WITH DEEP AFFECTION
"I confess that I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any of us may make to the religious appeal. God Himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithlessness, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears ..."
PART I: BEGINNING OF THE JOURNEY
I DEATH OF THE REV. CHARLES CARDINAL II AUNT ANNE III THE LONDON HOUSE IV THE CHAPEL
PART II: THE CHARIOT OF FIRE
I THE WARLOCKS II EXPECTATION III MAGGIE AND MARTIN IV MR. CRASHAW V THE CHOICE VI THE PROPHET IN HIS OWN HOME VII THE OUTSIDE WORLD VIII PARADISE IX THE INSIDE SAINTS X THE PROPHET XI THE CHARIOT OF FIRE
PART III: THE WITCH
I THE THREE VISITS II PLUNGE INTO THE OTHER HALF III SKEATON-ON-SEA IV GRACE V THE BATTLE OF SKEATON: FIRST YEAR VI THE BATTLE OF SKEATON: SECOND YEAR VII DEATH OF AUNT ANNE VIII DEATH OF UNCLE MATHEW IX SOUL OF PAUL X THE REVIVAL
PART IV: THE JOURNEY HOME AGAIN
I THE DARK ROOM II HOBGOBLINS III THE TRIUMPH OF LIFE
BEGINNING OF THE JOURNEY
DEATH OF THE REV. CHARLES CARDINAL
Death leapt upon the Rev. Charles Cardinal, Rector of St. Dreots in South Glebeshire, at the moment that he bent down towards the second long drawer of his washhand-stand; he bent down to find a clean collar. It is in its way a symbol of his whole life, that death claimed him before he could find one.
At one moment his mind was intent upon his collar; at the next he was stricken with a wild surmise, a terror that even at that instant he would persuade himself was exaggerated. He saw before his clouding eyes a black pit. A strong hand striking him in the middle of his back flung him contemptuously forward into it; a gasping cry of protest and all was over. Had time been permitted him he would have stretched out a hand towards the shabby black box that, true to all miserly convention, occupied the space beneath his bed. Time was not allowed him. He might take with him into the darkness neither money nor clean clothing.
He had been told on many occasions about his heart, that he must not excite nor strain it. He allowed that to pass as he allowed many other things because his imagination was fixed upon one ambition, and one alone. He had made, upon this last and fatal occasion, haste to find his collar because the bell had begun its Evensong clatter and he did not wish to-night to be late. The bell continued to ring and he lay his broad widespread length upon the floor. He was a large and dirty man.
The shabby old house was occupied with its customary life. Down in the kitchen Ellen the cook was snatching a moment from her labours to drink a cup of tea. She sat at the deal table, her full bosom pressed by the boards, her saucer balanced on her hand; she blew, with little heaving pants, at her tea to cool it. Her thoughts were with a new hat and some red roses with which she would trim it; she looked out with little shivers of content at the falling winter's dusk: Anne the kitchen-maid scoured the pans; her bony frame seemed to rattle as she scrubbed with her red hands; she was happy because she was hungry and there would be a beef-steak pudding for dinner. She sang to herself as she worked.
Upstairs in the dining-room Maggie Cardinal, the only child of the Rev. Charles, sat sewing. She hoard the jangling of the church hell; she heard also, suddenly, with a surprise that made her heart beat for a moment with furious leaps, a tapping on the window-pane. Then directly after that she fancied that there came from her father's room above the thud of some sudden fall or collapse. She listened. The bell swallowed all other noise. She thought that she had been mistaken, but the tapping at the window began again, now insistent; the church bell suddenly stopped and in the silence that followed one could hear the slight creak of some bough driven by the sea-wind against the wall.
The curtains were not drawn and where the curve of the hill fell away the sky was faintly yellow; some cold stars like points of ice pierced the higher blue; carelessly, as though with studied indifference, flakes of snow fell, turning grey against the lamp-lit windows, then vanishing utterly. Maggie, going to the window, saw a dark shapeless figure beyond the glass. For an instant she was invaded by the terror of her surprised loneliness, then she remembered her father and the warm kitchen, then realised that this figure in the dark must be her Uncle Mathew.
She went out into the hall, pushed back the stiff, clumsy handle of the door, and stepped on to the gravel path. She called out, laughing:
"Come in! You frightened me out of my life."
As he came towards her she felt the mingled kindness and irritation that he always roused in her. He stood in the light of the hall lamp, a fat man, a soft hat pushed to the back of his head, a bag in one hand. His face was weak and good-tempered, his eyes had once been fine but now they were dim and blurred; there were dimples in his fat cheeks; he wore on his upper lip a ragged and untidy moustache and he had two indeterminate chins. His expression was mild, kindly, now a little ashamed, now greatly indignant. It was a pity, as he often said, that he had not more control over his feelings. Maggie saw at once that he was, as usual, a little drunk.
"Well," she said. "Come in, Uncle. Father is in church, I think," she added.
Uncle Mathew stepped with careful deliberation into the hall, put his bag on a chair, and began a long, rambling explanation.
"You know, Maggie, that I would have sent you a post card if I had had an idea, but, upon my soul, there I was suddenly in Drymouth on important business. I thought to myself on waking this morning—I took a room at the 'Three Tuns'—'Why, there are Charles and Maggie whom I haven't seen for an age.' I'd have sent you a telegram but the truth is, my dear, that I didn't want to spend a penny more than I must. Things haven't been going so well with me of late. It's a long story. I want your father's advice. I've had the worst of luck and I could tell you one or two things that would simply surprise you—but anyway, there it is. Just for a night I'm sure you won't mind. To-morrow or the day after I must be back in town or this thing will slip right through my fingers. These days one must be awake or one's simply nowhere."
He paused and nodded his head very solemnly at her, looking, as he did so, serious and important.
It was thus that he always appeared, "for one night only," but staying for weeks and weeks in spite of the indignant protests of his brother Charles who had never liked him and grudged the expense of his visits. Maggie herself took his appearance as she did everything else in her life with good-tempered philosophy. She had an affection for her uncle; she wished that he did not drink so much, but had he made a success of life she would not have cared for him as she did. After all every one had their weaknesses ...
She steered her uncle into the dining-room and placed him on a chair beside the fire. In all his movements he attempted restraints and dignity because he knew that he was drunk but hoped that his niece, in spite of her long experience of him, would not perceive it. At the same time he knew that she did perceive it and would perhaps scold him about it. This made him a little indignant because, after all, he had only taken the tiniest drop—one drop at Drymouth, another at Liskane station, and another at "The Hearty Cow" at Clinton St. Mary, just before his start on his cold lonely walk to St. Dreot's. He hoped that he would prevent her criticism by his easy pleasant talk, so on he chattered.
She sat down near him and continuing to sew smiled at him, wondered what there was for dinner and the kind of mood that her father would be in when he found his dear brother here.
Maggie Cardinal, at the time, was nineteen years of age. She was neither handsome nor distinguished, plain indeed, although her mild, good-natured eyes had in their light a quality of vitality and interest that gave her personality; her figure was thick and square—she would be probably stout one day. She moved like a man. Behind the mildness of her eyes there was much character and resolve in her carriage, in the strong neck, the firm breasts, the mouth resolute and determined. She had now the fine expectation of her youth, her health, her optimism, her ignorance of the world. When these things left her she would perhaps be a yet plainer woman. In her dress she was not clever. Her clothes were ugly with the coarse drab grey of their material and the unskilful workmanship that had created them. And yet there would be some souls who would see in her health, her youth, the kind sympathy of her eyes and mouth, the high nobility of her forehead from which her hair was brushed back, an attraction that might hold them more deeply than an obvious beauty.
Uncle Mathew although he was a silly man was one of these perceptive souls, and had he not been compelled by his circumstances to think continually about himself, would have loved his niece very dearly. As it was, he thought her a fine girl when he thought of her at all, and wished her more success in life than her "poor old uncle" had had. He looked at her now across the fireplace with satisfaction. She was something sure and pleasant in a world that swayed and was uncertain. He was drunk enough to feel happy so long as he was not scolded. He dreaded the moment when his brother Charles would appear, and he strove to arrange in his mind the wise and unanswerable word with which he would defend himself, but his thoughts slipped just as the firelight slipped and the floors with the old threadbare carpet.
Then suddenly the hall door opened with a jangle, there were steps in the hall, and Old Timmie Carthewe the sexton appeared in the dining-room. He had a goat's face and a body like a hairpin.
"Rector's not been to service," he said. "There's Miss Dunnett and Mrs. Giles and the two Miss Backshaws. I'm feared he's forgotten."
Maggie started up. Instantly to her mind came the memory of that fancied sound from her father's room. She listened now, her head raised, and the two men, their eyes bleared but their noses sniffing as though they were dogs, listened also. There were certain sounds, clocks ticking, the bough scraping on the wall, a cart's echo on the frozen road, the maid singing far in the depths of the house. Maggie nodded her head.
"I'll go and see," she said.
She went into the hall and stood again listening. Then she called, "Father! Father!" but there was no answer. She had never in all her life been frightened by anything and she was not frightened now; nevertheless, as she went up the stairs, she looked behind her to see whether any one followed her.
She called again "Father!" then went to his door, pushed it open, and looked in. The room was cold with a faint scent of tallow candle and damp.
In the twilight she saw her father's body lying like a shadow stretched right across the floor, with the grey dirty fingers of one hand clenched.
After that events followed swiftly. Maggie herself had no time nor opportunity for any personal emotion save a dumb kind of wonder that she did not feel more. But she saw all "through a glass darkly." There had been first that moment when the sexton and Uncle Mathew, still like dogs sniffing, had peered with their eyes through her father's door. Then there had been the summoning of Dr. Bubbage from the village, his self-importance, his continual "I warned him. I warned him. He can't say I didn't warn him," and then (very dim and far away) "Thank you, Miss Cardinal. I think I will have a glass if you don't mind." There had been cook crying in the kitchen (her red roses intended for Sunday must now be postponed) and the maid sniffing in the hall. There had been Uncle Mathew, muddled and confused, but clinging to his one idea that "the best thing you can do, my dear, is to send for your Aunt Anne." There had been the telegram dispatched to Aunt Anne, and then after that the house had seemed quite filled with people—ladies who had—wished to know whether they could help her in any way and even the village butcher who was there for no reason but stood in the hall rubbing his hands on his thighs and sniffing. All these persons Maggie surveyed through a mist. She was calm and collected and empty of all personality; Maggie Cardinal, the real Maggie Cardinal, was away on a visit somewhere and would not be back for a time or two.
Then suddenly as the house had filled so suddenly it emptied. Maggie found that she was desperately tired. She went to bed and slept instantly. On waking next morning she was aware that it was a most beautiful winter's day and that there was something strange in the air. There came to her then very slowly a sense of her father. She saw him on the one side, persistently as she had found him in his room, strange, shapeless, with a crumpled face and a dirty beard that seemed to be more dead than the rest of him. On the other side she saw him as she had found him in the first days of her consciousness of the world.
He must have been "jolly" then, large and strong, laughing often, tossing her, she remembered, to the ceiling, his beard jet-black and his eyebrows bushy and overhanging. Once that vigour, afterwards this horror. She shook away from her last vision of him but it returned again and again, hanging about her over her shoulder like an ill-omened messenger. And all the life between seemed to be suddenly wiped away as a sponge wipes figures off a slate. After the death of her mother she had made the best of her circumstances. There had been many days when life had been unpleasant, and in the last year, as his miserliness had grown upon him, his ill-temper at any fancied extravagance had been almost that of an insane man, but Maggie knew very little of the affairs of other men and it seemed to her that every one had some disadvantage with which to grapple. She did not pretend to care for her father, she was very lonely because the villagers hated him, but she had always made the best of everything because she had never had an intimate friend to tell her that that was a foolish thing to do.
It was indeed marvellous how isolated her life had been; she knew simply nothing about the world at all.
She could not pretend that she was sorry that her father had died; and yet she missed him because she knew very well that she was now no one's business, that she was utterly and absolutely alone in the universe. It might be said that she could not be utterly alone when she had her Uncle Mathew, but, although she was ignorant of life, she knew her Uncle Mathew ... Nevertheless, he did something to remove the sharp alarm of her sudden isolation. Upon the day after her father's death he was at his very best, his kindest, and most gentle. He was rather pathetic, having drunk nothing out of respect to the occasion; he felt, somewhere deep down in him, a persistent exaltation that his brother Charles was dead, but he knew that it was not decent to allow this feeling to conquer him and he was truly anxious to protect and comfort his niece so well as he was able. Early in the afternoon he suggested that they should go for a walk. Everything necessary had been done. An answer to their telegram had been received from his sister Anne that she could not leave London until that night but would arrive at Clinton St. Mary station at half-past nine to-morrow morning. That would be in good time for the funeral, a ceremony that was to be conducted by the Rev. Tom Trefusis, the sporting vicar of Cator Hill, the neighbouring parish.
The house now was empty and silent. They must escape from that figure, now decent, clean, and solemn, lying upon the bed upstairs. Mathew took his niece by the hand and said:
"My dear, a little fresh air is the thing for both of us. It will cheer you up."
So they went out for a walk together. Maggie knew, with a deep and intimate experience, every lane and road within twenty miles' radius of St. Dreot's, There was the high-road that went through Gator Hill to Clinton and then to Polwint; here were the paths across the fields to Lucent, the lanes that led to the valley of the Lisp, all the paths like spiders' webs through Rothin Wood, from whose curve you could see Polchester, grey and white, with its red-brown roofs and the spires of the Cathedral thrusting like pointing fingers into the heaven. It was the Polchester View that she chose to-day, but as they started through the deep lanes down the St. Dreot's hill she was startled and disturbed by the strange aspect which everything wore to her. She had not as yet realised the great shock her father's death had been; she was exhausted, spiritually and physically, in spite of the deep sleep of the night before. The form and shape of the world was a little strained and fantastic, the colours uncertain, now vivid, now vanishing, the familiar trees, hedges, clouds, screens, as it were, concealing some scene that was being played behind them. But beyond and above all other sensations she was conscious of her liberty. She struggled against this; she should be conscious, before everything, of her father's loss. But she was not. It meant to her at present not so much the loss of a familiar figure as the sudden juggling, by an outside future, of all the regular incidents and scenes of her daily life, as at a pantomime one sees by a transformation of the scenery, the tables, the chairs, and pictures the walls dance to an unexpected jig. She was free, free, free—alone but free. What form her life would take she did not know, what troubles and sorrows in the future there might be she did not care—to-morrow her life would begin.
Although unsentimental she was tender-hearted and affectionate, but now, for many years, her life with her father had been a daily battle of ever-increasing anger and bitterness. It may be that once he had loved her; that had been in those days when she was not old enough to love him ... since she had known him he had loved only money. She would have loved him had he allowed her, and because he did not she bore him no grudge. She had always regarded her life, sterile and unprofitable as it was, with humour until now when, like a discarded dress, it had slipped behind her. She did not see it, even now, with bitterness; there was no bitterness for anything in her character.
As they walked Uncle Mathew was considering her for the first time. On the other occasions when he had stayed in his brother's house he had been greatly occupied with his own plans—requests for money (invariably refused) schemes for making money, plots to frighten his brother out of one or other of his possessions. He had been frankly predatory, and that plain, quiet girl his niece had been pleasant company but no more. Now she was suddenly of the first importance. She would in all probability inherit a considerable sum. How much there might be in that black box under the bed one could not say, but surely you could not be so relentless a miser for so long a period without accumulating a very agreeable amount. Did the girl realise that she would, perhaps, be rich? Uncle Mathew licked his lips with his tongue. So quiet and self-possessed was she that you could not tell what she was thinking. Were she only pretty she might marry anybody. As it was, with that figure ... But she was a good girl. Uncle Mathew felt kind and tender-hearted towards her. He would advise her about life of which he had had a very considerable experience, and of which, of course, she knew nothing. His heart was warm, although it would have been warmer still had he been able to drink a glass of something before starting out.
"And what will you do now, my dear, do you think?" he asked.
They had left the deep lanes and struck across the hard-rutted fields. A thin powder of snow lay upon the land, and under the yellow light of the winter sky the surface was blue, shadowed with white patches where the snow had fallen more thickly. The trees and hedges were black and hard against the white horizon that was tightly stretched like the paper of a Japanese screen. The smell of burning wood was in the air, and once and again a rook slowly swung its wheel, cutting the air as it flew. The cold was so pleasantly sharp that it was the best possible thing for Uncle Mathew, who was accustomed to an atmosphere of hissing gas, unwashen glasses, and rinds of cheese.
Maggie did not answer his question but herself asked one.
"Uncle Mathew, do you believe in religion?"
"Religion, my dear?" answered her uncle, greatly startled at so unusual a question. "What sort of religion?"
"The kind of religion that father preached about every Sunday—the Christian religion."
"To tell you the truth, my dear," he answered confidentially, "I've never had much time to think about it. With some men, you see, it's part of their lives, and with others—well, it isn't. My lines never ran that way."
"Was father very religious when he was young?"
"No, I can't say that he was. But then we never got on, your father and I. Our lines didn't run together at all. But I shouldn't have called him a religious man."
"Then all this time father has been lying?"
Her uncle gazed at her apprehensively. He did not wish to undermine her faith in her father on the very day after his death, but he was so ignorant about her, her thoughts and beliefs and desires, that he did not know what her idea of her father had been. His idea of him had always been that he was a dirty, miserly scoundrel, but that was not quite the thing for a daughter to feel, and there was an innocence and simplicity about Maggie that perplexed him.
"I can't truly say that I ever knew what your father's private feelings were. He never cared for me enough to tell me. He may have been very religious in his real thoughts. We never discussed such things."
Maggie turned round upon him.
"I know. You're pretending. You've said to yourself, 'I mustn't tell her what I think about her father the very day after his death, that isn't a pleasant thing to do.' We've all got to pretend that he was splendid. But he wasn't—never. Who can know it better than I? Didn't he worry mother until she died? Didn't he lead me an awful life always, and aren't I delighted now that he's dead? It's everything to me. I've longed for this day for years, and now we've got to pretend that we're sorry and that it would be a good thing if he were alive. It wouldn't be a good thing—it would be a bad thing for every one. He was a bad man and I hated him."
Then, quite suddenly, she cried. Turning away from her uncle she folded her face in her arms like a small child and sobbed. Standing, looking at her bent shoulders, her square, ugly figure, her shabby old hat with its dingy black ribbon, pushed a little to the side of her head, Uncle Mathew thought that she was a most uncomprehensible girl. If she felt like that about her father why should she cry; and if she cried she must surely have some affection for his memory. All he could say was:
"There, there, my dear—Well, well. It's all right." He felt foolish and helpless.
She turned round at last, drying her eyes. "It's such a shame," she said, still sobbing, "that that's what I shall feel about him. He's all I had and that's what I feel. But if you knew—if you knew—all the things he did."
They walked on again, entering Rothin Wood. "He never tried to make me religious," she went on. "He didn't care what I felt. I sat in the choir, and I took a Sunday-school class, and I visited the villagers, but I, myself—what happened to me—he didn't care. He never took any trouble about the church, he just gabbled the prayers and preached the same old sermons. People in the village said it was a scandal and that he ought to be turned out but no one ever did anything. They'll clean everything up now. There'll be a new clergyman. They'll mend the holes in the kitchen floor and the ceiling of my bedroom. It will be all new and fresh."
"And what will you do, Maggie?" said her uncle, trying to make his voice indifferent as though he had no personal interest in her plans.
"I haven't thought yet," she said.
"I've an idea," he went on. "What do you say to your living with me? A nice little place somewhere in London. I've felt for a long time that I should settle down. Your father will have left you a little money—not much, perhaps, but just enough for us to manage comfortably. And there we'd be, as easy as anything. I can see us very happy together."
But he did not as yet know his niece. She shook her head.
"No," she said. "I'm going to live with Aunt Anne and Aunt Elizabeth. We wouldn't be happy, Uncle, you and I. Our house would always be in a mess and there are so many things that I must learn that only another woman could teach me. I never had a chance with father."
He had entered upon this little walk with every intention of settling the whole affair before their return. He had had no idea of any opposition—her ignorance of the world would make her easy to adapt. But now when he saw that she had already considered the matter and was firmly resolved, his arguments deserted him.
"Just consider a moment," he said.
"I think it will be best for me to live with the aunts," she answered firmly. "They have wished it before. Of course then it was impossible but now it will do very well."
He had one more attempt.
"You won't be happy there, my dear, with all their religion and the rest of it—and two old maids. You'll see no life at all."
"That depends upon myself," she answered, "and as to their religion at least they believe in it."
"Yes, your Aunt Anne is a very sincere woman," Uncle Mathew answered grimly.
He was angry and helpless. She seemed suddenly some one with whom it was impossible to argue. He had intended to be pathetic, to paint delightful pictures of uncle and niece sheltering snugly together defended by their affection against a cold and hostile London. His own eyes had filled with tears as he thought of it. What a hard, cold-hearted girl she was! Nevertheless for the moment he abandoned the subject.
That she should go and live with her aunts was not for Maggie in any way a new idea. A number of years ago when she had been a little girl of thirteen or fourteen years of age her father had had a most violent quarrel with his sister Anne. Maggie had never known the exact cause of this although even at that period she suspected that it was in some way connected with money. She found afterwards that her father had considered that certain pieces of furniture bequeathed to the family by a defunct relation were his and not his sister's. Miss Anne Cardinal, a lady of strong character, clung to her sofa, cabinet, and porcelain, bowls, and successfully maintained her right. The Reverend Charles forbade the further mention of her name by any member of his household. This quarrel was a grievous disappointment to Maggie who had often been promised that when she should be a good girl she should go and stay with her aunts in London. She had invented for herself a strange fascinating picture of the dark, mysterious London house, with London like a magic cauldron bubbling beyond it. There was moreover the further strangeness of her aunt's religion. Her father in his anger had spoken about "their wicked blasphemy," "their insolence in the eyes of God," "their blindness and ignorant conceit." Maggie had discovered, on a later day, from her uncle that her aunts belonged to a sect known as the Kingscote Brethren and that the main feature of their creed was that they expected the second coming of the Lord God upon earth at no very distant date.
"Will it really happen, Uncle Mathew?" she asked in an awe-struck voice when she first heard this.
"It's all bunkum if you ask me," said her uncle. "And it's had a hardening effect on your aunts who were kind women once, but they're completely in the hands of the blackguard who runs their chapel, poor innocents. I'd wring his neck if I caught him."
All this was very fascinating to Maggie who was of a practical mind with regard to the facts immediately before her but had beyond them a lively imagination. Her life had been so lonely, spent for the most part so far from children of her own age, that she had no test of reality. She did not see any reason why the Lord God should not come again and she saw every reason why her aunts should condemn her uncle. That London house swam now in a light struck partly from the wisdom and omniscience of her aunts, partly from God's threatened descent upon them.
Aunt Anne's name was no longer mentioned in St. Dreot's but Maggie did not forget, and at every new tyranny from her father she thought to herself—"Well, there is London. I shall be there one day."
As they walked Maggie looked at her uncle. What was he really? He should be a gentleman and yet he didn't look like one. She remembered things that he had at different times said to her.
"Why, look at myself!" he had on earlier days, half-maudlin from "his drop at the 'Bull and Bush,'" exclaimed to Maggie, "I can't call myself a success! I'm a rotten failure if you want to know, and I had most things in my favour to start with, went to Cambridge, had a good opening as a barrister. But it wasn't quick enough for me. I was restless and wanted to jump the moon—now look at me! Same with your father, only he's put all his imagination into money—same as your aunts have put theirs into religion. We're not like ordinary people, us Cardinals."
"And have I got a lot of imagination too?" Maggie had asked on one occasion.
"I'm sure I don't know," her uncle had answered her. "You don't look to me like a Cardinal at all—much too quiet. But you may have it somewhere. Look out for a bad time if you have."
Today Maggie's abrupt checking of his projects had made him sulky and he talked but little. "Damn it all!" he had started out with the most charming intentions towards the girl and now look at her! Was it natural conduct in the day after she had lost her only protector? No, it was not. Had she been pretty he might have, even now, forgiven her, but today she looked especially plain with her pale face and shabby black dress and her obstinate mouth and chin. He was uneasy, too, about the imminent arrival of his sister Anne, who always frightened him and made him think poorly of the world in general. No hope of getting any money out of her, nor would Charles have left him a penny. It was a rotten, unsympathetic world, and Uncle Mathew cursed God as he strutted sulkily along. Maggie also had fallen into silence.
They came at last out of the wood and stood at the edge of it, with the pine trees behind them, looking down over Polchester. On this winter's afternoon Polchester with the thin covering of snow upon its roofs sparkled like a city under glass. The Cathedral was dim in the mist of the early dusk and the sun, setting behind the hill, with its last rays caught the windows so that they blazed through the haze like smoking fires. Whilst Maggie and her uncle stood there the bells began to ring for Evensong, and the sound like a faint echo seemed to come from behind them out of the wood. In the spring all the Polchester orchards would be white and pink with blossom, in the summer the river that encircled the city wall would run like a blue scarf between its green sloping hills—now there was frost and snow and mist with the fires smouldering at its heart. She gazed at it now as she had never gazed at it before. She was going into it now. Her life was beginning at last. When the sun had left the windows and the walls were grey she turned back into the wood and led the way silently towards home.
The house that night was very strange with her father dead in it. She sat, because she thought it her duty, in his bedroom. He lay on his bed, with his beard carefully combed and brushed now, spread out upon the sheet. His closed eyes and mouth gave him a grave and reverend appearance which he had never worn in his life. He lay there, under the flickering candle-light, like some saint who at length, after a life of severe discipline, had entered into the joy of his Lord. Beneath the bed was the big black box.
Maggie did not look at her father. She sat there, near the dark window, her hands folded on her lap. She thought of nothing at all except the rats. She was not afraid of them but they worried her. They had been a trouble in the house for a long time past, poison had been laid for them and they had refused to take it. They had had, perhaps, some fear of the Reverend Charles, at any rate they scampered and scurried now behind the wainscoting as though conscious of their release. "Even the rats are glad," Maggie thought to herself. In the uncertain candle-light the fancy seized her that one rat, a very large one, had crept out from his hole, crawled on to the bed, and now sat on the sheet looking at her father. It would be a horrible thing did the rat walk across her father's beard, and yet for her life she could not move. She waited, fascinated. She fancied that the beard stirred a little as though the rat had moved it. She fancied that the rat grew and grew in size, now there were many of them, all with their little sharp beady eyes watching the corpse. Now there were none; only the large limbs outlined beneath the spread, the waxen face, the ticking clock, the strange empty shape of his grey dressing-gown hanging upon a nail on the wall. Where was her father gone? She did not know, she did not care—only she trusted that she would never meet him again—never again. Her head nodded; her hands and feet were cold; the candle-light jumped, the rats scampered ... she slept.
When it was quite dark beyond the windows and the candles were low Maggie came downstairs, stiff, cold, and very hungry. She felt that it was wrong to have slept and very wrong to be hungry, but there it was; she did not pretend to herself that things were other than they were. In the dining-room she found supper laid out upon the table, cold beef, potatoes in their jackets, cold beetroot, jelly, and cheese, and her uncle playing cards on the unoccupied end of the table in a melancholy manner by himself. She felt that it was wrong of him to play cards on such an occasion, but the cards were such dirty grey ones and he obtained obviously so little pleasure from his amusement that he could not be considered to be wildly abandoning himself to riot and extravagance.
She felt pleasure in his company; for the first time since her father's death she was a little frightened and uneasy. She might even have gone to him and cried on his shoulder had he given her any encouragement, but he did not speak to her except to say that he had already eaten. He was still a little sulky with her.
When she had finished her meal she sat in her accustomed chair by the fire, her head propped on her hands, looking into the flame, and there, half-asleep, half-awake, memories, conversations, long-vanished scenes trooped before her eyes as though they were bidding her a long farewell. She did not, as she sat there, sentimentalise about any of them, she saw them as they were, some happy, some unhappy, some terrifying, some amusing, all of them dead and passed, grey and thin, the life gone out of them. Her mind was fixed on the future. What was it going to be? Would she have money as her uncle had said? Would she see London and the world? Would she find friends, people who would be glad to be with her and have her with them? What would her aunts be like? and so from them, what about all the other members of the family of whom she had heard? She painted for herself a gay scene in which, at the door of some great house, a fine gathering of Cardinals waited with smiles and outstretched hands to welcome her. Then, laughing at herself as she always did when she had allowed her fancy free rein, she shook her head. No, it certainly would not be like that. Relations were not like that. That was not the way to face the world to encourage romantic dreams. Her uncle, watching her surreptitiously, wondered of what she was thinking. Her determined treatment of him that afternoon continued to surprise him. She certainly ought to make her way in the world, but what a pity that she was so plain. Perhaps if she got some colour into her cheeks, dressed better, brushed her hair differently—no, her mouth would always be too large and her nose too small—and her figure was absurd. Uncle Mathew considered that he was a judge of women.
He rose at last and, rather shamefacedly, said that he should go to bed. Maggie wondered at the confusion that she detected in him. She looked at him and he dropped his eyes.
"Good night, Uncle Mathew."
He looked at her then and noticed by her white face and dark-lined eyes what a strain the day had been to her. He saw again the figure in the shabby black hat sobbing in the lane. He suddenly put his arms about her and held her close to him. She noticed that he smelled of whisky, but she felt his kindness, and putting her hand on his fat shoulder kissed once more his cheek.
When he had left her, her weariness came suddenly down upon her, overwhelming her as though the roof had fallen in. The lamp swelled before her tired eyes as though it had been an evil, unhealthy flower. The table slid into the chairs and the cold beef leered at the jelly; the pictures jumped and the clock ran in a mad scurry backwards and forwards.
She dragged her dazed body up through the silent house to her bedroom, undressed, was instantly in bed and asleep.
She slept without dreams but woke suddenly as though she had been flung into the midst of one. She sat up in bed, knowing from the thumping of her heart that she was seized with panic but finding, in the first flash, no reason for her alarm. The room was pitch black with shadows of light here and there, but she had with her, in the confusion of her sleep, uncertainty as to the different parts of the room. What had awakened her? Of what was she frightened? Then suddenly, as one slits a black screen with a knife, a thin line of light cracked the darkness. As though some one had whispered it in her ear she knew that the door was there and the dark well of uncertainty into which she had been plunged was suddenly changed into her own room where she could recognise the window, the chest of drawers, the looking-glass, the chairs. Some one was opening her door and her first thought that it was of course her father was checked instantly by the knowledge, conveyed again as though some one had whispered to her, that her father was dead.
The thin line of light was now a wedge, it wavered, drew back to a spider's thread again, then broadened with a flush of colour into a streaming path. Some one stood in the doorway holding a candle. Maggie saw that it was Uncle Mathew in his shirt and trousers.
"What is it?" she said.
He swayed as he stood there, his candle making fantastic leaps and shallows of light. He was smiling at her in a silly way and she saw that he was drunk. She had had a horror of drunkenness ever since, as a little girl, she had watched an inebriated carter kicking his wife. She always, after that, saw the woman's bent head and stooping shoulders. Now she knew, sitting up in bed, that she was frightened not only of Uncle Mathew, but of the house, of the whole world.
She was alone. She realised her loneliness in a great flash of bewilderment and cold terror as though the ground had suddenly broken away from her and she was on the edge of a vast pit. There was no one in the house to help her. Her father was dead. The cook and the maid were sunk in heavy slumber at the other end of the house. There was no one to help her. She was alone, and it seemed to her that in the shock of that discovery she realised that she would always be alone now, for the rest of her life.
"What is it, Uncle Mathew?" she said again. Her voice was steady, although her heart hammered. Some other part of her brain was wondering where it was that he had got the drink. He must have had a bottle of whisky in his room; she remembered his shyness when he said good-night to her.
He stood in the middle of the floor, swaying on his feet and smiling at her. The flame of the light rose and fell in jerks and spasms.
"I thought," he said, "I'd come—to see m'little Maggie, m'little niece, jus' to talk a lill bit and cheer her up—up." He drew nearer the bed. "She'll be lonely, I said—lonely—very—aren't you—lonely Maggie?"
"It's very late," she said, "and you're dropping grease ail over the floor with that candle. You go back to bed, uncle. I'm all right. You go back to bed."
"Go back? No, no, no. Oh no, not back to bed. It'll soon be mornin'. That'll be jolly-jolly. We'll talk—together till mornin'."
He put the candle on a chair, nearly falling as he did so, then came towards her. He stood over her, his shirt, open at the neck, protuberating over his stomach, his short thick legs swaying. His red, unshaven face with the trembling lips was hateful to her.
Suddenly he sat on the edge of her bed and put his hands out towards her. He caught her hair.
"My little Maggie—my little Maggie," he said.
The fright, the terror, the panic that seized her was like the sudden rising of some black figure who grew before her, bent towards her and with cold hard fingers squeezed her throat. For an instant she was helpless, quivering, weak in every bone of her body.
Then some one said to her:
"But you can manage this."
"I can manage this," she answered almost aloud.
"You're alone now. You mustn't let things be too much for you."
She jumped out of bed, on the farther side away from her uncle. She put on her dressing-gown. She stood and pointed at the door.
"Now, uncle, you go back to your room at once. It's disgraceful coming in the middle of the night and disturbing every one. Go back to bed."
The new tone in her voice startled him. He looked at her in a bewildered fashion. He got up from the bed.
"Why, Maggie—I only—only—"
He stared from her to the candle and from the candle back to her again.
"Now go," she repeated. "Quick now."
He hung his head. "Now you're angry—angry with your poor ole uncle—poor ole uncle." He looked at her, his eyes puzzled as though he had never seen her before.
"You're very hard," he said, shaking his head. He stumbled towards the door—"Very hard," he repeated, and went out, his head still hanging.
She heard him knock his foot against the stairs. Soon there was silence.
She blew out the candle and went back to bed. She lay there, her heart, at first, throbbing, her eyes straining the darkness. Then she grew more tranquil. She felt in her heart a strange triumph as though already she had begun life and had begun it with success. She thought, before she sank deep into sleep, that anything would yield to one did one only deal sensibly with it ... After all, it was a fine thing to be alone.
In the morning, however, she discovered no fine things anywhere. The hours that had elapsed since her father's death had wrought in him a "sea-change." He had gained nobility, almost beauty. She wondered with a desolate self-criticism whether during all those years she had been to blame and not he. Perhaps he had wished for sympathy and intimacy and she had repulsed him. His little possessions here and there about the house reproached her.
Uncle Mathew had a bad headache and would not come down to breakfast. She felt indignant with him but also indulgent. He had shown himself hopelessly lacking in good taste, and good feeling, but then she had never supposed that he had these things. At the same time the last support seemed to have been removed from her; it might well be that her Aunt Anne would not care for her and would not wish to have her in her house. What should she do then? Whither should she go? She flung up her head and looked bravely into the face of Ellen, the cook, who came to remove the breakfast, but she had to bite her lip to keep back the tears that WOULD come and fill her eyes so that the world was misty and obscure.
There was, she fancied, something strange about Ellen. In HER eyes some obscure triumph or excitement, some scorn and derision, Maggie fancied, of herself. Had the woman been drinking? ...
Then there arrived Mr. Brassy, her father's solicitor, from Cator Hill. He had been often in the house, a short fat man with a purple face, clothes of a horsy cut, and large, red, swollen fingers. He took now possession of the house with much self-importance. "Well, Miss Maggie" (he blew his words at her as a child blows soap-bubbles). "Here we are, then. Very sad indeed—very. I've been through the house—got the will all right. Your aunt, you say, will be with us?"
"My aunt from London. Miss Anne Cardinal. I expect her in half an hour. She should have arrived at Clinton by the half-past nine train."
"Well, well. Yes—yes—indeed, your uncle is also here?"
"Yes. He will be down shortly."
"Very good, Miss Maggie. Very good."
She hated that he should call her Miss Maggie. He had always treated her with considerable respect, but to-day she fancied that he patronised her. He placed his hand for a moment on her shoulder and she shrank back. He felt her action and, abashed a little, coughed and blew his nose. He strutted about the room. Then the door opened and Ellen the cook looked in upon them.
"I only wished to see, Miss, whether I could do anything for you?"
"Nothing, thank you," said Maggie.
"Been with you some time that woman?" said Mr. Brassy.
"Yes," said Maggie, "about five years, I think."
"Hum! Hum—name of Harmer."
"No," answered Maggie, wondering at this interest.
"Not so far as you know."
"No. She's always Miss Harmer."
"Quite so—quite so. Dear me, yes."
Other people appeared, asked questions and vanished. It seemed to have been all taken out of her hands and it was strange how desolate this made her. For so many years she had had the management of that house, since her fourteenth birthday, indeed. Ugly and dilapidated though the place had been, it had grown, after a time, to belong to her, and she had felt as though it were in some way grateful to her for keeping it, poor thing, together. Now it had suddenly withdrawn itself and was preparing for the next comer. Maggie felt this quite definitely and thought that probably it was glad that now its roof would be mended and its floors made whole. It had thrown her off ... Well, she would not burden it long.
There were sounds then of wheels on the gravel. The old dilapidated cab from Clinton with its ricketty windows and moth-eaten seats that smelt of straw and beer was standing at the door, the horse puffing great breaths of steam into the frozen air. Her aunt had arrived. Maggie, standing behind the window, looked out. The carriage door opened, and a figure, that seemed unusually tall, appeared to straighten itself out and rose to its full height on the gravel path as though it had been sitting in the cab pressed together, its head upon its knees.
Then in the hall that was dark even on the brightest day, Aunt Anne revealed herself as a lady, tall indeed, but not too tall, of a fine carriage, in a black rather shabby dress and a black bonnet. Her face was grave and sharply pointed, with dark eyes—sad rather, and of the pale remote colour that the Virgin in the St. Dreot's east end window wears. Standing there in the dusky hall, quietly, quite apart from the little bustle that surrounded her, she seemed to Maggie even in that first moment like some one wrapt, caught away into her own visions.
"I paid the cabman five shillings," she said very softly. "I hope that was right. And you are Maggie, are you?"
She bent down and kissed her. Her lips were warm and comforting. Maggie, who had, when she was shy, something of the off-hand manner of a boy, said:
"Yes. That's all right. We generally give him four and six."
They went into the dining-room where was Mr. Brassy. He came forward to them, blowing his words at them, rubbing his hands:
"Miss Cardinal—I am honoured—my name is Brassy, your brother's lawyer. Very, very sad—so sudden, so sudden. The funeral is at twelve. If there is anything I can do—"
Miss Cardinal did not regard him at all and Maggie saw that this annoyed him. The girl watched her aunt, conscious of some strange new excitement at her heart. She had never seen any one who in the least resembled this remote silent woman. Maggie did not know what it was that she had expected, but certainly it had not been this. There was something in her Aunt's face that recalled her father and her uncle, something in the eyes, something in the width and height of the forehead, but this resemblance only accentuated the astounding difference. Maggie's first impression was her ultimate one—that her aunt had strayed out of some stained-glass window into a wild world that did not bewilder her only because she did not seriously regard it. Maggie found herself wondering who had fastened her aunt's buttons and strings when she rose in the morning, how had she ever travelled in the right train and descended at the right station? How could she remember such trifles when her thoughts were fixed on such distant compelling dreams? The pale oval face, the black hair brushed back from the forehead, the thin hands with long tapering fingers, the black dress, the slender upright body—this figure against the cold bright winter sunlight was a picture that remained always from that day in Maggie's soul.
Her aunt looked about her as though she had just awaked from sleep. "Would you care to come up to your room?" asked Maggie, feeling the embarrassment of Mr. Brassy's presence.
"Yes, dear, thank you—I will," said Miss Cardinal. They moved from the room, Aunt Anne walking with a strange, almost clumsy uncertainty, halting from one foot to the other as though she had never learnt to trust her legs, a movement with which Maggie was to become intensely familiar. It was as though her aunt had flown in some earlier existence, and had never become accustomed to this clumsier earthly fashion.
The spare bedroom was a bright room with a broad high window. The view was magnificent, looking over the hill that dropped below the vicarage out across fields and streams to Cator Hill, to the right into the heart of the St. Dreot Woods, to the left to the green valley through whose reeds and sloping shadows the Lisp gleamed like a burnished wire threading its way to the sea. There was a high-backed old-fashioned chair by the window. Against this Miss Cardinal stood, her thin body reflected, motionless, as though it had been painted in a long glass behind her. She gazed before her.
Maggie saw that she was agitated, passionately moved. The sun catching the hoar-frost on the frozen soil turned the world to crystal, and in every field were little shallows of blue light; the St. Dreot Woods were deep black with flickering golden stars.
She tried to speak. She could not. Tears were in her eyes. "It is so long ... since I ... London," she smiled at Maggie. Then Maggie heard her say:
The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing.
He shall feed me in a green pasture; and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.
He shall convert my soul, and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness, for His Name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me, they rod and thy staff comfort me.
Thou shalt prepare a table before me against them that trouble me: thou hast anointed my head with oil, and my cup shall be full.
But thy loving—kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
There was a pause—then Maggie said timidly, "Won't you take off your bonnet? It will be more comfortable." "Thank you, my dear." She took off her bonnet and laid it on the bed. Then she resumed her stand at the window, her eyes lost in the sunny distance. "I did wrong," she said, as though she were speaking to herself. "I should not have allowed that quarrel with your father. I regret it now very deeply. But we always see too late the consequences of our proud self-will." She turned then.
"Come here, dear," she said.
Maggie came to her. Her aunt looked at her and Maggie was deeply conscious of her shabby dress, her rough hands, her ugly boots. Then, as always when she was self-critical, her eyes grew haughty and her mouth defiant.
Her aunt kissed her, her cool, firm fingers against the girl's warm neck.
"You will come to us now, dear. You should have come long ago."
Maggie wanted to speak, but she could not.
"We will try to make you happy, but ours is not an exciting life."
Maggie's eyes lit up. "It has not," she said, "been very exciting here always." Then she went on, colour in her cheeks, "I think father did all he could. I feel now that there were a lot of things that I should have done, only I didn't see them at the time. He never asked me to help him, but I wish now that I had offered—or—suggested."
Her lips quivered, again she was near tears, and again, as it had been on her walk with Uncle Mathew, her regret was not for her father but for the waste that her life with him had been. But there was something in her aunt that prevented complete confidence. She seemed in something to be outside small daily troubles. Before they could speak any more there was a knock on the door and Uncle Mathew came in. He stood there looking both ashamed of himself and obstinate.
He most certainly did not appear at his best, a large piece of plaster on his right cheek showing where he had cut himself with his razor, and a shabby and tight black suit (it was his London suit, and had lain crumpled disastrously in his hand-bag) accentuating the undue roundness of his limbs; his eyes blinked and his mouth trembled a little at the corners. He was obviously afraid of his sister and flung his niece a watery wink as though to implore her silence as to his various misdemeanours.
Brother and sister shook hands, and Maggie, as she watched them, was surprised to feel within herself a certain sympathy with her uncle. Aunt Anne's greeting was gentle and kind but infinitely distant, and had something of the tenderness with which the Pope washes the feet of the beggars in Rome.
"I'm so glad that you were here," she said in her soft voice. "It must have been such a comfort to Maggie."
"He has been, indeed, Aunt Anne," Maggie broke in eagerly.
Her uncle looked at her with great surprise; after his behaviour of last night he had not expected this. Reassured, he began a voluble explanation of his movements and plans, rubbing his hands together and turning one boot against the other.
He had a great deal to say, because he had seen neither of his sisters for a very long time. Then he wished to make a good impression because Maggie, the heiress, would be of importance now. What an idiot he had been last night. What had he done? He could remember nothing. It was evident that it had been nothing very bad—Maggie bore him no grudge—good girl, Maggie. He felt affectionate towards her and would have told her so had her aunt not been present. These thoughts underlay his rambling history. He was aware suddenly that his audience was inattentive. He saw, indeed, that his sister was standing with her back half-turned, gazing on to the shining country beyond the window. He ceased abruptly, gave his niece a wink, and when this was unsuccessful, muttering a few words, stumbled out of the room.
The whole village attended the funeral, not because it liked the Rev. Charles, but because it liked funerals. Maggie was, in all probability, the only person present who thought very deeply about the late Vicar of St. Dreot's. The Rev. Tom Trefusis who conducted the ceremony was a large red-faced man who had played Rugby football for his University and spent most of his energy over the development of cricket and football clubs up and down the county. He could not be expected to have cared very greatly for the Rev. Charles, who had been at no period of his life and in no possible sense of the word a sportsman. As he conducted the service his mind speculated as to the next vicar (the Rev. Tom knew an excellent fellow, stroke of the Cambridge boat in '12, who would be just the man) the possibility of the frost breaking in time for the inter-county Rugby match at Truxe, the immediate return of his wife from London (he was very fond of his wife), and, lastly, a certain cramp in the stomach that sometimes "bowled him over" and of which the taking of a funeral—"here to-day and gone to-morrow"—always reminded him.
"Wonder how long I'll last," he thought as he stood over the grave of the Rev. Charles and let his eyes wander over the little white gravestones that ran almost into the dark wall of St. Dreot Woods as though they were trying to hide themselves. "Wish the frost 'ud break—ground'll be as hard as nails." The soil fell, thump, thump upon the coffin. Rooks cawed in the trees; the bell tolled its cracked note. The Rev. Charles was crammed down with the soil by the eager spades of the sexton and his friend, who were cold and wanted a drink.
Maggie, meanwhile, watched the final disappearance of her father with an ever-growing remorse. Ever since her declaration to her uncle during their walk yesterday this new picture of her father had grown before her eyes. She had already forgotten many, many things that might now have made her resentful or at least critical. She saw him as a figure most disastrously misunderstood. Without any sentimentality in her vision she saw him lonely, proud, reserved, longing for her sympathy which she denied him. His greed for money she saw suddenly as a determination that his daughter should not be left in want. All those years he had striven and his apparent harshness, sharpness, unkindness had been that he might pursue his great object.
She did not cry (some of the villagers curiously watching her thought her a hard-hearted little thing), but her heart was full of tenderness as she stood there, seeing the humped grey church that was part of her life, the green mounds with no name, the dark wood, the grey roofs of the village clustered below the hill, hearing the bell, the rooks, the healthy voice of Mr. Trefusis, the bark of some distant dog, the creak of some distant wheel.
"I missed my chance," she thought. "If only now I could have told him!"
Her aunt stood at her side and once again Maggie felt irritation at her composure. "After all, he was her brother," she thought. She remembered the feeling and passion with which her aunt had repeated the Twenty-third Psalm. She was puzzled.
A moment of shrinking came upon her as she thought of the coming London life.
Then the service was over. The villagers, with that inevitable disappointment that always lingers after a funeral, went to their homes. The children remained until night, under the illusion that it was Sunday.
Maggie spent the rest of the day, for the most part, alone in her room and thinking of her father. Her bedroom, an attic with a sloping roof, contained all her worldly possessions. In part because she had always been so reserved a child, in part because there had been no one in whom she might confide even had she wished it, she had always placed an intensity of feeling around and about the few things that were hers. Her library was very small, but this did not distress her because she had never cared for reading. Upon the little hanging shelf above her bed (deal wood painted white, with blue cornflowers) were The Heir of Redclyffe, a shabby blue-covered copy, Ministering Children, Madame How and Lady Why, The Imitation of Christ, Robinson Crusoe, Mrs. Beeton's Cookery Book, The Holy Bible, and The Poems of Longfellow. These had been given her upon various Christmasses and birthdays. She did not care for any of them except The Imitation of Christ and Robinson Crusoe. The Bible was spoilt for her by incessant services and Sunday School classes; The Heir of Redclyffe and Ministering Children she found absurdly sentimental and unlike any life that she had ever known; Mrs. Beeton she had never opened, and Longfellow and Kingsley's Natural History she found dull. For Robinson Crusoe she had the intense human sympathy that all lonely people feel for that masterpiece. The Imitation pleased her by what she would have called its common sense. Such a passage, for example: "Oftentimes something lurketh within, or else occurreth from without, which draweth us after it. Many secretly seek themselves in what they do, and know it not."
"They seem also to live in good peace of mind, when things are done according to their will and opinion; but if things happen otherwise than they desire, they are straightway moved and much vexed."
And behind this common sense she did seem to be directly in touch with some one whom she might find had she more time and friends to advise her. She was conscious in her lonely hours, that nothing gave her such a feeling of company as did this little battered red book, and she felt that that friendliness might one day advance to some greater intimacy. About these things she was intensely reserved and she spoke of them to no human being.
Even for the books for whose contents she did not care she had a kindly feeling. So often had they looked down upon her when she sat there exasperated, angry at her own tears, rebellious, after some scene with her father. No other place but this room had seen these old agonies of hers. She would be sorry after all to leave it.
There were not many things beside the books. Two bowls of blue Glebeshire pottery, cheap things but precious, a box plastered with coloured shells, an amber bead necklace, a blue leather writing-case, a photograph of her father as a young clergyman with a beard and whiskers, a faded daguerreotype of her mother, last, but by no means least, a small black lacquer musical-box that played two tunes, "Weel may the Keel row" and "John Peel,"—these were her worldly possessions.
She sat there; as the day closed down, the trees were swept into the night, the wind rose in the dark wood, the winter's moon crept pale and cold into the sky, snow began to fall, at first thinly, then in a storm, hiding the moon, flinging the fields and roads into a white shining splendour; the wind died and the stars peeped between the flakes of whirling snow.
She sat without moving, accusing her heart of hardness, of unkindness. She seemed to herself then deserving of every punishment. "If I had only gone to him," she thought again and again. She remembered how she had kept apart from him, enclosed herself in a reserve that he should never break. She remembered the times when he had scolded her, coldly, bitterly, and she had stood, her face as a rock, her heart beating but her body without movement, then had turned and gone silently from the room. All her wicked, cold heart that in some strange way cared for love but could not make those movements towards others that would show that it cared. What was it in her? Would she always, through life, miss the things for which she longed through her coldness and obstinacy?
She took her father's photograph, stared at it, gazed into it, held it in an agony of remorse. She shivered in the cold of her room but did not know it. Her candle, caught in some draught, blew out, and instantly the white world without leapt in upon her and her room was lit with a strange unearthly glow. She saw nothing but her father. At last she fell asleep in the chair, clutching in her hand the photograph.
Thus her aunt found her, later in the evening. She was touched by the figure, the shabby black frock, the white tired face. She had been honestly disappointed in her niece, disappointed in her plainness, in her apparent want of heart, in her silence and moroseness. Mathew had told her of the girl's outburst to him against her father, and this had seemed to her shocking upon the very day after that father's death. Now when she saw the photograph clenched in Maggie's hand tears came into her eyes. She said, "Maggie! dear Maggie!" and woke her. Maggie, stirring saw her aunt's slender figure and delicate face standing in the snowlight as though she had been truly a saint from heaven.
Maggie's first impulse was to rise up, fling her arms around her aunt's neck and hug her. Had she done that the history of her life might have been changed. Her natural shyness checked her impulse. She got up, the photograph dropped from her hand, she smiled a little and then said awkwardly, "I've been asleep. Do you want me? I'll come down."
Her aunt drew her towards her.
"Maggie, dear," she said, "don't feel lonely any more. Think of me and your Aunt Elizabeth as your friends who will always care for you. You must never be lonely again."
Maggie's whole heart responded. She felt its wild beating but she could do nothing, could say nothing. Her body stiffened. In spite of herself she withdrew herself. Her face reddened, then, was pale.
"Thank you, aunt," was all she could say.
Her aunt moved away. Silently they went downstairs together.
At about ten the next morning they were seated in the dining-room—Aunt Anne, Uncle Mathew, Maggie, and Mr. Brassy. Mr. Brassy was speaking:
"I'm afraid, Miss Cardinal, that there can be no question about the legality of this. It has been duly witnessed and signed. I regret extremely ... but as you can well understand, I was quite unable to prevent. With the exception of a legacy of 300 Pounds Sterling to Miss Maggie Cardinal everything goes to Miss Ellen Harmer, 'To whom I owe more than I can ever possibly—'"
"Thank you," interrupted Aunt Anne. "This is, I think, the woman who has been cook here during the last four years?"
"About five, I think," said Mr. Brassy softly.
Uncle Mathew was upon his feet, trembling.
"This is monstrous," he stuttered, "absolutely monstrous. Of course an appeal will be made—undue influence—the most abominable thing."
Maggie watched them all as though the whole business were far from herself. She sat there, her hands folded on her lap, looking at the mantelpiece with the ugly marble clock, the letter clip with old soiled letters in it, the fat green vase with dusty everlastings. Just as on the night when her uncle had come into her room she had fancied that some one spoke to her, so now she seemed to hear:
"Ah, that's a nasty knock for you—a very nasty knock."
Her father had left all his money, with the exception of 300, Pounds Sterling to Ellen the cook; Maggie did not, for a moment, speculate as to the probable total amount. Three hundred pounds seemed to her a very large sum—it would at any rate give her something to begin life upon—but the thing that seized and held her was the secret friendship that must have existed between her father and Ellen—secret friendship was the first form that the relationship assumed for her. She saw Ellen, red of face with little eyes and a flat nose upon which flies used to settle, a fat, short neck, the wheezings and the pantings, the stumping walk, the great broad back. And she saw her father—first as the tall, dirty man whom she used to know, with the shiny black trousers, the untidy beard, the frowning eyes, the nails bitten to the quick, the ragged shirt-cuffs—then as that veiled shape below the clothes, the lift of the sheet above the toes, the loins, the stomach, the beard neatly brushed, the closed yellow eyelids, the yellow forehead, the rats with their gleaming eyes. In a kind of terror as though she were being led against her will into some disgusting chamber where the skulls were stale and the sights indecent, she saw the friendship of those two—Ellen the cook and her father.
Young, inexperienced though she was, she was old already in a certain crude knowledge of facts. It could not be said that she traced to their ultimate hiding-place the relations of her father and the woman, but in some relation, ugly, sordid, degraded, she saw those two figures united. Many, many little things came to her mind as she sat there, moments when the cook had breathlessly and in a sudden heat betrayed some unexpected agitation, moments when her father had shown confusion, moments when she had fancied whispers, laughter behind walls, scurrying feet. She entwined desperately her hands together as pictures developed behind her eyes.
Ah! but she was ashamed, most bitterly ashamed!
The rest of the interview came to her only dimly. She knew that Uncle Mathew was still upon his feet protesting, that her aunt's face was cold and wore a look of distressed surprise as though some one had suddenly been rude to her.
From very, very far away came Mr. Brassy's voice: "I was aware that this could not be agreeable, Miss Cardinal. But I am afraid that, under the circumstances, there is nothing to be done. As to undue influence I think that I should warn you, Mr. Cardinal, that there could be very little hope ... and of course the expense ... if I may advise you ..."
The voice sank away again, the room faded, the air was still and painted; like figures on a stage acting before an audience of one Maggie saw those grotesque persons ...
She did not speak one word during the whole affair.
After a time she saw that Mr. Brassy was not in the room. Her aunt was speaking to her:
"Maggie, dear—I'm so very sorry—so very sorry. But you know that you will come to us and find a home there. You mustn't think about the money—"
With a sudden impulse she arose, almost brushing her aunt aside.
"Ah! that's not it—that's not it!" she cried. Then, recovering herself a little, she went on—"It's all right, Aunt Anne. I'm all right. I'm going out for a little. If I'm not back for lunch, don't wait. Something cold, anything, tell Ellen—"
At the sudden mention of that name she stopped, coloured a little, turned away and left the room. In the hall she nearly ran against the cook. The woman was standing there, motionless, breathing deeply, her eyes fixed upon the dining-room. When she saw Maggie, she moved as though she would speak, then something in the girl's face checked her. She drew back into the shadow.
Maggie left the house.
The brother and sister, remaining in the room, walked towards one another as though driven by some common need of sympathy and protection against an outside power. Mathew Cardinal felt a genuine indignation that had but seldom figured in his life before. He had hated his brother, always, and never so greatly as at the moments of the man's reluctant charity towards him. But now, in the first clean uplift of his indignation, there was no self-congratulation at the justification of his prophecies.
"I knew him for what he was. But that he could do this! He meant it to hurt, too—that was like him all over. He had us in his mind. I wish I'd never taken a penny from him. I'd rather have starved. Yes, I would—far rather. I've been bad enough, but never a thing like that—"
His sister said quietly:
"He's dead, Mathew. We can do nothing. Maggie, poor child ..."
He approached for an instant more nearly than he had ever done. He took her hand. There were tears in his eyes.
"It's good of you, Anne—to take her."
She withdrew her hand—very gently.
"I wish we'd taken her before. She must have had a terrible time here. I'd never realised ..."
He stood away from her near the window, feeling suddenly ashamed of his impetuosity.
"She's a strange girl," Anne Cardinal went on. "She didn't seem to feel this,—or anything. She hasn't, I think, much heart. I'm afraid she may find it a little difficult with us—"
Mathew was uncomfortable now. His mood had changed; he was sullen. His sister always made him feel like a disgraced dog. He shuffled on his feet.
"She's a good girl," he muttered at last, and then with a confused look about him, as though he were searching for something, he stumbled out of the room.
Meanwhile Maggie went on her way. She chose instinctively her path, through the kitchen garden at the back of the village, down the hill by the village street, over the little bridge that crossed the rocky stream of the Dreot, and up the steep hill that led on to the outskirts of Rothin Moor. The day, although she had no eyes for it, was one of those sudden impulses of misty warmth that surprise the Glebeshire frosts. The long stretch of the moor was enwrapped by a thin silver network of haze; the warmth of the sun, seen so dimly that it was like a shadow reflected in a mirror, struck to the very heart of the soil. Where but yesterday there had been iron frost there was now soft yielding earth; it was as though the heat of the central fires of the world pressed dimly upward through many miles of heavy weighted resistance, straining to the light and air. Larks, lost in golden mist, circled in space; Maggie could feel upon her face and neck and hands the warm moisture; the soil under her feet, now hard, now soft, seemed to tremble with some happy anticipation; the moor, wrapped in its misty colour, had no bounds; the world was limitless space with hidden streams, hidden suns.
The moor had a pathetic attraction for her, because not very long ago a man and a woman had been lost, only a few steps from Borhedden Farm, in the mist—lost their way and been frozen during the night. Poor things! lovers, perhaps, they had been.
Maggie felt that here she could walk for miles and miles and that there was nothing to stop her; the clang of a gate, a house, a wall, a human voice was intolerable to her.
Her first thought as she went forward was disgust at her own weakness; once again she had been betrayed by her feelings. She could remember no single time when they had not betrayed her. She recalled now with an intolerable self-contempt her thoughts of her father at the time of the funeral and the hours that followed. It seemed to her now that she had only softened towards his memory because she had believed that he had left her money—and now, when she saw that he had treated her contemptuously, she found him once again the cruel, mean figure that she had before thought him.
For that she most bitterly, with an intensity that only her loneliness could have given her, despised herself. And yet something else in her knew that that reproach was not a true one. She had really softened towards him only because she had felt that she had behaved badly towards him, and the discovery now that he had behaved badly towards her did not alter her own original behaviour. She did not analyse all this; she only knew that there were in her longings for affection, a desire to be loved, an aching for companionship, and that these things must always be kept down, fast hidden within her. She realised her loneliness now with a fierce, proud, almost exultant independence. No more tears, no more leaning upon others, no more expecting anything from anybody. She was not dramatic in her new independence; she did not cry defiance to the golden mist or the larks or the hidden sun; she only walked on and on, stumping forward in her clumsy boots, her eyes hard and unseeing, her hands clasped behind her back.
Her expectation of happiness in her opening life that had been so strong with her that other day when she had looked down upon Polchester was gone. She expected nothing, she wanted nothing. Her only thought was that she would never yield to any one, never care for any one, never give to any one the opportunity of touching her. At moments through the mist came the figure of the cook, stout, florid, triumphant. Maggie regarded her contemptuously. "You cannot touch me," she thought. Of her father she would never think again. With both hands she flung all her memories of him into the mist to be lost for ever ...
She came suddenly upon a lonely farm-house. She knew the place, Borhedden; it had often been a favourite walk of hers from the Vicarage to Borhedden. The farmer let rooms there and, because the house was very old, some of the rooms were fine, with high ceilings, thick stone walls, and even some good panelling. The view too was superb, across to the Broads and the Molecatcher, or back to the Dreot Woods, or to the dim towers of Polchester Cathedral. The air here was fine—one of the healthiest spots in Glebeshire.
The farm to-day was transfigured by the misty glow; cows and horses could be faintly seen, ricks burnt with a dim fire. Somewhere dripping water falling on to stone gave a vocal spirit to the obscurity. The warm air seemed to radiate about the house like a flame that is obscured by sunlight.
The stealthy movements of the animals, the dripping of the water, were the only sounds. To Maggie the house seemed to say something, something comforting and reassuring.
Standing there, she registered her vow that through all her life she would care for no one. No one should touch her.
Had there been an observer he might have found some food for his irony in the contemplation of that small, insignificant figure so ignorant of life and so defiant of it. He would have found perhaps something pathetic also. Maggie thought neither of irony nor of pathos, but turned homewards with her mouth set, her eyes grave, her heart controlled.
As she walked back the sun broke through the mist, and, turning, she could see Borhedden like a house on fire, its windows blazing against the sky.
It was natural that her aunt should wish to return to London as soon as possible. For one thing, Ellen the cook had packed her clothes and retired to some place in the village, there to await the departure of the defeated family. Then the house was not only unpleasant by reason of its atmosphere and associations, but there were also the definite discomforts of roofs through which the rain dripped and floors that swayed beneath one's tread. Moreover, Aunt Elizabeth did not care to be left alone in the London house.
Uncle Mathew left on the day after the funeral. He had one little last conversation with Maggie.
"I hope you'll be happy in London," he said.
"I hope so," said Maggie.
"I know you'll do what you can to help your aunts." Then he went on more nervously. "Think of me sometimes. I shan't be able to come and see you very often, you know—too busy. But I shall like to know that you're thinking about me."
Maggie's new-found resolution taken so defiantly upon the moor was suddenly severely tested. She felt as though her uncle were leaving her to a world of enemies. She drove down her sense of desolation, and he saw nothing but her quiet composure.
"Of course I'll think of you," she answered. "And you must come often."
"They don't like me," he said, nodding his head towards where Aunt Anne might be supposed to be waiting. "It's not my fault altogether—but they have severe ideas. It's religion, of course."
She suddenly seemed to see in his eyes some terror or despair, as though he knew that he was going to drop "this time"—farther than ever before.
She caught his arm. "Uncle Mathew, what are you going to do? Where will you live? Take my three hundred pounds if it will help you. I don't want it just now. Keep it for me."
He had a moment of resolute, clear-sighted honesty. "No, my dear, if I had it it would go in a week. I can't keep money; I never could. I'm really better without any. I'm all right. You'll never get rid of me—don't you fear. We've got more in common than you think, although you're a good girl and I've gone to pieces a bit. All the same there's plenty worse than me. Your aunt, for all her religion, is damned difficult for a plain man to get along with. Most people would find me better company, after all. One last word, Maggie."
He bent down and whispered to her. "Don't you go getting caught by that sweep who runs their chapel up in London. He's a humbug if ever there was one—you mark my words. I know a thing or two. He's done your aunts a lot of harm, and he'll have his dirty fingers on you if you let him."
So he departed, his last kiss mingled with the usual aroma of whisky and tobacco, his last attitude, as he turned away, that strange confusion of assumed dignity and natural genial stupidity that was so especially his.
Maggie turned, with all her new defiant resolution, to face the world alone with her Aunt Anne. Throughout the next day she was busied with collecting her few possessions, with her farewells to the one or two people in the village who had been kind to her, and with little sudden, almost surreptitious visits to corners of the house, the garden, the wood where she had at one time or another been happy.
As the evening fell and a sudden storm of rain leapt up from beneath the hill and danced about the house, she had a wild longing to stay—to stay at any cost and in any discomfort. London had no longer interest, but only terror and dismay. She ran out into the dark and rain-drenched garden, felt her way to an old and battered seat that had seen in older days dolls' tea-parties and the ravages of bad-temper, stared from it across the kitchen-garden to the lights of the village, that seemed to rock and shiver in the wind and rain.
She stared passionately at the lights, her heart beating as though it would suffocate her. At last, her clothes soaked with the storm, her hair dripping, she returned to the house. Her aunt was in the hall.
"My dear Maggie, where have you been?" in a voice that was kind but aghast.
"In the garden," said Maggie, hating her aunt.
"But it's pouring with rain! You're soaking! You must change at once! Did you go out to find something?"
Maggie made no answer. She stood there, her face sulky and closed, the water dripping from her. Afterwards, as she changed her clothes, she reflected that there had been many occasions during these three days when her aunt would have felt irritation with her had she known her longer. She had always realised that she was careless, that when she should be thinking of one thing she thought of another, that her housekeeping and management of shops and servants had been irregular and undisciplined, but until now she had not sharply surveyed her weaknesses. Since the coming of her aunt she had been involved in a perfect network of little blunders; she had gone out of the room without shutting the door, had started into the village on an errand, and then, when she was there, had forgotten what it was; there had been holes in her stockings and rents in her blouses. After Ellen's departure she had endeavoured to help in the kitchen, but had made so many mistakes that Aunt Anne and the kitchen-maid had been compelled to banish her. She now wondered how during so many years she had run the house at all, but then her father had cared about nothing so that money was not wasted. She knew that Aunt Anne excused her mistakes just now because of the shock of her father's death and the events that followed it, but Maggie knew also that these faults were deep in her character. She could explain it quite simply to herself by saying that behind the things that she saw there was always something that she did not see, something of the greatest importance and just beyond her vision; in her efforts to catch this farther thing she forgot what was immediately in front of her. It had always been so. Since a tiny child she had always supposed that the shapes and forms with which she was presented were only masks to hide the real thing. Such a view might lend interest to life, but it certainly made one careless; and although Uncle Mathew might understand it and put it down to the Cardinal imagination, she instinctively knew that Aunt Anne, unless Maggie definitely attributed it to religion, would be dismayed and even, if it persisted, angered. Maggie had not, after all, the excuse and defence of being a dreamy child. With her square body and plain face, her clear, unspeculative eyes, her stolid movements, she could have no claim to dreams. With a sudden desolate pang Maggie suspected that Uncle Mathew was the only person who would ever understand her. Well, then, she must train herself.