E-text prepared by Robin Eugene Escovado
THE LAUREL BUSH
An Old-Fashioned Love Story
DINAH MARIA MULOCK CRAIK
Author of John Halifax, Gentleman, &c., &c., &c.
It was a very ugly bush indeed; that is, so far as any thing in nature can be really ugly. It was lopsided—having on the one hand a stunted stump or two, while on the other a huge heavy branch swept down to the gravel-walk. It had a crooked gnarled trunk or stem, hollow enough to entice any weak-minded bird to build a nest there—only it was so near to the ground, and also to the garden gate. Besides, the owners of the garden, evidently of practical mind, had made use of it to place between a fork in its branches a sort of letter-box—not the government regulation one, for twenty years ago this had not been thought of; but a rough receptacle, where, the house being a good way off, letters might be deposited, instead of; as hitherto, in a hole in the trunk—near the foot of the tree, and under shelter of its mass of evergreen leaves.
This letter-box; made by the boys of the family at the instigation and with the assistance of their tutor, had proved so attractive to some exceedingly incautious sparrow that during the intervals of the post she had begun a nest there, which was found by the boys. Exceedingly wild boys they were, and a great trouble to their old grandmother, with whom they were staying the summer, and their young governess—"Misfortune," as they called her, her real name being Miss Williams—Fortune Williams. The nickname was a little too near the truth, as a keener observer than mischievous boys would have read in her quiet, sometimes sad, face; and it had been stopped rather severely by the tutor of the elder boys, a young man whom the grandmother had been forced to get, to "keep them in order!" He was a Mr. Robert Roy, once a student, now a teacher of the "humanities," from the neighboring town—I beg its pardon—city; and a lovely old city it is!—of St. Andrews. Thence he was in the habit of coming to them three and often four days in the week, teaching of mornings and walking of afternoons. They had expected him this afternoon, but their grandmother had carried them off on some pleasure excursion; and being a lady of inexact habits—one, too, to whom tutors were tutors and nothing more—she had merely said to Miss Williams, as the carriage drove away, "When Mr. Roy comes, tell him he is not wanted till tomorrow."
And so Miss Williams had waited at the gate, not wishing him to have the additional trouble of walking up to the house, for she knew every minute of his time was precious. The poor and the hard-working can understand and sympathize with one another. Only a tutor and only a governess: Mrs. Dalziel drove away and never thought of them again. They were mere machines—servants to whom she paid their wages, and so that they did sufficient service to deserve these wages, she never interfered with them, nor, indeed, wasted a moment's consideration upon them or their concerns.
Consequently they were in the somewhat rare and peculiar position of a young man and young woman (perhaps Mrs. Dalziel would have taken exception to the words "young lady and young gentleman") thrown together day after day, week after week—nay, it had now become month after month—to all intents and purposes quite alone, except for the children. They taught together, there being but one school-room; walked out together, for the two younger boys refused to be separated from their older brothers; and, in short, spent two-thirds of their existence together, without let or hindrance, comment or observation, from any mortal soul.
I do not wish to make any mystery in this story. A young woman of twenty-five and a young man of thirty, both perfectly alone in the world—orphans, without brother or sister—having to earn their own bread, and earn it hardly, and being placed in circumstances where they had every opportunity of intimate friendship, sympathy, whatever you like to call it: who could doubt what would happen? The more so, as there was no one to suggest that it might happen; no one to watch them or warn them, or waken them with worldly-minded hints; or else to rise up, after the fashion of so many wise parents and guardians and well-intentioned friends, and indignantly shut the stable door after the steed is stolen.
No. That something which was so sure to happen had happened; you might have seen it in their eyes, have heard it in the very tone of their voices, though they still talked in a very commonplace way, and still called each other "Miss Williams" and "Mr. Roy." In fact, their whole demeanor to one another was characterized by the grave and even formal decorum which was natural to very reserved people, just trembling on the verge of that discovery which will unlock the heart of each to the other, and annihilate reserve forever between the two whom Heaven has designed and meant to become one; a completed existence. If by any mischance this does not come about, each may lead a very creditable and not unhappy life; but it will be a locked-up life, one to which no third person is ever likely to find the key.
Whether such natures are to envied or pitied is more than I can say; but at least they are more to be respected than the people who wear their hearts upon their sleeves for daws to peck at, and very often are all the prouder the more they are pecked at, and the more elegantly they bleed; which was not likely to be the case with either of these young folks, young as they were.
They were young, and youth is always interesting and even comely; but beyond that there was nothing remarkable about either. He was Scotch; she English, or rather Welsh. She had the clear blue Welsh eye, the funny retrousee Welsh nose; but with the prettiest little mouth underneath it—firm, close, and sweet; full of sensitiveness, but a sensitiveness that was controlled and guided by that best possession to either man or woman, a good strong will. No one could doubt that the young governess had, what was a very useful thing to a governess, "a will of her own;" but not a domineering or obnoxious will, which indeed is seldom will at all, but merely obstinacy.
For the rest, Miss Williams was a little woman, or gave the impression of being so, from her slight figure and delicate hands and feet. I doubt if any one would have called her pretty, until he or she had learned to love her. For there are two distinct kinds of love, one in which the eye instructs the heart, and the other in which the heart informs and guides the eye. There have been men who, seeing an unknown beautiful face, have felt sure it implied the most beautiful soul in the world, pursued it, worshiped it, wooed and won it, found the fancy true, and loved the woman forever. Other men there are who would simply say, "I don't know if such a one is handsome or not; I only know she is herself—and mine." Both loves are good; nay, it is difficult to say which is best. But the latter would be the most likely to any one who became attached to Fortune Williams.
Also, perhaps to Robert Roy, though no one expects good looks in his sex; indeed, they are mostly rather objectionable. Women do not usually care for a very handsome man; and men are prone to set him down as conceited. No one could lay either charge to Mr. Roy. He was only an honest-looking Scotchman, tall and strong and manly. Not "red," in spite of his name, but dark-skinned and dark-haired; in no way resembling his great namesake, Rob Roy Macgregor, as the boys sometimes called him behind his back—never to his face. Gentle as the young man was, there was something about him which effectually prevented any one's taking the smallest liberty with him. Though he had been a teacher of boys ever since he was seventeen—and I have heard one of the fraternity confess that it is almost impossible to be a school-master for ten years without becoming a tyrant—still it was a pleasant and sweet-tempered face. Very far from a weak face, though; when Mr. Roy said a thing must be done, every one of his boys knew it must be done, and there was no use saying any more about it.
He had unquestionably that rare gift, the power of authority; though this did not necessarily imply self-control; for some people can rule every body except themselves. But Robert Roy's clear, calm, rather sad eye, and a certain patient expression about the mouth, implied that he too had enough of the hard training of life to be able to govern himself. And that is more difficult to a man than to a woman.
"all thy passions, matched with mine, Are as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine."
A truth which even Fortune's tender heart did not fully take in, deep as was her sympathy for him; for his toilsome, lonely life, lived more in shadow than in sunshine, and with every temptation to the selfishness which is so apt to follow self-dependence, and the bitterness that to a proud spirit so often makes the sting of poverty. Yet he was neither selfish nor bitter; only a little reserved, silent, and—except with children—rather grave.
She stood watching him now, for she could see him a long way off across the level Links, and noticed that he stopped more than once to look at the golf-players. He was a capital golfer himself, but had never any time to play. Between his own studies and the teaching by which he earned the money to prosecute them, every hour was filled up. So he turned his back on the pleasant pastime, which seems to have such an extraordinary fascination for those who pursue it, and came on to his daily work, with that resolute deliberate step, bent on going direct to his point and turning aside for nothing.
Fortune knew it well by this time; had learned to distinguish it from all others in the world. There are some footsteps which, by a pardonable poetical license, we say "we should hear in our graves," and though this girl did not think of that, for death looked far off, and she was scarcely a poetical person, still, many a morning, when, sitting at her school-room window, she heard Mr. Roy coming steadily down the gravel-walk, she was conscious of—something that people can not feel twice in a life-time.
And now, when he approached with that kind smile of his, which brightened into double pleasure when he saw who was waiting for him, she was aware of a wild heartbeat, a sense of exceeding joy, and then of relief and rest. He was "comfortable" to her. She could express it in no other way. At sight of his face and at sound of his voice all worldly cares and troubles, of which she had a good many, seemed to fall off. To be with him was like having an arm to lean on, a light to walk by; and she had walked alone so long.
"Good-afternoon, Miss Williams."
"Good-afternoon, Mr. Roy."
They said no more than that, but the stupidest person in the world might have seen that they were glad to meet, glad to be together. Though neither they nor any one else could have explained the mysterious fact, the foundation of all love stories in books or in life—and which the present author owns, after having written many books and seen a great deal of life, is to her also as great a mystery as ever—Why do certain people like to be together? What is the inexplicable attraction which makes them seek one another, suit one another, put up with one another's weaknesses, condone one another's faults (when neither are too great to lessen love), and to the last day of life find a charm in one another's society which extends to no other human being. Happy love or lost love, a full world or an empty world, life with joy or life without it—that is all the difference. Which some people think very small, and that does not matter; and perhaps it does not—to many people. But it does to some, and I incline to put in that category Miss Williams and Mr. Roy.
They stood by the laurel bush, having just shaken hands more hastily than they usually did; but the absence of the children, and the very unusual fact of their being quite alone, gave to both a certain shyness, and she had drawn her hand away, saying, with a slight blush:
"Mrs. Dalziel desired me to meet you and tell you that you might have a holiday today. She has taken her boys with her to Elie. I dare say you will not be sorry to gain an hour or two for yourself; though I am sorry you should have the trouble of the walk for nothing."
"For nothing?"—with the least shadow of a smile, not of annoyance, certainly.
"Indeed, I would have let you know if I could, but she decided at the very last minute; and if I had proposed that a messenger should have been sent to stop you, I am afraid—it would not have been answered."
"Of course not;" and they interchanged an amused look—these fellow-victims to the well-known ways of the household—which, however, neither grumbled at; it was merely an outside thing, this treatment of both as mere tutor and governess. After all (as he sometimes said, when some special rudeness—not himself, but to her—vexed him), they were tutor and governess; but they were something else besides; something which, the instant their chains were lifted off, made them feel free and young and strong, and comforted them with comfort unspeakable.
"She bade me apologize. No, I am afraid, if I tell the absolute truth, she did not bid me, but I do apologize."
"What for, Miss Williams?"
"For your having been brought out all this way just to go back again."
"I do not mind it, I assure you."
"And as for the lost lesson—"
"The boys will not mourn over it, I dare say. In fact, their term with me is so soon coming to an end that it does not signify much. They told me they are going back to England to school next week. Do you go back too?"
"Not just yet—not till next Christmas. Mrs. Dalziel talks of wintering in London; but she is so vague in her plans that I am never sure from one week to another what she will do."
"And what are your plans? You always know what you intend to do."
"Yes, I think so," answered Miss Williams, smiling. "One of the few things I remember of my mother was hearing her say of me, that 'her little girl was a little girl who always knew her own mind.' I think I do. I may not be always able to carry it out, but I think I know it."
"Of course," said Mr. Roy, absently and somewhat vaguely, as he stood beside the laurel bush, pulling one of its shiny leaves to pieces, and looking right ahead, across the sunshiny Links, the long shore of yellow sands, where the mermaids might well delight to come and "take hands"—to the smooth, dazzling, far-away sea. No sea is more beautiful than that at St. Andrews.
Its sleepy glitter seemed to have lulled Robert Roy into a sudden meditation, of which no word of his companion came to rouse him. In truth, she, never given much to talking, simply stood, as she often did, silently beside him, quite satisfied with the mere comfort of his presence.
I am afraid that this Fortune Williams will be considered a very weak-minded young woman. She was not a bit a coquette, she had not the slightest wish to flirt with any man. Nor was she a proud beauty desirous to subjugate the other sex; and drag them triumphantly at her chariot wheels. She did not see the credit, or the use, or the pleasure of any such proceeding. She was a self-contained, self-dependent woman. Thoroughly a woman; not indifferent at all to womanhood's best blessing; still she could live without it if necessary, as she could have lived without anything which it had pleased God to deny her. She was not a creature likely to die for love, or do wrong for love, which some people think the only test of love's strength, instead of its utmost weakness; but that she was capable of love, for all her composure and quietness, capable of it, and ready for it, in its intensest, most passionate, and most enduring form, the God who made her knew, if no one else did.
Her time would come; indeed, had come already. She had too much self-respect to let him guess it, but I am afraid she was very fond of—or, if that is a foolish phrase, deeply attached to—Robert Roy. He had been so good to her, at once strong and tender, chivalrous, respectful, and kind; and she had no father, no brother, no other man at all to judge him by, except the accidental men whom she had met in society, creatures on two legs who wore coats and trousers, who had been civil to her, as she to them, but who had never interested her in the smallest degree, perhaps because she knew so little of them. But no; it would have been just the same had she known them a thousand years. She was not "a man's woman," that is, one of those women who feel interested in any thing in the shape of a man, and make men interested in them accordingly, for the root of much masculine affection is pure vanity. That celebrated Scottish song,
"Come deaf, or come blind, or come cripple, O come, ony ane o' them a'! Far better be married to something, Than no to be married ava,"
was a rhyme that would never have touched the stony heart of Fortune Williams. And yet, let me own it once more, she was very, very fond of Robert Roy. He had never spoken to her one word of love, actual love, no more than he spoke now, as they stood side by side, looking with the same eyes on the same scene. I say the same eyes, for they were exceedingly alike in their tastes. There was no need ever to go into long explanations about this or that; a glance sufficed, or a word, to show each what the other enjoyed; and both had the quiet conviction that they were enjoying it together. Now as that sweet, still, sunshiny view met their mutual gaze, they fell into no poetical raptures, but just stood and looked, taking it all in with exceeding pleasure, as they had done many and many a time, but never, it seemed, so perfectly as now.
"What a lovely afternoon!" she said at last.
"Yes. It is a pity to waste it. Have you any thing special to do? What did you mean to employ yourself with, now your birds are flown?"
"Oh, I can always find something to do."
"But need you find it? We both work so hard. If we could only now and then have a little bit of pleasure!"
He put it so simply, yet almost with a sigh. This poor girl's heart responded to it suddenly, wildly. She was only twenty-five, yet sometimes she felt quite old, or rather as if she had never been young. The constant teaching, teaching of rough boys too—for she had had the whole four till Mr. Roy took the two elder off her hands—the necessity of grinding hard out of school hours to keep herself up in Latin, Euclid, and other branches which do not usually form a part of a feminine education, only having a great natural love of work, she had taught herself—all these things combined to make her life a dull life, a hard life, till Robert Roy came into it. And sometimes even now the desperate craving to enjoy—not only to endure, but to enjoy—to take a little of the natural pleasures of her age—came to the poor governess very sorely, especially on days such as this, when all the outward world looked so gay, so idle, and she worked so hard.
So did Robert Roy. Life was not easier to him than to herself; she knew that; and when he said, half joking, as if he wanted to feel his way, "Let us imitate our boys, and take a half holiday," she only laughed, but did not refuse.
How could she refuse? There were the long smooth sands on either side the Eden, stretching away into indefinite distance, with not a human being upon them to break their loneliness, or, if there was, he or she looked a mere dot, not human at all. Even if these two had been afraid of being seen walking together—which they hardly were, being too unimportant for any one to care whether they were friends or lovers, or what not—there was nobody to see them, except in the character of two black dots on the yellow sands.
"It is low water; suppose we go and look for sea-anemones. One of my pupils wants some, and I promised to try and find one the first spare hour I had."
"But we shall not find anemones on the sands."
"Shells, then, you practical woman! We'll gather shells. It will be all the same to that poor invalid boy—and to me," added he, with that involuntary sigh which she had noticed more than once, and which had begun to strike on her ears not quite painfully. Sighs, when we are young, mean differently to what they do in after-years. "I don't care very much where I go, or what I do; I only want—well, to be happy for an hour, if Providence will let me."
"Why should not Providence let you?" said Fortune, gently. "Few people deserve it more."
"You are kind to think so; but you are always kind to every body."
By this time they had left their position by the laurel bush, and were walking along side by side, according as he had suggested. This silent, instinctive acquiescence in what he wished done—it had happened once or twice before, startling her a little at herself; for, as I have said, Miss Williams was not at all the kind of person to do every thing that every body asked her, without considering whether it was right or wrong. She could obey, but it would depend entirely upon whom she had to obey, which, indeed, makes the sole difference between loving disciples and slavish fools.
It was a lovely day, one of those serene autumn days peculiar to Scotland—I was going to say Saint Andrews; and any one who knows the ancient city will know exactly how it looks in the still, strongly spiritualized light of such an afternoon, with the ruins, the castle, cathedral, and St. Regulus's tower standing out sharply against the intensely blue sky, and on the other side—on both sides—the yellow sweep of sand curving away into the distance, and melting into the sunshiny sea.
Many a time, in their prescribed walks with their young tribe, Miss Williams and Mr. Roy had taken this stroll across the Links and round by the sands to the mouth of the Eden, leaving behind them a long and sinuous track of many footsteps, little and large, but now there were only two lines—"foot-prints on the sands of Time," as he jestingly called them, turning round and pointing to the marks of the dainty feet that walked so steadily and straightly beside his own.
"They seem made to go together, those two tracks," said he.
Why did he say it? Was he the kind of man to talk thus without meaning it? If so, alas! she was not exactly the woman to be thus talked to. Nothing fell on her lightly. Perhaps it was her misfortune, perhaps even her fault, but so it was.
Robert Roy did not "make love;" not at all. Possibly he never could have done it in the ordinary way. Sweet things, polite things were very difficult to him either to do or to say. Even the tenderness that was in him came out as if by accident; but, oh! how infinitely tender he could be! Enough to make any one who loved him die easily, quietly, if only just holding his hand.
There is an incident in Dickens's touching Tale of two Cities, where a young man going innocent to the guillotine, and riding on the death-cart with a young girl whom he had never before seen, is able to sustain and comfort her, even to the last awful moment, by the look of his face and the clasp of his hand. That man, I have often thought, must have been something not unlike Robert Roy.
Such men are rare, but they do exist; and it was Fortune's lot, or she believed it was, to have found one. That was enough. She went along the shining sands in a dream of perfect content, perfect happiness, thinking—and was it strange or wrong that she should so think?—that if it were God's will she should thus walk through life, the thorniest path would seem smooth, the hardest road easy. She had no fear of life, if lived beside him; or of death—love is stronger than death; at least this sort of love, of which only strong natures are capable, and out of which are made, not the lyrics, perhaps, but the epics, the psalms, or the tragedies of our mortal existence.
I have explained thus much about these two friends—lovers that may be, or might have been—because they never would have done it themselves. Neither was given to much speaking. Indeed, I fear their conversation this day, if recorded, would have been of the most feeble kind—brief, fragmentary, mere comments on the things about them, or abstract remarks not particularly clever or brilliant. They were neither of them what you would call brilliant people; yet they were happy, and the hours flew by like a few minutes, until they found themselves back again beside the laurel bush at the gate, when Mr. Roy suddenly said:
"Do not go in yet. I mean, need you go in? It is scarcely past sunset; the boys will not be home for an hour yet; they don't want you, and I—I want you so. In your English sense," he added, with a laugh, referring to one of their many arguments, scholastic or otherwise, wherein she had insisted that to want meant Anglice, to wish or to crave, whereas in Scotland it was always used like the French manquer, to miss or to need.
"Shall we begin that fight over again?" asked she, smiling; for every thing, even fighting, seemed pleasant today.
"No, I have no wish to fight; I want to consult you seriously on a purely personal matter, if you would not mind taking that trouble."
Fortune looked sorry. That was one of the bad things in him (the best man alive have their bad things), the pride which apes humility, the self-distrust which often wounds another so keenly. Her answer was given with a grave and simple sincerity that ought to have been reproach enough.
"Mr. Roy, I would not mind any amount of trouble if I could be of use to you; you know that."
"Forgive me! Yes, I do know it. I believe in you and your goodness to the very bottom of my heart."
She tried to say "Thank you," but her lips refused to utter a word. It was so difficult to go on talking like ordinary friends, when she knew, and he must know she knew, that one more word would make them—not friends at all—something infinitely better, closer, dearer; but that word was his to speak, not hers. There are women who will "help a man on"—propose to him, marry him indeed—while he is under the pleasing delusion that he does it all himself; but Fortune Williams was not one of these. She remained silent and passive, waiting for the next thing he should say. It came: something the shock of which she never forgot as long as she lived; and he said it with his eyes on her face, so that, if it killed her, she must keep quiet and composed, as she did.
"You know the boys' lessons end next week. The week after I go—that is, I have almost decided to go—to India."
"Yes, For which, no doubt, you think me very changeable, having said so often that I meant to keep to a scholar's life, and be a professor one day, perhaps, if by any means I could get salt to my porridge. Well, now I am not satisfied with salt to my porridge; I wish to get rich."
She did not say, "Why?" She thought she had not looked it; but he answered: "Never mind why. I do wish it, and I will be rich yet, if I can. Are you very much surprised?"
Surprised she certainly was; but she answered, honestly, "Indeed, you are the last person I should suspect of being worldly-minded."
"Thank you; that is kind. No, just; merely just. One ought to have faith in people; I am afraid my own deficiency is want of faith. It takes so much to make me believe for a moment that any one cares for me."
How hard it was to be silent—harder still to speak! But she did not speak.
"I can understand that; I have often felt the same. It is the natural consequence of a very lonely life. If you and I had had fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters, we might have been different."
"Perhaps so. But about India. For a long time—that is, for many weeks—I have been casting about in my mind how to change my way of life, to look out for something that would help me to earn money, and quickly, but there seemed no chance whatever. Until suddenly one has opened."
And then he explained how the father of one of one of his pupils, grateful for certain benefits, which Mr. Roy did not specify, and noticing certain business qualities in him—"which I suppose I have, though I didn't know it," added he, with a smile—had offered him a situation in a merchant's office at Calcutta: a position of great trust and responsibility, for three years certain, with the option of then giving it up or continuing it.
"And continuing means making a fortune. Even three years means making something, with my 'stingy' habits. Only I must go at once. Nor is there any time left me for my decision; it must be yes or no. Which shall it be?"
The sudden appeal—made, too, as if though it was nothing—that terrible yes or no, which to her made all the difference of living or only half living, of feeling the sun in or out of the world. What could she answer? What could she answer? Trembling violently, she yet answered, in a steady voice, "You must decide for yourself. A woman can not understand a man."
"Nor a man a woman, thoroughly. There is only one thing which helps both to comprehend one another."
One thing! she knew what it was. Surely so did he. But that strange distrustfulness of which he had spoken, or the hesitation which the strongest and bravest men have at times, came between.
"Oh, the little more, and how much it is! Oh, the little less, and what worlds away!"
If, instead of looking vaguely out upon the sea, he had looked into this poor girl's face; if, instead of keeping silence, he had only spoken one word! But he neither looked nor spoke, and the moment passed by. And there are some moments which people would sometimes give a whole lifetime to recall and use differently; but in vain.
"My engagement is only for three years," he resumed; "and, if alive, I mean to come back. Dead or alive, I was going to say, but you would not care to see my ghost, I presume? I beg your pardon: I ought not to make a joke of such serious things."
"No, you ought not."
She felt herself almost speechless, that in another minute she might burst into sobs. He saw it—at least he saw a very little of it, and misinterpreted the rest.
"I have tired you. Take my arm. You will soon be at home now." Then, after a pause, "You will not be displeased at any thing I have said? We part friends? No, we do not part; I shall see you every day for a week, and be able to tell you all particulars of my journey, if you care to hear."
"Thank you, yes—I do care."
They stood together, arm in arm. The dews were falling; a sweet, soft lilac haze had begun to creep over the sea—the solemn; far-away sea that he was so soon to cross. Involuntarily she clung to his arm. So near, yet so apart! Why must it be? She could have borne his going away, if it was for his good, if he wished it; and something whispered to her that this sudden desire to get rich was not for himself alone. But, oh! If he would only speak! One word—one little word! After that, any thing might come—the separation of life, the bitterness of death. To the two hearts that had once opened each to each, in the full recognition of mutual love, there could never more be any real parting.
But that one word he did not say. He only took the little hand that lay on his arm and pressed it, and held it—years after, the feeling of that clasp was as fresh on her fingers as yesterday—the hearing the foot of some accidental passer-by, he let it go, and did not take it again.
Just at this moment the sound of distant carriage wheels was heard.
"That must be Mrs. Dalziel and the boys."
"Then I had better go. Good-by"
The daydream was over. It had all come back again—the forlorn, dreary, hard-working world.
"Good-by, Mr. Roy." And they shook hands.
"One word," he said hastily. "I shall write to you—you will allow me?—and I shall see you several times, a good many times before I go?"
"I hope so."
"Then, for the present, good-by. That means," he added, earnestly, "'God be with you!' And I know he always will."
In another minute Fortune found herself standing beside the laurel bush, alone, listening to the sound of Mr. Roy's footsteps down the road—listening, listening, as if, with the exceeding tension, her brain would burst.
The carriage came, passed by; it was not Mrs. Dalziel's after all. She thought he might discover this, and come back again; so she waited a little—five minutes, ten—beside the laurel bush. But he did not come. No footstep, no voice; nothing but the faint, far-away sound of the long waves washing in upon the sands.
It was not the brain that felt like to burst now, but the heart. She clasped her hands above her head. It did not matter; there was no creature to see or hear that appeal—was it to man or God?—that wild, broken sob, so contrary to her usual self-controlled and self-contained nature. And then she learned her forehead against the gate, just where Robert Roy had accidentally laid his hand in opening it, and wept bitterly.
The "every day" on which Mr. Roy had reckoned for seeing his friend, or whatsoever else he considered Miss Williams to be, proved a failure. Her youngest pupil fell ill, and she was kept beside him, and away from the school-room, until the doctor could decide whether the illness was infectious or not. It turned out to be very trifling—a most trivial thing altogether, yet weighted with a pain most difficult to bear, a sense of fatality that almost overwhelmed one person at least. What the other felt she did not know. He came daily as usual; she watched him come and go, and sometimes he turned and they exchanged a greeting from the window. But beyond that, she had to take all passively. What could she, only a woman, do or say or plan? Nothing. Women's business is to sit down and endure.
She had counted these days—Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday—as if they had been years. And now they were all gone, had fled like minutes, fled emptily away. A few fragmentary facts she had had to feed on, communicated by the boys in their rough talk.
"Mr. Roy was rather cross today."
"Not cross, Dick—only dull."
"Mr. Roy asked why David did not come in to lessons, and said he hoped he would be better by Saturday."
"Mr. Roy said good-by to us all, and gave us each something to remember him by when he was out in India. Did Miss Williams know he was going out to India? Oh, how jolly!"
"Yes, and he sails next week, and the name of his ship is the Queen of the South, and he goes by Liverpool instead of Southampton, because it costs less; and he leaves St. Andrews on Monday morning."
"Are you sure he said Monday morning?" For that was Saturday night.
"Certain, because he has to get his outfit still. Oh, what fun it must be!"
And the boys went on, greatly excited, and repeating everything Mr. Roy had told them—for he had made them fond of him, even in those few months—expatiating with delight on his future career, as a merchant or something, they did not quite know what; but no doubt it would be far nicer and more amusing than stopping at home and grinding forever on horrid books. Didn't Miss Williams think so?
Miss Williams only smiled. She knew how all his life he had loved "those horrid books," preferring them to pleasure, recreation, almost to daily bread; how he had lived on the hope that one day he—born only a farmer's son—might do something, write something. "I also am of Arcadia." He might have done it or not—the genius may or may not have been there; but the ambition certainly was. Could he have thrown it all aside? And Why?
Not for mere love of money; she knew him too well for that. He was a thorough book-worm, simple in all his tastes and habits—simple almost to penuriousness; but it was a penuriousness born of hard fortunes, and he never allowed it to affect any body but himself. Still, there was no doubt he did not care for money, or luxury, or worldly position—any of the things that lesser men count large enough to work and struggle and die for. To give up the pursuits he loved, deliberately to choose others, to change his whole life thus, and expatriate himself, as it were, for years—perhaps for always—why did he do it, or for whom?
Was it for a woman? Was it for her? If ever, in those long empty days and wakeful nights, this last thought entered Fortune's mind, she stifled it as something which, once to have fully believed and then disbelieved would have killed her.
That she should have done the like for him—that or any thing else involving any amount of heroism or self-sacrifice—well, it was natural, right; but that he should do it for her? That he should change his whole purpose of life that he might be able to marry quickly, to shelter in his bosom a poor girl who was not able to fight the world as a man could, the thing—not so very impossible, after all—seemed to her almost incredible! And yet (I am telling a mere love story, remember—a foolish, innocent love story, without apologizing for either the folly or the innocence) sometimes she was so far "left to herself," as the Scotch say, that she did believe it: in the still twilights, in the wakeful nights, in the one solitary half hour of intense relief, when, all her boys being safe in bed, she rushed out into the garden under the silent stars to sob, to moan, to speak out loud words which nobody could possibly hear.
"He is going away, and I shall never see him again. And I love him better than any thing in all this world. I couldn't help it—he couldn't help it. But, oh! It's hard—hard!"
And then, altogether breaking down, she would begin to cry like a child. She missed him so, even this week, after having for weeks and months been with him every day; but it was less like a girl missing her lover—who was, after all, not her lover—than a child mourning helplessly for the familiar voice, the guiding, helpful hand. With all the rest of the world Fortune Williams was an independent, energetic woman, self-contained, brave, and strong, as a solitary governess had need to be; but beside Robert Roy she felt like a child, and she cried for him like a child,
"And with no language but a cry."
So the week ended and Sunday came, kept at Mrs. Dalziel's like the Scotch Sundays of twenty years ago. No visitor ever entered the house, wherein all the meals were cold and the blinds drawn down, as if for a funeral. The family went to church for the entire day, St. Andrews being too far off for any return home "between sermons." Usually one servant was left in charge, turn and turn about; but this Sunday Mrs. Dalziel, having put the governess in the nurse's place beside the ailing child, thought shrewdly she might as well put her in the servant's place too, and let her take charge of the kitchen fire as well as of little David. Being English, Miss Williams was not so exact about "ordinances" as a Scotch woman would have been; so Mrs. Dalziel had no hesitation in asking her to remain at home alone the whole day in charge of her pupil.
Thus faded, Fortune thought, her last hope of seeing Robert Roy again, either at church—where he usually sat in the Dalziel pew, by the old lady's request, to make the boys "behave"—or walking down the street, where he sometimes took the two eldest to eat their "piece" at his lodgings. All was now ended; yet on the hope—or dread—of this last Sunday she had hung, she now felt with what intensity, till it was gone.
Fortune was the kind of woman who, were it given her to fight, could fight to the death, against fate or circumstances; but when her part was simply passive, she could also endure. Not, as some do, with angry grief or futile resistance, but with a quiet patience so complete that only a very quick eye would have found out she was suffering at all.
Little David did not, certainly. When hour after hour, she sat by his sofa, interesting him as best she could in the dull "good" books which alone were allowed of Sundays, and then passing into word-of-mouth stories—the beautiful Bible stories over which her own voice trembled while she told them—Ruth, with her piteous cry, "Whither thou goest, I will go; where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried;" Jonathan, whose soul "clave to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul"—all these histories of passionate fidelity and agonized parting—for every sort of love is essentially the same—how they went to her heart.
Oh, the awful quietness of that Sunday, that Sabbath which was not rest, in which the hours crawled on in sunshiny stillness, neither voices nor steps nor sounds of any kind breaking the death-like hush of everything. At length the boy fell asleep; and then Fortune seemed to wake up for the first time to the full consciousness of what was and what was about to be.
All of a sudden she heard steps on the gravel below; then the hall bell rang through the silent house. She knew who it was even before she opened the door and saw him standing there.
"May I come in? They told me you were keeping house alone, and I said I should just walk over to bid you and Davie good-by."
Roy's manner was grave and matter-of-fact—a little constrained, perhaps, but not much—and he looked so exceedingly pale and tired that; without any hesitation, she took him into the school-room, where they were sitting, and gave him the arm-chair by Davie's sofa.
"Yes, I own to being rather overdone; I have had so much to arrange, for I must leave here tomorrow, as I think you know."
"The boys told me."
"I thought they would. I should have done it myself, but every day I hoped to see you. It was this fellow's fault, I suppose," patting Davie's head. "He seems quite well now, and as jolly as possible. You don't know what it is to say 'Good-by,' David, my son." Mr. Roy, who always got on well with children, had a trick of calling his younger pupils "My Son."
"Why do you say 'good-by' at all, then!" asked the child, a mischievous but winning young scamp of six or seven, who had as many tricks as a monkey or a magpie. In fact, in chattering and hiding things he was nearly as bad as a magpie, and the torment of his governess's life; yet she was fond of him. "Why do you bid us good-by, Mr. Roy? Why don't you stay always with Miss Williams and me?"
"I wish to God I could."
She heard that, heard it distinctly, though it was spoken beneath his breath; and she felt the look, turned for one moment upon her as she stood by the window. She never forgot either—never, as long as she lived. Some words, some looks, can deceive, perhaps quite unconsciously, by being either more demonstrative than was meant, or the exaggeration of coldness to hide its opposite; but sometimes a glance, a tone, betrays, or rather reveals, the real truth in a manner that nothing afterward can ever falsify. For one instant, one instant only, Fortune felt sure, quite sure, that in some way or other she was very dear to Robert Roy. If the next minute he had taken her into his arms, and said or looked the words which, to an earnest-minded, sincere man like him, constitute a pledge for life, never to be disannulled or denied, she could have hardly have felt more completely his own.
But he did not say them; he said nothing at all; sat leaning his head on his hand, with an expression so weary, so sad, that all the coaxing ways of little Davie could hardly win from him more than a faint smile. He looked so old, too, and he was but just thirty. Only thirty—only twenty-five; and yet these two were bearing, seemed to have borne for years, the burden of life, feeling all its hardships and none of its sweetnesses. Would things ever change? Would he have the courage (it was his part, not hers) to make them change, at least in one way, by bringing about that heart-union which to all pure and true natures is consolation for every human woe?
"I wonder," he said, sitting down and taking David on his knee—"I wonder if it is best to bear things one's self, or to let another share the burden?"
Easily—oh, how easily!—could Fortune have answered this—have told him that, whether he wished it or not, two did really bear his burdens, and perhaps the one who bore it secretly and silently had not the lightest share. But she did not speak: it was not possible.
"How shall I hear of you Miss Williams?" he said, after a long silence. "You are not likely to leave the Dalziel family?"
"No," she answered; "and if I did, I could always be heard of, the Dalziels are so well known hereabouts. Still, a poor wandering governess easily drops out of people's memory."
"And a poor wandering tutor too. But I am not a tutor any more, and I hope I shall not be poor long. Friends can not lose one another; such friends as you and I have been. I will take care we shall not do it, that is, if—but never mind that. You have been very good to me, and I have often bothered you very much, I fear. You will be almost glad to get rid of me."
She might have turned upon him eyes swimming with tears—woman's tears—that engine of power which they say no man can ever resist; but I think, if so, a woman like Fortune would have scorned to use it. Those poor weary eyes, which could weep oceans alone under the stars, were perfectly dry now—dry and fastened on the ground, as she replied, in a grave steady voice,
"You do not believe that, else you would never have said it."
Her composure must have surprised him, for he looked suddenly up, then begged her pardon. "I did not hurt you, surely? We must not part with the least shadow of unkindness between us."
"No." She offered her hand, and he took it—gently, affectionately, but only affectionately. The one step beyond affection, which leads into another world, another life, he seemed determined not to pass.
For at least half an hour he sat there with David on his knee, or rising up restlessly to pace the room with David on his shoulder; but apparently not desiring the child's absence, rather wishing to keep him as a sort of barrier. Against what?—himself? And so minute after minute slipped by; and Miss Williams, sitting in her place by the window, already saw, dotting the Links, group after group of the afternoon church-goers wandering quietly home—so quietly, so happily, fathers and mothers and children, companions and friends—for whom was no parting and no pain.
Mr. Roy suddenly took out his watch. "I must go now; I see I have spent all but my last five minutes. Good-by, David, my lad; you'll be a big man, maybe, when I see you again. Miss Williams" (standing before her with an expression on his face such as she had never seen before), "before I go there was a question I had determined to ask you—a purely ethical question which a friend of mine has been putting to me, and I could not answer; that is, I could from the man's side, the worldly side. A woman might think differently."
"What is it?"
"Simply this. If a man has not a half-penny, ought he to ask a woman to share it? Rather an Irish way of putting the matter," with a laugh, not without bitterness, "but you understand. Ought he not to wait till he has at least something to offer besides himself: Is it not mean, selfish, cowardly, to bind a woman to all the chances or mischances of his lot, instead of fighting it out alone like a man: My friend thinks so, and I—I agree with him."
"Then why did you ask me."
The words, though low and clear, were cold and sharp—sharp with almost unbearable pain. Every atom of pride in her was roused. Whether he loved her and would not tell her so, or loved some other woman and wished her know it, it was all the same. He was evidently determined to go away free and leave her free; and perhaps many sensible men or women would say he was right in so doing.
"I beg your pardon," he said, almost humbly. "I ought not to have spoken of this at all. I ought just to have said 'Good-by,' and nothing more." And he took her hand.
There was on it one ring, not very valuable, but she always liked to wear it, as it had belonged to her mother. Robert Roy drew it off, and put it deliberately into his pocket.
"Give me this; you shall have it back again when I am dead, or you are married, whichever happens first. Do you understand?"
Putting David aside (indeed, he seemed for the first time to forget the boy's presence), he took her by the two hands and looked down into her face. Apparently he read something there, something which startled him, almost shocked him.
Irresolute, alas! Too late; for just then all the three Dalziel boys rushed into the house and the school-room, followed by their grandmother. The old lady looked a good deal surprised, perhaps a little displeased, fro on to the other.
Mr. Roy perceived it, and recovered himself in an instant, letting go Fortune's hands and placing himself in front of her, between her and Mrs. Dalziel. Long afterward she remembered that trivial act—remembered it with the tender gratitude of the protected toward the protector, if nothing more.
"You see, I came, as I told you I should, if possible, to bid Miss Williams good-by, and wee Davie. They both kindly admitted me, and we have had half an hour's merry chat, have we not Davie? Now, my man, good-by." He took up the little fellow and kissed him, and then extended his hand. "Good-by, Miss Williams. I hope your little pupils will value you as you deserve."
Then, with a courteous and formal farewell to the old lady, and a most uproarious one from the boys, he went to the door, but turned round, saying to the eldest boy, distinctly and clearly—though she was at the farther end of the room, she heard, and was sure he meant her to hear every word:
"By-the-by, Archy, there is something I was about to explain to Miss Williams. Tell her I will write it. She is quite sure to have a letter from me tomorrow—no, on Tuesday morning."
And so he went away, bravely and cheerily, the boys accompanying him to the gate, and shouting and waving their hats to him as he crossed the Links, until their grandmother reprovingly suggested that it was Sunday.
"But Mr. Roy does not go off to India every Sunday. Hurrah! I wish we were all going too. Three cheers for Mr. Roy." "Mr. Roy is a very fine fellow, and I hope he will do well," said Mrs. Dalziel, touched by their enthusiasm; also by some old memories, for, like many St. Andrews folk, she was strongly linked with India, and had sent off one-half of her numerous family to live or die there. There was something like a tear in her old eyes, though not for the young tutor; but it effectually kept her from either looking at or thinking of the governess. And she forgot them both immediately. They were merely the tutor and the governess.
As for the boys, they chattered vehemently all tea-time about Mr. Roy, and their envy of the "jolly" life he was going to; then their minds turned to their own affairs, and there was silence.
The kind of silence, most of us know it, when any one belonging to a household, or very familiar there, goes away on a long indefinite absence. At first there is little consciousness of absence at all; we are so constantly expecting the door to be opened for the customary presence that we scarcely even miss the known voice, or face, or hand. By-and-by, however, we do miss it, and there comes a general, loud, shallow lamentation which soon cures itself, and implies an easy and comfortable forgetfulness before long. Except with some, or possibly only one, who is, most likely the one who has never been heard to utter a word of regret, or seen to shed a single tear.
Miss Williams, now left sole mistress in the school room, gave her lessons as usual there that Monday morning, and walked with all four boys on the Links all afternoon. It was a very bright day, as beautiful as Sunday had been, and they communicated to her the interesting facts, learned at golfing that morning, that Mr. Roy and his portmanteau had been seen at Leuchars on the way to Burntisland, and he would likely have a good crossing, as the sea was very calm. There had lately been some equinoctial gales, which had interested the boys amazingly, and they calculated with ingenious pertinacity whether such gales were likely to occur again when Mr. Roy was in the Bay of Biscay, and, if his ship were wrecked, what he would be supposed to do. They were quite sure that he would conduct himself with great heroism, perhaps escape on a single plank, or a raft made by his own hands, and they consulted Miss Williams, who of course was peripatetic cyclopedia of all scholastic information, as to which port in France of Spain he was likely to be drifted to, supposing this exciting event did happen.
She answered their questions with her usual ready kindliness. She felt like a person in a dream, yet a not unhappy dream, for she still heard the voice, still felt the clasp of the strong, tender, sustaining hands. And tomorrow would be Tuesday.
Tuesday was a wet morning. The bright days were done. Soon after dawn Fortune had woke up and watched the sunrise, till a chill fog crept over the sea and blotted it out; then gradually blotted out the land also, the Links, the town, every thing. A regular St. Andrews "haar;" and St. Andrews people know what that is. Miss Williams had seen it once or twice before, but never so bad as this—blighting, penetrating, and so dense that you could hardly see your hand before you.
But Fortune scarcely felt it. She said to herself, "Today is Tuesday," which meant nothing to any one else, every thing to her. For she knew the absolute faithfulness, the careful accuracy, in great things and small, with which she had to do. If Robert Roy said, "I will write on such a day," he was as sure to write as that the day would dawn; that is, so far as his own will went; and will, not circumstance, is the strongest agent in this world.
Therefore she waited quietly for the postman's horn. It sounded at last.
"I'll go," cried Archy. "Just look at the haar! I shall have to grope my way to the gate."
He came back, after what seemed an almost endless time, rubbing his head and declaring he had nearly blinded himself by running right into the laurel bush.
"I couldn't see for the fog. I only hope I've left none of the letters behind. No, no; all right. Such a lot! It's the Indian mail. There's for you, and you, boys." He dealt them out with a merry, careless hand.
There was no letter for Miss Williams—a circumstance so usual that nobody noticed it or her, as she sat silent in her corner, while the children read noisily and gaily the letters from their far-away parents.
Her letter—what had befallen it? Had he forgotten to write? But Robert Roy never forgot any thing. Nor did he delay any thing that he could possibly do at the time he promised. He was one of the very few people in this world who in small things as in great are absolutely reliable. It seemed so impossible to believe he had not written, when he said he would, that as a last hope, she stole out with a plaid over her head and crept through the sidewalks of the garden, almost groping her way through the fog, and, like Archy, stumbling over the low boughs of the laurel bush to the letter-box it held. Her trembling hands felt in every corner, but no letter was there.
She went wearily back; weary at heart, but patient still. A love like hers, self-existent and sufficient to itself, is very patient, quite unlike the other and more common form of the passion; not love, but a diseased craving to be loved, which causes a thousand imaginary miseries and wrongs. Sharp was her pain, poor girl; but she was not angry, and after her first stab of disappointment her courage rose. All was well with him; he had been seen cheerily starting for Edinburgh; and her own temporary suffering was a comparatively a small thing. It could not last: the letter would come tomorrow.
But it did not, nor the next day, nor the next. On the fourth day her heart felt like to break.
I think, of all pains not mortal, few are worse than this small silent agony of waiting for the post; letting all the day's hope climax upon a single minute, which passes by, and the hope with it, and then comes another day of dumb endurance, if not despair. This even with ordinary letters upon which any thing of moment depends. With others, such as this letter of Robert Roy's—let us not speak of it. Some may imagine, others may have known, a similar suspense. They will understand why, long years afterward, Fortune Williams was heard to say, with a quiver of the lip that could have told its bitter tale, "No; when I have a letter to write, I never put off writing it for single day."
As these days wore on—these cruel days, never remembered without a shiver of pain, and of wonder that she could have lived through them at all—the whole fabric of reasons, arguments, excuses, that she had built up, for him and herself, gradually crumbled away. Had she altogether misapprehended the purport of his promised letter? Was it just some ordinary note, about her boys and their studies perhaps, which, after all, he had not thought it worthwhile to write? Yet surely it was worth while, if only to send a kindly and courteous farewell to a friend, after so close an intimacy and in face of so indefinite a separation.
A friend? Only a friend? Words may deceive, eyes seldom can. And there had been love in his eyes. Not mere liking, but actual love. She had seen it, felt it, with that almost unerring instinct that women have, whether they return the love or not. In the latter case, they seldom doubt it; in the former, they often do.
"Could I have been mistaken?" she thought, with a burning pang of shame. "Oh, why did he not speak—just one word? After that, I could have borne any thing."
But he had not spoken, had not written. He had let himself drop out of her life as completely as a falling star drops out of the sky, a ship sinks down in mid-ocean, or—any other poetical simile, used under such circumstances by romantic people.
Fortune Williams was not romantic; at least, what romance was in her lay deep down, and came out in act rather than word. She neither wept nor raved nor cultivated any external signs of a breaking heart. A little paler she grew, a little quieter, but nobody observed this: indeed, it came to be one of her deepest causes of thankfulness that there was nobody to observe any thing—that she had no living soul belonging to her, neither father, mother, brother, nor sister, to pity her or to blame him; since to think him either blamable or blamed would have been the sharpest torture she could have known.
She was saved that and some few other things by being only a governess, instead of one of Fate's cherished darlings, nestled in a family home. She had no time to grieve, except in the dead of night, when "the rain was on the roof." It so happened that, after the haar, there set in a season of continuous, sullen, depressing rain. But at night-time, and for the ten minutes between post hour and lesson hour—which she generally passed in her own room—if her mother, who died when she was ten-years old, could have seen her, she would have said, "My poor child."
Robert Roy had once involuntarily called her so, when by accident one of her rough boys hurt her hand, and he himself bound it up, with the indescribable tenderness which the strong only know how to show or feel. Well she remembered this; indeed, almost every thing he had said or done came back upon her now—vividly, as we recall the words and looks of the dead—mingled with such a hungering pain, such a cruel "miss" of him, daily and hourly, his companionship, help, counsel, every thing she had lacked all her life, and never found but with him and from him. And he was gone, had broken his promise, had left her without a single farewell word.
That he had cared for her, in some sort of way, she was certain; for he was one of those who never say a word too large—nay, he usually said much less than he felt. Whatever he had felt for her—whether friendship, affection, love—must have been true. There was in his nature intense reserve, but no falseness, no insincerity, not an atom of pretense of any kind.
If he did not love her, why not tell her so? What was there to hinder him? Nothing, except that strange notion of the "dishonorableness" of asking a woman's love when one has nothing but love to give her in return. This, even, he had seemed at the last to have set aside, as if he could not go away without speaking. And yet he did it.
Perhaps he thought she did not care for him? He had once said a man ought to feel quite sure of a woman before he asked her. Also, that he should never ask twice, since, if she did not know her own mind then, she never would know it, and such a woman was the worst possible bargain a man could make in marriage.
Not know her own mind! Alas, poor soul, Fortune knew it only too well. In that dreadful fortnight it was "borne in upon her," as pious people say, that though she felt kindly to all human beings, the one human being who was necessary to her—without whom her life might be busy, indeed, and useful, but never perfect, an endurance instead of joy—was this young man, as solitary as herself, as poor, as hard-working; good, gentle, brave Robert Roy.
Oh why had they not come together, heart to heart—just they two, so alone in the world—and ever after belonged to one another, even though it had been years and years before they were married?
"If only he had love me, and told me so!" was her bitter cry. "I could have waited ever so hardly, and quite alone, if only I might have had a right to him, and been his comfort, as he was mine. But now—now—"
Yet still she waited, looking forward daily to that dreadful post hour; and when it had gone by, nerving herself to endure until tomorrow. At last hope, slowly dying, was killed outright.
One day at tea-time the boys blurted out, with happy carelessness, their short-lived regrets for him being quite over, the news that Mr. Roy had sailed.
"Not for Calcutta, but Shanghai, a much longer voyage. He can't be heard of for a year at least, and it will be many years before he comes back. I wonder if he will come back rich. They say he will: quite a nabob, perhaps, and take a place in the Highlands, and invite us all—you too, Miss Williams. I once asked him, and he said, 'Of course.' Stop, you are pouring my tea over into the saucer."
This was the only error she made, but went on filling the cups with a steady hand, smiling and speaking mechanically, as people can sometimes. When the tea was quite over, she slipped away into her room, and was missing for a long time.
So all was over. No more waiting for that vague "something to happen." Nothing could happen now. He was far away across the seas, and she must just go back to her old monotonous life, as if it had never been any different—as if she had never seen his face nor heard his voice, never known the blessing of his companionship, friendship, love, whatever it was, or whatever he had meant it to be. No, he could not have loved her; or to have gone away would have been—she did not realize whether right or wrong—but simply impossible.
Once, wearying herself with helpless conjectures, a thought, sudden and sharp as steel, went through her heart. He was nearly thirty; few lives are thus long without some sort of love in them. Perhaps he was already bound to some other woman, and finding himself drifting into too pleasant intimacy with herself, wished to draw back in time. Such things had happened, sometimes almost blamelessly, though most miserably to all parties. But with him it was not likely to happen. He was too clear sighted, strong, and honest. He would never "drift" into anything. What he did would be done with a calm deliberate will, incapable of the slightest deception either toward others or himself. Besides, he had at different times told her the whole story of his life, and there was no love in it; only work, hard work, poverty, courage, and endurance, like her own.
"No, he could never have deceived me, neither me nor any one else," she often said to herself, almost joyfully, though the tears were running down. "What ever it was, it was not that. I am glad—glad. I had far rather believe he never loved me than that he had been false to another woman for my sake. And I believe in him still; I shall always believe in him. He is perfectly good, perfectly true. And so it does not much matter about me."
I am afraid those young ladies who like plenty of lovers, who expect to be adored, and are vexed when they are not adored, and most nobly indignant when forsaken, will think very meanly of my poor Fortune Williams. They may console themselves by thinking she was not a young lady at all—only a woman. Such women are not too common, but they exist occasionally. And they bear their cross and dree their weird (i.e., endure); but their lot, at any rate, only concerns themselves, and has one advantage, that it in no way injures the happiness of other people.
Humble as she was, she had her pride. If she wept, it was out of sight. If she wished herself dead, and a happy ghost, that by any means she might get near him, know where he was, and what he was doing, these dreams came only when her work was done, her boys asleep. Day never betrayed the secrets of the night. She set to work every morning at her daily labors with a dogged persistence, never allowing herself a minute's idleness wherein to sit down and mourn. And when, despite her will, she could not conquer the fits of nervous irritability that came over her at times—when the children's innocent voices used to pierce her like needles, and their incessant questions and perpetual company were almost more than she could bear—still, even then, all she did was to run away and hide herself for a little, coming back with a pleasant face and a smooth temper. Why should she scold them, poor lambs? They were all she had to love, or that loved her. And they did love her, with all their boyish hearts.
One day, however—the day before they all left St. Andrews for England, the two elder to go to school, and the younger ones to return with her to their maternal grand-mother in London—David said something which wounded her, vexed her, made her almost thankful to be going away.
She was standing by the laurel bush, which somehow had for her a strange fascination, and her hand was on the letter-box which the boys and Mr. Roy had made. There was a childish pleasure in touching it or any thing he had touched.
"I hope grandmamma won't take away that box," said Archy. "She ought to keep it in memory of us and Mr. Roy. How cleverly he made it! Wasn't he clever now, Miss Williams?"
"Yes," she answered and no more.
"I've got a better letter-box than yours," said little Davie, mysteriously. "Shall I show it to you, Miss Williams? And perhaps," with a knowing look—the mischievous lad! and yet he was more loving and lovable than all the rest, Mr. Roy's favorite, and hers—"perhaps you might even find a letter in it. Cook says she has seen you many a time watching for a letter from your sweetheart. Who is he?"
"I have none. Tell cook she should not talk such nonsense to little boys," said the governess, gravely. But she felt hot from head to foot, and turning, walked slowly in-doors. She did not go near the laurel bush again.
After that, she was almost glad to get away, among strange people and strange places, where Robert Roy's name had never been heard. The familiar places—hallowed as no other spot in this world, could ever be—passed out of sight, and in another week her six months' happy life at St. Andrews had vanished, "like a dream when one awaketh."
Had she awaked? Or was her daily, outside life to be henceforth the dream, and this the reality?
What is a "wrecked" life? One which the waves of inexorable fate have beaten to pieces, or one that, like an unseaworthy ship, is ready to go down in any waters? What most destroy us? the things we might well blame ourselves for, only we seldom do, our follies, blunders, errors, not counting actual sins? or the things for which we can blame nobody but Providence—if we dared—such as our losses and griefs, our sicknesses of body and mind, all those afflictions which we call "the visitation of God?" Ay, and so they are, but not sent in wrath, or for ultimate evil. No amount of sorrow need make any human life harmful to man or unholy before God, as a discontented, unhappy life must needs be unholy in the sight of Him who in the mysterious economy of the universe seems to have one absolute law—He wastes nothing. He modifies, transmutes, substitutes, re-applies material to new uses; but apparently by Him nothing is ever really lost, nothing thrown away.
Therefore, I incline to believe, when I hear people talking of a "wrecked" existence, that whosoever is to blame, it is not Providence.
Nobody could have applied the term to Fortune Williams, looking at her as she sat in the drawing-room window of a house at Brighton, just where the gray of the Esplanade meets the green of the Downs—a ladies' boarding-school, where she had in her charge two pupils, left behind for the holidays, while the mistress took a few weeks' repose. She sat watching the sea, which was very beautiful, as even the Brighton sea can be sometimes. Her eyes were soft and calm; her hands were folded on her black silk dress, her pretty little tender-looking hands, unringed, for she was still Miss Williams, still a governess.
But even at thirty-five—she had now reached that age, nay, passed it—she was not what you would call "old-maidish." Perhaps because the motherly instinct, naturally very strong in her, had developed more and more. She was one of those governesses—the only sort who ought ever to attempt to be governesses—who really love children, ay, despite their naughtinesses and mischievousnesses and worrying ways; who feel that, after all, these little ones are "of the kingdom of heaven," and that the task of educating them for that kingdom somehow often brings us nearer to it ourselves.
Her heart, always tender to children, had gone out to them more and more every year, especially after that fatal year when a man took it and broke it. No, not broke it, but threw it carelessly away, wounding it so sorely that it never could be quite itself again. But it was a true and warm and womanly heart still.
She had never heard of him—Robert Roy—never once, in any way, since that Sunday afternoon when he said, "I will write tomorrow," and did not write, but let her drop from him altogether like a worthless thing. Cruel, somewhat, even to a mere acquaintance—but to her?
Well, all was past and gone, and the tide of years had flowed over it. Whatever it was, a mistake, a misfortune, or a wrong, nobody knew any thing about it. And the wound even was healed, in a sort of a way, and chiefly by the unconscious hands of these little "ministering angels," who were angels that never hurt her, except by blotting their copy-books or not learning their lessons.
I know it may sound a ridiculous thing that a forlorn governess should be comforted for a lost love by the love of children; but it is true to nature. Women's lives have successive phases, each following the other in natural gradation—maidenhood, wifehood, motherhood: in not one of which, ordinarily, we regret the one before it, to which it is nevertheless impossible to go back. But Fortune's life had had none of these, excepting, perhaps, her one six months' dream of love and spring. That being over, she fell back upon autumn days and autumn pleasures—which are very real pleasures, after all.
As she sat with the two little girls leaning against her lap—they were Indian children, unaccustomed to tenderness, and had already grown very fond of her—there was a look in her face, not at all like an ancient maiden or a governess, but almost motherly. You see the like in the faces of the Virgin Mary, as the old monks used to paint her, quaint, and not always lovely, but never common or coarse, and spiritualized by a look of mingled tenderness and sorrow into something beyond all beauty.
This woman's face had it, so that people who had known Miss Williams as a girl were astonished to find her, as a middle-aged woman, grown "so good-looking." To which one of her pupils once answered, naively, "It is because she looks so good."
But this was after ten years and more. Of the first half of those years the less that is said, the better. She did not live; she merely endured life. Monotony without, a constant aching within—a restless gnawing want, a perpetual expectation, half hope, half fear; no human being could bear all this without being the worse for it, or the better. But the betterness came afterward, not first.
Sometimes her cravings to hear the smallest tidings of him, only if he were alive or dead, grew into such an agony that, had it not been for her entire helplessness in the matter, she might have tried some means of gaining information. But from his sudden change of plans, she was ignorant even of the name of the ship he had sailed by, the firm he had gone to. She could do absolutely nothing, and learn nothing. Here was something like the "Affliction of Margaret," that poem of Wordsworth's which, when her little pupils recited it—as they often did—made her ready to sob out loud from the pang of its piteous reality:
"I look for ghosts, but none will force Their way to me: 'tis falsely said That there was ever intercourse Betwixt the living and the dead: For surely then I should have sight Of him I wait for day and night With love and longings infinite."
Still, in the depth of her heart she did not believe Robert Roy was dead; for her finger was still empty of that ring—her mother's ring—which he had drawn off, promising its return "when he was dead or she was married." This implied that he never meant to lose sight of her. Nor, indeed, had he wished it, would it have been very difficult to find her, these ten years having been spent entirely in one place, an obscure village in the south of England, where she had lived as governess—first in the squire's family, then the rector's.
From the Dalziel family, where, as she had said to Mr. Roy, she hoped to remain for years, she had drifted away almost immediately; within a few months. At Christmas old Mrs. Dalziel had suddenly died; her son had returned home, sent his four boys to school in Germany, and gone back again to India. There was now, for the first time for half a century, not a single Dalziel left in St. Andrews.
But though all ties were broken connecting her with the dear old city, her boys still wrote to her now and then, and she to them, with a persistency for which her conscience smote her sometimes, knowing it was not wholly for their sakes. But they had never been near her, and she had little expectation of seeing any of them ever again, since by this time she had lived long enough to find out how easily people do drift asunder, and lose all clue to one another, unless some strong firm will or unconquerable habit of fidelity exists on one side or the other.
Since the Dalziels she had only lived in the two families before named, and had been lately driven from the last one by a catastrophe, if it may be called so, which had been the bitterest drop in her cup since the time she left St. Andrews.
The rector—a widower, and a feeble, gentle invalid, to whom naturally she had been kind and tender, regarding him with much the same sort of motherly feeling as she had regarded his children—suddenly asked her to become their mother in reality.
It was a great shock and a pang: almost a temptation; for they all loved her, and wished to keep her. She would have been such a blessing, such a brightness, in that dreary home. And to a woman no longer young, who had seen her youth pass without any brightness in it, God knows what an allurement it is to feel she has still the power of brightening other lives. If Fortune had yielded—if she had said yes, and married the rector—it would have been hardly wonderful, scarcely blamable. Nor would it have been the first time that a good, conscientious, tender-hearted woman has married a man for pure tenderness.
But she did not do it; not even when they clung around her—those forlorn, half-educated, but affectionate girls—entreating her to "marry papa, and make us all happy." She could not—how could she? She felt very kindly to him. He had her sincere respect, almost affection; but when she looked into her own heart, she found there was not in it one atom of love, never had been, for any man alive except Robert Roy. While he was unmarried, for her to marry would be impossible.
And so she had the wisdom and courage to say to herself, and to them all, "This can not be;" to put aside the cup of attainable happiness, which might never have proved real happiness, because founded on an insincerity.
But the pain this cost was so great, the wrench of parting from her poor girls so cruel, that after it Miss Williams had a sharp illness, the first serious illness of her life. She struggled through it, quietly and alone, in one of those excellent "Governesses' Homes," where every body was very kind to her—some more than kind, affectionate. It was strange, she often thought, what an endless amount of affection followed her wherever she went. She was by no means one of those women who go about the world moaning that nobody loves them. Every body loved her, and she knew it—every body whose love was worth having—except Robert Roy.
Still her mind never changed; not even when, in the weakness of illness, there would come vague dreams of that peaceful rectory, with its quiet rooms and green garden; of the gentle, kindly hearted father, and the two loving girls whom she could have made so happy, and perhaps won happiness herself in the doing of it.
"I am a great fool, some people would say," thought she, with a sad smile; "perhaps rather worse. Perhaps I am acting absolutely wrong in throwing away my chance of doing good. But I can not help it—I can not help it."
So she kept to her resolution, writing the occasional notes she had promised to write to her poor forsaken girls, without saying a word of her illness; and when she grew better, though not strong enough to undertake a new situation, finding her money slipping away—though, with her good salaries and small wants, she was not poor, and had already begun to lay up for a lonely old age—she accepted this temporary home at Miss Maclachlan's, at Brighton. Was it—so strange are the under-currents which guide one's outward life—was it because she had found a curious charm in the old lady's Scotch tongue, unheard for years? That the two little pupils were Indian children, and that the house was at the seaside?—and she had never seen the sea since she left St. Andrews.
It was going back to the days of her youth to sit, as now, watching the sunshine glitter on the far-away ocean. The very smell of the sea-weed, the lap-lap of the little waves, brought back old recollections so vividly—old thoughts, some bitter, some sweet, but the sweetness generally over-coming the bitterness.
"I have had all the joy that the world could bestow; I have lived—I have loved."
So sings the poet, and truly. Though to this woman love had brought not joy, but sorrow, still she had loved, and it had been the main-stay and stronghold of her life, even though to outsiders it might have appeared little better than a delusion, a dream. Once, and by one only, her whole nature had been drawn out, her ideal of moral right entirely satisfied. And nothing had ever shattered this ideal. She clung to it, as we cling to the memory of our dead children, who are children forever.
With a passionate fidelity she remembered all Robert Roy's goodness, his rare and noble qualities, resolutely shutting her eyes to what she might have judged severely, had it happened to another person—his total, unexplained, and inexplicable desertion of herself. It was utterly irreconcilable with all she had ever known of him; and being powerless to unravel it, she left it, just as we have to leave many a mystery in heaven and earth, with the humble cry, "I can not understand—I love."
She loved him, that was all; and sometimes even yet, across that desert of despair, stretching before and behind her, came a wild hope, almost a conviction, that she would meet him again, somewhere, somehow. This day, even, when, after an hour's delicious idleness, she roused herself to take her little girls down to the beach, and sat on the shingle while they played, the sound and sights of the sea brought old times so vividly back that she could almost have fancied coming behind her the familiar step, the pleasant voice, as when Mr. Roy and his boys used to overtake her on the St. Andrews shore—Robert Roy, a young man, with his life all before him, as was hers. Now she was middle-aged, and he—he must be over forty by this time. How strange!
Stranger still that there had never occurred to her one possibility—that he "was not," that God had taken him. But this her heart absolutely refused to accept. So long as he was in it, the world would never be quite empty to her. Afterward—But, as I said, there are some things which can not be faced and this was one of them.
All else she had faced long ago. She did not grieve now. As she walked with her children, listening to their endless talk with that patient sympathy which made all children love her, and which she often found was a better help to their education than dozens of lessons, there was on her face that peaceful expression which is the greatest preservative of youth, the greatest antidote to change. And so it was no wonder that a tall lad, passing and re-passing on the Esplanade with another youth, looked at her more than once with great curiosity, and advanced with hesitating politeness.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am, if I mistake; but you are so like a lady I once knew, and am now looking for. Are you Miss Williams?"
"My name is Williams, certainly; and you"—something in the curly light hair, the mischievous twinkle of the eye, struck her—"you can not be, it is scarcely possible—David Dalziel?"
"But, I am, though," cried the lad, shaking her hand as if he would shake it off. "And I call myself very clever to have remembered you, though I was such a little fellow when you left us, and I have only seen your photograph since. But you are not a bit altered—not one bit. And as I knew by your last letter to Archy that you were at Brighton, I thought I'd risk it and speak. Hurra! How very jolly!"
He had grown a handsome lad, the pretty wee Davie, an honest-looking lad too, apparently, and she was glad to see him. From the dignity of his eighteen years and five feet ten of height, he looked down upon the governess, and patronized her quite tenderly—dismissing his friend and walking home with her, telling her on the way all his affairs and that of his family with the volubility of little David Dalziel at St. Andrews.
"No, I've not forgotten St. Andrews one bit, though I was so small. I remember poor old grannie, and her cottage, and the garden, and the Links, and the golfing, and Mr. Roy. By-the-by, what has become of Mr. Roy?"
The suddenness of the question, nay, the very sound of a name totally silent for so many years, made Fortune's heart throb till its beating was actual pain. Then came a sudden desperate hope, as she answered:
"I can not tell. I have never heard any thing of him. Have you?"
"No—yet, let me see. I think Archy once got a letter from him, a year or so after he went away; but we lost it somehow, and never answered it. We have never heard any thing since."
Miss Williams sat down on one of the benches facing the sea, with a murmured excuse of being "tired." One of her little girls crept beside her, stealing a hand in hers. She held it fast, her own shook so; but gradually she grew quite herself again. "I have been ill," she explained, "and can not walk far. Let us sit down here a little. You were speaking about Mr. Roy, David?"
"Yes. What a good fellow he was! We called him Rob Roy, I remember, but only behind his back. He was strict, but he was a jolly old soul for all that. I believe I should know him again any day, as I did you. But perhaps he is dead; people die pretty fast abroad, and ten years is a long time, isn't it?"
"A long time. And you never got any more letters?"
"No; or if they did come, they were lost, being directed probably to the care of poor old grannie, as ours was. We thought it so odd, after she was dead, you know."
Thus the boy chattered on—his tongue had not shortened with his increasing inches—and every idle word sank down deep in his old governess's heart.
Then it was only her whom Robert Roy had forsaken. He had written to his boys, probably would have gone on writing had they answered his letter. He was neither faithless nor forgetful. With an ingenuity that might have brought to any listener a smile or a tear, Miss Williams led the conversation round again till she could easily ask more concerning that one letter; but David, remembered little or nothing, except that it was dated from Shanghai, for his brothers had had a discussion whether Shanghai was in China or Japan. Then, boy-like, they had forgotten the whole matter.