Mary Elizabeth Braddon (4 October 1835 - 4 February1915), Milly Darrel (serialised in Belgravia November 1870 - January 1871), here taken from Milly Darrel and other stories Asher's Collection Emile Galette Paris 1873
Produced by Daniel FROMONT
BRITISH AND AMERICAN.
MILLY DARRELL AND OTHER STORIES
BY M. E. BRADDON.
IN ONE VOLUME.
EMILE GALETTE, 12, RUE BONAPARTE.
is Copyright for Foreign Circulation only_.
BRITISH AND AMERICAN.
MILLY DARRELL AND OTHER TALES
BY M.E. BRADDON.
IN ONE VOLUME.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR:
ROBERT AINSLEIGH — 3 VOL.
TO THE BITTER END — 3 VOL.
AND OTHER TALES.
M. E. BRADDON
AUTHOR OF "LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET," "ROBERT AINSLEIGH," ETC.
A. ASHER & CO., PUBLISHERS,
DR. AND MRS. BEAMAN,
THE AUTHOR'S OLD AND VALUED FRIENDS,
IS AFFECTIONATELY INSCRIBED.
MILLY DARRELL — PAGE 1
OLD RUDDERFORD HALL — PAGE 179
THE SPLENDID STRANGER — PAGE 235
I BEGIN LIFE.
I was just nineteen years of age when I began my career as articled pupil with the Miss Bagshots of Albury Lodge, Fendale, Yorkshire. My father was a country curate, with a delicate wife and four children, of whom I was the eldest; and I had known from my childhood that the day must come in which I should have to get my own living in almost the only vocation open to a poor gentleman's daughter. I had been fairly educated near home, and the first opportunity that arose for placing me out in the world had been gladly seized upon by my poor father, who consented to pay the modest premium required by the Miss Bagshots, in order that I might be taught the duties of a governess, and essay my powers of tuition upon the younger pupils at Albury Lodge.
How well I remember the evening of my arrival!—a bleak dreary evening at the close of January, made still more dismal by a drizzling rain that had never ceased falling since I left my father's snug little house at Briarwood in Warwickshire. I had had to change trains three times, and to wait during a blank and miserable hour and a quarter, or so, at small obscure stations, staring hopelessly at the advertisements on the walls—advertisements of somebody's life-sustaining cocoa, and somebody else's health- restoring cod-liver oil, or trying to read the big brown-backed Bible in the cheerless little waiting-room; and trying, O so hard, not to think of home, and all the love and happiness I had left behind me. The journey had been altogether tiresome and fatiguing; but, for all that, the knowledge that I was near my destination brought me no sense of pleasure. I think I should have wished that dismal journey prolonged indefinitely, if I could thereby have escaped the beginning of my new life.
A lumbering omnibus conveyed me from the station to Albury Lodge, after depositing a grim-looking elderly lady at a house on the outskirts of the town, and a dapper-looking little man, whom I took for a commercial traveller, at an inn in the market-place. I watched the road with a kind of idle curiosity as the vehicle lumbered along. The town had a cheerful prosperous air even on this wet winter night, and I saw that there were two fine old churches, and a large modern building which I supposed to be the town-hall.
We left the town quite behind us before we came to Albury Lodge; a very large house on the high-road, a square red-brick house of the early Georgian era, shut in from the road by high walls. The great wrought-iron gates in the front had been boarded up, and Albury Lodge was now approached by a little wooden side-door into a stone- flagged covered passage that led to a small door at the end of the house. The omnibus-driver deposited me at this door, with all my worldly possessions, which at this period of my life consisted of two rather small boxes and a japanned dressing-case, a receptacle that contained all my most sacred treasures.
I was admitted by a rather ill-tempered-looking housemaid, with a cap of obtrusive respectability and a spotless white apron. I fancied that she looked just a little superciliously at my boxes, which I daresay would not have contained her own wardrobe.
'O, it's the governess-pupil, I suppose?' she said. 'You was expected early this afternoon, miss. Miss Bagshot and Miss Susan are gone out to tea; but I can show you where you are to sleep, if you'll please to step this way. Do you think you could carry one of your trunks, if I carry the other?'
I thought I could; so the housemaid and I lugged them all the way along the stone passage and up an uncarpeted back staircase which led from the lobby into which the door at the end of the passage opened. We went very high up, to the top story in fact, where the housemaid led me into a long bare room with ten little beds in it. I was well enough accustomed to the dreariness of a school dormitory, but somehow this room looked unusually dismal.
There was a jet of gas burning at one end of the room, near a door opening into a lavatory which was little more than a cupboard, but in which ten young ladies had to perform their daily ablutions. Here I washed my face and hands in icy-cold water, and arranged my hair as well as I could without the aid of a looking-glass, that being a luxury not provided at Albury Lodge. The servant stood watching me as I made this brief toilet, waiting to conduct me to the schoolroom. I followed her, shivering as I went, to a great empty room on the first floor. The holidays were not quite over, and none of the pupils had as yet returned. There was an almost painful neatness and bareness in place of the usual litter of books and papers, and I could not help thinking that an apartment in a workhouse would have looked quite as cheerful. Even the fire behind the high wire guard seemed to burn in a different manner from all home fires: a fact which I attributed then to some sympathetic property in the coal, but which I afterwards found to be caused by a plentiful admixture of coke; a slow sulky smoke went up from the dull mass of fuel, brightened ever so little now and then by a sickly yellow flame. One jet of gas dimly lighted this long dreary room, in which there was no human creature but myself and my guide.
'I'll bring you some supper presently, miss,' the housemaid said, and departed before I could put in a timid plea for that feminine luxury, a cup of tea.
I had not expected to find myself quite alone on this first night of my arrival, and a feeling of hopeless wretchedness came over me as I sat down at one end of a long green-baize-covered table, and rested my head upon my folded arms. Of course it was very weak and foolish, a bad beginning of my new life, but I was quite powerless to contend against that sense of utter misery. I thought of all I had left at home. I thought of what my life might have been if my father had been only a little better off: and then I burst out crying as if my heart were breaking.
Suddenly, in the midst of that foolish paroxysm, I felt a light hand upon my shoulder, and looking up, saw a face bending over me, a face full of sympathy and compassion.
O Milly Darrell, my darling, my love, how am I to describe you as you appeared before my eyes that night? How poorly can any words of mine paint you in your girlish beauty, as you looked down upon me in that dimly-lighted schoolroom with divine compassion in your dark eloquent eyes!
Just at that moment I was so miserable and so inclined to be sulky in my wretchedness, that even the vision of that bright face gave me little pleasure. I pushed away the gentle hand ungraciously, and rose hastily from my seat.
'Pray don't cry any more,' said the young lady; 'I can't bear to hear you cry like that.'
'I'm not going to cry any more,' I answered, drying my eyes in a hasty, angry way. 'It was very foolish of me to cry at all; but this place did look so cheerless and dreary, and I began to think of my father and mother, and all I had left behind me at home.'
'Of course it was only natural you should think of them. Everything does seem so bleak and dismal the first night; but you are very happy to have so many at home. I have only papa.'
'Indeed!' I said, not feeling deeply interested in her affairs.
I looked at her as she stood leaning a little against the end of the table, and playing idly with a bunch of charms and lockets hanging to her gold chain. She was very handsome, a brunette, with a small straight nose, hazel eyes, and dark-brown hair. Her mouth was the prettiest and most expressive I ever saw in my life, and gave an indescribable charm to her face. She was handsomely dressed in violet silk, with rich white lace about the throat and sleeves.
'You will find things much pleasanter when the girls come back. Of course school is always a little dreary compared with home; one is prepared for that; but I have no doubt you will contrive to be happy, and I hope we shall be very good friends. I think you must be the Miss Crofton I have heard spoken of lately?'
'Yes, my name is Crofton—Mary Crofton.'
'And mine is Emily Darrell. Milly I am always called at home, and by any one who likes me. I am a parlour-boarder, and have the run of the house, as it were. I am rather old to be at school, you see; but I am going home at the end of this year. I was brought up at home with a governess until about six months ago; but then papa took it into his head that I should be happier amongst girls of my own age, and sent me off to school. He has been travelling since that time, and so I have not been home for the Christmas holidays. I can't tell you what a disappointment that was.'
I tried to look sympathetic, and, not knowing exactly what to say, I asked whether Miss Darrell's father lived in that neighbourhood.
'O dear, no,' she answered; 'he lives nearly a hundred miles away, in a very wild part of Yorkshire, not far from the sea. But Thornleigh—that is the name for our house—is a dear old place, and I like our bleak wild country better than the loveliest spot in the world. I was born there, you see, and all my happy memories of my childhood and my mother are associated with that dear old home.'
'Is it long since you lost your mother?'
'Ten years. I loved her so dearly. There are some subjects about which one dare not speak. I cannot often trust myself to talk of her.'
I liked her better after this. At first her beauty and her handsome dress had seemed a little overpowering to me; I had felt as if she were a being of another order, a bright happy creature not subject to the common woes of life. But now that she had spoken of her own sorrows, I felt that we were upon a level; and I stole my hand timidly into hers, and murmured some apology for my previous rudeness.
'You were not rude, dear. I know I must have seemed very intrusive when I disturbed you; but I could not bear to hear you crying like that. And now tell me where you sleep.'
I described the room as well as I could.
'I know where you mean,' she said; 'it's close to my room. I have the privilege of a little room to myself, you know; and on half- holidays I have a fire there, and write my letters, or paint; and you must come and sit with me on these afternoons, and we can be as happy as possible together working and talking. Do you paint?'
'A little—in a schoolgirlish fashion kind of way.'
'Quite as well as I do, I daresay,' Miss Darrell answered, laughing gaily, 'only you are more modest about it. O, here comes your supper; may I sit with you while you eat it?'
'I shall be very glad if you will.'
'I hope you have brought Miss Crofton a good supper, Sarah,' she went on in the same gay girlish way.—'Sarah is a very good creature, you must know, Miss Crofton, though she seems a little grim to strangers. That's only a way of hers: she can smile, I assure you, though you'd hardly think so.'
Sarah's hard-looking mouth expanded into a kind of grin at this.
'There's no getting over you, Miss Darrell,' she said; 'you've got such a way of your own. I've brought Miss Crofton some cold beef; but if she'd like a bit of pickle, I wouldn't mind going to ask cook for it. Cold meat does eat a little dry without pickle.'
This 'bit of pickle' was evidently a concession in my favour made to please Emily Darrell. I thanked Sarah, and told her that I would not trouble her with a journey to the cook. I was faint and worn-out with my day's pilgrimage, and had eaten very little since morning; but the most epicurean repast ever prepared by a French chef would have seemed so much dust and ashes to me that night; so I sat down meekly to my supper of bread and meat, and listened to Milly Darrell's chatter as I ate it.
Of course she told me all about the school, Miss Bagshot, and Miss Susan Bagshot. The elder of these two ladies was her favourite. Miss Susan had, in the remote period of her youth, been the victim of some unhappy love-affair, which had soured her disposition, and inclined her to look on the joys and follies of girlhood with a jaundiced eye. It was easy enough to please Miss Bagshot, who had a genial matronly way, and took real delight in her pupils; but it was almost impossible to satisfy Miss Susan.
'And I am sorry to say that you will be a good deal with her,' Miss Darrell said, shaking her head gravely; 'for you are to take the second English class under her—I heard them say so at dinner to-day— and I am afraid she will fidget you almost out of your life; but you must try to keep your temper, and take things as quietly as you can, and I daresay in time you will be able to get on with her.'
'I'm sure I hope so,' I answered rather sadly; and then Miss Darrell asked me how long I was to be at Albury Lodge.
'Three years,' I told her; 'and after that, Miss Bagshot is to place me somewhere as a governess.'
'You are going to be a governess always?'
'I suppose so,' I answered. The word 'always' struck me with a little sharp pain, almost like a wound. Yes, I supposed it would be always. I was neither pretty nor attractive. What issue could there be for me out of that dull hackneyed round of daily duties which makes up the sum of a governess's life?
'I am obliged to do something for my living,' I said; 'my father is very poor. I hope I may be able to help him a little by and by.'
'And my father is so ridiculously rich. He is a great ironmaster, and has wharves and warehouses, and goodness knows what, at North Shields. How hard it seems!'
'What seems hard?' I asked absently.
'That money should be so unequally divided. Do you know, I don't think I should much mind going out as a governess: it would be a way of seeing life. One must meet with all sorts of adventures, going among strangers like that.'
I looked at her as she smiled at me, with a smile that gave an indescribable brightness to her face, and I fancied that for her indeed there could be no form of life so dull that would not hold some triumph, some success. She seemed a creature born to extract brightness out of the commonest things, a creature to be only admired and caressed, go where she might.
'You a governess!' I said, a little scornfully; 'you are not of the clay that makes governesses.'
'You are much too pretty and too fascinating.'
'O, Mary Crofton, Mary Crofton—may I call you Mary, please? we are going to be such friends—if you begin by flattering me like that, how am I ever to trust you and lean upon you? I want some one with a stronger mind than my own, you know, dear, to lead me right; for I'm the weakest, vainest creature in the world, I believe. Papa has spoiled me so.'
'If you are always like what you are to-night, I don't think the spoiling has done much mischief,' I said.
'O, I am always amiable enough, so long as I have my own way. And now tell me all about your home.'
I gave her a faithful account of my brothers and my sister, and a brief description of the dear old-fashioned cottage, with its white- plaster walls crossed with great black beams, its many gables and quaint latticed windows. I told her how happy and united we had always been at home, and how this made my separation from those I loved so much the harder to bear; to all of which Milly Darrell listened with most unaffected sympathy.
Early the next day my new life began in real earnest. Miss Susan Bagshot did not allow me to waste my time in idleness until the arrival of my pupils. She gave me a pile of exercises to correct, and some difficult needlework to finish; and I found I had indeed a sharp taskmistress in this blighted lady.
'Girls of your age are so incorrigibly idle,' she said; 'but I must give you to understand at once that you will have no time for dawdling at Albury Lodge. The first bell rings a quarter before six, and at a quarter past I shall expect to see you in the schoolroom. You will superintend the younger pupils' pianoforte practice from that time till eight o'clock, at which hour we breakfast. From nine till twelve you will take the second division of the second class for English, according to the routine arranged by me, which you had better copy from a paper I will lend you for that purpose. After dinner you will take the same class for two hours' reading until four; from four to five you will superintend the needle-work class. Your evenings—with the exception of the careful correction of all the day's exercises—will be your own. I hope you have a sincere love of your vocation, Miss Crofton.'
I said I hoped I should grow to like my work as I became accustomed to it. I had never yet tried teaching, except with my young sister and brothers. My hear sank as I remembered our free-and-easy studies in the sunny parlour at home, or out in the garden under the pink and white hawthorns sometimes on balmy mornings in the early summer.
Miss Susan shook her head doubtfully.
'Unless you have a love of your vocation you will never succeed, Miss Crofton,' she said solemnly.
I freely confess that this love she spoke of never came to me. I tried to do my duty, and I endured all the hardships of my life in, I hope, a cheerful spirit. But the dry monotony of the studies had no element of pleasantness, and I used to wonder how Miss Susan could derive pleasure—as it was evident she did—from the exercise of her authority over those hapless scholars who had the misfortune to belong to her class. Day after day they heard the same lectures, listened submissively to the same reproofs, and toiled on upon that bleak bare high-road to learning, along which it was her delight to drive them. Nothing like a flower brightened their weary way—it was all alike dust and barrenness; but they ploughed on dutifully, cramming their youthful minds with the hardest dates and facts to be found in the history of mankind, the dreariest statistics, the driest details of geography, and the most recondite rules of grammar, until the happy hour arrived in which they took their final departure from Albury Lodge, to forget all they had learnt there in the briefest possible time.
How my thoughts used to wander away sometimes as I sat at my desk, distracted by the unmelodious sound of Miss Susan's voice lecturing some victim in her own division at the next table, while one of the girls in mine droned drearily at Lingard, or Pinnock's Goldsmith, as the case might be! How the vision of my own bright home haunted me during those long monotonous afternoons, while the March winds made the poplars rock in the garden outside the schoolroom, or the April rain beat against the great bare windows!
It was not often that I had a half-holiday to myself, for Miss Susan Bagshot seemed to take a delight in finding me something to do on these occasions; but whenever I had, I spent it with Milly Darrell, and on these rare afternoons I was perfectly happy. I had grown to love her as I did not think it was in me to love any one who was not of my own flesh and blood; and in so loving her, I only returned the affection which she felt for me.
I am sure it was the fact of my friendlessness, and of my subordinate position in the school, which had drawn this girl's generous heart towards me; and I should have been hard indeed if I had not felt touched by her regard. She soon grew indescribably dear to me. She was of my own age, able to sympathize with every thought and fancy of mine; the frankest, most open-hearted of creatures; a little proud of her beauty, perhaps, when it was praised by those she loved, but never proud of her wealth, or insolent to those whose gifts were less than hers.
I used to write my home-letters in her room on these rare and happy afternoons, while she painted at an easel near the window. The room was small, but better furnished than the ordinary rooms in the house, and it was brightened by all sorts of pretty things,— handsomely-bound books upon hanging shelves, pictures, Dresden cups and saucers, toilet-bottles and boxes, which Miss Darrell had brought from home. Over the mantelpiece there was a large photograph of her father, and by the bedside there hung a more flattering water-coloured portrait, painted by Milly herself. It was a powerful and rather a handsome face, but I thought the expression a little hard and cold, even in Milly's portrait.
She painted well, and had a real love of art. Her studies at Albury Lodge were of rather a desultory kind, as she was not supposed to belong to any class; but she had lessons from nearly half-a-dozen different masters—German lessons, Italian lessons, drawing lessons, music and singing lessons—and was altogether a very profitable pupil. She had her own way with every one, I found, and I believe Miss Bagshot was really fond of her.
Her father was travelling in Italy at this time, and did not often write to her—a fact that distressed her very much, I know; but she used to shake off her sorrow in a bright hopeful way that was peculiar to her, always making excuses for the dilatory correspondent. She loved him intensely, and keenly felt this separation from him; but the doctors had recommended him rest and change of air and scene, she told me, and she was glad to think he was obeying them.
Upon one of these half-holidays, when midsummer was near at hand, we were interrupted by an unwonted event, in the shape of a visit from a cousin of Milly's; a young man who occupied an important position in her father's house of business, and of whom she had sometimes talked to me, but not much. His name was Julian Stormont, and he was the only son of Mr. Darrell's only sister, long since dead.
It was a sultry afternoon, and we were spending it in a rustic summer-house at the end of a broad gravel that went the whole length of the large garden. Milly had her drawing materials on the table before her, but had not been using them. I was busy with a piece of fancy-work which Miss Susan Bagshot had given me to finish. We were sitting like this, when my old acquaintance Sarah, the housemaid, came to announce a visitor for Miss Darrell.
Milly sprang to her feet, flushed with excitement.
'It must be papa!' she cried joyfully.
'Lor', no, miss; don't you go to excite yourself like that. It isn't your pa; it's a younger gentleman.'
She handed Milly a card.
'Mr. Stormont!' the girl exclaimed, with a disappointed air; 'my cousin Julian. I am coming to him, of course, Sarah. But I wish you had given me the card at once.'
'Won't you go and do somethink to your hair, miss? most young ladies do.'
'O yes, I know; there are girls who would stop to have their hair done in Grecian plaits, if the dearest friend they had in the world was waiting for them in the drawing-room. My hair will do well enough, Sarah.—Come, Mary, you'll come to the house with me, won't you?'
'Lor', miss, here comes the gentleman,' said Sarah; and then decamped by an obscure side-path.
'I had better leave you to see him alone, Milly,' I said; but she told me imperatively to stay, and I stayed.
She went a little way to meet the gentleman, who seemed pleased to see her, but whom she received rather coldly, as I thought. But I had not long to think about it, before she had brought him to the summer-house, and introduced him to me.
'My cousin Julian—Miss Crofton.'
He bowed rather stiffly, and then seated himself by his cousin's side, and put his hat upon the table before him. I had plenty of time to look at him as he sat there talking of all sorts of things connected with Thornleigh, and Miss Darrell's friends in that neighbourhood. He was very good-looking, fair and pale, with regular well-cut features, and rather fine blue eyes; but I fancied those clear blue eyes had a cold look, and that there was an expression of iron will about the mouth and powerful prominent chin. The upper part of the face was thoughtful, and there were lines already on the high white forehead, from which the thin straight chestnut hair was carefully brushed. It was the face of a very clever man, I thought; but I was not so sure that it was the face of a man I could like, or whom I should be inclined to trust.
Mr. Stormont had a low pleasant voice and an agreeable manner of speaking. His way of treating his cousin was half deferential, half playful; but once, when I looked up suddenly from my work, I seemed to catch a glimpse of a deeper meaning in the cold blue eyes—a look of singular intensity fixed on Milly's bright face.
Whatever this look might mean, she was unconscious of it; she went on talking gaily of Thornleigh and her Thornleigh friends.
'I do so want to come home, Julian,' she said. 'Do you think there is any hope for me this midsummer?'
'I think there is every hope. I think it is almost certain you will come home.'
'O Julian, how glad I am!'
'But suppose there should be a surprise for you when you come home, Milly,—a change that you may not quite like, at first?'
'Has your father told you nothing?'
'Nothing, except about his journeys from place to place, and not much about them. He has written very seldom during the last six months.'
'He has been too much engaged, I suppose; and it's rather like him to have said nothing about it. How would you like a stepmother, Milly?'
She gave a little cry, and grew suddenly pale.
'Papa has married again!' she said.
Julian Stormont drew a newspaper from his pocket, and laid it before her, pointing to an announcement in one column:
'On May 18th, at the English legation in Paris, William Darrell, Esq., of Thornleigh, Yorkshire, to Augusta, daughter of the late Theodore Chester, Esq., of Regent's Park.'
He read this aloud very slowly, watching Milly's pale face as he read.
'There is no reason why this should distress you, my dear child,' he said. 'It was only to be expected that your father would marry again, sooner or later.'
'I have lost him!' she cried piteously.
'Yes; he can never be again the same to me that he has been. His new wife will come between us. No, Julian, I am not jealous. I do not grudge him his happiness, if this marriage can make him happy. I only feel that I have lost him for ever.'
'My dear Milly, that is utterly unreasonable. Your father told me most particularly to assure you of his unaltered affection, when I broke the news of this marriage to you. He was naturally a little nervous about doing it himself.'
'You must never let him know what I have said, Julian. He will never hear any expression of regret from me; and I will try to do my duty to this strange lady. Have you seen her yet?'
'No, they have not come home yet. They were in Switzerland when I heard of them last; but they are expected in a week or two. Come, my dear Milly, don't look so serious. I trust this marriage may turn out for your happiness, as well as for your father's. Rely upon it, you will find no change in his feelings towards you.'
'He will always be kind and good to me, I know,' she answered sadly. 'It is not possible for him to be anything but that; but I can never be his companion again as I have been. There is an end to all that.'
'That was a kind of association which could not be supposed to last all your life, Milly. It is to be hoped that somebody else will have a claim upon your companionship before many years have gone by.'
'I suppose you mean that I shall marry,' she said, looking at him with supreme indifference.
'Something like that, Milly.'
'I have always fancied myself living all my life with papa. I have never thought it possible that I could care for any one but him.'
Julian Stormont's face darkened a little, and he sat silent for some minutes, folding and refolding the newspaper in a nervous way.
'You are not very complimentary to your admirers at Thornleigh,' he said at last, with a short hoarse laugh.
'Who is there at Thornleigh? Have I really any admirers there?'
'I think I could name half-a-dozen.'
'Never mind them just now. I want you to tell me all you know about my stepmother.'
'That amounts to very little. All I can tell you is, that she is the daughter of a gentleman, highly accomplished, without money, and four-and-twenty years of age. She was travelling as companion to an elderly lady when your father met her in a picture-gallery at Florence. He knew the old lady, I believe, and by that means became acquainted with the younger one.'
'Only four-and-twenty! only four years older than I!'
'Rather young, is it not? but when a man of your father's age makes a second marriage, he is apt to marry a young woman. Of course this is quite a love-match.'
'Yes, quite a love-match,' Milly repeated, with a sigh.
I knew she could not help that natural pang of jealousy, as she thought how she and her father had once been all the world to each other. She had told me so often of their happy companionship, the perfect confidence that had existed between them.
Julian Stormont sat talking to her—and a little, a very little, to me—for about half an hour longer, and then departed. He was to sleep at Fendale, and go back to North Shields next morning. He was his uncle's right hand in the business, Milly told me; and from the little I had seen of him I could fancy him a power in any sphere.
'Papa has a very high opinion of him,' she said, when we were talking of him after he had left us.
'And you like him very much, I suppose?'
'O yes, I like him very well. I have known him all my life. We are almost like brother and sister; only Julian is one of those thoughtful reserved persons one does not get on with very fast.'
The midsummer holidays began at last, and Mr. Darrell came in person to fetch his daughter, much to her delight. She was not to return to school any more unless she liked, he told her. Her new mamma was most anxious to receive her, and she could have masters at Thornleigh to complete her education, if it were not already finished.
Her eyes were full of tears when she came to tell me this, and carry me off to the drawing-room to introduce me to her father, an introduction she insisted upon making in spite of my entreaties,—for I was rather shy at this period of my life, and dreaded an encounter with a stranger.
Mr. Darrell received me most graciously. He was a tall fine-looking man, very like the photograph in Milly's bedroom, and I detected the hard look about the mouth which I had noticed in both portraits. He seemed remarkably fond of his daughter; and I have never seen a prettier picture than she made as she stood beside him, clinging to his arm, and looking lovingly up at him with her dark hazel eyes.
He asked me where I was to spend my holidays; and on hearing that I was to stay at Albury Lodge, asked whether I would like to come to Thornleigh with Milly for the midsummer vacation. My darling clapped her hands gaily as he made this offer, and cried:
'O yes, Mary, you will come, won't you?—You dear kind papa, that is just like you, always able to guess what one wishes. There is nothing in the world I should like better than to have Mary at Thornleigh.'
'Then you have only to pack a box with all possible expedition, and to come away with us, Miss Crofton,' said Mr. Darrell; 'the train starts in an hour and a half. I can only give you an hour.'
I thanked him as well as I could—awkwardly enough, I daresay—for his kindness, and ran away to ask Miss Bagshot's consent to the visit. This she gave readily, in spite of some objections suggested by Miss Susan, and I had nothing more to do than to pack my few dresses—my two coloured muslins, a white dress for festive occasions, a black- silk dress which was preeminently my 'best,' and some print morning- dresses—wondering as I packed them how these things would pass current among the grandeurs of Thornleigh. All this was finished well within the hour, and I put my bonnet and shawl, and ran down— flushed with hurry and excitement, and very happy—to join my friends in the drawing-room.
Miss Bagshot was there, talking of her attachment to her sweet young friend, and her regret at losing her. Mr. Darrell cut these lamentations short when he found I was ready, and we drove off to the station in the fly that had brought him to Albury Lodge.
I looked at the little station to-day with a very different feeling from that dull despondency which had possessed me six months before, when I arrived there in the bleak January weather. The thought of five weeks' respite from the monotonous routine of Albury Lodge was almost perfect happiness. I did not forget those I loved at home, or cease to regret the poverty that prevented my going home for the holidays; but since this was impossible, nothing could have been pleasanter than the idea of the visit I was going to pay.
Throughout the journey Mr. Darrell was all that was gracious and kind. He talked a good deal of his wife; dwelling much upon her accomplishments and amiability, and assuring his daughter again and again that she could not fail to love her.
'I was a little bit of a coward in the business, I confess, Milly,' he said, in the midst of this talk, 'and hadn't courage to tell you anything till the deed was done; and then I thought it was as well to let Julian make the announcement.'
'You ought to have trusted me better, papa,' Milly said tenderly; and I knew what perfect self-abnegation there was in the happy smile with which she gave him her hand.
'And you are not angry with me, my darling?' he asked.
'Angry with you, papa? as if I had any right to be angry with you! Only try to love me a little, as you used to do, and I shall be quite happy.'
'I shall never love you less, my dear.'
The journey was not a long one; and the country through which we passed was very fair to look upon in the bright June afternoon. The landscape changed when we were within about thirty miles of our destination: the fertile farmlands and waving fields of green corn gave place to an open moor, and I felt from far off the fresh breath of the ocean. This broad undulating moorland was new to me, and I thought there was a wild kind of beauty in its loneliness. As for Milly, she looked out at the moor with rapture, and strained her eyes to catch the first glimpse of the hills about Thornleigh—those hills of which she had talked to me so often in her little room at school.
The station we had to stop at was ten miles from Mr. Darrell's house, and a barouche-and-pair was waiting for us in the sunny road outside. We drove along a road that crossed the moor, until we came to a little village of scattered houses, with a fine old church—at one end of which an ancient sacristy seemed mouldering slowly to decay. We drove past the gates of two or three rather important houses, lying half-hidden in their gardens, and then turned sharply off into a road that went up a hill, nearly at the top of which we came to a pair of noble old carved iron gates, surmounted with a coat-of-arms, and supported on each side by massive stone pillars, about which the ivy twined lovingly.
An old man came out of a pretty rustic-looking lodge and opened theses gates, and we drove through an avenue of some extent, which led straight to the front of the house, the aspect of which delighted me. It was very old and massively built, and had quite a baronial look, I thought. There was a wide stone terrace with ponderous moss-grown stone balustrades round three sides of it, and at each angle a broad flight of steps leading down to a second terrace, with sloping green banks that melted into the turf of the lawn. The house stood on the summit of a hill, and from one side commanded a noble view of the sea.
A lady came out of the curious old stone porch as the carriage drove up, and stood at the top of the terrace steps waiting for us. I guessed immediately that this must be Mrs. Darrell.
Milly hung back a little shyly, as her father led her up the steps with her hand through his arm. She was very pale, and I could see that she was trembling. Mrs. Darrell came forward to her quickly, and kissed her.
'My darling Emily,' she cried, 'I am so delighted to see you at last.—O William, you did not deceive me when you promised me a beautiful daughter.'
Milly blushed, and smiled at this compliment, but still clung to her father, with shy downcast eyes.
I had time to look at Mrs. Darrell while this introduction was being made. She was not by any means a beautiful woman, but she was what I suppose would have been called eminently interesting. She was tall and slim, very graceful-looking, with a beautiful throat and a well- shaped head. Her features, with the exception of her eyes, were in no way remarkable; but those were sufficiently striking to give character to a face that might otherwise have been insipid. They were large luminous gray eyes, with black lashes, and rather strongly-marked brows of a much darker brown than her hair. That was of a nondescript shade, neither auburn nor chestnut, and with little light or colour in its soft silky masses; but it seemed to harmonise very well with her pale complexion. Lavater has warned us to distrust any one whose hair and eyebrows are of a different colour. I remembered this as I looked at Mrs. Darrell.
She was dressed in white; and I fancied the transparent muslin, with no other ornament than a lilac ribbon at the waist, was peculiarly becoming to her slender figure and delicate face. Her husband seemed to think so too, for he looked at her with a fond admiring glance as he offered her his arm to return to the house.
'I mustn't forget to introduce Miss Crofton to you, Augusta,' he said; 'a school friend of Milly's, who has kindly accepted my invitation to spend the holidays with her.'
Mrs. Darrell gave me her hand; but I fancied that she did so rather coldly, and I had an uneasy sense that I was not very welcome to the new mistress of Thornleigh.
'You will find your old rooms all ready for you, Milly,' she said; 'I suppose we had better put Miss Crofton in the blue room—next yours?'
'If you please, Mrs. Darrell.'
'What, Milly, won't you call me mamma?'
Milly was silent for a few moments, with a pained expression in her face.
'Pray, forgive me,' she said in a low voice; 'I cannot call any one by that name.'
Augusta Darrell kissed her again silently.
'It shall be as you wish, dear,' she said, after a pause.
A rosy-cheeked, pleasant-looking girl, who had been accustomed to wait on Milly in the old time, came forward to meet us, and ran before us to our rooms, expressing her delight at her young lady's return all the way she went.
The rooms were very pretty, and were situated in that portion of the house which looked towards the sea. There was a sitting-room, brightly furnished with some light kind of wood, and with chintz hangings all over rose-buds and butterflies. This had been Milly's schoolroom, and there was a good many books in two pretty-looking bookcases on each side of the fireplace. Besides these, there were some curious old cabinets full of shells and china. It was altogether the prettiest, most homelike room one could imagine.
Opening out of this, there was a large airy bedroom, with three windows commanding that glorious view of moorland and sea; and beyond that, a dainty little dressing-room. The next door in the corridor opened into the room that had been allotted to me; a large comfortable-looking room, in which there was an old-fashioned mahogany four-post bed with blue-damask curtains.
I went to Milly's dressing-room when my own simple toilet was finished, and stood by the open window talking to her while she arranged her hair. She dismissed her little maid directly I went into the room, and I felt she had something to say to me.
'Well, Mary,' she began at once, 'what do you think of her?'
'Of Mrs. Darrell?'
'What opinion can I possibly form about her, after seeing her for three minutes, Milly? I think she is very elegant-looking. That is the only idea I have about her yet.'
'Do you think she looks true, Mary? Do you think she has married papa because she loves him?'
'My dear child, how can I tell that? She is a great many years younger than your papa, but I do not see that the difference between them need be any real hindrance to her loving him. He is a man whom any woman might care for, I should think; to say nothing of her natural gratitude towards the man who has rescued her from a position of dependence.'
'Gratitude is all nonsense,' Miss Darrell answered impatiently. 'I want to know that my father is loved as he deserves to be loved. I shall never tolerate that woman unless I can feel sure of that.'
'I believe you are prejudiced against her already, Milly,' I said reproachfully.
'I daresay I am, Mary. I daresay I feel unjustly about her; but I don't like her face.'
'What is there in her face that you don't like?'
'O, I can't tell you that—an undefinable something. I have a sort of conviction that she and I can never love each other.'
'It is rather hard upon Mrs. Darrell to begin with such a feeling as that, Milly.'
'I can't help it. Of course I shall try to do my duty to her, for papa's sake, and I shall do my best to conquer all these unchristian feelings. But we cannot command our hearts, you know, Mary, and I don't think I shall ever love my stepmother.'
She took me down to the drawing-room after this. It was half-past six, and we were to dine at seven. The drawing-room was a long room, with five windows opening on to the terrace, an old-fashioned- looking room with panelled walls and a fine arched ceiling. The wainscot was painted white, with gilt mouldings, and the cornice and architraves of the doors were elaborately carved. The furniture was white-and-gold like the walls, and in that spurious classical style which prevailed during the first French Empire. The window-curtains and coverings of sofas and chairs were of dark-green velvet.
A gentleman was standing in one of the open windows looking out at the garden. He turned as Milly and I went in, and I recognised Mr. Stormont. He came forward to shake hands with his cousin, and smiled his peculiar slow smile at her expression of surprise.
'You didn't know I was here, Milly?'
'No, indeed; I had no idea of seeing you.'
'I wonder your father did not tell you of my visit. I came over this morning for a fortnight's holiday. I've been working a little harder than usual lately, and my uncle is good enough to say I have earned a rest.'
'I wonder you don't go abroad for a change.'
'I don't care about a change. I had much rather come to Thornleigh.'
He looked at her very earnestly as he said this. I had been sure of it that afternoon when we all three sat in the summer-house at Albury Lodge, but I could see that Milly herself had no idea of the truth.
'Well, Milly, what do you think of your new mamma?' he asked presently.
'I had rather not tell you yet.'
'Humph! that hardly sounds favourable to the lady. She seems to me a very charming person; but she is not my stepmother, and, of course, that makes a difference. Your father is intensely devoted.'
Mr. Darrell came into the room a few minutes after this, and his wife followed him almost immediately. Milly placed herself next her father, and contrived to absorb his attention, not quite to the satisfaction of the elder lady, I fancied. Those bright gray eyes flashed upon my darling with a brief look of anger, which changed in the next moment to quiet watchfulness.
Mrs. Darrell stood by one of the tables, idly turning over some books and papers, and finding me seated near her, began to talk to me presently in a very gracious manner, asking me how I liked Thornleigh, and a few other questions of a stereotyped kind; but even while she talked those watchful eyes were always turned towards the window where the father and daughter stood side by side. Mr. Stormont came over to her while she was talking to me, and joined in the conversation; in the midst of which a grave gray-haired old butler came to announce dinner.
Mr. Stormont offered his arm to the lady of the house, while Mr. Darrell gave one arm to me and the other to his daughter; and we went down a long passage, at the end of which was the dining-room, a noble old room, with dark oak panelling and a great many pictures by the old masters, which were, no doubt, as valuable as they were dingy. We dined at an oval table, prettily decorated with flowers and with some very curious old silver.
There was a good deal of talk at dinner, in which I could take very little part. Mr. and Mrs. Darrell talked to Julian Stormont of their travels; and I must confess the lady talked well, with no affectation of enthusiasm, and with an evident knowledge and appreciation of the things she was speaking about. I envied her those wanderings in sunny foreign lands, even though they had been made in the company of an invalid dowager, and I wondered whether she would be happy in a settled existence at Thornleigh.
After dinner Milly took me out upon the terrace, and from thence we went to explore the gardens. We had not been out long before Julian Stormont came to join us. We had been talking pleasantly enough till he appeared, but his coming seemed to make us both silent, and he himself had a thoughtful air. I watched his pale face as he walked beside us in the twilight, and was again struck by the careworn look about the brow and the resolute expression of the mouth.
He was very fond of Milly. Of that fact there could be no possible doubt; and I think he had already begun to suffer keenly from the knowledge that his love was unreturned. That he hoped against hope at this time—that he counted fully on his power to win her in the future, I know. He was too wise to precipitate matters by any untimely avowal of his feelings. He waited with a quiet resolute patience which was a part of his nature.
Of course we talked a little, but it was in a straggling, desultory kind of way; and I think it was a relief to all of us when we finished the round of the gardens and went in through one of the drawing-room windows. The room was lighted with lamps and candles placed about upon the tables, and Mrs. Darrell was sitting near her husband, employed upon some airy scrap of fancy-work, while he read his Times.
He asked for some music soon after we went in, and she rose to obey him with a very charming air of submission. She played magnificently, with a power and style that were quite new to me, for I had heard no professional performers. She sang an Italian scena afterwards, in a rich mezzo-soprano, and with a kind of suppressed passion that impressed me deeply. I scarcely wondered, after hearing her play and sing, that Mr. Darrell had been fascinated by her. These gifts of hers were in themselves sufficient to subjugate a man who really cared for music.
Milly was charmed into forgetfulness of her prejudices. She went over to the piano and kissed her stepmother.
'Papa told me how clever you were,' she said; 'but he did not tell me you were a genius.'
Mrs. Darrell received the compliment very modestly, and then tried to persuade Milly to sing or play; but the girl declined resolutely. Nothing could induce her to touch the piano after that brilliant performance.
The next day and several days passed very quietly, and in a kind of monotonous comfort. The rector of the parish dined with us one day, and on another a neighbouring squire with his wife and three daughters. Milly and I spent a good deal of our time in the gardens and on the sea-shore, with Julian Stormont for our companion, while Mr. and Mrs. Darrell rode or drove together. My darling could see that she was not expected to join them in these rides and drives, and I think this confirmed her idea that her father was in a manner lost to her.
'I must try to be satisfied with this new state of things, Mary,' she said, with a sigh of resignation. 'If my father is happy, I ought to be contented. But O, my dear, if you could have seen us together a year ago, you would know how much I have lost.'
I had been at Thornleigh a little more than a week, when Mr. Darrell one morning proposed a drive to a place called Cumber Priory, which was one of the show-houses of the neighbourhood. It was a very old place, he said, and had been one of the earliest monastic settlements in that part of the country. Milly and her father and her cousin had been there a great many times, and the visit was proposed for the gratification of Mrs. Darrell and myself.
She assented graciously, as she always did to every proposition of her husband's, and we started soon after breakfast in the barouche, with Julian Stormont on horseback. The drive was delightful; for, after leaving the hilly district about Thornleigh, our road lay through a wood, where the trees were of many hundred years' growth. I recognised groups of oak and beech that I had seen among the sketches in Milly's portfolio.
On the other side of the wood we came to some dilapidated-looking gates, with massive stone escutcheons on the great square pillars. There was a lodge, but it was evidently unoccupied, and Mr. Darrell's footman got down from the box to open the gates. Within we made the circuit of a neglected lawn, divided from a park by a sunk fence, across which some cattle stared at us in a lazy manner as we drove past them. The house was a long low building with heavily mullioned windows, and was flanked by gothic towers. Most of the windows had closed shutters, and the place had altogether a deserted look.
'The Priory has not been occupied for several years,' Mr. Darrell said, as if in answer to my thoughts as I looked up at the closed windows. 'The family have been too poor to live in it in anything like their old state. There is only one member of the old family remaining now, and he leads a wandering kind of life abroad, I believe.'
'What has made them so poor?' asked Mrs. Darrell.
'Extravagant habits, I suppose,' answered her husband, with an expressive shrug of the shoulders. 'The Egertons have always been a wild race.'
'Egerton!' Mrs. Darrell repeated; 'I thought the name of these people was Cumber.'
'No; Cumber is only the name of the place. It has been in the Egerton family for centuries.'
I was seated exactly opposite her, and I was surprised by the strange startled look in her face as she repeated the name of Egerton. That look passed away in the next moment, and left her with her usual air of languid indifference; a placid kind of listlessness which harmonised very well with her pale complexion and delicate features. She was not a woman from whom one expected much animation.
The low iron-studded door of the Priory was opened by a decent- looking old woman of that species which seems created expressly for the showing of old houses. She divined our errand at once, and as soon as we were in the hall, began her catalogue of pictures and curiosities in the usual mechanical way, while we looked about us, always fixing our eyes on the wrong object, and more bewildered than enlightened by her description of the chief features of the place.
We went from room to room, the dame throwing open the shutters of the deep-set gothic windows, and letting in a flood of sunshine upon the faded tapestries and tarnished picture-frames. It was a noble old place, and the look of decay upon everything was more in accord with its grandeur than any modern splendour could have been.
We had been through all the rooms on the ground floor, most of which opened into one another, and were returning towards the hall, when Mr. Darrell missed his wife, and sent me back to look for her in one direction, while he went in another. I hurried through three or four empty rooms, until I came to a small one at the end of the house, and here I found her. I had not noticed this room much, for it was furnished in a more modern style than the rest of the house, and the old housekeeper had made very light of it, hurrying us back to look at some armour over the chimneypiece in the next room. It was her master's study, she had said, and was not generally shown to strangers.
It was a small dark-looking room, lined with dingily-bound books upon heavy carved-oak shelves, and with no other furniture than a massive writing-table and three or four arm-chairs. Over the mantelpiece, which was modern and low, there was a portrait of a young man with a dark handsome face, and it was at this that Augusta Darrell was looking. I could see her face in profile as she stood upon the hearth with her clenched hand upon the mantelpiece, and I had never before seen such an expression in any human countenance.
What was it? Despair, remorse, regret? I know not; but it was a look of keenest anguish, of unutterable sorrow. The face was deadly pale, the great gray eyes looking upwards at the portrait, the lips locked together rigidly.
She did not hear my footstep; it was only when I spoke to her that she turned towards me with a stony face, and asked what I wanted.
I told her that Mr. Darrell had sent me.
'I was coming this instant,' she said, resuming her usual manner with an effort. 'I had only loitered to look at that portrait. A fine face, is it not, Miss Crofton?'
'A handsome one, at any rate,' I answered doubtfully, for that dark haughty countenance struck me as rather repellent than attractive.
'That's as much as to say you don't think it a good face. Well, perhaps you are right. It reminded me of some one I knew a long time ago, and was rather interesting to me on that account. And then I fell into a kind of a reverie, and forgot that my dear husband might miss me.'
He came into the room as she was saying this. She told him that she had stopped to look at the portrait, and asked whose it was.
'It is a likeness of Angus Egerton, the present owner of the Priory,' Mr. Darrell answered; 'and a very good likeness, too—of as bad a man as ever lived, I believe,' he added in a lower voice.
'A bad man?'
'Yes; he broke his mother's heart.'
'In what manner?'
'He fell in love with a girl of low birth, whom he met in the course of a pedestrian tour in the West of England, and was going to marry her, I believe, when Mrs. Egerton got wind of the affair. She was a very proud woman—one of the most resolute masculine-minded women I ever knew. She went down into Devonshire where the girl lived immediately, and by some means or other prevented the marriage. How it was done I never heard; but it was not until a year afterwards that Angus Egerton discovered his mother's part in the business. He came down to the Priory suddenly and unexpectedly at a late hour one night, and walked straight to his mother's room. I have heard that old woman who has been showing us the house describe his ghastly face—she was Mrs. Egerton's maid in those days—as he pushed her aside and went into the room where his mother was sitting. There was a dreadful scene between them, and at the end of it Angus Egerton walked out of the house, swearing never again to enter it while his mother lived. He has kept his word. Mrs. Egerton never crossed the threshold after that night, and refused to see anybody except her servants and her doctor. She lived this lonely kind of life for nearly three years, and then died of some slow wasting disease, for which the doctor could find no name.'
'And where did Mr. Egerton go after leaving her that night?'
'He slept at a little inn at Cumber, and went back to London next morning. He left England soon after that, and has lived abroad ever since.'
'And you think him a very bad man?'
'I consider his conduct to his mother a sufficient evidence of that.'
'He may have believed himself deeply wronged.'
'He must have known that she had acted in his interests when she prevented his committing the folly of a low marriage. She was his mother, and had been a most devoted and indulgent mother.'
'And in the end contrived to break his heart—to say nothing of the girl who loved him, who was of course a piece of common clay, not worth consideration.'
'I did not think you had so much romance, Augusta,' said Mr. Darrell, laughing; 'I suppose it is natural for a woman to take the part of unfortunate lovers, however foolish the affair may be. But I believe this Devonshire girl was quite unworthy of an honourable attachment on the part of any man. You see I knew and liked Mrs. Egerton, and I know how she loved her son. I cannot forgive him his conduct to her; nor have the reports of his life abroad been by any means favourable to his character. His career seems to have been a very wild and dissipated one.'
'And he has never married?'
'No, he has never married.'
'He has been true, at least,' Mrs. Darrell said in a low thoughtful tone.
We had lingered in the little study while her husband had told his story. We went back to the hall now, and found Milly and Mr. Stormont looking rather listlessly at the old portraits of the Egerton race. I was anxious to see a picture of the last Mrs. Egerton, after what I had heard about her, and, at my request, the housekeeper showed me one in the drawing-room.
She was very handsome, and wonderfully like her son. I could fancy those two haughty spirits in opposition.
We spent another hour looking over the rest of the house—old tapestry, old pictures, old china, old furniture, secret staircases, carved chimneypieces, muniment chests, and the usual objects of interest to be found in such a place. After that we walked a little in the neglected garden, where there were old holly hedges that had grown high and wild for want of clipping, and where a curious old sun-dial had fallen down upon the grass in a forlorn way. The paths were all green and moss-grown, and the roses were almost choked with bindweed. I saw Mrs. Darrell gather one of these roses and put it in her breast. It was the first time I have ever seen her pluck a flower, though there was a wealth of roses at Thornleigh.
So ended our visit to Cumber Priory; a place that was destined to be very memorable to some of us in the time to come.
It had been Milly's habit to devote one day a week to visiting among the poor, before she went to Albury Lodge; and she now resumed this practice, I accompanying her upon her visits. I had been used to going about among the cottagers at home, and I liked the work. It was very pleasant to see Milly Darrell with these people—the perfect confidence and sympathy between them and her, the delight they seemed to take in her bright cheering presence. I was struck by their simple natural manner, and the absence of anything like sycophancy to be observed in them. One day, when we had been to several cottages about the village, Milly asked me if I could manage rather a long walk; and on my telling her that I could, we started upon a lonely road that wound across the moor in a direction I had never walked in until that day. We went on for about two miles without passing a human habitation, and then came to one of the most desolate-looking cottages I ever remember seeing. It was little better than a cabin, and consisted only of two rooms—a kind of kitchen or dwelling-room, and a dark little bedchamber opening out of it.
'I am not going to introduce you to a very agreeable person, Mary,' Milly said, when we were within a few paces of this solitary dwelling; 'but old Rebecca is a character in her way, and I make a point of coming to see her now and then, though she is not always very gracious to me.'
It was a warm bright summer's day, but the door and the single window of the cottage were firmly closed. Milly knocked with her hand, and a thin feeble old voice called to her to 'come in.'
We went in: the atmosphere of the place was hot, and had an unpleasant doctor's-shoppish kind of odour, which I found was caused by some herbs in a jar that was simmering over a little stove in a corner. Bunches of dried herbs hung from the low ceiling, and on an old-fashioned lumbering chest of drawers that stood in the window there were more herbs and roots laid out to dry.
'Mrs. Thatcher is a very clever doctor, Mary,' said Milly, as if by way of introduction; 'all our servants come to her to be cured when they have colds and coughs.—And how are you this lovely summer weather, Mrs. Thatcher?'
'None too well, miss,' grumbled the old woman; 'I don't like the summer time; it never suited me.'
'That's strange,' said Milly gaily; 'I thought everybody liked summer.'
'Not those that live as I do, Miss Darrell. There's no illness in summer—no colds, nor coughs, nor sore-threats, nor suchlikes. I don't know that I shouldn't starve outright, if it wasn't for the ague; and even that is nothing now to what it used to be.'
I was quite horror-struck by this ghoulish speech; but Milly only laughed gaily at the old woman's candour.
'If the doctors were as plain-spoken as you, I daresay they'd say pretty much the same kind of thing, Mrs. Thatcher,' she said. 'How's your grandson?'
'O, he's well enough, Miss Darrell. Naught's never in danger.—Peter, come here, and see the young ladies.'
A poor, feeble, pale-faced, semi-idiotic-looking boy came slowly out of the dark little bedroom, and stood grinning at us. He had the white sickly aspect of a creature reared without the influence of air and light; and I pitied him intensely as he stood there staring and grinning in that dreadful hopeless manner.
'Poor Peter!' He's no better, I'm afraid,' said Milly gently.
'No, miss, nor never will be. He knows more than people think, and has queer cunning ways of his own; but he'll never be any better or wiser than he is now.'
'Not if you were to take as much pains with him as you do with the patients who pay you, Mrs. Thatcher?' asked Milly.
'I've taken pains with him,' answered the woman, with a scowl. 'I took to him kindly enough when he was a little fellow; but he's grown up to be nothing but a plague and a burden to me.'
The boy left off grinning, and his poor weak chin sank lower on his narrow chest. His attitude had been a stooping one from the first; but he drooped visibly under the old woman's reproof.
'Can he employ himself in no way?'
'No, miss; except in picking the herbs and roots for me sometimes. He can do that, and he knows one from t'other.'
'He's of some use to you, at any rate, then,' said Milly.
'Little enough,' the old woman answered sulkily. 'I don't want help; I've plenty of time to gather them myself. But I've taught him to pick them, and it's the only thing he ever could learn.'
'Poor fellow! He's your only grandchild, isn't he, Mrs. Thatcher?'
'Yes, he's the only one, miss, and he'd need be. I don't know how I should keep another. You can't remember my daughter Ruth? She was as pretty a girl as you'd care to see. She was housemaid at Cumber priory in Mrs. Egerton's time, and she married the butler. They set up in business in a little public-house in Thornleigh village, and he took to drinking, till everything went to rack and ruin. My poor girl took the trouble to heart more than her husband did, a great deal; and I believe it was the trouble that killed her. She died three weeks after that boy was born, and her husband ran away the day after the funeral, and has never been heard of since. Some say he drowned himself in the Clem; but he was a precious deal too fond of himself for that. He was up to his eyes in debt, and didn't leave a sixpence behind him; that's how Peter came to be thrown on my hands.'
'Come here, Peter,' said Milly softly; and the boy went to her directly, and took the hand she offered him.
'You've not forgotten me, have you, Peter? Miss Darrell, who used to talk to you sometimes a long time ago.'
The boy's vacant face brightened into something like intelligence.
'I know you, miss,' he said; 'you was always kind to Peter. It's not many that I know; but I know you.'
She took out her purse and gave him half-a-crown.
'There, Peter, there's a big piece of silver for your own self, to buy whatever you like—sugar-sticks, gingerbread, marbles—anything.'
His clumsy hand closed upon the coin, and I have no doubt he was pleased by the donation; but he never took his eyes from Milly Darrell's face. That bright lovely face seemed to exercise a kind of fascination upon him.
'Don't you think Peter would be better if you were to give him a little more air and sunshine, Mrs. Thatcher?' Milly asked presently; 'that bedroom seems rather a dark close place.'
'He needn't be there unless he likes,' Mrs. Thatcher answered indifferently. 'He sits out of doors whenever he chooses.'
'Then I should always sit out-of-doors on fine days, if I were you, Peter,' said Milly.
After this she talked a little to Mrs. Thatcher, who was by no means a sympathetic person, while I sat looking on, and contemplating the old woman with a feeling that was the reverse of admiration.
She was of a short squat figure, with broad shoulders and no throat to speak of, and her head seemed too big for her body. Her face was long and thin, with large features, and a frame of scanty gray hair, among which a sandy tinge still lingered here and there; her eyes were of an ugly reddish-brown, and had, I thought, a most sinister expression. I must have been very ill, and sorely at a loss for a doctor, before I could have been induced to trust my health to the care of Mrs. Rebecca Thatcher.
I told Milly as much while we were walking homewards, and she admitted that Rebecca Thatcher was no favourite even among the country people, who believed implicitly in her skill.
'I'm afraid she tells fortunes, and dabbles in all sorts of superstitious tricks,' Milly added gravely; 'but she is so artful, there is no way of finding her out in that kind of business. The foolish country girls who consult her always keep her secret, and she manages to put on a fair face before our rector and his curate, who believe her to be a respectable woman.'
The days and weeks slipped by very pleasantly at Thornleigh, and the end of those bright midsummer holidays came only too soon. It seemed a bitter thing to say 'good-bye' to Milly Darrell, and to go back alone to a place which must needs be doubly dull and dreary to me without her. She had been my only friend at Albury Lodge; loving her as I did, I had never cared to form any other friendship.
The dreaded day came at last—dreaded I know by both of us; and I said 'good-bye' to my darling so quietly, that I am sure none could have guessed the grief I felt in this parting. Mrs. Darrell was very kind and gracious on this occasion, begging that I would come back to Thornleigh at Christmas—if they should happen to spend their Christmas there.
Milly looked up at her wonderingly as she said this.
'Is there any chance of our spending it elsewhere, Augusta?' she asked.
Mrs. Darrell had persuaded her stepdaughter to use this familiar Christian name, rather than the more formal mode of address.
'I don't know, my dear. Your papa has sometimes talked of a house in town, or we might be abroad. I can only say that if we are at home here, we shall be very much pleased to see Miss Crofton again.'
I thanked her, kissed Milly once more, and so departed—to be driven to the station in state in the barouche, and to look sadly back at the noble old house in which I had been so happy.
Once more I returned to the dryasdust routine of Albury Lodge, and rang the changes upon history and geography, chronology and English grammar, physical science and the elements of botany, until my weary head ached and my heart grew sick. And when I came to be a governess, it would of course be the same thing over and over again, on a smaller scale. And this was to be my future, without hope of change or respite, until I grew an old woman worn-out with the drudgery of tuition!
The half-year wore itself slowly away. There were no incidents to mark the time, no change except the slow changes of the seasons; and my only pleasures were letters from home or from Emily Darrell.
Of the home letters I will not speak—they could have no interest except for myself; but Milly's are links in the story of a life. She wrote to me as freely as she had talked to me, pouring out all her thoughts and fancies with that confiding frankness which was one of the most charming attributes of her mind. For some time the letters contained nothing that could be called news; but late in September there came one which seemed to me to convey intelligence of some importance.
'You will be grieved to hear, my darling Mary,' she wrote, after a little playful discussion of my own affairs, 'that my stepmother and I are no nearer anything like a real friendship than we were when you left us. What it is that makes the gulf between us, I cannot tell; but there is something, some hidden feeling in both our minds, I think, which prevents our growing fond of each other. She is very kind to me, so far as perfect non-interference with my doings, and a gracious manner when we are together, can go; but I am sure she does not like me. I have surprised her more than once looking at me with the strangest expression—a calculating, intensely thoughtful look, that made her face ten years older than it is at other times. Of course there are times when we are thrown together alone—though this does not occur often, for she and my father are a most devoted couple, and spend the greater part of every day together—and I have noticed at those times that she never speaks of her girlhood, or of any part of her life before her marriage. All that came before seems a blank page, or a sealed volume that she does not care to open. I asked some trifling question about her father once, and she turned upon me almost angrily.
"I do not care to speak about him, Milly," she said; "he was not a good father, and he is best forgotten. I never had a real friend till I met my husband."
'There is one part of her character which I am bound to appreciate. I believe that she is really grateful and devoted to papa, and he certainly seems thoroughly happy in her society. The marriage had the effect which I felt sure it must have—it has divided us two most completely; but if it has made him happy, I have no reason to complain. What could I wish for beyond his happiness?
'And now, Milly, for my news. Julian Stormont has been here, and has asked me to be his wife.
'He came over last Saturday afternoon, intending to stop with us till Monday morning. It was a bright warm day here, and in the afternoon he persuaded me to walk to Cumber Church with him. You remember the way we drove through the wood the day we went to the Priory, I daresay; but there is a nearer way than that for foot passengers, and I think a prettier one—a kind of cross-cut through the same wood. I consented willingly enough, having nothing better to do with myself, and we had a pleasant walk to church, talking of all kinds of things. As we returned Julian grew very serious, and when we were about half way upon our journey, he asked me if I could guess what had brought him over to Thornleigh. Of course I told him that I concluded he had come as he usually did—for rest and change after the cares of business, and to talk about business affairs with papa.
'He told me he had come for something more than that. He came to tell me that he had loved me all his life; that there was nothing my father would like better than our union if it could secure my happiness, as he hoped and believed it might.
'I think you know, Mary, that no idea of this kind had ever entered my mind. I told Julian this, and told him that, however I might esteem him as my cousin, he could never be nearer or dearer to me than that. The change in his face when he heard this almost frightened me. He grew deadly pale, but I am certain it was anger rather than disappointment that was uppermost in his mind. I never knew until then what a hard cruel face it could be.
"Is this irrevocable, Emily?" he asked, in a cold firm voice; "is there no hope that you will change your mind by and by?"
"No, Julian; I am never likely to do that."
"There is some one else, then, I suppose," he said.
"No, indeed, there is no one else."
"Highly complimentary to me!" he cried, with a harsh laugh.
'I was very sorry for him, in spite of that angry look.
"Pray don't imagine that I do not appreciate your many high qualities, Julian," I said, "or that I do not feel honoured by your preference for me. No doubt there are many women in the world better deserving your regard than I am, who would be able to return it."
"Thank you for that little conventional speech," he cried with a sneer. "A man builds all his hopes of happiness on one woman, and she coolly shatters the fabric of his life, and then tells him to go and build elsewhere. I daresay there are women in the world who would condescend to marry me if I asked them, but it is my misfortune to care only for one woman. I can't transfer my affection, as a man transfers his capital from one form of investment to another."
'We walked on for some time in silence. I was determined not to be angry with him, however ungraciously he might speak to me; and when we were drawing near home, I begged that we might remain friends still, and that this unfortunate conversation might make no difference between us. I told him I knew how much my father valued him, and that it would distress me deeply if he deserted Thornleigh on my account.
"Friends!" he replied, in an absent tone; "yes, we are still friends of course, and I shall not desert Thornleigh."
'He seemed gayer than usual that evening after dinner. Whether the gaiety was assumed in order to hide his depression, or whether he was really able to take the matter lightly, I cannot tell. Of course I cannot shut out of my mind the consideration that a marriage with me would be a matter of great worldly advantage to Julian, who has nothing but the salary he receives from my father, and who by such a marriage would most likely secure immediate possession of the business, in which he is already a kind of deputy principal.
'I noticed that my stepmother was especially kind to Julian this evening, and that she and he sat apart in one of the windows for some time talking to each other in a low confidential tone, while my father took his after-dinner nap. I wonder whether he told her of our interview that afternoon?
'He went back to Shields early next morning, and bade me good-bye quite in his usual manner; so I hoped he had forgiven me; but the affair has left an unpleasant feeling in my mind, a sort of vague dread of some trouble to arise out of it in the future. I cannot forget that hard cruel look in my cousin's face.
'When he was gone, Mrs. Darrell began to praise him very warmly, and my father spoke of him in the same tone. They talked of him a good deal as we lingered over our breakfast, and I fancied there was some intention with regard to me in the minds of both—they seem indeed to think alike upon every subject. Dearly as I love my father, this is a point upon which even his influence could not affect me. I might be weak and yielding upon every other question, never upon this.
'And now let me tell you about my friend Peter, Rebecca Thatcher's half-witted grandson. You know how painfully we were both struck by the poor fellow's listless hopeless manner when we were at the cottage on the moor. I thought of it a great deal afterwards, and it occurred to me that our head-gardener might find work for him in the way of weeding, and rolling the gravel paths, and such humble matters. Brook is a good kind old man, and always ready to do anything to please me; so I asked him the question one day in August, and he promised that when he next wanted extra hands Peter Thatcher should be employed, "Though I don't suppose I shall ever make much of him, miss," he said; "but there's naught I wouldn't do to please you."
'Well, my dear Mary, the boy came, and has done so well as quite to surprise Brook and the other two gardeners. He has an extraordinary attachment to me, and nothing delights him so much as to wait upon me when I am attending to my ferns, a task I always perform myself, as you know. To see this poor boy, standing by with a watering-pot in one hand, and a little basket of dead leaves in the other, watching me as breathlessly as if I were some great surgeon operating upon a patient, would make you smile; but I think you could scarcely fail to be touched by his devotion. He tells me that he is so happy at Thornleigh, and he begins to look a great deal brighter already. The men say he is indefatigable in his work, and worth two ordinary boys. He is passionately fond of flowers, and I have begun to teach him the elements of botany. It is rather slow work impressing the names of the plants upon his poor feeble brain; but he is so anxious to learn, and so proud of being taught, that I am well repaid for my trouble.'
Milly was very anxious that I should spend Christmas at Thornleigh; but it was by that time nearly a year since I had seen the dear ones at home, and ill as my dear father could afford any addition to his expenses, he wished me to spend my holidays with him; and so it was arranged that I should return to Warwickshire, much to my dear girl's regret.
The holiday was a very happy one; and, before it was over, I received a letter from Milly, telling me that Mr. and Mrs. Darrell were going abroad for some months, and asking me to cut short my term at Albury Lodge, and come to Thornleigh as her companion, at a salary which I thought a very handsome one.
The idea of exchanging the dull monotony of Miss Bagshot's establishment for such a home as Thornleigh, with the friend I loved as dearly as a sister, was more than delightful to me, to say nothing of a salary which would enable me to buy my own clothes and leave a margin for an annual remittance to my father. I talked the subject over with him, and he wrote immediately to Miss Bagshot, requesting her to waive the half-year's notice of the withdrawal of my services, to which she was fairly entitled. This she consented very kindly to do; and instead of going back to Albury Lodge, I went to Thornleigh.
Mr. and Mrs. Darrell had started for Paris when I arrived, and the house seemed very empty and quiet. My dear girl came into the hall to receive me, and led me off to her pretty sitting-room, where there was a bright fire, and where, she told me, she spent almost the whole of her time now.
'And are you really pleased to come to me, Mary?' she asked, when our first greetings were over.
'More than pleased, my darling. It seems almost too bright a life for me. I can hardly believe in it yet.'
'But perhaps you will seen get as tired of Thornleigh as ever you did of Albury Lodge. It will be rather a dull kind of life, you know; only you and I and the old servants.'
'I shall never feel dull with you, Milly. But tell me how all this came about. How was it you didn't go abroad with Mr. and Mrs. Darrell?'
'Ah, that is rather strange, isn't it? The truth of the matter is, that Augusta did not want me to go with them. She does not like me, Mary, that is the real truth, through she affects to be very fond of me, and has contrived to make my father think she is so. What is there that she cannot make him think? She does not like me; and she is never quite happy or at her ease when I am with her. She had been growing tired of Thornleigh for some time when the winter began; and she looked so pale and ill, that my father got anxious about her. The doctor here treated her in the usual stereotyped way, and made very light of her ailments, but recommended change of air and scene. Papa proposed going to Scarborough; but somehow or other Augusta contrived to change Scarborough into Paris, and they are to spend the winter and spring there, and perhaps go on to Germany in the summer. At first papa was very anxious to take me with them; but Augusta dropped some little hints—it would interrupt my studies, and unsettle me, and so on. You know I am rather proud, Mary, so you can imagine I was not slow to understand her. I said I would much prefer to stay at Thornleigh, and proposed immediately that you should come to me and be my companion, and help me on with my studies.'
'My dearest, how good of you to wish that!'
'It was not at all good. I think you are the only person in the world who really cares for me, now that I have lost papa—for I have lost him, you see, Mary; that becomes more obvious every day. Well, dear, I had a hard battle to fight. Mrs. Darrell said you were absurdly young for such a position, and that I required a matronly person, able to direct and protect me, and take the management of the house in her absence, and so on; but I said that I wanted neither direction nor protection; that the house wanted no other management than that of Mrs. Bunce the housekeeper, who has managed it ever since I was a baby; and that if I could not have Mary Crofton, I would have no one at all. I told papa what an indefatigable darling you were, and how conscientiously you would perform anything you promised to do. So, after a good deal of discussion, the matter was settled; and here we are, with the house all to ourselves, and the prospect of being alone together for six months to come.'
I asked her if she had seen much of Mr. Stormont since that memorable Sunday afternoon.
'He has been here twice,' she said, 'for his usual short visit from Saturday afternoon till Monday morning, and he has treated me just as if that uncomfortable interview had never taken place.'
We were very happy together in the great lonely house, amongst old servants, who seemed to take a pleasure in waiting on us. We spent our mornings and evenings in Milly's sitting-room, and took our meals in a snug prettily-furnished breakfast-room on the ground- floor. We read together a great deal, going through a systematic course of study of a very different kind from the dry labours at Albury Lodge. There was a fine old library at Thornleigh, and we read the masters of English and French prose together with unflagging interest and pleasure. Besides all this, Milly worked hard at her music, and still harder at her painting, which was a real delight to her.
Mr. Collingwood the rector, and his family, came to see us, and insisted on our visiting them frequently in a pleasant unceremonious manner; and we had other invitations from Milly's old friends in the neighbourhood of Thornleigh.
There were carriages at our disposal, but we did not often use them. Milly preferred walking; and we used to take long rambles together whenever the weather was favourable—rambles across the moor, or far away over the hills, or deep into the wood between Thornleigh and Cumber.
A NEW ACQUAINTANCE.
It was shortly after my arrival at Thornleigh that I first saw the man whose story I had heard in the study at Cumber Priory. Milly and I had been together about a fortnight, and it was the end of January—cold, clear, bright weather—when we set out early one afternoon for a ramble in our favourite wood, Milly furnished with pencils and sketch-book, in order to jot down any striking effect of the gaunt leafless old trees. She had a hardy disregard of cold in her devotion to her art, and would sit down to sketch in the bitter January weather in spite of my entreaties.
We stayed out longer than usual, and Milly had stopped once or twice to make a hasty sketch, when the sky grew suddenly dark, and big drops of rain began to fall slowly. There were speedily succeeded by a pelting storm of rain and hail, and we felt that we were caught, and must be drenched to the skin before we could get back to Thornleigh. The weather had been temptingly fine when we left home, and we had neither umbrellas nor any other kind of protection against the rain.
'We had better scamper off as fast as we can,' said Milly.
'But we can't run four miles. Hadn't we better go on to Cumber, and wait in the village till the weather changes, or try to get some kind of conveyance there?'
'Well, I suppose that would be best. There must be such a thing as a fly at Cumber, I should think, small as the place is. But it's nearly a mile from here to the village.'
'Anything seems better than going back through the wood in such a weather,' I said.
We were close to the outskirts of the wood at this time, and within a very short distance of the Priory gates. While we were still pausing in an undecided way, with the rain pelting down upon us, a figure came towards us from among the leafless trees—the figure of a man, a gentleman, as we could see by his dress and bearing, and a stranger. We had never met any one but country-people, farm- labourers, and so on, in the wood before, and were a little startled by his apparition.
He came up to us quickly, lifting his hat as he approached us.
'Caught in the storm, ladies,' he said, 'and without umbrellas I see, too. Have you far to go?'
'Yes, we have to go as far as Thornleigh,' Milly answered.
'Quite impossible in such weather. Will you come into the Priory and wait till the storm is over?'
'The Priory! To be sure!' cried Milly. 'I never thought of that. I know the housekeeper very well, and I am sure she would let us stop there.'
We walked towards the Priory gates, the stranger accompanying us. I had no opportunity of looking at him under that pelting rain, but I was wondering all the time who he was, and how he came to speak of Cumber Priory in that familiar tone.
One of the gates stood open, and we went in.
'A desolate-looking place, isn't it?' said the stranger. 'Dismal enough, without the embellishment of such weather as this.'
He led the way to the hall-door, and opened it unceremoniously, standing aside for us to pass in before him. There was a fire burning in the wide old-fashioned fireplace, and the place had an air of occupation that was new to it.
'I'll send for Mrs. Mills, and she shall take your wet shawls away to be dried,' said the stranger, ringing a bell; and I think we both began to understand by this time that he must be the master of the house.
'You are very kind,' Milly answered, taking off her dripping shawl. 'I did not know that the Priory was occupied except by the old servants. I fear you must have thought me very impertinent just now when I talked so coolly of taking shelter here.'
'I am only too glad that you should find refuge in the old place.'
He wheeled a couple of ponderous carved-oak chairs close to the hearth, and begged us to sit there; but Milly preferred standing in the noble old gothic window looking out at the rain.
'They will be getting anxious about us at home,' she said, 'if we are not back before dark.'
'I wish I possessed a close carriage to place at your service. I do, indeed, boast of the ownership of a dog-cart, if you would not be afraid of driving in such a barbarous vehicle when the rain is over. It would keep you out of the mud, at any rate.'
Milly laughed gaily.
'I have been brought up in the country,' she said, 'and am not at all afraid of driving in a dog-cart. I used often to go out with papa in his, before he married.'
'Then, when the storm is over, I shall have the pleasure of driving you to Thornleigh, if you will permit me that honour.'
Milly looked a little perplexed at this, and made some excuse about not wishing to cause so much trouble.
'I really think we could walk home very well; don't you, Mary?' she said; and I declared myself quite equal to the walk.
'It would be impossible for you to get back to Thornleigh before dark,' the gentleman remonstrated. 'I shall be quite offended if you refuse the use of my dog-cart, and insist on getting wet feet. I daresay your feet are wet as it is, by the bye.'
We assured him of the thickness of our boots, and gave our shawls to Mrs. Mills the old housekeeper, who carried them off to be dried in the kitchen, and promised to convey the order about the dog-cart to the stables immediately.
I had time now to look at our new acquaintance, who was standing with his shoulders against one angle of the high oak mantelpiece, watching the rain beating against a window opposite to him. I had no difficulty in recognising the original of that portrait which Augusta Darrell had looked at so strangely. He was much older than when the portrait had been taken—ten years at the least, I thought. In the picture he looked little more than twenty, and I should have guessed him now to be on the wrong side of thirty.
He was handsome still, but the dark powerful face had a sort of rugged look, the heavy eyebrows overshadowed the sombre black eyes, a thick fierce-looking moustache shrouded the mouth, but could not quite conceal an expression, half cynical, half melancholy, that lurked about the lowered corners of the full firm lips. He looked like a man whose past life held some sad or sinful history.
I could fancy, as I looked at him, that last bitter interview with his mother, and I could imagine how hard and cruel such a man might be under the influence of an unpardonable wrong. Like Mrs. Darrell, I was inclined to place myself on the side of the unfortunate lovers, rather than on that of the mother, who had been willing to sacrifice her son's happiness to her pride of race.
We all three remained silent for some little time, Milly and I standing together in the window, Mr. Egerton leaning against the mantelpiece, watching the rain with an absent look in his face. He roused himself at last, as if with an effort, and came over to the window by which we stood.
'It looks rather hopeless at present,' he said; 'but I shall spin you over to Thornleigh in no time; so you mustn't be anxious. It is at Thornleigh Manor you live, is it not?'
'Yes,' Milly answered. 'My name is Darrell, and this young lady is Miss Crofton, my very dear friend.'
He bowed in recognition of this introduction.
'I thought as much—I mean as to your name being Darrell. I had the honour to know Mr. Darrell very well when I was a lad, and I have a vague recollection of a small child in white frock, who, I think, must have been yourself. I have only been home a week, or I should have done myself the pleasure of calling on your father.'
'Papa is in Paris,' Milly answered, 'with my stepmother.'
'Ah, he has married again, I hear. One of the many changes that have come to pass since I was last in Yorkshire.'
'Have you returned for good, Mr. Egerton?'
'For good—or for evil—who knows?' he answered, with a careless laugh. 'As to whether I stay here so many weeks or so many years, that is a matter of supreme uncertainty. I never am in the same mind very long together. But I am heartily sick of knocking about abroad, and I cannot possibly find life emptier or duller here than I have found it in places that people call gay.'
'I can't fancy any one growing tired of such a place as the Priory,' said Milly.
' "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage." " 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus." Cannot you fancy a man getting utterly tired of himself and his own thoughts—knowing himself by heart, and finding the lesson a dreary one? Perhaps not. A girl's life seems all brightness. What should such happy young creatures know of that arid waste of years that lies beyond a man's thirtieth birthday, when his youth has not been a fortunate one? Ah, there is a break in the sky yonder; the rain will be over presently.'
The rain did cease, as he had prophesied. The dog-cart was brought round to the door by a clumsy-looking man in corduroy, who seemed half groom, half gardener; and Mr. Egerton drove us home; Milly sitting next him, I at the back. His horse was very good one, and the drive only lasted a quarter of an hour, during which time our new acquaintance talked very pleasantly to both of us.