THE MOORLAND COTTAGE.
By the author of MARY BARTON.
NEW YORK: 1851.
If you take the turn to the left, after you pass the lyke-gate at Combehurst Church, you will come to the wooden bridge over the brook; keep along the field-path which mounts higher and higher, and, in half a mile or so, you will be in a breezy upland field, almost large enough to be called a down, where sheep pasture on the short, fine, elastic turf. You look down on Combehurst and its beautiful church-spire. After the field is crossed, you come to a common, richly colored with the golden gorse and the purple heather, which in summer-time send out their warm scents into the quiet air. The swelling waves of the upland make a near horizon against the sky; the line is only broken in one place by a small grove of Scotch firs, which always look black and shadowed even at mid-day, when all the rest of the landscape seems bathed in sunlight. The lark quivers and sings high up in the air; too high—in too dazzling a region for you to see her. Look! she drops into sight; but, as if loth to leave the heavenly radiance, she balances herself and floats in the ether. Now she falls suddenly right into her nest, hidden among the ling, unseen except by the eyes of Heaven, and the small bright insects that run hither and thither on the elastic flower-stalks. With something like the sudden drop of the lark, the path goes down a green abrupt descent; and in a basin, surrounded by the grassy hills, there stands a dwelling, which is neither cottage nor house, but something between the two in size. Nor yet is it a farm, though surrounded by living things. It is, or rather it was, at the time of which I speak, the dwelling of Mrs. Browne, the widow of the late curate of Combehurst. There she lived with her faithful old servant and her only children, a boy and girl. They were as secluded in their green hollow as the households in the German forest-tales. Once a week they emerged and crossed the common, catching on its summit the first sounds of the sweet-toned bells, calling them to church. Mrs. Browne walked first, holding Edward's hand. Old Nancy followed with Maggie; but they were all one party, and all talked together in a subdued and quiet tone, as beseemed the day. They had not much to say, their lives were too unbroken; for, excepting on Sundays, the widow and her children never went to Combehurst. Most people would have thought the little town a quiet, dreamy place; but to those two children if seemed the world; and after they had crossed the bridge, they each clasped more tightly the hands which they held, and looked shyly up from beneath their drooped eyelids when spoken to by any of their mother's friends. Mrs. Browne was regularly asked by some one to stay to dinner after morning church, and as regularly declined, rather to the timid children's relief; although in the week-days they sometimes spoke together in a low voice of the pleasure it would be to them if mamma would go and dine at Mr. Buxton's, where the little girl in white and that great tall boy lived. Instead of staying there, or anywhere else, on Sundays, Mrs. Browne thought it her duty to go and cry over her husband's grave. The custom had arisen out of true sorrow for his loss, for a kinder husband, and more worthy man, had never lived; but the simplicity of her sorrow had been destroyed by the observation of others on the mode of its manifestation. They made way for her to cross the grass toward his grave; and she, fancying that it was expected of her, fell into the habit I have mentioned. Her children, holding each a hand, felt awed and uncomfortable, and were sensitively conscious how often they were pointed out, as a mourning group, to observation.
"I wish it would always rain on Sundays," said Edward one day to Maggie, in a garden conference.
"Why?" asked she.
"Because then we bustle out of church, and get home as fast as we can, to save mamma's crape; and we have not to go and cry over papa."
"I don't cry," said Maggie. "Do you?"
Edward looked round before he answered, to see if they were quite alone, and then said:
"No; I was sorry a long time about papa, but one can't go on being sorry forever. Perhaps grown-up people can."
"Mamma can," said little Maggie. "Sometimes I am very sorry too; when I am by myself or playing with you, or when I am wakened up by the moonlight in our room. Do you ever waken and fancy you heard papa calling you? I do sometimes; and then I am very sorry to think we shall never hear him calling us again."
"Ah, it's different with me, you know. He used to call me to lessons."
"Sometimes he called me when he was displeased with me. But I always dream that he was calling us in his own kind voice, as he used to do when he wanted us to walk with him, or to show us something pretty."
Edward was silent, playing with something on the ground. At last he looked round again, and, having convinced himself that they could not be overheard, he whispered:
"Maggie—sometimes I don't think I'm sorry that papa is dead—when I'm naughty, you know; he would have been so angry with me if he had been here; and I think—only sometimes, you know, I'm rather glad he is not."
"Oh, Edward! you don't mean to say so, I know. Don't let us talk about him. We can't talk rightly, we're such little children. Don't, Edward, please."
Poor little Maggie's eyes filled with tears; and she never spoke again to Edward, or indeed to any one, about her dead father. As she grew older, her life became more actively busy. The cottage and small outbuildings, and the garden and field, were their own; and on the produce they depended for much of their support. The cow, the pig, and the poultry took up much of Nancy's time. Mrs. Browne and Maggie had to do a great deal of the house-work; and when the beds were made, and the rooms swept and dusted, and the preparations for dinner ready, then, if there was any time, Maggie sat down to her lessons. Ned, who prided himself considerably on his sex, had been sitting all the morning, in his father's arm-chair, in the little book-room, "studying," as he chose to call it. Sometimes Maggie would pop her head in, with a request that he would help her to carry the great pitcher of water up-stairs, or do some other little household service; with which request he occasionally complied, but with so many complaints about the interruption, that at last she told him she would never ask him again. Gently as this was said, he yet felt it as a reproach, and tried to excuse himself.
"You see, Maggie, a man must be educated to be a gentleman. Now, if a woman knows how to keep a house, that's all that is wanted from her. So my time is of more consequence than yours. Mamma says I'm to go to college, and be a clergyman; so I must get on with my Latin."
Maggie submitted in silence; and almost felt it as an act of gracious condescension when, a morning or two afterwards, he came to meet her as she was toiling in from the well, carrying the great brown jug full of spring-water ready for dinner. "Here," said he, "let us put it in the shade behind the horse-mount. Oh, Maggie! look what you've done! Spilt it all, with not turning quickly enough when I told you. Now you may fetch it again for yourself, for I'll have nothing to do with it."
"I did not understand you in time," said she, softly. But he had turned away, and gone back in offended dignity to the house. Maggie had nothing to do but return to the well, and fill it again. The spring was some distance off, in a little rocky dell. It was so cool after her hot walk, that she sat down in the shadow of the gray limestone rock, and looked at the ferns, wet with the dripping water. She felt sad, she knew not why. "I think Ned is sometimes very cross," thought she. "I did not understand he was carrying it there. Perhaps I am clumsy. Mamma says I am; and Ned says I am. Nancy never says so and papa never said so. I wish I could help being clumsy and stupid. Ned says all women are so. I wish I was not a woman. It must be a fine thing to be a man. Oh dear! I must go up the field again with this heavy pitcher, and my arms do so ache!" She rose and climbed the steep brae. As she went she heard her mother's voice.
"Maggie! Maggie! there's no water for dinner, and the potatoes are quite boiled. Where is that child?"
They had begun dinner, before she came down from brushing her hair and washing her hands. She was hurried and tired.
"Mother," said Ned, "mayn't I have some butter to these potatoes, as there is cold meat? They are so dry."
"Certainly, my dear. Maggie, go and fetch a pat of butter out of the dairy."
Maggie went from her untouched dinner without speaking.
"Here, stop, you child!" said Nancy, turning her back in the passage. "You go to your dinner, I'll fetch the butter. You've been running about enough to-day."
Maggie durst not go back without it, but she stood in the passage till Nancy returned; and then she put up her mouth to be kissed by the kind rough old servant.
"Thou'rt a sweet one," said Nancy to herself, as she turned into the kitchen; and Maggie went back to her dinner with a soothed and lightened heart.
When the meal was ended, she helped her mother to wash up the old-fashioned glasses and spoons, which were treated with tender care and exquisite cleanliness in that house of decent frugality; and then, exchanging her pinafore for a black silk apron, the little maiden was wont to sit down to some useful piece of needlework, in doing which her mother enforced the most dainty neatness of stitches. Thus every hour in its circle brought a duty to be fulfilled; but duties fulfilled are as pleasures to the memory, and little Maggie always thought those early childish days most happy, and remembered them only as filled with careless contentment.
Yet, at the time they had their cares.
In fine summer days Maggie sat out of doors at her work. Just beyond the court lay the rocky moorland, almost as gay as that with its profusion of flowers. If the court had its clustering noisettes, and fraxinellas, and sweetbriar, and great tall white lilies, the moorland had its little creeping scented rose, its straggling honeysuckle, and an abundance of yellow cistus; and here and there a gray rock cropped out of the ground, and over it the yellow stone-crop and scarlet-leaved crane's-bill grew luxuriantly. Such a rock was Maggie's seat. I believe she considered it her own, and loved it accordingly; although its real owner was a great lord, who lived far away, and had never seen the moor, much less the piece of gray rock, in his life.
The afternoon of the day which I have begun to tell you about, she was sitting there, and singing to herself as she worked: she was within call of home, and could hear all home sounds, with their shrillness softened down. Between her and it, Edward was amusing himself; he often called upon her for sympathy, which she as readily gave.
"I wonder how men make their boats steady; I have taken mine to the pond, and she has toppled over every time I sent her in."
"Has it?—that's very tiresome! Would if do to put a little weight in it, to keep it down?"
"How often must I tell you to call a ship 'her;' and there you will go on saying—it—it!"
After this correction of his sister, Master Edward did not like the condescension of acknowledging her suggestion to be a good one; so he went silently to the house in search of the requisite ballast; but not being able to find anything suitable, he came back to his turfy hillock, littered round with chips of wood, and tried to insert some pebbles into his vessel; but they stuck fast, and he was obliged to ask again.
"Supposing it was a good thing to weight her, what could I put in?"
Maggie thought a moment.
"Would shot do?" asked she.
"It would be the very thing; but where can I get any?"
"There is some that was left of papa's. It is in the right-hand corner of the second drawer of the bureau, wrapped up in a newspaper."
"What a plague! I can't remember your 'seconds,' and 'right-hands,' and fiddle-faddles." He worked on at his pebbles. They would hot do.
"I think if you were good-natured, Maggie, you might go for me."
"Oh, Ned! I've all this long seam to do. Mamma said I must finish it before tea; and that I might play a little if I had done if first," said Maggie, rather plaintively; for it was a real pain to her to refuse a request.
"It would not take you five minutes."
Maggie thought a little. The time would only be taken out of her playing, which, after all, did not signify; while Edward was really busy about his ship. She rose, and clambered up the steep grassy slope, slippery with the heat.
Before she had found the paper of shot, she heard her mother's voice calling, in a sort of hushed hurried loudness, as if anxious to be heard by one person yet not by another—"Edward, Edward, come home quickly. Here's Mr. Buxton coming along the Fell-Lane;—he's coming here, as sure as sixpence; come, Edward, come."
Maggie saw Edward put down his ship and come. At his mother's bidding it certainly was; but he strove to make this as little apparent as he could, by sauntering up the slope, with his hands in his pockets, in a very independent and neglige style. Maggie had no time to watch longer; for now she was called too, and down stairs she ran.
"Here, Maggie," said her mother, in a nervous hurry;—"help Nancy to get a tray ready all in a minute. I do believe here's Mr. Buxton coming to call. Oh, Edward! go and brush your hair, and put on your Sunday jacket; here's Mr. Buxton just coming round. I'll only run up and change my cap; and you say you'll come up and tell me, Nancy; all proper, you know."
"To be sure, ma'am. I've lived in families afore now," said Nancy, gruffly.
"Oh, yes, I know you have. Be sure you bring in the cowslip wine. I wish I could have stayed to decant some port."
Nancy and Maggie bustled about, in and out of the kitchen and dairy; and were so deep in their preparations for Mr. Buxton's reception that they were not aware of the very presence of that gentleman himself on the scene. He had found the front door open, as is the wont in country places, and had walked in; first stopping at the empty parlor, and then finding his way to the place where voices and sounds proclaimed that there were inhabitants. So he stood there, stooping a little under the low-browed lintels of the kitchen door, and looking large, and red, and warm, but with a pleased and almost amused expression of face.
"Lord bless me, sir! what a start you gave me!" said Nancy, as she suddenly caught sight of him. "I'll go and tell my missus in a minute that you're come."
Off she went, leaving Maggie alone with the great, tall, broad gentleman, smiling at her from his frame in the door-way, but never speaking. She went on dusting a wine-glass most assiduously.
"Well done, little girl," came out a fine strong voice at last. "Now I think that will do. Come and show me the parlor where I may sit down, for I've had a long walk, and am very tired."
Maggie took him into the parlor, which was always cool and fresh in the hottest weather. It was scented by a great beau-pot filled with roses; and, besides, the casement was open to the fragrant court. Mr. Buxton was so large, and the parlor so small, that when he was once in, Maggie thought when he went away, he could carry the room on his back, as a snail does its house.
"And so, you are a notable little woman, are you?" said he, after he had stretched himself (a very unnecessary proceeding), and unbuttoned his waistcoat, Maggie stood near the door, uncertain whether to go or to stay. "How bright and clean you were making that glass! Do you think you could get me some water to fill it? Mind, it must be that very glass I saw you polishing. I shall know it again."
Maggie was thankful to escape out of the room; and in the passage she met her mother, who had made time to change her gown as well as her cap. Before Nancy would allow the little girl to return with the glass of water she smoothed her short-cut glossy hair; it was all that was needed to make her look delicately neat. Maggie was conscientious in trying to find out the identical glass; but I am afraid Nancy was not quite so truthful in avouching that one of the six, exactly similar, which were now placed on the tray, was the same she had found on the dresser, when she came back from telling her mistress of Mr. Buxton's arrival.
Maggie carried in the water, with a shy pride in the clearness of the glass. Her mother was sitting on the edge of her chair, speaking in unusually fine language, and with a higher pitched voice than common. Edward, in all his Sunday glory, was standing by Mr. Buxton, looking happy and conscious. But when Maggie came in, Mr. Buxton made room for her between Edward and himself, and, while she went on talking, lifted her on to his knee. She sat there as on a pinnacle of honor; but as she durst not nestle up to him, a chair would have been the more comfortable seat.
"As founder's line, I have a right of presentation; and for my dear old friend's sake" (here Mrs. Browne wiped her eyes), "I am truly glad of it; my young friend will have a little form of examination to go through; and then we shall see him carrying every prize before him, I have no doubt. Thank you, just a little of your sparkling cowslip wine. Ah! this gingerbread is like the gingerbread I had when I was a boy. My little lady here must learn the receipt, and make me some. Will she?"
"Speak to Mr. Buxton, child, who is kind to your brother. You will make him some gingerbread, I am sure."
"If I may," said Maggie, hanging down her head.
"Or, I'll tell you what. Suppose you come to my house, and teach us how to make it there; and then, you know, we could always be making gingerbread when we were not eating it. That would be best, I think. Must I ask mamma to bring you down to Combehurst, and let us all get acquainted together? I have a great boy and a little girl at home, who will like to see you, I'm sure. And we have got a pony for you to ride on, and a peacock and guinea fowls, and I don't know what all. Come, madam, let me persuade you. School begins in three weeks. Let us fix a day before then."
"Do mamma," said Edward.
"I am not in spirits for visiting," Mrs. Browne answered. But the quick children detected a hesitation in her manner of saying the oft spoken words, and had hopes, if only Mr. Buxton would persevere in his invitation.
"Your not visiting is the very reason why you are not in spirits. A little change, and a few neighborly faces, would do you good, I'll be bound. Besides, for the children's sake you should not live too secluded a life. Young people should see a little of the world."
Mrs. Browne was much obliged to Mr. Buxton for giving her so decent an excuse for following her inclination, which, it must be owned, tended to the acceptance of the invitation. So, "for the children's sake," she consented. But she sighed, as if making a sacrifice.
"That's right," said Mr. Buxton. "Now for the day."
It was fixed that they should go on that day week; and after some further conversation about the school at which Edward was to be placed, and some more jokes about Maggie's notability, and an inquiry if she would come and live with him the next time he wanted a housemaid, Mr. Buxton took his leave.
His visit had been an event; and they made no great attempt at settling again that day to any of their usual employments. In the first place, Nancy came in to hear and discuss all the proposed plans. Ned, who was uncertain whether to like or dislike the prospect of school, was very much offended by the old servant's remark, on first hearing of the project.
"It's time for him. He'll learn his place there, which, it strikes me, he and others too are apt to forget at home."
Then followed discussions and arrangements respecting his clothes. And then they came to the plan of spending a day at Mr. Buxton's, which Mrs. Browne was rather shy of mentioning, having a sort of an idea of inconstancy and guilt connected with the thought of mingling with the world again. However, Nancy approved: "It was quite right," and "just as it should be," and "good for the children."
"Yes; it was on their account I did it, Nancy," said Mrs. Browne.
"How many children has Mr. Buxton?" asked Edward.
"Only one. Frank, I think, they call him. But you must say Master Buxton; be sure."
"Who is the little girl, then," asked Maggie, "who sits with them in church?"
"Oh! that's little Miss Harvey, his niece, and a great fortune."
"They do say he never forgave her mother till the day of her death," remarked Nancy.
"Then they tell stories, Nancy!" replied Mrs. Browne (it was she herself who had said it; but that was before Mr. Buxton's call). For d'ye think his sister would have left him guardian to her child, if they were not on good terms?"
"Well! I only know what folks say. And, for sure, he took a spite at Mr. Harvey for no reason on earth; and every one knows he never spoke to him."
"He speaks very kindly and pleasantly," put in Maggie.
"Ay; and I'm not saying but what he is a very good, kind man in the main. But he has his whims, and keeps hold on 'em when he's got 'em. There's them pies burning, and I'm talking here!"
When Nancy had returned to her kitchen, Mrs. Browne called Maggie up stairs, to examine what clothes would be needed for Edward. And when they were up, she tried on the black satin gown, which had been her visiting dress ever since she was married, and which she intended should replace the old, worn-out bombazine on the day of the visit to Combehurst.
"For Mrs. Buxton is a real born lady," said she; "and I should like to be well dressed, to do her honor."
"I did not know there was a Mrs. Buxton," said Maggie. "She is never at church."
"No; she is but delicate and weakly, and never leaves the house. I think her maid told me she never left her room now."
The Buxton family, root and branch, formed the piece de resistance in the conversation between Mrs. Browne and her children for the next week. As the day drew near, Maggie almost wished to stay at home, so impressed was she with the awfulness of the visit. Edward felt bold in the idea of a new suit of clothes, which had been ordered for the occasion, and for school afterwards. Mrs. Browne remembered having heard the rector say, "A woman never looked so lady-like as when she wore black satin," and kept her spirits up with that observation; but when she saw how worn it was at the elbows, she felt rather depressed, and unequal to visiting. Still, for her children's sake, she would do much.
After her long day's work was ended, Nancy sat up at her sewing. She had found out that among all the preparations, none were going on for Margaret; and she had used her influence over her mistress (who half-liked and half-feared, and entirely depended upon her) to obtain from her an old gown, which she had taken to pieces, and washed and scoured, and was now making up, in a way a little old-fashioned to be sure; but, on the whole, it looked so nice when completed and put on, that Mrs. Browne gave Maggie a strict lecture about taking great care of such a handsome frock and forgot that she had considered the gown from which if had been made as worn out and done for.
At length they were dressed, and Nancy stood on the court-steps, shading her eyes, and looking after them, as they climbed the heathery slope leading to Combehurst.
"I wish she'd take her hand sometimes, just to let her know the feel of her mother's hand. Perhaps she will, at least after Master Edward goes to school."
As they went along, Mrs. Browne gave the children a few rules respecting manners and etiquette.
"Maggie! you must sit as upright as ever you can; make your back flat, child, and don't poke. If I cough, you must draw up. I shall cough whenever I see you do anything wrong, and I shall be looking at you all day; so remember. You hold yourself very well, Edward. If Mr. Buxton asks you, you may have a glass of wine, because you're a boy. But mind and say, 'Your good health, sir,' before you drink it."
"I'd rather not have the wine if I'm to say that," said Edward, bluntly.
"Oh, nonsense! my dear. You'd wish to be like a gentleman, I'm sure."
Edward muttered something which was inaudible. His mother went on:
Of course you'll never think of being helped more than twice. Twice of meat, twice of pudding, is the genteel thing. You may take less, but never more."
"Oh, mamma! how beautiful Combehurst spire is, with that dark cloud behind it!" exclaimed Maggie, as they came in sight of the town.
"You've no business with Combehurst spire when I'm speaking to you. I'm talking myself out of breath to teach you how to behave, and there you go looking after clouds, and such like rubbish. I'm ashamed of you."
Although Maggie walked quietly by her mother's side all the rest of the way, Mrs. Browne was too much offended to resume her instructions on good-breeding. Maggie might be helped three times if she liked: she had done with her.
They were very early. When they drew near the bridge, they were met by a tall, fine-looking boy, leading a beautiful little Shetland pony, with a side-saddle on it. He came up to Mrs. Browne, and addressed her.
"My father thought your little girl would be tired, and he told me to bring my cousin Erminia's pony for her. It's as quiet as can be."
Now this was rather provoking to Mrs. Browne, as she chose to consider Maggie in disgrace. However, there was no help for it: all she could do was to spoil the enjoyment as far as possible, by looking and speaking in a cold manner, which often chilled Maggie's little heart, and took all the zest out of the pleasure now. It was in vain that Frank Buxton made the pony trot and canter; she still looked sad and grave.
"Little dull thing!" he thought; but he was as kind and considerate as a gentlemanly boy could be.
At last they reached Mr. Buxton's house. It was in the main street, and the front door opened upon it by a flight of steps. Wide on each side extended the stone-coped windows. It was in reality a mansion, and needed not the neighboring contrast of the cottages on either side to make it look imposing. When they went in, they entered a large hall, cool even on that burning July day, with a black and white flag floor, and old settees round the walls, and great jars of curious china, which were filled with pot-pourrie. The dusky gloom was pleasant, after the glare of the street outside; and the requisite light and cheerfulness were given by the peep into the garden, framed, as it were, by the large door-way that opened into it. There were roses, and sweet-peas, and poppies—a rich mass of color, which looked well, set in the somewhat sombre coolness of the hall. All the house told of wealth—wealth which had accumulated for generations, and which was shown in a sort of comfortable, grand, unostentatious way. Mr. Buxton's ancestors had been yeomen; but, two or three generations back, they might, if ambitious, have taken their place as country gentry, so much had the value of their property increased, and so great had been the amount of their savings. They, however, continued to live in the old farm till Mr. Buxton's grandfather built the house in Combehurst of which I am speaking, and then he felt rather ashamed of what he had done; it seemed like stepping out of his position. He and his wife always sat in the best kitchen; and it was only after his son's marriage that the entertaining rooms were furnished. Even then they were kept with closed shutters and bagged-up furniture during the lifetime of the old couple, who, nevertheless, took a pride in adding to the rich-fashioned ornaments and grand old china of the apartments. But they died, and were gathered to their fathers, and young Mr. and Mrs. Buxton (aged respectively fifty-one and forty-five) reigned in their stead. They had the good taste to make no sudden change; but gradually the rooms assumed an inhabited appearance, and their son and daughter grew up in the enjoyment of great wealth, and no small degree of refinement. But as yet they held back modestly from putting themselves in any way on a level with the county people. Lawrence Buxton was sent to the same school as his father had been before him; and the notion of his going to college to complete his education was, after some deliberation, negatived. In process of time he succeeded his father, and married a sweet, gentle lady, of a decayed and very poor county family, by whom he had one boy before she fell into delicate health. His sister had married a man whose character was worse than his fortune, and had been left a widow. Everybody thought her husband's death a blessing; but she loved him, in spite of negligence and many grosser faults; and so, not many years after, she died, leaving her little daughter to her brother's care, with many a broken-voiced entreaty that he would never speak a word against the dead father of her child. So the little Erminia was taken home by her self-reproaching uncle, who felt now how hardly he had acted towards his sister in breaking off all communication with her on her ill-starred marriage.
"Where is Erminia, Frank?" asked his father, speaking over Maggie's shoulder, while he still held her hand. "I want to take Mrs. Browne to your mother. I told Erminia to be here to welcome this little girl."
"I'll take her to Minnie; I think she's in the garden. I'll come back to you," nodding to Edward, "directly, and then we will go to the rabbits."
So Frank and Maggie left the great lofty room, full of strange rare things, and rich with books, and went into the sunny scented garden, which stretched far and wide behind the house. Down one of the walks, with a hedge of roses on either side, came a little tripping fairy, with long golden ringlets, and a complexion like a china rose. With the deep blue of the summer sky behind her, Maggie thought she looked like an angel. She neither hastened nor slackened her pace when she saw them, but came on with the same dainty light prancing step.
"Make haste, Minnie," cried Frank.
But Minnie stopped to gather a rose.
"Don't stay with me," said Maggie, softly, although she had held his hand like that of a friend, and did not feel that the little fairy's manner was particularly cordial or gracious. Frank took her at her word, and ran off to Edward.
Erminia came a little quicker when she saw that Maggie was left alone; but for some time after they were together, they had nothing to say to each other. Erminia was easily impressed by the pomps and vanities of the world; and Maggie's new handsome frock seemed to her made of old ironed brown silk. And though Maggie's voice was soft, with a silver ringing sound in it, she pronounced her words in Nancy's broad country way. Her hair was cut short all round; her shoes were thick, and clumped as she walked. Erminia patronized her, and thought herself very kind and condescending; but they were not particularly friendly. The visit promised to be more honorable than agreeable, and Maggie almost wished herself at home again. Dinner-time came. Mrs. Buxton dined in her own room. Mr. Buxton was hearty, and jovial, and pressing; he almost scolded Maggie because she would not take more than twice of his favorite pudding: but she remembered what her mother had said, and that she would be watched all day; and this gave her a little prim, quaint manner, very different from her usual soft charming unconsciousness. She fancied that Edward and Master Buxton were just as little at their ease with each other as she and Miss Harvey. Perhaps this feeling on the part of the boys made all four children unite after dinner.
"Let us go to the swing in the shrubbery," said Frank, after a little consideration; and off they ran. Frank proposed that he and Edward should swing the two little girls; and for a time all went on very well. But by-and-by Edward thought, that Maggie had had enough, and that he should like a turn; and Maggie, at his first word, got out.
"Don't you like swinging?" asked Erminia.
"Yes! but Edward would like it now." And Edward accordingly took her place. Frank turned away, and would not swing him. Maggie strove hard to do it, but he was heavy, and the swing bent unevenly. He scolded her for what she could not help, and at last jumped out so roughly, that the seat hit Maggie's face, and knocked her down. When she got up, her lips quivered with pain, but she did not cry; she only looked anxiously at her frock. There was a great rent across the front breadth. Then she did shed tears—tears of fright. What would her mother say?
Erminia saw her crying.
"Are you hurt?" said she, kindly. "Oh, how your check is swelled! What a rude, cross boy your brother is!"
"I did not know he was going to jump out. I am not crying because I am hurt, but because of this great rent in my nice new frock. Mamma will be so displeased."
"Is it a new frock?" asked Erminia.
"It is a new one for me. Nancy has sat up several nights to make it. Oh! what shall I do?"
Erminia's little heart was softened by such excessive poverty. A best frock made of shabby old silk! She put her arms round Maggie's neck, and said:
"Come with me; we will go to my aunt's dressing-room, and Dawson will give me some silk, and I'll help you to mend it."
"That's a kind little Minnie," said Frank. Ned had turned sulkily away. I do not think the boys were ever cordial again that day; for, as Frank said to his mother, "Ned might have said he was sorry; but he is a regular tyrant to that little brown mouse of a sister of his."
Erminia and Maggie went, with their arms round each other's necks, to Mrs. Buxton's dressing-room. The misfortune had made them friends. Mrs. Buxton lay on the sofa; so fair and white and colorless, in her muslin dressing-gown, that when Maggie first saw the lady lying with her eyes shut, her heart gave a start, for she thought she was dead. But she opened her large languid eyes, and called them to her, and listened to their story with interest.
"Dawson is at tea. Look, Minnie, in my work-box; there is some silk there. Take off your frock, my dear, and bring it here, and let me see how it can be mended."
"Aunt Buxton," whispered Erminia, "do let me give her one of my frocks. This is such an old thing."
"No, love. I'll tell you why afterwards," answered Mrs. Buxton.
She looked at the rent, and arranged if nicely for the little girls to mend. Erminia helped Maggie with right good will. As they sat on the floor, Mrs. Buxton thought what a pretty contrast they made; Erminia, dazzlingly fair, with her golden ringlets, and her pale-blue frock; Maggie's little round white shoulders peeping out of her petticoat; her brown hair as glossy and smooth as the nuts that it resembled in color; her long black eye-lashes drooping over her clear smooth cheek, which would have given the idea of delicacy, but for the coral lips that spoke of perfect health: and when she glanced up, she showed long, liquid, dark-gray eyes. The deep red of the curtain behind, threw out these two little figures well.
Dawson came up. She was a grave elderly person, of whom Erminia was far more afraid than she was of her aunt; but at Mrs. Buxton's desire she finished mending the frock for Maggie.
"Mr. Buxton has asked some of your mamma's old friends to tea, as I am not able to go down. But I think, Dawson, I must have these two little girls to tea with me. Can you be very quiet, my dears; or shall you think it dull?"
They gladly accepted the invitation; and Erminia promised all sorts of fanciful promises as to quietness; and went about on her tiptoes in such a labored manner, that Mrs. Buxton begged her at last not to try and be quiet, as she made much less noise when she did not. It was the happiest part of the day to Maggie. Something in herself was so much in harmony with Mrs. Buxton's sweet, resigned gentleness, that it answered like an echo, and the two understood each other strangely well. They seemed like old friends, Maggie, who was reserved at home because no one cared to hear what she had to say, opened out, and told Erminia and Mrs. Buxton all about her way of spending her day, and described her home.
"How odd!" said Erminia. "I have ridden that way on Abdel-Kadr, and never seen your house."
"It is like the place the Sleeping Beauty lived in; people sometimes seem to go round it and round it, and never find it. But unless you follow a little sheep-track, which seems to end at a gray piece of rock, you may come within a stone's throw of the chimneys and never see them. I think you would think it so pretty. Do you ever come that way, ma'am?"
"No, love," answered Mrs. Buxton.
"But will you some time?"
"I am afraid I shall never be able to go out again," said Mrs. Buxton, in a voice which, though low, was very cheerful. Maggie thought how sad a lot was here before her; and by-and-by she took a little stool, and sat by Mrs. Buxton's sofa, and stole her hand into hers.
Mrs. Browne was in full tide of pride and happiness down stairs. Mr. Buxton had a number of jokes; which would have become dull from repetition (for he worked a merry idea threadbare before he would let if go), had if not been for his jovial blandness and good-nature. He liked to make people happy, and, as far as bodily wants went, he had a quick perception of what was required. He sat like a king (for, excepting the rector, there was not another gentleman of his standing at Combehurst), among six or seven ladies, who laughed merrily at all his sayings, and evidently thought Mrs. Browne had been highly honored in having been asked to dinner as well as to tea. In the evening, the carriage was ordered to take her as far as a carriage could go; and there was a little mysterious handshaking between her host and herself on taking leave, which made her very curious for the lights of home by which to examine a bit of rustling paper that had been put in her hand with some stammered-out words about Edward.
When every one had gone, there was a little gathering in Mrs. Buxton's dressing-room. Husband, son and niece, all came to give her their opinions on the day and the visitors.
"Good Mrs. Browne is a little tiresome," said Mr. Buxton, yawning. "Living in that moorland hole, I suppose. However, I think she has enjoyed her day; and we'll ask her down now and then, for Browne's sake. Poor Browne! What a good man he was!"
"I don't like that boy at all," said Frank. "I beg you'll not ask him again while I'm at home: he is so selfish and self-important; and yet he's a bit snobbish now and then. Mother! I know what you mean by that look. Well! if I am self-important sometimes, I'm not a snob."
"Little Maggie is very nice," said Erminia. "What a pity she has not a new frock! Was not she good about it, Frank, when she tore it?"
"Yes, she's a nice little thing enough, if she does not get all spirit cowed out of her by that brother. I'm thankful that he is going to school."
When Mrs. Browne heard where Maggie had drank tea, she was offended. She had only sat with Mrs. Buxton for an hour before dinner. If Mrs. Buxton could bear the noise of children, she could not think why she shut herself up in that room, and gave herself such airs. She supposed it was because she was the granddaughter of Sir Henry Biddulph that she took upon herself to have such whims, and not sit at the head of her table, or make tea for her company in a civil decent way. Poor Mr. Buxton! What a sad life for a merry, light-hearted man to have such a wife! It was a good thing for him to have agreeable society sometimes. She thought he looked a deal better for seeing his friends. He must be sadly moped with that sickly wife.
(If she had been clairvoyante at that moment, she might have seen Mr. Buxton tenderly chafing his wife's hands, and feeling in his innermost soul a wonder how one so saint-like could ever have learnt to love such a boor as he was; it was the wonderful mysterious blessing of his life. So little do we know of the inner truths of the households, where we come and go like intimate guests!)
Maggie could not bear to hear Mrs. Buxton spoken of as a fine lady assuming illness. Her heart beat hard as she spoke. "Mamma! I am sure she is really ill. Her lips kept going so white; and her hand was so burning hot all the time that I held it."
"Have you been holding Mrs. Buxton's hand? Where were your manners? You are a little forward creature, and ever were. But don't pretend to know better than your elders. It is no use telling me Mrs. Buxton is ill, and she able to bear the noise of children."
"I think they are all a pack of set-up people, and that Frank Buxton is the worst of all," said Edward.
Maggie's heart sank within her to hear this cold, unkind way of talking over the friends who had done so much to make their day happy. She had never before ventured into the world, and did not know how common and universal is the custom of picking to pieces those with whom we have just been associating; and so it pained her. She was a little depressed, too, with the idea that she should never see Mrs. Buxton and the lovely Erminia again. Because no future visit or intercourse had been spoken about, she fancied it would never take place; and she felt like the man in the Arabian Nights, who caught a glimpse of the precious stones and dazzling glories of the cavern, which was immediately after closed, and shut up into the semblance of hard, barren rock. She tried to recall the house. Deep blue, crimson red, warm brown draperies, were so striking after the light chintzes of her own house; and the effect of a suite of rooms opening out of each other was something quite new to the little girl; the apartments seemed to melt away into vague distance, like the dim endings of the arched aisles in church. But most of all she tried to recall Mrs. Buxton's face; and Nancy had at last to put away her work, and come to bed, in order to soothe the poor child, who was crying at the thought that Mrs. Buxton would soon die, and that she should never see her again. Nancy loved Maggie dearly, and felt no jealousy of this warm admiration of the unknown lady. She listened to her story and her fears till the sobs were hushed; and the moon fell through the casement on the white closed eyelids of one, who still sighed in her sleep.
In three weeks, the day came for Edward's departure. A great cake and a parcel of gingerbread soothed his sorrows on leaving home.
"Don't cry, Maggie!" said he to her on the last morning; "you see I don't. Christmas will soon be here, and I dare say I shall find time to write to you now and then. Did Nancy put any citron in the cake?"
Maggie wished she might accompany her mother to Combehurst to see Edward off by the coach; but it was not to be. She went with them, without her bonnet, as far as her mother would allow her; and then she sat down, and watched their progress for a long, long way. She was startled by the sound of a horse's feet, softly trampling through the long heather. It was Frank Buxton's.
"My father thought Mrs. Browne would like to see the Woodchester Herald. Is Edward gone?" said he, noticing her sad face.
"Yes! he is just gone down the hill to the coach. I dare say you can see him crossing the bridge, soon. I did so want to have gone with him," answered she, looking wistfully toward the town.
Frank felt sorry for her, left alone to gaze after her brother, whom, strange as it was, she evidently regretted. After a minute's silence, he said:
"You liked riding the other day. Would you like a ride now? Rhoda is very gentle, if you can sit on my saddle. Look! I'll shorten the stirrup. There now; there's a brave little girl! I'll lead her very carefully. Why, Erminia durst not ride without a side-saddle! I'll tell you what; I'll bring the newspaper every Wednesday till I go to school, and you shall have a ride. Only I wish we had a side-saddle for Rhoda. Or, if Erminia will let me, I'll bring Abdel-Kadr, the little Shetland you rode the other day."
"But will Mr. Buxton let you?" asked Maggie, half delighted—half afraid.
"Oh, my father! to be sure he will. I have him in very good order."
Maggie was rather puzzled by this way of speaking.
"When do you go to school?" asked she.
"Toward the end of August; I don't know the day."
"Does Erminia go to school?"
"No. I believe she will soon though, if mamma does not get better." Maggie liked the change of voice, as he spoke of his mother.
"There, little lady! now jump down. Famous! you've a deal of spirit, you little brown mouse."
Nancy came out, with a wondering look, to receive Maggie.
"It is Mr. Frank Buxton," said she, by way of an introduction. "He has brought mamma the newspaper."
"Will you walk in, sir, and rest? I can tie up your horse."
"No, thank you," said he, "I must be off. Don't forget, little mousey, that you are to ready for another ride next Wednesday." And away he went.
It needed a good deal of Nancy's diplomacy to procure Maggie this pleasure; although I don't know why Mrs. Browne should have denied it, for the circle they went was always within sight of the knoll in front of the house, if any one cared enough about the matter to mount it, and look after them. Frank and Maggie got great friends in these rides. Her fearlessness delighted and surprised him, she had seemed so cowed and timid at first. But she was only so with people, as he found out before holidays ended. He saw her shrink from particular looks and inflexions of voice of her mother's; and learnt to read them, and dislike Mrs. Browne accordingly, notwithstanding all her sugary manner toward himself. The result of his observations he communicated to his mother, and in consequence, he was the bearer of a most civil and ceremonious message from Mrs. Buxton to Mrs. Browne, to the effect that the former would be much obliged to the latter if she would allow Maggie to ride down occasionally with the groom, who would bring the newspapers on the Wednesdays (now Frank was going to school), and to spend the afternoon with Erminia. Mrs. Browne consented, proud of the honor, and yet a little annoyed that no mention was made of herself. When Frank had bid good-bye, and fairly disappeared, she turned to Maggie.
"You must not set yourself up if you go among these fine folks. It is their way of showing attention to your father and myself. And you must mind and work doubly hard on Thursdays to make up for playing on Wednesdays."
Maggie was in a flush of sudden color, and a happy palpitation of her fluttering little heart. She could hardly feel any sorrow that the kind Frank was going away, so brimful was she of the thoughts of seeing his mother; who had grown strangely associated in her dreams, both sleeping and waking, with the still calm marble effigies that lay for ever clasping their hands in prayer on the altar-tombs in Combehurst church. All the week was one happy season of anticipation. She was afraid her mother was secretly irritated at her natural rejoicing; and so she did not speak to her about it, but she kept awake till Nancy came to bed, and poured into her sympathizing ears every detail, real or imaginary, of her past or future intercourse with Mrs. Buxton, and the old servant listened with interest, and fell into the custom of picturing the future with the ease and simplicity of a child.
"Suppose, Nancy! only suppose, you know, that she did die. I don't mean really die, but go into a trance like death; she looked as if she was in one when I first saw her; I would not leave her, but I would sit by her, and watch her, and watch her."
"Her lips would be always fresh and red," interrupted Nancy.
"Yes, I know you've told me before how they keep red—I should look at them quite steadily; I would try never to go to sleep."
"The great thing would be to have air-holes left in the coffin." But Nancy felt the little girl creep close to her at the grim suggestion, and, with the tact of love, she changed the subject.
"Or supposing we could hear of a doctor who could charm away illness. There were such in my young days; but I don't think people are so knowledgeable now. Peggy Jackson, that lived near us when I was a girl, was cured of a waste by a charm."
"What is a waste, Nancy?"
"It is just a pining away. Food does not nourish nor drink strengthen them, but they just fade off, and grow thinner and thinner, till their shadow looks gray instead of black at noonday; but he cured her in no time by a charm."
"Oh, if we could find him."
"Lass, he's dead, and she's dead, too, long ago!"
While Maggie was in imagination going over moor and fell, into the hollows of the distant mysterious hills, where she imagined all strange beasts and weird people to haunt, she fell asleep.
Such were the fanciful thoughts which were engendered in the little girl's mind by her secluded and solitary life. It was more solitary than ever, now that Edward was gone to school. The house missed his loud cheerful voice, and bursting presence. There seemed much less to be done, now that his numerous wants no longer called for ministration and attendance. Maggie did her task of work on her own gray rock; but as it was sooner finished, now that he was not there to interrupt and call her off, she used to stray up the Fell Lane at the back of the house; a little steep stony lane, more like stairs cut in the rock than what we, in the level land, call a lane: it reached on to the wide and open moor, and near its termination there was a knotted thorn-tree; the only tree for apparent miles. Here the sheep crouched under the storms, or stood and shaded themselves in the noontide heat. The ground was brown with their cleft round foot-marks; and tufts of wool were hung on the lower part of the stem, like votive offerings on some shrine. Here Maggie used to come and sit and dream in any scarce half-hour of leisure. Here she came to cry, when her little heart was overfull at her mother's sharp fault-finding, or when bidden to keep out of the way, and not be troublesome. She used to look over the swelling expanse of moor, and the tears were dried up by the soft low-blowing wind which came sighing along it. She forgot her little home griefs to wonder why a brown-purple shadow always streaked one particular part in the fullest sunlight; why the cloud-shadows always seemed to be wafted with a sidelong motion; or she would imagine what lay beyond those old gray holy hills, which seemed to bear up the white clouds of Heaven on which the angels flew abroad. Or she would look straight up through the quivering air, as long as she could bear its white dazzling, to try and see God's throne in that unfathomable and infinite depth of blue. She thought she should see it blaze forth sudden and glorious, if she were but full of faith. She always came down from the thorn, comforted, and meekly gentle.
But there was danger of the child becoming dreamy, and finding her pleasure in life in reverie, not in action, or endurance, or the holy rest which comes after both, and prepares for further striving or bearing. Mrs. Buxton's kindness prevented this danger just in time. It was partly out of interest in Maggie, but also partly to give Erminia a companion, that she wished the former to come down to Combehurst.
When she was on these visits, she received no regular instruction; and yet all the knowledge, and most of the strength of her character, was derived from these occasional hours. It is true her mother had given her daily lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic; but both teacher and taught felt these more as painful duties to be gone through, than understood them as means to an end. The "There! child; now that's done with," of relief, from Mrs. Browne, was heartily echoed in Maggie's breast, as the dull routine was concluded.
Mrs. Buxton did not make a set labor of teaching; I suppose she felt that much was learned from her superintendence, but she never thought of doing or saying anything with a latent idea of its indirect effect upon the little girls, her companions. She was simply herself; she even confessed (where the confession was called for) to short-comings, to faults, and never denied the force of temptations, either of those which beset little children, or of those which occasionally assailed herself. Pure, simple, and truthful to the heart's core, her life, in its uneventful hours and days, spoke many homilies. Maggie, who was grave, imaginative, and somewhat quaint, took pains in finding words to express the thoughts to which her solitary life had given rise, secure of Mrs. Buxton's ready understanding and sympathy.
"You are so like a cloud," said she to Mrs. Buxton. "Up at the Thorn-tree, it was quite curious how the clouds used to shape themselves, just according as I was glad or sorry. I have seen the same clouds, that, when I came up first, looked like a heap of little snow-hillocks over babies' graves, turn, as soon as I grew happier, to a sort of long bright row of angels. And you seem always to have had some sorrow when I am sad, and turn bright and hopeful as soon as I grow glad. Dear Mrs. Buxton! I wish Nancy knew you."
The gay, volatile, willful, warm-hearted Erminia was less earnest in all things. Her childhood had been passed amid the distractions of wealth; and passionately bent upon the attainment of some object at one moment, the next found her angry at being reminded of the vanished anxiety she had shown but a moment before. Her life was a shattered mirror; every part dazzling and brilliant, but wanting the coherency and perfection of a whole. Mrs. Buxton strove to bring her to a sense of the beauty of completeness, and the relation which qualities and objects bear to each other; but in all her striving she retained hold of the golden clue of sympathy. She would enter into Erminia's eagerness, if the object of it varied twenty times a day; but by-and-by, in her own mild, sweet, suggestive way, she would place all these objects in their right and fitting places, as they were worthy of desire. I do not know how it was, but all discords, and disordered fragments, seemed to fall into harmony and order before her presence.
She had no wish to make the two little girls into the same kind of pattern character. They were diverse as the lily and the rose. But she tried to give stability and earnestness to Erminia; while she aimed to direct Maggie's imagination, so as to make it a great minister to high ends, instead of simply contributing to the vividness and duration of a reverie.
She told her tales of saints and martyrs, and all holy heroines, who forgot themselves, and strove only to be "ministers of Him, to do His pleasure." The tears glistened in the eyes of hearer and speaker, while she spoke in her low, faint voice, which was almost choked at times when she came to the noblest part of all.
But when she found that Maggie was in danger of becoming too little a dweller in the present, from the habit of anticipating the occasion for some great heroic action, she spoke of other heroines. She told her how, though the lives of these women of old were only known to us through some striking glorious deed, they yet must have built up the temple of their perfection by many noiseless stories; how, by small daily offerings laid on the altar, they must have obtained their beautiful strength for the crowning sacrifice. And then she would turn and speak of those whose names will never be blazoned on earth—some poor maid-servant, or hard-worked artisan, or weary governess—who have gone on through life quietly, with holy purposes in their hearts, to which they gave up pleasure and ease, in a soft, still, succession of resolute days. She quoted those lines of George Herbert's:
"All may have, If they dare choose, a glorious life, or grave."
And Maggie's mother was disappointed because Mrs. Buxton had never offered to teach her "to play on the piano," which was to her the very head and front of a genteel education. Maggie, in all her time of yearning to become Joan of Arc, or some great heroine, was unconscious that she herself showed no little heroism, in bearing meekly what she did every day from her mother. It was hard to be questioned about Mrs. Buxton, and then to have her answers turned into subjects for contempt, and fault-finding with that sweet lady's ways.
When Ned came home for the holidays, he had much to tell. His mother listened for hours to his tales; and proudly marked all that she could note of his progress in learning. His copy-books and writing-flourishes were a sight to behold; and his account-books contained towers and pyramids of figures.
"Ay, ay!" said Mr. Buxton, when they were shown to him; "this is grand! when I was a boy I could make a flying eagle with one stroke of my pen, but I never could do all this. And yet I thought myself a fine fellow, I warrant you. And these sums! why man! I must make you my agent. I need one, I'm sure; for though I get an accountant every two or three years to do up my books, they somehow have the knack of getting wrong again. Those quarries, Mrs. Browne, which every one says are so valuable, and for the stone out of which receive orders amounting to hundreds of pounds, what d'ye think was the profit I made last year, according to my books?"
"I'm sure I don't know, sir; something very great, I've no doubt."
"Just seven-pence three farthings," said he, bursting into a fit of merry laughter, such as another man would have kept for the announcement of enormous profits. "But I must manage things differently soon. Frank will want money when he goes to Oxford, and he shall have it. I'm but a rough sort of fellow, but Frank shall take his place as a gentleman. Aha, Miss Maggie! and where's my gingerbread? There you go, creeping up to Mrs. Buxton on a Wednesday, and have never taught Cook how to make gingerbread yet. Well, Ned! and how are the classics going on? Fine fellow, that Virgil! Let me see, how does it begin?
'Arma, virumque cano, Trojae qui primus ab oris.'
That's pretty well, I think, considering I've never opened him since I left school thirty years ago. To be sure, I spent six hours a day at it when I was there. Come now, I'll puzzle you. Can you construe this?
"Infir dealis, inoak noneis; inmud eelis, inclay noneis."
"To be sure I can," said Edward, with a little contempt in his tone. "Can you do this, sir?
"Apud in is almi des ire, Mimis tres i neve require, Alo veri findit a gestis, His miseri ne ver at restis."
But though Edward had made much progress, and gained three prizes, his moral training had been little attended to. He was more tyrannical than ever, both to his mother and Maggie. It was a drawn battle between him and Nancy, and they kept aloof from each other as much as possible. Maggie fell into her old humble way of submitting to his will, as long as it did not go against her conscience; but that, being daily enlightened by her habits of pious aspiring thought, would not allow her to be so utterly obedient as formerly. In addition to his imperiousness, he had learned to affix the idea of cleverness to various artifices and subterfuges which utterly revolted her by their meanness.
"You are so set up, by being intimate with Erminia, that you won't do a thing I tell you; you are as selfish and self-willed as"—he made a pause. Maggie was ready to cry.
"I will do anything, Ned, that is right."
"Well! and I tell you this is right."
"How can it be?" said she, sadly, almost wishing to be convinced.
"How—why it is, and that's enough for you. You must always have a reason for everything now. You are not half so nice as you were. Unless one chops logic with you, and convinces you by a long argument, you'll do nothing. Be obedient, I tell you. That is what a woman has to be."
"I could be obedient to some people, without knowing their reasons, even though they told me to do silly things," said Maggie, half to herself.
"I should like to know to whom," said Edward, scornfully.
"To Don Quixote," answered she, seriously; for, indeed, he was present in her mind just then, and his noble, tender, melancholy character had made a strong impression there.
Edward stared at her for a moment, and then burst into a loud fit of laughter. It had the good effect of restoring him to a better frame of mind. He had such an excellent joke against his sister, that he could not be angry with her. He called her Sancho Panza all the rest of the holidays, though she protested against it, saying she could not bear the Squire, and disliked being called by his name.
Frank and Edward seemed to have a mutual antipathy to each other, and the coldness between them was rather increased than diminished by all Mr. Buxton's efforts to bring them together. "Come, Frank, my lad!" said he, "don't be so stiff with Ned. His father was a dear friend of mine, and I've set my heart on seeing you friends. You'll have it in your power to help him on in the world."
But Frank answered, "He is not quite honorable, sir. I can't bear a boy who is not quite honorable. Boys brought up at those private schools are so full of tricks!"
"Nay, my lad, there thou'rt wrong. I was brought up at a private school, and no one can say I ever dirtied my hands with a trick in my life. Good old Mr. Thompson would have flogged the life out of a boy who did anything mean or underhand."
Summers and winters came and went, with little to mark them, except the growth of the trees, and the quiet progress of young creatures. Erminia was sent to school somewhere in France, to receive more regular instruction than she could have in the house with her invalid aunt. But she came home once a year, more lovely and elegant and dainty than ever; and Maggie thought, with truth, that ripening years were softening down her volatility, and that her aunt's dewlike sayings had quietly sunk deep, and fertilized the soil. That aunt was fading away. Maggie's devotion added materially to her happiness; and both she and Maggie never forgot that this devotion was to be in all things subservient to the duty which she owed to her mother.
"My love," Mrs. Buxton had more than once said, "you must always recollect that your first duty is toward your mother. You know how glad I am to see you; but I shall always understand how it is, if you do not come. She may often want you when neither you nor I can anticipate it."
Mrs. Browne had no great wish to keep Maggie at home, though she liked to grumble at her going. Still she felt that it was best, in every way, to keep on good terms with such valuable friends; and she appreciated, in some small degree, the advantage which her intimacy at the house was to Maggie. But yet she could not restrain a few complaints, nor withhold from her, on her return, a recapitulation of all the things which might have been done if she had only been at home, and the number of times that she had been wanted; but when she found that Maggie quietly gave up her next Wednesday's visit as soon as she was made aware of any necessity for her presence at home, her mother left off grumbling, and took little or no notice of her absence.
When the time came for Edward to leave school, he announced that he had no intention of taking orders, but meant to become an attorney.
"It's such slow work," said he to his mother. "One toils away for four or five years, and then one gets a curacy of seventy pounds a-year, and no end of work to do for the money. Now the work is not much harder in a lawyer's office, and if one has one's wits about one, there are hundreds and thousands a-year to be picked up with mighty little trouble."
Mrs. Browne was very sorry for this determination. She had a great desire to see her son a clergyman, like his father. She did not consider whether his character was fitted for so sacred an office; she rather thought that the profession itself, when once assumed, would purify the character; but, in fact, his fitness or unfitness for holy orders entered little into her mind. She had a respect for the profession, and his father had belonged to it.
"I had rather see you a curate at seventy pounds a-year, than an attorney with seven hundred," replied she. "And you know your father was always asked to dine everywhere—to places where I know they would not have asked Mr. Bish, of Woodchester, and he makes his thousand a-year. Besides, Mr. Buxton has the next presentation to Combehurst, and you would stand a good chance for your father's sake. And in the mean time you should live here, if your curacy was any way near."
"I dare say! Catch me burying myself here again. My dear mother, it's a very respectable place for you and Maggie to live in, and I dare say you don't find it dull; but the idea of my quietly sitting down here is something too absurd!"
"Papa did, and was very happy," said Maggie.
"Yes! after he had been at Oxford," replied Edward, a little nonplussed by this reference to one whose memory even the most selfish and thoughtless must have held in respect.
"Well! and you know you would have to go to Oxford first."
"Maggie! I wish you would not interfere between my mother and me. I want to have it settled and done with, and that it will never be if you keep meddling. Now, mother, don't you see how much better it will be for me to go into Mr. Bish's office? Harry Bish has spoken to his father about it."
Mrs. Browne sighed.
"What will Mr. Buxton say?" asked she, dolefully.
"Say! Why don't you see it was he who first put it into my head, by telling me that first Christmas holidays, that I should be his agent. That would be something, would it not? Harry Bish says he thinks a thousand a-year might ha made of it."
His loud, decided, rapid talking overpowered Mrs. Browne; but she resigned herself to his wishes with more regrets than she had ever done before. It was not the first case in which fluent declamation has taken the place of argument.
Edward was articled to Mr. Bish, and thus gained his point. There was no one with power to resist his wishes, except his mother and Mr. Buxton. The former had long acknowledged her son's will as her law; and the latter, though surprised and almost disappointed at a change of purpose which he had never anticipated in his plans for Edward's benefit, gave his consent, and even advanced some of the money requisite for the premium.
Maggie looked upon this change with mingled feelings. She had always from a child pictured Edward to herself as taking her father's place. When she had thought of him as a man, it was as contemplative, grave, and gentle, as she remembered her father. With all a child's deficiency of reasoning power, she had never considered how impossible it was that a selfish, vain, and impatient boy could become a meek, humble, and pious man, merely by adopting a profession in which such qualities are required. But now, at sixteen, she was beginning to understand all this. Not by any process of thought, but by something more like a correct feeling, she perceived that Edward would never be the true minister of Christ. So, more glad and thankful than sorry, though sorrow mingled with her sentiments, she learned the decision that he was to be an attorney.
Frank Buxton all this time was growing up into a young man. The hopes both of father and mother were bound up in him; and, according to the difference in their characters was the difference in their hopes. It seemed, indeed, probable that Mr. Buxton, who was singularly void of worldliness or ambition for himself, would become worldly and ambitious for his son. His hopes for Frank were all for honor and distinction here. Mrs. Buxton's hopes were prayers. She was fading away, as light fades into darkness on a summer evening. No one seemed to remark the gradual progress; but she was fully conscious of it herself. The last time that Frank was at home from college before her death, she knew that she should never see him again; and when he gaily left the house, with a cheerfulness, which was partly assumed, she dragged herself with languid steps into a room at the front of the house, from which she could watch him down the long, straggling little street, that led to the inn from which the coach started. As he went along, he turned to look back at his home; and there he saw his mother's white figure gazing after him. He could not see her wistful eyes, but he made her poor heart give a leap of joy by turning round and running back for one more kiss and one more blessing.
When he next came home, it was at the sudden summons of her death.
His father was as one distracted. He could not speak of the lost angel without sudden bursts of tears, and oftentimes of self-upbraiding, which disturbed the calm, still, holy ideas, which Frank liked to associate with her. He ceased speaking to him, therefore, about their mutual loss; and it was a certain kind of relief to both when he did so; but he longed for some one to whom he might talk of his mother, with the quiet reverence of intense and trustful affection. He thought of Maggie, of whom he had seen but little of late; for when he had been at Combehurst, she had felt that Mrs. Buxton required her presence less, and had remained more at home. Possibly Mrs. Buxton regretted this; but she never said anything. She, far-looking, as one who was near death, foresaw that, probably, if Maggie and her son met often in her sick-room, feelings might arise which would militate against her husband's hopes and plans, and which, therefore, she ought not to allow to spring up. But she had been unable to refrain from expressing her gratitude to Maggie for many hours of tranquil happiness, and had unconsciously dropped many sentences which made Frank feel, that, in the little brown mouse of former years, he was likely to meet with one who could tell him much of the inner history of his mother in her last days, and to whom he could speak of her without calling out the passionate sorrow which was so little in unison with her memory.
Accordingly, one afternoon, late in the autumn, he rode up to Mrs. Browne's. The air on the heights was so still that nothing seemed to stir. Now and then a yellow leaf came floating down from the trees, detached from no outward violence, but only because its life had reached its full limit and then ceased. Looking down on the distant sheltered woods, they were gorgeous in orange and crimson, but their splendor was felt to be the sign of the decaying and dying year. Even without an inward sorrow, there was a grand solemnity in the season which impressed the mind, and hushed it into tranquil thought. Frank rode slowly along, and quietly dismounted at the old horse-mount, beside which there was an iron bridle-ring fixed in the gray stone wall. He saw the casement of the parlor-window open, and Maggie's head bent down over her work. She looked up as he entered the court, and his footsteps sounded on the flag-walk. She came round and opened the door. As she stood in the door-way, speaking, he was struck by her resemblance to some old painting. He had seen her young, calm face, shining out with great peacefulness, and the large, grave, thoughtful eyes, giving the character to the features which otherwise they might, from their very regularity, have wanted. Her brown dress had the exact tint which a painter would have admired. The slanting mellow sunlight fell upon her as she stood; and the vine-leaves, already frost-tinted, made a rich, warm border, as they hung over the old house-door.
"Mamma is not well; she is gone to lie down. How are you? How is Mr. Buxton?"
"We are both pretty well; quite well, in fact, as far as regards health. May I come in? I want to talk to you, Maggie!"
She opened the little parlor-door, and they went in; but for a time they were both silent. They could not speak of her who was with them, present in their thoughts. Maggie shut the casement, and put a log of wood on the fire. She sat down with her back to the window; but as the flame sprang up, and blazed at the touch of the dry wood, Frank saw that her face was wet with quiet tears. Still her voice was even and gentle, as she answered his questions. She seemed to understand what were the very things he would care most to hear. She spoke of his mother's last days; and without any word of praise (which, indeed, would have been impertinence), she showed such a just and true appreciation of her who was dead and gone, that he felt as if he could listen forever to the sweet-dropping words. They were balm to his sore heart. He had thought it possible that the suddenness of her death might have made her life incomplete, in that she might have departed without being able to express wishes and projects, which would now have the sacred force of commands. But he found that Maggie, though she had never intruded herself as such, had been the depository of many little thoughts and plans; or, if they were not expressed to her, she knew that Mr. Buxton or Dawson was aware of what they were, though, in their violence of early grief, they had forgotten to name them. The flickering brightness of the flame had died away; the gloom of evening had gathered into the room, through the open door of which the kitchen fire sent a ruddy glow, distinctly marked against carpet and wall. Frank still sat, with his head buried in his hands against the table, listening.
"Tell me more," he said, at every pause.
"I think I have told you all now," said Maggie, at last. "At least, it is all I recollect at present; but if I think of anything more, I will be sure and tell you."
"Thank you; do." He was silent for some time.
"Erminia is coming home at Christmas. She is not to go back to Paris again. She will live with us. I hope you and she will be great friends, Maggie."
"Oh yes," replied she. "I think we are already. At least we were last Christmas. You know it is a year since I have seen her."
"Yes; she went to Switzerland with Mademoiselle Michel, instead of coming home the last time. Maggie, I must go, now. My father will be waiting dinner for me."
"Dinner! I was going to ask if you would not stay to tea. I hear mamma stirring about in her room. And Nancy is getting things ready, I see. Let me go and tell mamma. She will not be pleased unless she sees you. She has been very sorry for you all," added she, dropping her voice.
Before he could answer, she ran up stairs.
Mrs. Browne came down.
"Oh, Mr. Frank! Have you been sitting in the dark? Maggie, you ought to have rung for candles! Ah! Mr. Frank, you've had a sad loss since I saw you here—let me see—in the last week of September. But she was always a sad invalid; and no doubt your loss is her gain. Poor Mr. Buxton, too! How is he? When one thinks of him, and of her years of illness, it seems like a happy release."
She could have gone on for any length of time, but Frank could not bear this ruffling up of his soothed grief, and told her that his father was expecting him home to dinner.
"Ah! I am sure you must not disappoint him. He'll want a little cheerful company more than ever now. You must not let him dwell on it, Mr. Frank, but turn his thoughts another way by always talking of other things. I am sure if I had some one to speak to me in a cheerful, pleasant way, when poor dear Mr. Browne died, I should never have fretted after him as I did; but the children were too young, and there was no one to come and divert me with any news. If I'd been living in Combehurst, I am sure I should not have let my grief get the better of me as I did. Could you get up a quiet rubber in the evenings, do you think?"
But Frank had shaken hands and was gone. As he rode home he thought much of sorrow, and the different ways of bearing it. He decided that it was sent by God for some holy purpose, and to call out into existence some higher good; and he thought that if it were faithfully taken as His decree there would be no passionate, despairing resistance to it; nor yet, if it were trustfully acknowledged to have some wise end, should we dare to baulk it, and defraud it by putting it on one side, and, by seeking the distractions of worldly things, not let it do its full work. And then he returned to his conversation with Maggie. That had been real comfort to him. What an advantage it would be to Erminia to have such a girl for a friend and companion!
It was rather strange that, having this thought, and having been struck, as I said, with Maggie's appearance while she stood in the door-way (and I may add that this impression of her unobtrusive beauty had been deepened by several succeeding interviews), he should reply as he did to Erminia's remark, on first seeing Maggie after her return from France.
"How lovely Maggie is growing! Why, I had no idea she would ever turn out pretty. Sweet-looking she always was; but now her style of beauty makes her positively distinguished. Frank! speak! is not she beautiful?"
"Do you think so?" answered he, with a kind of lazy indifference, exceedingly gratifying to his father, who was listening with some eagerness to his answer. That day, after dinner, Mr. Buxton began to ask his opinion of Erminia's appearance.
Frank answered at once:
"She is a dazzling little creature. Her complexion looks as if it were made of cherries and milk; and, it must be owned, the little lady has studied the art of dress to some purpose in Paris."
Mr. Buxton was nearer happiness at this reply than he had ever been since his wife's death; for the only way he could devise to satisfy his reproachful conscience towards his neglected and unhappy sister, was to plan a marriage between his son and her child. He rubbed his hands and drank two extra glasses of wine.
"We'll have the Brownes to dinner, as usual, next Thursday," said he, "I am sure your mother would have been hurt if we had omitted it; it is now nine years since they began to come, and they have never missed one Christmas since. Do you see any objection, Frank?"
"None at all, sir," answered he. "I intend to go up to town soon after Christmas, for a week or ten days, on my way to Cambridge. Can I do anything for you?"
"Well, I don't know. I think I shall go up myself some day soon. I can't understand all these lawyer's letters, about the purchase of the Newbridge estate; and I fancy I could make more sense out of it all, if I saw Mr. Hodgson."
"I wish you would adopt my plan, of having an agent, sir. Your affairs are really so complicated now, that they would take up the time of an expert man of business. I am sure all those tenants at Dumford ought to be seen after."
"I do see after them. There's never a one that dares cheat me, or that would cheat me if they could. Most of them have lived under the Buxtons for generations. They know that if they dared to take advantage of me, I should come down upon them pretty smartly."
"Do you rely upon their attachment to your family—or on their idea of your severity?"
"On both. They stand me instead of much trouble in account-keeping, and those eternal lawyers' letters some people are always dispatching to their tenants. When I'm cheated, Frank, I give you leave to make me have an agent, but not till then. There's my little Erminia singing away, and nobody to hear her."
Christmas-Day was strange and sad. Mrs. Buxton had always contrived to be in the drawing-room, ready to receive them all after dinner. Mr. Buxton tried to do away with his thoughts of her by much talking; but every now and then he looked wistfully toward the door. Erminia exerted herself to be as lively as she could, in order, if possible, to fill up the vacuum. Edward, who had come over from Woodchester for a walk, had a good deal to say; and was, unconsciously, a great assistance with his never-ending flow of rather clever small-talk. His mother felt proud of her son, and his new waistcoat, which was far more conspicuously of the latest fashion than Frank's could be said to be. After dinner, when Mr. Buxton and the two young men were left alone, Edward launched out still more. He thought he was impressing Frank with his knowledge of the world, and the world's ways. But he was doing all in his power to repel one who had never been much attracted toward him. Worldly success was his standard of merit. The end seemed with him to justify the means; if a man prospered, if was not necessary to scrutinize his conduct too closely. The law was viewed in its lowest aspect; and yet with a certain cleverness, which preserved Edward from being intellectually contemptible. Frank had entertained some idea of studying for a barrister himself: not so much as a means of livelihood as to gain some idea of the code which makes and shows a nation's conscience: but Edward's details of the ways in which the letter so often baffles the spirit, made him recoil. With some anger against himself, for viewing the profession with disgust, because it was degraded by those who embraced it, instead of looking upon it as what might be ennobled and purified into a vast intelligence by high and pure-minded men, he got up abruptly and left the room.
The girls were sitting over the drawing-room fire, with unlighted candles on the table, talking, he felt, about his mother; but when he came in they rose, and changed their tone. Erminia went to the piano, and sang her newest and choicest French airs. Frank was gloomy and silent; but when she changed into more solemn music his mood was softened, Maggie's simple and hearty admiration, untinged by the slightest shade of envy for Erminia's accomplishments, charmed him. The one appeared to him the perfection of elegant art, the other of graceful nature. When he looked at Maggie, and thought of the moorland home from which she had never wandered, the mysteriously beautiful lines of Wordsworth seemed to become sun-clear to him.
"And she shall lean her ear In many a secret place Where rivulets dance their wayward round, And beauty born of murmuring sound Shall pass into her face."
Mr. Buxton, in the dining-room, was really getting to take an interest in Edward's puzzling cases. They were like tricks at cards. A quick motion, and out of the unpromising heap, all confused together, presto! the right card turned up. Edward stated his case, so that there did not seem loophole for the desired verdict; but through some conjuration, it always came uppermost at last. He had a graphic way of relating things; and, as he did not spare epithets in his designation of the opposing party, Mr. Buxton took it upon trust that the defendant or the prosecutor (as it might happen) was a "pettifogging knave," or a "miserly curmudgeon," and rejoiced accordingly in the triumph over him gained by the ready wit of "our governor," Mr. Bish. At last he became so deeply impressed with Edward's knowledge of law, as to consult him about some cottage property he had in Woodchester.
"I rather think there are twenty-one cottages, and they don't bring me in four pounds a-year; and out of that I have to pay for collecting. Would there be any chance of selling them? They are in Doughty-street; a bad neighborhood, I fear."
"Very bad," was Edward's prompt reply. "But if you are really anxious to effect a sale, I have no doubt I could find a purchaser in a short time."
"I should be very much obliged to you," said Mr. Buxton. "You would be doing me a kindness. If you meet with a purchaser, and can manage the affair, I would rather that you drew out the deeds for the transfer of the property. If would be the beginning of business for you; and I only hope I should bring you good luck."
Of course Edward could do this; and when they left the table, it was with a feeling on his side that he was a step nearer to the agency which he coveted; and with a happy consciousness on Mr. Buxton's of having put a few pounds in the way of a deserving and remarkably clever young man.
Since Edward had left home, Maggie had gradually, but surely, been gaining in importance. Her judgment and her untiring unselfishness could not fail to make way. Her mother had some respect for, and great dependence on her; but still it was hardly affection that she felt for her; or if it was it was a dull and torpid kind of feeling, compared with the fond love and exulting pride which she took in Edward. When he came back for occasional holidays, his mother's face was radiant with happiness, and her manner toward him was even more caressing than he approved of. When Maggie saw him repel the hand that fain would have stroked his hair as in childish days, a longing came into her heart for some of these uncared-for tokens of her mother's love. Otherwise she meekly sank back into her old secondary place, content to have her judgment slighted and her wishes unasked as long as he stayed. At times she was now beginning to disapprove and regret some things in him; his flashiness of manner jarred against her taste; and a deeper, graver feeling was called out by his evident want of quick moral perception. "Smart and clever," or "slow and dull," took with him the place of "right and wrong." Little as he thought it, he was himself narrow-minded and dull; slow and blind to perceive the beauty and eternal wisdom of simple goodness.
Erminia and Maggie became great friends. Erminia used to beg for Maggie, until she herself put a stop to the practice; as she saw her mother yielded more frequently than was convenient, for the honor of having her daughter a visitor at Mr. Buxton's, about which she could talk to her few acquaintances who persevered in calling at the cottage. Then Erminia volunteered a visit of some days to Maggie, and Mrs. Browne's pride was redoubled; but she made so many preparations, and so much fuss, and gave herself so much trouble, that she was positively ill during Erminia's stay; and Maggie felt that she must henceforward deny herself the pleasure of having her friend for a guest, as her mother could not be persuaded from attempting to provide things in the same abundance and style as that to which Erminia was accustomed at home; whereas, as Nancy shrewdly observed, the young lady did not know if she was eating jelly, or porridge, or whether the plates were common delf or the best China, so long as she was with her dear Miss Maggie. Spring went, and summer came. Frank had gone to and fro between Cambridge and Combehurst, drawn by motives of which he felt the force, but into which he did not care to examine. Edward had sold the property of Mr. Buxton; and he, pleased with the possession of half the purchase money (the remainder of which was to be paid by installments), and happy in the idea that his son came over so frequently to see Erminia, had amply rewarded the young attorney for his services.
One summer's day, as hot as day could be, Maggie had been busy all morning; for the weather was so sultry that she would not allow either Nancy or her mother to exert themselves much. She had gone down with the old brown pitcher, coeval with herself, to the spring for water; and while it was trickling, and making a tinkling music, she sat down on the ground. The air was so still that she heard the distant wood-pigeons cooing; and round about her the bees were murmuring busily among the clustering heath. From some little touch of sympathy with these low sounds of pleasant harmony, she began to try and hum some of Erminia's airs. She never sang out loud, or put words to her songs; but her voice was very sweet, and it was a great pleasure to herself to let it go into music. Just as her jug was filled, she was startled by Frank's sudden appearance. She thought he was at Cambridge, and, from some cause or other, her face, usually so faint in color, became the most vivid scarlet. They were both too conscious to speak. Maggie stooped (murmuring some words of surprise) to take up her pitcher.
"Don't go yet, Maggie," said he, putting his hand on hers to stop her; but, somehow, when that purpose was effected, he forgot to take it off again. "I have come all the way from Cambridge to see you. I could not bear suspense any longer. I grew so impatient for certainty of some kind, that I went up to town last night, in order to feel myself on my way to you, even though I knew I could not be here a bit earlier to-day for doing so. Maggie—dear Maggie! how you are trembling! Have I frightened you? Nancy told me you were here; but it was very thoughtless to come so suddenly upon you."
It was not the suddenness of his coming; it was the suddenness of her own heart, which leaped up with the feelings called out by his words. She went very white, and sat down on the ground as before. But she rose again immediately, and stood, with drooping, averted head. He had dropped her hand, but now sought to take it again.
"Maggie, darling, may I speak?" Her lips moved, he saw, but he could not hear. A pang of affright ran through him that, perhaps, she did not wish to listen. "May I speak to you?" he asked again, quite timidly. She tried to make her voice sound, but it would not; so she looked round. Her soft gray eyes were eloquent in that one glance. And, happier than his words, passionate and tender as they were, could tell, he spoke till her trembling was changed into bright flashing blushes, and even a shy smile hovered about her lips, and dimpled her cheeks.
The water bubbled over the pitcher unheeded. At last she remembered all the work-a-day world. She lifted up the jug, and would have hurried home, but Frank decidedly took it from her.
"Henceforward," said he, "I have a right to carry your burdens." So with one arm round her waist and with the other carrying the water, they climbed the steep turfy slope. Near the top she wanted to take it again.
"Mamma will not like it. Mamma will think if so strange."
"Why, dearest, if I saw Nancy carrying it up this slope I would take it from her. It would be strange if a man did not carry it for any woman. But you must let me tell your mother of my right to help you. If is your dinner-time is it not? I may come in to dinner as one of the family may not I Maggie?"
"No" she said softly. For she longed to be alone; and she dreaded being overwhelmed by the expression of her mother's feelings, weak and agitated as she felt herself. "Not to-day."
"Not to-day!" said he reproachfully. "You are very hard upon me. Let me come to tea. If you will, I will leave you now. Let me come to early tea. I must speak to my father. He does not know I am here. I may come to tea. At what time is it? Three o'clock. Oh, I know you drink tea at some strange early hour; perhaps it is at two. I will take care to be in time."