BY ROSA NOUCHETTE CAREY,
Author of "Not Like Other Girls," "Uncle Max," Etc.
NEW YORK: THE FEDERAL BOOK COMPANY, PUBLISHERS.
The demand for Wee Wifie has led to a reissue in a cheaper form, but as so many years have elapsed since the story first made its appearance, the author considered that extensive alterations would be necessary before its republication.
It has therefore been carefully revised, and, though the characters and the salient points of the plot have been left untouched, several fresh chapters have been added to assist in the more thorough development of the story.
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean, Tears from the depth of some divine despair Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes, In looking on the happy Autumn fields, And thinking of the days that are no more.
Not much of a picture, certainly!
Only a stretch of wide sunny road, with a tamarisk hedge and a clump of shadowy elms; a stray sheep nibbling in a grass ditch; and a brown baby asleep on a bench; beyond, low broad fields of grain whitening to harvest, and a distant film and haze—blue cloudiness, and the deep monotonous sound of the great sea.
Yellow sunshine, green turf, the buoyancy of salt spray in the air; some one, trailing a white gown unheeded in the sandy dust, pauses a moment under the flickering elms to admire the scene.
She is a tall, grave woman, with serious eyes and dead-brown hair, the shade of withered leaves in autumn, with a sad beautiful face.
It is the face of one who has suffered and been patient; who has loved much and will love on to the end; who, from the depths of a noble, selfless nature, looks out upon the world with mild eyes of charity; a woman, yet a girl in years, whom one termed his pearl among women.
Just now, standing under the elms, with her straight white folds and uncovered hair, for her sun-bonnet lay on the turf beside her, her wistful eyes looking far away seaward, one could have compared her to a Norman or a Druidical priestess under the shadow of the sacred oak; there is at once something so benignant and strong, so full of pathos, in her face and form.
Low swaying of branches, then the pattering of red and yellow rain round the rough-hewn bench, the brown baby awakes and stretches out its arms with a lusty cry—a suggestive human sound that effectually breaks up the stillness; for at the same instant an urchin whittling wood in the hedge scrambles out in haste, and a buxom-looking woman steps from the porch of an ivy-covered lodge, wringing the soap-suds from her white wrinkled hands.
Trifles mar tranquillity.
For a moment silence is invaded, and the dissonant sounds gather strength; for once infant tears fail to be dried by mother smiles, and, as if in answer to the shrill cries, flocks of snow-white geese waddle solemnly across the grass; the boy leaves off whittling wood and chases the yellow-bills; through the leafy avenue comes the loaded corn-wain, the jocund wagoner with scarlet poppies in his hat, blue corn-flowers and pink convolvuli trailing from the horses' ears; over the fields sound the distant pealing of bells.
The girl wakes up from her musing fit with a deep sigh, and her face becomes suddenly very pale; then she moves slowly across the road toward a path winding through the bare harvest fields, where the gleaners are busily at work. From under the tamarisk hedge comes the shadow of a woman; as the white gown disappears and the lodge-keeper carries off her wailing child, the shadow becomes substance and grows erect into the figure of a girl.
Of a girl in shabby black, foot-sore and weary, who drags herself with hesitating steps to the spot where the other woman's feet have rested, and there she stoops and hurriedly gathers a few blades of grass and presses them to her lips.
Silence once more over the landscape: the glitter of sunshine round the empty bench; the whirling of insects in the ambient air; under the shadowy elms a girl smiling bitterly over a few poor grasses, gathered as we pluck them from a loved one's grave.
* * * * *
Catharine, the lodge-keeper, sat rocking her baby in the old porch seat; through the open door one could catch glimpses of the bright red-tiled kitchen with its wooden settle and the tortoise-shell cat asleep on the great wicker chair; beyond, the sunny little herb-garden with its plots of lavender, marjoram, and sweet-smelling thyme, the last monthly roses blooming among the gooseberry bushes; a child cliqueting up the narrow brick path with a big sun-bonnet and burnished pail; in the corner a toy fountain gurgling over its oyster-shell border, and a few superannuated ferns.
Catharine sat contentedly in the shady porch, on her lap lay the brown baby with his face all puckered up with smiles; his tiny hole of a mouth just opened ready for the small moist thumb, and his bare rosy feet beating noiseless time to the birds; he was listening besides to his mother's voice as she sat rocking him and talking unconsciously aloud.
"'Heaven bless her!' she muttered, with a cloud on her pleasant face; yes, those were her very words, as she stood like a picture under the old trees yonder."
"'Heaven bless her and him too,'—but there was not a speck of color in her face as she said the words, and I could see the tears in her beautiful eyes. Oh, but you are a saint, Miss Margaret—every one knows that; but, as I tell Martin, it is a sin and a shame to ring the joy bells for a feckless chit that folk never set eyes on; while our darling, Miss Margaret, is left alone in the old place."
"What about Margaret, Catharine, for Heaven's sake, what about Margaret?" and the shadow that had come from behind the tamarisk hedge now fell across the porch straight before the startled woman.
Catharine put down her apron from her eyes with something like a cry, and stood up trembling.
"Good gracious! is that you, Miss Crystal? why, you come before one like a flash of lightning on a summer's day, to make one palpitate all over for fear of a storm."
"And about as welcome, I suppose," returned the young stranger, bitterly, "my good Catharine, your simile is a wonderfully true one."
"I don't know naught about 'similies,' Miss Crystal, but I know you are as welcome as the flowers in May. Come in—come in—my lamb, and don't stand scorching your poor face in the sun; come in and I'll give you Martin's wicker-chair by the open window, where you can smell the sea and the fields together, and I'll fetch you a sup of Daisy's new milk, for you look quite faint and moithered, like a lost and weary bird, my pretty. Yes, just like a lost and weary bird."
"You are right," murmured the girl through her pale lips; then aloud, "have your own way, for you were ever an obstinate woman, Catharine, and fetch me a draught of Daisy's sweet milk and a crust of the old brown loaf, and I will thank you and go; but not before you have told me about Margaret—all that you know, and that you hope and fear, Catharine."
"Heaven bless you, Miss Crystal, it is the same tender heart as ever, I see. Yes, you shall hear all I know; and that's little enough, I'll be bound." And so saying, she hustled up her dress over her linsey petticoat, and, taking a tin dipper from the dresser, was presently heard calling cheerfully to her milky favorite in the paddock, on her way to the dairy.
Left to herself, the girl threw herself down—not in the wicker-chair, where the cat lay like a furry ball simmering in the sun, but on the old brown settle behind the door, where she could rest her head against the wall, and see and not be seen.
She had taken off her broad-brimmed hat, and it lay on the table beside her; and the sunlight streamed through the lattice window full on her face.
Such a young face, and—Heaven help her—such a sad face; so beautiful too, in spite of the lines that sorrow had evidently traced on it, and the hard bitter curves round the mouth.
The dark dreamy eyes, the pale olive complexion, the glossy hair—in color the sun-steeped blackness of the south—the full curled lips and grand profile, might have befitted a Vashti; just so might the spotless queen have carried her uncrowned head when she left the gates of Shushan, and have trailed her garments in the dust with a mien as proud and as despairing.
There she sat motionless, looking over the harvest-fields, while Catharine spread a clean coarse cloth on the small oaken table beside her, and served up a frugal meal of brown bread, honey, and milk, and then stood watching her while the stranger eat sparingly and as if only necessity compelled.
"There," she said at last, looking up at Catharine with a soft pathetic smile that lent new beauty to her face; "I have done justice to your delicious fare; now draw your chair closer, for I am starving for news of Margaret, and 'like water to a thirsty soul is news from a far country.' How often I say those words to myself."
"But not bad news, surely, Miss Crystal; and it is like enough you'll think mine bad when told. Hark, it only wants the half hour to noon, and they are man and wife now."
"Man and wife! of whom are you talking, Catharine?"
"Of whom should I be talking, dearie, but of the young master?" but the girl interrupted her with strange vehemence.
"Catharine, you will drive me crazy with that slow soft tongue of yours. How can Hugh Redmond be married while Margaret stands under the elm trees alone?"
"But it is true, Miss Crystal, for all that—as sure as the blue sky is above us—Sir Hugh Redmond weds to-day with a bonny bit child from foreign parts that no one set eyes on, and whom he is bringing home as mistress to the old Hall."
"I don't believe you!" exclaimed the girl, stormily; but in spite of her words the olive complexion grew pale. "You are jesting, Catharine; you are imposing on me some village fable—some credulous report. As I love Margaret, I refuse to believe you."
"The time was when a word from Catharine would have contented you, Miss Crystal," replied the woman, sorrowfully, and her honest face grew overcast. "Do you think Miss Margaret's own foster-sister, who was brought up with her, would deceive you now? But it is like enough that sorrow and pride have turned your head, and the mistake of having made the first false step beside."
"Forgive me," returned the girl, hoarsely; and she took the work hardened hand and pressed it between both her own. "I will try to believe you, though I can not realize it that Margaret—my Margaret—has been jilted."
"No, nor that either, dearie. We must not blame the poor young master beyond his deserts. He loved her true, Miss Crystal; he loved her that true that his heart was like to break; but for all that he was forced to give her up."
"I can not understand it," in a bewildered voice. "When I left the dear old home that summer's day a year ago they had been engaged nine months; yes, it was nine months, I remember, for it was on her birthday that he asked her to be his wife, and they had loved each other long before that. Do you think I can ever forget that time?"
"I dare say not. Anyhow, things went on well for a time; the young master was always at the Grange, or Miss Margaret and Mr. Raby at the Hall; and when he was away, for he was always a bit roving, he wrote her a heap of letters; and all was as right as it could be till the old master came home."
"Ah, true! I had forgotten Sir Wilfred."
"Ay, he had been away for more than two years in the East, working for that fine book of his that folks talk about so much; but he was in bad health, and he had a strange hankering to die in the old Hall. There is an awful mystery in things, Miss Crystal; for if it had pleased Providence to have taken the poor old master before he reached the Hall, our dear Miss Margaret might have been happy now."
"Do you mean that Sir Wilfred objected to the match?"
"Well, I don't rightly know what happened, but Martin and me think there is some mystery at the bottom. Folks say, who know the young master, that he has a way of putting off things to the morrow as should be done to-day, and either ha did not tell his father of his engagement to Miss Margaret, or his letters went astray in those foreign parts; but when the old master heard that Mr. Hugh had promised to marry Miss Margaret, he made an awful scene, and swore that no Ferrers should be mistress of Redmond Hall."
"Good Heavens! what reason could Sir Wilfred have for refusing his consent? Margaret was beautiful, rich, and well-born. Do you mean to say that Sir Hugh was so poor a creature as to give her up for a whim?"
"No, no, Miss Crystal, dear, we don't understand the rights of it. When Mr. Hugh left the old master he just rushed up to the Grange to see Miss Margaret, and to tell her of his father's opposition; but she had a right brave spirit of her own, and she heartened him up, and bade him wait patiently and she would win over the old man yet. Well, it is a sad story, and, as I told you, neither Martin nor me know what rightly happened. Sir Wilfred came up to talk to Miss Margaret, and then she sent for Mr. Hugh, and told him they must part, that she would never marry him. That was before the old master had that stroke that carried him off, but she held firm to it after his death, and nothing that Mr. Hugh could say would move her."
"And yet, if ever woman loved man, Margaret loved Hugh Redmond."
"I know it, dearie, no one could look at her and not see that the light had gone out of her life, and that her heart was just breaking—how white you have gone, Miss Crystal!"
"I am so sorry for Margaret. Oh! Catharine, Catharine, if I had any tears left I think I could shed them all for Margaret."
"Keep them for yourself, my dearie, may be they will cool the fever in your heart, and make you see clear, and bring you back to us again."
"Hush, hush! I will not hear you. I will only talk of my poor Margaret. She would not marry him you say."
"No, she was like a rock, not all the poor young master could say could change her resolution. I know she told him that his father was right to forbid their marriage, and though it was a cruel trouble to them both, they must bear it, for it was God's will, not Sir Wilfred's, that separated them; but he would never listen to her, and at last he just flung away in a rage and married the other."
"The other!—whom do you mean, Catharine?"
"Well, you have heard of Colonel Mordaunt, who lived up at Wyngate Priory, the big place, up yonder, some of the land adjoins the Hall lands, but the house is no better than a ruin."
"Yes, I know; Colonel Mordaunt died in India."
"Well, may be you did not know that the colonel had a daughter, a bit bonny lass, who was brought up by an aunt in the country. It seems Sir Wilfred and the colonel had always hoped to bring about a match between the young people, and after Sir Wilfred's death they found a letter with the will, charging Mr. Hugh by all that was sacred not to marry Miss Margaret, and begging him to go down to Daintree, and see Colonel Mordaunt's beautiful young daughter. Miss Margaret told me with tears in her eyes what a loving fatherly letter it was, and how it prayed Mr. Hugh, to forgive him for crossing his will; but told him at the same time that no blessing could ever follow his marriage with Margaret Ferrers."
"No blessing? There is some mystery here, Catharine."
"That is what I say, Miss Crystal, but reason or not, the poor young master was half-crazed with the disappointment; he was for setting aside everything, and going on reckless-like, but Miss Margaret she was like a rock—she could not and would not marry him; and in his anger against her, and because he did not care what became of him, he went down to Daintree and settled the matter with Miss Mordaunt, and that is all I know, Miss Crystal."
"One—two—three—four," counted the girl with a bitter smile, "four broken hearts, four mutilated lives, and the sun shines, and the birds sing—one hungers, thirsts, sleeps, and wakes again, and a benignant Creator suffers it; but hush! there are footsteps Catharine, hide me, quick."
"My dearie, don't look so scared like, it is only Mr. Raby—he passed an hour ago with the parson; but there is only wee Johnnie with him now."
"Is he coming in? I am sure I heard him lift the latch of the gate; you will keep your faith with me, Catharine?"
"Yes—yes, have I ever failed you; bide quiet a bit, he can not see you. He is only standing in the porch, for a sup of milk. I'll fetch it from the dairy, and he'll drink it and go."
"If only Johnnie were not there," murmured the girl, anxiously.
"No, no, he has sent him on most likely to the vicarage."
"My good Catharine," observed a quiet voice from the porch, "how long am I to wait for my glass of milk?"
"I am sorry, Mr. Raby, I am indeed," answered Catharine's cheery tones in the distance.
"Don't be sorry," returned the same voice; "waiting will do me good." And then there was silence.
The stranger stole out and peeped through the half-opened door.
There was a tall man standing in the porch; a man so tall that the clustering ivy round the trellis-work quite trailed about him and touched his forehead; a man broad-shouldered and strong, but with a stooping gait like a giant worn out with labor; he was in clerical dress, but his soft felt hat was in his hand, and the grand powerful head with its heavy dead-brown hair and pale face were distinctly visible under the shadow of the ivy. He did not more at the sound of the stealthy footstep or at the light shadow that fell across him, though the girl crept so close that he could have touched her with his right hand; but on Catharine's reappearance she shrunk back with a gesture of mingled entreaty and command.
"There is the milk, Mr. Raby, and it is yellow and rich with cream to reward your patience, sir."
"Thank you," he replied, smiling, and putting out a large white hand; the stranger took the glass from Catharine and held it to him; he drank it with seeming unconsciousness and with lowered eyes. "A most delicious draught; but your hand is trembling, Catharine; are you tired or unwell?"
"Neither, sir, thank you," replied Catharine, huskily, while the girl drew back in evident alarm. "Ah, there is Johnnie come for you, he is waiting at the gate; here is your stick, Mr. Raby. Don't forget your hat, for the sun is very powerful."
"No, no," returned the clergyman, absently. "Good-morning, Catharine." Then, as he walked down the little brick-paved path, "How strange; Catharine's hand never felt like that; it always seemed puckered and rough to me, but this felt soft and cold as it touched me, and shook so that it could hardly hold the glass. Johnnie, lad, is there any one standing in the porch with your mother?"
"No, sir, only mother."
"Strange," he muttered, "strange; I suppose it was my fancy, I am always fancying things;" and then he sighed and put his hand on the boy's shoulder, for Raby Ferrers was blind.
THE BLIND VICAR OF SANDYCLIFFE.
Over-proud of course, Even so!—but not so stupid, blind, that I, Whom thus the great Taskmaster of the world Has set to meditate, mistaken work, My dreary face against a dim blank wall, Throughout man a natural life-time,—could pretend or wish.
BROWNING'S Aurora Leigh.
About five miles from Singleton, where Redmond Hall stands, is the little village of Sandycliffe, a small primitive place set in corn-fields, with long sloping fields of grain, alternating with smooth green uplands and winding lanes, with the tangled hedgerows, so well known in southern scenery.
Sandycliffe is not actually on the sea-shore, but a short walk from the village up one of those breezy uplands would bring the foot-passenger within view of the blue sea-line; on one side is Singleton, with its white cliffs and row of modest, unpretending houses, and on the other the busy port of Pierrepoint, with its bustle and traffic, its long narrow streets, and ceaseless activity. Sandycliffe lies snugly in its green hollow; a tiny village with one winding street, a few whitewashed cottages grouped round a small Norman church, with a rose-covered vicarage inhabited by the curate's large family. The vicar lived a mile away, at the Grange, a large red-brick house with curious gables, half covered with ivy, standing on high ground, with a grand view of the sea and the harbor of Pierrepoint.
It might seem strange to any one not conversant with the facts of the case, that the small, sparsely populated village should require the services of a curate, and especially a hardworking man like Mr. Anderson; but a sad affliction had befallen the young vicar of Sandycliffe; the result of some illness or accident, two or three years after his ordination, had left him totally blind.
People who had heard him had prophesied great things of Mr. Ferrers—he had the rare gift of eloquence; he was a born orator, as they said—a rising light in his profession; it was absurd that such powers should be wasted on a village congregation, made up of rustics and old women; he must preach from some city pulpit; he was a man fitted to sway the masses in the east end of London, to be a leader among his fellows; it was seldom that one saw such penetration and power united with such simple unobtrusive goodness.
Mr. Ferrers would smile a little sadly when the speeches reached his ear. He was a man who cared little for the praises of his generation; his one aim in life was to devote his talents to his Master's service—to work in the corner of the vineyard allotted to him. His inner consciousness, indeed, told him that he had capabilities for a larger sphere, a wider range of work; when the call came he would be ready to leave his few sheep in the wilderness and go out into pastures now. He was like a knight watching beside his armor until the reveille sounded; when the time came he was ready to go down to the battle.
When the call came! Alas! it never came in this world for Raby Ferrers. In the full prime of youth and strength the mysterious doom of blindness came upon the young vicar and left him groping in a darkened world.
There was bitter trouble at the Grange just then; a young cousin of Margaret and Raby Ferrers, who had lived with them from childhood, and had been the spoiled darling of the house, had left her home suddenly, leaving no trace behind her.
Gossip had been rife in Sandycliffe, but no one except Hugh Redmond knew the rights of the case, or why the girl should have abandoned her home when Raby Ferrers was lying on a bed of suffering, and Margaret was watching beside him in trembling anguish for the result.
There were weeks and months of bodily suffering and fierce internal conflict—bitter hand to hand fights with despair. And then the strong will and faith of Raby Ferrers triumphed; back from the shadow of the valley of death he came, mutilated, scarred, and victorious; and like blind Samson, led by a boy, he one day electrified his people by entering his pulpit again; and at the sight of the changed pale face, and of the deep melodious voice speaking with its old tender authority, there was hardly a dry eye in the church.
From that day Mr. Ferrers never flinched from the purpose he had set before him as far as lay in his power to do his duty. Bound by his ordination vows, he still gloried in the dignity of his priesthood. Sunday after Sunday saw him occupying the pulpit of his little church, which, as the fame of his rare eloquence went abroad, was always crowded with strangers.
He had secured the services of an earnest hard-working man—the ill-paid, overworked curate of an East End parish with a large sickly family—and installed them in the sunny pleasant vicarage.
There was little work for either of them in Sandycliffe, but they carried their joint energies further afield. Pierrepoint had a large poor population, and the vicar was old and supine; he accepted gladly the volunteered services of his zealous coadjutors, and, led by his faithful Johnnie, Mr. Ferrers penetrated into the winding alleys, and carried comfort to many a sick and dying bed. And as Mr. Brabazon grew more infirm, it became a rule to Mr. Ferrers to occupy his pulpit on Sunday evenings, and it was always remarked that on these occasions the church was crowded; people would come ten or twelve miles to hear the blind clergyman from Sandycliffe. It was even mooted by the bishop whether, after Mr. Brabazon's death, Pierrepoint should not be offered to Mr. Ferrers.
After the first few weeks Raby Ferrers never spoke of his blindness to any one; even his half-sister Margaret who lived with him, and was his dearest and closest friend, never heard a repining word from his lips; neither did he waste his strength by silent brooding—the activity of his life left him no time for this; when he was not occupied with his ministrations, or preparing his sermons, Margaret would read to him for hours.
Yet, it was evident to any keen observer who studied the quiet face, that some load of care lay on the bowed shoulders of Mr. Ferrers; some heavy weight that at times seemed to crush him. Sometimes when Margaret was reading to him, he would make a sign for her to stop, and, laying down the book, she would watch him pacing up and down the green alleys of the Grange garden with his sightless eyes turned to the sunshine; but she knew that it was not of his blindness he was thinking, but of a heavier trouble still.
Few people about Sandycliffe knew that Margaret Ferrers was only Raby's half-sister; there were only a few years between them, and in the close intimacy that had grown up between the brother and sister, it was seldom remembered by either of them that they had different mothers. Colonel Ferrers had married within two years of his first wife's death, and the second Mrs. Ferrers had brought the Grange and a wealthy dowry to her husband.
But the marriage had not been a happy one, and the three last years of Mrs. Ferrers' life had been passed away from her husband. There were hints and tales of bitter scenes in the Grange, but little was known in the village; only, when Margaret was seven years old, and Raby a lad of fourteen, there was a grand funeral, such as Sandycliffe had never witnessed, and Mrs. Ferrers was laid in the same marble tomb where her predecessor was buried, and it was noted with some surprise and a little incredulity that Colonel Ferrers seemed overcome with grief.
It was about fourteen months before Raby had stood in the large porch waiting for his glass of milk that one summer's morning the little church-yard was full of loitering villagers, waiting for the bells to stop before they hurried into their places.
The white Lady from the Grange, as some of the children called her, had just passed into the porch, after stopping to reprove some noisy urchins eating small sour apples on the tombstones; and old Granny Richardson had just hobbled in after her in her red cloak and neat black bonnet, and her prayer-book folded in a blue and white checked handkerchief with a little bunch of sweet-william and southern-wood—old man they called it in those parts—to keep it company. After granny came old Samuel Tibbs, the patriarch of the village, in his clean smock and scarlet handkerchief, followed by his youngest grandson in all the glories of corduroys and hob-nailed boots. Young Sam, as they called him, was the youngest of fifteen, who had all grown up strong and healthy under the thatched eaves of the low, whitewashed cottage down by the pond. There the fifteen young Tibbses had elbowed, and jostled, and kicked, and metaphorically pecked at each other like young rooks in a nest, and had grown up strong and hearty on a diet of bread and treacle alternating with slices of bread and dripping, running barefoot over the grass and splashing like young ducks in the pond, until promoted to hob-nailed boots and bird-scaring, with a promise of riding the plow-horses to water, and an occasional bird-nesting expedition on their own account.
The bell had stopped, and the last loiterer had taken his place on the oak bench, when as usual two strangers took their places in a seat that was usually occupied by any chance worshiper.
Most of the little congregation were familiar with the features of the younger man, and every one in the village knew that the tall, broad-shouldered man with the fair beard and handsome, aristocratic face was the young master from Redmond Hall, who was to marry Miss Margaret, the vicar's sister.
But even young Sam Tibbs leaves off admiring his hob-nailed boots to stare at the brown, sickly-looking gentleman with the white mustache that occupies the other end of the seat; and Margaret, sitting with the school-children, looks curiously in the same direction, for this is the first time that she has seen Sir Wilfred Redmond since his return from Persia.
Both father and son are wonderfully alike, she thinks; they have both the same heavy-lidded, blue-gray eyes, the same proud carriage of the head and stately presence; but the bright, sunshiny smile that greeted her from Hugh Redmond is certainly not reproduced on his father's somber face. Sir Wilfred looked ill and saddened; and evidently the report that ill-health had brought his researches to a speedy end was probably true.
Sir Wilfred listened with grave attention to Mr. Ferrers's eloquent sermon. The deep, musical voice, and fine delivery seemed to rivet him; he sat motionless, with his thin hands grasping each other, his eyes fixed on the pale, powerful face which the morning sunshine touched with a sort of glory.
As usual, Hugh Redmond's attention strayed to the corner where Margaret sat, the light from the painted window reached her, staining her white gown with patches of prismatic color—a bordering of crimson and blue and violet—and giving a golden tinge to her dead-brown hair; and as Hugh looks at her he tells himself again that he has never seen any one to compare with her—his pearl among women.
When the service was over, and the small congregation had streamed out of the church, Sir Wilfred left his seat and walked up the aisle to inspect the chancel. He evidently thought his son was following him, for he turned round once to address him; but Hugh had noticed that Margaret had quietly slipped through a side door, and he hastily followed her.
She was standing under the shade of a willow, looking at a newly made grave, but she turned with a smile when she saw him striding over the grass, with the sun shining on his golden-brown head.
"Margaret," he said, reproachfully, "why have you not waited to speak to my father? Raby has just joined him."
A quick blush crossed Margaret's face—her lover's question seemed to pain her—but she answered with her accustomed gentleness.
"Surely you must-know dear; how could I meet Sir Wilfred when he is still in ignorance of our engagement?"
"Ah, true, I forgot," with a short, uneasy laugh; but it was Hugh's turn now to look uncomfortable. "What a little puritan you are, darling, as though half a dozen civil words would have mattered."
"But I could not have said them, Hugh," with quiet firmness; "I should have felt awkward and constrained in your father's presence; I should have betrayed our secret by my very silence."
"Ah, well, it will be a secret no longer," with an impatient sigh. "You look at me very reproachfully this morning, Margaret, but indeed I have not been to blame so much as you think; my father was tired from his journey yesterday. I am afraid he is in very bad health. I confess I am anxious about him. We had so much to talk about, and he is so full of that wonderful book of his. Come, cheer up, dear; I will not have you look so serious; I will promise you that he shall know of our engagement before I sleep to-night."
"Really and truly, Hugh?"
"Really and truly, dear; now say something kind to me before I go."
Ten minutes afterward Margaret walked slowly down the church-yard to join Raby, who was waiting for her at the gate. He heard her footstep, and held out his hand to her.
"I was wondering what had become of you, Margaret. Sir Wilfred has been talking to me for a long time; he asked after you, but of course I made some excuse; I think I know why you hid yourself."
"That could only be one reason, Raby."
"Ah, I was right, then. I said to myself, depend upon it, Madge means to stand on her dignity, and read Hugh a lesson, and I hope he will profit by it. I do believe Hugh's favorite motto is 'Never do to-day what you can put off until to-morrow.'"
"I think you are a little hard on Hugh; he has promised that he will speak to his father to-day."
"I am glad of that," very gravely. "I confess that this procrastination has made me very uneasy; it was not treating you fairly, Margaret, to leave his father all these months in ignorance of the engagement."
"Yes, but you forget," interposed his sister, eagerly, "he did write telling Sir Wilfred everything, but the letter never reached him. You are generally so charitable. Raby, and yet you misjudge poor Hugh so readily."
There was an injured tone in Margaret's voice that made Raby smile; he knew that she was blind to Hugh's faults—that she believed in him with all a loving woman's credulity: and yet as he smiled he sighed.
He knew his sister well, the simplicity and strength of her nature, the unselfishness and purity of her aims—few women had so high a standard—and he reverenced as well as loved her, for every day showed him new beauties in her character. But his knowledge of his sister made him doubt the wisdom of her choice; in his heart he had never really approved of her engagement with Hugh Redmond. Hugh was a capital fellow, he told himself; a pleasant companion, lovable in his way, and not without his special gifts, but he was not worthy of Margaret.
Raby had not always been blind, and his intimacy with Hugh Redmond had given him plenty of opportunity to judge truly of his friend's defects. He knew Hugh was manly and generous, but he was also weak and impulsive, hot-tempered and prone to restlessness; and he marveled sadly how Margaret's calm, grand nature should center its affections and hopes on such an unstable character as Hugh Redmond.
"She will never be happy with him," he said to himself; "one day he must disappoint her. Oh, I know well there is no harm in him; every one would call him a good fellow; he is clever, he has plenty of pluck, he has gentlemanly feelings, and he worships Margaret. But in my opinion the wife should not be superior to the husband; if there must be weakness, it should be on the other side." And here Raby sighed and gave himself up to melancholy and more personal broodings, and he thought how strange and baffling were the perversities of human nature, and how hearts cleaved to each other—in spite of a hundred faults and blemishes—as Margaret's cleaved to Hugh Redmond.
No, there was no love without suffering, he thought; even happy love had its thrills and tremors of doubt, its hours of anticipatory fears. A little while ago and his own life had stretched before him, bright, hopeful and full of enjoyment, and then a cloud had blotted out all the goodly land of promise, and he had been left a poor prisoner of hope on the dim borders, led in paths that he truly had not known—mysterious paths of suffering and patience.
Raby had not answered his sister's reproachful speech, but he had taken her hand and pressed it, as though asking her pardon.
"I wish you thought better of Hugh," she said softly, as she felt his caressing gesture; and Raby smiled again.
"I do think well of him. Who am I that I should judge my fellows? But I have not seen the man yet who is worthy of my Margaret. Come, is not that a lover-like speech; Hugh himself might have said it. But here we are at home; I can smell the roses in the porch; they are a sweet welcome to a blind man, are they not, Madge?"
UNDER THE OLD WALNUT-TREE.
Thus oft the mourner's wayward heart Tempts him to hide his grief and die, Too feeble for confession's smart, Too proud to bear a pitying eye;
How sweet in that dark hour to fall On bosoms waiting to receive Our sighs, and gently whisper all! They love us—will not God forgive?
KEBLE'S Christian Year.
Strangers passing through Sandycliffe always paused to admire the picturesque old Grange, with its curious gables and fantastically twisted chimneys, its mullion windows and red-brick walls half smothered in ivy, while all sorts of creepers festooned the deep, shady porch, with its long oaken benches that looked so cool and inviting on a hot summer's day, while the ever-open door gave a glimpse of a hall furnished like a sitting-room, with a glass door leading to a broad, gravel terrace. The smoothly shaved lawn in front of the house was shaded by two magnificent elms; a quaint old garden full of sweet-smelling, old-fashioned flowers lay below the terrace, and a curious yew-tree walk bordered one side. This was Mr. Ferrers's favorite walk, where he pondered over the subject for his Sunday's sermons. It was no difficulty for him to find his way down the straight alley, An old walnut-tree at the end with a broad, circular seat and a little strip of grass round it was always known as the "Master's summer study." It was here that Margaret read to him in the fresh, dewy mornings when the thrushes were feeding on the lawn, or in the evenings when the birds were chirping their good-nights, and the lark had come down from the gate of heaven to its nest in the corn-field, and the family of greenfinches that had been hatched in the branches of an old acacia-tree were all asleep and dreaming of the "early worm."
People used to pity Margaret for having to spend so many hours over such dull, laborious reading; the homilies of the old Fathers and the abstract philosophical treatises in which Mr. Ferrers's soul delighted must have been tedious to his sister, they said; but if they had but known it, their pity was perfectly wasted.
Margaret's vigorous intellect was quite capable of enjoying and assimilating the strong, hardy diet provided for it; she knew Mr. Ferrers's favorite authors, and would pause of her own accord to read over again some grand passage or trenchant argument.
Hugh had once laughingly called her a blue-stocking when he had found the brother and sister at their studies, but he had no idea of the extent of Margaret's erudition; in earlier years she had learned a little Greek, and was able to read the Greek Testament to Raby—she was indeed "his eyes," as he fondly termed her, and those who listened to the eloquent sermons of the blind vicar of Sandycliffe little knew how much of that precious store of wisdom and scholarly research was owing to Margaret's unselfish devotion; Milton's daughters reading to him in his blindness were not more devoted than she.
When their early Sunday repast was over, Margaret, as usual, led the way to the old walnut-tree seat; she had Keble's "Christian Year" in her hand and a volume of Herbert's poems—for wearied by his labors, Raby often preferred some sacred poetry or interesting biography to be read to him between the services, or often he bade her close her book or read to herself if his thoughts were busy with his evening sermon.
The strip of lawn that surrounded the walnut-tree led to a broad gravel walk with a sun-dial and a high southern wall where peaches ripened, and nectarines and apricots sunned themselves; here there was another seat, where on cold autumn mornings or mild winter days one could sit and feel the mild, chastened sunshine stealing round one with temperate warmth; a row of bee-hives stood under the wall, where sweetest honey from the surrounding clover-fields was made by the busy brown workers, "the little liverymen of industry," as Raby called them, or "his preachers in brown."
Margaret glanced at her brother rather anxiously as she took her place beside him; he looked more than usually tired, she thought; deep lines furrowed his broad forehead, and the firmly compressed lips spoke of some effort to repress heart-weariness.
"He is thinking of our poor child," she said to herself, as she turned to the beautiful poem for the seventh Sunday after Trinity: "From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness"—the very text as she knew that Raby had selected for his evening sermon at Pierrepoint; but as her smooth, melodious voice lingered involuntarily over the third verse, a sigh burst from Raby's lips.
"Landscape of fear! yet, weary heart, Thou need'st not in thy gloom depart, Nor fainting turn to seek thy distant home: Sweetly thy sickening throbs are eyed By the kind Saviour at thy side; For healing and for balm e'en now thy hour is come."
"Oh, that it were come for both of us," muttered Raby, in a tone so husky with pain that Margaret stopped.
"You are thinking of Crystal," she said, softly, leaning toward him with a face full of sympathy. "That verse was beautiful; it reminded me of our child at once"—but as he hid his face in his hands without answering her, she sat motionless in her place, and for a long time there was silence between them.
But Margaret's heart was full, and she was saying to herself:
"Why need I have said that, as though he ever forgot her? poor Raby—poor, unhappy brother—forget her! when every night in the twilight I see him fold his hands as though in prayer, and in the darkness can hear him whisper, 'God bless my darling and bring her home to me again.'"
"Yes, dear;" but as she turned quickly at the beseeching tone in which her name was uttered, a smile came to her lips, for Raby's hand was feeling in his inner breast-pocket, and she knew well what that action signified; in another moment he had drawn out a letter and had placed it in Margaret's outstretched palm. Ever since this letter had reached them about two months ago, each Sunday the same silent request had been made to her, and each time, as now, she had taken it without hesitation or comment, and had read it slowly from beginning to end.
The envelope bore the Leeds postmark, and the letter itself was evidently written hurriedly in a flowing, girlish hand.
"MY DEAREST MARGARET," it began, "I feel to-night as though I must write to you; sometimes the homesickness is so bitter—the longing so intense to see your dear face again—that I can hardly endure it; there are times when the restlessness is so unendurable that I can not sit still and bear it—when I feel as though I have but one wish in the world, just to feel your arms round me again, and hear from your lips that I am forgiven, and then lie down and die.
"You suffer, too, you say, in the one letter that has reached me: I have ever overshadowed your happiness. You and Raby are troubling your kind hearts about me, but indeed there is no need for any fresh anxiety.
"I have met with good Samaritans. The roof that shelters me is humble indeed, but it shelters loving hearts and simple, kindly natures—natures as true as yours, Margaret—gentle, high-souled women, who, like the charitable traveler in the Bible, have sought to pour oil and wine into my wounds. How you would love them for my sake, but still more for their own!
"These kindly strangers took me in without a word—they asked no questions; I was young, friendless and unhappy, that was all they cared to know.
"I must tell you very little about them, for I do not wish to give you any clew to my home at present; they are a mother and two daughters in reduced circumstances, but having unmistakably the stamp of gentlewomen; both mother and daughter, for the second is only a child, have high, cultured natures. The mother—forgive me, Margaret, for I dare not mention her name—teaches in a school close by us, and her daughter is also a daily governess. I am thankful to say that their recommendations have procured me work of the same kind; I give morning lessons to two little boys, and Fern—that is the eldest daughter's name—and I have also obtained some orders for embroidery to fill up our leisure hours and occupy our hands while we teach Fern's youngest sister.
"And now I have told you all this, will you not be comforted a little about me; will you not believe that as far as possible things are well with me? Tell him—tell Raby—that when I have wiped out my sin a little by this bitter penance and mortification, till even I can feel I have suffered and repented enough, I will come back and look on your dear face again. And this for you, Margaret; know that in the blameless, hard-working life I lead that I have forgotten none of your counsel, and that I so walk in the hard and lonely path that I have marked out for myself that even you could find no fault. Farewell.
As Margaret's voice died away, Raby turned his sightless face to her.
"You may give it back to me, Margaret, but stay, there is the copy of your answer; I think I would like to hear that once again; and Margaret obediently opened the thin, folded paper.
"MY POOR DARLING,—At last we have heard from you—at last you have yielded to my urgent request for some news of your daily life. God bless you for lifting a little of the weight off us, for telling us something about yourself and your work. I could not help crying bitterly over your letter, to think that a humble roof shelters our child; that you are compelled to work for your living; you, Crystal, who have never known what it is to want anything; upon whom a rough wind was not suffered to blow. My child, come home. What need is there of penance and expiation when all has been forgiven? The evil spirit that tormented our child has been cast out, and you are clothed afresh and in your right mind now; come home, for dear Raby's sake, and be his darling as of old! Do you know how he longs for you? Daily he asks 'Any news of her, Margaret?' and last night, as I was passing his study door, he called me in and bade me give you this message—'Tell my child, Margaret,' he said, 'that every night I bless her and fall asleep breathing her name; tell her that my forgiveness and blessing are ever with her; that there is no bitterness in my heart; that she can not escape from my love; that it will follow her to the world's end. And tell her, Margaret, that if she do not soon come back to me that I, Raby—blind, helpless, useless as I am—will seek her through God's earth till I find her and bring her back.' Ah, surely you must weep as you read this, Crystal. I pray that every tear may be God's own dew to melt and break up the hardness of your heart. Your ever loving
"That was written nearly two months ago, Madge, and she has not come yet."
"No, dear, we must have patience."
Raby sighed impatiently. "So you always say; but it is hard to be patient under such circumstances—to know that the woman you love has made herself an exile from all she holds dear. Margaret, I was wrong not to tell her what I felt. I sometimes fear that she misjudged my silence. But she was so young."
"You meant it for the best, Raby?"
"Yes, I meant it for the best," he answered, slowly. "I did not wish to take advantage of her youth; it did not seem right or honorable. Let her go into the world a little and see other men, that is what I said to myself. Even now, I hardly think I was wrong."
"No, you were right, quite right; but you need not have dreaded the result of such an ordeal; Crystal would never have loved any one but you, Raby. I sometimes think"—but here she hesitated.
"You think what, Margaret?"
"That she was jealous of Mona—that she misunderstood you there?"
"Good heavens! Mrs. Grey!"
"Crystal was so young, and she did not know that poor Mona's life was doomed. I have seen her look at Mona so strangely when you were talking to her; and once she asked me if you admired fair women, and if you did not think Mrs. Grey very beautiful; and when I said yes, I remember she turned very pale and did not answer."
"I never thought of this," he returned, in a tone of grief. "It must have been one of her sick fancies, poor unhappy child—as though my heart had ever swerved from her for an instant. What do you think, Margaret, could she care for the blind man still?"
"More than ever, dear. If I know Crystal, her heart has belonged to you from a child."
"There speaks my comforter"—with one of his rare smiles; "you are always good to me, Madge. Now read to me a little, and let me banish these weary thoughts. One little clew—one faint hint—and I would keep my word and seek for her; but, as you say, we must have patience a little longer," and Raby straightened himself and composed himself to listen, and they sat there until the evening sunshine began to creep about the sun-dial, and it was time for Raby to walk over to Pierrepoint.
It is well for some of us that coming events do not always cast their shadow before; that we lie down to rest in happy ignorance of what the next day may bring forth. As Margaret looked out on the moonlight that evening, she little thought that that Sunday was the last day of her happy girlhood—that the morrow held a bitter trial in store for her.
She was sitting alone in the morning-room, the next afternoon, when Sir Wilfred Redmond was announced, and the next moment the old man entered the room.
A faint blush came to Margaret's cheeks as she rose to greet him. This visit meant recognition of her as his son's fiancee; and yet, why did he come alone—why was not Hugh with him? Hugh's father was almost a stranger to her. He was a man of reserved habits, who had never been very sociable with his neighbors, and Margaret had seen little of him in her girlish days.
"It is very good of you to come so soon, Sir Wilfred," she said, blushing still more rosily under his penetrating glance. "I am so sorry that my brother is out; he has gone over to Pierrepoint."
"I came here to see you and not your brother," returned Sir Wilfred; but he did not look at her as he spoke, and Margaret noticed that he seemed rather nervous. "My business is with you, Miss Ferrers; I have just heard strange news—that you and my son are engaged; is that true?"
Margaret bowed her head. She thought Sir Wilfred's manner rather singular—he had met her with coldness; there was certainly no trace of warmth, no cordiality in the loose grasp of her hand. She wondered what made him speak in that dry, measured voice, and why, after his first keen glance at her, he had averted his eyes. He looked older than he had done yesterday, and there was a harassed expression in his face. "It is rather strange," he went on, "that Hugh should have left me in ignorance all these months, but that"—as Margaret seemed about to speak—"is between me and him, I do not include you in the blame. On the contrary,"—speaking now with some degree of feeling—"I am sorry for you, Miss Ferrers, for I have come to tell you, what Hugh refuses to do, that I can not consent to my son's marrying you."
Margaret started, and the proud indignant color rose to her face; but she restrained herself.
"May I ask your reason, Sir Wilfred?"
"I have a very good, sufficient reason," returned the old man, sadly; "Hugh is my only son."
"I do not understand—"
"Perhaps not, and it is my painful task to enlighten you, Miss Ferrers," hesitating a little, "I do not wonder at my son's choice, now I see you; I am quite sure that you are all he represents you to be; that in all respects you are fitted to be the wife of a wealthier man than Hugh. But for my boy's sake I am compelled to appeal to your generosity, your sense of right, and ask you to give him up."
"I can not give your son up," returned Margaret, with noble frankness; "I am promised to him, and we love each other dearly."
"I know that," and for a moment Sir Wilfred's eyes rested on the beautiful face before him with mingled admiration and pain, and his voice softened insensibly. "My dear, I know how my boy loves you, how his whole heart is centered on you. I can do nothing with him—he will not listen to reason; his passion for you is overmastering, and blinds him to his best interest. I have come to you to help me save him in spite of himself."
At this solemn adjuration Margaret's face grew pale, and for the first time her courage forsook her.
"I can not bear this," she returned, and her young voice grew thin and sharp. "Why do you not speak plainly and tell me what you mean? Why do you ask me to save Hugh—my Hugh—when I am ready to give up my whole life to him? You speak as if his marriage with me would bring him a curse."
"As it most surely would to him and to his children, Miss Ferrers. Margaret—I may call you Margaret, for I knew you as a child—it is no fault of yours if that be the truth. My dear, has no one told you about your mother?"
She looked at him with wide-open, startled eyes. "My mother, Sir Wilfred! no, I was only seven when she died. I think," knitting her white brows as though she were trying to recall that childish past, "that she was very ill—she had to go away for a long time, and my poor father seemed very sad. I remember he cried dreadfully at her funeral, and Raby told me I ought to have cried too."
"I loved your mother, Margaret," returned the old man, and his mouth twitched under his white mustache. "You are not like her; she was dark, but very beautiful. Yes, she was ill, with that deadly hereditary illness that we call by another name; so ill that for years before her death her husband could not see her."
"You mean—" asked Margaret, but her dry white lips refused to finish the sentence. Sir Wilfred looked at her pityingly, as he answered—
"She was insane. It was in the family—they told me so, and that was why I did not ask her to marry me. She was beautiful, and so many loved her—your father and I among the number. Now you know, Margaret, that while my heart bleeds for you both, I ask you to release my son."
"WHEN WE TWO PARTED."
Nay—sometimes seems it I could even bear To lay down humbly this love-crown I wear, Steal from my palace, helpless, hopeless, poor, And see another queen it at the door— If only that the king had done no wrong, If this my palace where I dwelt so long Were not defiled by falsehood entering in. There is no loss but change; no death but sin; No parting, save the slow corrupting pain Of murdered faith that never lives again.
The following evening Margaret walked down the narrow path leading to the shore. It was a glorious evening, warm with the dying sunset, gorgeous with red and golden light.
Broad margins of yellow sands, white headlands, mossy cliffs, with the scarlet poppies and pink-eyed convolvuli growing out of the weedy crevices; above, a blue ineffable sky scored deeply with tinted clouds, and a sea dipping on the shore with a long slow ripple of sound; under a bowlder a child bathing her feet in a little runlet of a pool, while all round, heaped up with coarse wavy grasses, lay seaweed—brown, coralline, and purple—their salty fragrance steeping the air; everywhere the sound of cool splashes and a murmur of peace.
The child sat under the bowlder alone, a small brown creature in picturesque-looking rags, a mere waif and stray of a child, with her feet trailing in the pool; every now and then small mottled crabs scrambled crookedly along, or dug graves for themselves in the dry waved sand. The girl watched them idly, as she flapped long ribbons of brown seaweed, or dribbled the water through her hollowed hands, while a tired sea-gull that had lowered wing was skimming slowly along the margin of the water.
Another time Margaret would have paused to speak to the little waif of humanity before her, for she was a lover of children, and was never happier than when she was surrounded by these little creatures—the very babies crowed a welcome to her from their mother's arms. But this evening Margaret's eyes had a strange unseeing look in them; they were searching the winding shore for some expected object, and she scarcely seemed to notice the little one at her play.
Only four-and-twenty hours had passed since Sir Wilfred had paid that ill-omened visit to the Grange, and yet some subtle mysterious change had passed over Margaret. It was as though some blighting influence had swept over her; her face was pale, and her eyes were swollen and dim as though with a night's weeping, and the firm beautiful mouth was tremulous with pain.
"I thought I should have met him by now," she murmured; "I am nearly at the boat-house; surely Sir Wilfred must have given him my message." But the doubt had hardly crossed her mind before a tall figure turned the corner by the lonely boat-house, and the next moment Hugh was coming rapidly toward her.
"Margaret!" he exclaimed, as he caught hold of her outstretched hands, "what does this mean? why have you kept me away from you all these hours, and then appointed this solitary place for our meeting?" Then, as she did not answer, and he looked at her more closely, his voice changed: "Good heavens! what has happened; what has my father done to you? How ill! how awfully ill you look, my darling!"
"It is nothing; I have not slept," she returned, trying to speak calmly. "I am unhappy, Hugh, and trouble has made me weak."
"You weak," incredulously; then, as he saw her eyes filling with tears, "sit down on this smooth white bowlder, and I will place myself at your feet. Now give me your hand, and tell me what makes you so unlike yourself this evening."
Margaret obeyed him, for her limbs were trembling, and a sudden mist seemed to hide him from her eyes; when it cleared, she saw that he was watching her with unconcealed anxiety.
"What is it, Margaret?" he asked, still more tenderly; "what is troubling you, my darling?" But he grew still more uneasy when she suddenly clung to him in a fit of bitter weeping and asked him over and over again between her sobs to forgive her for making him so unhappy.
"Margaret," he said at last, very gently but firmly, "I can not have you say such things to me; forgive you who have been the blessing of my life; whose only fault is that you love me too well."
"I can not be your blessing now, Hugh;" and then she drew herself from his embrace. "Do you remember this place, dear? It was on this bowlder that I was sitting that evening when you found me and asked me to be your wife. We have had some happy days since then, Hugh, have we not? and now to-night I have asked you to meet me here, that you may hear from my lips that I shall never be any man's wife, most certainly not yours, Hugh—my Hugh—whom I love ten thousand times more than I have ever loved you before."
A pained, surprised look passed over Hugh's handsome face. It was evident that he had not expected this. The next moment he gave a short derisive laugh.
"So my father has made mischief between us; he has actually made you believe it would be a sin to marry me. My darling, what nonsense; I know all about your poor mother—many families have this sort of thing; do you think that ever keeps people from marrying? If we had known before, as I told my father, well, perhaps it might have made a difference, but now it is too late, nothing would ever induce me to give you up, Margaret; in my eyes you are already as bound to me as though you were my wife. My father has nothing to do with it—this is between you and me."
"Hugh, listen to me; I have promised Sir Wilfred that I will never marry you."
"Then your promise must be null and void; you are mine, and I claim you, Margaret."
"No, no!" she returned, shrinking from him; "I will never be any man's wife. I have told Raby so, and he says I am right."
"Margaret, are you mad to say such things to me? I am not a patient man, and you are trying me too much," and Hugh's eyes flashed angrily. "Do you want me to doubt your love?"
"Do not make it too hard for me," she pleaded. "Do you think this costs me nothing—that I do not suffer too? You will not be cruel to me, Hugh, because I am obliged to make you unhappy. It is not I, but the Divine Will that has interposed this barrier to our union. Ah, if Raby or I had but known, all this would have been spared you."
"It is too late," returned Hugh, gloomily; "you have no longer the right to dispose of yourself, you are mine—how often am I to tell you that? Do you think that I will ever consent to resign you, that I could live my life without you. What do I care about your mother? Such things happen again and again in families, and no one thinks of them. If I am willing to abide by the consequences, no one else has a right to object."
Poor Hugh! he was growing more sore and angry every moment. He had anticipated some trouble from Margaret's interview with his father; he knew her scrupulous conscience, and feared that a long and weary argument might be before him, but he had never really doubted the result. Life without Margaret would be simply insupportable; he could not grasp the idea for a moment.
Margaret—his Margaret—refuse to be his wife! His whole impetuous nature rose against such a cruel sentence—neither God nor man had decreed it; it was unreasonable, untrue, to suppose such a thing. How could he think of the consequences to his unborn children, of the good of future generations of Redmonds, when he could hear nothing but the voice of his passion that told him no other woman would be to him like Margaret? The news had indeed been a shock to him, but, as he had told his father, nothing should prevent his marrying Margaret.
But he little knew the woman with whose will he had to cope. Margaret's very love for him gave her strength to resist—besides, she could not look at things from Hugh's point of view. If she had married him she would never have known a moment's peace. If she had had children and they had died, she would have regarded their death as a punishment. She would have seen retributive justice in every trouble that came upon them, till she must have pined and withered in her remorse. But she would never marry him. In that calm, loving heart there was a fund of strength and endurance truly marvelous. In her spirit of self-sacrifice she belonged to the noble army of women of whose ranks the proto-martyr, Mary of Nazareth, was first and chief; who can endure to suffer and to see their beloved suffer: who can thrust, uncomplainingly, the right hand—if need be—into the purifying flame, and so go through life halt or maimed, so that their garments may be always white and stainless.
And so looking upon him whom she loved, she gave him up forever; and Hugh's anguish and despair failed to shake her resolution. The Divine Will had forbidden their union; she had promised his father that she would never marry him; she had vowed in last night's bitter conflict never to be the wife of any man. This was what she told him, over and over again, and each time there was a set look about her beautiful mouth that told Hugh that there was no hope for him.
He came to believe it at last, and then his heart was very bitter against her. He said to himself, and then aloud—for in his angry passion he did not spare her, and his hard words bruised her gentle soul, most pitilessly—he said that she did not love him, that she never had, that that cold, pure soul of hers was incapable of passion; and he wondered with an intolerable anguish of anger whether she would suffer if he took her at her word and married another; and when he had flung these cruel words at her—for he was half-maddened with misery—he had turned away from her with a groan, and had hidden his head in his hands. His wishes had ceased to influence her; she had given him up; she would never be his wife, and all the sunshine and promise of his youth seemed dimmed.
But Margaret would not leave him like this; the next moment she was kneeling beside him on the sand. They say there is always something of the maternal element in the love of a good woman; and there was something of this protecting tenderness in Margaret's heart as she drew Hugh's head to her shoulder. He did not resist her; the first fierceness of his anger had now died out, and only the bitterness of his despair remained.
"Hugh, before we part to-night, will you not tell me that you forgive me?"
"How am I to tell you that," he answered, in a dull weary voice, "when you are robbing my life of its happiness?"
"Oh, Hugh, when I loved you."
"You are proving your love"—with the utmost bitterness; but she answered him with the same gentleness.
"You are still angry with me. Well, I must bear your anger; it will only make it all a little harder for me. If you could have said a word that would have helped me to bear it—but no—you are too unhappy; by and by you will do me justice."
"I am not a saint like you," he answered, harshly; "I have a man's feelings. You have often told me I am passionate and willful—well, you were right."
"Yes, you were always willful, Hugh; but you have never been cruel to me before; it is cruel to doubt my love because my duty compels me to give you up. Ah," with a sudden passionate inflection in her voice, "do you know of what self-sacrifice a woman can be capable? for your dear sake, Hugh, I am content to suffer all my life, to stand aside and be nothing to you—yes, even to see another woman your wife, if only you will be brave and true to yourself, if you will live your life worthily. Will you promise me this, Hugh?"
"I will promise nothing," was the reckless answer; "I will take no lie upon my lips even to please you, Margaret."
"Then it must be as God wills," she returned with white lips; "this pain will not last forever. One day we shall meet where it will be no sin to love each other. Good-bye until then, Hugh—my Hugh."
"You are not leaving me, Margaret," and Hugh's arms held her strongly; but the next moment they had dropped to his side—she had stooped and kissed him on the forehead, and the touch of those cold lips seemed his death-warrant; the next moment he was alone, and Margaret was walking swiftly along the little path hollowed out of the cliff. The sunset clouds had long ago faded, and only a gray sky and sea remained.
Half an hour later, as Margaret turned in at the gate of the Grange, a dark figure standing bare-headed under the trees came in groping fashion to meet her.
"Is that you, Margaret?"
"Yes, it is I," and Margaret stood still and motionless until Raby touched her.
"Have you seen him, dear?"
"Yes, it is all over." And then she said a little wildly, "I have done my duty, Raby; I have broken his heart and my own;" but even as she spoke, Raby took her in his arms and low words of blessings seemed to falter on his lips. "My brave sister, but I never doubted for a moment that you would do the right thing. And now be comforted; the same Divine Providence that has exacted this sacrifice will watch over Hugh."
"I know it," she said, weeping bitterly; "but he will have to suffer—if I could only suffer for both!"
"He will not suffer one pang too much," was the quiet answer; "but you are worn out, and I will not talk more to you to-night. Go to your own room, Margaret; tomorrow we will speak of this again." But before she left him he blessed her once more.
THE LITTLE PRINCESS.
Her feet beneath her petticoat, Like little mice, stole in and out, As if they feared the light: But oh! she dances such a way, No sun upon an Easter day Is half so fine a sight.
One lovely spring afternoon Hugh Redmond walked through the narrow winding lanes that lead to the little village of Daintree.
The few passers-by whom he encountered glanced curiously at the tall handsome man in deep mourning, but Hugh did not respond to their looks—he had a grave preoccupied air, and seemed to notice little; he looked about him listlessly, and the beautiful country that lay bathed in the spring sunlight did not seem to excite even a passing admiration in his mind; the budding hedge-rows, the gay chirpings of the unseen birds, busy with family cares, were all unheeded in that hard self-absorbed mood of his. Things had gone badly with Hugh Redmond of late; his broken engagement with Margaret Ferrers had been followed by Sir Wilfred's death. Hugh's heart had been very bitter against his father, but before Sir Wilfred died there had been a few words of reconciliation. "You must not be angry with me, Hugh," the old man had said; "I did it for the best. We were both right, both she and I,—ah, she was a fine creature; but when one remembered her poor mother's end—well, we will not speak of that," and then looking wistfully at his son's moody face, he continued plaintively, "My boy, you will be brave, and not let this spoil your life. I know it is hard on you, but you must not forget you are a Redmond. It will be your duty to marry. When I am gone, go down and see Colonel Mordaunt's daughter: people tell me she is a pretty little creature; you might take a fancy to her, Hugh;" and half to pacify the old man, and half because he was so sick of himself that he did not care what became of him, Hugh muttered a sort of promise that he would have a look at the girl, and then for a time he forgot all about it.
Some months after, a chance word spoken by a friend brought back this promise to his memory.
He had been spending a few days at Henley with some old college friends, when one of them mentioned Daintree, and the name brought back his father's dying words.
"I may as well do it," he said to himself that night; "the other fellows are going back to London; it will not hurt me to stop another day"—and so he settled it.
Hugh scarcely knew why he went, or what he intended to do; in his heart he was willing to forget his trouble in any new excitement; his one idea during all these months had been to escape the misery of his own thoughts. Yes, he would see the young heiress whom his father had always wished him to marry; he remembered her as a pretty child some seven or eight years ago, and wondered with a listless sort of curiosity what the years had done for her, and whether they had ripened or destroyed what was certainly a fair promise of beauty.
Poor Hugh! It would have been better for him to have traveled and forgotten his disappointment before such an idea had come into his head. Many a one in his case would have shaken off the dust of their native land, and, after having seen strange countries and undergone novel experiences, have returned home partially or wholly cured—perhaps to love again, this time more happily. But with Hugh the time had not yet come. He was terribly tenacious in his attachments, but just then anger against Margaret had for a little time swallowed up love. He said to himself that he would forget her yet—that he would not let any woman spoil his life. If he sinned, circumstances were more to blame than he. Fate was so dead against him, his case was so cruelly hard. Alas, Hugh Redmond was not the only man who, stung by passion, jealousy, or revenge, has taken the first downward step on the green slippery slope that leads to Avernus.
Hugh almost repented his errand when he came in sight of the little Gothic cottage with its circular porch, where Miss Mordaunt and her niece lived.
The cottage stood on high ground, and below the sloping garden lay a broad expanse of country—meadows and plowed fields—that in autumn would be rich with waving corn, closed in by dark woods, beyond which lay the winding invisible river. As Hugh came up the straight carriage drive, he caught sight of a little girl in a white frock playing with a large black retriever on the lawn.
The dog was rather rough in his play, and his frolics brought a remonstrance from his little mistress; "Down, Nero! down, good dog!" exclaimed a fresh young voice; "now we must race fairly," and the next moment there were twinkling feet coming over the crisp short turf, followed by Nero's bounding footsteps and bark.
But the game ended abruptly as a sudden turn in the shrubberies brought the tall, fair-bearded stranger in view.
"Oh! I beg your pardon,' exclaimed the same voice, rather shyly; and Hugh took off his hat suddenly in some surprise, for it was no child, but an exceedingly pretty girl, who was looking up in his face with large wondering blue eyes.
"I hope I have not startled you," returned Hugh, courteously, with one of his pleasant smiles. What a diminutive creature she was; no wonder he had taken her at first sight for a child; her stature was hardly more than that a well-grown child of eleven or twelve, and the little white frock and broad-brimmed hat might have belonged to a child too.
But she was a dainty little lady for all that, with a beautifully proportioned figure, as graceful as a fairy, and a most lovely, winsome little face.
"Oh!" she said, with a wonderful attempt at dignity that made him smile—as though he saw a kitten on its best behavior, "I am not at all startled; but of course Nero and I would hardly have had that race if we had known any one was in the shrubbery. Have you lost your way?" lifting those wonderful Undine-like eyes to his face, which almost startled Hugh with their exceeding beauty and depth.
"Is Nero your dog?" returned Sir Hugh, patting the retriever absently; "he is a fine fellow, only I am afraid he is rather rough sometimes; he nearly knocked you down just now in his play. I see you do not remember me, Miss Mordaunt. I am Sir Hugh Redmond. I have come to call on you and your aunt."
"Oh!" she said, becoming very shy all at once, "I remember you now; but you looked different somehow, and the sun was in my eyes; poor Sir Wilfred—yes, we heard he was dead—he came to see Aunt Griselda once before he went away. It must be very lonely for you at the Hall," and she glanced at his deep mourning, and then at the handsome face that was looking so kindly at her. What a grand-looking man he was, she thought; it must have been his beard that altered him so and prevented her from recognizing him; but then, of course, she had never seen him since she was a little girl, when her father was alive, and they were living at Wyngate Priory.
Hugh Redmond! ah, yes, she remembered him now. She had made a cowslip ball for him once, and he had tossed it right into the middle of the great elms, where the rooks had their nest; and once she had harnessed him with daisy chains and driven him up and down the bowling-green, while her father laughed at them from the terrace—what a merry little child she used to be—and Hugh Redmond had been a splendid playfellow; but as she moved beside him down the graveled walk leading to the cottage her shyness increased, and she could not bring herself to recall these old memories; indeed, Hugh could not get her to look at him again.
"There is Aunt Griselda," she said, suddenly, as a tall lady-like woman with a gentle, subdued-looking face appeared in the porch, and seemed much surprised at Hugh's apparition. "Auntie, Sir Hugh Redmond has come to see us," and then without waiting to see the effect of this introduction on her aunt, Nero's little playfellow slipped away.
Hugh found himself watching for her reappearance with some anxiety, as he sat in the porch talking to Aunt Griselda.
The elder Miss Mordaunt was somewhat of a recluse in her habits; she was a nervous, diffident woman, who made weak health an excuse for shutting herself out from society. Fay had lived with her ever since her father's death; but during the last year Miss Mordaunt had been much troubled by qualms of conscience, as to whether she was doing her duty to her orphaned niece. Fay was almost a woman, she told herself—a tiny woman certainly, but one must not expect her to grow bigger; girls seldom grew after sixteen, and Fay was more than sixteen. Colonel Mordaunt had left very few instructions in his will about his little daughter. His sister was appointed her personal guardian until she came of age or married; there was a liberal allowance for maintenance and education; but Colonel Mordaunt was a man of simple habits, and Fay had never been accustomed to either ostentation or luxury; one day she would be a rich woman, and find herself the possessor of a large, rambling, old house; until then her father had been perfectly willing that she should live quietly with his sister in her modest cottage at Daintree. Masters and mistresses came over to Fay, and taught her in the low bow-windowed room that was set apart for her use. A chestnut pony was sent from Wyngate Priory; and Miss Mordaunt's groom accompanied Fay in these long scrambling rides.
The young heiress was perfectly happy and content with her simple secluded life; Aunt Griselda would hear the girl warbling like a lark in her little room. Long before the inhabitants of the cottage would be stirring Fay's little feet were accustomed to brush the dew from the grass; Nero and she would return from their rambles in the highest spirits; the basket of wild flowers that graced the breakfast-table had been all gathered and arranged by Fay's pretty fingers. After breakfast there were all her pets to visit—to feed the doves and chickens and canaries—to give Fairy her corn, and to look after the brindled cow and the dear little gray-and-black kitten in the hay-loft—all the live things on the premises loved their gracious little mistress; even Sulky, Aunt Griselda's old pony—the most ill-conditioned and stubborn of ponies, who never altered his pace for any degree of coaxing—would whinny with pleasure if Fay entered his stall.
Fay was very docile with her masters and mistresses, but it is only fair to say that her abilities were not above the average. She sipped knowledge carelessly when it came in her way, but she never sought it of her own accord. Neither she nor Aunt Griselda were intellectual women. Fay played a little, sung charmingly, filled her sketchbook with unfinished vigorous sketches, chattered a little French, and then shut up her books triumphantly, under the notion that at sixteen a girl's education must be finished.
It must be confessed that Miss Mordaunt was hardly the woman to be intrusted with a girl's education. She was a gentle, shallow creature, with narrow views of life, very prim and puritanical—orthodox, she would have called it—and she brought up Fay in the old-fashioned way in which she herself had been brought up. Fay never mixed with young people; she had no companions of her own age; but people were beginning to talk of her in the neighborhood. Fay's youth, her prospective riches, her secluded nun-like life surrounded her with a certain mystery of attraction. Miss Mordaunt had been much exercised of late by the fact that one or two families in the environs of Daintree had tried to force themselves into intimacy with the ladies of the cottage; sundry young men, too, had made their appearance in the little church at Daintree, as it seemed with the express intention of staring at Fay. One of these, Frank Lumsden, had gone further—he had taken advantage of a service he had rendered the ladies, when Sulky had been more intractable than usual, to join Fay in her walks and rides. He was a handsome boy of about twenty, and he was honestly smitten with the young heiress's sweet face; but Aunt Griselda, who knew her brother's wish, had been greatly alarmed, and had thought of shutting up her cottage and taking Fay to Bath for the winter before Frank Lumsden came back to Daintree Hall for the Christmas vacation.
Aunt Griselda received Sir Hugh graciously, and prosed gently to him of his father's death; but Hugh turned the conversation skillfully to herself and Fay. He managed to extract a good deal of information from the simple woman about her lovely little niece. Miss Mordaunt could be garrulous on the subject of Fay's perfections—she looked upon Hugh Redmond as the suitor whom her brother would have chosen. Before long Hugh heard all about Frank Lumsden's enormities. Before he had visited many times at the cottage Aunt Griselda had confided her perplexities to his ear, and had asked his advice—of course he had commended her wisdom in driving the unlucky Frank from the field.
"It would never do, you know; he is only a boy," Aunt Griselda observed, plaintively; "and Fay will be so rich one of these days."
"Oh! it would never do at all," responded Hugh, hastily. The idea of Frank Lumsden annoyed him. What business had all these impertinent fellows to be staring at Fay in church? He should like to send them all about their own business, he thought; for though hardly a week had passed, Hugh was beginning to feel a strong interest in Fay.
He had not spoken to her again on that first visit; but after a time she had joined them in the porch, and had sat down demurely by Aunt Griselda, and had busied herself with some work. Hugh could not make her speak to him, but he had a good look at her.
She had laid aside her broad-brimmed hat, and he saw the beautiful little head was covered with soft curly brown hair, that waved naturally over the temples. It was coiled gracefully behind, but no amount of care or pains could have smoothed those rippling waves.
He wished more than once that he could have seen her eyes again, but she kept them fixed on her embroidery; only when anything amused her a charming dimple showed on one cheek. It was the prettiest dimple he had ever seen, and he caught himself trying to say something that would bring it again. Hugh paid a long visit, and in a few days he came again. He was staying at Cooksley, he told them carelessly; and if they would allow it, he added courteously, he should like to walk over to Daintree and see them sometimes.
Miss Mordaunt gave him gracious permission, and Fay looked shyly pleased; and so it came that Hugh called daily at the cottage.
He sent for his horses presently, and drove Miss Mordaunt and her niece to all the beautiful spots in the neighborhood; and he joined Fay in her canters through the lanes, and found fault with Fairy, much to her little mistress's dismay; but Fay blushed very prettily when one day a beautiful little chestnut mare, with a lady's side-saddle, was brought to the cottage-door, where Fay was waiting in her habit.
"I want you to try Bonnie Bell," he said, carelessly, as he put her on her saddle. "You ride perfectly, and Fairy is not half good enough for you;" and Fay was obliged to own that she had never had such a ride before; and Hugh had noticed that people had turned round to look at the beautiful little figure on the chestnut mare.
"I shall bring her every day for you to ride—she is your own property, you know," Hugh said, as he lifted Fay to the ground; but Fay had only tried to hide her blushing face from his meaning look, and had run into the house.
Hugh was beginning to make his intentions very clear. When he walked with Fay in the little lane behind the cottage he did not say much, but he looked very kindly at her. The girl's innocent beauty—her sweet face and fresh ripple of talk—came soothingly to the jaded man. He began to feel an interest in the gentle unsophisticated little creature. She was very young, very ignorant, and childish—she had absolutely no knowledge of the world or of men—but somehow her very innocence attracted him.
His heart was bitter against his old love—should he take this child to himself and make her his wife? He was very lonely—restless, and dissatisfied, and miserable; perhaps, after all, she might rest and comfort him. He was already very fond of her; by and by, when he had learned to forget Margaret, when he ceased to remember her with these sickening throbs of pain, he might even grow to love her.
"She is so young—so little will satisfy her," he said to himself, when a chill doubt once crossed his mind whether he could ever give her the love that a woman has a right to demand from the man who offers himself as her husband; but he put away the thought from him. He was a Redmond, and it was his duty to marry; he had grown very fond of the shy gentle little creature; he could make her happy, for the child liked him, he thought; and it would be pleasant to have her bright face to welcome him when he went home.
So one evening, as they walked up and down the shrubbery, while Aunt Griselda knitted in the porch, Hugh took Fay's hand, and asked her gently if she thought she could love him well enough to be his wife. Poor simple little child! she hardly knew how to answer him; but Hugh, who had caught a glimpse of the happy blushing face, was very gentle and patient with her shyness, and presently won from her the answer he wanted. She did like him—so much he understood her to say—he was so kind, and had given her so much pleasure. Yes—after much pressing on Hugh's part—she was sure that she liked him well enough, but she could not be induced to say more.
But Hugh was quite content with his victory; he wanted no words to tell him that Fay adored him from the depths of her innocent heart; he could read the truth in those wonderful eyes—Fay had no idea how eloquent they were.
"How could she help loving him?" she said to herself that night, as she knelt down in the moonlight; had she ever seen any one like him. No little imprisoned princess ever watched her knight more proudly than Fay did when Hugh rode away on his big black mare. He was like a king, she thought, so kind, and handsome, and gracious; and Fay prayed with tears that she might be worthy of the precious gift that had come to her.
And so one lovely August day, when Aunt Griselda's sunny little garden was sweet with the breath of roses and camellias, Sir Hugh and Fay were married in the little church at Daintree, and as Hugh looked down on his child-wife, something like compunction seized him, and from the depths of his sore heart he solemnly promised that he would keep his vow, and would cherish and love her, God helping, to his life's end.
Upon her face there was the tint of grief, The settled shadow of an inward strife.
.... A sorrow not, a son.
ALGERNON C. SWINBURNE.
In one of the dingiest suburbs of London there is a small plot of ground known by the name of the Elysian Fields; but how it had ever acquired this singular appellation is likely to remain an unsolved problem to the end of time.
Most probably those great satirists, street denominators, had branded it with this title in ridicule, for anything further removed from the mythological meadows could not possibly be conceived, even by the most sanguine temperament. True, there was a market garden or two, and odors redolent of decaying vegetables; but, on the whole, it was rather an unsavory region, and much frequented by the costermonger and fishwoman.
The Elysian Fields were divided and subdivided into streets, rows, and alleys; some respectable, others semi-genteel, but in most cases to be defined by the three degrees of comparison—dingy, dingier, most dingy; and it was under the comparative degree that a certain street, known by the name of Beulah Place, must be classed.
It was a long narrow street, not differing much from the others that ran parallel with it, except in a general air of retirement and obscurity, owing to a "No Thoroughfare" placarded up on the blank wall of a brewery, which had rather a depressing effect on the end houses that looked full on it.
There was little that was noticeable about the street except its name—for here again the satirists had sharpened their wits, and Beulah Place looked down in conscious superiority on Paradise Row.
In conscious superiority indeed—for had not Beulah Place this distinction, that its houses were garnished with imposing flights of steps and a railed-in area, while Paradise Row opened its doors directly on the pavement?
Therefore Beulah Place noted itself eminently respectable, and put on airs; let its front and back parlors to single gentlemen or widows; and looked over its wire blinds in superb disdain at the umbrella-mender, or genteel dressmaker who lived opposite.
At the extreme corner of Beulah Place, with its one glass eye peering down High Street, was Mrs. Watkins, tea merchant and Italian warehouseman—at least, so ran the gilt-lettered inscription, which had been put up over the door in the days of her predecessor, and had remained there ever since. But it was in reality an all-sorts shop, where nearly everything edible could be procured, and to betray ignorance of Mrs. Watkins was to betray ignorance not only of Beulah Place, but of the whole of the Elysian Fields.
To be sure the long window aided the deception, and was fitted up solely with goods in the grocery line; but enter the dark low door-way, and get an odorous whiff from within, and one's olfactory nerves would soon convince one of the contrary.
There was a flavor of everything there; a blended fragrance compounded of strong cheese, herrings, and candles, with a suspicion of matches and tarred wood, which to the uninitiated was singularly unpalatable, and suggested to them to shake off the dust of Mrs. Watkins as soon as possible.
To be sure this was only a trifle. To do her justice, Mrs. Watkins drove a very thriving trade; the very carters had a partiality for the shop, and would lurch in about twelve o'clock, with their pipes and hob-nailed boots, for a twist of tobacco or a slice of cheese, and crack clumsy jokes across the counter.
But, besides this, Mrs. Watkins had another source of profit that was at once lucrative and respectable. She let lodgings.
And very genteel lodgings they were, with a private entrance in Beulah Place, and a double door that excluded draughts and the heterogeneous odors from the shop.
These lodgers of Mrs. Watkins were the talk of the neighborhood, and many a passer-by looked curiously up at the bright windows and clean white curtains, between which in summer time bloomed the loveliest flowers, and the earliest snow-drops and crocuses in spring, in the hope of seeing two fair faces which had rather haunted their memory ever since they had first seen them.
It was six o'clock on the evening of a dreary November day. Watkins's shop was empty, for the fog and the rawness and the cold had driven folks early to their homes; and Mrs. Watkins herself, fortified with strong tea and much buttered toast, was entering her profits on a small greasy slate, and casting furtive glances every now and then into the warm, snug parlor, where her nephew and factotum Tony was refreshing himself in his turn from the small black teapot on the hob.
A fresh, wholesome-looking woman was Mrs. Watkins, with an honest, reliable face and a twofold chin; but she had two peculiarities—she always wore the stiffest and cleanest and most crackling of print dresses, and her hair was nearly always pinned up in curl-papers under her black cap.
Mrs. Watkins was engaged in jotting down small dabs of figures on the slate and rubbing them out again, when the green baize swing-door leading to the passage was pushed back, and a tall grave-looking woman in black entered the shop and quietly approached the counter.
She was certainly a striking-looking person; in spite of the gray hair and a worn, sad expression, the face bore the trace of uncommon beauty, though all youth and freshness, animation and coloring, had faded out of it.
The profile was almost perfect, and the mouth would have been lovely too but for a certain proud droop of the lips which gave an impression of hardness and inflexibility; but the dark eyes were very soft and melancholy, and seemed to hold a world of sadness in their depths.
"Mrs. Watkins," she began hurriedly, in a sweet, cultivated voice, and then stopped and drew back as another person came into the shop; "no, do not let me interrupt you. I was only going to say that one of the young ladies at Miss Martingale's seems very poorly, and Miss Theresa is a little troubled about her, so I have promised to go back for an hour or two; but I have my key with me if I should be late."
"Dear bless my heart, Mrs. Trafford," exclaimed Mrs. Watkins, fussily, as she looked at her lodger's pale, tired face, "you are never going out on such an evening, and all the streets swept as clean as if with a new broom; and you with your cough, and the fog, and not to mention the rawness which sucks into your chest like a lozenge;" and here Mrs. Watkins shook her head, and weighed out a quarter of a pound of mixed tea, in a disapproving manner.
Mrs. Trafford smiled. "My good friend," she said, in rather an amused voice, "you ought to know me better by this time; have you ever remembered that either frost, or rain, or fog have kept me in-doors a single day when duty called me out;" and here she folded her cloak round her, and prepared to leave the shop.
"It's ill tempting Providence, neighbor," remarked the other woman, who had been standing silently by and now put in her word, for she was an innocent country body with a garrulous tongue; "it's ill tempting Providence, for 'the wind and the sea obey Him.' I had a son myself some fourteen years next Michaelmas," continued the simple creature, "as brave and bonny a lad as ever blessed a mother's eyes, and that feared naught; but the snow-drift that swept over the Cumberland Fells found him stumbling and wandering, poor Willie, from the right way, and froze his dear heart dead."
The lady advanced a few steps, and then stopped as though seized by a sudden impulse, and looked wistfully in the other woman's face.
"God help you," she said, very softly; "and was this boy of yours a good son?"
Perhaps in the whole of her simple, sorrowful life Elsie Deans had never seen anything more pathetic than that white face from which the gray hair was so tightly strained, and those anxious questionings. "And was this boy of yours," she said, "a good son?"
"A better never breathed," faltered poor Elsie, as she drew her hand across her eyes; "he was my only bairn, was Willie."
"Why do you weep then?" returned Mrs. Trafford in her sad voice; "do you not know that there are mothers in the heart of this great city who would that their sons had never been born, or that they had seen them die in their infancy. 'He was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow,'" she continued to herself; then aloud, and with a strange flickering smile that scarcely lighted up the pale face, "Good-night to you—happy mother whose son perished on the Cumberland Fells, for you will soon meet him again. Good-night, Mrs. Watkins;" and with this abrupt adieu she went quickly out of the shop and was lost in the surrounding fog.
"A fine figure of a woman," ejaculated Elsie, shaking her old head with a puzzled look on her wrinkled face; "a fine, grand figure of a woman, but surely an 'innocent,' neighbor?"
"An innocent!" repeated Mrs. Watkins with an indignant snort; "an innocent! Mrs. Deans; why should such an idea enter your head? A shrewder and a brighter woman than my lodger, Mrs. Trafford, never breathed, though folks do say she has had a deal of trouble in her life—but there, it is none of my business; I never meddle in the affairs of my neighbors. I am not of the sort who let their tongue run away with them," finished Mrs. Watkins with a virtuous toss of her head.
She was gay, tender, petulant and susceptible. All her feelings were quick and ardent; and having never experienced contradiction or restraint, she was little practiced in self-control; nothing but the native goodness of her heart kept her from running continually into error.—WASHINGTON IRVING.
If Mrs. Trafford had been questioned about her past life, she would have replied in patriarchal language that few and evil had been her days, and yet no life had ever opened with more promise than hers.
Many years, nearly a quarter of a century, before the gray-haired weary woman had stood in Mrs. Watkins's shop, a young girl in a white dress, with a face as radiant as the spring morning itself, leaned over the balcony of Belgrave House to wave good-bye to her father as he rode away eastward.