THE MARRIAGE OF ELINOR
CHICAGO W. B. CONKEY COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1891, BY UNITED STATES BOOK COMPANY
[All rights reserved.]
THE MARRIAGE OF ELINOR.
John Tatham, barrister-at-law, received one summer morning as he sat at breakfast the following letter. It was written in what was once known distinctively as a lady's hand, in pointed characters, very fine and delicate, and was to this effect:—
"DEAR JOHN, Have you heard from Elinor of her new prospects and intentions? I suppose she must have written to you on the subject. Do you know anything of the man?... You know how hard it is to convince her against her will of anything, and also how poorly gifted I am with the power of convincing any one. And I don't know him, therefore can speak with no authority. If you can do anything to clear things up, come and do so. I am very anxious and more than doubtful; but her heart seems set upon it.
"Your affect. "M. S. D."
Mr. Tatham was a well-built and vigorous man of five-and-thirty, with health, good behaviour, and well-being in every line of his cheerful countenance and every close curl of his brown hair. His hair was very curly, and helped to give him the cheerful look which was one of his chief characteristics. Nevertheless, when these innocent seeming words, "Do you know the man?" which was more certainly demonstrative of certain facts than had those facts been stated in the fullest detail, met his eye, Mr. Tatham paused and laid down the letter with a start. His ruddy colour paled for the moment, and he felt something which was like the push or poke of a blunt but heavy weapon somewhere in the regions of the heart. For the moment he felt that he could not read any more. "Do you know the man?" He did not even ask what man in the momentary sickness of his heart. Then he said to himself, almost angrily, "Well!" and took up the letter again and read to the end.
Well! of course it was a thing that he knew might happen any day, and which he had expected to happen for the last four or five years. It was nothing to him one way or another. Nothing could be more absurd than that a hearty and strong young man in the full tide of his life and with a good breakfast before him should receive a shock from that innocent little letter as if he had been a sentimental woman. But the fact is that he pushed his plate away with an exclamation of disgust and a feeling that everything was bad and uneatable. He drank his tea, though that also became suddenly bad too, full of tannin, like tea that has stood too long, a thing about which John was very particular. He had been half an hour later than usual this morning consequent on having been an hour or two later than usual last night. These things have their reward, and that very speedily; but as for the letter, what could that have to do with the bad toasting of the bacon and the tannin in the tea? "Do you know the man?" There was a sort of covert insult, too, in the phraseology, as if no explanation was needed, as if he must know by instinct what she meant—he who knew nothing about it, who did not know there was a man at all!
After a while he began to smile rather cynically to himself. He had got up from the breakfast table, where everything was so bad, and had gone to look out of one of the windows of his pleasant sitting-room. It was in one of the wider ways of the Temple, and looked out upon various houses with a pleasant misty light upon the redness of their old brickwork, and a stretch of green grass and trees, which were scanty in foliage, yet suited very well with the bright morning sun, which was not particularly warm, but looked as if it were a good deal for effect and not so very much for use. That thought floated across his mind with others, and was of the same cynical complexion. It was very well for the sun to shine, making the glistening poplars and plane-trees glow, and warming all the mellow redness of the old houses, but what did he mean by it? No warmth to speak of, only a fictitious gleam—a thing got up for effect. And so was the affectionateness of woman—meaning nothing, only an effect of warmth and geniality, nothing beyond that. As a matter of fact, he reminded himself after a while that he had never wanted anything beyond, neither asked for it, nor wished it. He had no desire to change the conditions of his life: women never rested till they had done so, manufacturing a new event, whatever it might be, pleased even when they were not pleased, to have a novelty to announce. That, no doubt, was the state of mind in which the lady who called herself his aunt was: pleased to have something to tell him, to fire off her big guns in his face, even though she was not at all pleased with the event itself. But John Tatham, on the other hand, had desired nothing to happen; things were very well as they were. He liked to have a place where he could run down from Saturday to Monday whenever he pleased, and where his visit was always a cheerful event for the womankind. He had liked to take them all the news, to carry the picture-papers, quite a load; to take down a new book for Elinor; to taste doubtfully his aunt's wine, and tell her she had better let him choose it for her. It was a very pleasant state of affairs: he wanted no change; not, certainly, above everything, the intrusion of a stranger whose very existence had been unknown to him until he was thus asked cynically, almost brutally, "Do you know the man?"
The hour came when John had to assume the costume of that order of workers whom a persistent popular joke nicknames the "Devil's Own:"—that is, he had to put on gown and wig and go off to the courts, where he was envied of all the briefless as a man who for his age had a great deal to do. He "devilled" for Mr. Asstewt, the great Chancery man, which was the most excellent beginning: and he was getting into a little practice of his own which was not to be sneezed at. But he did not find himself in a satisfactory frame of mind to-day. He found himself asking the judge, "Do you know anything of the man?" when it was his special business so to bewilder that potentate with elaborate arguments that he should not have time to consider whether he had ever heard of the particular man before him. Thus it was evident that Mr. Tatham was completely hors de son assiette, as the French say; upset and "out of it," according to the equally vivid imagination of the English manufacturer of slang. John Tatham was a very capable young lawyer on ordinary occasions, and it was all the more remarkable that he should have been so confused in his mind to-day.
When he went back to his chambers in the evening, which was not until it was time to dress for dinner, he saw a bulky letter lying on his table, but avoided it as if it had been an overdue bill. He was engaged to dine out, and had not much time: yet all the way, as he drove along the streets, just as sunset was over and a subduing shade came over the light, and that half-holiday look that comes with evening—he kept thinking of the fat letter upon his table. Do you know anything of the man? That would no longer be the refrain of his correspondent, but some absurd strain of devotion and admiration of the man whom John knew nothing of, not even his name. He wondered as he went along in his hansom, and even between the courses at dinner, while he listened with a smile, but without hearing a word, to what the lady next him was saying—what she would tell him about this man? That he was everything that was delightful, no doubt; handsome, of course; probably clever; and that she was fond of him, confound the fellow! Elinor! to think that she should come to that—a girl like her—to tell him, as if she was saying that she had caught a cold or received a present, that she was in love with a man! Good heavens! when one had thought her so much above anything of that kind—a woman, above all women that ever were.
"Not so much as that," John said to himself as he walked home. He always preferred to walk home in the evening, and he was not going to change his habit now out of any curiosity about Elinor's letter. Oh, not so much as that! not above all women, or better than the rest, perhaps—but different. He could not quite explain to himself how, except that he had always known her to be Elinor and not another, which was a quite sufficient explanation. And now it appeared that she was not different, although she would still profess to be Elinor—a curious puzzle, which his brain in its excited state was scarcely able to tackle. His thoughts got somewhat confused and broken as he approached his chambers. He was so near the letter now—a few minutes and he would no longer need to wonder or speculate about it, but would know exactly what she said. He turned and stood for a minute or so at the Temple gates, looking out upon the busy Strand. It was still as lovely as a summer night could be overhead, but down here it was—well, it was London, which is another thing. The usual crowd was streaming by, coming into bright light as it streamed past a brilliant shop window, then in the shade for another moment, and emerging again. The faces that were suddenly lit up as they passed—some handsome faces, pale in the light; some with heads hung down, either in bad health or bad humour; some full of cares and troubles, others airy and gay—caught his attention. Did any of them all know anything of this man, he wondered—knowing how absurd a question it was. Had any of them written to-day a letter full of explanations, of a matter that could not be explained? There were faces with far more tragic meaning in them than could be so easily explained as that—the faces of men, alas! and women too, who were going to destruction as fast as their hurrying feet could carry them; or else were languidly drifting no one knew where—out of life altogether, out of all that was good in life. John Tatham knew this very well too, and had it in him to do anything a man could to stop the wanderers in their downward career. But to-night he was thinking of none of these things. He was only wondering how she would explain it, how she could explain it, what she would say; and lingering to prolong his suspense, not to know too soon what it was.
At last, however, as there is no delay but must come to an end one time or another, he found himself at last in his room, in his smoking-coat and slippers, divested of his stiff collar—at his ease, the windows open upon the quiet of the Temple Gardens, a little fresh air breathing in. He had taken all this trouble to secure ease for himself, to put off a little the reading of the letter. Now the moment had come when it would be absurd to delay any longer. It was so natural to see her familiar handwriting—not a lady's hand, angular and pointed, like her mother's, but the handwriting of her generation, which looks as if it were full of character, until one perceives that it is the writing of the generation, and all the girls and boys write much the same. He took time for this reflection still as he tore open the envelope. There were two sheets very well filled, and written in at the corners, so that no available spot was lost. "My dear old John," were the first words he saw. He put down the letter and thought over the address. Well, she had always called him so. He was old John when he was fourteen, to little Elinor. They had always known each other like that—like brother and sister. But not particularly like brother and sister—like cousins twice removed, which is a more interesting tie in some particulars. And now for the letter.
"MY DEAR OLD JOHN: I want to tell you myself of a great thing that has happened to me—the very greatest thing that could happen in one's life. Oh, John, dear old John, I feel as if I had nobody else I could open my heart to; for mamma—well, mamma is mamma, a dear mother and a good one; but you know she has her own ways of thinking——"
He put down the letter again with a rueful little laugh. "And have not I my own ways of thinking, too?" he said to himself.
"Jack dear," continued the letter, "you must give me your sympathy, all your sympathy. You never were in love, I suppose (oh, what an odious way that is of putting it! but it spares one's feelings a little, for even in writing it is too tremendous a thing to say quite gravely and seriously, as one feels it). Dear John, I know you never were in love, or you would have told me; but still——"
"Oh," he said to himself, with the merest suspicion of a little quiver in his lip, which might, of course, have been a laugh, but, on the other hand, might have been something else, "I never was—or I would have told her—That's the way she looks at it." Then he took up the letter again.
"Because—I see nothing but persecution before me. It was only a week ago that it happened, and we wanted to keep it quiet for a time; but things get out in spite of all one can do—things of that sort, at least. And, oh, dear Jack, fancy! I have got three letters already, all warning me against him; raking up trifling things that have occurred long ago, long before he met me, and holding them up before me like scarecrows—telling me he is not worthy of me, and that I will be wretched if I marry him, and other dreadful lies like that, which show me quite plainly that they neither know him nor me, and that they haven't eyes to see what he really is, nor minds to understand. But though I see the folly of it and the wickedness of it, mamma does not. She is ready to take other people's words; indeed, there is this to be said for her, that she does not know him yet, and therefore cannot be expected to be ready to take his own word before all. Dear Jack, my heart is so full, and I have so much to tell you, and such perfect confidence in your sympathy, and also in your insight and capacity to see through all the lies and wicked stories which I foresee are going to be poured upon us like a flood that—I don't know how to begin, I have so many things to say. I know it is the heart of the season, and that you are asked out every night in the week, and are so popular everywhere; but if you could but come down from Saturday to Monday, and let me tell you everything and show you his picture, and read you parts of his letters, I know you would see how false and wrong it all is, and help me to face it out with all those horrid people, and to bring round mamma. You know her dreadful way of never giving an opinion, but just saying a great deal worse, and leaving you to your own responsibility, which nearly drives me mad even in little things—so you may suppose what it does in this. Of course, she must see him, which is all I want, for I know after she has had a half-hour's conversation with him that she will be like me and will not believe a word—not one word. Therefore, Jack dear, come, oh, come! I have always turned to you in my difficulties, since ever I have known what it was to have a difficulty, and you have done everything for me. I never remember any trouble I ever had but you found some means of clearing it away. Therefore my whole hope is in you. I know it is hard to give up all your parties and things; but it would only be two nights, after all—Saturday and Sunday. Oh, do come, do come, if you ever cared the least little bit for your poor cousin! Come, oh, come, dear old John!
"Your affect. "E———."
"Is that all?" he said to himself; but it was not all, for there followed a postscript all about the gifts and graces of the unknown lover, and how he was the victim of circumstances, and how, while other men might steal the horse, he dared not look over the wall, and other convincing pleadings such as these, till John's head began to go round. When he had got through this postscript John Tatham folded the letter and put it away. He had a smile on his face, but he had the air of a man who had been beaten about the head and was confused with the hurry and storm of the blows. She had always turned to him in all her difficulties, that was true: and he had always stood by her, and often, in the freemasonry of youth, had thought her right and vindicated her capacity to judge for herself. He had been called often on this errand, and he had never refused to obey. For Elinor was very wilful, she had always been wilful—"a rosebud set about with wilful thorns, But sweet as English air could make her, she." He had come to her aid many a time. But he had never thought to be called upon by her in such a way as this. He folded the letter up carefully and put it in a drawer. Usually when he had a letter from Elinor he put it into his pocket, for the satisfaction of reading it over again: for she had a fantastic way of writing, adding little postscripts which escaped the eye at first, and which it was pleasant to find out afterwards. But with this letter he did not do so. He put it in a drawer of his writing-table, so that he might find it again when necessary, but he did not put it in his breast pocket. And then he sat for some time doing nothing, looking before him, with his legs stretched out and his hand beating a little tattoo upon the table. "Well: well? well!" That was about what he said to himself, but it meant a great deal: it meant a vague but great disappointment, a sort of blank and vacuum expressed by the first of these words—and then it meant a question of great importance and many divisions. How could it ever have come to anything? Am I a man to marry? What could I have done, just getting into practice, just getting a few pounds to spend for myself? And then came the conclusion. Since I can't do anything else for her; since she's done it for herself—shall I be a beast and not help her, because it puts my own nose out of joint? Not a bit of it! The reader must remember that in venturing to reflect a young man's sentiments a dignified style is scarcely possible; they express themselves sometimes with much force in their private moments, but not as Dr. Johnson would have approved, or with any sense of elegance; and one must try to be truthful to nature. He knew very well that Elinor was not responsible for his disappointment, and even he was aware that if she had been so foolish as to fix her hopes upon him, it would probably have been she who would have been disappointed, and left in the lurch. But still——
John had gone through an interminable amount of thinking, and a good deal of soda-water (with or without, how should I know, some other moderate ingredient), and a cigar or two—not to speak of certain hours when he ought to have been in bed to keep his head clear for the cases of to-morrow: when it suddenly flashed upon him all at once that he was not a step further on than when he had received Mrs. Dennistoun's letter in the morning, for Elinor, though she had said so much about him, had given no indication who her lover was. Who was the man?
It was a blustering afternoon when John, with his bag in his hand, set out from the station at Hurrymere for Mrs. Dennistoun's cottage. Why that station should have had "mere" in its name I have never been able to divine, for there is no water to be seen for miles, scarcely so much as a duckpond: but, perhaps, there are two meanings to the words. It was a steep walk up a succession of slopes, and the name of the one upon which the cottage stood was Windyhill not an encouraging title on such a day, but true enough to the character of the place. The cottage lay, however, at the head of a combe or shelving irregular valley, just sheltered from the winds on a little platform of its own, and commanding a view which was delightful in its long sweeping distance, and varied enough to be called picturesque, especially by those who were familiar with nothing higher than the swelling slopes of the Surrey hills. It was wild, little cultivated, save in the emerald green of the bottom, a few fields which lay where a stream ought to have been. Nowadays there are red-roofed houses peeping out at every corner, but at that period fashion had not even heard of Hurrymere, and, save for a farm-house or two, a village alehouse and posting-house at a corner of the high-road, and one or two great houses within the circuit of six or seven miles, retired within their trees and parks, there were few habitations. Mrs. Dennistoun's cottage was red-roofed like the rest, but much subdued by lichens, and its walls were covered by climbing plants, so that it struck no bold note upon the wild landscape, yet was visible afar off in glimpses, from the much-winding road, for a mile or two before it could be come at. There was, indeed, a nearer way, necessitating a sharp scramble, but when John came just in sight of the house his heart failed him a little, and, notwithstanding that his bag had come to feel very heavy by this time, he deliberately chose the longer round to gain a little time—as we all do sometimes, when we are most anxious to be at our journey's end, and hear what has to be told us. It looked very peaceful seated in that fold of the hill, no tossing of trees about it, though a little higher up the slim oaks and beeches of the copse were flinging themselves about against the grey sky in a kind of agonised appeal. John liked the sound of the wind sweeping over the hills, rending the trees, and filling the horizon as with a crowd of shadows in pain, twisting and bending with every fresh sweep of the breeze. Sometimes such sounds and sights give a relief to the mind. He liked it better than if all had been undisturbed, lying in afternoon quiet as might have been expected at the crown of the year—but the winds had always to be taken into account at Windyhill.
When he came in sight of the gate, John was aware of some one waiting for him, walking up and down the sandy road into which it opened. Her face was turned the other way, and she evidently looked for him by way of the combe, the scrambling steep road which he had avoided in despite: for why should he scramble and make himself hot in order to hear ten minutes sooner what he did not wish to hear at all? She turned round suddenly as he knocked his foot against a stone upon the rough, but otherwise noiseless road, presenting a countenance flushed with sudden relief and pleasure to John's remorseful eye. "Oh, there you are!" she said; "I am so glad. I thought you could not be coming. You might have been here a quarter of an hour ago by the short road."
"I did not think there was any hurry," said John, ungraciously. "The wind is enough to carry one off one's feet; though, to be sure, it's quiet enough here."
"It's always quiet here," she said, reading his face with her eyes after the manner of women, and wondering what the harassed look meant that was so unusual in John's cheerful face. She jumped at the idea that he was tired, that his bag was heavy, that he had been beaten about by the wind till he had lost his temper, always a possible thing to happen to a man. Elinor flung herself upon the bag and tried to take possession of it. "Why didn't you get a boy at the station to carry it? Let me carry it," she said.
"That is so likely," said John, with a hard laugh, shifting it to his other hand.
Elinor caught his arm with both her hands, and looked up with wistful eyes into his face. "Oh, John, you are angry," she said.
"Nonsense. I am tired, buffeting about with this wind." Here the gardener and man-of-all-work about the cottage came up and took the bag, which John parted with with angry reluctance, as if it had been a sort of weapon of offence. After it was gone there was nothing for it but to walk quietly to the house through the flowers with that girl hanging on his arm, begging a hundred pardons with her eyes. The folly of it! as if she had not a right to do as she pleased, or he would try to prevent her; but finally, the soft, silent apology of that clinging, and the look full of petitions touched his surly heart. "Well—Nelly," he said, with involuntary softening.
"Oh, if you call me that I am not afraid!" she cried, with an instant upleaping of pleasure and confidence in her changeable face, which (John tried to say to himself) was not really pretty at all, only so full of expression, changing with every breath of feeling. The eyes, which had only been brown a moment before, leaped up into globes of light, yet not too dazzling, with some liquid medium to soften their shining. Even though you know that a girl is in love with another man, that she thinks of you no more than of the old gardener who has just hobbled round the corner, it is pleasant to be able to change the whole aspect of affairs to her and make her light up like that, solely by a little unwilling softening of your gruff and surly tone.
"You know, John," she said, holding his arm tight with her two hands, "that nobody ever calls me Nelly—except you."
"Possibly I shall call you Nelly no longer. Why? Why, because that fellow will object."
"That fellow! Oh, he!" Elinor's face grew very red all over, from the chin, which almost touched John's arm, to the forehead, bent back a little over those eyes suffused with light which were intent upon all the changes of John's face. This one was, like the landscape, swept by all the vicissitudes of sun and shade. It was radiant now with the unexpected splendour of the sudden gleam.
"Oh, John, John, I have so much to say to you! He will object to nothing. He knows very well you are like my brother—almost more than my brother—for you could help it, John. You almost chose me for your friend, which a brother would not. He says, 'Get him to be our friend and all will be well!'"
He had not said this, but Elinor had said it to him, and he had assented, which was almost the same—in the way of reckoning of a girl, at least.
"He is very kind, I am sure," said John, gulping down something which had almost made him throw off Elinor's arm, and fling away from her in indignation. Her brother——!! But there was no use making any row, he said to himself. If anything were to be done for her he must put up with all that. There had suddenly come upon John, he knew not how, as he scanned her anxious face, a conviction that the man was a scamp, from whom at all hazards she should be free.
Said Elinor, unsuspecting, "That is just what he is, John! I knew you would divine his character at once. You can't think how kind he is—kind to everybody. He never judges anyone, or throws a stone, or makes an insinuation." ("Probably because he knows he cannot bear investigation himself," John said, in his heart.) "That was the thing that took my heart first. Everybody is so censorious—always something to say against their neighbours; he, never a word."
"That's a very good quality," said John, reluctantly, "if it doesn't mean confounding good with bad, and thinking nothing matters."
Elinor gave him a grieved, reproachful look, and loosened the clasping of her hands. "It is not like you to imagine that, John!"
"Well, what is a man to say? Don't you see, if you do nothing but blow his trumpet, the only thing left for me to do is to insinuate something against him? I don't know the man from Adam. He may be an angel, for anything I can say."
"No; I do not pretend he is that," said Elinor, with impartiality. "He has his faults, like others, but they are nice faults. He doesn't know how to take care of his money (but he hasn't got very much, which makes it the less matter), and he is sometimes taken in about his friends. Anybody almost that appeals to his kindness is treated like a friend, which makes precise people think——but, of course, I don't share that opinion in the very least."
("A very wasteful beggar, with a disreputable set," was John's practical comment within himself upon this speech.)
"And he doesn't know how to curry favour with people who can help him on; so that though he has been for years promised something, it never turns up. Oh, I know his faults very well indeed," said Elinor; "but a woman can do so much to make up for faults like that. We're naturally saving, you know, and we always keep those unnecessary friends that were made before our time at a distance; and it's part of our nature to coax a patron—that is what Mariamne says."
"Mariamne?" said John.
"His sister, who first introduced him to me; and I am very fond of her, so you need not say anything against her, John. I know she is—fashionable, but that's no harm."
"Mariamne," he repeated; "it is a very uncommon name. You don't mean Lady Mariamne Prestwich, do you? and not—not——Elinor! not Phil Compton, for goodness' sake? Don't tell me he's the man?"
Elinor's hands dropped from his arm. She drew herself up until she seemed to tower over him. "And why should I say it is not Mr. Compton," she asked, with a scarlet flush of anger, so different from that rosy red of love and happiness, covering her face.
"Phil Compton! the dis-Honourable Phil! Why, Elinor! you cannot mean it! you must not mean it!" he cried.
Elinor said not a word. She turned from him with a look of pathetic reproach but with the air of a queen, and walked into the house, he following in a ferment of wrath and trouble, yet humbled and miserable more than words could say. Oh, the flowery, peaceful house! jasmine and rose overleaping each other upon the porch, honeysuckle scenting the air, all manner of feminine contrivances to continue the greenness and the sweetness into the little bright hall, into the open drawing-room, where flowers stood on every table amid the hundred pretty trifles of a woman's house. There was no one in this room where she led him, and then turned round confronting him, taller than he had ever seen her before, pale, with her nostrils dilating and her lips trembling. "I never thought it possible that you of all people in the world, you, John—my stand-by since ever I was a baby—my—— Oh! what a horrid thing it is to be a woman," cried Elinor, stamping her foot, "to be ready to cry for everything!—you, John! that I always put my trust in—that you should turn against me—and at the very first word!"
"Elinor," he said, "my dear girl! not against you, not against you, for all the world!"
"And what is me?" she said, with that sudden turning of the tables and high scorn of her previous argument which is common with women; "do I care what you do to me? Oh, nothing, nothing! I am of no account, you can trample me down under your feet if you like. But what I will not bear," she said, clenching her hands, "is injustice to him: that I will not bear, neither from you, Cousin John, who are only my distant cousin, after all, and have no right to thrust your advice upon me—or from any one in the world."
"What you say is quite true, Elinor, I am only a distant cousin—after all: but——"
"Oh, no, no," she cried, flying to him, seizing once more his arm with her clinging hands, "I did not mean that—you know I did not mean that, my more than brother, my good, good John, whom I have trusted all my life!"
And then the poor girl broke out into passionate weeping with her head upon his shoulder, as she might have leant upon the handy trunk of a tree, or on the nearest door or window, as John Tatham said in his heart. He soothed her as best he could, and put her in a chair and stood with his hand upon the back of it, looking down upon her as the fit of crying wore itself out. Poor little girl! he had seen her cry often enough before. A girl cries for anything, for a thorn in her finger, for a twist of her foot. He had seen her cry and laugh, and dash the tears out of her eyes on such occasions, oh! often and often: there was that time when he rushed out of the bushes unexpectedly and frightened her pony, and she fell among the grass and vowed, sobbing and laughing, it was her fault! and once when she was a little tot, not old enough for boy's play, when she fell upon her little nose and cut it and disfigured herself, and held up that wounded little knob of a feature to have it kissed and made well. Oh, why did he think of that now! the little thing all trust and simple confidence! There was that time too when she jumped up to get a gun and shoot the tramps who had hurt somebody, if John would but give her his hand! These things came rushing into his mind as he stood watching Elinor cry, with his hand upon the back of her chair.
She wanted John's hand now when she was going forth to far greater dangers. Oh, poor little Nelly! poor little thing! but he could not put her on his shoulder and carry her out to face the foe now.
She jumped up suddenly while he was thinking, with the tears still wet upon her cheeks, but the paroxysm mastered, and the light of her eyes coming out doubly bright like the sun from the clouds. "We poor women," she said with a laugh, "are so badly off, we are so handicapped, as you call it! We can't help crying like fools! We can't help caring for what other people think, trying to conciliate and bring them round to approve us—when we ought to stand by our own conscience and judgment, and sense of what is right, like independent beings."
"If that means taking your own way, Elinor, whatever any one may say to you, I think women do it at least as much as men."
"No, it does not mean taking our own way," she cried, "and if you do not understand any better than that, why should I—— But you do understand better, John," she said, her countenance again softening: "you know I want, above everything in the world, that you should approve of me and see that I am right. That is what I want! I will do what I think right; but, oh, if I could only have you with me in doing it, and know that you saw with me that it was the best, the only thing to do! Happiness lies in that, not in having one's own way."
"My dear Elinor," he said, "isn't that asking a great deal? To prevent you from doing what you think right is in nobody's power. You are of age, and I am sure my aunt will force nothing; but how can we change our opinions, our convictions, our entire points of view? There is nobody in the world I would do so much for as you, Elinor: but I cannot do that, even for you."
The hot tears were dried from her cheeks, the passion was over. She looked at him, her efforts to gain him at an end, on the equal footing of an independent individual agreeing to differ, and as strong in her own view as he could be.
"There is one thing you can do for me," she said. "Mamma knows nothing about—fashionable gossip. She is not acquainted with the wicked things that are said. If she disapproves it is only because—— Oh, I suppose because one's mother always disapproves a thing that is done without her, that she has no hand in, what she calls pledging one's self to a stranger, and not knowing his antecedents, his circumstances, and so forth! But she hasn't any definite ground for it as you—think you have, judging in the uncharitable way of the world—not remembering that if we love one another the more there is against him the more need he has of me! But all I have to ask of you, John, is not to prejudice my mother. I know you can do it if you please—a hint would be enough, an uncertain word, even hesitating when you answer a question—that would be quite enough! John, if you put things into her head——"
"You ask most extraordinary things of me," said John, turning to bay. "To tell her lies about a man whom everybody knows—to pretend I think one thing when I think quite another. Not to say that my duty is to inform her exactly what things are said, so that she may judge for herself, not let her go forth in ignorance—that is my plain duty, Elinor."
"But you won't do it; oh, you won't do it!" she said. "Oh, John, for the sake of all the time that you have been so good to Nelly—your own little Nelly, nobody else's! Remember that I and everybody who loves him know these stories to be lies—and don't, don't put things into my mother's head! Let her judge for herself—don't, don't prejudice her, John. It can be no one's duty to repeat malicious stories when there is no possibility of proving or disproving them. Don't make her think—— Oh, mamma! we couldn't think where you had gone to. Yes, here is John."
"So I perceive," said Mrs. Dennistoun. It was getting towards evening, and the room was not very light. She could not distinguish their looks or the agitation that scarcely could have been hidden but for the dusk. "You seem to have been having a very animated conversation. I heard your voices all along the garden walk. Let me have the benefit of it, if there is anything to tell."
"You know well enough, mamma, what we must have been talking about," said Elinor, turning half angrily away.
"To be sure," said the mother, "I ought to have known. There is nothing so interesting as that sort of thing. I thought, however, you would probably have put it off a little, Elinor."
"Put it off a little—when it is the thing that concerns us more than anything else in the world!"
"That is true," said Mrs. Dennistoun, with a sigh. "Did you walk all the way, John? I meant to have sent the pony-cart for you, but the man was too late. It is a nice evening though, and coming out of town it is a good thing for you to have a good walk."
"Yes, I like it more than anything," said John, "but the evening is not so very fine. The wind is high, and I shouldn't wonder if we had rain."
"The wind is always high here," said Mrs. Dennistoun. "We don't have our view for nothing; but the sky is quite clear in the west, and all the clouds blowing away. I don't think we shall have more than a shower."
Elinor stood listening to this talk with restrained impatience, as if waiting for the moment when they should come to something worth talking about. Then she gave herself a sort of shake—half weary, half indignant—and left the room. There was a moment's silence, until her quick step was heard going to the other end of the house and up-stairs, and the shutting of a door.
"Oh, John, I am very uneasy, very uneasy," said Mrs. Dennistoun. "I scarcely thought she would have begun to you about it at once; but then I am doing the very same. We can't think of anything else. I am not going to worry you before dinner, for you must be tired with your walk, and want to refresh yourself before we enter upon that weary, weary business. But my heart misgives me dreadfully about it all. If I only had gone with her! It was not for want of an invitation, but just my laziness. I could not be troubled to leave my own house."
"I don't see what difference it would have made had you been with her, aunt."
"Oh, I should have seen the man: and been able to judge what he was and his motive, John."
"Elinor is not rich. He could scarcely have had an interested motive."
"There is some comfort in that. I have said that to myself again and again. He could not have an interested motive. But, oh! I am uneasy! There is the dressing-bell. I will not keep you any longer, John; but in the evening, or to-morrow, when we can get a quiet moment——"
The dusk, was now pervading all the house—that summer dusk which there is a natural prejudice everywhere against cutting short by lights. He could not see her face, nor she his, as they went out of the drawing-room together and along the long passage, which led by several arched doorways to the stairs. John had a room on the ground floor which was kept for gentlemen visitors, and in which the candles were twinkling on the dressing-table. He was more than ever thankful as he caught a glimpse of himself in the vague reflected world of the mirror, with its lights standing up reflected too, like inquisitors spying upon him, that there had not been light enough to show how he was looking: for though he was both a lawyer and a man of the world, John Tatham had not been able to keep the trouble which his interview with Elinor had caused him out of his face.
The drawing-room of the cottage was large and low, and had that faux air of being old-fashioned which is dear to the hearts of superior people generally. Mrs. Dennistoun and her daughter scarcely belonged to that class, yet they were, as ladies of leisure with a little taste for the arts are bound to be, touched by all the fancies of their time, which was just beginning to adore Queen Anne. There was still, however, a mixture of luxury with the square settees and spindle-legged cabinets which were "the fashion:" and partly because that was also "the fashion," and partly because on Windyhill even a July evening was sometimes a little chill, or looked so by reason of the great darkness of the silent, little-inhabited country outside—there was a log burning on the fire-dogs (the newest thing in furnishing in those days though now so common) on the hearth. The log burned as little as possible, being, perhaps, not quite so thoroughly dry and serviceable as it would have been in its proper period, and made a faint hissing sound in the silence as it burned, and diffused its pungent odour through the house. The bow window was open behind its white curtains, and it was there that the little party gathered out of reach of the unnecessary heat and the smoke. There was a low sofa on either side of this recess, and in the centre the French window opened into the garden, where all the scents were balmy in the stillness which had fallen upon the night.
Mrs. Dennistoun was tall and slim, a woman with a presence, and sat with a sort of dignity on her side of the window, with a little table beside her covered with her little requirements, the properties, so to speak, without which she was never known to be—a book for moments when there was nothing else to interest her, a case for work should there arise any necessity for putting in a stitch in time, a bottle of salts should she or any one else become suddenly faint, a paper cutter in cases of emergency, and finally, for mere ornament, two roses, a red and a white, in one of those tall old-fashioned glasses which are so pretty for flowers. I do wrong to dismiss the roses with such vulgar qualifications as white and red—the one was a Souvenir de Malmaison, the other a General —— something or other. If you spoke to Mrs. Dennistoun about her flowers she said, "Oh, the Malmaison," or "Oh, the General So-and-so." Rose was only the family name, but happily, as we all know, under the other appellation they smelt just as sweet. Mrs. Dennistoun kept up all this little state because she had been used to do so; because it was part of a lady's accoutrements, so to speak. She had also a cushion, which was necessary, if not for comfort, yet for her sense of being fully equipped, placed behind her back when she sat down. But with all this she was not a formal or prim person. She was a woman who had not produced a great deal of effect in life; one of those who are not accustomed to have their advice taken, or to find that their opinion has much weight upon others. Perhaps it was because Elinor resembled her father that this peculiarity which had affected all Mrs. Dennistoun's married life should have continued into a sphere where she ought to have been paramount. But she was with her daughter as she had been with her husband, a person of an ineffective character, taking refuge from the sensation of being unable to influence those about her whose wills were stronger than her own, by relinquishing authority, and in her most decided moments offering an opinion only, no more. This was not because she was really undecided, for on the contrary she knew her own mind well enough; but it had become a matter of habit with her to insist upon no opinion, knowing, as she did, how little chance she had of imposing her opinion upon the stronger wills about her. She had two other children older than Elinor: one, the eldest of all, married in India, a woman with many children of her own, practically altogether severed from the maternal nest; the other an adventurous son, who was generally understood to be at the ends of the earth, but seldom or never had any more definite address. This lady had naturally gone through many pangs and anxieties on behalf of these children, who had dropped away from her side into the unknown; but it belonged to her character to have said very little about this, so that she was generally supposed to take things very easily, and other mothers were apt to admire the composure of Mrs. Dennistoun, whose son might be being murdered by savages at any moment, for anything she knew—or minded, apparently. "Now it would have driven me out of my senses!" the other ladies said. Mrs. Dennistoun perhaps did not feel the back so well fitted to the burden as appeared—but she kept her own sentiments on this subject entirely to herself.
(I may say too—but this, the young reader may skip without disadvantage—by way of explanation of a peculiarity which has lately been much remarked as characteristic of those records of human history contemptuously called fiction, i.e., the unimportance, or ill-report, or unjust disapproval of the mother in records of this description—that it is almost impossible to maintain her due rank and character in a piece of history, which has to be kept within certain limits—and where her daughter the heroine must have the first place. To lessen her pre-eminence by dwelling at length upon the mother, unless that mother is a fool, or a termagant, or something thoroughly contrasting with the beauty and virtues of the daughter—would in most cases be a mistake in art. For one thing the necessary incidents are wanting, for I strongly object, and so I think do most people, to mothers who fall in love, or think of marriage, or any such vanity in their own person, and unless she is to interfere mischievously with the young lady's prospects, or take more or less the part of the villain, how is she to be permitted any importance at all? For there cannot be two suns in one sphere, or two centres to one world. Thus the mother has to be sacrificed to the daughter: which is a parable; or else it is the other way, which is against all the principles and prepossessions of life.)
Elinor did not sit up like her mother. She had flung herself upon the opposite sofa, with her arms flung behind her head, supporting it with her fingers half buried in the twists of her hair. She was not tall like Mrs. Dennistoun, and there was far more vivid colour than had ever been the mother's in her brown eyes and bright complexion, which was milk-white and rose-red after an old-fashioned rule of colour, too crude perhaps for modern artistic taste. Sometimes these delightful tints go with a placid soul which never varies, but in Elinor's case there was a demon in the hazel of the eyes, not dark enough for placidity, all fire at the best of times, and ready in a moment to burst into flame. She it was who had to be in the forefront of the interest, and not her mother, though for metaphysical, or what I suppose should now be called psychological interests, the elder lady was probably the most interesting of the two. Elinor beat her foot upon the carpet, out of sheer impatience, while John lingered alone in the dining-room. What did he stay there for? When there are several men together, and they drink wine, the thing is comprehensible; but one man alone who takes his claret with his dinner, and cares for nothing more, why should he stay behind when there was so much to say to him, and not one minute too much time till Monday morning, should the house be given up to talk not only by day but by night? But it was no use beating one's foot, for John did not come.
"You spoke to your cousin, Elinor, before dinner?" her mother said.
"Oh, yes, I spoke to him before dinner. What did he come here for but that? I sent for him on purpose, you know, mamma, to hear what he would say."
"And what did he say?"
This most natural question produced a small convulsion once more on Elinor's side. She loosed the hands that had been supporting her head and flung them out in front of her. "Oh, mamma, how can you be so exasperating! What did he say? What was he likely to say? If the beggar maid that married King Cophetua had a family it would have been exactly the same thing—though in that case surely the advantage was all on the gentleman's side."
"We know none of the particulars in that case," said Mrs. Dennistoun, calmly. "I have always thought it quite possible that the beggar maid was a princess of an old dynasty and King Cophetua a parvenu. But in your case, Elinor——"
"You know just as little," said the girl, impetuously.
"That is what I say. I don't know the man who has possessed himself of my child's fancy and heart. I want to know more about him. I want——"
"For goodness' sake, whatever you want, don't be sentimental, mamma!"
"Was I sentimental? I didn't mean it. He has got your heart, my dear, whatever words may be used."
"Yes—and for ever!" said the girl, turning round upon herself. "I know you think I don't know my own mind; but there will never be any change in me. Oh, what does John mean, sitting all by himself in that stuffy room? He has had time to smoke a hundred cigarettes!"
"Elinor, you must not forget it is rather hard upon John to be brought down to settle your difficulties for you. What do you want with him? Only that he should advise you to do what you have settled upon doing. If he took the other side, how much attention would you give him? You must be reasonable, my dear."
"I would give him every attention," said Elinor, "if he said what was reasonable. You don't think mere blind opposition is reasonable, I hope, mamma. To say Don't, merely, without saying why, what reason is there in that?"
"My dear, when you argue I am lost. I am not clever at making out my ground. Mine is not mere blind opposition, or indeed opposition at all. You have been always trained to use your own faculties, and I have never made any stand against you."
"Why not? why not?" said the girl, springing to her feet. "That is just the dreadful, dreadful part of it! Why don't you say straight out what I am to do and keep to it, and not tell me I must make use of my own faculties? When I do, you put on a face and object. Either don't object, or tell me point-blank what I am to do."
"Do you think for one moment if I did, you would obey me, Elinor?"
"Oh, I don't know what I might do in that case, for it will never happen. You will never take that responsibility. For my part, if you locked me up in my room and kept me on bread and water I should think that reasonable; but not this kind of letting I dare not wait upon I would, saying I am to exercise my own faculties, and then hesitating and finding fault."
"I daresay, my dear," said Mrs. Dennistoun, with great tolerance, "that this may be provoking to your impatient mind: but you must put yourself in my place a little, as I try to put myself in yours. I have never seen Mr. Compton. It is probable, or at least quite possible, that if I knew him I might look upon him with your eyes——"
"Probable! Possible! What words to use! when all my happiness, all my life, everything I care for is in it: and my own mother thinks it just possible that she might be able to tolerate the man that—the man who——"
She flung herself down on her seat again, panting and excited. "Did you wear out Adelaide like that," she cried, "before she married, papa and you——"
"Adelaide was very different, Elinor. She married salon les regles a man whom we all knew. There was no trouble about it. Your father was the one who was impatient then. He thought it too well arranged, too commonplace and satisfactory. You may believe he did not object to that in words, but he laughed at them and it worried him. It has done very well on the whole," said Mrs. Dennistoun, with a faint sigh.
"You say that—and then you sigh. There is always a little reserve. You are never wholly satisfied."
"One seldom is in this world," said Mrs. Dennistoun, this time with a soft laugh. "This world is not very satisfactory. One makes the best one can of it."
"And that is just what I hate to hear," said Elinor, "what I have always heard. Oh, yes, when you don't say it you mean it, mamma. One can read it in the turn of your head. You put up with things. You think perhaps they might have been worse. In every way that's your philosophy. And it's killing, killing to all life! I would rather far you said out, 'Adelaide's husband is a prig and I hate him.'"
"There is only one drawback, that it would not be true. I don't in the least hate him. I am glad I was not called upon to marry him myself, I don't think I should have liked it. But he makes Adelaide a very good husband, and she is quite happy with him—as far as I know."
"The same thing again—never more. I wonder, I wonder after I have been married a dozen years what you will say of me?"
"I wonder, too: if we could but know that it would solve the question," the mother said. Elinor looked at her with a provoked and impatient air, which softened off after a moment—partly because she heard the door of the dining-room open—into a smile.
"I try you in every way," she said, half laughing. "I do everything to beguile you into a pleasanter speech. I thought you must at least have said then that you hoped you would have nothing to say but happiness. No! you are not to be caught, however one tries, mamma."
John came in at this moment, not without a whiff about him of the cigarette over which he had lingered so. It relieved him to see the two ladies seated opposite each other in the bow window, and to hear something like a laugh in the air. Perhaps they were discussing other things, and not this momentous marriage question, in which certainly no laughter was.
"You have your usual fire," he said, "but the wind has quite gone down, and I am sure it is not wanted to-night."
"It looks cheerful always, John."
"Which is the reason, I suppose, why you carefully place yourself out of sight of it—one of the prejudices of English life."
And then he came forward into the recess of the window, which was partly separated from the room by a table with flowers on it, and a great bush in a pot, of delicate maiden-hair fern. It was perhaps significant, though he did not mean it for any demonstration of partisanship, that he sat down on Elinor's side. Both the ladies felt it so instinctively, although, on the contrary, had the truth been known, all John's real agreement was with the mother; but in such a conjuncture it is not truth but personal sympathy that carries the day. "You are almost in the dark here," he said.
"Neither of us is doing anything. One is lazy on a summer night."
"There is a great deal more in it than that," said Elinor, in a voice which faltered a little. "You talk about summer nights, and the weather, and all manner of indifferent things, but you know all the time there is but one real subject to talk of, and that we are all thinking of that."
"That is my line, aunt," said John. "Elinor is right. We might sit and make conversation, but of course this is the only subject we are thinking of. It's very kind of you to take me into the consultation. Of course I am in a kind of way the nearest in relation, and the only man in the family—except my father—and I know a little about law, and all that. Now let me hear formally, as if I knew nothing about it (and, in fact, I know very little), what the question is. Elinor has met someone who—who has proposed to her—not to put too fine a point upon it," said John, with a smile that was somewhat ghastly—"and she has accepted him. Congratulations are understood, but here there arises a hitch."
"There arises no hitch. Mamma is dissatisfied (which mamma generally is) chiefly because she does not know Mr. Compton; and some wretched old woman, who doesn't know him either, has written to her—to her and also to me—telling us a pack of lies," said Elinor, indignantly, "to which I do not give the least credence for a moment—not for a moment!"
"That's all very well for you," said John, "it's quite simple; but for us, Elinor—that is, for your mother and me, as you are good enough to allow me to have a say in the matter—it's not so simple. We feel, you know, that, like Caesar's wife, our Elinor's—husband"—he could not help making a grimace as he said that word, but no one saw or suspected it—"should be above suspicion."
"That is exactly what I feel, John."
"Well, we must do something about it, don't you see? Probably it will be as easy as possible for him to clear himself." (The dis-Honourable Phil! Good heavens! to think it was a man branded with such a name that was to marry Elinor! For a moment he was silenced by the thought, as if some one had given him a blow.)
"To clear himself!" said Elinor. "And do you think I will permit him to be asked to clear himself? Do you think I will allow him to believe for a moment that I believed anything against him? Do you think I will take the word of a spiteful old woman?"
"Old women are not always spiteful, and they are sometimes right." John put out his hand to prevent Mrs. Dennistoun from speaking, which, indeed, she had no intention of doing. "I don't mean so, of course, in Mr. Compton's case—and I don't know what has been said."
"Things that are very uncomfortable—very inconsistent with a happy life and a comfortable establishment," said Mrs. Dennistoun.
"Oh, if you could only hear yourself, mamma! You are not generally a Philistine, I must say that for you; but if you only heard the tone in which you said 'comfortable establishment!' the most conventional match-making in existence could not have done it better; and as for what has been said, there has nothing been said but what is said about everybody—what, probably, would be said of you yourself, John, for you play whist sometimes, I hear, and often billiards, at the club."
A half-audible "God forbid!" had come from John's lips when she said, "What would probably be said of yourself"—audible that is to Elinor, not to the mother. She sprang up as this murmur came to her ear: "Oh, if you are going to prejudge the case, there is nothing for me to say!"
"I should be very sorry to prejudge the case, or to judge it all," said John. "I am too closely interested to be judicial. Let somebody who knows nothing about it be your judge. Let the accusations be submitted—to your Rector, say; he's a sensible man enough, and knows the world. He won't be scared by a rubber at the club, or that sort of thing. Let him inquire, and then your mind will be at rest."
"There is only one difficulty, John," said Mrs. Dennistoun. "Mr. Hudson would be the best man in the world, only for one thing—that it is from his sister and his wife that the warning came."
"Oh!" said John. This fact seemed to take him aback in the most ludicrous way. He sat and gazed at them, and had not another word to say. Perhaps the fact that he himself who suggested the inquiry was still better informed of the true state of the case, and of the truth of the accusation, than were those to whom he might have submitted it, gave him a sense of the hopelessness and also absurdity of the attempt more than anything else could have done.
"And that proves, if there was nothing else," said Elinor, "how false it is: for how could Mrs. Hudson and Mary Dale know? They are not fashionable people, they are not in society. How could they or any one like them know anything of Phil"—she stopped quickly, drew herself up, and added—"of Mr. Compton, I mean?"
"They might not know, but they might state their authority," Mrs. Dennistoun said; "and if the Rector cannot be used to help us, surely, John, you are a man of the world, you are not like a woman, unacquainted with evidence. Why should not you do it, though you are, as you kindly say, an interested party?"
"He shall not do it. I forbid him to do it. If he takes in hand anything of the kind he must say good-by to me."
"You hear?" said John; "but I could not do it in any case, my dear Elinor. I am too near. I never could see this thing all round. Why not your lawyer, old Lynch, a decent old fellow——"
"I will tell him the same," cried Elinor; "I will never speak to him again."
"My dear," said her mother, "you will give everybody the idea that you don't want to know the truth."
"I know the truth already," said Elinor, rising with great dignity. "Do you think that any slander would for a moment shake my faith in you—or you? You don't deserve it, John, for you turn against me—you that I thought were going to take my part; but do you think if all the people in London set up one story that I would believe it against you? And how should I against him?" she added, with an emphasis upon the word, as expressing something immeasurably more to be loved and trusted than either mother or cousin, by which, after having raised John up to a sort of heaven of gratified affection, she let him down again to the ground like a stone. Oh, yes! trusted in with perfect faith, nothing believed against him, whom she had known all her life—but yet not to be mentioned in the same breath with the ineffable trust she reposed in the man she loved—whom she did not know at all. The first made John's countenance beam with emotion and pleasure, the second brought a cold shade over his face. For a moment he could scarcely speak.
"She bribes us," he said at last, forcing a smile. "She flatters us, but only to let us drop again, Mrs. Dennistoun; it is as good as saying, 'What are we to him?'"
"They all do so," said the elder lady, calmly; "I am used to it."
"But, perhaps, I am not quite—used to it," said John, with something in his voice which made them both look at him—Elinor only for a moment, carelessly, before she swept away—Mrs. Dennistoun with a more warmly awakened sensation, as if she had made some discovery. "Ah!" she said, with a tone of pain. But Elinor did not wait for any further disclosures. She waved her hand, and went off with her head high, carrying, as she felt, the honours of war. They might plot, indeed, behind her back, and try to invent some tribunal before which her future husband might be arraigned; but John, at least, would say nothing to make things worse. John would be true to her—he would not injure Phil Compton. Elinor, perhaps, guessed a little of what John was thinking, and felt, though she could scarcely have told how, that it would be a point of honour with him not to betray her love.
He sat with Mrs. Dennistoun in partial silence for some time after this. He felt as if he had been partially discovered—partially, and yet more would be discovered than there was to discover; for if either of them believed that he was in love with Elinor, they were mistaken, he said to himself. He had been annoyed by her engagement, but he had never come to the point of asking her that question in his own person. No, nor would not, he said to himself—certainly would not—not even to save her from the clutches of this gambler and adventurer. No; they might think what they liked, but this was the case. He never should have done it—never would have exposed himself to refusal—never besought this high-tempered girl to have the control of his life. Poor Nelly all the same! poor little thing! To think she had so little judgment as to ignore what might have been a great deal better, and to pin her faith to the dis-Honourable Phil.
In the morning John accompanied Elinor to church. Mrs. Dennistoun had found an excuse for not going, which I am sorry to say was a way she had. She expressed (and felt) much sorrow for it herself, saying, which was quite true, that not to go was a great distress to her, and put the household out, and was a custom she did not approve of. But somehow it had grown upon her. She regretted this, but did it, saying that everybody was illogical, and that when Elinor had some one to go with she thought herself justified at her age in this little indulgence. Neither Elinor nor John objected to the arrangement. There are things that can be said in a walk while both parties are in motion, and when it is not necessary to face each other and to be subjected each to the other's examination of feature and expression. It is easier in this way to say many things, to ask questions which might be embarrassing, to receive the fire of an examination which it might be otherwise difficult to meet. Thus the two had not walked above half the way to church, which was on the other edge of the combe, and stood, a lovely old place—but not the trim and restored and well-decorated edifice it is nowadays—tinkling its little bells into the sweet moorland air, amid such a hum of innumerable bees as seemed to make the very sunshine a vehicle for sound—before John began to perceive that he was being ingeniously driven to revelations which he had never intended, by a process for which he was not at all prepared. She who had been so indignant last night and determined not to allow a word to be said against the immaculate honour of the man she loved, was now—was it possible?—straining all her faculties to obtain from him, whom she would not permit to be Phil Compton's judge, such unguarded admissions as would enlighten her as to what Phil Compton was accused of. It was some time before John perceived her aim; he did not even grasp the idea at first that this girl whose whole heart was set upon marrying Phil Compton, and defying for his sake every prophecy of evil and all the teachings of prudence, did not indeed at all know what it was which Phil had been supposed to have done. Had she been a girl in society she could scarcely have avoided some glimmerings of knowledge. She would have heard an unguarded word here and there, a broken phrase, an expression of scorn or dislike, she might even have heard that most unforgettable of nicknames, the dis-Honourable Phil. But Elinor, who was not in society, heard none of these things. She had been warned in the first fervour of her betrothal that he was not a man she ought to marry, but why? nobody had told her; how was she to know?
"You don't like Lady Mariamne, John?"
"It matters very little whether I like her or not: we don't meet once in a year."
"It will matter if you are to be in a kind of way connected. What has she ever done that you shouldn't like her? She is very nice at home; she has three nice little children. It's quite pretty to see her with them."
"Ah, I daresay; it's pretty to see a tiger with her cubs, I don't doubt."
"What do you mean, John? What has she ever done?"
"I cannot tell you, Elinor; nothing perhaps. She does not take my fancy: that's all."
"That's not all; you could never be so unjust and so absurd. How dreadful you good people are! Pretending to mean kindness," she cried, "you put the mark of your dislike upon people, and then you won't say why. What have they done?"
It was this "they" that put John upon his guard. Hitherto she had only been asking about the sister, who did not matter so very much. If a man was to be judged by his sister! but "they" gave him a new light.
"Can't you understand, Elinor," he said, "that without doing anything that can be built upon, a woman may set herself in a position of enmity to the world, her hand against every one, and every one's hand against her?"
"I know that well enough—generally because she does not comply with every conventional rule, but does and thinks what commends itself to her; I do that myself—so far as I can with mamma behind me."
"You! the question has nothing to do with you."
"Why not with me as much as with another of my family?" said Elinor, throwing back her head.
He turned round upon her with something like a snort of indignation: she to be compared—but Elinor met his eyes with scornful composure and defiance, and John was obliged to calm himself. "There's no analogy," he said; "Lady Mariamne is an old campaigner. She's up to everything. Besides, a sister-in-law—if it comes to that—is not a very near relation. No one will judge you by her." He would not be led into any discussion of the other, whose name, alas! Elinor intended to bear.
"If it comes to that. Perhaps you think," said Elinor, with a smile of fine scorn, "that you will prevent it ever coming to that?"
"Oh, no," he said, "I'm very humble; I don't think much of my own powers in that way: nothing that I can do will affect it, if Providence doesn't take it in hand."
"You really think it's a big enough thing to invoke Providence about?"
"If Providence looks after the sparrows as we are told," said John, "it certainly may be expected to step in to save a nice girl like you, Nelly, from—from connections you'll soon get to hate—and—and a shady man!"
She turned upon him with sparkling eyes in a sudden blaze of indignation. "How dare you! how dare you!"
"I dare a great deal more than that to save you. You must hear me, Nelly: they're all badly spoken of, not one, but all. They are a shady lot—excuse a man's way of talking. I don't know what other words to use—partly from misfortune, but more from—— Nelly, Nelly, how could you, a high-minded, well-brought-up girl like you, tolerate that?"
She turned upon him again, breathing hard with restrained rage and desperation; evidently she was at a loss for words to convey her indignant wrath: and at last in sheer inability to express the vehemence of her feelings she fastened on one word and repeated "well-brought-up!" in accents of scorn.
"Yes," said John, "my aunt and you may not always understand each other, but she's proved her case to every fair mind by yourself, Elinor. A girl could not be better brought up than you've been: and you could not put up with it, not unless you changed your nature as well as your name."
"With what?" she said, "with what?" They had gone up and down the sloping sides of the combe, through the rustling copse, sometimes where there was a path, sometimes where there was none, treading over the big bushes of ling and the bell-heather, all bursting into bloom, past groups of primeval firs and seedling beeches, self-sown, over little hillocks and hollows formed of rocks or big old roots of trees covered with the close glittering green foliage and dark blue clusters of the dewberry, with the hum of bees filling the air, the twittering of the birds, the sound of the church bells—nothing more like the heart of summer, more peaceful, genial, happy than that brooding calm of nature amid all the harmonious sounds, could be.
But as Elinor put this impatient question, her countenance all ablaze with anger and vehemence and resolution, yet with a gleam of anxiety in the puckers of her forehead and the eyes which shone from beneath them, they stepped out upon the road by which other groups were passing, all bound towards the centre of the church and its tinkling bells. Elinor stopped, and drew a longer panting breath, and gave him a look of fierce reproach, as if this too were his fault: and then she smoothed her ruffled plumes, after the manner of women, and replied to the Sunday-morning salutations, with the smiles and nods of use and wont. She knew everybody, both the rich and the poor, or rather I should say the well-off and the less-well-off, for there were neither rich nor poor, formally speaking, on Windyhill. John did not find it so easy to put his emotions in his pocket. He cast an admiring glance upon her as with heightened colour and a little panting of the breath, but no other sign of disturbance, she made her inquiries after this one's mother and that one's child. It was wonderful to him to see how the storm was got under in a moment. An occasional glance aside at himself from the corner of her eye, a sort of dart of defiance as if to bid him remember that she was not done with him, was shot at John from time to time over the heads of the innocent country people in whom she pretended to be so much interested. Pretended!—was it pretence, or was the one as real as the other? He heard her promising to come to-morrow to see an invalid, to send certain articles as soon as she got home, to look up certain books. Would she do so? or was all this a mere veil to cover the other which engaged all her soul?
And then there came the service—that soothing routine of familiar prayers, which the lips of men and women absorbed in the violence and urgency of life murmur over almost without knowing, with now and then an awakening to something that touches their own aspirations, to something that offers or that asks for help. "Because there is none other that fighteth for us but only Thou, O God." That seems to the careless soul such a non sequitur, as if peace was asked for, only because there was none other to fight; but to the man heavily laden, what a cry out of the depths! Because there is none other—all resources gone, all possibilities: but one that fighteth for us, standing fast, always the champion of the perplexed, the overborne, the weak. John was a little careless in this respect, as so many young men are. He thought most of the music when he joined the fashionable throng in the Temple Church. But there was no music to speak of at Windyhill. There was more sound of the bees outside, and the birds and the sighing bass of the fir-trees than of anything more carefully concerted. The organ was played with a curious drone in it, almost like that of the primitive bagpipe. But there was that one phrase, a strong strain of human appeal, enough to lift the world, nay, to let itself go straight to the blue heavens: "Because there is none other that fighteth for us but only Thou, O God."
Mr. Hudson preached his little sermon like a discord in the midst. What should he have preached it for, that little sermon, which was only composed because he could not help himself, which was about nothing in heaven or earth? John gave it a sort of partial attention because he could not help it, partly in wonder to think how a sensible man like Mr. Hudson could account to himself for such strange little interruption of the natural sequence of high human emotion. What theory had he in his mind? This was a question John was fond of putting to himself, with perhaps an idea peculiar to a lawyer, that every man must be thinking what he is about, and be able to produce a clear reason, and, as it were, some theory of the meaning of his own actions—which everybody must know is nonsense. For the Rector of course preached just because it was in his day's work, and the people would have been much surprised, though possibly much relieved, had he not done so—feeling that to listen was in the day's work too, and to be gone through doggedly as a duty. John thought how much better it would be to have some man who could preach now and then when he had something to say, instead of troubling the Rector, who, good man, had nothing. But it is not to be supposed that he was thinking this consecutively while the morning went on. It flitted through his mind from time to time among his many thinkings about the Compton family and Elinor; poor Nelly, standing upon the edge of that precipice and the helplessness of every one to save her, and the great refrain like the peal of an organ going through everything, "None other that fighteth for us but only Thou, O God." Surely, surely to prevent this sacrifice He would interfere.
She turned to him the moment they were out of the church doors with that same look of eager defiance yet demand, and as soon as they left the road, the first step into the copse, putting out her hand to call his attention: "You said I could not put up with it, a girl so well-brought-up as I am. What is it a well-brought-up girl can't put up with? A disorderly house, late hours, and so forth, hateful to the well-brought-up? What is it, what is it, John?"
"Have you been thinking of that all through the morning prayers?" he said.
"Yes, I have been thinking about it. What did you expect me to think about? Is there anything else so important? Mr. Hudson's sermon, perhaps, which I have heard before, which I suppose you listened to," she said, with a troubled laugh.
"I did a little, wondering how a good man like that could go on doing it; and there were other things——" John did not like to say what it was which was still throbbing through the air to him, and through his own being.
"Nothing that is of so much moment to me: come back, John, to the well-brought-up girl."
"You think that's a poor sort of description, Elinor; so it is. You are of course a great deal more than that. Still it's what one can turn to most easily. You don't know what life is in a sort of fast house, where there is nothing thought of but amusement or where it's a constant round of race meetings, yachting, steeplechases—I don't know if men still ride steeplechases—I mean that sort of thing: Monte Carlo in the winter: betting all the year round—if not on one thing then on another; expedients to raise money, for money's always wanted. You don't know—how can you know?—what goes on in a fast life."
"Don't you see, John," she cried, eagerly, "that all that, if put in a different way not to their prejudice, if put in the right way would sound delightful? There is no harm in these things at all. Betting's not a sin in the Bible any more than races are. Don't you see it's only the abuse of them that's wrong? One might ruin one's health, I believe, with tea, which is the most righteous thing! I should like above all things a yacht, say in the Mediterranean, and to go to Monte Carlo, which is a beautiful place, and where there is the best music in the world, besides the gambling. I should like even to see the gambling once in a way, for the fun of the thing. You don't frighten me at all. I have been a fortnight at Lady Mariamne's, and the continual 'go' was delightful; there was never a dull moment. As for expedients to raise money, there——"
"To be sure—old Prestwich is as rich as Croesus—or was," said John, with significance, "but you are not going to live with Lady Mariamne, I suppose."
"Oh, John!" she cried, "oh, John!" suddenly seizing him by the arm, clasping her hands on it in the pretty way of earnestness she had, though one hand held her parasol, which was inconvenient. The soft face was suffused with rosy colour, so different from the angry red, the flush of love and tenderness—her eyes swam in liquid light, looking up with mingled happiness and entreaty to John's face. "Fancy what he says, that he will not object to come here for half the year to let me be with my mother! Remember what he is, a man of fashion, and fond of the world, and of going out and all that. He has consented to come, nay, he almost offered to come for six months in the year to be with mamma."
"Good heavens," cried John to himself, "he must indeed be down on his luck!" but what he said was, "Does your mother know of this, Elinor?"
"I have not told her yet. I have reserved it to hear first what you had to say: and so far as I can make out you have nothing at all to say, only general things, disapproval in the general. What should you say if I told you that he disapproves too? He said himself that there had been too much of all that—that he had backed something—isn't that what you say?—backed it at odds, and stood to win what he calls a pot of money. But after that was decided—for he said he could not be off bets that were made—never any more. Now that I know you have nothing more to say my heart is free, and I can tell you. He has never really liked that sort of life, but was led into it when he was very young. And now as soon as—we are together, you know"—she looked so bright, so sweet in the happiness of her love, that John could have flung her from his arms, and felt that she insulted him by that clinging hold—"he means to turn entirely to serious things, and to go into politics, John."
"Oh, he is going into politics!"
"Of course, on the people's side—to do everything for them—Home Rule, and all that is best: to see that they are heard in Parliament, and have their wants attended to, instead of jobs and corruption everywhere. So you will see, John, that if he has been fast, and gone a little too far, and been very much mixed up in the Turf, and all that, it was only in the exuberance of youth, liking the fun of it, as I feel I should myself. But that now, now all that is to be changed when he steps into settled, responsible life. I should not have told you if you had repeated the lies that people say. But as you did not, but only found fault with him for being fast——"
"Then you have heard—what people say?" He shifted his arm a little, so that she instinctively perceived that the affectionate clasp of her hands was no longer agreeable to him, and his face seemed suddenly to have become a blank page, absolutely devoid of all expression. He kicked vigorously at one of the hillocks he had stumbled against, as if he thought he could dislodge it and get it out of his way.
"Mariamne told me there was a lot of lies—that people said—I am so glad, John, oh! so thankful, that you have not repeated any of them; for now I can feel you are my own good John, as you always were, not a slanderer of any one, and we can go on being fond of each other like brother and sister. I have told him you have been the best of brothers to me."
"Oh," said John, without a sign of wonder or admiration in him, with a dead blank in his face.
"And what do you think he said? 'Then I know he must be a capital fellow, Ne——'"
"Not Nelly," said poor John, with a foolish pang that seemed to rend his heart. Oh, if that scamp, that cheat, that low betting, card-playing rascal were but here! he would capital-fellow him. To take not herself only, but the dear pet name that she had said was only John's——
"He says Nell sometimes, John. Oh, not Nelly—Nelly is for you only. I would never let him call me that. But they are all for short names, one syllable—he is Phil, and Mariamne, well at home they call her Jew—horrible, isn't it?—because she was called after some Jewess; but somehow it seems queer when you see her, so fair and frizzy, like anything but a Jew."
"So I have got one letter to myself," said John. "I don't know that I think that worth very much, however. And so far as I can see, you seem to think everything very fine—the bets, perhaps, and the rows and all."
"Well they are, you know," said Elinor, with a laugh, "to a little country mouse like me that has never seen anything. There is always something going on, and their slang way of speaking is certainly very amusing if it is not at all dignified, and they have such droll ways of looking at things. All so entirely different! Don't you know, John, sometimes in one's life one longs for something to be quite different. A complete change, anything new."
"If that is what you long for, no doubt you will get it, Elinor."
"Well!" she cried, "I have had the other for three-and-twenty years, long enough to have exhausted it, don't you think? but I don't mean to throw it over, oh, no! Coming back to mamma makes the arrangement perfect. Probably in the end it is the old life, the life I was brought up in that I shall like best in the long run. That is one thing of being well brought up. Phil will laugh till he cries when I tell him of your description of me as a well-brought-up girl."
John set his teeth as he walked or rather stumbled along by her side, catching in the roots of the trees as he had never done before, and swearing under his breath. Her flutter of talk running on, delighted, full of laughter and softness, as if he had fully declared his satisfaction and was interested in every detail, kept John in a state of suppressed fury which made his countenance dark, and almost took the sight from his eyes. He did not know how to escape from that false position, nor did she give him time, she had so much to say. Mrs. Dennistoun looked anxiously at the pair as they came up through the copse to the level of the cottage. There were no enclosures in that primitive place. From the copse you came straight into the garden with its banks of flowers. She was seated near the cottage door in a corner sheltered from the sun, with a number of books about her. But I don't think she had read anything except some portions of the lessons in the morning service. She had been sitting with her eyes vaguely fixed upon the horizon and her hands clasped in her lap, and a heavy shadow like an overhanging cloud upon her mind. But when she heard Elinor's voice approaching so gay and tuneful her heart rose a little. John evidently could have had nothing very bad to say. Elinor had been satisfied with the morning. Mrs. Dennistoun had expected to see them come back estranged and silent. The conclusion she drew was entirely satisfactory. After all John must have been moved solely by general disapproval, which is so very different from the dreadful hints and warnings that might mean any criminality. Elinor was talking to him as freely as she had done before this spectre rose. It must, Mrs. Dennistoun concluded, be all right.
It was not till he was going away that she had an opportunity of talking with him alone. Her satisfaction, it must be allowed, had been a little subdued by John's demeanour during the afternoon and evening. But Mrs. Dennistoun had said to herself that there might be other ways of accounting for this. She had long had a fancy that John was more interested in Elinor than he had confessed himself to be. It had been her conviction that as soon as he felt it warrantable, as soon as he was sufficiently well-established, and his practice secured, he would probably declare himself, with, she feared, no particular issue so far as Elinor was concerned. And perhaps he was disappointed, poor fellow, which was a very natural explanation of his glum looks. But at breakfast on Monday Elinor announced her intention of driving her cousin to the station, and went out to see that the pony was harnessed, an operation which took some time, for the pony was out in the field and had to be caught, and the man of all work, who had a hundred affairs to look after, had to be caught too to perform this duty; which sometimes, however, Elinor performed herself, but always with some expenditure of time. Mrs. Dennistoun seized the opportunity, plunging at once into the all-important subject.
"You seemed to get on all right together yesterday, John, so I suppose you found that after all there was not very much to say."
"I was not allowed to say——anything. You mean——"
"Oh, John, John, do you mean to tell me after all——"
"Aunt Ellen," he said, "stop it if you can; if there is any means in the world by which you can stop it, do so. I can't bring accusations against the man, for I couldn't prove them. I only know what everybody knows. He is not a man fit for Elinor to marry. He is not fit to touch the tie of her shoe."
"Oh, don't trouble me with your superlatives, John. Elinor is a good girl and a clever girl, but not a lady of romance. Is there anything really against him? Tell me, for goodness' sake! Even with these few words you have made me very unhappy," Mrs. Dennistoun said, in a half resentful tone.
"I can't help it," said the unfortunate man, "I can't bring accusations, as I tell you. He is simply a scamp—that is all I know."
"A scamp!" said Mrs. Dennistoun, with a look of alarm. "But then that is a word that has so many meanings. A scamp may be only a careless fellow, nice in his way. That is not enough to break off a marriage for. And, John, as you have said so much, you must say more."
"I have no more to say, that's all I know. Inquire what the Hudsons have heard. Stop it if you can."
"Oh, dear, dear, here is Elinor back already," Mrs. Dennistoun said.
The next time that John's presence was required at the cottage was for the signing of the very simple settlements; which, as there was nothing or next to nothing in the power of the man to settle upon his wife, were easy enough. He met Mr. Lynch, who was Mrs. Dennistoun's "man of business," and a sharp London solicitor, who was for the husband. Elinor's fortune was five thousand pounds, no more, not counting her expectations from him, which were left out of the question. It was a very small matter altogether, and one which the smart solicitor who was in Mr. Compton's interest spoke of with a certain contempt, as who should say he was not in the habit of being disturbed and brought to the country for any such trifle. It was now August—not a time when any man was supposed to be available for matters like these. Mr. Lynch was just about starting for his annual holiday, but came, at no small personal inconvenience, to do his duty by the poor girl whom he had known all his life. John and he travelled to the cottage together, and their aspect was not cheerful. "Did you ever hear," said Mr. Lynch, "such a piece of folly as this—a man with no character at all? This is what it is to leave a girl in the sole care of her mother. What does a woman know about such things?"
"I don't think it was her mother's fault," said John, anxious to do justice all round. "Elinor is very head-strong, and when she has made up her mind to a thing——"