason which I am not at liberty to tell to you, which makes it impossible for her to come here."
Charlotte's cheeks were burning now, and something in her tone caused her father to gaze at her attentively. It was not his way, however, to press for any confidence not voluntarily offered. He rose from his seat with a slight sigh.
"Well, dear," he said, "you must look for some one else. We can't talk over matters to-night. Ask Hinton to stay and dine. There; I must be off, I am very late as it is."
Mr. Harman kissed his daughter and she went out as usual to button on his great-coat and see him down the street. She had performed this office for him ever since—a little mite of four years old—she had tried to take her dead mother's place. The child, the growing girl, the young woman, had all in turns stood on those steps, and watched that figure walking away. But never until to-day had she noticed how aged and bent it had grown. For the first time the possibility visited her heart that there might be such a thing for her in the future as life without her father.
Uncle Jasper had said he was not well; no, he did not look well. Her eyes filled with tears as she closed the hall door and re-entered the house. But her own prospects were too golden just now to permit her to dwell as long, or as anxiously, as she otherwise would have done, on so gloomy an aspect of her father's case.
Charlotte Harman was twenty-five years of age; but, except when her mother died, death had never come near her young life. She could scarcely remember her mother, and, with this one exception, death and sickness were things unknown. She has heard of them of course; but the grim practical knowledge, the standing face to face with the foe, were not her experience. She was the kind of woman who could develop into the most tender nurse, into the wisest, best, and most helpful guide, through those same dark roads of sickness and death, but the training for this was all to come. No wonder that in her inexperience she should soon cease to dwell on her father's bent figure and drawn, white face. A reaction was over her, and she must yield to it.
As she returned to the comfortable breakfast-room, her eyes shone brighter through their momentary tears. She went over and stood by the hearth. She was a most industrious creature, having trained herself not to waste an instant; but to-day she must indulge in a happy reverie.
How dark had been those few hours after Mrs. Home had left her yesterday; how undefined, how dim, and yet how dark had been her suspicions! She did not know what to think, or whom to suspect; but she felt that, cost her what it might, she must fathom the truth, and that having once fathomed it, something might be revealed to her that would embitter and darken her whole life.
And behold! she had done so. She had bravely grasped the phantom in both hands, and it had vanished into thin air. What she dreamed was not. There was no disgrace anywhere. A morbid young woman had conjured up a possible tale of wrong. There was no wrong. She, Mrs. Home, was to be pitied, and Charlotte would help her; but beyond this no dark or evil thing had come into her life.
And now, what a great further good was in store for her! Her father had most unexpectedly withdrawn his opposition over the slight delay he had insisted upon to her marriage. Charlotte did not know until now how she had chafed at this delay; how she had longed to be the wife of the man she loved. She said, "Thank God!" under her breath, then ran upstairs to her own room.