MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
Author of Robert Elsmere, The History Of David Grieve, etc.
In Two Volumes
TO MY FATHER I INSCRIBE THIS BOOK IN LOVE AND GRATITUDE
"If nature put not forth her power About the opening of the flower, Who is it that could live an hour?"
"The mists—and the sun—and the first streaks of yellow in the beeches—beautiful!—beautiful!"
And with a long breath of delight Marcella Boyce threw herself on her knees by the window she had just opened, and, propping her face upon her hands, devoured the scene, before her with that passionate intensity of pleasure which had been her gift and heritage through life.
She looked out upon a broad and level lawn, smoothed by the care of centuries, flanked on either side by groups of old trees—some Scotch firs, some beeches, a cedar or two—groups where the slow selective hand of time had been at work for generations, developing here the delightful roundness of quiet mass and shade, and there the bold caprice of bare fir trunks and ragged branches, standing black against the sky. Beyond the lawn stretched a green descent indefinitely long, carrying the eye indeed almost to the limit of the view, and becoming from the lawn onwards a wide irregular avenue, bordered by beeches of a splendid maturity, ending at last in a far distant gap where a gate—and a gate of some importance—clearly should have been, yet was not. The size of the trees, the wide uplands of the falling valley to the left of the avenue, now rich in the tints of harvest, the autumn sun pouring steadily through the vanishing mists, the green breadth of the vast lawn, the unbroken peace of wood and cultivated ground, all carried with them a confused general impression of well-being and of dignity. Marcella drew it in—this impression—with avidity. Yet at the same moment she noticed involuntarily the gateless gap at the end of the avenue, the choked condition of the garden paths on either side of the lawn, and the unsightly tufts of grass spotting the broad gravel terrace beneath her window.
"It is a heavenly place, all said and done," she protested to herself with a little frown. "But no doubt it would have been better still if Uncle Robert had looked after it and we could afford to keep the garden decent. Still—"
She dropped on a stool beside the open window, and as her eyes steeped themselves afresh in what they saw, the frown disappeared again in the former look of glowing content—that content of youth which is never merely passive, nay, rather, contains an invariable element of covetous eagerness.
It was but three months or so since Marcella's father, Mr. Richard Boyce, had succeeded to the ownership of Mellor Park the old home of the Boyces, and it was little more than six weeks since Marcella had received her summons home from the students' boarding-house in Kensington, where she had been lately living. She had ardently wished to assist in the June "settling-in," having not been able to apply her mind to the music or painting she was supposed to be studying, nor indeed to any other subject whatever, since the news of their inheritance had reached her. But her mother in a dry little note had let it be known that she preferred to manage the move for herself. Marcella had better go on with her studies as long as possible.
Yet Marcella was here at last. And as she looked round her large bare room, with its old dilapidated furniture, and then out again to woods and lawns, it seemed to her that all was now well, and that her childhood with its squalors and miseries was blotted out—atoned for by this last kind sudden stroke of fate, which might have been delayed so deplorably!—since no one could have reasonably expected that an apparently sound man of sixty would have succumbed in three days to the sort of common chill a hunter and sportsman must have resisted successfully a score of times before.
Her great desire now was to put the past—the greater part of it at any rate—behind her altogether. Its shabby worries were surely done with, poor as she and her parents still were, relatively to their present position. At least she was no longer the self-conscious schoolgirl, paid for at a lower rate than her companions, stinted in dress, pocket-money, and education, and fiercely resentful at every turn of some real or fancied slur; she was no longer even the half-Bohemian student of these past two years, enjoying herself in London so far as the iron necessity of keeping her boarding-house expenses down to the lowest possible figure would allow. She was something altogether different. She was Marcella Boyce, a "finished" and grown-up young woman of twenty-one, the only daughter and child of Mr. Boyce of Mellor Park, inheritress of one of the most ancient names in Midland England, and just entering on a life which to her own fancy and will, at any rate, promised the highest possible degree of interest and novelty.
Yet, in the very act of putting her past away from her, she only succeeded, so it seemed, in inviting it to repossess her.
For against her will, she fell straightway—in this quiet of the autumn morning—into a riot of memory, setting her past self against her present more consciously than she had done yet, recalling scene after scene and stage after stage with feelings of sarcasm, or amusement, or disgust, which showed themselves freely as they came and went, in the fine plastic face turned to the September woods.
She had been at school since she was nine years old—there was the dominant fact in these motley uncomfortable years behind her, which, in her young ignorance of the irrevocableness of living, she wished so impatiently to forget. As to the time before her school life, she had a dim memory of seemly and pleasant things, of a house in London, of a large and bright nursery, of a smiling mother who took constant notice of her, of games, little friends, and birthday parties. What had led to the complete disappearance of this earliest "set," to use a theatrical phrase, from the scenery of her childhood, Marcella did not yet adequately know, though she had some theories and many suspicions in the background of her mind. But at any rate this first image of memory was succeeded by another precise as the first was vague—the image of a tall white house, set against a white chalk cliff rising in terraces behind it and alongside it, where she had spent the years from nine to fourteen, and where, if she were set down blindfold, now, at twenty-one, she could have found her way to every room and door and cupboard and stair with a perfect and fascinated familiarity.
When she entered that house she was a lanky, black-eyed creature, tall for her age, and endowed or, as she herself would have put it, cursed with an abundance of curly unmanageable hair, whereof the brushing and tending soon became to a nervous clumsy child, not long parted from her nurse, one of the worst plagues of her existence. During her home life she had been an average child of the quick and clever type, with average faults. But something in the bare, ugly rooms, the discipline, the teaching, the companionship of Miss Frederick's Cliff House School for Young Ladies, transformed little Marcella Boyce, for the time being, into a demon. She hated her lessons, though, when she chose, she could do them in a hundredth part of the time taken by her companions; she hated getting up in the wintry dark, and her cold ablutions with some dozen others in the comfortless lavatory; she hated the meals in the long schoolroom, where, because twice meat was forbidden and twice pudding allowed, she invariably hungered fiercely for more mutton and scorned her second course, making a sort of dramatic story to herself out of Miss Frederick's tyranny and her own thwarted appetite as she sat black-browed and brooding in her place. She was not a favourite with her companions, and she was a perpetual difficulty and trouble to her perfectly well-intentioned schoolmistress. The whole of her first year was one continual series of sulks, quarrels, and revolts.
Perhaps her blackest days were the days she spent occasionally in bed, when Miss Frederick, at her wit's end, would take advantage of one of the child's perpetual colds to try the effects of a day's seclusion and solitary confinement, administered in such a form that it could do her charge no harm, and might, she hoped, do her good. "For I do believe a great part of it's liver or nerves! No child in her right senses could behave so," she would declare to the mild and stout French lady who had been her partner for years, and who was more inclined to befriend and excuse Marcella than any one else in the house—no one exactly knew why.
Now the rule of the house when any girl was ordered to bed with a cold was, in the first place, that she should not put her arms outside the bedclothes—for if you were allowed to read and amuse yourself in bed you might as well be up; that the housemaid should visit the patient in the early morning with a cup of senna-tea, and at long and regular intervals throughout the day with beef-tea and gruel; and that no one should come to see and talk with her, unless, indeed, it were the doctor, quiet being in all cases of sickness the first condition of recovery, and the natural schoolgirl in Miss Frederick's persuasion being more or less inclined to complain without cause if illness were made agreeable.
For some fourteen hours, therefore, on these days of durance Marcella was left almost wholly alone, nothing but a wild mass of black hair and a pair of roving, defiant eyes in a pale face showing above the bedclothes whenever the housemaid chose to visit her—a pitiable morsel, in truth, of rather forlorn humanity. For though she had her movements of fierce revolt, when she was within an ace of throwing the senna-tea in Martha's face, and rushing downstairs in her nightgown to denounce Miss Frederick in the midst of an astonished schoolroom, something generally interposed; not conscience, it is to be feared, or any wish "to be good," but only an aching, inmost sense of childish loneliness and helplessness; a perception that she had indeed tried everybody's patience to the limit, and that these days in bed represented crises which must be borne with even by such a rebel as Marcie Boyce.
So she submitted, and presently learnt, under dire stress of boredom, to amuse herself a good deal by developing a natural capacity for dreaming awake. Hour by hour she followed out an endless story of which she was always the heroine. Before the annoyance of her afternoon gruel, which she loathed, was well forgotten, she was in full fairy-land again, figuring generally as the trusted friend and companion of the Princess of Wales—of that beautiful Alexandra, the top and model of English society whose portrait in the window of the little stationer's shop at Marswell—the small country town near Cliff House—had attracted the child's attention once, on a dreary walk, and had ever since governed her dreams. Marcella had no fairy-tales, but she spun a whole cycle for herself around the lovely Princess who came to seem to her before long her own particular property. She had only to shut her eyes and she had caught her idol's attention—either by some look or act of passionate yet unobtrusive homage as she passed the royal carriage in the street—or by throwing herself in front of the divinity's runaway horses—or by a series of social steps easily devised by an imaginative child, well aware, in spite of appearances, that she was of an old family and had aristocratic relations. Then, when the Princess had held out a gracious hand and smiled, all was delight! Marcella grew up on the instant: she was beautiful, of course; she had, so people said, the "Boyce eyes and hair;" she had sweeping gowns, generally of white muslin with cherry-coloured ribbons; she went here and there with the Princess, laughing and talking quite calmly with the greatest people in the land, her romantic friendship with the adored of England making her all the time the observed of all observers, bringing her a thousand delicate flatteries and attentions.
Then, when she was at the very top of ecstasy, floating in the softest summer sea of fancy, some little noise would startle her into opening her eyes, and there beside her in the deepening dusk would be the bare white beds of her two dormitory companions, the ugly wall-paper opposite, and the uncovered boards with their frugal strips of carpet stretching away on either hand. The tea-bell would ring perhaps in the depths far below, and the sound would complete the transformation of the Princess's maid-of-honour into Marcie Boyce, the plain naughty child, whom nobody cared about, whose mother never wrote to her, who in contrast to every other girl in the school had not a single "party frock," and who would have to choose next morning between another dumb day of senna-tea and gruel, supposing she chose to plead that her cold was still obstinate, or getting up at half-past six to repeat half a page of Ince's "Outlines of English History" in the chilly schoolroom, at seven.
Looking back now as from another world on that unkempt fractious Marcie of Cliff House, the Marcella of the present saw with a mixture of amusement and self-pity that one great aggravation of that child's daily miseries had been a certain injured, irritable sense of social difference between herself and her companions. Some proportion of the girls at Cliff House were drawn from the tradesman class of two or three neighbouring towns. Their tradesmen papas were sometimes ready to deal on favourable terms with Miss Frederick for the supply of her establishment; in which case the young ladies concerned evidently felt themselves very much at home, and occasionally gave themselves airs which alternately mystified and enraged a little spitfire outsider like Marcella Boyce. Even at ten years old she perfectly understood that she was one of the Boyces of Brookshire, and that her great-uncle had been a famous Speaker of the House of Commons. The portrait of this great-uncle had hung in the dining room of that pretty London house which now seemed so far away; her father had again and again pointed it out to the child, and taught her to be proud of it; and more than once her childish eye had been caught by the likeness between it and an old grey-haired gentleman who occasionally came to see them, and whom she called "Grandpapa." Through one influence and another she had drawn the glory of it, and the dignity of her race generally, into her childish blood. There they were now—the glory and the dignity—a feverish leaven, driving her perpetually into the most crude and ridiculous outbreaks, which could lead to nothing but humiliation.
"I wish my great-uncle were here! He'd make you remember—you great—you great—big bully you!"—she shrieked on one occasion when she had been defying a big girl in authority, and the big girl—the stout and comely daughter of a local ironmonger—had been successfully asserting herself.
The big girl opened her eyes wide and laughed.
"Your great-uncle! Upon my word! And who may he be, miss? If it comes to that, I'd like to show my great-uncle David how you've scratched my wrist. He'd give it you. He's almost as strong as father, though he is so old. You get along with you, and behave yourself, and don't talk stuff to me."
Whereupon Marcella, choking with rage and tears, found herself pushed out of the schoolroom and the door shut upon her. She rushed up to the top terrace, which was the school playground, and sat there in a hidden niche of the wall, shaking and crying,—now planning vengeance on her conqueror, and now hot all over with the recollection of her own ill-bred and impotent folly.
No—during those first two years the only pleasures, so memory declared, were three: the visits of the cake-woman on Saturday—Marcella sitting in her window could still taste the three-cornered puffs and small sweet pears on which, as much from a fierce sense of freedom and self-assertion as anything else, she had lavished her tiny weekly allowance; the mad games of "tig," which she led and organised in the top playground; and the kindnesses of fat Mademoiselle Renier, Miss Frederick's partner, who saw a likeness in Marcella to a long-dead small sister of her own, and surreptitiously indulged "the little wild-cat," as the school generally dubbed the Speaker's great-niece, whenever she could.
But with the third year fresh elements and interests had entered in. Romance awoke, and with it certain sentimental affections. In the first place, a taste for reading had rooted itself—reading of the adventurous and poetical kind. There were two or three books which Marcella had absorbed in a way it now made her envious to remember. For at twenty-one people who take interest in many things, and are in a hurry to have opinions, must skim and "turn over" books rather than read them, must use indeed as best they may a scattered and distracted mind, and suffer occasional pangs of conscience as pretenders. But at thirteen—what concentration! what devotion! what joy! One of these precious volumes was Bulwer's "Rienzi"; another was Miss Porter's "Scottish Chiefs"; a third was a little red volume of "Marmion" which an aunt had given her. She probably never read any of them through—she had not a particle of industry or method in her composition—but she lived in them. The parts which it bored her to read she easily invented for herself, but the scenes and passages which thrilled her she knew by heart; she had no gift for verse-making, but she laboriously wrote a long poem on the death of Rienzi, and she tried again and again with a not inapt hand to illustrate for herself in pen and ink the execution of Wallace.
But all these loves for things and ideas were soon as nothing in comparison with a friendship, and an adoration.
To take the adoration first. When Marcella came to Cliff House she was recommended by the same relation who gave her "Marmion" to the kind offices of the clergyman of the parish, who happened to be known to some of the Boyce family. He and his wife—they had no children—did their duty amply by the odd undisciplined child. They asked her to tea once or twice; they invited her to the school-treat, where she was only self-conscious and miserably shy; and Mr. Ellerton had at least one friendly and pastoral talk with Miss Frederick as to the difficulties of her pupil's character. For a long time little came of it. Marcella was hard to tame, and when she went to tea at the Rectory Mrs. Ellerton, who was refined and sensible, did not know what to make of her, though in some unaccountable way she was drawn to and interested by the child. But with the expansion of her thirteenth year there suddenly developed in Marcie's stormy breast an overmastering absorbing passion for these two persons. She did not show it to them much, but for herself it raised her to another plane of existence, gave her new objects and new standards. She who had hated going to church now counted time entirely by Sundays. To see the pulpit occupied by any other form and face than those of the rector was a calamity hardly to be borne; if the exit of the school party were delayed by any accident so that Mr. and Mrs. Ellerton overtook them in the churchyard, Marcella would walk home on air, quivering with a passionate delight, and in the dreary afternoon of the school Sunday she would spend her time happily in trying to write down the heads of Mr. Ellerton's sermon. In the natural course of things she would, at this time, have taken no interest in such things at all, but whatever had been spoken by him had grace, thrill, meaning.
Nor was the week quite barren of similar delights. She was generally sent to practise on an old square piano in one of the top rooms. The window in front of her overlooked the long white drive and the distant high road into which it ran. Three times a week on an average Mrs. Ellerton's pony carriage might be expected to pass along that road. Every day Marcella watched for it, alive with expectation, her fingers strumming as they pleased. Then with the first gleam of the white pony in the distance, over would go the music stool, and the child leapt to the window, remaining fixed there, breathing quick and eagerly till the trees on the left had hidden from her the graceful erect figure of Mrs. Ellerton. Then her moment of Paradise was over; but the afterglow of it lasted for the day.
So much for romance, for feelings as much like love as childhood can know them, full of kindling charm and mystery. Her friendship had been of course different, but it also left deep mark. A tall, consumptive girl among the Cliff House pupils, the motherless daughter of a clergyman-friend of Miss Frederick's, had for some time taken notice of Marcella, and at length won her by nothing else, in the first instance, than a remarkable gift for story-telling. She was a parlour-boarder, had a room to herself, and a fire in it when the weather was cold. She was not held strictly to lesson hours; many delicacies in the way of food were provided for her, and Miss Frederick watched over her with a quite maternal solicitude. When winter came she developed a troublesome cough, and the doctor recommended that a little suite of rooms looking south and leading out on the middle terrace of the garden should be given up to her. There was a bedroom, an intermediate dressing-room, and then a little sitting-room built out upon the terrace, with a window-door opening upon it.
Here Mary Lant spent week after week. Whenever lesson hours were done she clamoured for Marcie Boyce, and Marcella was always eager to go to her. She would fly up stairs and passages, knock at the bedroom door, run down the steps to the queer little dressing-room where the roof nearly came on your head, and down more steps again to the sitting-room. Then when the door was shut, and she was crooning over the fire with her friend, she was entirely happy. The tiny room was built on the edge of the terrace, the ground fell rapidly below it, and the west window commanded a broad expanse of tame arable country, of square fields and hedges, and scattered wood. Marcella, looking back upon that room, seemed always to see it flooded with the rays of wintry sunset, a kettle boiling on the fire, her pale friend in a shawl crouching over the warmth, and the branches of a snowberry tree, driven by the wind, beating against the terrace door.
But what a story-teller was Mary Lant! She was the inventor of a story called "John and Julia," which went on for weeks and months without ever producing the smallest satiety in Marcella. Unlike her books of adventure, this was a domestic drama of the purest sort; it was extremely moral and evangelical, designed indeed by its sensitively religious author for Marcie's correction and improvement. There was in it a sublime hero, who set everybody's faults to rights and lectured the heroine. In real life Marcella would probably before long have been found trying to kick his shins—a mode of warfare of which in her demon moods she was past mistress. But as Mary Lant described him, she not only bore with and trembled before him—she adored him. The taste for him and his like, as well as for the story-teller herself—a girl of a tremulous, melancholy fibre, sweet-natured, possessed by a Calvinist faith, and already prescient of death—grew upon her. Soon her absorbing desire was to be altogether shut up with Mary, except on Sundays and at practising times. For this purpose she gave herself the worst cold she could achieve, and cherished diligently what she proudly considered to be a racking cough. But Miss Frederick was deaf to the latter, and only threatened the usual upstairs seclusion and senna-tea for the former, whereupon Marcella in alarm declared that her cold was much better and gave up the cough in despair. It was her first sorrow and cost her some days of pale brooding and silence, and some nights of stifled tears, when during an Easter holiday a letter from Miss Frederick to her mother announced the sudden death of Mary Lant.
Friendship and love are humanising things, and by her fourteenth year Marcella was no longer a clever little imp, but a fast-maturing and in some ways remarkable girl, with much of the woman in her already. She had begun even to feel an interest in her dress, to speculate occasionally on her appearance. At the fourth breaking-up party after her arrival at Cliff House, Marcella, who had usually figured on these occasions in a linsey-woolsey high to the throat, amid the frilled and sashed splendours of her companions, found lying on her bed, when she went up with the others to dress, a plain white muslin dress with blue ribbons. It was the gift of old Mademoiselle Renier, who affectionately wished her queer, neglected favourite to look well. Marcella examined it and fingered it with an excited mixture of feelings. First of all there was the sore and swelling bitterness that she should owe such things to the kindness of the French governess, whereas finery for the occasion had been freely sent to all the other girls from "home." She very nearly turned her back upon the bed and its pretty burden. But then the mere snowy whiteness of the muslin and freshness of the ribbons, and the burning curiosity to see herself decked therein, overcame a nature which, in the midst of its penury, had been always really possessed by a more than common hunger for sensuous beauty and seemliness. Marcella wore it, was stormily happy in it, and kissed Mademoiselle Renier for it at night with an effusion, nay, some tears, which no one at Cliff House had ever witnessed in her before except with the accompaniments of rage and fury.
A little later her father came to see her, the first and only visit he paid to her at school. Marcella, to whom he was by now almost a stranger, received him demurely, making no confidences, and took him over the house and gardens. When he was about to leave her a sudden upswell of paternal sentiment made him ask her if she was happy and if she wanted anything.
"Yes!" said Marcella, her large eyes gleaming; "tell mamma I want a 'fringe.' Every other girl in the school has got one."
And she pointed disdainfully to her plainly parted hair. Her father, astonished by her unexpected vehemence, put up his eyeglass and studied the child's appearance. Three days later, by her mother's permission, Marcella was taken to the hairdresser at Marswell by Mademoiselle Renier, returned in all the glories of a "fringe," and, in acknowledgment thereof, wrote her mother a letter which for the first time had something else than formal news in it.
Meanwhile new destinies were preparing for her. For a variety of small reasons Mr. Boyce, who had never yet troubled himself about the matter from a distance, was not, upon personal inspection, very favourably struck with his daughter's surroundings. His wife remarked shortly, when he complained to her, that Marcella seemed to her as well off as the daughter of persons of their means could expect to be. But Mr. Boyce stuck to his point. He had just learnt that Harold, the only son of his widowed brother Robert, of Mellor Park, had recently developed a deadly disease, which might be long, but must in the end be sure. If the young man died and he outlived Robert, Mellor Park would be his; they would and must return, in spite of certain obstacles, to their natural rank in society, and Marcella must of course be produced as his daughter and heiress. When his wife repulsed him, he went to his eldest sister, an old maid with a small income of her own, who happened to be staying with them, and was the only member of his family with whom he was now on terms. She was struck with his remarks, which bore on family pride, a commodity not always to be reckoned on in the Boyces, but which she herself possessed in abundance; and when he paused she slowly said that if an ideal school of another type could be found for Marcella, she would be responsible for what it might cost over and above the present arrangement. Marcella's manners were certainly rough; it was difficult to say what she was learning, or with whom she was associating; accomplishments she appeared to have none. Something should certainly be done for her—considering the family contingencies. But being a strong evangelical, the aunt stipulated for "religious influences," and said she would write to a friend.
The result was that a month or two later Marcella, now close on her fourteenth birthday, was transferred from Cliff House to the charge of a lady who managed a small but much-sought-after school for young ladies at Solesby, a watering place on the east coast.
* * * * *
But when in the course of reminiscence Marcella found herself once more at Solesby, memory began to halt and wander, to choose another tone and method. At Solesby the rough surroundings and primitive teaching of Cliff House, together with her own burning sense of inferiority and disadvantage, had troubled her no more. She was well taught there, and developed quickly from the troublesome child into the young lady duly broken in to all social proprieties. But it was not her lessons or her dancing masters that she remembered. She had made for herself agitations at Cliff House, but what were they as compared to the agitations of Solesby! Life there had been one long Wertherish romance in which there were few incidents, only feelings, which were themselves events. It contained humiliations and pleasures, but they had been all matters of spiritual relation, connected with one figure only—the figure of her schoolmistress, Miss Pemberton; and with one emotion only—a passion, an adoration, akin to that she had lavished on the Ellertons, but now much more expressive and mature. A tall slender woman with brown, grey-besprinkled hair falling in light curls after the fashion of our grandmothers on either cheek, and braided into a classic knot behind—the face of a saint, an enthusiast—eyes overflowing with feeling above a thin firm mouth—the mouth of the obstinate saint, yet sweet also: this delicate significant picture was stamped on Marcella's heart. What tremors of fear and joy could she not remember in connection with it? what night-vigils when a tired girl kept herself through long hours awake that she might see at last the door open and a figure with a night-lamp standing an instant in the doorway?—for Miss Pemberton, who slept little and read late, never went to rest without softly going the rounds of her pupils' rooms. What storms of contest, mainly provoked by Marcella for the sake of the emotions, first of combat, then of reconciliation to which they led! What a strange development on the pupil's side of a certain histrionic gift, a turn for imaginative intrigue, for endless small contrivances such as might rouse or heighten the recurrent excitements of feeling! What agitated moments of religious talk! What golden days in the holidays, when long-looked-for letters arrived full of religious admonition, letters which were carried about and wept over till they fell to pieces under the stress of such a worship—what terrors and agonies of a stimulated conscience—what remorse for sins committed at school—what zeal to confess them in letters of a passionate eloquence—and what indifference meanwhile to anything of the same sort that might have happened at home!
Strange faculty that women have for thus lavishing their heart's blood from their very cradles! Marcella could hardly look back now, in the quiet of thought, to her five years with Miss Pemberton without a shiver of agitation. Yet now she never saw her. It was two years since they parted; the school was broken up; her idol had gone to India to join a widowed brother. It was all over—for ever. Those precious letters had worn themselves away; so, too, had Marcella's religious feelings; she was once more another being.
* * * * *
But these two years since she had said good-bye to Solesby and her school days? Once set thinking of bygones by the stimulus of Mellor and its novelty, Marcella must needs think, too, of her London life, of all that it had opened to her, and meant for her. Fresh agitations!—fresh passions!—but this time impersonal, passions of the mind and sympathies.
At the time she left Solesby her father and mother were abroad, and it was apparently not convenient that she should join them. Marcella, looking back, could not remember that she had ever been much desired at home. No doubt she had been often moody and tiresome in the holidays; but she suspected—nay, was certain—that there had been other and more permanent reasons why her parents felt her presence with them a burden. At any rate, when the moment came for her to leave Miss Pemberton, her mother wrote from abroad that, as Marcella had of late shown decided aptitude both for music and painting, it would be well that she should cultivate both gifts for a while more seriously than would be possible at home. Mrs. Boyce had made inquiries, and was quite willing that her daughter should go, for a time, to a lady whose address she enclosed, and to whom she herself had written—a lady who received girl-students working at the South Kensington art classes.
So began an experience, as novel as it was strenuous. Marcella soon developed all the airs of independence and all the jargon of two professions. Working with consuming energy and ambition, she pushed her gifts so far as to become at least a very intelligent, eager, and confident critic of the art of other people—which is much. But though art stirred and trained her, gave her new horizons and new standards, it was not in art that she found ultimately the chief excitement and motive-power of her new life—not in art, but in the birth of social and philanthropic ardour, the sense of a hitherto unsuspected social power.
One of her girl-friends and fellow-students had two brothers in London, both at work at South Kensington, and living not far from their sister. The three were orphans. They sprang from a nervous, artistic stock, and Marcella had never before come near any one capable of crowding so much living into the twenty-four hours. The two brothers, both of them skilful and artistic designers in different lines, and hard at work all day, were members of a rising Socialist society, and spent their evenings almost entirely on various forms of social effort and Socialist propaganda. They seemed to Marcella's young eyes absolutely sincere and quite unworldly. They lived as workmen; and both the luxuries and the charities of the rich were equally odious to them. That there could be any "right" in private property or private wealth had become incredible to them; their minds were full of lurid images or resentments drawn from the existing state of London; and though one was humorous and handsome, the other, short, sickly, and pedantic, neither could discuss the Socialist ideal without passion, nor hear it attacked without anger. And in milder measure their sister, who possessed more artistic gift than either of them, was like unto them.
Marcella saw much of these three persons, and something of their friends. She went with them to Socialist lectures, or to the public evenings of the Venturist Society, to which the brothers belonged. Edie, the sister, assaulted the imagination of her friend, made her read the books of a certain eminent poet and artist, once the poet of love and dreamland, "the idle singer of an empty day," now seer and prophet, the herald of an age to come, in which none shall possess, though all shall enjoy. The brothers, more ambitious, attacked her through the reason, brought her popular translations and selections from Marx and Lassalle, together with each Venturist pamphlet and essay as it appeared; they flattered her with technical talk; they were full of the importance of women to the new doctrine and the new era.
The handsome brother was certainly in love with her; the other, probably. Marcella was not in love with either of them, but she was deeply interested in all three, and for the sickly brother she felt at that time a profound admiration—nay, reverence—which influenced her vitally at a critical moment of life. "Blessed are the poor"—"Woe unto you, rich men"—these were the only articles of his scanty creed, but they were held with a fervour, and acted upon with a conviction, which our modern religion seldom commands. His influence made Marcella a rent-collector under a lady friend of his in the East End; because of it, she worked herself beyond her strength in a joint attempt made by some members of the Venturist Society to organise a Tailoresses' Union; and, to please him, she read articles and blue-books on Sweating and Overcrowding. It was all very moving and very dramatic; so, too, was the persuasion Marcella divined in her friends, that she was destined in time, with work and experience, to great things and high place in the movement.
The wholly unexpected news of Mr. Boyce's accession to Mellor had very various effects upon this little band of comrades. It revived in Marcella ambitions, instincts and tastes wholly different from those of her companions, but natural to her by temperament and inheritance. The elder brother, Anthony Craven, always melancholy and suspicious, divined her immediately.
"How glad you are to be done with Bohemia!" he said to her ironically one day, when he had just discovered her with the photographs of Mellor about her. "And how rapidly it works!"
"What works?" she asked him angrily.
"The poison of possession. And what a mean end it puts to things! A week ago you were all given to causes not your own; now, how long will it take you to think of us as 'poor fanatics!'—and to be ashamed you ever knew us?"
"You mean to say that I am a mean hypocrite!" she cried. "Do you think that because I delight in—in pretty things and old associations, I must give up all my convictions? Shall I find no poor at Mellor—no work to do? It is unkind—unfair. It is the way all reform breaks down—through mutual distrust!"
He looked at her with a cold smile in his dark, sunken eyes, and she turned from him indignantly.
When they bade her good-bye at the station, she begged them to write to her.
"No, no!" said Louis, the handsome younger brother. "If ever you want us, we are there. If you write, we will answer. But you won't need to think about us yet awhile. Good-bye!"
And he pressed her hand with a smile.
The good fellow had put all his own dreams and hopes out of sight with a firm hand since the arrival of her great news. Indeed, Marcella realised in them all that she was renounced. Louis and Edith spoke with affection and regret. As to Anthony, from the moment that he set eyes upon the maid sent to escort her to Mellor, and the first-class ticket that had been purchased for her, Marcella perfectly understood that she had become to him as an enemy.
"They shall see—I will show them!" she said to herself with angry energy, as the train whirled her away. And her sense of their unwarrantable injustice kept her tense and silent till she was roused to a childish and passionate pleasure by a first sight of the wide lawns and time-stained front of Mellor.
* * * * *
Of such elements, such memories of persons, things, and events, was Marcella's reverie by the window made up. One thing, however, which, clearly, this report of it has not explained, is that spirit of energetic discontent with her past in which she had entered on her musings. Why such soreness of spirit? Her childhood had been pinched and loveless; but, after all, it could well bear comparison with that of many another child of impoverished parents. There had been compensations all through—and were not the great passion of her Solesby days, together with the interest and novelty of her London experience, enough to give zest and glow to the whole retrospect? Ah! but it will be observed that in this sketch of Marcella's schooldays nothing has been said of Marcella's holidays. In this omission the narrative has but followed the hasty, half-conscious gaps and slurs of the girl's own thought. For Marcella never thought of those holidays and all that was connected with them in detail, if she could possibly avoid it. But it was with them, in truth, and with what they implied, that she was so irritably anxious to be done when she first began to be reflective by the window; and it was to them she returned with vague, but still intense consciousness when the rush of active reminiscence died away.
* * * * *
That surely was the breakfast bell ringing, and with the dignified ancestral sound which was still so novel and attractive to Marcella's ear. Recalled to Mellor Park and its circumstances, she went thoughtfully downstairs, pondering a little on the shallow steps of the beautiful Jacobean staircase. Could she ever turn her back upon those holidays? Was she not rather, so to speak, just embarked upon their sequel, or second volume?
But let us go downstairs also.
Breakfast was laid in the "Chinese room," a room which formed part of the stately "garden front," added to the original structure of the house in the eighteenth century by a Boyce whose wife had money. The decorations, especially of the domed and vaulted roof, were supposed by their eighteenth century designer to be "Oriental"; they were, at any rate, intricate and overladen; and the figures of mandarins on the worn and discoloured wall-paper had, at least, top-knots, pigtails, and petticoats to distinguish them from the ordinary Englishmen of 1760, besides a charming mellowness of colour and general effect bestowed on them by time and dilapidation. The marble mantelpiece was elaborately carved in Chinamen and pagodas. There were Chinese curiosities of a miscellaneous kind on the tables, and the beautiful remains of an Indian carpet underfoot. Unluckily, some later Boyce had thrust a crudely Gothic sideboard, with an arched and pillared front, adapted to the purposes of a warming apparatus, into the midst of the mandarins, which disturbed the general effect. But with all its original absurdities, and its modern defacements, the room was a beautiful and stately one. Marcella stepped into it with a slight unconscious straightening of her tall form. It seemed to her that she had never breathed easily till now, in the ample space of these rooms and gardens.
Her father and mother were already at table, together with Mrs. Boyce's brown spaniel Lynn.
Mr. Boyce was employed in ordering about the tall boy in a worn and greasy livery coat, who represented the men-service of the establishment; his wife was talking to her dog, but from the lift of her eyebrows, and the twitching of her thin lips, it was plain to Marcella that her mother was as usual of opinion that her father was behaving foolishly.
"There, for goodness' sake, cut some bread on the sideboard," said the angry master, "and hand it round instead of staring about you like a stuck pig. What they taught you at Sir William Jute's I can't conceive. I didn't undertake to make a man-servant of you, sir."
The pale, harassed lad flew at the bread, cut it with a vast scattering of crumbs, handed it clumsily round, and then took glad advantage of a short supply of coffee to bolt from the room to order more.
"Idiot!" said Mr. Boyce, with an angry frown, as he disappeared.
"If you would allow Ann to do her proper parlour work again," said his wife blandly, "you would, I think, be less annoyed. And as I believe William was boot boy at the Jutes', it is not surprising that he did not learn waiting."
"I tell you, Evelyn, that our position demands a man-servant!" was the hot reply. "None of my family have ever attempted to run this house with women only. It would be unseemly—unfitting—incon—"
"Oh, I am no judge of course of what a Boyce may do!" said his wife carelessly. "I leave that to you and the neighbourhood."
Mr. Boyce looked uncomfortable, cooled down, and presently when the coffee came back asked his wife for a fresh supply in tones from which all bellicosity had for the time departed. He was a small and singularly thin man, with blue wandering eyes under the blackest possible eyebrows and hair. The cheeks were hollow, the complexion as yellow as that of the typical Anglo-Indian. The special character of the mouth was hidden by a fine black moustache, but his prevailing expression varied between irritability and a kind of plaintiveness. The conspicuous blue eyes were as a rule melancholy; but they could be childishly bright and self-assertive. There was a general air of breeding about Richard Boyce, of that air at any rate which our common generalisations connect with the pride of old family; his dress was careful and correct to the last detail; and his hands with their long fingers were of an excessive delicacy, though marred as to beauty by a thinness which nearly amounted to emaciation.
"The servants say they must leave unless the ghost does, Marcella," said Mrs. Boyce, suddenly, laying a morsel of toast as she spoke on Lynn's nose. "Someone from the village of course has been talking—the cook says she heard something last night, though she will not condescend to particulars—and in general it seems to me that you and I may be left before long to do the house work."
"What do they say in the village?" asked Marcella eagerly.
"Oh! they say there was a Boyce two hundred years ago who fled down here from London after doing something he shouldn't—I really forget what. The sheriff's officers were advancing on the house. Their approach displeased him, and he put an end to himself at the head of the little staircase leading from the tapestry-room down to my sitting-room. Why did he choose the staircase?" said Mrs. Boyce with light reflectiveness.
"It won't do," said Marcella, shaking her head. "I know the Boyce they mean. He was a ruffian, but he shot himself in London; and, any way, he was dead long before that staircase was built."
"Dear me, how well up you are!" said her mother. "Suppose you give a little lecture on the family in the servants' hall. Though I never knew a ghost yet that was undone by dates."
There was a satiric detachment in her tone which contrasted sharply with Marcella's amused but sympathetic interest. Detachment was perhaps the characteristic note of Mrs. Boyce's manner,—a curious separateness, as it were, from all the things and human beings immediately about her.
"I shall ask Mr. Harden about the stories," she said presently. "He will have heard them in the village. I am going to the church this morning."
Her mother looked at her—a look of quiet examination—and smiled. The Lady Bountiful airs that Marcella had already assumed during the six weeks she had been in the house entertained Mrs. Boyce exceedingly.
"Harden!" said Mr. Boyce, catching the name. "I wish that man would leave me alone. What have I got to do with a water-supply for the village? It will be as much as ever I can manage to keep a water-tight roof over our heads during the winter after the way in which Robert has behaved."
Marcella's cheek flushed.
"The village water-supply is a disgrace," she said with low emphasis. "I never saw such a crew of unhealthy, wretched-looking children in my life as swarm about those cottages. We take the rent, and we ought to look after them. I believe you could be forced to do something, papa—if the local authority were of any use."
She looked at him defiantly.
"Nonsense," said Mr. Boyce testily. "They got along in your Uncle Robert's days, and they can get along now. Charity, indeed! Why, the state of this house and the pinch for money altogether is enough, I should think, to take a man's mind. Don't you go talking to Mr. Harden in the way you do, Marcella. I don't like it, and I won't have it. You have the interests of your family and your home to think of first."
"Poor starved things!" said Marcella sarcastically—"living in such a den!"
And she swept her white hand round, as though calling to witness the room in which they sat.
"I tell you," said Mr. Boyce, rising and standing before the fire, whence he angrily surveyed the handsome daughter who was in truth so little known to him, and whose nature and aims during the close contact of the last few weeks had become something of a perplexity and disturbance to him,—"I tell you our great effort, the effort of us all, must be to keep up the family position!—our position. Look at that library, and its condition; look at the state of these wall-papers; look at the garden; look at the estate books if it comes to that. Why, it will be years before, even with all my knowledge of affairs, I can pull the thing through—years!"
Mrs. Boyce gave a slight cough—she had pushed back her chair, and was alternately studying her husband and daughter. They might have been actors performing for her amusement. And yet, amusement is not precisely the word. For that hazel eye, with its frequent smile, had not a spark of geniality. After a time those about her found something scathing in its dry light.
Now, as soon as her husband became aware that she was watching him, his look wavered, and his mood collapsed. He threw her a curious furtive glance, and fell silent.
"I suppose Mr. Harden and his sister remind you of your London Socialist friends, Marcella?" asked Mrs. Boyce lightly, in the pause that followed. "You have, I see, taken a great liking for them."
"Oh! well—I don't know," said Marcella, with a shrug, and something of a proud reticence. "Mr. Harden is very kind—but—he doesn't seem to have thought much about things."
She never talked about her London friends to her mother, if she could help it. The sentiments of life generally avoided Mrs. Boyce when they could. Marcella being all sentiment and impulse, was constantly her mother's victim, do what she would. But in her quiet moments she stood on the defensive.
"So the Socialists are the only people who think?" said Mrs. Boyce, who was now standing by the window, pressing her dog's head against her dress as he pushed up against her. "Well, I am sorry for the Hardens. They tell me they give all their substance away—already—and every one says it is going to be a particularly bad winter. The living, I hear, is worth nothing. All the same, I should wish them to look more cheerful. It is the first duty of martyrs."
Marcella looked at her mother indignantly. It seemed to her often that she said the most heartless things imaginable.
"Cheerful!" she said—"in a village like this—with all the young men drifting off to London, and all the well-to-do people dissenters—no one to stand by him—no money and no helpers—the people always ill—wages eleven and twelve shillings a week—and only the old wrecks of men left to do the work! He might, I think, expect the people in this house to back him up a little. All he asks is that papa should go and satisfy himself with his own eyes as to the difference between our property and Lord Maxwell's—"
"Lord Maxwell's!" cried Mr. Boyce, rousing himself from a state of half-melancholy, half-sleepy reverie by the fire, and throwing away his cigarette—"Lord Maxwell! Difference! I should think so. Thirty thousand a year, if he has a penny. By the way, I wish he would just have the civility to answer my note about those coverts over by Willow Scrubs!"
He had hardly said the words when the door opened to admit William the footman, in his usual tremor of nervousness, carrying a salver and a note.
"The man says, please sir, is there any answer, sir?"
"Well, that's odd!" said Mr. Boyce, his look brightening. "Here is Lord Maxwell's answer, just as I was talking of it."
His wife turned sharply and watched him take it; her lips parted, a strange expectancy in her whole attitude. He tore it open, read it, and then threw it angrily under the grate.
"No answer. Shut the door." The lad retreated. Mr. Boyce sat down and began carefully to put the fire together. His thin left hand shook upon his knee.
There was a moment's pause of complete silence. Mrs. Boyce's face might have been seen by a close observer to quiver and then stiffen as she stood in the light of the window, a tall and queenly figure in her sweeping black. But she said not a word, and presently left the room.
Marcella watched her father.
"Papa—was that a note from Lord Maxwell?"
Mr. Boyce looked round with a start, as though surprised that any one was still there. It struck Marcella that he looked yellow and shrunken—years older than her mother. An impulse of tenderness, joined with anger and a sudden sick depression—she was conscious of them all as she got up and went across to him, determined to speak out. Her parents were not her friends, and did not possess her confidence; but her constant separation from them since her childhood had now sometimes the result of giving her the boldness with them that a stranger might have had. She had no habitual deference to break through, and the hindering restraints of memory, though strong, were still less strong than they would have been if she had lived with them day by day and year by year, and had known their lives in close detail instead of guessing at them, as was now so often the case with her.
"Papa, is Lord Maxwell's note an uncivil one?"
Mr. Boyce stooped forward and began to rub his chilly hand over the blaze.
"Why, that man's only son and I used to loaf and shoot and play cricket together from morning till night when we were boys. Henry Raeburn was a bit older than I, and he lent me the gun with which I shot my first rabbit. It was in one of the fields over by Soleyhurst, just where the two estates join. After that we were always companions—we used to go out at night with the keepers after poachers; we spent hours in the snow watching for wood-pigeons; we shot that pair of kestrels over the inner hall door, in the Windmill Hill fields—at least I did—I was a better shot than he by that time. He didn't like Robert—he always wanted me."
"Well, papa, but what does he say?" asked Marcella, impatiently. She laid her hand, however, as she spoke, on her father's shoulder.
Mr. Boyce winced and looked up at her. He and her mother had originally sent their daughter away from home that they might avoid the daily worry of her awakening curiosities, and one of his resolutions in coming to Mellor Park had been to keep up his dignity with her. But the sight of her dark face bent upon him, softened by a quick and womanly compassion, seemed to set free a new impulse in him.
"He writes in the third person, if you want to know, my dear, and refers me to his agent, very much as though I were some London grocer who had just bought the place. Oh, it is quite evident what he means. They were here without moving all through June and July, and it is now three weeks at least since he and Miss Raeburn came back from Scotland, and not a card nor a word from either of them! Nor from the Winterbournes, nor the Levens. Pleasant! Well, my dear, you must make up your mind to it. I did think—I was fool enough to think—that when I came back to the old place, my father's old friends would let bygones be bygones. I never did them any harm. Let them 'gang their gait,' confound them!"—the little dark man straightened himself fiercely—"I can get my pleasure out of the land; and as for your mother, she'd not lift a finger to propitiate one of them!"
In the last words, however, there was not a fraction of that sympathetic pride which the ear expected, but rather fresh bitterness and grievance.
Marcella stood thinking, her mind travelling hither and thither with lightning speed, now over the social events of the last six weeks—now over incidents of those long-past holidays. Was this, indeed, the second volume beginning—the natural sequel to those old mysterious histories of shrinking, disillusion, and repulse?
"What was it you wanted about those coverts, papa?" she asked presently, with a quick decision.
"What the deuce does it matter? If you want to know, I proposed to him to exchange my coverts over by the Scrubs, which work in with his shooting, for the wood down by the Home Farm. It was an exchange made year after year in my father's time. When I spoke to the keeper, I found it had been allowed to lapse. Your uncle let the shooting go to rack and ruin after Harold's death. It gave me something to write about, and I was determined to know where I stood—Well! the old Pharisee can go his way: I'll go mine."
And with a spasmodic attempt to play the squire of Mellor on his native heath, Richard Boyce rose, drew his emaciated frame to its full height, and stood looking out drearily to his ancestral lawns—a picturesque and elegant figure, for all its weakness and pitiableness.
"I shall ask Mr. Aldous Raeburn about it, if I see him in the village to-day," said Marcella, quietly.
Her father started, and looked at her with some attention.
"What have you seen of Aldous Raeburn?" he inquired. "I remember hearing that you had come across him."
"Certainly I have come across him. I have met him once or twice at the Vicarage—and—oh! on one or two other occasions," said Marcella, carelessly. "He has always made himself agreeable. Mr. Harden says his grandfather is devoted to him, and will hardly ever let him go away from home. He does a great deal for Lord Maxwell now: writes for him, and helps to manage the estate; and next year, when the Tories come back and Lord Maxwell is in office again—"
"Why, of course, there'll be plums for the grandson," said Mr. Boyce with a sneer. "That goes without saying—though we are such a virtuous lot."
"Oh yes, he'll get on—everybody says so. And he'll deserve it too!" she added, her eye kindling combatively as she surveyed her father. "He takes a lot of trouble down here, about the cottages and the board of guardians and the farms. The Hardens like him very much, but he is not exactly popular, according to them. His manners are sometimes shy and awkward, and the poor people think he's proud."
"Ah! a prig I dare say—like some of his uncles before him," said Mr. Boyce, irritably. "But he was civil to you, you say?"
And again he turned a quick considering eye on his daughter.
"Oh dear! yes," said Marcella, with a little proud smile. There was a pause; then she spoke again. "I must go off to the church; the Hardens have hard work just now with the harvest festival, and I promised to take them some flowers."
"Well"—said her father, grudgingly, "so long as you don't promise anything on my account! I tell you, I haven't got sixpence to spend on subscriptions to anything or anybody. By the way, if you see Reynolds anywhere about the drive, you can send him to me. He and I are going round the Home Farm to pick up a few birds if we can, and see what the coverts look like. The stock has all run down, and the place has been poached to death. But he thinks if we take on an extra man in the spring, and spend a little on rearing, we shall do pretty decently next year."
The colour leapt to Marcella's cheek as she tied on her hat.
"You will set up another keeper, and you won't do anything for the village?" she cried, her black eyes lightening, and without another word she opened the French window and walked rapidly away along the terrace, leaving her father both angered and amazed.
A man like Richard Boyce cannot get comfortably through life without a good deal of masquerading in which those in his immediate neighbourhood are expected to join. His wife had long since consented to play the game, on condition of making it plain the whole time that she was no dupe. As to what Marcella's part in the affair might be going to be, her father was as yet uneasily in the dark. What constantly astonished him, as she moved and talked under his eye, was the girl's beauty. Surely she had been a plain child, though a striking one. But now she had not only beauty, but the air of beauty. The self-confidence given by the possession of good looks was very evident in her behaviour. She was very accomplished, too, and more clever than was always quite agreeable to a father whose self-conceit was one of the few compensations left him by misfortune. Such a girl was sure to be admired. She would have lovers—friends of her own. It seemed that already, while Lord Maxwell was preparing to insult the father, his grandson had discovered that the daughter was handsome. Richard Boyce fell into a miserable reverie, wherein the Raeburns' behaviour and Marcella's unexpected gifts played about equal parts.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Marcella was gathering flowers in the "Cedar garden," the most adorable corner of Mellor Park, where the original Tudor house, grey, mullioned and ivy-covered, ran at right angles into the later "garden front," which projected beyond it to the south, making thereby a sunny and sheltered corner where roses, clematis, hollyhocks, and sunflowers grew with a more lavish height and blossom than elsewhere, as though conscious they must do their part in a whole of beauty. The grass indeed wanted mowing, and the first autumn leaves lay thickly drifted upon it; the flowers were untied and untrimmed. But under the condition of two gardeners to ten acres of garden, nature does very much as she pleases, and Mr. Boyce when he came that way grumbled in vain.
As for Marcella, she was alternately moved to revolt and tenderness by the ragged charm of the old place.
On the one hand, it angered her that anything so plainly meant for beauty and dignity should go so neglected and unkempt. On the other, if house and gardens had been spick and span like the other houses of the neighbourhood, if there had been sound roofs, a modern water-supply, shutters, greenhouses, and weedless paths,—in short, the general self-complacent air of a well-kept country house,—where would have been that thrilling intimate appeal, as for something forlornly lovely, which the old place so constantly made upon her? It seemed to depend even upon her, the latest born of all its children—to ask for tendance and cherishing even from her. She was always planning how—with a minimum of money to spend—it could be comforted and healed, and in the planning had grown in these few weeks to love it as though she had been bred there.
But this morning Marcella picked her roses and sunflowers in tumult and depression of spirit. What was this past which in these new surroundings was like some vainly fled tyrant clutching at them again? She energetically decided that the time had come for her to demand the truth. Yet, of whom? Marcella knew very well that to force her mother to any line of action Mrs. Boyce was unwilling to follow, was beyond her power. And it was not easy to go to her father directly and say, "Tell me exactly how and why it is that society has turned its back upon you." All the same, it was due to them all, due to herself especially, now that she was grown up and at home, that she should not be kept in the dark any longer like a baby, that she should be put in possession of the facts which, after all, threatened to stand here at Mellor Park, as untowardly in their, in her way, as they had done in the shabby school and lodging-house existence of all those bygone years.
Perhaps the secret of her impatience was that she did not, and could not, believe that the facts, if faced, would turn out to be insurmountable. Her instinct told her as she looked back that their relation toward society in the past, though full of discomforts and humiliations, had not been the relation of outcasts. Their poverty and the shifts to which poverty drives people had brought them the disrespect of one class; and as to the acquaintances and friends of their own rank, what had been mainly shown them had been a sort of cool distaste for their company, an insulting readiness to forget the existence of people who had so to speak lost their social bloom, and laid themselves open to the contemptuous disapproval or pity of the world. Everybody, it seemed, knew their affairs, and knowing them saw no personal advantage and distinction in the Boyces' acquaintance, but rather the contrary.
As she put the facts together a little, she realised, however, that the breach had always been deepest between her father and his relations, or his oldest friends. A little shiver passed through her as she reflected that here, in his own country, where his history was best known, the feeling towards him, whatever it rested upon, might very probably be strongest. Well, it was hard upon them!—hard upon her mother—hard upon her. In her first ecstasy over the old ancestral house and the dignities of her new position, how little she had thought of these things! And there they were all the time—dogging and thwarting.
She walked slowly along, with her burden of flowers, through a laurel path which led straight to the drive, and so, across it, to the little church. The church stood all alone there under the great limes of the Park, far away from parsonage and village—the property, it seemed, of the big house. When Marcella entered, the doors on the north and south sides were both standing open, for the vicar and his sister had been already at work there, and had but gone back to the parsonage for a bit of necessary business, meaning to return in half an hour.
It was the unpretending church of a hamlet, girt outside by the humble graves of toiling and forgotten generations, and adorned, or, at any rate, diversified within by a group of mural monuments, of various styles and dates, but all of them bearing, in some way or another, the name of Boyce—conspicuous amongst them a florid cherub-crowned tomb in the chancel, marking the remains of that Parliamentarian Boyce who fought side by side with Hampden, his boyish friend, at Chalgrove Field, lived to be driven out of Westminster by Colonel Pryde, and to spend his later years at Mellor, in disgrace, first with the Protector, and then with the Restoration. From these monuments alone a tolerably faithful idea of the Boyce family could have been gathered. Clearly not a family of any very great pretensions—a race for the most part of frugal, upright country gentlemen—to be found, with scarcely an exception, on the side of political liberty, and of a Whiggish religion; men who had given their sons to die at Quebec, and Plassy, and Trafalgar, for the making of England's Empire; who would have voted with Fox, but that the terrors of Burke, and a dogged sense that the country must be carried on, drove them into supporting Pitt; who, at home, dispensed alternate justice and doles, and when their wives died put up inscriptions to them intended to bear witness at once to the Latinity of a Boyce's education, and the pious strength of his legitimate affections—a tedious race perhaps and pig-headed, tyrannical too here and there, but on the whole honourable English stuff—the stuff which has made, and still in new forms sustains, the fabric of a great state.
Only once was there a break in the uniform character of the monuments—a break corresponding to the highest moment of the Boyce fortunes, a moment when the respectability of the family rose suddenly into brilliance, and the prose of generations broke into a few years of poetry. Somewhere in the last century an earlier Richard Boyce went abroad to make the grand tour. He was a man of parts, the friend of Horace Walpole and of Gray, and his introductions opened to him whatever doors he might wish to enter, at a time when the upper classes of the leading European nations were far more intimately and familiarly acquainted with each other than they are now. He married at Rome an Italian lady of high birth and large fortune. Then he brought her home to Mellor, where straightway the garden front was built with all its fantastic and beautiful decoration, the great avenue was planted, pictures began to invade the house, and a musical library was collected whereof the innumerable faded volumes, bearing each of them the entwined names of Richard and Marcella Boyce, had been during the last few weeks mines of delight and curiosity to the Marcella of to-day.
The Italian wife bore her lord two sons, and then in early middle life she died—much loved and passionately mourned. Her tomb bore no long-winded panegyric. Her name only, her parentage and birthplace—for she was Italian to the last, and her husband loved her the better for it—the dates of her birth and death, and then two lines from Dante's Vita Nuova.
The portrait of this earlier Marcella hung still in the room where her music-books survived,—a dark blurred picture by an inferior hand; but the Marcella of to-day had long since eagerly decided that her own physique and her father's were to be traced to its original, as well, no doubt, as the artistic aptitudes of both—aptitudes not hitherto conspicuous in her respectable race.
In reality, however, she loved every one of them—these Jacobean and Georgian squires with their interminable epitaphs. Now, as she stood in the church, looking about her, her flowers lying beside her in a tumbled heap on the chancel step, cheerfulness, delight, nay, the indomitable pride and exultation of her youth, came back upon her in one great lifting wave. The depression of her father's repentances and trepidations fell away; she felt herself in her place, under the shelter of her forefathers, incorporated and redeemed, as it were, into their guild of honour.
There were difficulties in her path, no doubt—but she had her vantage-ground, and would use it for her own profit and that of others. She had no cause for shame; and in these days of the developed individual the old solidarity of the family has become injustice and wrong. Her mind filled tumultuously with the evidence these last two years had brought her of her natural power over men and things. She knew perfectly well that she could do and dare what other girls of her age could never venture—that she had fascination, resource, brain.
Already, in these few weeks—Smiles played about her lips as she thought of that quiet grave gentleman of thirty she had been meeting at the Hardens'. His grandfather might write what he pleased. It did not alter the fact that during the last few weeks Mr. Aldous Raeburn, clearly one of the partis most coveted, and one of the men most observed, in the neighbourhood, had taken and shown a very marked interest in Mr. Boyce's daughter—all the more marked because of the reserved manner with which it had to contend.
No! whatever happened, she would carve her path, make her own way, and her parents' too. At twenty-one, nothing looks irrevocable. A woman's charm, a woman's energy should do it all.
Ay, and something else too. She looked quickly round the church, her mind swelling with the sense of the Cravens' injustice and distrust. Never could she be more conscious than here—on this very spot—of mission, of an urging call to the service of man. In front of her was the Boyces' family pew, carved and becushioned, but behind it stretched bench after bench of plain and humble oak, on which the village sat when it came to church. Here, for the first time, had Marcella been brought face to face with the agricultural world as it is—no stage ruralism, but the bare fact in one of its most pitiful aspects. Men of sixty and upwards, grey and furrowed like the chalk soil into which they had worked their lives; not old as age goes, but already the refuse of their generation, and paid for at the rate of refuse; with no prospect but the workhouse, if the grave should be delayed, yet quiet, impassive, resigned, now showing a furtive childish amusement if a schoolboy misbehaved, or a dog strayed into church, now joining with a stolid unconsciousness in the tremendous sayings of the Psalms; women coarse, or worn, or hopeless; girls and boys and young children already blanched and emaciated beyond even the normal Londoner from the effects of insanitary cottages, bad water, and starvation food—these figures and types had been a ghastly and quickening revelation to Marcella. In London the agricultural labourer, of whom she had heard much, had been to her as a pawn in the game of discussion. Here he was in the flesh; and she was called upon to live with him, and not only to talk about him. Under circumstances of peculiar responsibility too. For it was very clear that upon the owner of Mellor depended, and had always depended, the labourer of Mellor.
Well, she had tried to live with them ever since she came—had gone in and out of their cottages in flat horror and amazement at them and their lives and their surroundings; alternately pleased and repelled by their cringing; now enjoying her position among them with the natural aristocratic instinct of women, now grinding her teeth over her father's and uncle's behaviour and the little good she saw any prospect of doing for her new subjects.
What, their friend and champion, and ultimately their redeemer too? Well, and why not? Weak women have done greater things in the world. As she stood on the chancel step, vowing herself to these great things, she was conscious of a dramatic moment—would not have been sorry, perhaps, if some admiring eye could have seen and understood her.
But there was a saving sincerity at the root of her, and her strained mood sank naturally into a girlish excitement.
"We shall see!—We shall see!" she said aloud, and was startled to hear her words quite plainly in the silent church. As she spoke she stooped to separate her flowers and see what quantities she had of each.
But while she did so a sound of distant voices made her raise herself again. She walked down the church and stood at the open south door, looking and waiting. Before her stretched a green field path leading across the park to the village. The vicar and his sister were coming along it towards the church, both flower-laden, and beside walked a tall man in a brown shooting suit, with his gun in his hand and his dog beside him.
The excitement in Marcella's eyes leapt up afresh for a moment as she saw the group, and then subsided into a luminous and steady glow. She waited quietly for them, hardly responding to the affectionate signals of the vicar's sister; but inwardly she was not quiet at all. For the tall man in the brown shooting coat was Mr. Aldous Raeburn.
"How kind of you!" said the rector's sister, enthusiastically; "but I thought you would come and help us."
And as Marcella took some of her burdens from her, Miss Harden kissed Marcella's cheek with a sort of timid eagerness. She had fallen in love with Miss Boyce from the beginning, was now just advanced to this privilege of kissing, and being entirely convinced that her new friend possessed all virtues and all knowledge, found it not difficult to hold that she had been divinely sent to sustain her brother and herself in the disheartening task of civilising Mellor. Mary Harden was naturally a short, roundly made girl, neither pretty nor plain, with grey-blue eyes, a shy manner, and a heart all goodness. Her brother was like unto her—also short, round, and full-faced, with the same attractive eyes. Both were singularly young in aspect—a boy and girl pair. Both had the worn, pinched look which Mrs. Boyce complained of, and which, indeed, went oddly with their whole physique. It was as though creatures built for a normal life of easy give and take with their fellows had fallen upon some unfitting and jarring experience. One striking difference, indeed, there was between them, for amid the brother's timidity and sweetness there lay, clearly to be felt and seen, the consciousness of the priest—nascent and immature, but already urging and characteristic.
Only one face of the three showed any other emotion than quick pleasure at the sight of Marcella Boyce. Aldous Raeburn was clearly embarrassed thereby. Indeed, as he laid down his gun outside the low churchyard wall, while Marcella and the Hardens were greeting, that generally self-possessed though modest person was conscious of a quite disabling perturbation of mind. Why in the name of all good manners and decency had he allowed himself to be discovered in shooting trim, on that particular morning, by Mr. Boyce's daughter on her father's land, and within a stone's throw of her father's house? Was he not perfectly well aware of the curt note which his grandfather had that morning despatched to the new owner of Mellor? Had he not ineffectually tried to delay execution the night before, thereby puzzling and half-offending his grandfather? Had not the incident weighed on him ever since, wounding an admiration and sympathy which seemed to have stolen upon him in the dark, during these few weeks since he had made Miss Boyce's acquaintance, so strong and startling did he all in a moment feel them to be?
And then to intrude upon her thus, out of nothing apparently but sheer moth-like incapacity to keep away! The church footpath indeed was public property, and Miss Harden's burdens had cried aloud to any passing male to help her. But why in this neighbourhood at all?—why not rather on the other side of the county? He could have scourged himself on the spot for an unpardonable breach of manners and feeling.
However, Miss Boyce certainly made no sign. She received him without any empressement, but also without the smallest symptom of offence. They all moved into the church together, Mr. Raeburn carrying a vast bundle of ivy and fern, the rector and his sister laden with closely-packed baskets of cut flowers. Everything was laid down on the chancel steps beside Marcella's contribution, and then the Hardens began to plan out operations. Miss Harden ran over on her fingers the contributions which had been sent in to the rectory, or were presently coming over to the church in a hand-cart. "Lord Maxwell has sent the most beautiful pots for the chancel," she said, with a grateful look at young Raeburn. "It will be quite a show." To which the young rector assented warmly. It was very good, indeed, of Lord Maxwell to remember them always so liberally at times like these, when they had so little direct claim upon him. They were not his church or his parish, but he never forgot them all the same, and Mellor was grateful. The rector had all his sister's gentle effusiveness, but a professional dignity besides, even in his thanks, which made itself felt.
Marcella flushed as he was speaking.
"I went to see what I could get in the way of greenhouse things," she said in a sudden proud voice. "But we have nothing. There are the houses, but there is nothing in them. But you shall have all our out-of-door flowers, and I think a good deal might be done with autumn leaves and wild things if you will let me try."
A speech, which brought a flush to Mr. Raeburn's cheek as he stood in the background, and led Mary Harden into an eager asking of Marcella's counsels, and an eager praising of her flowers.
Aldous Raeburn said nothing, but his discomfort increased with every moment. Why had his grandfather been so officious in this matter of the flowers? All very well when Mellor was empty, or in the days of a miser and eccentric, without womankind, like Robert Boyce. But now—the act began to seem to him offensive, a fresh affront offered to an unprotected girl, whose quivering sensitive look as she stood talking to the Hardens touched him profoundly. Mellor church might almost be regarded as the Boyces' private chapel, so bound up was it with the family and the house. He realised painfully that he ought to be gone—yet could not tear himself away. Her passionate willingness to spend herself for the place and people she had made her own at first sight, checked every now and then by a proud and sore reserve—it was too pretty, too sad. It stung and spurred him as he watched her; one moment his foot moved for departure, the next he was resolving that somehow or other he must make speech with her—excuse—explain. Ridiculous! How was it possible that he should do either!
He had met her—perhaps had tried to meet her—tolerably often since their first chance encounter weeks ago in the vicarage drawing-room. All through there had been on his side the uncomfortable knowledge of his grandfather's antipathy to Richard Boyce, and of the social steps to which that antipathy would inevitably lead. But Miss Boyce had never shown the smallest consciousness, so far, of anything untoward or unusual in her position. She had been clearly taken up with the interest and pleasure of this new spectacle upon which she had entered. The old house, its associations, its history, the beautiful country in which it lay, the speech and characteristics of rural labour as compared with that of the town,—he had heard her talk of all these things with a freshness, a human sympathy, a freedom from conventional phrase, and, no doubt, a touch of egotism and extravagance, which rivetted attention. The egotism and extravagance, however, after a first moment of critical discomfort on his part, had not in the end repelled him at all. The girl's vivid beauty glorified them; made them seem to him a mere special fulness of life. So that in his new preoccupation with herself, and by contact with her frank self-confidence, he had almost forgotten her position, and his own indirect relation to it. Then had come that unlucky note from Mellor; his grandfather's prompt reply to it; his own ineffective protest; and now this tongue-tiedness—this clumsy intrusion—which she must feel to be an indelicacy—an outrage.
Suddenly he heard Miss Harden saying, with penitent emphasis, "I am stupid! I have left the scissors and the wire on the table at home; we can't get on without them; it is really too bad of me."
"I will go for them," said Marcella promptly. "Here is the hand-cart just arrived and some people come to help; you can't be spared. I will be back directly."
And, gathering up her black skirt in a slim white hand, she sped down the church, and was out of the south door before the Hardens had time to protest, or Aldous Raeburn understood what she was doing.
A vexed word from Miss Harden enlightened him, and he went after the fugitive, overtaking her just where his gun and dog lay, outside the churchyard.
"Let me go, Miss Boyce," he said, as he caught her up. "My dog and I will run there and back."
But Marcella hardly looked at him, or paused.
"Oh no!" she said quickly, "I should like the walk."
He hesitated; then, with a flush which altered his usually quiet, self-contained expression, he moved on beside her.
"Allow me to go with you then. You are sure to find fresh loads to bring back. If it's like our harvest festival, the things keep dropping in all day."
Marcella's eyes were still on the ground.
"I thought you were on your way to shoot, Mr. Raeburn?"
"So I was, but there is no hurry; if I can be useful. Both the birds and the keeper can wait."
"Where are you going?"
"To some outlying fields of ours on the Windmill Hill. There is a tenant there who wants to see me. He is a prosy person with a host of grievances. I took my gun as a possible means of escape from him."
"Windmill Hill? I know the name. Oh! I remember: it was there—my father has just been telling me—that your father and he shot the pair of kestrels, when they were boys together."