The Late Miss Hollingford
BY ROSA MULHOLLAND
Author of "Cynthia's Bonnet Shop" "Giannetta" "Hetty Gray" "Four Little Mischiefs" &c.
BLACKIE AND SON LIMITED LONDON GLASGOW AND DUBLIN
"The Late Miss Hollingford" was published a good many years ago in the pages of All the Year Round.
It has never till now been re-published in England, though it has been translated into French under the title of Une Idee Fantasque, and issued by the Bleriot Library, with a preface by M. Gounod. It has also appeared in Italian. In the Tauchnitz Collection it is bound in with No Thoroughfare, having been chosen by the late Charles Dickens as a pendant for his own story in a volume of that series.
Mr. Dickens was so pleased with this tale, and some others by the same author, then a very young beginner, that he wrote asking her to contribute a serial story of considerable length to his journal.
"The Late Miss Hollingford" (the title of which was chosen by Mr. Dickens himself) comes now asking for a favourable reception from the public, in the name of the great master of English fiction—long passed away from among us.
A dear old lady tells us this story in the late autumn evenings. Now the harvest is in, huge haycocks shelter the gable, the honey is strained and put by in jars, the apples are ripened and stored; the logs begin to sputter and sing in the big parlour at evening, hot cakes to steam on the tea-table, and the pleasant lamp-lit hours to spread themselves. Indoor things begin to have meaning looks of their own, our limbs grow quiet, and our brains begin to work. The moors beyond the window take strange expressions in the twilight, and fold mysteries into their hollows with the shadows of the night. The maids in the kitchen sing wild ballads to one another round the ingle; and when one of us young folks threads the rambling passages above to fetch a stray thimble from one of the lavender-scented bed-rooms, she comes back flying down the great hollow staircase as if a troop of ghosts were at her heels. It is the time to enjoy a story, a true story, the story of a real life; and here it is, as our dear old lady is telling it to us.
* * * * *
When I first learned, my children, that I was the ward of my mother's early friend, Mrs. Hollingford, and was to live under her roof after my departure from school, I little thought that a place like Hillsbro' Farm was ever likely to be my home. I was a conceited young person, and fond of giving myself airs. My father was colonel of his regiment, and I thought I had a right to look down on Lydia Brown, whose father was in business, though she wore velvet three inches deep upon her frocks, while mine had no better trimming than worsted braid. I had spent all my life at school, from the day when my father and mother kissed me for the last time in Miss Sweetman's parlour. I remember yet my pretty mother's pale tearful face as she looked back at me through the carriage window, and my own paroxysm of despairing tears on the mat when the door was shut. After that I had a pleasant enough life of it. I was a favourite at school, having a disposition to make myself and others as happy as I could. I required a good deal of snubbing, but when properly kept down I believe I was not a disagreeable girl.
My Indian letters generally contained some bit of news to amuse or interest my companions, and now and again captain, or ensign somebody, home upon sick leave, called and presented himself in Miss Sweetman's parlour, with curious presents for me, my mistresses, or favourite companions. I remember well the day when Major Guthrie arrived with the box of stuffed birds. Miss Kitty Sweetman, our youngest and best-loved mistress, was sent on before me to speak civilly to the gentleman in the parlour, and announce my coming. Miss Kitty was the drudge of the school, the sweetest-tempered drudge in the world. She was not so well informed as her elder sisters, and had to make up in the quantity of her teaching what it lacked in the quality. She was fagged, and hunted, and worried from morning till night by all the small girls in the school. She would have been merry if she had had time, and she was witty whenever she could get the chance of being anything but a machine; but she was not always happy, for I slept in her room, and I sometimes heard her crying in the night. As I remember her first she was young and pretty, but as time went on she grew a little faded, and a little harassed-looking; though I still thought her sweet enough for anything.
Well, Miss Kitty went down to the major, and I, following close upon her heels, heard a little scream as I paused at the parlour door, and there when I went in was a bronzed-looking gentleman holding Miss Kitty's two hands in his, and looking in her face. And I could not care about the birds for thinking of it, and when we went up to bed Miss Kitty told me that Major Guthrie was an old friend of her family, and that he had said he would call again. And surely enough he did call again; and then it happened that the three Miss Sweetmans were invited out to an evening party—a great event for them. I thought there was something very particular about it, and so I took care to dress Miss Kitty with my own hands. She had a plain white dress, and I insisted on lending her my blue sash and coral necklace; and when she was dressed she put her finger in her mouth, and asked, between laughing and crying, whether I could further accommodate her with a coral and bells. She looked as young as anybody, though she would make fun of herself. And when she came in that night, and saw my open eyes waiting for her, she sat down on my bed and began to cry, and told me that Major Guthrie had asked her to marry him, and she was going to India as his wife. Then I heard the whole story; how he had loved her dearly long ago; how her friends had refused him because he was too poor, and she was too young; how after he had gone off in a passion reverses had come upon them, and she and her sisters had been obliged to open a school. And so Miss Kitty went out to India, and the only thing that comforted me for her loss was the fact that she took with her the embroidered handkerchief for my mother, and the wrought cigar-case for my father, which it had taken my idleness a whole year to produce. Ah, me! and my eyes never beheld either of these three again: friend, father, or mother.
My first recollections of Mrs. Hollingford are associated with plum-cake, birth-days, and bon-bons. I remember her as an erect, dignified-looking lady in a long velvet cloak, and with a peculiarly venerable face, half severe, half benevolent. I used to feel a little nervous about speaking to her, but I liked to sit at a distance and look at her. I had a superstition that she was the most powerful universal agent in existence; that she had only to say, "Let there be plum-cake," and immediately it would appear on the table; or, "This little girl requires a new doll," and at once a waxen cherub would repose in my arms. The Miss Sweetmans paid her the greatest deference, and the girls used to peep over the blinds in the school-room at her handsome carriage and powdered servants. I remember, when a very little girl, presenting myself before Miss Sweetman one day, and popping up my hand as a sign that I wanted to ask a question. "What is the reason, Miss Sweetman," I asked, "that Mrs. Hollingford makes me think of the valiant woman of whom we were reading in the Bible yesterday?" But Miss Sweetman was busy, and only puckered up her mouth and ordered me back to my seat. Mrs. Hollingford used to take me on her knee and tell me of a little girl of hers who was at school in France, and with whom I was one day to be acquainted; and a tall lad, who was her son, used to call sometimes with bouquets for Miss Sweetman or sugar-plums for me; but I was never in her house, which I believed to be a palace, nor did I ever see Mr. Hollingford, who was a banker in the city. After my twelfth birthday I saw them no more. I missed the periodical appearance of the noble countenance in the parlour. Miss Sweetman, with a very long face, told me something of the breaking of a bank, ruin, and poverty. I was very sorry, but I was too young to realise it much; and I went on thinking of Mrs. Hollingford, in trouble, no doubt, and unfortunately removed from me, but still going about the world in her long velvet cloak and with her hands full of plum-cake.
So my youth went on till I was sixteen, pretty well grown for my years, a little pert, a little proud, a little fond of tinsels and butterflies, a little too apt to make fun of my neighbours, and to believe that the sun had got a special commission to shine upon me, but withal sympathetic and soft-hearted enough when in my right senses, and, as I said before, not a bad sort of girl when properly kept down by a judicious system of snubbing. I had already begun to count the months to the happy time, two years hence, when, my education being finished, I should at last rejoin my parents in India; and I was fond of describing all the beautiful things I would send as presents to the friends who had been kind to me in England. And then one fearful day came the black letter bearing the terrible news which bowed my head in the dust, scattered my girlish vanities, and altered my fate for life. Every one in the house learned the news before me. I saw blank faces all around, and could only guess the cause, so careful were they to break it to me gradually. For two dreadful days they kept me on the rack of suspense, while I did not know whether it was my father or mother who was dead, or whether both were ill, or only one. But I learned all soon enough. There had been a fever, and both were dead. I was an orphan, quite alone in the world.
For three years after this I remained with the Miss Sweetmans, during which time I had regained much of my old cheerfulness, and also some degree of my natural pride and impertinence. My father and mother had been to me a memory and a hope; now they were a memory only. After my first grief and sense of desolation had passed, I went on with the routine of my days much as before. I did not miss my father and mother every hour as though I had lived under their roof and been familiar with their faces and caresses. But the bright expectation of my youth was extinguished, and I suffered secretly a great yearning for the love which I had now no right to claim from anyone. The time was fast approaching when I must take my school-books down from Miss Sweetmans' shelves, pack up my trunks, and go forth among strangers. I had some property, more than enough for my needs, and I was to dwell under the roof of my guardian, Mrs. Hollingford. In the mean time, I paid several visits to the home of a wealthy school-fellow, who had entered upon fashionable life, and who was eager to give me a taste of its delights before I yielded myself to the fate that was in store for me. I learned to dress with taste, to wear my hair in the newest style, and to waltz to perfection. But I could not go on paying visits for ever, and the time arrived when I found it necessary to turn my back on lively scenes and prepare for the obscurity of Hillsbro'. This was a remote place in the north country, from whence were dated all the letters addressed by Mrs. Hollingford to me since the time when she had become my guardian.
I did not go to Hillsbro' Farm in any unfair state of ignorance as to the present worldly position of its owners. Grace Tyrrell (my school-fellow) was careful to let me know the depth of the degradation to which these friends of an old time had fallen from their once high estate; also to make me aware of the estimation in which they were held by the people of her world. The idea of my going to Hillsbro' was ridiculed till I got angry, but not ashamed.
"Those poor Hollingfords!" said one lady. "I am sure it is very kind of you, Miss Dacre, to pay them a visit; but live with them, my dear!—you could not think of identifying yourself with such people. Are you aware that the father ruined numbers of people, absconded with his pockets full of money, and never was heard of since?"
"Yes," said I; "but I have nothing to do with Mr. Hollingford. And I daresay if his wife had taken ill-gotten riches down to Hillsbro' with her, the police would have followed her before this; for she gives her address quite openly."
I afterwards heard this lady telling Grace that her friend was a very pert young woman. I did not mind, for, through fighting Mrs. Hollingford's battles, I had come to think that I loved her memory; and I tried to do so for my mother's sake.
"It is not at all necessary to live with a guardian," said Grace. "They say Mrs. Hollingford makes butter and sells it; and Frederick says the son is a mere ploughman. He is Mr. Hill's agent; Frederick met him by chance, quite lately, when he was shooting at Hillsbro'."
"Agent, is he?" said I, mischievously. "Then I should think he must at least know how to read and write. Come, that is not so bad!"
"You will get the worst of it, Grace," said Frederick Tyrrell, who was listening. "Lucky fellow, Hollingford, to have such a champion!"
So here I had better explain to you, my dears, that Captain Tyrrell was, even at this time, what old-fashioned people used to call a great beau of mine; that he was fond of dangling about my skirts and picking up my fan. Nothing more on this subject is necessary here. If you desire to know what he is like, I refer you to an old water-colour sketch of a weak-faced, washed-out-looking young man, with handsome features, and a high-collared coat, which you will find in an old portfolio upstairs, on the top shelf of the wardrobe, in the lumber-room. It was done by Grace's own hand, a portrait of her brother, and presented to me in those days. It has lain in that portfolio ever since.
Though I fought for the Hollingfords, and would hear no word against them, I do confess that I suffered much fear as to how I should manage to accommodate myself to the life which I might find awaiting me at Hillsbro' Farm. That idea of the butter-making, for instance, suggested a new train of reflections. The image of Mrs. Hollingford began to divest itself gradually of the long velvet cloak and majestic mien which it had always worn in my mind, and I speculated as to whether I might not be expected to dine in a kitchen with the farm-servants, and to assist with the milking of the cows. But I contrived to keep my doubts to myself, and went on packing my trunks with a grudging conviction that at least I was doing my duty.
And it is here, just when my packing was half done, that the strange, beautiful face of Rachel Leonard rises up to take its place in my history. I was introduced to her by chance; I did not know her story, nor that she had a story, nor yet that she was connected with any people whose intimate acquaintance I was likely to make in the future.
We met at a small musical party, where we had opportunities for conversation. She wore a white Indian muslin, with a bunch of scarlet flowers in the bosom. We were sitting in a softly lighted corner, and her figure was in relief against a dark curtain. Her face was oval and olive, with an exquisite mingling of warmth and purity, depth and delicacy, in its tone. Her dark hair was swept up to the top of her head in a crown of braids, as it was then worn. Her eyes were dark grey, and very sweet, with a mysterious shadow of sadness about them when her face was in repose; yet, when they smiled they shone more than any eyes I have ever seen.
"Miss Dacre and Miss Leonard, I must make you acquainted," said our hostess (the meddling lady whom I have already quoted on the subject of the Hollingford misdemeanours). "You intend passing the winter at Hillsbro', Miss Leonard."
"Yes," replied Rachel; "I believe we shall be at the hall about Christmas."
"Ah! and you have never been there before? I can assure you it is the most dreary place; you will be glad of a young friend in the neighbourhood. Miss Dacre's whim is one of our amusements at present. She is going to Hillsbro' to stay with a lady who is the mother of Mr. Hill's agent."
"Mrs. Cowan?" said Miss Leonard, with a ladylike assumption of interest in the subject.
"Not at all, my dear; the Cowans were worthy people, but Mr. Hill has changed his agent. Have you not heard? No, of course. Hollingford is the name of these people. The father was a banker, the bank smashed, and he ran away with large sums of money."
I thought—nay, I was quite sure—that Miss Leonard started at the mention of the word Hollingford; and I also thought that she turned deathly pale; but she bent over her flowers at the moment, and the light was very subdued. No one else seemed to notice it, so it is just possible I may have been mistaken.
"Mr. Hill's new agent is, then, the son of Mr. Hollingford, the banker?" said Miss Leonard, after a pause. "I did not know that they belonged to that part of the country."
"Oh! I do not know about that; but the mother and son have taken a farm there lately, trying to make shift for themselves, poor things! They say young Hollingford has some Quixotic ideas about paying some of his father's liabilities; and if he has, I am sure it is very creditable to him. But I for one am inclined to doubt it. Bad conduct generally runs in families."
"Madam," said I, with my cheeks getting very hot, "Mrs. Hollingford was my mother's dear friend."
"Highty tighty, Miss Dacre," said the lady, "we never know how our friends are going to turn out. I say nothing but what is true. And allow me to warn you, my dear, that if you will persist in identifying yourself with such people you must make up your mind to hear them spoken of as they deserve."
"Madam," said I again, flashes of lightning now dancing before my eyes, "I am very sorry I ever entered your house; and I shall certainly never enter it again."
Not waiting for more I made her a curtsy, and walked out of the room. I found the dressing-room where I had left my cloak, fully determined to go home at once, if I could only get the carriage. I had to wait some time, however, and whilst I sat alone the door opened and Rachel Leonard came hurriedly up to my side.
"I could not go away without bidding you good-night," she said, holding both my hands in both of hers. "Perhaps we may meet again. God bless you!"
Her voice was unsteady, her face pale, her eyes wet. A lady came to the door and said, "Now, Rachel, we are waiting!" She dropped my hand and was gone.
"Who is she?" I asked of Grace, as soon as we were together, "What relation is she to the Hills?"
"None whatever," said Grace; "only an adopted daughter. There is some romantic story about her, I believe. She went to Mrs. Hill as a companion first. The Hills, who are the most eccentric old couple in the world, took a violent fancy to her, and adopted her for their own. I believe she is an orphan of a very good family. They keep up a wonderful fuss about her; and people say they have made her their heiress."
"I wonder why she looked so strangely at the mention of the Hollingfords?" I said musingly.
"My dear Margery," said Grace, shaking her head, "I give you up. You are perfectly insane on the subject of the Hollingfords. What will you imagine next?"
"I do not think I imagined it," said I. "I am sure that she turned as white as your cloak."
"Well, well," said Grace, "there may be some deep mystery for all I know. Miss Leonard may, like yourself, have a taste for agriculture; or may have known young Mr. Hollingford before he turned ploughman. I advise you to think about it. You have materials for a pretty romance to take into exile with you."
And I did think about it long afterwards.
My children, you must remember that I am speaking of an old-fashioned time, and I travelled down to Hillsbro' by coach. The promenade of a fashionable watering-place had hitherto been my idea of the country. Imagine, then, how my hungry eyes devoured the new beauties presented to them. I had provided myself with a book, and I had hoped to fall asleep over it, yet here I was with my eyes riveted to a pane of glass, afraid to wink lest I should miss something. Grace's warning, "You will fret yourself to death, you will be back before a month," grew faint in my ears. When night shut out my new world and I fell asleep, I dreamed of extraordinary phenomena—trees stalking about the plains, fairies leaping out of the foam of the rivers.
I opened my eyes to a rose-coloured dawn. We had stopped before a little village inn. A row of pigeons with burnished necks looked down on me from their perch on the signboard above the door; a half-dressed, curly-headed child peeped out of a window from under the eaves, and clapped his hands at the steaming horses: and a young man walked out of the inn with a whip in his hand, and asked if there might be a lady inside the coach whose destination was Hillsbro' Farm.
I was soon seated by his side in a gig. By a few careful glances I had easily assured myself that there was nothing of the ploughman in the appearance of Mrs. Hollingford's son. You will want to know what I thought of him that morning, and I will tell you. He seemed to me the beau ideal of a country gentleman: nothing less than this, and something more. You have known him, my dears, stooped and white-haired, and have loved him in his age for the sake of the heart that never grew old. But on that brilliant autumn morning when he and I first sat side by side, the same lovable spirit was clothed with the strength and beauty of mortal youth.
The vivid life of the country was sweet to me that early morning. Carts of hay lumbered past us, almost crushing us into the hedges as they swept along heavily, leaving a trail of fragrance in the air. Red and brown leaves lay thick on the ground, making beautiful the undulations of the roads. Mists of dew hung among the purple folds of the hills, and the sun dashed the woods and streams with kindling gold. By and by the whole country side was laughing in the full face of the day.
Hillsbro' Farmhouse was, and is, a low long dwelling built of dark bricks, and standing among orchards and meadows, green pasture lands and running streams. Its ivied chimneys had for background the sombre lines of a swelling moor, belted by a wood of pines which skirted the hollow wherein the earth nourished the fatness and sweetness of the thrifty farm acres. Along the edge of the moor the road ran that led to Hillsbro' Hall, and a short cut through the wood brought one down upon a back entrance to the squire's own grounds.
The dear old farm! Roses were blowing in that morning at the open sashes of the big, heavy, roughly hung windows. Two young girls, who were afterwards dear to me as fibres of my heart, lingered beside the open door; stately handsome Jane, with her solemn observant black eyes and trim dark dress, and frolicsome Mopsie, with her laughing face, and her hat tied down, gipsy fashion, with a red ribbon. They lingered to see me, to take their share in giving me a welcome, and then set out on their long walk, discussing me by the way. They told me of it afterwards. Jane said I was only fit for a glass case, and Mopsie declared I alighted from the old gig as if I had a mind to dance. They were awed by the high heels on my boots, the feather in my hat, and the quilted satin of my pelisse. They wondered I could deign to speak anything but French, and concluded I did so only out of compliment to their homeliness.
And I, meanwhile, decked in all the fanciful elegancies of a London toilette, sat down to breakfast in the long parlour at Hillsbro' Farm, with something in my heart that would not let me eat though I was hungry, and something in my eyes that would not let me see very well, though the sun came rich and yellow through each of the wide windows, forming one broad golden path down the middle of the room. I saw but dimly the dark brown walls and ceiling, the stiff-backed chairs with their worn covers, the jar full of late roses that stood in either window, the heap of trailing ivy that overran the huge grate. It was Mrs. Hollingford's face that did it as she sat, kind, careful, hospitable, pressing on me sweet home-made cakes, fresh butter, fragrant tea, delicious cream, and delicate pink eggs. Ah me! it was her face that did it. There was my great lady, my beneficent friend, my valiant woman. Her eyes were somewhat sunken, the fire of their energy a trifle slackened, her brow a little seamed; the strain of fortitude had drawn a tight cord about her mouth. Whence, then, that new touching beauty that made one see the stamp of heaven's nobility shining on her face? Had I quite forgotten her, or was she indeed something new? It was as if grief had chiselled her features afresh out of the superfluous roundings of prosperity, wasted them into perfect sweetness, hacked them into purer refinement. She wore a strait black gown of the coarsest material, only the fair folds of muslin about her throat giving daintiness to her attire. Her son breakfasted with us, and I fancied he often looked at me curiously as if to say, "What concern can she have with us? why did she come? how long will she remain?" I had talked to him without embarrassment as we drove along, but now I could hardly speak. Never had I felt so shy in any company as I did in the presence of my mother's friend.
After breakfast she led me to my room, bright and airy, but scantily furnished. It had a window looking out on an orchard threaded by long alleys, over which hung a glowing roof of fruit-laden branches. And here I unpacked my trunks and stowed away my elegant dresses in a huge painted wardrobe smelling of apples. I laid aside with a kind of shame all the little ornaments I was accustomed to wear, and dressed myself in the plainest gown I possessed. Descending the quaint old staircase again, I found Mrs. Hollingford walking up and down the hall waiting patiently for my appearance.
"What a great woman you have grown, my love!" she said, drawing my hand within her arm, and leading me through the open hall door. "But you have still your mother's fair hair and sunny eyes. Will you walk with me for an hour? I have much to say to you, and the sooner it is said the better."
Then she told me the story of her life, and misfortunes, sternly, sweetly, with strange humility and fortitude. I knew much of it before, but she would tell it all.
"And now, my love," she said, "you know us as we are. Your mother, when she made me your guardian, did not foresee the changes that were to take place. You have other friends who are willing to give you a home. You have come here of your own will. When you wish to leave us we shall not wonder."
I threw my arms round her neck and told her I would not leave her. Never, since Miss Kitty Sweetman went to India, had my heart gone forth so completely to anyone.
She bade me not be too hasty. "You will find our life so different from anything you have ever known," she said. "We all fear it for you. We are so busy here. We have always a purpose before our eyes to make us work."
"Then I shall work too," I said. "I will not be the only drone in such a thrifty hive."
She smiled at this, and shook her head. But I immediately began to cast about for the means by which I might find it possible to keep my word.
I soon learned to love the farm. I began to know the meaning of the word "home." The beauty and lovableness of some persons and places takes you by surprise; with others they steal upon you by degrees; but there was that about Hillsbro' Farm which I loved much at once and more afterwards. Looking at it in the most commonplace way, it had all the peace and plenty of an English farmhouse, while for eyes that sought more they would find enough that was picturesque in the orchard's ruddy thickets, where the sun struck fire on frosty mornings; in the wide pasture lands sloping to the sedgy river, where the cows cooled their feet on sultry evenings. You know as well as I the curious bowery garden beyond the lower window of the parlour, stocked with riches and sweets of all kinds, rows of bee-hives standing in the sun, roses and raspberries growing side by side. The breaths of thyme and balm, lavender and myrtle, were always in that parlour. You know the sheep-fold and the paddock, the old tree over the west gable where the owl made his nest—the owl that used to come and sit on our school-room windowsill and hoot at night. You know, the sun-dial where the screaming peacock used to perch and spread his tail; the dove-cote, where the silver-necks and fan-tails used to coo and ruffle their feathers. You know, too, all the quaint plannings and accidents of the old house; how the fiery creeper ran riot through the ivy on the dark walls, dangling its burning wreaths over the windows; how the hall door lay open all day with the dogs sleeping on the broad door-step. Also, within, that there were long dark passages, rooms with low ceilings; a step up here, and a step down there; fireplaces twisted into odd corners, narrow pointed windows, and wide latticed ones. You know all the household recesses, the dairies and pantries and store-rooms; but you cannot know how Mrs. Hollingford toiled amongst them, filling them with her industry one day that they might be emptied the next; hardening her delicate hands with labour to the end that justice might be done, that some who had lost might gain, that a portion of her husband's heavy debts might be paid, and a portion of the curse of the impoverished lifted from his guilty shoulders.
No luxury was ever permitted in that household. Old gowns were worn and mended till they could be worn and mended no longer. The girls were of an age to go abroad to school, but they must be contented with such education as they could pick up at home, so long as one poor creature suffered straits through their father's fault. The only indulgence allowed was almsgiving. Mopsie might divide her dinner with a hungry child, or Jane bestow her new petticoat on an aged woman; but they must, in consequence, deny themselves and suffer inconvenience till such time as it came to be again their turn to have their absolute wants relieved.
I did, indeed, feel like a drone in a hive when, on leaving my room in the mornings, I met Mrs. Hollingford coming from her work in the dairy, John Hollingford arriving from his early visit to a distant part of the farm, Jane from her sewing closet where she made and mended the linen of the household, and Mopsie from the kitchen with a piled dish of breakfast-cakes, showing what her morning task had been. I could not eat for envy. Why could I not be of use to somebody? I gave Mopsie some gay ribbons, which were returned to me by her mother. Nothing might she wear but her plain black frock and white frill. I gave Jane a book of poems with woodcuts, and that was accepted with rapture. This encouraged me. I picked up two little children on the road, and to one I gave a bright silk girdle for a skipping-rope, and to the other a doll dressed from the materials of a fine gauze hat, which I picked to pieces for the purpose. I was not going to be a peony flaunting among thrifty modest vetches. At first I was sorry for the destruction of my pretty things, but soon I grew to admire the demureness of my gray gown and little black apron. I learned to make pies and cakes, to sweep a room and set it to rights, to wash and get up linen and laces, to churn, to make butter. But as many hands were engaged in these matters, I was often thrown out of employment. I made music for my friends in the evenings, and, as they liked it, this was something; but it was not enough. A new spirit had entered into me. I felt my old self lost in the admiration which I had conceived for the new friends who had accepted me amongst them.
By and by I found out a little niche of usefulness for myself. Jane and Mopsie attended the village school. One day I went to the town to buy some trifle and call for the girls. It was past the hour for breaking up, and I found Mopsie romping with some rude-looking girls on the green, while Jane, detained for some fault, sat alone in the school-room, perched on a bench, her arms folded and her eyes gloomily fixed on the wall. When I entered she blushed crimson. She was a proud girl, and I knew she was hurt at my seeing her disgrace. I coaxed her to speak out her trouble.
"I could teach the whole school," she said, fiercely—"master, mistress, and all—and yet I am kept sitting over a, b, c, like a baby. I get so sick of it that sometimes I answer wrong by way of novelty. Then I have to hold out my hand for the rod. To-day I drew Portia and Shylock on my slate, and forgot to finish my sum; therefore I am disgraced!"
I seized the happy moment and offered myself to the girls as a governess. Mopsie stopped on the road and hugged me in delight. Jane squeezed my hand and was silent during the rest of the walk, except when she said,
"Mother will never consent. I am too proud, and she wants me to be humbled. She thinks it is good for me to go to the village school."
That night, however, I laid my plan before Mrs. Hollingford, and, after some trouble, I attained my point.
We chose for our school-room an unoccupied chamber at the end of a long passage upstairs. It was furnished with a deal table and chairs, and a small square of green carpet laid upon the sanded floor. It had three latticed windows looking westward, and one of those odd grates I have mentioned, large enough to cook a dinner. We kept it filled with logs, and in the evenings, after we had drawn the curtains in the parlour, set the tea-table, and made Mrs. Hollingford comfortable on the sofa for an hour's rest, we three retreated to our school-room for a chat in the firelight. Here John joined us when he happened to come home early, and many a happy hour we passed, four of us sitting round the blazing logs, talking and roasting apples. We told stories, tales of the outer world, and legends of the country around us. We described places and people we had seen, and our fancies about others we had not seen. John, who had travelled, was the most frequent speaker; and as I was a wonder of experience to his sisters, just so was he a wonder to me. We laughed, cried, or listened in breathless silence, all as he willed, while the purple and yellow lingered in the sky behind the lattice, and the moaning of the wind through the forlorn fields, the hissing of the roasting apples, and the crackling of the burning wood, kept up an accompaniment to his voice.
There were other evenings, too, when John was late, and Mopsie, having grown tired of serious talk, tripped off to hear the lasses singing Bold Robin Hood in the kitchen. Then Jane used to open her heart to me, and talk about the troubles of the family. Her heart was stern and bitter against her father. Well had she said she was proud; well had her mother wished to humble her, if that could be done. She had, I believe, a great intellect, and she had much personal beauty of a grand character. I do not think she thought much about the latter, but she felt her mental powers. She knew she was fitted to move in a high sphere, and chafed against her fate; still more against the fate of her brother.
I can see her now, on her low seat before the fire, her hands clasping one knee, her dark head thrown back, and her eyes fixed on the dancing shadows above the chimney.
"To think of John settling down as a farmer!" she said; "John, who for cleverness might be prime minister. And there is no hope of his getting away from it; none whatever."
I could not but agree to this, though the thought occurred to me that the farm might not be so pleasant a home if John had to go away and be prime minister. All I could say I said to combat her rebellious despondency as to her own future.
"If you knew the emptiness and foolishness of the gay world," I said in a sage manner, "you would be thankful for our quiet life at Hillsbro'."
"It is not the gay world I think of," she said. "It is the world of thought, of genius."
"Well, Jane," said I, cheerfully, "you may pierce your way to that yet."
"No!" she said. "If I had a clean name I would try to do it. As it is, I will not hold up my head only to be pointed at. But I will not spend my life at Hillsbro', moping. I will go away and work, teach, or write, if I can."
I saw her eyes beginning to flash, and I did not like these fierce moods for Jane. I was turning over a book at the time, and, to divert her attention, I read aloud the name written on the title-page.
"Mary Hollingford," I said. "Was not she your elder sister?"
Jane started. "Yes," she said. "Who mentioned her to you?"
"Your mother," I said, "used to tell me of her little Mary, who was at school in France. I cannot recollect who told me of her death. Do you remember her?"
"Oh yes," said Jane, "perfectly. We did not lose her till after—my father went away."
"I suppose she took the trouble to heart," I said, reflectively; and then was sorry I had said it. But Jane answered,
"Yes," readily; then dropped her face between her hands, and remained plunged in one of her motionless fits of abstraction for half an hour.
I never alluded to this subject again to Jane, but one evening when Mopsie and I were alone together, the child spoke of it herself.
"Margery," she said, "you are holding me now just as sister Mary used to hold me with both her arms round my waist, when I was a tiny little thing, and she used to play with me in our nursery in London."
"You remember her, then?" I said.
"Yes," said Mopsie. "I remember her like a dream. She used to come home for the holidays, and a handsome French lady with her, who used to throw up her hands if we had not ribbons in our sleeves and smart rosettes on our shoes. I remember sister Mary in a pretty white frock trimmed with lace, and her hair curled down to her waist. I used to think her like one of the angels. But we never speak of her now, nor of papa, because it pains mother and John. I used to speak of her to Jane sometimes in the night, just to ask her did she think sister Mary was thinking of us in heaven; but Jane used to get into such dreadful fits of crying that I grew afraid. I wish some one would talk of her. I think it is cruel of us all to forget her because she is dead."
And tears stood in Mopsie's blue eyes. But the next half hour she was singing like a skylark over some household task.
The winter deepened. Christmas was drawing near, and workmen were busy setting the old Hall to rights for the reception of Mr. Hill and his family. John had been requested to oversee the arrangements, for the place had been unoccupied for years, and there were many alterations to be made, and much new furnishing to be done. The housekeeper, who had quietly dozed away half her life in two rooms in a corner of the house, now bestirred herself joyfully to open shutters, kindle fires, see to the sweeping and scrubbing, keep her eye upon painters and charwomen, and make ready store of pickles and preserves for the adornment of her pantry shelves.
This good woman was an old acquaintance of our two girls, their long walks often leading them across the moor, and through the grounds to the Hall. Mrs. Beatty, from her lonely window, had always espied their approach, and many a winter day had she fed them with sweets by her fireside, while she dried their wet wrappings, and told them stories of the pictures in the dining-room. Later, they had discovered the library, a sunny room at the south side of the house, stored with an excellent collection of books, and had gone there to read when it pleased them. I, in my capacity of governess, encouraged them in this habit, and at least once a week we had a "reading day," as we called it. Mrs. Beatty knew our day, and had coffee and a blazing fire awaiting us. And here we had delicious times of study, with our books in our laps, perched on the steps of the little ladder, or buried deep in the recesses of the deep leathern chairs.
Now, however, the luxury of our quiet days was interfered with. Workmen hammered about our ears, and an impertinent odour of paint annoyed us. We turned our reading days into days of general inspection, and amused ourselves with watching how the dingy corners threw off their cobwebs one after another, and came forth into the light with clean and brilliant faces. It was pleasant to know that I was useful to John in those days, for his mother did not interfere in this affair, and he needed a woman's taste to help him. It was I who selected the colours for Mrs. Hill's drawing-room carpet, I who chose the silk hangings for Miss Leonard's boudoir, I who rearranged in the cabinets the curiosities about which no one but a stray mouse or two had been curious for many years. I knew well that I did nothing but what any other person could do, yet it pleased me to see how John overrated my services. It delighted me to hear him praise to his mother my "exquisite taste and skill;" but it pained me to see her anxious look from him to me. I knew she feared that he was getting to love me well; sometimes with a mixture of fear and joy I thought it myself. I guessed that his mother would rather keep her son by her side unwed—perhaps that he could not afford to marry. I often longed to slip my hand in hers, and say, "Be not afraid, I am true;" but I could only look straight in her eyes and be silent. And this thought, perhaps because I might not speak it out and have done with it, remained with me, and preyed upon my mind. About this time I began to lie awake at nights, planning how I might show Mrs. Hollingford that I had no wish to thrust myself between her and her son.
And so it came that there arose a strangeness between John and me. I did not wish it to be so, but it happened naturally as a consequence of all my thinking and planning. It grew up in the midst of our pleasant work at the Hall, and it was burthensome, for it took the joyous adornment off everything, made handsome things ugly, and comfortable things dreary. It made the snowy landscape lonely, and the red sun angry. It made me cold and disobliging, the girls dull, and John proud and reserved. Jane spoke of it to me; she said:
"What is the matter between you and John? You used to be such good friends. Now you hurry down-stairs in the evenings, though you know he likes our chat round the school-room fire. And when we go to the Hall you start early for the purpose of walking home without him."
"Don't be foolish, Jane," I said; "John and I are just as good friends as ever. But you must not suppose he always cares for our women's chatter. We must give him a little rest sometimes."
Jane was silenced, but not satisfied. She thought I was beginning to look down on her brother. The proud, loving heart would not brook this, and she, too, estranged herself from me. The girl was very dear to me, and it was a trial.
Thus a division grew up amongst us. It was in the bright frosty days before Christmas, when the fields and dales were wrapped in snow, when the logs burned merrily, and the crickets sang, when fairyland was painted on every window-pane, when our superintendence at the Hall was over, when all things there had been placed in readiness, even to the lighting of the fires in the bed-chambers. We had left Mrs. Beatty in possession of her domain, and in daily expectation of an announcement of the intended arrival of her master and mistress. Things were in this way when one day a carriage dashed up to our farmhouse door, and out stepped Grace Tyrrell and her brother Frederick.
Jane shrank into a corner when I asked her to accompany me down-stairs, murmuring something I would not hear about my "fine friends." But Mopsie smoothed her curly locks, put on her best apron, and slipped her hand in mine as I went down to the parlour.
Grace was impatiently tripping about the room, making faces at the bare walls and laughing at the old-fashioned furniture. She was clothed in velvet and fur with feathers nodding from her hat. She put her hands on my shoulders and eyed me all over critically.
"Pray, little Quakeress," said she, "can you tell me what has become of my friend Margery?"
"Yes," said I laughing, "I actually happen to have her about me. What do you want with her?"
"Only to ask her what sin she has committed that she shuts herself up from the world, starves herself to skin and bone, and dresses herself in sackcloth?" she replied, touching my dress, and trying its texture between her finger and thumb.
"We do not starve her," put in Mopsie stoutly.
"And who are you, little miss?" said Grace, using a gold-rimmed eye-glass, which nearly annihilated poor Mopsie.
"No matter," said the little one, scarlet and trembling. "We are all Margery's friends, and we love her dearly."
Grace laughed at the child's ardour, as if it were something very funny and original; but Mopsie, never flinching, held my hand all the time.
"And what about the ploughman, dear?" Grace went on; "would it be possible to get a sight of him? Yes, do go" (to Mopsie), "like a useful little girl, and see about getting us some lunch. We are staying in this country at present, Margery, and when we return to London we intend to take you with us."
Mopsie's eyes dilated dangerously, but she retreated to the door at a whisper from me.
"Frederick," said Grace, "come and help me to persuade Margery;" and Mopsie vanished.
I said something about Frederick Tyrrell before, but I can hardly describe how excessively slim, and elegant, and effeminate he looked to me that day in particular. His dress and his manners amused me very much. While staying with the Tyrrells one of my chief occupations had been making fun of this young man, a fact of which I believe he was blissfully unconscious. Perhaps experience had made him incredulous as to the indifference any young lady might feel to his special favour; or it might have been conceit; I will not pretend to decide which. But when he drew near me, murmuring (shall I say lisping?), "Oh, do come; pray, take pity on us—we have missed you so dreadfully," I am sure he thought he did enough to make any reasonable young woman desire to leave Hillsbro' on the instant.
But I did not want to leave Hillsbro', I felt a pang of keen pain at the very suggestion; yet at the same moment an idea came into my mind that it might be a good thing that I should leave it for a time. I hesitated, asked Grace when she intended returning to London, and, while we were parleying about the matter, Mopsie returned. During the remainder of the visit the little girl listened earnestly to everything we said on the subject, and when I parted from my friends at the gate, leaving it undecided whether I should go with them to London or not, Mopsie burst into tears and clung to my neck.
"Do not go with them," she said; "they cannot love you as we do."
"Mopsie, my pet," I said, "don't be a little goose. Neither do I love them as I love you. If I go away for a time I will be sure to come back."
Mopsie whispered her fears to Jane, and all that evening Jane kept aloof from me. My head ached with trying to think of what I ought to do, and I sat alone by the school-room hearth in the firelight considering my difficulties, fighting against my wishes, and endeavouring in vain to convince myself that I had no wishes at all. Mopsie came in and lay down at my feet, with her face rolled up in my gown; and so busy was I that I did not know she was crying. John came in and found her out. He took her on his knee and stroked her as if she had been a kitten. Mopsie would not be comforted. I felt guilty and said nothing. John looked from her to me, wondering. At last Mopsie's news came out.
"Margery's grand London friends have been here, and they want to take her away."
"What grand London friends?" asked John, looking at me, but talking to her.
"Oh, Mr. and Miss Tyrrell, a pretty lady with long feathers and ringlets, and flounces on her dress, and a handsome gentleman who said they had missed Margery dreadfully. And Margery is thinking of going back to them."
John suddenly stopped stroking her, and sat quite still. I felt him looking at me earnestly, and at last I had to look up, which I did smiling, and saying, "I did not know Mopsie cared so much about me."
Then John kissed the little girl, and said, "Go down-stairs to Jane, dear. I have something particular to say to Margery."
I was completely taken by surprise. He closed the door upon Mopsie, and came back and reseated himself at the fire. He sat on one side of the fireplace, and I at the other, and the flames danced between us. He shaded his face with his hand, and looked across at me; and I watched intently a great tree falling in the depths of a burning forest among the embers.
"Is this true, Margery," said John, "that you are going to leave us, and return to London?"
"I am thinking of it," I said pleasantly.
"I thought—I had hoped you were happy with us," he said.
"Yes," I said, "I have been very happy, but I think I want a little change."
How my heart ached with the effort of uttering that untruth! I knew that I wanted no change.
"I do not wonder at it," he said after a pause. "We have made a slave of you. You are tired of it, and you are going away."
He said this bitterly and sorrowfully, shading his eyes still more with his hand.
"No, no," I said, "you must not say that. I never was so happy in my life as I have been here."
I spoke more eagerly than I meant to do, and my voice broke a little in spite of me. John left his seat and bent down beside me, so that he could see my face, which could not escape him.
"Margery," said he, "I have seen that you have made yourself happy, and I have been sometimes wild enough to hope that you would be content to spend your life amongst us. When you came first I feared to love you too well, but your sweet face and your sweet ways have been too much for me. It may be ungenerous in me to speak, seeing that I only have to offer you a true love, truer maybe than you will meet with in the gay world, a tarnished name, and a very humble home. I have debts to pay, and a soil to wash off my name; but still, Margery, will you be my wife? With your love nothing will be dark or difficult to me."
It was very hard. My heart was brimming over with a joyous reply to this appeal; but Mrs. Hollingford's uneasy face was vividly before my eyes all the time, and I could only say distressedly, "It cannot be, John. It cannot, cannot be."
"Why?" he asked, almost sternly, and he rose up and stood above me. "Tell me that you cannot love me—tell me you would rather save yourself for more honour, more prosperity, and I will never trouble you again. Were I differently circumstanced I might plead, but I could not live to see you discontented, ashamed. Why can it not be, Margery?"
I clasped my hands in my lap, and tried to speak firmly. "For a reason that I cannot give to you, John. Let us be good friends."
"Friends!" he echoed bitterly. "Well! I was wrong to think of my own happiness before your worldly advantage. Good-bye, Margery. I am going to London in the morning. Perhaps you may be gone before I come back."
And with this he abruptly walked out of the room. But afterwards I sat there an hour, wondering if what had passed so quickly were true, and I had really refused to be John Hollingford's wife.
After tea he left us early, saying he must start for Hillsbro' at four in the morning. Mopsie fell asleep, and Jane absorbed herself in her books. Mrs. Hollingford and I held some embroidery in our hands, but my fingers trembled so that the stitches went all wrong. Now and again, glancing up, I encountered long troubled looks from Mrs. Hollingford. She had seen that something was amiss between me and John, and I guessed that her mind was at work with fears. I could not bear it; I thought it was not fair after what I had done. For the first and last time I felt angry and impatient with the dear old lady. Would she herself, in her own young days, have sacrificed as much? Jane shut up her books at last, and carried Mopsie off with her to bed, and Mrs. Hollingford and I were left sitting facing one another.
"Mrs. Hollingford," I said, dropping my work with almost a sob, "don't look at me like that. I cannot bear it, and I do not deserve it."
What made me say it I cannot think. The moment before I spoke I had no intention of speaking. Mrs. Hollingford dropped her work in dismay.
"My love," she said, "what do you mean? I do not understand. What do my looks say that you cannot bear?"
"Oh, Mrs. Hollingford," I said, covering my burning cheeks with my hands, "you must know what I mean. You look at me, and look at me, and I see what is in your mind. How can I help it?"
"My dear," said she, "is it anything about John?"
"Yes," said I desperately, "it is about John. You think I want to take him from you, and I do not, and I never will, and I have told him so. I am going away to London with my friends the Tyrrells, and I will never trouble you any more."
I was rather blind by this time, and I was not sure of what part of the room I was in; but Mrs. Hollingford had come to my side, and she put her arms round about me and fondled my head on her breast.
"My dear," she said, "and is this the secret that has made the trouble between us? I never thought that you wanted to take him from me; on the contrary, I feared that you might be too young to understand his worth. I dreaded sorrow and suffering for my son, nothing else."
My face was hidden in her motherly embrace. I could not speak for some moments, and I thought my heart had stopped beating. At last I whispered:
"Oh, Mrs. Hollingford, I have made a great mistake. Can it be that you really—"
"Will have you for a daughter?" she asked, smiling. "Gladly, thankfully, my darling, if it be for your happiness. But you must not decide hastily; there are great disadvantages which you must consider, and I, as your guardian and friend, must point them out to you. I must forget my son's interests in the faithful discharge of my trust. John has a cloud upon his name."
"Don't, don't!" I said, "if he had a hundred clouds upon his name it would be all the same to me."
"Then you love him well?" she said tenderly, sighing and smiling at the same time.
"I think I do," I said; "but that is only a misfortune, for you know I have refused him."
"Well," she said cheerfully, "perhaps it is for the best. You must go to London with your friends, and test your feeling by absence and the society of others. If you remain unattracted by those who are better placed in the world, I think John will try again, in spite of his pride. I know I should in his place," she said, lifting up my disturbed face, and looking in it with a half quizzical fondness.
I answered by throwing my arms round her neck in a long tearful embrace, and after that we sat long by the fireside talking the matter over. The consequence was, oddly enough, that I went upstairs to bed feeling so extremely sober that, before I laid my head upon my pillow, I had begun to doubt whether I cared for John Hollingford at all. It was not that I shrank from what his mother had called the "sacrifices" I should make in becoming his wife. I never even thought of them. I had found too much happiness at Hillsbro' Farm to be able to realise their existence. But I had a superstition that I ought to feel very joyfully excited about all I had learned that evening; first, that John really loved me, and, secondly, that his mother was ready to take me to her heart. Yet I only felt sobered to the last degree, and exceedingly afraid of seeing John again. I heard him driving away from the door before daybreak, and I found myself hoping that he might not come back for a week.
The next day I was in the same mood. I felt so grave and quiet that I made up my mind I could not have that wonderful love for John which I believed to be the duty of a wife. I thought I had better write to Grace, and arrange about going with her to London. Then I grew miserable at the thought of leaving the farm, and wished I had never seen it. For three days I tormented myself thus, and then there came a shock which brought me cruelly to my senses.
On the fourth day after John had left us, I was walking up and down the frosty avenue just as the evening was coming on. The sun was setting redly behind the brown wood, and blushing over the whitened fields and hedgerows. A man came up the avenue and pulled off his hat as he approached me. I recognised in him an Irish labourer whom I had seen working in the gardens at the Hall.
"Beg pardon, miss!" said he, "but be you Miss Margery Dacre?"
"Yes, Pat," said I. "This is a fine evening, is it not? What do you want with me?"
"Oh then, a fine evenin' it is; glory be to God!" said Pat; "but all the same, Mrs. Beatty is mortial anxious for you to step over to the Hall the soonest minute ye can, as she has somethin' very sarious to say to ye."
"Step over to the Hall?" I exclaimed. "Do you know what o'clock it is, Pat?"
"Oh yis, miss!" said Pat; "it's three o'clock, an' the sun low, but niver fear; I'll walk behind ye ivery step o' the way, an' if as much as a hare winks at ye, he'll rue the day. Mrs. Beatty would ha' come over here to spake to ye, only for fear o' hersel' at the farm," said Pat, jerking his thumb in the direction of the house. "God keep sorrow from her door; but I'm feared there's throuble in the wind!"
I did not quite understand whether the threatened trouble was for Mrs. Beatty or Mrs. Hollingford. I guessed the latter, and thought immediately of the absent husband and father. I felt that I could not do better than obey the summons. Pat promised to wait for me at the gate, and I hastened into the house to prepare for my journey.
"I am going for a walk, Jane," I said, looking in at the school-room door. "Don't be surprised if I am not in before dark."
"But, Margery!" I heard her beginning, and did not wait to hear any more.
How I racked my brains during that walk to try and guess the cause of my sudden summons. The only thing I could think of was that Mr. Hollingford was in prison. I never fancied anything approaching to the truth.
Mrs. Beatty was anxiously watching at the door for my arrival. She had tea waiting for me, and began pulling off my bonnet and boots at her fireside. But her hands were shaking, and her eyes red and watering.
"Never mind me, Mrs. Beatty," I said, imploringly; "tell me what is the matter."
"Take a sup of tea first, my dear young lady," said she; "ill news is heard soon enough."
"I won't taste it," I said, pushing it away. "Tell me this instant!" I said, as a dim fear of the truth came across my brain.
"Well, my dear," she said, beginning to cry outright, "you see there has been a terrible smash of the coach from London. The horses fell crossing a bridge, and the coach was overturned into the river; and they do say everybody was killed or drowned. And poor young Mr. Hollingford was in the coach; and, oh! that I should have to say it, he's met a cruel death. I sent for you, dear young lady, that you might break the news gently to his mother; for there's not a soul in the country side dare carry the story to her door, and they'll maybe be bringing home the bodies."
"Stop!" said I. "Mrs. Beatty—are you sure—"
And the next thing I knew was a sensation of coldness and wetness upon my face, and a smell of vinegar and wine, and a sound of murmuring and crying.
"Dear heart, dear heart! to think of her taking on so!" I heard the good woman saying, and I crept to my feet, and began tying on my bonnet in spite of her entreaties that I would lie still.
"No, no, I must get home!" I said, shuddering. "Some one else will come and tell her, and it will kill her. Let me go at once! Let me go!"
At the door in the frosty dusk Pat was waiting with a horse and gig.
"I was thinkin' ye'd be a bit staggered by the news, miss," he said, "an' I put the mare to this ould shandheradan. It's not very fit for a lady, bad manners to it! but it'll be betther nor the slippery roads undher yer feet."
I do not know how the drive passed. I remember saying once to Pat,
"Are they quite, quite sure that Mr. Hollingford was—was—"
"No indeed, miss," was the answer, "sorra sure at all. They do say he was in the coach, but no wan seen him dead, as far as I can hear tell."
I made the man set me down at the farm gate, and walked up the avenue just as the early moonlight was beginning to light up the frosty world. As I came near the door, I fancied I heard crying and wailing; but it was only Mopsie singing in the hall. Behind the parlour window I saw Jane stepping about briskly in the firelight, arranging the table for tea. All was quiet and peaceful as when I had left the place two hours before.
The children followed me to my room, wondering where I could have been so late. I said I was tired, and begged them to leave me alone. Then I locked my door, and a solitary hour of anguish passed. The fever of uncertainty would not let me weep; I suffered without much sign, but in such a degree as I had never dreamed of before.
There was something horrible that I had to realise and could not. John hurt and dying away from his home, without one by to comfort him, without his mother's blessing, without a whisper to tell him that I had loved him and would mourn for him all my life! John vanished from the earth—lost to us for ever! The sickly moonlight fell about me with a ghastly peace, and the horror of death froze my heart.
Tea-hour arrived, and the girls knocked at the door. Mrs. Hollingford came to me, questioning me anxiously, and pressing my burning temples between her cool palms; and there I lay under her hands, crushed with my cruel secret. I could not tell it. Not that night. When the worst must be known it would be my place to help them all in their agony; and was I fit for such a task now? Besides, there was still a hope, and I clung to it with wild energy.
They left me for the night, thinking I slept, but when the clock struck five I wrapped myself in a cloak, and went out and down the avenue. I was half afraid of the ghostly trees, so black against the snow, but I was more in terror of the melancholy corners of my own room, the solitary light, the dreary ashes in the grate. I walked as far as the gate, and even ventured out on the road, hoping to see some wayfarer coming past who might be able to tell me something of the accident. I tried to consider how far it might be to the nearest wayside cottage, where I might possibly learn some news that might break the awful suspense. But my head was confused, and I suppose I did not calculate the distance rightly, for after I had walked a mile I could see no dwelling. The morning was breaking now, and the world looked pallid and dreary. Suddenly my strength failed, I felt faint and dizzy, and sat down upon a heap of stones, drawing my cloak over my face. My thoughts became broken and confused, and my senses numb, I remained, lost in a sort of stupid dream of trouble, I do not know how long, when the touch of a hand on my shoulder made me start, and a voice said, "What is the matter with you, my poor woman?"
It was a man's voice—a familiar voice; my children, it was the voice of John Hollingford. With a cry I flung back the cloak from my face. "John!—John!" I cried, and grasped him by both hands. There he stood unhurt. I burst into a fit of weeping, though not a tear had I shed all the while I had pictured him lying dead or dying. "I thought I never should have seen your face again except in the coffin!"
I sobbed in my joy, hardly knowing what I said.
"Margery!" he said. "Is this all for me?"
"I cannot help it," I said. "I ought, but I cannot. No one knows but me. I heard it last night—"
"You are killing yourself sitting here in the cold," said John. "You are nearly frozen to death." He wrapped my cloak round me, and drew my arm through his.
"Who told you of the accident?" he said.
"She might have kept her own counsel till to-day. Several poor fellows have been killed, but many escaped, like myself, unhurt. And so you kept it from my mother, and you grieved for me. Margery, may I ask again that question I asked you the night before I went away? If it pains you, say nothing."
"You may ask it."
"And what will you answer?"
"Anything you like."
"And you do not want to go to London?"
"Not unless you turn me out of doors."
"My darling!" he said. And so we became engaged there upon the snow.
How wonderful the sun rose that morning. How I walked home through Paradise, forgetting that there was such a thing as suffering in the world. How the girls hugged me when they knew all. How Mrs. Hollingford smiled upon us. And how sweet the honey and rice-cakes tasted at breakfast. It was arranged that, all things considered, we had better not be married for a year.
I remember our gathering round the fire that evening, the curtains unclosed, the mild moonshine behind the window, the room half black shade and half red light, the dear faces beaming round. That evening I wrote my letter to Grace Tyrrell to say that I should not go to London. That evening, also, there came a letter from Mr. Hill to John, saying that he hoped to arrive at the Hall on the morrow or next day. At tea we talked about Rachel Leonard. Thinking of her, the scene at the party came vividly back—the occasion on which I had defended Mr. Hollingford so hotly; and also my conversation with Grace Tyrrell on the subject in the carriage coming home. After musing a little while, I said:
"John, are you quite sure that you never met Miss Leonard when you were abroad?"
"Quite," said John, looking at me curiously. "Why do you ask me that question so often, Margery?"
"Have I asked it often?" I said, "I don't remember; but I fancied from her manner that she knew something about you."
"It is not likely," said John, "for I know nothing about her." And so this matter dropped.
John made me promise to go out to meet him next morning on his return from his early walk across the farm. I remember so well how gladly I sprang from my bed that morning, how tedious my dressing seemed, and yet how I lingered over it at the last, anxious to make myself more pleasing in the eyes which I knew would be watching for me from the hill. I remember how, in the tenderness of my joy, I opened my sash to feed the robins, and how gay and fair the world looked in its robe of white. I remember how I ran after a little beggar boy to give him sixpence, and how afterwards I went along the path through the fields singing aloud for mere happiness. And yet a little cloud had already risen out of the glories of the shining East, and was spreading and moving towards me.
John and I walked home together, side by side, and we talked the happiest talk that ever was written or spoken. The world was all radiant over our heads and under our feet, and we could not see even the shadow of the cloud that was coming, fast as the wheels that were rolling towards us from the distance.
"Look, Margery!" said John, "do you see a carriage on the road?"
I shaded my eyes with my hand, and I saw the carriage.
"I daresay it is the Hills'," I said, and then we walked on through the white fields and between the bare hedges till we came out upon the road which leads away across the moor between Hillsbro' Farm and Hillsbro' Hall. There is a spot on this road which you know well, where the ground sinks into a hollow, and then rises in a steep abrupt hill, on the top of which any object suddenly appearing stands out in sharp relief against the sky, in the eyes of the traveller below. We reached the foot of this hill, John and I; we began to ascend; I raised my eyes, and saw a figure appear on the brink of the hill, a woman's figure with draperies fluttering a little as the petticoats of the market women flutter when they tramp the road to Hillsbro'. I raised my eyes again, and came face to face with Rachel Leonard.
She was walking quickly, pressing forward, wrapped in a fur mantle, with a Shetland snood drawn round her face. I remember the momentary expression of that face before it changed at sight of us; the delicate brows knitted as if in pain or anxiety; the wide dark eyes intent upon the scenes opening before them; the scarlet lips parted in fatigue; the glow of exercise wandering over the cheeks.
She did not see us at first; the sun was in her eyes; but I spoke her name aloud, and held out my hand. She started violently, and all the colour flew out of her cheeks. She took my hand, and held it mechanically, but her eyes were fixed on John. I looked at him in amazement, seeking for some explanation of the strange long look in her eyes, and the trembling of her white lips, only to see both repeated in his face, which had been ruddy and smiling the minute before. They stood gazing in one another's eyes as if both were magnetised, without either advancing a hand or attempting a word. An indescribable chill crept over my heart as I looked at them, and I drew my hand from John's arm, and turned impatiently away.
He did not seem conscious of the action, but it roused Rachel. She smiled, and extending her hand, said, with quivering lips, which she made vain efforts to compose:
"Mr. Hollingford, do you not remember me? My name is Rachel Leonard."
John's gaze had never left her face, and he could not but note the imploring look that came into her eyes as she said these words.
"Yes," he answered, and his voice shook, though his face kept a fixed, stern gravity. "Yes, surely I remember you—Miss Leonard."
At this the sound of wheels was heard coming up the hill, and with a sudden effort Rachel changed her manner.
"Here is the carriage," she said. "I hope, Mr. Hollingford, you will not greet Mr. and Mrs. Hill with that panic-stricken look. You are a great favourite with them, and they will be glad to see you. Pray do not look so shocked. They will think you have seen a ghost."
"Would to God I had—rather than have seen you," he murmured to himself, and I heard him.
The carriage drew up beside us, and Mr. Hill jumped out. He was an odd-looking man, with a bald, benevolent forehead, a pair of honest brown eyes, which glared about with a sort of fierce good-humour, white hair, and white thick-set whiskers. Mrs. Hill sat within the carriage, a mild-looking fat little lady, with rosy cheeks and a piping voice, holding hugged in her arms something which looked like a bundle of fleecy wool, but which I afterwards knew to be a favourite dog.
"Eh, Hollingford, my lad, I am glad to see you. How are you? and your good mother?" said the old gentleman, grasping John's hand, and glaring kindly in his face.
"Well, Mr. Hill; well, thank you," answered John, but he kept his stern, absent demeanour, as if he could not, or would not, shake off the spell that had come over him, which made him look like a cold, unfaithful, unlifelike copy of himself.
The sharp trebles of the ladies' voices rang about my ears, but it was only by an effort that I could take in the meaning of what they said, so observant was I of John's severe glance which followed every movement of Rachel, as she stood chatting to me with a merriment which I could not but think was nervous and assumed.
Mr. Hill was rallying John upon his gravity, kindly and delicately, even in the midst of the natural noisy bluster of his manner. And somehow I divined readily, even out of the distraction of wonder that had come upon me, that the fine old gentleman, remembering certain thorns in John's way, was touched at seeing him proud and reserved in the presence of his natural equals, who had not sunk in the world's favour, and who had got no stain upon their name.
"Will you come and dine with us this evening at seven?" said Mr. Hill. "You and I must have much to talk about. I have been too long absent from this place, but even already I see new things around which delight me. I shall be blind and helpless here till you open my eyes and set me on my feet."
I noticed, or I fancied I noticed, that Rachel faltered on the words she was speaking at this moment, and that she held her breath to hear John's reply to the invitation.
"I will go with pleasure, sir," said John.
"And Miss Dacre?" piped Mrs. Hill. "Will she not also come and dine with us?"
"I fear we should be bad company to-night," put in Rachel quickly. "We shall be so tired; it would be a poor compliment to ask her to come and look at us nodding in our chairs. Say to-morrow, instead. Margery Dacre, will you come and spend a long day with us to-morrow?"
But Margery Dacre had at that moment no wish to spend such a day. I said, "No, thank you, Miss Leonard; I shall be otherwise engaged both to-day and to-morrow." And then, feeling that I had spoken very coldly, and seeing that she looked troubled, I added, forcing a smile, "The winter will be long enough for our civilities."
"But not for our friendship, I trust," she replied quickly, seizing my hands, while her face cleared, and sincerity seemed to beam out of it, like the sun out of a May sky. I felt her fascination; but it sickened me somehow, and I dropped her hands, and thought of saying good-morning to the group, and returning to the farm alone, so that John might not feel himself hindered from going to breakfast as well as to dine with these new old friends of his who were so eager for his company. But before I had time to act upon the thought Mr. Hill handed Rachel into the carriage, followed her himself, and the carriage rolled away. John and I were left standing there together; I stupid, like one awakened from a dream, staring at the wheel-marks on the snow and at other signs which these people, in passing, had left behind them.
I turned and walked on silently towards the farm, and John walked beside me. A weight of doubt and wonder pressed on my heart like a load of ice. Why had John wanted to conceal from me his acquaintance with Rachel Leonard? Why had they both been so strangely moved at meeting? I longed to ask a question; but I could not find my voice. I longed for John to speak, and tell me something—anything at all that he liked; and were it the strangest puzzle that ever failed to be unriddled, I swore to my own heart that I would believe him.
"Margery," said John, speaking as if in answer to my thought—and he came nearer to me, for we had walked a little apart, and drew my hand through his arm, and looked down in my face—"Margery," he said, "look me straight in the eyes," and I looked, and saw them full of grievous trouble.
"You are blaming me in your heart," he said, "and saying to yourself that I have deceived you. Will you trust me that I did not mean to do so? I have got a cruel shock, dearest, and I beg of you to be kind and forbearing with me. I owe you an explanation, and I will give it the earliest moment I can. I cannot till I see further. In the meantime, I swear to you that there is nothing in this that should shake your faith in me. Do you trust me, Margery?"
"I would trust you against the whole world, John!" I cried, in a sudden remorse for having ever doubted him. And, smiling and happy, I walked by the side of his horse that evening down the avenue, and kissed my hand to him over the gate as he rode away to dine at the Hall.
"Do not say anything to my mother about my knowing Miss Leonard," he said, the last thing at parting; and I nodded and said, No, not unless he bade me; and I tried not to wonder, and went back to the house satisfied. And I was very merry all the evening; but at night, in my bed, I listened for his return. An evil spirit reminded me of Rachel's face when John said "I will go," and her quickness in arranging that I should not accompany him. I said, "Margery, I am ashamed of you; curiosity and jealousy are hateful; have nothing to do with them." And I turned on my pillow and prayed for John; and then I heard him coming into the house. So utterly still was everything by reason of the snow, that I heard his every movement. Even after he had closed his door, I thought I heard him walking about his room. And the wonder leaped up in me again—why was he troubled? why could he not rest? I got up, and laid my heart and ear against his door in a passion of dismay and sympathy. Up and down, up and down; no thought of sleep after his fatigue. Oh, what was this that had come between us? I went back to my bed and wept.
That was the first beginning of the trouble about Rachel Leonard. From that day a shadow hung upon John. He went often to the Hall, for Mr. Hill fastened upon him, and delighted in him, and would not live without him. But the more he went to the Hall, the more the trouble grew upon him; and I could not but date its beginning from the arrival of Rachel Leonard, seeing that, before he met her that morning upon the road, he had seemed as radiantly happy as it is possible for any man to be. And the more the trouble grew upon him, the more reserved he became on the subject of the people at the Hall. His mother began to guess that he must be annoyed with business, and the girls to fancy that he and I had quarrelled. And I silently let them think that it was so, the better to keep his secret.
My own heart was aching, but I would not speak. I had promised not to doubt him, and I feared lest he should think, even by my face or manner, that I was weak enough to break my word.
Several weeks passed before I saw anything more of Rachel Leonard than my passing glimpse of her in the snow at sunrise. Mrs. Hollingford, who never had been in any but the poorest houses on the estate, walked over with me, at Mrs. Hill's request, to pay a morning visit at the Hall. On that occasion no Miss Leonard was to be seen. She must have gone out walking—so said the maid who went to seek her in her room; and we came back to the farm without having seen her. Then arrived Mrs. Hill to return the visit, but no Miss Leonard accompanied her. Rachel was confined to bed with a cold. The girls, who had hoped for a sight of her, were disappointed.
And so the days went on, till it happened that I went to stay at the Hall. I had received two or three invitations, and had always found an excuse to stay away. At last it seemed ungracious to stay away any longer, and I went.
How the house was changed since the quiet time of our "reading days," when the solitary wreath of smoke went up from Mrs. Beatty's chimney, and the echo of one's step on the stone stair rang round the gallery above! Now the hall, that had used to look so wide and chilly with its grim ornaments of busts of authors, was decorated with flowers from the hothouse, and cheered by a blazing fire. A soft murmur of prosperity was heard throughout the house, as if Luxury were gliding about in her velvet slippers, giving orders in her modulated voice, and breathing her perfumed breath into all the corners. The presence of life had wrought upon the handsome sticks and stones that furnished the rooms, and transformed them into household gods. Firelight twinkled in all the chambers, bringing out the lustre of coloured glass and costly hangings into the sallow daylight of the winter noon. I do not know how it was that on the day of my arrival at the Hall I made my appearance at an earlier hour than they expected me. I learned afterwards, by chance, that they had not looked for me till the dinner hour, whilst I understood that it was desired of me to present myself early in the day, so that Rachel and I might have some quiet hours during which to renew our acquaintance before we should be called upon to mix among the company now staying at the Hall. Good Mrs. Hill was one of those people whose manner would make you believe that if you deny them the thing they desire at your hands, you will undoubtedly destroy their peace, but who will probably have forgotten their request and its motive whilst you are yet pondering it, and forcing your own will that it may be complied with. The mistake about the hour of my arrival was one of those pieces of confusion which seem too trifling ever to be worth clearing up. But it was a mistake which caused me months of unutterable misery.
The idea of the visit had always been distasteful to me; but, having made up my mind to go, I thought it was better to be amiable for John's sake. About mid-day I said good-bye to the three who were already my mother and sisters, and set out to walk across the moor to the Hall. John was to dine with the Hills that day, so I knew I should see him in the evening. My baggage had been sent on before me early in the morning. It seemed very absurd to feel so sorry at leaving home to stay at a fine house, where the hours were to be filled with feasting and merry-making. In earlier days it would have been otherwise. But the farm, with its busy inmates, its old-fashioned nooks and corners, its homely sights and sounds, had grown strangely sufficient for the desires of my life.
I arrived at the Hall, gaining the grounds by a descent from the hill at their back, and coming, so, round by the gardens to the house. Mrs. Hill was driving with some of her guests. Mr. Hill was out walking with some of his guests. A maid would go and seek for Miss Leonard, and in the meantime I was conducted to my room.
Such a room as it was. I smiled at myself for thinking it so grand, for I had certainly slept in as fine a chamber before. But of late I had forgotten how long is wealth's list of necessities, and had learned to live without a velvet couch at the fireside of my sleeping apartment, branches of wax-candles on the mantel, and long mirrors on every side to make me feel as if half a dozen impertinent young women were for ever prying into, and making a mockery of, my movements. I had lately been accustomed to hear the heels of my shoes go clinking over the well-waxed boards of my simple room, and to look out at the woods and fields through a narrow framework of white dimity. Here were voluptuous curtains and carpets that forbade sound, and denied the daylight. The farm was my beau-ideal of a home; therefore my room at the farm was my beau-ideal of a room; therefore all this comfort was oppressive and ridiculous.
Miss Leonard did not come to seek me. Perhaps she was out. I guessed there was a mistake, and made myself content. I declined the services of a maid, unpacked my trunk, and laid out my dinner dress upon the bed. After this I knew not what to do, and sat down to rest. I looked at the swelling couch over whose cushions the firelight wavered drowsily. "We are not likely to have velvet couches at the farm," I thought, "and it is better to despise such foolish luxuries." So I drew out a stiff-backed chair, and sat down to muse before the fire.
I soon got tired of this, for I could not think without conjuring up my familiar wonders and forebodings, and these must be kept in the background in order that I might conduct myself properly in this house. I opened my door and looked around me. I knew the place well, but I did not care to be seen roaming about before I had received a welcome from my host or hostess. Weariness enabled me to overcome this difficulty, and I presently found myself in the gallery where the pictures hung and the curiosities were displayed in their cabinets; where chairs were placed for people to sit upon, and screens erected to keep away the draughts; and where the light from the dome in the roof fell mellowly over the knight made of armour, who stood quite at the end of the gallery, near a narrow staircase which led down to the back premises of the house. This knight was an old friend. Mopsie had been very fond of a nook formed by the angle of the wall at his back, and in the days of our "readings" had dragged a deep-seated arm-chair from a near room, and arranged a tall light screen behind his shoulders, forming a tiny triangular chamber. When I came upon this retreat now I took possession of it, for it was a pleasant place to sit in. The massive helmet of the knight on his pedestal soared above the top of the screen, and stood out in bold relief against the soft brilliance of the painted dome. I seated myself in Mopsie's chair, and drew a little book from my pocket. In this little book John had copied out for me some sweet quaint rhymes which were favourites of his and mine, and because I had thought the writing and the writer could never be glorified enough, I had wrought round the margin of the pages a border of fanciful arabesque, which I had filled in with colours and gold.