MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
AUTHOR OF 'MISS BRETHERTON'
London MACMILLAN AND CO. AND NEW YORK 1888
All rights reserved
Printed by R. & R. CLARK, Edinburgh.
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Dedicated to the Memory
MY TWO FRIENDS,
SEPARATED, IN MY THOUGHT OF THEM, BY MUCH DIVERSITY OF CIRCUMSTANCE AND OPINION; LINKED, IN MY FAITH ABOUT THEM, TO EACH OTHER, AND TO ALL THE SHINING ONES OF THE PAST, BY THE LOVE OF GOD AND THE SERVICE OF MAN:
THOMAS HILL GREEN (LATE PROFESSOR OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY IN THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD), Died 26th March 1882;
LAURA OCTAVIA MARY LYTTELTON, Died Easter Eve 1886.
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BOOK I WESTMORELAND 1
BOOK II SURREY 149
BOOK III THE SQUIRE 251
BOOK IV CRISIS 333
BOOK V ROSE 387
BOOK VI NEW OPENINGS 461
BOOK VII GAIN AND LOSS 549
* * * * * NOTE
The quotations given in the present book on pp. 58, 330, and 536, are either literally or substantially taken from a volume of Lay Sermons, called The Witness of God, by the late Professor T. H. Green.
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It was a brilliant afternoon towards the end of May. The spring had been unusually cold and late, and it was evident from the general aspect of the lonely Westmoreland valley of Long Whindale that warmth and sunshine had only just penetrated to its bare green recesses, where the few scattered trees were fast rushing into their full summer dress, while at their feet, and along the bank of the stream, the flowers of March and April still lingered, as though they found it impossible to believe that their rough brother, the east wind, had at last deserted them. The narrow road, which was the only link between the farmhouses sheltered by the crags at the head of the valley and those far-away regions of town and civilisation suggested by the smoke wreaths of Whinborough on the southern horizon, was lined with masses of the white heckberry or bird-cherry, and ran, an arrowy line of white, through the greenness of the sloping pastures. The sides of some of the little becks running down into the main river and many of the plantations round the farms were gay with the same tree, so that the farmhouses, gray-roofed and gray-walled, standing in the hollows of the fells, seemed here and there to have been robbed of all their natural austerity of aspect, and to be masquerading in a dainty garb of white and green imposed upon them by the caprice of the spring.
During the greater part of its course the valley of Long Whindale is tame and featureless. The hills at the lower part are low and rounded, and the sheep and cattle pasture over slopes unbroken either by wood or rock. The fields are bare and close shaven by the flocks which feed on them; the walls run either perpendicularly in many places up the fells or horizontally along them, so that, save for the wooded course of the tumbling river and the bush-grown hedges of the road, the whole valley looks like a green map divided by regular lines of grayish black. But as the walker penetrates farther, beyond a certain bend which the stream makes half way from the head of the dale, the hills grow steeper, the breadth between them contracts, the enclosure lines are broken and deflected by rocks and patches of plantation, and the few farms stand more boldly and conspicuously forward, each on its spur of land, looking up to or away from the great masses of frowning crag which close in the head of the valley, and which from the moment they come into sight give it dignity and a wild beauty.
On one of these solitary houses, the afternoon sun, about to descend before very long behind the hills dividing Long Whindale from Shanmoor, was still lingering on this May afternoon we are describing, bringing out the whitewashed porch and the broad bands of white edging the windows into relief against the gray stone of the main fabric, the gray roof overhanging it, and the group of sycamores and Scotch firs which protected it from the cold east and north. The western light struck full on a copper beech, which made a welcome patch of warm colour in front of a long gray line of outhouses standing level with the house, and touched the heckberry blossom which marked the upward course of the little lane connecting the old farm with the road; above it rose the green fell, broken here and there by jutting crags, and below it the ground sank rapidly through a piece of young hazel plantation, at this present moment a sheet of bluebells, towards the level of the river. There was a dainty and yet sober brightness about the whole picture. Summer in the North is for Nature a time of expansion and of joy as it is elsewhere, but there is none of that opulence, that sudden splendour and superabundance, which mark it in the South. In these bare green valleys there is a sort of delicate austerity even in the summer; the memory of winter seems to be still lingering about these wind-swept fells, about the farmhouses, with their rough serviceable walls, of the same stone as the crags behind them, and the ravines, in which the shrunken becks trickle musically down through the debris of innumerable Decembers. The country is blithe, but soberly blithe. Nature shows herself delightful to man, but there is nothing absorbing or intoxicating about her. Man is still well able to defend himself against her, to live his own independent life of labour and of will, and to develop the tenacity of hidden feeling, that slowly growing intensity of purpose, which is so often wiled out of him by the spells of the South.
The distant aspect of Burwood Farm differed in nothing from that of the few other farmhouses which dotted the fells or clustered beside the river between it and the rocky end of the valley. But as one came nearer, certain signs of difference became visible. The garden, instead of being the old-fashioned medley of phloxes, lavender bushes, monthly roses, gooseberry trees, herbs, and pampas grass, with which the farmers' wives of Long Whindale loved to fill their little front enclosures, was trimly laid down in turf dotted with neat flower-beds, full at the moment we are writing of with orderly patches of scarlet and purple anemones, wallflowers, and pansies. At the side of the house a new bow window, modest enough in dimensions and make, had been thrown out on to another close-shaven piece of lawn, and by its suggestion of a distant sophisticated order of things disturbed the homely impression left by the untouched ivy-grown walls, the unpretending porch, and wide slate window-sills of the front. And evidently the line of sheds standing level with the dwelling-house no longer sheltered the animals, the carts, or the tools which make the small capital of a Westmoreland farmer. The windows in them were new, the doors fresh painted and closely shut; curtains of some soft outlandish make showed themselves in what had once been a stable, and the turf stretched smoothly up to a narrow gravelled path in front of them, unbroken by a single footmark. No, evidently the old farm, for such it undoubtedly was, had been but lately, or comparatively lately, transformed to new and softer uses; that rough patriarchal life of which it had once been a symbol and centre no longer bustled and clattered through it. It had become the shelter of new ideals, the home of another and a milder race than once possessed it.
In a stranger coming upon the house for the first time, on this particular evening, the sense of a changing social order and a vanishing past produced by the slight but significant modifications it had undergone, would have been greatly quickened by certain sounds which were streaming out on to the evening air from one of the divisions of that long one-storied addition to the main dwelling we have already described. Some indefatigable musician inside was practising the violin with surprising energy and vigour, and within the little garden the distant murmur of the river and the gentle breathing of the west wind round the fell were entirely conquered and banished by these triumphant shakes and turns, or by the flourishes and the broad cantabile passages of one of Spohr's Andantes. For a while, as the sun sank lower and lower towards the Shanmoor hills, the hidden artist had it all his, or her, own way; the valley and its green spaces seemed to be possessed by this stream of eddying sound, and no other sign of life broke the gray quiet of the house. But at last, just as the golden ball touched the summit of the craggy fell, which makes the western boundary of the dale at its higher end, the house door opened, and a young girl, shawled and holding some soft burden in her arms, appeared on the threshold, and stood there for a moment, as though trying the quality of the air outside. Her pause of inspection seemed to satisfy her, for she moved forward, leaving the door open behind her, and, stepping across the lawn, settled herself in a wicker chair under an apple-tree, which had only just shed its blossoms on the turf below. She had hardly done so when one of the distant doors opening on the gravel path flew open, and another maiden, a slim creature garbed in aesthetic blue, a mass of reddish brown hair flying back from her face, also stepped out into the garden.
'Agnes!' cried the new-comer, who had the strenuous and dishevelled air natural to one just emerged from a long violin practice. 'Has Catherine come back yet?'
'Not that I know of. Do come here and look at pussie; did you ever see anything so comfortable?'
'You and she look about equally lazy. What have you been doing all the afternoon?'
'We look what we are, my dear. Doing? Why, I have been attending to my domestic duties, arranging the flowers, mending my pink dress for to-morrow night, and helping to keep mamma in good spirits; she is depressed because she has been finding Elizabeth out in some waste or other, and I have been preaching to her to make Elizabeth uncomfortable if she likes, but not to worrit herself. And after all, pussie and I have come out for a rest. We've earned it, haven't we, Chattie? And, as for you, Miss Artistic, I should like to know what you've been doing for the good of your kind since dinner. I suppose you had tea at the vicarage?'
The speaker lifted inquiring eyes to her sister as she spoke, her cheek plunged in the warm fur of a splendid Persian cat, her whole look and voice expressing the very highest degree of quiet, comfort, and self-possession. Agnes Leyburn was not pretty; the lower part of the face was a little heavy in outline and moulding; the teeth were not as they should have been, and the nose was unsatisfactory. But the eyes under their long lashes were shrewdness itself, and there was an individuality in the voice, a cheery even-temperedness in look and tone, which had a pleasing effect on the bystander. Her dress was neat and dainty; every detail of it bespoke a young woman who respected both herself and the fashion.
Her sister, on the other hand, was guiltless of the smallest trace of fashion. Her skirts were cut with the most engaging naivete, she was much adorned with amber beads, and her red brown hair had been tortured and frizzled to look as much like an aureole as possible. But, on the other hand, she was a beauty, though at present you felt her a beauty in disguise, a stage Cinderella as it were, in very becoming rags, waiting for the godmother.
'Yes, I had tea at the vicarage,' said this young person, throwing herself on the grass in spite of a murmured protest from Agnes, who had an inherent dislike of anything physically rash, 'and I had the greatest difficulty to get away. Mrs. Thornburgh is in such a flutter about this visit! One would think it was the Bishop and all his Canons, and promotion depending on it, she has baked so many cakes and put out so many dinner napkins! I don't envy the young man. She will have no wits left at all to entertain him with. I actually wound up by administering some sal-volatile to her.'
'Well, and after the sal-volatile did you get anything coherent out of her on the subject of the young man?'
'By degrees,' said the girl, her eyes twinkling; 'if one can only remember the thread between whiles one gets at the facts somehow. In between the death of Mr. Elsmere's father and his going to college, we had, let me see,—the spare room curtains, the making of them and the cleaning of them, Sarah's idiocy in sticking to her black sheep of a young man, the price of tea when she married, Mr. Thornburgh's singular preference of boiled mutton to roast, the poems she had written to her when she was eighteen, and I can't tell you what else besides. But I held fast, and every now and then I brought her up to the point again, gently, but firmly, and now I think I know all I want to know about the interesting stranger.'
'My ideas about him are not many,' said Agnes, rubbing her cheek gently up and down the purring cat, 'and there doesn't seem to be much order in them. He is very accomplished—a teetotaller—he has been to the Holy Land, and his hair has been cut close after a fever. It sounds odd, but I am not curious. I can very well wait till to-morrow evening.'
'Oh, well, as to ideas about a person, one doesn't get that sort of thing from Mrs. Thornburgh. But I know how old he is, where he went to college, where his mother lives, a certain number of his mother's peculiarities, which seem to be Irish and curious, where his living is, how much it is worth, likewise the colour of his eyes, as near as Mrs. Thornburgh can get.'
'What a start you have been getting!' said Agnes lazily. 'But what is it makes the poor old thing so excited?'
Rose sat up and began to fling the fir cones lying about her at a distant mark with an energy worthy of her physical perfections and the aesthetic freedom of her attire.
'Because, my dear, Mrs. Thornburgh at the present moment is always seeing herself as the conspirator sitting match in hand before a mine. Mr. Elsmere is the match—we are the mine!'
Agnes looked at her sister, and they both laughed, the bright rippling laugh of young women perfectly aware of their own value, and in no hurry to force an estimate of it on the male world.
'Well,' said Rose deliberately, her delicate cheek flushed with her gymnastics, her eyes sparkling, 'there is no saying. "Propinquity does it"—as Mrs. Thornburgh is always reminding us.—But where can Catherine be? She went out directly after lunch.'
'She has gone out to see that youth who hurt his back at the Tysons—at least I heard her talking to mamma about him, and she went out with a basket that looked like beef-tea.'
Rose frowned a little.
'And I suppose I ought to have been to the school or to see Mrs. Robson, instead of fiddling all the afternoon. I daresay I ought—only, unfortunately, I like my fiddle, and I don't like stuffy cottages; and as for the goody books, I read them so badly that the old women themselves come down upon me.'
'I seem to have been making the best of both worlds,' said Agnes placidly. 'I haven't been doing anything I don't like, but I got hold of that dress she brought home to make for little Emma Payne and nearly finished the skirt, so that I feel as good as one when one has been twice to church on a wet Sunday. Ah, there is Catherine. I heard the gate.'
As she spoke steps were heard approaching through the clump of trees which sheltered the little entrance gate, and as Rose sprang to her feet a tall figure in white and gray appeared against the background of the sycamores, and came quickly towards the sisters.
'Dears, I am so sorry; I am afraid you have been waiting for me. But poor Mrs. Tyson wanted me so badly that I could not leave her. She had no one else to help her or to be with her till that eldest girl of hers came home from work.'
'It doesn't matter,' said Rose, as Catherine put her arm round her shoulder; 'mamma hasn't been fidgeting, and as for Agnes, she looks as if she never wanted to move again.'
Catherine's clear eyes, which at the moment seemed to be full of inward light, kindled in them by some foregoing experience, rested kindly, but only half consciously, on her younger sister, as Agnes softly nodded and smiled to her. Evidently she was a good deal older than the other two—she looked about six-and-twenty, a young and vigorous woman in the prime of health and strength. The lines of the form were rather thin and spare, but they were softened by the loose bodice and long full skirt of her dress, and by the folds of a large white muslin handkerchief which was crossed over her breast. The face, sheltered by the plain shady hat, was also a little spoilt from the point of view of beauty by the sharpness of the lines about the chin and mouth, and by a slight prominence of the cheekbones, but the eyes, of a dark bluish gray, were fine, the nose delicately cut, the brow smooth and beautiful, while the complexion had caught the freshness and purity of Westmoreland air and Westmoreland streams. About face and figure there was a delicate austere charm, something which harmonised with the bare stretches and lonely crags of the fells, something which seemed to make her a true daughter of the mountains, partaker at once of their gentleness and their severity. She was in her place here, beside the homely Westmoreland house and under the shelter of the fells. When you first saw the other sisters you wondered what strange chance had brought them into that remote sparely-peopled valley; they were plainly exiles, and conscious exiles, from the movement and exhilarations of a fuller social life. But Catherine impressed you as only a refined variety of the local type; you could have found many like her, in a sense, among the sweet-faced serious women of the neighbouring farms.
Now, as she and Rose stood together, her hand still resting lightly on the other's shoulder, a question from Agnes banished the faint smile on her lips, and left only the look of inward illumination, the expression of one who had just passed, as it were, through a strenuous and heroic moment of life, and was still living in the exaltation of memory.
'So the poor fellow is worse?'
'Yes. Doctor Baker, whom they have got to-day, says the spine is hopelessly injured. He may live on paralysed for a few months or longer, but there is no hope of cure.'
Both girls uttered a shocked exclamation. 'That fine strong young man!' said Rose under her breath. 'Does he know?'
'Yes; when I got there the doctor had just gone, and Mrs. Tyson, who was quite unprepared for anything so dreadful, seemed to have almost lost her wits, poor thing! I found her in the front kitchen with her apron over her head, rocking to and fro, and poor Arthur in the inner room—all alone—waiting in suspense.'
'And who told him? He has been so hopeful.'
'I did,' said Catherine gently; 'they made me. He would know, and she couldn't—she ran out of the room. I never saw anything so pitiful.'
'Oh, Catherine!' exclaimed Rose's moved voice, while Agnes got up, and Chattie jumped softly down from her lap, unheeded.
'How did he bear it?'
'Don't ask me,' said Catherine, while the quiet tears filled her eyes and her voice broke, as the hidden feeling would have its way. 'It was terrible! I don't know how we got through that half-hour—his mother and I. It was like wrestling with some one in agony. At last he was exhausted—he let me say the Lord's Prayer; I think it soothed him, but one couldn't tell. He seemed half asleep when I left. Oh!' she cried, laying her hand in a close grasp on Rose's arm, 'if you had seen his eyes, and his poor hands—there was such despair in them! They say, though he was so young, he was thinking of getting married; and he was so steady, such a good son!'
A silence fell upon the three. Catherine stood looking out across the valley towards the sunset. Now that the demand upon her for calmness and fortitude was removed, and that the religious exaltation in which she had gone through the last three hours was becoming less intense, the pure human pity of the scene she had just witnessed seemed to be gaining upon her. Her lip trembled, and two or three tears silently overflowed. Rose turned and gently kissed her cheek, and Agnes touched her hand caressingly. She smiled at them, for it was not in her nature to let any sign of love pass unheeded, and in a few more seconds she had mastered herself.
'Dears, we must go in. Is mother in her room? Oh, Rose! in that thin dress on the grass; I oughtn't to have kept you out. It is quite cold by now.'
And she hurried them in, leaving them to superintend the preparations for supper downstairs while she ran up to her mother.
A quarter of an hour afterwards they were all gathered round the supper-table, the windows open to the garden and the May twilight. At Catherine's right hand sat Mrs. Leyburn, a tall delicate-looking woman, wrapped in a white shawl, about whom there were only three things to be noticed—an amiable temper, a sufficient amount of weak health to excuse her all the more tiresome duties of life, and an incorrigible tendency to sing the praises of her daughters at all times and to all people. The daughters winced under it: Catherine, because it was a positive pain to her to hear herself brought forward and talked about; the others, because youth infinitely prefers to make its own points in its own way. Nothing, however, could mend this defect of Mrs. Leyburn's. Catherine's strength of will could keep it in check sometimes, but in general it had to be borne with. A sharp word would have silenced the mother's well-meant chatter at any time—for she was a fragile, nervous woman, entirely dependent on her surroundings—but none of them were capable of it, and their mere refractoriness counted for nothing.
The dining-room in which they were gathered had a good deal of homely dignity, and was to the Leyburns full of associations. The oak settle near the fire, the oak sideboard running along one side of the room, the black oak table with carved legs at which they sat, were genuine pieces of old Westmoreland work, which had belonged to their grandfather. The heavy carpet covering the stone floor of what twenty years before had been the kitchen of the farmhouse was a survival from a south-country home, which had sheltered their lives for eight happy years. Over the mantelpiece hung the portrait of the girls' father, a long serious face, not unlike Wordsworth's face in outline, and bearing a strong resemblance to Catherine; a line of silhouettes adorned the mantelpiece; on the walls were prints of Winchester and Worcester Cathedrals, photographs of Greece, and two old-fashioned engravings of Dante and Milton; while a bookcase, filled apparently with the father's college books and college prizes and the favourite authors—mostly poets, philosophers, and theologians—of his later years, gave a final touch of habitableness to the room. The little meal and its appointments—the eggs, the home-made bread and preserves, the tempting butter and old-fashioned silver gleaming among the flowers which Rose arranged with fanciful skill in Japanese pots of her own providing—suggested the same family qualities as the room. Frugality, a dainty personal self-respect, a family consciousness, tenacious of its memories and tenderly careful of all the little material objects which were to it the symbols of those memories—clearly all these elements entered into the Leyburn tradition.
And of this tradition, with its implied assertions and denials, clearly Catherine Leyburn, the elder sister, was, of all the persons gathered in this little room, the most pronounced embodiment. She sat at the head of the table, the little basket of her own and her mother's keys beside her. Her dress was a soft black brocade, with lace collar and cuff, which had once belonged to an aunt of her mother's. It was too old for her both in fashion and material, but it gave her a gentle, almost matronly dignity, which became her. Her long thin hands, full of character and delicacy, moved nimbly among the cups; all her ways were quiet and yet decided. It was evident that among this little party she, and not the plaintive mother, was really in authority. To-night, however, her looks were specially soft. The scene she had gone through in the afternoon had left her pale, with traces of patient fatigue round the eyes and mouth, but all her emotion was gone, and she was devoting herself to the others, responding with quick interest and ready smiles to all they had to say, and contributing the little experiences of her own day in return.
Rose sat on her left hand in yet another gown of strange tint and archaic outline. Rose's gowns were legion. They were manufactured by a farmer's daughter across the valley, under her strict and precise supervision. She was accustomed, as she boldly avowed, to shut herself up at the beginning of each season of the year for two days' meditation on the subject. And now, thanks to the spring warmth, she was entering at last with infinite zest on the results of her April vigils.
Catherine had surveyed her as she entered the room with a smile, but a smile not altogether to Rose's taste.
'What, another, Roeschen?' she had said, with the slightest lifting of the eyebrows. 'You never confided that to me. Did you think I was unworthy of anything so artistic?'
'Not at all,' said Rose calmly, seating herself. 'I thought you were better employed.'
But a flush flew over her transparent cheek, and she presently threw an irritated look at Agnes, who had been looking from her to Catherine with amused eyes.
'I met Mr. Thornburgh and Mr. Elsmere driving from the station,' Catherine announced presently; 'at least there was a gentleman in a clerical wideawake, with a portmanteau behind, so I imagine it must have been he.'
'Did he look promising?' inquired Agnes.
'I don't think I noticed,' said Catherine simply, but with a momentary change of expression. The sisters, remembering how she had come in upon them with that look of one 'lifted up,' understood why she had not noticed, and refrained from further questions.
'Well, it is to be hoped the young man is recovered enough to stand Long Whindale festivities,' said Rose. 'Mrs. Thornburgh means to let them loose on his devoted head to-morrow night.'
'Who are coming?' asked Mrs. Leyburn eagerly. The occasional tea parties of the neighbourhood were an unfailing excitement to her, simply because, by dint of the small adornings, natural to the occasion, they showed her daughters to her under slightly new aspects. To see Catherine, who never took any thought for her appearance, forced to submit to a white dress, a line of pearls round the shapely throat, a flower in the brown hair, put there by Rose's imperious fingers; to sit in a corner well out of draughts, watching the effect of Rose's half-fledged beauty, and drinking in the compliments of the neighbourhood on Rose's playing or Agnes's conversation, or Catherine's practical ability—these were Mrs. Leyburn's passions, and a tea party always gratified them to the full.
'Mamma asks as if really she wanted an answer,' remarked Agnes drily. 'Dear mother, can't you by now make up a tea party at the Thornburghs out of your head?'
'The Seatons?' inquired Mrs. Leyburn.
'Mrs. Seaton and Miss Barks,' replied Rose. 'The rector won't come. And I needn't say that, having moved heaven and earth to get Mrs. Seaton, Mrs. Thornburgh is now miserable because she has got her. Her ambition is gratified, but she knows that she has spoilt the party. Well, then, Mr. Mayhew, of course, his son, and his flute.'
'You to play his accompaniments?' put in Agnes slily. Rose's lip curled.
'Not if Miss Barks knows it,' she said emphatically, 'nor if I know it. The Bakers, of course, ourselves, and the unknown.'
'Dr. Baker is always pleasant,' said Mrs. Leyburn, leaning back and drawing her white shawl languidly round her. 'He told me the other day, Catherine, that if it weren't for you he should have to retire. He regards you as his junior partner. "Marvellous nursing gift your eldest daughter has, Mrs. Leyburn," he said to me the other day. A most agreeable man.'
'I wonder if I shall be able to get any candid opinions out of Mr. Elsmere the day after to-morrow?' said Rose, musing. 'It is difficult to avoid having an opinion of some sort about Mrs. Seaton.'
'Oxford dons don't gossip and are never candid,' remarked Agnes severely.
'Then Oxford dons must be very dull,' cried Rose. 'However,' and her countenance brightened, 'if he stays here four weeks we can teach him.'
Catherine, meanwhile, sat watching the two girls with a soft elder sister's indulgence. Was it in connection with their bright attractive looks that the thought flitted through her head, 'I wonder what the young man will be like?'
'Oh, by the way,' said Rose presently, 'I had nearly forgotten Mrs. Thornburgh's two messages. I informed her, Agnes, that you had given up water-colour and meant to try oils, and she told me to implore you not to, because "water-colour is so much more lady-like than oils." And as for you, Catherine, she sent you a most special message. I was to tell you that she just loved the way you had taken to plaiting your hair lately—that it was exactly like the picture of Jeanie Deans she has in the drawing-room, and that she would never forgive you if you didn't plait it so to-morrow night.'
Catherine flushed faintly as she got up from the table.
'Mrs. Thornburgh has eagle-eyes,' she said, moving away to give her arm to her mother, who looked fondly at her, making some remark in praise of Mrs. Thornburgh's taste.
'Rose!' cried Agnes indignantly, when the other two had disappeared, 'you and Mrs. Thornburgh have not the sense you were born with. What on earth did you say that to Catherine for?'
Rose stared; then her face fell a little.
'I suppose it was foolish,' she admitted. Then she leant her head on one hand and drew meditative patterns on the table-cloth with the other. 'You know, Agnes,' she said presently, looking up, 'there are drawbacks to having a St. Elizabeth for a sister.'
Agnes discreetly made no reply, and Rose was left alone. She sat dreaming a few minutes, the corners of the red mouth drooping. Then she sprang up with a long sigh. 'A little life!' she said half-aloud, 'a little wickedness!' and she shook her curly head defiantly.
A few minutes later, in the little drawing-room on the other side of the hall, Catherine and Rose stood together by the open window. For the first time in a lingering spring, the air was soft and balmy; a tender grayness lay over the valley; it was not night, though above the clear outlines of the fell the stars were just twinkling in the pale blue. Far away under the crag on the farther side of High Fell a light was shining. As Catherine's eyes caught it there was a quick response in the fine Madonna-like face.
'Any news for me from the Backhouses this afternoon?' she asked Rose.
'No, I heard of none. How is she?'
'Dying,' said Catherine simply, and stood a moment looking out. Rose did not interrupt her. She knew that the house from which the light was shining sheltered a tragedy; she guessed with the vagueness of nineteen that it was a tragedy of passion and sin; but Catherine had not been communicative on the subject, and Rose had for some time past set up a dumb resistance to her sister's most characteristic ways of life and thought, which prevented her now from asking questions. She wished nervously to give Catherine's extraordinary moral strength no greater advantage over her than she could help.
Presently, however, Catherine threw her arm round her with a tender protectingness.
'What did you do with yourself all the afternoon, Roeschen?'
'I practised for two hours,' said the girl shortly, 'and two hours this morning. My Spohr is nearly perfect.'
'And you didn't look into the school?' asked Catherine, hesitating; 'I know Miss Merry expected you.'
'No, I didn't. When one can play the violin and can't teach, any more than a cockatoo, what's the good of wasting one's time in teaching?'
Catherine did not reply. A minute after Mrs. Leyburn called her, and she went to sit on a stool at her mother's feet, her hands resting on the elder woman's lap, the whole attitude of the tall active figure one of beautiful and childlike abandonment. Mrs. Leyburn wanted to confide in her about a new cap, and Catherine took up the subject with a zest which kept her mother happy till bedtime.
'Why couldn't she take as much interest in my Spohr?' thought Rose.
Late that night, long after she had performed all a maid's offices for her mother, Catherine Leyburn was busy in her own room arranging a large cupboard containing medicines and ordinary medical necessaries, a storehouse whence all the simpler emergencies of their end of the valley were supplied. She had put on a white flannel dressing-gown and moved noiselessly about in it, the very embodiment of order, of purity, of quiet energy. The little white-curtained room was bareness and neatness itself. There were a few book-shelves along the walls, holding the books which her father had given her. Over the bed were two enlarged portraits of her parents, and a line of queer little faded monstrosities, representing Rose and Agnes in different stages of childhood. On the table beside the bed was a pile of well-worn books—Keble, Jeremy Taylor, the Bible—connected in the mind of the mistress of the room with the intensest moments of the spiritual life. There was a strip of carpet by the bed, a plain chair or two, a large press; otherwise no furniture that was not absolutely necessary, and no ornaments. And yet, for all its emptiness, the little room in its order and spotlessness had the look and spell of a sanctuary.
When her task was finished Catherine came forward to the infinitesimal dressing-table, and stood a moment before the common cottage looking-glass upon it. The candle behind her showed her the outlines of her head and face in shadow against the white ceiling. Her soft brown hair was plaited high above the broad white brow, giving to it an added stateliness, while it left unmasked the pure lines of the neck. Mrs. Thornburgh and her mother were quite right. Simple as the new arrangement was, it could hardly have been more effective.
But the looking-glass got no smile in return for its information. Catherine Leyburn was young; she was alone; she was being very plainly told that, taken as a whole, she was, or might be at any moment, a beautiful woman. And all her answer was a frown and a quick movement away from the glass. Putting up her hands she began to undo the plaits with haste, almost with impatience; she smoothed the whole mass then set free into the severest order, plaited it closely together, and then, putting out her light, threw herself on her knees beside the window, which was partly open to the starlight and the mountains. The voice of the river far away, wafted from the mist-covered depths of the valley, and the faint rustling of the trees just outside, were for long after the only sounds which broke the silence.
When Catherine appeared at breakfast next morning her hair was plainly gathered into a close knot behind, which had been her way or dressing it since she was thirteen. Agnes threw a quick look at Rose; Mrs. Leyburn, as soon as she had made out through her spectacles what was the matter, broke into warm expostulations.
'It is more comfortable, dear mother, and takes much less time,' said Catherine, reddening.
'Poor Mrs. Thornburgh!' remarked Agnes drily.
'Oh, Rose will make up!' said Catherine, glancing, not without a spark of mischief in her gray eyes, at Rose's tortured locks; 'and mamma's new cap, which will be superb!'
About four o'clock on the afternoon of the day which was to be marked in the annals of Long Whindale as that of Mrs. Thornburgh's 'high tea,' that lady was seated in the vicarage garden, her spectacles on her nose, a large couvre-pied over her knees, and the Whinborough newspaper on her lap. The neighbourhood of this last enabled her to make an intermittent pretence of reading; but in reality the energies of her housewifely mind were taken up with quite other things. The vicar's wife was plunged in a housekeeping experiment of absorbing interest. All her solid preparations for the evening were over, and in her own mind she decided that with them there was no possible fault to be found. The cook, Sarah, had gone about her work in a spirit at once lavish and fastidious, breathed into her by her mistress. No better tongue, no plumper chickens, than those which would grace her board to-night were to be found, so Mrs. Thornburgh was persuaded, in the district. And so with everything else of a substantial kind. On this head the hostess felt no anxieties.
But a 'tea' in the north country depends for distinction, not on its solids or its savouries, but on its sweets. A rural hostess earns her reputation, not by a discriminating eye for butcher's-meat, but by her inventiveness in cakes and custards. And it was just here, with regard to this 'bubble reputation,' that the vicar's wife of Long Whindale was particularly sensitive. Was she not expecting Mrs. Seaton, the wife of the Rector of Whinborough—odious woman—to tea? Was it not incumbent on her to do well, nay, to do brilliantly, in the eyes of this local magnate? And how was it possible to do brilliantly in this matter with a cook whose recipes were hopelessly old-fashioned, and who had an exasperating belief in the sufficiency of buttered 'whigs' and home-made marmalade for all requirements?
Stung by these thoughts, Mrs. Thornburgh had gone prowling about the neighbouring town of Whinborough till the shop window of a certain newly-arrived confectioner had been revealed to her, stored with the most airy and appetising trifles—of a make and colouring quite metropolitan. She had flattened her gray curls against the window for one deliberative moment; had then rushed in; and as soon as the carrier's cart of Long Whindale, which she was now anxiously awaiting, should have arrived, bearing with it the produce of that adventure, Mrs. Thornburgh would be a proud woman, prepared to meet a legion of rectors' wives without flinching. Not, indeed, in all respects a woman at peace with herself and the world. In the country, where every household should be self-contained, a certain discredit attaches in every well-regulated mind to 'getting things in.' Mrs. Thornburgh was also nervous at the thought of the bill. It would have to be met gradually out of the weekly money. For 'William' was to know nothing of the matter, except so far as a few magnificent generalities and the testimony of his own dazzled eyes might inform him. But after all, in this as in everything else, one must suffer to be distinguished.
The carrier, however, lingered. And at last the drowsiness of the afternoon overcame even those pleasing expectations we have described, and Mrs. Thornburgh's newspaper dropped unheeded to her feet. The vicarage, under the shade of which she was sitting, was a new gray stone building with wooden gables, occupying the site of what had once been the earlier vicarage house of Long Whindale, the primitive dwelling-house of an incumbent, whose chapelry, after sundry augmentations, amounted to just twenty-seven pounds a year. The modern house, though it only contained sufficient accommodation for Mr. and Mrs. Thornburgh, one guest, and two maids, would have seemed palatial to those rustic clerics of the past from whose ministrations the lonely valley had drawn its spiritual sustenance in times gone by. They, indeed, had belonged to another race—a race sprung from the soil and content to spend the whole of life in very close contact and very homely intercourse with their mother earth. Mr. Thornburgh, who had come to the valley only a few years before from a parish in one of the large manufacturing towns, and who had no inherited interest in the Cumbrian folk and their ways, had only a very faint idea, and that a distinctly depreciatory one, of what these mythical predecessors of his, with their strange social status and unbecoming occupations, might be like. But there were one or two old men still lingering in the dale who could have told him a great deal about them, whose memory went back to the days when the relative social importance of the dale parsons was exactly expressed by the characteristic Westmoreland saying: 'Ef ye'll nobbut send us a gude schulemeaster, a verra' moderate parson 'ull dea!' and whose slow minds, therefore, were filled with a strong inarticulate sense of difference as they saw him pass along the road, and recalled the incumbent of their childhood, dropping in for his 'crack' and his glass of 'yale' at this or that farmhouse on any occasion of local festivity, or driving his sheep to Whinborough market with his own hands like any other peasant of the dale.
Within the last twenty years, however, the few remaining survivors of this primitive clerical order in the Westmoreland and Cumberland valleys have dropped into their quiet unremembered graves, and new men of other ways and other modes of speech reign in their stead. And as at Long Whindale, so almost everywhere, the change has been emphasised by the disappearance of the old parsonage houses with their stone floors, their parlours lustrous with oak carving on chest or dresser, and their encircling farm-buildings and meadows, in favour of an upgrowth of new trim mansions designed to meet the needs, not of peasants, but of gentlefolks.
And naturally the churches too have shared in the process of transformation. The ecclesiastical revival of the last half-century has worked its will even in the remotest corners of the Cumbrian country, and soon not a vestige of the homely worshipping-places of an earlier day will remain. Across the road, in front of the Long Whindale parsonage, for instance, rose a freshly built church, also peaked and gabled, with a spire and two bells, and a painted east window, and Heaven knows what novelties besides. The primitive whitewashed structure it replaced had lasted long, and in the course of many generations time had clothed its moss-grown walls, its slated porch, and tombstones worn with rain in a certain beauty of congruity and association, linking it with the purple distances of the fells, and the brawling river bending round the gray enclosure. But finally, after a period of quiet and gradual decay, the ruin of Long Whindale chapel had become a quick and hurrying ruin that would not be arrested. When the rotten timbers of the roof came dropping on the farmers' heads, and the oak benches beneath offered gaps, the geography of which had to be carefully learnt by the substantial persons who sat on them, lest they should be overtaken by undignified disaster; when the rain poured in on the Communion Table and the wind raged through innumerable mortarless chinks, even the slowly-moving folk of the valley came to the conclusion that 'summat 'ull hev to be deun.' And by the help of the Bishop, and Queen Anne's Bounty, and what not, aided by just as many half-crowns as the valley found itself unable to defend against the encroachments of a new and 'moiderin' parson, 'summat' was done, whereof the results—namely, the new church, vicarage, and schoolhouse—were now conspicuous.
This radical change, however, had not been the work of Mr. Thornburgh but of his predecessor, a much more pushing and enterprising man, whose successful efforts to improve the church accommodation in Long Whindale had moved such deep and lasting astonishment in the mind of a somewhat lethargic bishop, that promotion had been readily found for him. Mr. Thornburgh was neither capable of the sturdy begging which had raised the church, nor was he likely on other lines to reach preferment. He and his wife, who possessed much more salience of character than he, were accepted in the dale as belonging to the established order of things. Nobody wished them any harm, and the few people they had specially befriended, naturally, thought well of them.
But the old intimacy of relation which had once subsisted between the clergyman of Long Whindale and his parishioners was wholly gone. They had sunk in the scale; the parson had risen. The old statesmen or peasant proprietors of the valley had for the most part succumbed to various destructive influences, some social, some economical, added to a certain amount of corrosion from within; and their place had been taken by leaseholders, less drunken perhaps, and better educated, but also far less shrewd and individual, and lacking in the rude dignity of their predecessors.
And as the land had lost, the church had gained. The place of the dalesmen knew them no more, but the church and parsonage had got themselves rebuilt, the parson had had his income raised, had let off his glebe to a neighbouring farmer, kept two maids, and drank claret when he drank anything. His flock were friendly enough, and paid their commuted tithes without grumbling. But between them and a perfectly well-meaning but rather dull man, who stood on his dignity and wore a black coat all the week, there was no real community. Rejoice in it as we may, in this final passage of Parson Primrose to social regions beyond the ken of Farmer Flamborough, there are some elements of loss as there are in all changes.
Wheels on the road! Mrs. Thornburgh woke up with a start, and stumbling over newspaper and couvre-pied, hurried across the lawn as fast as her short squat figure would allow, gray curls and cap-strings flying behind her. She heard a colloquy in the distance in broad Westmoreland dialect, and as she turned the corner of the house she nearly ran into her tall cook, Sarah, whose impassive and saturnine countenance bore traces of unusual excitement.
'Missis, there's naw cakes. They're all left behind on t' counter at Randall's. Mr. Backhouse says as how he told old Jim to go fur 'em, and he niver went, and Mr. Backhouse he niver found oot till he'd got past t' bridge, and than it wur too late to go back.'
Mrs. Thornburgh stood transfixed, something of her fresh pink colour slowly deserting her face as she realised the enormity of the catastrophe. And was it possible that there was the faintest twinkle of grim satisfaction on the face of that elderly minx, Sarah?
Mrs. Thornburgh, however, did not stay to explore the recesses of Sarah's mind, but ran with little pattering, undignified steps across the front garden and down the steps to where Mr. Backhouse the carrier stood, bracing himself for self-defence.
'Ya may weel fret, mum,' said Mr. Backhouse, interrupting the flood of her reproaches, with the comparative sang-froid of one who knew that, after all, he was the only carrier on the road, and that the vicarage was five miles from the necessaries of life; 'it's a bad job, and I's not goin' to say it isn't. But ya jest look 'ere, mum, what's a man to du wi' a daft thingamy like that, as caan't teak a plain order, and spiles a poor man's business as caan't help hissel'?'
And Mr. Backhouse pointed with withering scorn to a small, shrunken old man, who sat dangling his legs on the shaft of the cart, and whose countenance wore a singular expression of mingled meekness and composure, as his partner flourished an indignant finger towards him.
'Jim,' cried Mrs. Thornburgh reproachfully, 'I did think you would have taken more pains about my order!'
'Yis, mum,' said the old man placidly, 'ya might 'a' thowt it. I's reet sorry, bit ya caan't help these things sumtimes—an' it's naw gud, a hollerin' ower 'em like a mad bull. Aa tuke yur bit paper to Randall's and aa laft it wi' 'em to mek up, an' than, aa, weel, aa went to a frind, an' ee may hev giv' me a glass of yale, aa doon't say ee dud—but ee may, I ween't sweer. Hawsomiver, aa niver thowt naw mair aboot it, nor mair did John, so ee needn't taak—till we wur jest two mile from 'ere. An' ee's a gon' on sence! My! an' a larroping the poor beeast like onything!'
Mrs. Thornburgh stood aghast at the calmness of this audacious recital. As for John, he looked on surveying his brother's philosophical demeanour at first with speechless wrath, and then with an inscrutable mixture of expressions, in which, however, any one accustomed to his weather-beaten countenance would have probably read a hidden admiration.
'Weel, aa niver!' he exclaimed, when Jim's explanatory remarks had come to an end, swinging himself up on to his seat and gathering up the reins. 'Yur a boald 'un to tell the missus theer to hur feeace as how ya wur 'tossicatit whan yur owt ta been duing yur larful business. Aa've doon wi' yer. Aa aims to please ma coostomers, an' aa caan't abide sek wark. Yur like an oald kneyfe, I can mak' nowt o' ya', nowder back nor edge.'
Mrs. Thornburgh wrung her fat short hands in despair, making little incoherent laments and suggestions as she saw him about to depart, of which John at last gathered the main purport to be that she wished him to go back to Whinborough for her precious parcel.
He shook his head compassionately over the preposterous state of mind betrayed by such a demand, and with a fresh burst of abuse of his brother, and an assurance to the vicar's wife that he meant to 'gie that oald man nawtice when he got haum; he wasn't goan to hev his bisness spiled for nowt by an oald ijiot wi' a hed as full o' yale as a hayrick's full of mice,' he raised his whip and the clattering vehicle moved forward; Jim meanwhile preserving through all his brother's wrath and Mrs. Thornburgh's wailings the same mild and even countenance, the meditative and friendly aspect of the philosopher letting the world go 'as e'en it will.'
So Mrs. Thornburgh was left gasping, watching the progress of the lumbering cart along the bit of road leading to the hamlet at the head of the valley, with so limp and crestfallen an aspect that even the gaunt and secretly jubilant Sarah was moved to pity.
'Why, missis, we'll do very well. I'll hev some scones in t'oven in naw time, an' theer's finger biscuits, an' wi' buttered toast an' sum o' t' best jams, if they don't hev enuf to eat they ought to.' Then, dropping her voice, she asked with a hurried change of tone, 'Did ye ask un' hoo his daater is?'
Mrs. Thornburgh started. Her pastoral conscience was smitten. She opened the gate and waved violently after the cart. John pulled his horse up, and with a few quick steps she brought herself within speaking, or rather shouting, distance.
'How's your daughter to-day, John?'
The old man's face peering round the oilcloth hood of the cart was darkened by a sudden cloud as he caught the words. His stern lips closed. He muttered something inaudible to Mrs. Thornburgh and whipped up his horse again. The cart started off, and Mrs. Thornburgh was left staring into the receding eyes of 'Jim the Noodle,' who, from his seat on the near shaft, regarded her with a gaze which had passed from benevolence into a preternatural solemnity.
'He's sparin' ov 'is speach is John Backhouse,' said Sarah grimly, as her mistress returned to her. 'Maybe ee's aboot reet. It's a bad business an' ee'll not mend it wi' taakin'.'
Mrs. Thornburgh, however, could not apply herself to the case of Mary Backhouse. At any other moment it would have excited in her breast the shuddering interest which, owing to certain peculiar attendant circumstances, it awakened in every other woman in Long Whindale. But her mind—such are the limitations of even clergymen's wives—was now absorbed by her own misfortune. Her very cap-strings seemed to hang limp with depression, as she followed Sarah dejectedly into the kitchen, and gave what attention she could to those second-best arrangements so depressing to the idealist temper.
Poor soul! All the charm and glitter of her little social adventure was gone. When she once more emerged upon the lawn, and languidly readjusted her spectacles, she was weighed down by the thought that in two hours Mrs. Seaton would be upon her. Nothing of this kind ever happened to Mrs. Seaton. The universe obeyed her nod. No carrier conveying goods to her august door ever got drunk or failed to deliver his consignment. The thing was inconceivable. Mrs. Thornburgh was well aware of it.
Should William be informed? Mrs. Thornburgh had a rooted belief in the brutality of husbands in all domestic crises, and would have preferred not to inform him. But she had also a dismal certainty that the secret would burn a hole in her till it was confessed—bill and all. Besides—frightful thought!—would they have to eat up all those meringues next day?
Her reflections at last became so depressing that, with a natural epicurean instinct, she tried violently to turn her mind away from them. Luckily she was assisted by a sudden perception of the roof and chimneys of Burwood, the Leyburns' house, peeping above the trees to the left. At sight of them a smile overspread her plump and gently wrinkled face. She fell gradually into a train of thought, as feminine as that in which she had been just indulging, but infinitely more pleasing.
For, with regard to the Leyburns, at this present moment Mrs. Thornburgh felt herself in the great position of tutelary divinity or guardian angel. At least if divinities and guardian angels do not concern themselves with the questions to which Mrs. Thornburgh's mind was now addressed, it would clearly have been the opinion of the vicar's wife that they ought to do so.
'Who else is there to look after these girls, I should like to know,' Mrs. Thornburgh inquired of herself, 'if I don't do it? As if girls married themselves! People may talk of their independence nowadays as much as they like—it always has to be done for them, one way or another. Mrs. Leyburn, poor lackadaisical thing! is no good whatever. No more is Catherine. They both behave as if husbands tumbled into your mouth for the asking. Catherine's too good for this world—but if she doesn't do it, I must. Why, that girl Rose is a beauty—if they didn't let her wear those ridiculous mustard-coloured things, and do her hair fit to frighten the crows! Agnes too—so lady-like and well-mannered; she'd do credit to any man. Well, we shall see, we shall see!'
And Mrs. Thornburgh gently shook her gray curls from side to side, while her eyes, fixed on the open spare room window, shone with meaning.
'So eligible, too—private means, no encumbrances, and as good as gold.'
She sat lost a moment in a pleasing dream.
'Shall I bring oot the tea to you theer, mum?' called Sarah gruffly, from the garden door. 'Master and Mr. Elsmere are just coomin' down t' field by t' stepping-stones.'
Mrs. Thornburgh signalled assent and the tea-table was brought. Afternoon tea was by no means a regular institution at the vicarage of Long Whindale, and Sarah never supplied it without signs of protest. But when a guest was in the house Mrs. Thornburgh insisted upon it; her obstinacy in the matter, like her dreams of cakes and confections, being all part of her determination to move with the times, in spite of the station to which Providence had assigned her.
A minute afterwards the vicar, a thick-set gray-haired man of sixty, accompanied by a tall younger man in clerical dress, emerged upon the lawn.
'Welcome sight!' cried Mr. Thornburgh; 'Robert and I have been coveting that tea for the last hour. You guessed very well, Emma, to have it just ready for us.'
'Oh, that was Sarah. She saw you coming down to the stepping-stones,' replied his wife, pleased, however, by any mark of appreciation from her mankind, however small. 'Robert, I hope you haven't been walked off your legs?'
'What, in this air, cousin Emma? I could walk from sunrise to sundown. Let no one call me an invalid any more. Henceforth I am a Hercules.'
And he threw himself on the rug which Mrs. Thornburgh's motherly providence had spread on the grass for him, with a smile and a look of supreme physical contentment, which did indeed almost efface the signs of recent illness in the ruddy boyish face.
Mrs. Thornburgh studied him; her eye caught first of all by the stubble of reddish hair which as he took off his hat stood up straight and stiff all over his head with an odd wildness and aggressiveness. She involuntarily thought, basing her inward comment on a complexity of reasons—'Dear me, what a pity; it spoils his appearance!'
'I apologise, I apologise, cousin Emma, once for all,' said the young man, surprising her glance, and despairingly smoothing down his recalcitrant locks. 'Let us hope that mountain air will quicken the pace of it before it is necessary for me to present a dignified appearance at Murewell.'
He looked up at her with a merry flash in his gray eyes, and her old face brightened visibly as she realised afresh that in spite of the grotesqueness of his cropped hair, her guest was a most attractive creature. Not that he could boast much in the way of regular good looks: the mouth was large, the nose of no particular outline, and in general the cutting of the face, though strong and characteristic, had a bluntness and naivete like a vigorous unfinished sketch. This bluntness of line, however, was balanced by a great delicacy of tint—the pink and white complexion of a girl, indeed—enhanced by the bright reddish hair, and quick gray eyes.
The figure was also a little out of drawing, so to speak; it was tall and loosely-jointed. The general impression was one of agility and power. But if you looked closer you saw that the shoulders were narrow, the arms inordinately long, and the extremities too small for the general height. Robert Elsmere's hand was the hand of a woman, and few people ever exchanged a first greeting with its very tall owner without a little shock of surprise.
Mr. Thornburgh and his guest had visited a few houses in the course of their walk, and the vicar plunged for a minute or two into some conversation about local matters with his wife. But Mrs. Thornburgh, it was soon evident, was giving him but a scatterbrained attention. Her secret was working in her ample breast. Very soon she could contain it no longer, and breaking in upon her husband's parish news, she tumbled it all out pell-mell, with a mixture of discomfiture and defiance infinitely diverting. She could not keep a secret, but she also could not bear to give William an advantage.
William certainly took his advantage. He did what his wife in her irritation had precisely foreseen that he would do. He first stared, then fell into a guffaw of laughter, and as soon as he had recovered breath, into a series of unfeeling comments which drove Mrs. Thornburgh to desperation.
'If you will set your mind, my dear, on things we plain folks can do perfectly well without'—et cetera, et cetera—the husband's point of view can be imagined. Mrs. Thornburgh could have shaken her good man, especially as there was nothing new to her in his remarks; she had known to a T beforehand exactly what he would say. She took up her knitting in a great hurry, the needles clicking angrily, her gray curls quivering under the energy of her hands and arms, while she launched at her husband various retorts as to his lack of consideration for her efforts and her inconvenience, which were only very slightly modified by the presence of a stranger.
Robert Elsmere meanwhile lay on the grass, his face discreetly turned away, an uncontrollable smile twitching the corners of his mouth. Everything was fresh and piquant up here in this remote corner of the north country, whether the mountain air or the wind-blown streams, or the manners and customs of the inhabitants. His cousin's wife, in spite of her ambitious conventionalities, was really the child of Nature to a refreshing degree. One does not see these types, he said to himself, in the cultivated monotony of Oxford or London. She was like a bit of a bygone world—Miss Austen's or Miss Ferrier's—unearthed for his amusement. He could not for the life of him help taking the scenes of this remote rural existence, which was quite new to him, as though they were the scenes of some comedy of manners.
Presently, however, the vicar became aware that the passage of arms between himself and his spouse was becoming just a little indecorous. He got up with a 'Hem!' intended to put an end to it, and deposited his cup.
'Well, my dear, have it as you please. It all comes of your determination to have Mrs. Seaton. Why couldn't you just ask the Leyburns and let us enjoy ourselves?'
With this final shaft he departed to see that Jane, the little maid whom Sarah ordered about, had not, in cleaning the study for the evening's festivities, put his last sermon into the waste-paper basket. His wife looked after him with eyes that spoke unutterable things.
'You would never think,' she said in an agitated voice to young Elsmere, 'that I had consulted Mr. Thornburgh as to every invitation, that he entirely agreed with me that one must be civil to Mrs. Seaton, considering that she can make anybody's life a burden to them about here that isn't; but it's no use.'
And she fell back on her knitting with redoubled energy, her face full of a half-tearful intensity of meaning. Robert Elsmere restrained a strong inclination to laugh, and set himself instead to distract and console her. He expressed sympathy with her difficulties, he talked to her about her party, he got from her the names and histories of the guests. How Miss Austenish it sounded: the managing rector's wife, her still more managing old maid of a sister, the neighbouring clergyman who played the flute, the local doctor, and a pretty daughter just out—'Very pretty,' sighed Mrs. Thornburgh, who was now depressed all round, 'but all flounces and frills and nothing to say'—and last of all, those three sisters, the Leyburns, who seemed to be on a different level, and whom he had heard mentioned so often since his arrival by both husband and wife.
'Tell me about the Miss Leyburns,' he said presently. 'You and cousin William seem to have a great affection for them. Do they live near?'
'Oh, quite close,' cried Mrs. Thornburgh, brightening at last, and like a great general, leaving one scheme in ruins, only the more ardently to take up another. 'There is the house,' and she pointed out Burwood among its trees. Then with her eye eagerly fixed upon him, she fell into a more or less incoherent account of her favourites. She laid on her colours thickly, and Elsmere at once assumed extravagance.
'A saint, a beauty, and a wit all to yourselves in these wilds!' he said, laughing. 'What luck! But what on earth brought them here—a widow and three daughters—from the south? It was an odd settlement surely, though you have one of the loveliest valleys and the purest airs in England.'
'Oh, as to lovely valleys,' said Mrs. Thornburgh, sighing, 'I think it very dull; I always have. When one has to depend for everything on a carrier that gets drunk, too! Why, you know they belong here. They're real Westmoreland people.'
'What does that mean exactly?'
'Oh, their grandfather was a farmer, just like one of the common farmers about. Only his land was his own, and theirs isn't.'
'He was one of the last of the statesmen,' interposed Mr. Thornburgh—who, having rescued his sermon from Jane's tender mercies, and put out his modest claret and sherry for the evening, had strolled out again and found himself impelled as usual to put some precision into his wife's statements—'one of the small freeholders who have almost disappeared here as elsewhere. The story of the Leyburns always seems to me typical of many things.'
Robert looked inquiry, and the vicar, sitting down—having first picked up his wife's ball of wool as a peace-offering, which was loftily accepted—launched into a narrative which may be here somewhat condensed.
The Leyburns' grandfather, it appeared, had been a typical north-country peasant—honest, with strong passions both of love and hate, thinking nothing of knocking down his wife with the poker, and frugal in all things save drink. Drink, however, was ultimately his ruin, as it was the ruin of most of the Cumberland statesmen. 'The people about here,' said the vicar, 'say he drank away an acre a year. He had some fifty acres, and it took about thirty years to beggar him.'
Meanwhile, this brutal, rollicking, strong-natured person had sons and daughters—plenty of them. Most of them, even the daughters, were brutal and rollicking too. Of one of the daughters, now dead, it was reported that, having on one occasion discovered her father, then an old infirm man, sitting calmly by the fire beside the prostrate form of his wife, whom he had just felled with his crutch, she had taken off her wooden shoe and given her father a clout on the head, which left his gray hair streaming with blood; after which she had calmly put the horse into the cart, and driven off to fetch the doctor to both her parents. But among this grim and earthy crew there was one exception, a 'hop out of kin,' of whom all the rest made sport. This was the second son, Richard, who showed such a persistent tendency to 'book-larnin',' and such a persistent idiocy in all matters pertaining to the land, that nothing was left to the father at last but to send him with many oaths to the grammar school at Whinborough. From the moment the boy got a footing in the school he hardly cost his father another penny. He got a local bursary which paid his school expenses, he never missed a remove or failed to gain a prize, and finally won a close scholarship which carried him triumphantly to Queen's College.
His family watched his progress with a gaping, half-contemptuous amazement, till he announced himself as safely installed at Oxford, having borrowed from a Whinborough patron the modest sum necessary to pay his college valuation—a sum which wild horses could not have dragged out of his father, now sunk over head and ears in debt and drink.
From that moment they practically lost sight of him. He sent the class list which contained his name among the Firsts to his father; in the same way he communicated the news of his Fellowship at Queen's, his ordination and his appointment to the headmastership of a south-country grammar school. None of his communications were ever answered till, in the very last year of his father's life, the eldest son, who had a shrewder eye all round to the main chance than the rest, applied to 'Dick' for cash wherewith to meet some of the family necessities. The money was promptly sent, together with photographs of Dick's wife and children. These last were not taken much notice of. These Leyburns were a hard, limited, incurious set, and they no longer regarded Dick as one of themselves.
'Then came the old man's death,' said Mr. Thornburgh. 'It happened the year after I took the living. Richard Leyburn was sent for and came. I never saw such a scene in my life as the funeral supper. It was kept up in the old style. Three of Leyburn's sons were there: two of them farmers like himself, one a clerk from Manchester, a daughter married to a tradesman in Whinborough, a brother of the old man, who was under the table before supper was half over, and so on. Richard Leyburn wrote to ask me to come, and I went to support his cloth. But I was new to the place,' said the vicar, flushing a little, 'and they belonged to a race that had never been used to pay much respect to parsons. To see that man among the rest! He was thin and dignified; he looked to me as if he had all the learning imaginable, and he had large, absent-looking eyes, which, as George, the eldest brother, said, gave you the impression of some one that "had lost somethin' when he was nobbut a lad, and had gone seekin' it iver sence." He was formidable to me; but between us we couldn't keep the rest of the party in order, so when the orgie had gone on a certain time, we left it and went out into the air. It was an August night. I remember Leyburn threw back his head and drank it in. "I haven't breathed this air for five-and-twenty years," he said. "I thought I hated the place, and in spite of that drunken crew in there, it draws me to it like a magnet. I feel, after all, that I have the fells in my blood." He was a curious man, a refined-looking melancholy creature, with a face that reminded you of Wordsworth, and cold donnish ways, except to his children and the poor. I always thought his life had disappointed him somehow.'
'Yet one would think,' said Robert, opening his eyes, 'that he had made a very considerable success of it!'
'Well, I don't know how it was,' said the vicar, whose analysis of character never went very far. 'Anyhow, next day he went peering about the place and the mountains and the lands his father had lost. And George, the eldest brother, who had inherited the farm, watched him without a word, in the way these Westmoreland folk have, and at last offered him what remained of the place for a fancy price. I told him it was a preposterous sum, but he wouldn't bargain. "I shall bring my wife and children here in the holidays," he said, "and the money will set George up in California." So he paid through the nose, and got possession of the old house, in which, I should think, he had passed about as miserable a childhood as it was possible to pass. There's no accounting for tastes.'
'And then the next summer they all came down,' interrupted Mrs. Thornburgh. She disliked a long story as she disliked being read aloud to. 'Catherine was fifteen, not a bit like a child. You used to see her everywhere with her father. To my mind he was always exciting her brain too much, but he was a man you could not say a word to. I don't care what William says about his being like Wordsworth; he just gave you the blues to look at.'
'It was so strange,' said the vicar meditatively, 'to see them in that house. If you knew the things that used to go on there in old days—the savages that lived there. And then to see those three delicately brought-up children going in and out of the parlour where old Leyburn used to sit smoking and drinking; and Dick Leyburn walking about in a white tie, and the same men touching their hats to him who had belaboured him when he was a boy at the village school—it was queer.'
'A curious little bit of social history,' said Elsmere. 'Well, and then he died and the family lived on?'
'Yes, he died the year after he bought the place. And perhaps the most interesting thing of all has been the development of his eldest daughter. She has watched over her mother, she has brought up her sisters; but much more than that: she has become a sort of Deborah in these valleys,' said the vicar, smiling. 'I don't count for much, she counts for a great deal. I can't get the people to tell me their secrets, she can. There is a sort of natural sympathy between them and her. She nurses them, she scolds them, she preaches to them, and they take it from her when they won't take it from us. Perhaps it is the feeling of blood. Perhaps they think it as mysterious a dispensation of Providence as I do that that brutal, swearing, whisky-drinking stock should have ended in anything so saintly and so beautiful as Catherine Leyburn.'
The quiet, commonplace clergyman spoke with a sudden tremor of feeling. His wife, however, looked at him with a dissatisfied expression.
'You always talk,' she said, 'as if there were no one but Catherine. People generally like the other two much better. Catherine is so stand-off.'
'Oh, the other two are very well,' said the vicar, but in a different tone.
Robert sat ruminating. Presently his host and hostess went in, and the young man went sauntering up the climbing garden-path to the point where only a railing divided it from the fell-side. From here his eye commanded the whole of the upper end of the valley—a bare, desolate recess filled with evening shadow, and walled round by masses of gray and purple crag, except in one spot, where a green intervening fell marked the course of the pass connecting the dale with the Ullswater district. Below him were church and parsonage; beyond, the stone-filled babbling river, edged by intensely green fields, which melted imperceptibly into the browner stretches of the opposite mountain. Most of the scene, except where the hills at the end rose highest and shut out the sun, was bathed in quiet light. The white patches on the farmhouses, the heckberry trees along the river and the road, caught and emphasised the golden rays which were flooding into the lower valley as into a broad green cup. Close by, in the little vicarage orchard, were fruit trees in blossom; the air was mild and fragrant, though to the young man from the warmer south there was still a bracing quality in the soft western breeze which blew about him.
He stood there bathed in silent enchantment, an eager nature going out to meet and absorb into itself the beauty and peace of the scene. Lines of Wordsworth were on his lips; the little well-worn volume was in his pocket, but he did not need to bring it out; and his voice had all a poet's intensity of emphasis as he strolled along, reciting under his breath—
'It is a beauteous evening, calm and free, The holy time is quiet as a nun Breathless with adoration!'
Presently his eye was once more caught by the roof of Burwood, lying beneath him on its promontory of land, in the quiet shelter of its protecting trees. He stopped, and a delicate sense of harmonious association awoke in him. That girl, atoning as it were by her one white life for all the crimes and coarseness of her ancestry: the idea of her seemed to steal into the solemn golden evening and give it added poetry and meaning. The young man felt a sudden strong curiosity to see her.
The festal tea had begun, and Mrs. Thornburgh was presiding. Opposite to her, on the vicar's left, sat the formidable rector's wife. Poor Mrs. Thornburgh had said to herself as she entered the room on the arm of Mr. Mayhew, the incumbent of the neighbouring valley of Shanmoor, that the first coup d'oeil was good. The flowers had been arranged in the afternoon by Rose; Sarah's exertions had made the silver shine again; a pleasing odour of good food underlay the scent of the bluebells and fern; and what with the snowy table-linen, and the pretty dresses and bright faces of the younger people, the room seemed to be full of an incessant play of crisp and delicate colour.
But just as the vicar's wife was sinking into her seat with a little sigh of wearied satisfaction, she caught sight suddenly of an eye-glass at the other end of the table slowly revolving in a large and jewelled hand. The judicial eye behind the eye-glass travelled round the table, lingering, as it seemed to Mrs. Thornburgh's excited consciousness, on every spot where cream or jelly or meringue should have been and was not. When it dropped with a harsh little click, the hostess, unable to restrain herself, rushed into desperate conversation with Mr. Mayhew, giving vent to incoherencies in the course of the first act of the meal which did but confirm her neighbour—a grim, uncommunicative person—in his own devotion to a policy of silence. Meanwhile the vicar was grappling on very unequal terms with Mrs. Seaton. Mrs. Leyburn had fallen to young Elsmere. Catherine Leyburn was paired off with Dr. Baker, Agnes with Mr. Mayhew's awkward son—a tongue-tied youth, lately an unattached student at Oxford, but now relegated, owing to an invincible antipathy to Greek verbs, to his native air, till some other opening into the great world should be discovered for him.
Rose was on Robert Elsmere's right. Agnes had coaxed her into a white dress as being the least startling garment she possessed, and she was like a Stothard picture with her high waist, her blue sash ribbon, her slender neck and brilliant head. She had already cast many curious glances at the Thornburghs' guest. 'Not a prig, at any rate,' she thought to herself with satisfaction, 'so Agnes is quite wrong.'
As for the young man, who was, to begin with, in that state which so often follows on the long confinement of illness, when the light seems brighter and scents keener and experience sharper than at other times, he was inwardly confessing that Mrs. Thornburgh had not been romancing. The vivid creature at his elbow, with her still unsoftened angles and movements, was in the first dawn of an exceptional beauty; the plain sister had struck him before supper in the course of twenty minutes' conversation as above the average in point of manners and talk. As to Miss Leyburn, he had so far only exchanged a bow with her, but he was watching her now, as he sat opposite to her, out of his quick observant eyes.
She, too, was in white. As she turned to speak to the youth at her side, Elsmere caught the fine outline of the head, the unusually clear and perfect moulding of the brow, nose, and upper lip. The hollows in the cheeks struck him, and the way in which the breadth of the forehead somewhat overbalanced the delicacy of the mouth and chin. The face, though still quite young, and expressing a perfect physical health, had the look of having been polished and refined away to its foundations. There was not an ounce of superfluous flesh on it, and not a vestige of Rose's peach-like bloom. Her profile, as he saw it now, had the firmness, the clear whiteness, of a profile on a Greek gem.
She was actually making that silent, awkward lad talk! Robert, who, out of his four years' experience as an Oxford tutor, had an abundant compassion for and understanding of such beings as young Mayhew, watched her with a pleased amusement, wondering how she did it. What? Had she got him on carpentering, engineering—discovered his weak point? Water-wheels, inventors, steam-engines—and the lumpish lad all in a glow, talking away nineteen to the dozen. What tact, what kindness in her gray-blue eyes!
But he was interrupted by Mrs. Seaton, who was perfectly well aware that she had beside her a stranger of some prestige, an Oxford man, and a member, besides, of a well-known Sussex county family. She was a large and commanding person, clad in black moire silk. She wore a velvet diadem, Honiton lace lappets, and a variety of chains, beads, and bangles bestrewn about her that made a tinkling as she moved. Fixing her neighbour with a bland majesty of eye, she inquired of him if he were 'any relation of Sir Mowbray Elsmere?' Robert replied that Sir Mowbray Elsmere was his father's cousin, and the patron of the living to which he had just been appointed. Mrs. Seaton then graciously informed him that long ago—'when I was a girl in my native Hampshire'—her family and Sir Mowbray Elsmere had been on intimate terms. Her father had been devoted to Sir Mowbray. 'And I,' she added, with an evident though lofty desire to please, 'retain an inherited respect, sir, for your name.'
Robert bowed, but it was not clear from his look that the rector's wife had made an impression. His general conception of his relative and patron Sir Mowbray—who had been for many years the family black sheep—was, indeed, so far removed from any notions of 'respect,' that he had some difficulty in keeping his countenance under the lady's look and pose. He would have been still more entertained had he known the nature of the intimacy to which she referred. Mrs. Seaton's father, in his capacity of solicitor in a small country town, had acted as electioneering agent for Sir Mowbray (then plain Mr.) Elsmere on two occasions—in 18—, when his client had been triumphantly returned at a bye-election; and two years later, when a repetition of the tactics, so successful in the previous contest, led to a petition, and to the disappearance of the heir to the Elsmere property from parliamentary life.
Of these matters, however, he was ignorant, and Mrs. Seaton did not enlighten him. Drawing herself up a little, and proceeding in a more neutral tone than before, she proceeded to put him through a catechism on Oxford, alternately cross-examining him and expounding to him her own views and her husband's on the functions of Universities. She and the Archdeacon conceived that the Oxford authorities were mainly occupied in ruining the young men's health by over-examination, and poisoning their minds by free-thinking opinions. In her belief, if it went on, the mothers of England would refuse to send their sons to these ancient but deadly resorts. She looked at him sternly as she spoke, as though defying him to be flippant in return. And he, indeed, did his polite best to be serious.
But it somewhat disconcerted him in the middle to find Miss Leyburn's eyes upon him. And undeniably there was a spark of laughter in them, quenched, as soon as his glance crossed hers, under long lashes. How that spark had lit up the grave, pale face! He longed to provoke it again, to cross over to her and say, 'What amused you? Do you think me very young and simple? Tell me about these people.'
But, instead, he made friends with Rose. Mrs. Seaton was soon engaged in giving the vicar advice on his parochial affairs, an experience which generally ended by the appearance of certain truculent elements in one of the mildest of men. So Robert was free to turn to his girl neighbour and ask her what people meant by calling the Lakes rainy.
'I understand it is pouring at Oxford. To-day your sky here has been without a cloud, and your rivers are running dry.'
'And you have mastered our climate in twenty-four hours, like the tourists—isn't it?—that do the Irish question in three weeks?'
'Not the answer of a bread-and-butter miss,' he thought to himself, amused, 'and yet what a child it looks.'
He threw himself into a war of words with her, and enjoyed it extremely. Her brilliant colouring, her gestures as fresh and untamed as the movements of the leaping river outside, the mixture in her of girlish pertness and ignorance with the promise of a remarkable general capacity, made her a most taking, provoking creature. Mrs. Thornburgh—much recovered in mind since Dr. Baker had praised the pancakes by which Sarah had sought to prove to her mistress the superfluity of naughtiness involved in her recourse to foreign cooks—watched the young man and maiden with a face which grew more and more radiant. The conversation in the garden had not pleased her. Why should people always talk of Catherine; Mrs. Thornburgh stood in awe of Catherine and had given her up in despair. It was the other two whose fortunes, as possibly directed by her, filled her maternal heart with sympathetic emotion.
Suddenly in the midst of her satisfaction she had a rude shock. What on earth was the vicar doing? After they had got through better than any one could have hoped, thanks to a discreet silence and Sarah's makeshifts, there was the master of the house pouring the whole tale of his wife's aspirations and disappointment into Mrs. Seaton's ear! If it were ever allowable to rush upon your husband at table and stop his mouth with a dinner napkin, Mrs. Thornburgh could at this moment have performed such a feat. She nodded and coughed and fidgeted in vain!
The vicar's confidences were the result of a fit of nervous exasperation. Mrs. Seaton had just embarked upon an account of 'our charming time with Lord Fleckwood.' Now Lord Fleckwood was a distant cousin of Archdeacon Seaton, and the great magnate of the neighbourhood, not, however, a very respectable magnate. Mr. Thornburgh had heard accounts of Lupton Castle from Mrs. Seaton on at least half a dozen different occasions. Privately he believed them all to refer to one visit, an event of immemorial antiquity periodically brought up to date by Mrs. Seaton's imagination. But the vicar was a timid man, without the courage of his opinions, and in his eagerness to stop the flow of his neighbour's eloquence he could think of no better device, or more suitable rival subject, than to plunge into the story of the drunken carrier, and the pastry still reposing on the counter at Randall's.
He blushed, good man, when he was well in it. His wife's horrified countenance embarrassed him. But anything was better than Lord Fleckwood. Mrs. Seaton listened to him with the slightest smile on her formidable lip. The story was pleasing to her.
'At least, my dear sir,' she said when he paused, nodding her diademed head with stately emphasis, 'Mrs. Thornburgh's inconvenience may have one good result. You can now make an example of the carrier. It is our special business, as my husband always says, who are in authority, to bring their low vices home to these people.'
The vicar fidgeted in his chair. What ineptitude had he been guilty of now! By way of avoiding Lord Fleckwood he might have started Mrs. Seaton on teetotalism. Now if there was one topic on which this awe-inspiring woman was more awe-inspiring than another it was on the topic of teetotalism. The vicar had already felt himself a criminal as he drank his modest glass of claret under her eye.
'Oh, the drunkenness about here is pretty bad,' said Dr. Baker, from the other end of the table. 'But there are plenty of worse things in these valleys. Besides, what person in his senses would think of trying to disestablish John Backhouse? He and his queer brother are as much a feature of the valley as High Fell. We have too few originals left to be so very particular about trifles.'