It lasted, as such moments can but last, a space too brief to be reckoned, dying out of its own intensity. Agatha slid from her lover's arms, and swiftly passing out at the door, met Emma coming in. The unlucky bridegroom was left to make his own explanation to Mrs. Thornycroft, and how he performed that feat remains a mystery to this day.
Solemnly, and much affected, the bride went up-stairs to put on her wedding-garments.
Anne Valery had just arrived. She sat alone in Miss Bowen's dressing-room, playing with the orange-wreath. Her face wore a thoughtful, sickly, sad look, but the moment she heard some one at the door this expression vanished.
"So, my dear, you have a rather unconscionable bridegroom, Mrs. Thornycroft tells me. He has been here already."
Suddenly all that had happened recurred to Agatha. She forgot her own agitation in the joy of being the first to bring good news.
"Ah, you little know why he came. Uncle Brian—there is a letter from Uncle Brian."
And in her warm-heartedness of delight she threw her arms round Miss Valery's neck. She was very much surprised that Anne did not speak a single word, and that the cheek against which her young glowing one was pressed felt as cold as marble.
"Are you not glad, Miss Valery?"
"Yes, very glad. Now will you go down-stairs and fetch me the letter?"
And, gently putting the young girl from her, Anne sat down! As Agatha left the room, she fancied she heard a faint sound—a sigh or gasp; but Miss Valery had not moved. She sat as at first—her hands clasped on her lap, the veil of her bonnet falling over her face. And coming back some minutes after, Agatha found her in precisely the same position.
"Thank you, dear." She held out her hand for the letter, and then retired with it to a far window. It took a good while to read. All the time that the young bride was being dressed by Emma and the maid, Miss Valery stood in that recess, her back turned towards them, apparently reading or pondering over that strange scrawl from the Far West.
At last Mrs. Thornycroft gently hinted that there was hardly time for her to return home and dress for the wedding.
"Dress for the wedding," repeated Anne, absently. "Oh, yes; I remember, it was to be early. No fear! I will be quite ready."
She crossed the room, walking slowly, but at the door turned to look at the bride, on whose head Emma was already placing the orange-blossoms.
"Doesn't she look pretty?" appealed the gratified matron-ministrant.
"Yes; very pretty.—God bless her!" said Miss Valery, and kissed her on the forehead. Agatha quite started—the lips were so cold.
"Well!" cried Emma Thornycroft, as the door closed, "I do wish, my dear, that little Missy had been grown up enough to be your bridesmaid instead of that very quiet ordinary-looking old maid. But, after all, the contrast will be the greater."
At nine o'clock the bride's half of the wedding-party were all safely assembled in Doctor Ianson's drawing-room, and everything promised to go off successfully—to which result Emma, now all in her glory, prided herself as having been the main contributor—and no doubt the kind, active, sensible little matron was right.—When, lo!—there came an unlucky contretemps.
Major Harper, who of course was to give away the bride, sent word that on account of sudden business he could not possibly be at the church before eleven. At that hour he promised faithfully to meet his brother there. The note which he sent over was a very hurried and disjointed scrawl. This was all that the vexed bridegroom knew of the matter.
So for two long hours Agatha sat in her wedding-dress, strangely quiet and silent—sometimes playing with the wreath of orange-blossoms which her lover had sent her, and which, being composed of natural flowers, according to a whim of Mr. Harper's, was already beginning to fade. Still she refused to put it aside, though the prudent Emma warned her it would be quite withered before she reached the church; "as was sure to be the case when people were so ridiculous as to wear real flowers."
The good soul went about, half scolding, half crying; hoping nothing might happen, or consoling herself with looking alternately at her pretty peach-coloured dress, and her "James," who walked about, indulging in gay reminiscences of his own wedding, and looking the most comfortable specimen imaginable of a worthy middle-aged "family man." Nevertheless, in spite of Mr. Thornycroft's efforts to cheer up the dreariness of the group, it was a great relief to everybody when, at the earliest reasonable time, the bride's small party started, and were at length assembled under the dark arches of Bloomsbury Church—darker than usual today, for the morning had gloomed over, and become close, hot, and thundery.
Punctually at eleven, but not a minute before, which—Emma whispered—was certainly not quite courteous in a bridegroom, Mr. Harper came in. There was no one with him.
"My brother not here?" he said in anxiety.
Some one hinted that Major Harper was never very punctual.
"He ought to be, this day at least," observed Mr. Thorny-croft. "And I am confident I saw him not half-an-hour ago walking homeward round the other side of Bedford Square. Do not be alarmed about him, pray." This last remark was addressed to Agatha, who, overpowered by the closeness of the day, and by these repeated disasters, had begun to turn pale.
Nathanael watched her with a keen anxiety, which only agitated her the more. Every one seemed uneasy and rather dull;—a circumstance not very remarkable, since, in spite of the popular delusion on that subject, very few ever really look happy at a wedding. It makes clearer to each one the silent ghost sitting in every human heart, which may take any form—bliss long desired, lost, or unfulfilled—or, in the fulfilling changed to pain—or, at best, looked back upon with a memory half-pensive if only because it is the past.
For forty interminable minutes did the little party wait in the dreary church aisles, until the clock, and likewise the beadle, warned them it was near the canonical hour.
"What are we to do?" whispered the bridegroom, looking towards Anne Valery. She took his hand, and drawing it towards Agatha's which hung on her arm, said earnestly:
"Wait no longer—life's changes will not wait Marry her now—nothing should come between lovers that love one another."
Anne's manner, so faltering, so different from her usual self, irresistibly impressed the hearers. Silently the little group moved to the altar; the clergyman, weary of delay, hurried the service, and in a few minutes the young creatures who eight weeks before had scarcely heard each other's names, were made "not two, but one flesh."
It was all like a dream to Agatha Bowen; she never believed in its reality until, signing that name, "Agatha Bowen," in the register-book, she remembered she was so signing it for the last time. A moment after, Emma's husband, who had assumed the office of father to the bride, cordially shaking her hand, wished all happiness to Mrs. Harper.
Agatha started, shivered, and burst into tears. It was a natural thing, after so many hours of overstrained excitement; nor were her tears those of unhappiness, yet they seemed, every drop, to burn on her bridegroom's heart. To crown all, while these unlucky tears were still falling, some one at the vestry door cried out, "There's Major Harper."
It was indeed himself. He entered the church hurriedly—very pale—with beads of dew standing on his brow.
"Are they married? Am I too late—are they married?" cried he.
Some uncontrollable feeling made Nathanael move to his wife's side, and snatch her hand.
"Yes," said he, meeting his brother's eye, "we are married."
Major Harper sank into one of the vestry-chairs, muttering something, inaudible to all ears save those which seemed fatally gifted with preternatural acuteness—the young bridegroom's. Nathanael fancied—nay, was certain—that he heard his brother say, "Oh, my poor Agatha." He looked suddenly at his bride, whose weeping had changed into silent but violent trembling. He dropped her hand, then with a determined air again took possession of it, saying sharply to his brother:
"What is the reason of all this? Is anything amiss?"
"No, nothing—have I said anything?"
"Then why startle us thus? It is not right, Frederick."
"Hush—perhaps he is ill," whispered Anne Valery.
Major Harper looked up, and among the many inquiring eyes, met hers. It seemed to fix him, sting him, rouse him to self-command.
"I am quite well," he cried, with a hoarse attempt at laughter. "A gay bachelor always feels doubly cheery at a wedding. So it is all over, Nathanael? I beg your pardon for being too late; but I have been running about town on important business, till I am half-dead. Still, let me offer my congratulations to the bride."
He came forward jauntily, seized Agatha's hand and was about to kiss it, but for a slight shrinking on her part. The colour rushed to her face—his darkened with an expression of uncontrollable pain. At least so it appeared to one who never for a moment relaxed his watch—the younger brother.
"Really," said Mr. Thornycroft, who, during the few minutes thus occupied, had bustled in and out of the vestry—"really, are we never intending to come home? Somebody must make a diversion here. Major Harper, will you take my wife? Miss Valery, allow me."
This fortunate interference effected a change. All moved away a little from the bridegroom, who was still standing by his wife's chair.
"Agatha—will you come?"
She mechanically rose; Mr. Harper drew her arm in his, and led her down the aisle. There were a few stray lookers-on at the church-door, who peered at them curiously. An inexplicable shadow hung over them. Never were a newly-married couple more silent or more grave.
Only, as they stood on the entrance-steps that were wet with a past shower of thunder-rain, and Agatha in her thin white shoes was walking right on, her husband drew her back.
"It will not hurt me. Do let me go," she said.
"No, you must not; you are mine now," was the answer, with a look that would have made the tone of control sound in any loving bride's ear the sweetest ever heard.
He left Agatha in the church, and hurried a little in advance. His brother and Mrs. Thomycroft were standing at the porch outside, Emma laughing and whispering. And while waiting for the carriage, it so chanced that Nathanael caught what they were saying.
"Why, Major Harper, you look as dull as if you had been in love with Agatha yourself! And after what you confessed to me, I did positively believe she was in love with you."
"Agatha in love with me! really you flatter me," said Major Harper, looking down and tapping his boot, with his own self-complacent, regretful smile.
"I did indeed think it, from her agitation when I hinted at such a thing. And I never was more amazed in my life than when she told me she was going to marry your brother. I do hope, poor dear Agatha"—
"Don't speak of her," cried Major Harper, in a burst of real emotion. "And she liked me so well, poor child! Oh, I wish to Heaven I had married her, and saved her from"—
Here a voice was heard calling "Mr. Harper—Mr. Harper," but the bridegroom was nowhere to be seen. Some one—not her husband—put Agatha into the carriage. Several minutes after, Nathanael appeared.
"Where have you been? Your wife is waiting."
"My wife?" He looked round bewildered, as if the words struck him with the awful irrevocable sense of what was done. Hurriedly he ran down the steps, sprang into the carriage beside Agatha, and they drove away.
Through many streets and squares they passed, for the breakfast was to be at Emma's house. Agatha sat for the first time alone with her husband. The sun just coming out threw a soft crimson light through the closed carriage blinds; the very air felt warm and sweet, like love. Agatha's heart was stirred with a new tenderness towards him into whose keeping she had just given her whole life.
For a little while she sat, her eyes cast down, wondering what he would say or do, whether he would take her hand, or draw her softly to his breast and let her cry her heart out there, as she almost longed to do—poor fatherless, motherless, brotherless, sisterless girl, who in her husband alone must concentrate every earthly tie.
But he never spoke—never moved. He leaned back in the carriage as pale as death, his lips rigidly shut together, his eyes shut too, except that now and then they opened and closed again, to show that he was not in a state of total unconsciousness. But towards his young wife no look ever once wandered.
At length he started as from a trance and saw her sitting there, very quiet, for the pride of her nature was beginning to rise at this strange treatment from him to whom she had just given herself—her all. She was nervously moving the fingers of her left hand, where the newly placed ring felt heavy and strange.
Nathanael snatched the hand with violence.
"Agatha,—are you not my Agatha? Tell me the truth—the whole truth. I will have it from you!"
"Mr. Harper!" she exclaimed, half frightened, half angry.
His long, searching gaze tried to read her every feature—her pale cheeks—her lips proud, nay, almost sullen—her eyes, from which the softness so lately visible had changed into inquietude and trouble. There was in her all maidenly innocence—no one could doubt that; but nothing could be more unlike the shy tenderness of a bride, loving, and married for love.
Slowly, slowly, the young bridegroom's gaze fell from her, and his thoughts settled into dull conviction. All his violence ceased, leaving an icy composure, which in itself bore the omen of its lasting stay.
"Forgive me," he said, in a kind but cold voice, while his vehement grasp relaxed into a loose hold. "You are my dear wife now, and I will try to be a good husband to you, Agatha."
Stooping forward, his lips just touched her cheek—which shrank from him, Agatha scarcely knew why.
"I see!" he muttered to himself "Well, be it so! and God help us both!"
The carriage stopped. Honest Mr. James Thomycroft was at the door, bidding a gay and full-hearted welcome to the bridegroom and bride.
What a marriage-day!
"Are you quite warm there, Agatha?"
"Yes, thank you, quite warm," she said, turning round a little, and then turning back. She sat working, or seeming to work, at a large bay window that fronted the sea at Brighton. Already there had come over her the slight but unmistakable change which indicates the wife—the girl no longer. She had been married just one week.
Her husband sat at a table writing, as was his habit during the middle of the day, in order that they might walk out in the evening. He had often been thus busy during the week, even though it was the first week of the honeymoon.
The honeymoon! How different the word now sounded to Agatha! Yet she had nothing to complain of. Mr. Harper was very kind; watchful and tender over her to a degree which she felt even more than she saw. In the mornings he read to her, or talked, chiefly upon subjects higher and withal pleasanter than Agatha had ever heard talked of before; in the evenings they drove out or walked, till far into the starry summer night. They were together constantly, there never passed between them a quick or harsh word, and yet—
Agatha vainly tried to solve the dim, cloudy "yet" which had no tangible form, and only arose now that the first bewilderment of her changed existence was settling into reality, and she was beginning to recognise herself as Agatha Harper, no longer a girl, but a married woman. The sole conclusion she could come to was, that she must be now learning what she supposed every one had to learn—that a honeymoon is not quite the dream of bliss which young people believe in, and that few married couples are quite happy during the first year of their union.
And Mrs. Harper (or Mrs. Locke Harper, as her husband had had printed on the cards, omitting the name which she had once stigmatised as "ugly,") was probably not altogether wide of the truth, though in this case she judged from mistaken because individual evidence. It is next to impossible that two lives, unless assimilated by strong attachment and rare outward circumstances, if suddenly thrown together, should at once mingle and flow harmoniously on. It takes time, and the influence of perfect love, to melt and fuse the two currents into one beautiful whole. Perhaps, did all young lovers believe and prepare for this, there would be fewer disappointed and unhappy marriages.
Though sitting at the open window, with the sharp sea-breeze blowing in upon her—it happened to be a sunless and gloomy day—Agatha had answered that she was "quite warm." Nevertheless her heart felt cold. Not positively sad, yet void. A great deal of passionate devotion is necessary to make two active human beings content with one another's sole company for eight entire days, having nothing to occupy them but each other.
Wanting this—yet scarcely conscious of her need—the young wife sat, in her secret soul all shivering and a-cold. At last, wearied with the long grey sweep of undulating sea, she closed the window.
"I thought the breeze would be too keen for you," said Mr. Harper, whom her lightest movement always seemed to attract.
"Oh no; but I am tired of watching the waves. How melancholy it must be to live here. I have a perfect terror of the sea."
"Had I known that, I would not have proposed our coming to-day from Leamington to Brighton. But we can leave to-morrow."
"I did not mean that," she answered quickly, dreading lest her husband might have thought her speech ungracious or unkind. "We need not go—unless you wish it."
The bridegroom made no immediate reply: but there was a melancholy tenderness in his eyes, as, without her knowing it, he sat watching his young wife. At length he rose, and putting her arm in his, stood a long time with her at the window.
"I think, dear Agatha, that you are right. The sea is always sad. How dreary it looks now—like a wide-stretched monotonous life whose ending we see not, yet it must be crossed. How shall we cross it?"
Agatha looked inquiringly.
"The sea I mean," he continued, with a sudden change of tone. "Shall we go over to France for a week or two?"
"Oh no"—and she shuddered. "It would kill me to cross the water."
He looked surprised at her unaccountable repugnance, which she had scarcely expressed than she seemed overpowered by confusion. Her husband forbore to question her further; but the next day told her that he had arranged for their quitting Brighton and making a tour through the west of England, proceeding from thence to London.
"Where—as my brother, or rather my brother's solicitor, writes me word—some business about your fortune will require our return in another fortnight. Are you willing, Agatha?"
"Oh yes—quite willing," she cried; for now that her changed life was floating her far away from her old ties, she began to have a yearning for them all.
So the honeymoon dwindled to three weeks, at the close of which Mr. and Mrs. Locke Harper were again in London.
It seemed very strange to Agatha to come back to the known places, and roll over the old familiar London stones, and see all things going on as usual; while in herself had come so wide a gap of existence, as if those one-and-twenty days of absence had been one-and-twenty years.
She had become a little more happy lately; a little more used to her new life. And day by day something undefinable began to draw her towards her husband. It was in fact the dawning spirit of love, which should and might have come before marriage, instead of being, as now, an after-growth. Beneath its influence Nathanael's very likeness altered; his face grew more beautiful, his voice softer. Looking at him now, as he sat by her side, Mr. Harper hardly appeared to her the same man who, returning from the church as her bridegroom, had impressed her with such shrinking awe.
He too was more cheerful. All the long railway journey he had tried to amuse her; the humorous half of his disposition—for Nathanael had, like most good men, a spice of humour about him—coming out as it had never done before. However, as they neared London, he as well as his wife had become rather grave. But when, abruptly turning round, he perceived her earnestly, even tenderly regarding him (at which Agatha was foolish enough to blush, as if it were a crime to be looking admiringly at one's husband), he melted into a smile.
"Here we are in the old quarters, Agatha. The question is, Where shall we go to, since we have no lodgings taken?"
"You should have let me write to Emma, as I wished."
"No," he said, shortly; "it was a pity to trouble her."
"She would not have thought it so, poor dear Emma."
"Were you very intimate with Mrs. Thornycroft? Did you tell her everything in your heart, as women do?"
Agatha was amused by the jealous searching tone and look, so replied carelessly: "Oh yes, all I had to tell, which was not much. I don't deal in mysteries, nor like them. But the chief mystery now seems to be, where are we to go? If Emma may not be troubled, surely Mrs. Ianson, or your brother"—
"My brother is out of town."
"Indeed!" And Agatha looked as she felt, neither glad nor sorry, but purely indifferent. Her husband, observing it, became more cheerful.
"Nay, my dear Agatha, you shall not be inconvenienced. We will go first to some quiet lodgings I know of, where Anne Valery always stays when she is in London—though she has returned home now, I think. And afterwards, if you find the evening very dull"—
"Ah!" exclaimed the young wife, smiling a beautiful negative.
"We will go and take a sentimental walk through those very squares we strolled through that night—do you remember?"
How strange seemed that recollection!—how little she had then thought she was walking with her future husband!
Yet, when a few hours after she trod the well-known streets, with her wifely feelings, sweet and grave, and thought that the arm on which she now leaned was her own through life, Agatha Harper was not unhappy, nor would she for one moment have wished to be again Agatha Bowen.
The next day, by the husband's express desire—the declaring of which was a great act of self-denial on his part—word was sent to the Thornycrofts of the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Locke Harper.
Very trembling, shy, and bewitching the bride sat, waiting for the meeting; and when Emma did really come, very tragico-comic, half pleasure, half tears, was the hearty embrace between the two women. Mr. Harper stood and looked on—he played the young husband as composedly as he had done the lover and the bridegroom, except for a slight jealous movement as he saw the clinging, the kisses, the tears, which, with the warmth of a heart thrilled by new emotions and budding out into all manner of new tendernesses, Agatha lavished on her friend.
Yet, whatever he felt, no one could observe but that Nathanael was extremely polite and kind to Mrs. Thorny-croft. She on her part admired him extremely—in whispers.
"How well he looks! Really quite changed! No one would ever think of calling him a 'boy' now. You must be quite proud of your husband, my dear."
Agatha smiled, and a light thrill at her heart betrayed its answer. Very soon she ceased to be shy and shame-faced, and sat talking quite at ease, as if she had been Mrs. Locke Harper for at least a year.
Emma Thornycroft was a person not likely to waste much time on the sentimentalities of such a meeting; she soon dashed into the common-sense question of what were their plans in London? and when they would come and dine with herself and "James" "Quite friendly. We will ask no one, except of course Major Harper."
"He is out of town," said Nathanael.
"What a pity—Yet, no wonder; London is so terribly hot now. Is he quite well?"
"I believe so," Agatha answered for her husband, who had moved off.
"Because James has met him frequently of late, rushing about the City as pale as a ghost, and looking so miserable. We were afraid something was wrong with him."
"Oh, I hope not," exclaimed Agatha, eagerly.
"My brother is quite well," Mr. Harper again observed, from his outpost by the window; and something in his tone unconsciously checked and changed the conversation.
Whether by Agatha's real inclination, or by some unnoticed influence of Nathanael's, who, gentle as his manners were, through a score of other opposing wills seemed always silently to attain his own, Mrs. Thornycroft's hospitable schemes were overruled. At least, the venue was changed from Regent's Park to the Harpers' own temporary home—where, as if by magic, a multitude of small luxuries had already gathered round the young wife. She took all quite naturally, never pausing to think how they came.
It was with a trepidation which had yet its pleasure, that she arrayed herself for this, the first time of her taking her place at the head of her husband's table. She put on a high white gown, which Mr. Harper had once said he liked—she was beginning to be anxious over her dress and appearance now. Glancing into the mirror, there recurred to her mind a speech she had once heard from some foolish matron—"Oh, it does not signify what I wear, or how I look—I'm married!" Agatha thought what a very wrong doctrine that was! and laughed at herself for never having much cared to seem pleasing until she had some one to please. Nay, now for the first time she grumbled at the Pawnee-face, wishing it had been fairer!
But fair or not, when it came timidly and shone over Nathanael's shoulder, he sitting leaning thoughtfully on his hand, the result was such as materially to relieve any womanly doubts about her personal appearance. He kissed her in unwonted smiling tenderness.
"I like that dress; and your curls—softly touching them—your curls fall so prettily. How well you look, Agatha! Happy, too! Is it really so? Are you getting more used to me and my faults, dear?" There was something inexpressibly tender in the way he said "Dear," the only caressing word he ever used.
"Your faults?" re-echoed she in a merry incredulous tone. But before she could say more, the guests most inopportunely arrived. And Agatha, very naturally, darted from her husband to the other side of the room like a flash of lightning.
If the Thornycrofts had expected to find a couple of turtle-doves cooing in a cage, they were certainly disappointed. Mr. and Mrs. Locke Harper had apparently settled down into an ordinary husband and wife, resuming serenely their place in society, and behaving towards each other, and the world in general, just like sensible old married people. Their friends, taking the hint, treated them in like manner; and thus, now and for ever, vanished Agatha's honeymoon.
After dinner, Emma, anxious about Agatha's proceedings, and still more anxious to have a hand in the same, for she was never happy unless busy about her own or other people's affairs, made inquiries as to the future plans of the young couple.
Agatha could give no answer, for, to her great thankfulness, her husband had hitherto avoided the subject. She looked at him for a reply.
"I think, Mrs. Thornycroft, it will probably be three months before I"—he smilingly corrected himself, and said "we return to Canada."
"Then what do you intend to do meanwhile? Of course, Agatha dear, you will remain in London?"
"Oh yes," she replied, accustomed to decide for herself, and forgetting at the moment that there was now another to whose decision she was bound to defer. Blushing, she looked towards her husband, who was talking to Mr. Thornycroft. He turned, as indeed he always did when he heard her speaking; but he made no remark, and the "Yes" passed as their mutual assent to Emma's question.
"I know a place that would just suit you," pursued the latter; "that is, if you take a furnished house."
"I should like it much."
"It is but a cottage—rather small, considering your means; by-the-by, Agatha, how close our friend the Major kept all your affairs. No one imagined you were so rich."
"Neither did I, most certainly. But—the cottage."
"The prettiest little place imaginable. Such a love of a drawing-room! I went there to call on young Northen's sister when she married, last year. Poor thing—sad affair that, my dear."
"Indeed," said Agatha, who now felt an interest in all stories of marriages.
"It happened a fortnight ago, soon after your wedding. They quarrelled—she got through a window, and ran away home to her father. It seems she had never cared a straw for her husband, but had married him out of spite, liking some one else better all the time. His own brother, too, they say."
"What a wicked—wicked thing!" cried Agatha warmly. So warmly, that she did not see, close by her chair, her husband—watching her intently, nay wildly. As she ceased, he rose from his stooping attitude. His countenance became wonderfully beautiful, altogether glowing.
"Really you seem to have comprehended the matter at once," said Mr. Thornycroft, startled in the winding-up of a long harangue about the Corn Laws by the exceedingly bright look which his hearer turned towards him.
"Yes, I think I shall soon comprehend everything," was the answer, as Mr. Harper placed himself on the arm of his wife's chair in the gay attitude of a very boy. She, moving a little, made room for him and smiled. Nay, she even leant silently against his arm, which he had thrown round the back of her chair.
"Come, Agatha, I want to hear about that wonderful house which your friend is persuading you to take. You know, I happen to have a little concern in the matter likewise. Have I not, Mr. Thornycroft?"
"Certainly; since you have turned out to be that no less wonderful personage which my wife has been perpetually boring me about for the last two years—Agatha's Husband," said Mr. Thornycroft, patiently resigning the Corn Laws to their inevitable doom—oblivion.
But Emma, plunging gladly into her native element, discussed the whole house from attic to kitchen. Mr. Harper listened with a complaisant and amused look. Beginning to discern the sterling good there was in the little woman, he passed over her harmless small-mindedness; knowing well that in the wide-built mansion of human nature there must be always a certain order of beings honourable, useful, and excellent in themselves, to form the basement-story.
The twilight darkened while Emma talked, the faster perhaps that her "James," whose respected presence always restrained her tongue, was discovered to be undeniably asleep. But the young couple were excellent listeners. Nathanael still sat balancing himself on the arm of his wife's chair; his hand having dropped playfully among her curls. He joined with gaiety in all the discussions. More than once, in talking of the various arrangements of their new household, his voice faltered, and the hearts of the husband and wife seemed trembling towards one another.
The conversation ended in Emma's receiving carte-blanche to take the house, if practicable, that the Harpers might settle there for three months certain.
"Come, this is better than I expected," cried the worthy little woman. "We shall be neighbours, and I can teach Agatha house-keeping. She will have a nice little menage, and can give a proper 'At Home' and charming wedding parties. Shall she not, Mr. Harper?"
"If she wishes."
But Agatha's whispered "No," and kind pressure of the hand, brought to him a most blissful conviction that she did not wish, and that she would be, as she said, "happier living quietly at home." Home! what a word of promise that sounded in both their ears!
When the lights came, Mr. Thornycroft woke up; with many apologies, poor man; only, as his wife said, "Everybody knew how hard James worked, and how tired he was at night." The two gentlemen fraternised once more. They began one of those general arguments on the history of the times, which when spoken, are intensely interesting, and being written as intensely prosy. The ladies listened in a most wife-like and pleased submission.
"How well my husband talks—doesn't he?" whispered Emma, with sparkling eyes.
Agatha agreed, and indeed Mr. Thornycroft's strong sense and acute judgment were patent to every one. But when Mr. Harper spoke, his clear views on every point, his trenchant but pleasant wit, by which he rounded off the angularities of argument, and above all his keen, far-seeing intellect, which dived into wondrous depths of knowledge, and invariably brought something precious to light—these things were to the young wife a positive revelation.
She sat attentive, beginning to learn, what strange to say was no pain—her own ignorance, and her husband's superior wisdom. She had never before felt at once so humble and so proud.
When the Thornycrofts departed, and Mr. Harper returned up-stairs from bidding them good-bye, he found his wife in a thoughtful mood.
"Well, dear, have you had a pleasant evening? Are you content with our plans?"
"Yes—indeed, more so than I deserve. Oh, how good you are!" she whispered; and her shortcomings towards him grew into a great burden of regret.
"Hush!" he answered, smiling; "we will not begin discussing one another's goodness, or you know the subject would be interminable. And I would like us to hold a little serious consultation before to-morrow. You are not sleepy?"
"Stretch yourself out on the sofa, and let me sit beside you. There—are you quite comfortable?"
"Ah, yes," she said, and thought for the hundredth time how sweet it was to have some one to take care of her.
"Now, my wife, listen! You seemed to long for that cottage very much, and you shall have it. Nay, you ought, because at present you are the rich lady; while I, so long as I remain in England, receive none of my salary from Montreal, and am, comparatively speaking, poor. In fact, nothing but that very secondary character, Agatha's Husband.'"
Though he laughed, there was a little jarring tone in this confession; but Agatha was too simple to notice it. He continued quickly,
"Nevertheless, this question is only temporary; I shall be quite your equal in Canada."
"In Canada!" she echoed dolefully. "Oh, surely—surely we need not go?"
"Are you in earnest, Agatha?"
"I am indeed," said she, gathering up courage to speak to him of what ever since her marriage had been growing an inexpressible dread.
"I—I am afraid to tell."
"Shall I tell you? You cannot bear to leave your old friends? You fear to go into a new country, entirely among strangers, with only your husband?"
His suddenly suspicious tone stopped the frank denial that was bursting to his wife's lips. She only said a little hurt, "If that were true, I would have told you. I always speak exactly what I think."
"Is it so? is it indeed so?" he cried, with a lightening of countenance as sudden as its shade. "Oh, Agatha, forgive me," and his heart seemed melting before her. "I am not good to you—but you do not quite understand me yet."
"I feel that. Yet what can I do?"
"Nothing! Only wait I will try to cure myself without paining you. But, for the sake of our whole life's happiness, henceforward always be open with me, Agatha! Don't hide from me anything! Set your frank goodness against my wicked suspiciousness, and make me ashamed of myself, as now."
He had not spoken so freely or with so much emotion since they were married; and his wife was deeply touched. She made no answer, but half raising herself, crept to his arms, almost as if she loved him. So she truly did, in a measure, though not with the spontaneous, self-existent love, which, once lit in a woman's breast, is like the central fire hidden in the earth's bosom, enduring through all surface variations—through summer and winter, earthquakes, floods, and storms—utterly unchangeable and indestructible. And, however wildly extravagant this simile may sound—however rare the fact it illustrates, nevertheless such Love is a great truth, possible and probable, which has existed and may exist—thank God for it!—to prove that He did not found the poetry of all humanity upon a beautiful deceit.
Something of this mystery was beginning to stir in the wife's heart; the girl-wife, married before her character was half formed—before the perfecting of real love, which, taking, as all feelings must, the impress of individual nature, was in her of slow development.
As Agatha lay, her head hidden on her husband's shoulder, guessing out of her own heart something of what was passing in his, there came to her the first longing after that oneness of spirit, without which marriage is but a false or base union, legal and sanctified before men, but, oh! how unholy in the sight of God!
The young wife felt as if now, and not until now, she could unfold to her husband all the secrets of her heart, all its foolishness, ignorance, and fears.
"If you will listen to me, and not despise me very much, I will tell you something that I have never told to any one until now."
She could not imagine why, but at this soft whisper he trembled; however, he bade her go on.
"You wonder why it is I am so terrified at leaving England? It is not for any of the reasons you said, but for one so foolish that I am half ashamed to confess it. I dare not cross the sea."
"Is that all?" Mr. Harper cried, and the unutterable dread which had actually blanched his cheek disappeared instantaneously. He felt himself another man.
"Wait, and I'll tell you why this is," continued Agatha. "When I was a little child, somewhere about four years old, I was at some seaport town—I don't know where nor ever did, for there was no one with me but my nurse, and she died soon after. One day, I remember being in a little boat going to see a large ship. There were other people with us, especially one lady. Somehow, playing with her, I fell overboard." Here Agatha shuddered involuntarily. "It may be very ridiculous, but even now, when I am ill or restless in mind, I constantly dream over again that horrible drowning."
Her husband drew her closer to him, murmuring, "Poor child!"
"Ah, I was indeed a poor child! When, after being brought to life again—for I fancy I must have been nearly dead—my nurse forbade me ever to speak of what had happened, no one can tell into what a terror it grew. I never shall overcome it, never! The very sight of the sea is more than I can bear. To cross it—-to be on it"—
"Hush, dear, quiet yourself," said her husband, soothingly. "Now, tell me all you can remember about this."
"Scarcely anything more, except that when I came to myself I was lying on the beach, with the stranger lady by me."
"Who was she?"
"I have not the slightest idea. Being so young, I recollect little about her—in fact, only one thing: that just as she was leaving me to go on in the little boat, my nurse called out, 'The ship is gone!' and the lady fell flat down—dead, as I thought then. They carried me away, and I never saw or heard of her again."
"But," continued Agatha, gathering courage as she found her husband did not smile at this story, and beginning to speak with him more freely than she had ever done with any person in her life, "but you have no idea what a vivid impression the circumstance left on my mind. For years I made of this lady—to whom I feel sure I owed in some way or other the saving of my life—a sort of guardian angel I believe I even prayed to her—such a queer, foolish child I was—oh, so foolish!"
"Very likely, dear; we all are," said Mr. Harper, gaily. "And you are quite sure you never saw your angel?"
"No, nor any one like her. The person most like, and yet very unlike, too, in some things, was—don't laugh, please—was Miss Valery. That, I fancy, was the reason why I liked her so from the first, and was ready to do anything she bade me."
"Then when you consented to be married it was not for love of me but of Anne Valery?" And beneath Nathanael's smile lingered a little sad earnest.
His wife did not answer—even yet she was too shy to say the words, "I love you." But she took his hand, and reverently kissed it, whispering,
"I am quite content. I would not have things otherwise than they are. And all I mean by telling such a long foolish story is this—teach me how to conquer myself and my fears, and I will go with you anywhere—even across the sea."
"My own dear wife!" His voice was quite broken; so sudden, so unexpected was this declaration from her, and by the tremblings which shook her all the while he saw how great her struggle had been.
For many minutes, holding her little head on his arm, the young husband sat silent, buried in deep thought; Agatha never saw the changes, bitter, fierce, sorrowful, that by turns swept over the face under which her own lay so calmly, with sweet shut eyes. Strange difference between the woman and the man!
"Agatha," he said at last, "I have quite decided."
"That I will give up my office at Montreal, and we will live in England."
She was so astonished that at first she could not speak; then she burst into joyful tears, and hung about him, murmuring unutterable thanks. For the moment he felt as if this reward made his sacrifice nothing, and yet it had cost him almost everything that his manly pride held dear.
"Then you will not go? You will never cross the terrible Atlantic again?"
"I do not promise that: for I must go, soon or late, if only to persuade Uncle Brian to return with me to England.—Uncle Brian! what will he say when he learns that I have given up my independence, and am living pensioner on a rich wife?"
Agatha looked surprised.
"But," continued he, trying to make a jest of the matter, "though I do renounce my income in the New World, I am not going to live an idler on your little ladyship's bounty. I intend to work hard at anything that I can find to do. And it will be strange if, in this wide, busy England, I cannot turn to some honourable profession. If not, I'd rather go into the fields and chop wood with this right hand"—
And suddenly dashing it down on the table, he startled Agatha very much; so much that she again clung to him, and innocently begged him not to be angry with her.
Then, once more, Nathanael took his wife in his arms, and became calm in calming her. Thus they sat, until the silence grew heavenly between the two, and it seemed as if, in this new confidence, and in the joy of mutual self-renunciation, were beginning that true marriage, which makes of husband and wife not only "one flesh," but one soul.
It had been arranged with Emma Thornycroft that Mrs. Harper should take the benefit of that lady's superior domestic and worldly experience—for Agatha herself was a perfect child in such matters—and that they two should go over the intended house together. Accordingly, in the course of the following day Mrs. Thornycroft appeared to carry away the young wife, and give her the first lesson in household responsibilities.
From this important business, Mr. Harper was laughingly excluded, as being only a "gentleman," and required merely to pronounce a final decision upon the niceties of feminine choice.
"In fact," said Emma, gaily assuming the autocracy of her sex, "husbands ought to have nothing at all to do with house-choosing or house-keeping, except to pay the rent and the bills."
Agatha could not help laughing at this, until she saw that Mr. Harper was silent.
A few minutes before they started he took his wife aside, and showed her a letter. It was the formal renunciation of the appointment he held at Montreal.
"How kind!" she cried in unfeigned delight. "And how quickly you have fulfilled your promise!"
"When I have once decided I always like to do the thing immediately. This letter shall go to-day."
"Ah!—let me post it," whispered Agatha, taking a wilful, childish pleasure in thus demolishing every chance of the future she had so dreaded.
"What! cannot you yet trust me?" returned her husband. "Nay, there is no fear. What is done is done. But you shall have your way."
And walking with them a little distance, he suffered Agatha with her own hands to post the decisive letter.
After he left them, she told Mrs. Thornycroft the welcome news, enlarging upon Mr. Harper's goodness in resigning so much for her sake.
"Resigning?" said Emma, laughing. "Well, I don't see much noble resignation in a young man's giving up a hardworking situation in the colonies to live at ease on his wife's property in England. My dear, husbands always like to make the most of their little sacrifices. You mustn't believe half they say."
"My husband never said one word of his," cried Agatha, rather indignantly, and repented herself of her frankness to one whose ideas now more than ever jarred with her own. Three weeks' constant association with a man like Nathanael had lifted her mind above the ordinary standard of womanhood to which Emma belonged. She began to half believe the truth of what she had once with great astonishment heard Anne Valery declare—ay, even Anne Valery—that if the noblest moral type of man and of woman were each placed side by side, the man would be the greater of the two.
But this thought she kept fondly to herself, and suffered Emma to talk on without much attending to her conversation. It was chiefly about some City business with which "her James" had been greatly annoyed of late—having to act for a friend who had been ruined by taking shares in a bubble company formed to work a Cornish mine. Agatha had often been doomed to listen to such historiettes. Mrs. Thornycroft had a great fancy for putting her harmless fingers into her husband's business matters, for which the chief apology in her friend's eyes was the good little wife's great interest in all that concerned "my James." So Agatha had got into a habit of listening with one ear, saying, "Yes," "No," and "Certainly;" while she thought of other things the while. This habit she to-day revived, and, pondered vaguely over many pleasant fancies while hearing mistily of certain atrocities perpetrated by "City scoundrels"—Emma was always warm in her epithets.
"The 'Company,' my dear, is a complete take-in—all sham names, secretaries, treasurers, and even directors. The whole affair was got up among two or three people in a lawyer's office; and who do you think that lawyer is, Agatha?"
"I don't know," said Mrs. Harper, feeling as perfectly indifferent as if he were the man in the moon.
"I am not sure that I ought to tell you, for James only found it out, or rather guessed it, this morning at breakfast-time. And if the thing can only be proved, it will go very suspiciously against the people who have been mixed up in the affair, and especially against this Mr. Grimes.—There, I declare I've let the cat out of the bag at last, for all James cautioned me not!"
"Well, be content," said Agatha, awaking from a reverie as to how many days her husband intended to stay at Kingcombe Holm, whither they were this week going on a formal invitation, and whether the new house would be quite ready on their return—"Be content, Emma; I really did not catch the name."
"I'm glad of it," said the gossiping little woman—though she looked extremely sorry. "Of course, if Major Harper had known—why, you would have heard."
"Heard what" asked Agatha, her curiosity at last attracted by her brother-in-law's name. But now Emma seemed wilfully bent upon maintaining a mysterious silence.
"That's exactly what I can't tell you, my dear, except thus much—that my husband is afraid Major Harper has been losing a good deal of money, since more than two-thirds of the shares in Wheal Caroline were in his name, and now the vein has failed—that is, if ever there was a vein or a mine at all—and the other shareholders declare there has been a great deal of cheating somewhere—and—you understand."
Agatha did not understand one jot. All she drew from this confused volubility was the fact that Major Harper had somehow lost money, for which she was very sorry. But to her utter ignorance of financial or business matters the term "losing money" bore very little meaning. However, she recurred with satisfaction to her own reputed wealth, and thought if Major Harper were in any need he would of course tell his brother, and she and Nathanael could at once supply what he wanted. She determined to speak to her husband the first opportunity, and so dismissed the subject, as being not half so interesting as that of "the new house."
At the gate of this the two ladies now stood, and Emma, with a matronly importance, introduced the gratified young wife to all its perfections.
If there be one instinct that lurks in a woman's breast, ready to spring up when touched, and bloom into all sorts of beautiful and happy feelings, it is the sense of home—of pleasant domestic sway and domestic comfort—the looking forward to "a house of one's own." Many ordinary girls marry for nothing but this; and in the nobler half of their sex even amidst the strongest and most romantic personal attachment there is a something—a vague, dear hope, that, flying beyond the lover and the bridegroom, nestles itself in the husband and the future home.—The home as well as the husband, since it is given by him, is loved for his sake, and made beautiful for his comfort, while he is the ruler, the guide, and the centre of all.
Mrs. Harper, as she went through the rooms of this, the first house she had ever looked on with an eye of interest, admiring some things, objecting to others, and beginning to arrange and decide in her own mind,—felt the awakening of that feeling which philosophers call "the domestic instinct"—the instinct which makes of women good wives, fond mothers, and wise mistresses of pleasant households. She wondered that, as Agatha Bowen, she had thought so little of these things.
"Yes," said she, brightening up as she listened to Emma's long-winded discourse upon furniture and arrangements, and learning for the first time to appreciate the capital good sense of that admirable domestic oracle and young housekeeper's guide—"Yes, I think this will just do. And, as you say, we easily manage to buy it, furniture and all, so as to make what improvements we choose. Oh, how delicious it will be to have a house of one's own!"
And the tears almost came into her eyes at thought of that long vista of future joy—the years which might pass in this same dwelling.
"My husband," she said to the person who showed them over the place—and her cheeks glowed, and her heart dilated with a tender pride as she used the word—"my husband will come to-morrow and make his decision. I think there is very little doubt but that we shall take the house."
So anxious was she to conclude the matter and let Mr. Harper share in all her pleasant feelings, that she excused herself from staying at Emma's until he came to fetch her, and determined to walk back to meet him.
"What, with nobody to take care of you?" said Emma.
"The idea of anybody's taking care of me! We never thought of such a thing three months ago. I used to come and go everywhere at my own sweet will, you know." Nevertheless, it was a sweet thought that there was somebody to take care of her. Her high spirit was beginning to learn that there are dearer pleasures in life than even the pleasure of independence.
Pondering on these things—and also on the visit to Kingcombe Holm which her husband had that morning decided—she walked through the well-known squares, her eyes and her veil lowered, her light springy step restrained into matronly dignity. Agatha had a wondrous amount of dignity for such a little woman. Her gait, too, had in it something very peculiar—a mixture of elasticity, decision, and pride. Her small figure seemed to rise up airily between each footpress, as if unaccustomed to creep. There was a trace of wildness in her motions; hers was anything but a dainty tread or a lazy drawing-room glide; it was a bold, free, Indian-like walk—a footstep of the wilderness.
No one who had once known her could ever mistake Agatha, be she seen ever so far off; and as she went on her way, a gentleman, crossing hastily from the opposite side of the square, saw her, started, and seemed inclined to shrink from recognition. But she, attracted by his manner, lifted up her eyes, and soon put an end to his uncertainty. Though a good deal surprised by the suddenness of the rencontre, there was no reason on earth why Mrs. Harper should not immediately go up and speak to her husband's brother.
She did so, holding out her hand frankly.
Major Harper's response was hesitating to a painful degree. He looked, in the common but expressive phrase, "as if he had seen a ghost."
"Who would have thought of meeting you here, Miss Bowen—Mrs. Harper I mean?" he added, seeing her smile at the already strange sound of her maiden name. What could have possessed Major Harper to be guilty of such uncourteous forgetfulness?
"You evidently did not think I was my real self, or you would not have been going to pass me by; I—that is, we"—-at the word Nathanael's wife cast off her shyness, and grew bravely dignified—"we came back to London two days ago."
"Your brother," she had not yet quite the courage to say "my husband," when speaking of him, especially to Frederick Harper—"your brother thought you were out of town."
"I?—yes—no. No, it was a mistake. But are you not going in? Good morning!"
In his confusion of mind he was handing her up the steps of Dr. Ianson's door, which they were just passing. Agatha drew back; at first surprised, then alarmed. His strange manner, his face, not merely pale but ghastly, the suppressed agitation of his whole aspect, seemed forewarnings of some ill. It was her first consciousness that she was no longer alone, in herself including alike all her pleasure and all her pain.
"Oh, tell me," she cried, catching his arm, "is there anything the matter? Where is my husband?"
The quick fear, darting arrow-like to her heart, betrayed whose image lay there nearest and dearest now. Major Harper looked at her, looked and—sighed!
"Don't be afraid," he said kindly; "all is well with your husband, for aught I know. He is a happy fellow in having some one in the world to be alarmed on his account."
Agatha blushed deeply, but made no reply. She took her brother-in-law's offered arm, offered with a mechanical courtesy that survived the great discomposure of mind under which he evidently laboured, and turned with him towards home. She was at once puzzled and grieved to see the state he was in, which, deny it and disguise it as he would—and he tried hard to do so—was quite clear to her womanly perception. His laugh was hollow, his step hurried, his eyes wandering from side to side as if he were afraid of being seen. How different from his old cheerful lounge, full of a good-natured conceit, apparently content with himself, and willing that the whole street should gaze their fill at Major Frederick Harper.
So old he looked, too; as if the moment his merry mask of smiles was thrown off, the cruel lurking wrinkles appeared. Agatha pitied him, and felt a return of the old liking, warm and kind, such as it was before the innuendoes of foolish friends had first lured her to distrust the nature of her own innocent feelings, and then changed them into positive contempt and aversion.
She said, with an air of gentle matronly freedom, half sisterly, too, and wholly different from the shy manner of Agatha Bowen to Major Harper:
"You must come home with me. I fear you are ill, or in anxiety. Why did you not tell your brother?" And suddenly she thought of Emma's statement of the morning. But Agatha, in her unworldliness, never supposed such a trivial loss as that of money could make any man so miserable as Major Harper seemed.
"I ill? I anxious? I tell my brother?" he repeated, sharply.
"Nay, as you will. Only do come to us. He will be so glad to see you."
"Glad to see me?" He again repeated her words, as though he had none of his own, or were too bewildered to use them. Nevertheless, through a certain playful influence which Agatha could exert when she liked, making almost everybody yield to her, Major Harper suffered himself to be led along; his companion talking pleasantly to him the while, lest he might think she noticed his discomposure.
Arrived at home, they found that Nathanael had walked to the Regent's Park to fetch his wife, according to agreement.
Mrs. Harper looked sorry. She had already learned one little secret of her husband's character—his dislike to any unpunctuality, any altered plans or broken promises. "Still, you must come in and wait for him."
"Wait for whom?" said Major Harper, absently.
"My brother!—I, wait to see my brother! Impossible—I—I'll write. Good morning—good morning."
He was leaving the hall—more hurried and agitated than ever—when Mrs. Harper, now really concerned, laid her hand upon his arm.
"I will not let you go. Come in, and tell me what ails you."
The soft whisper, the eyes of genuine compassion—womanly compassion only, without any love—were more than Major Harper could resist.
"I will go," he muttered. "Better tell it to you than to my brother." And he followed her up-stairs.
The cool shadow of the room seemed to quiet his excitement; he drank a glass of water that stood by, and became more like himself.
"Well, my dear young lady," he said, with some return of the paternal manner of old times, "when did you come back to London?"
"Two days since, as I told you. And, as you will soon hear, your brother's plans are all changed—we are going to live in London."
"To live in London?"
"He has given up his appointment at Montreal. We have taken a house, or shall take it to-day, and settle here. He intends entering at the bar, or something of the sort; but you must persuade him not. What is the use of his toiling, when I—that is we—are so rich?"
While Agatha thus talked, chiefly to amuse her brother-in-law and make him feel that she was really his sister, one and the same in family interests—while she talked, she was astonished to see Major Harper's face overspread with blank dismay.
"And—Nathanael has really given up his appointment?"
"He has, and for my sake. Was it not good of him?"
"It was madness! Nay—it is I that have been the madman—it is I that have done it all Agatha, forgive me! But no—you never can!"
As they stood together by the fireplace he snatched her hand, gazing down upon her with unutterable remorse.
"Poor Bowen's daughter that he trusted to me! Such a mere child too! Oh, forgive me, Agatha!"
She thought some extraordinary delusion had come upon him—perhaps the forerunner of some dreadful illness. She tried to take her hand away, though kindly, for she firmly believed him to be delirious. Nothing could really have happened to herself that Mr. Harper did not know. With him to take care of her, she was quite safe. And in that moment—for all passed in a moment—Nathanael's wife first felt how implicitly she was beginning to put her trust in him.
While she remained thus—her hand still closed tightly in her brother-in-law's grasp, half terrified, yet trying not to show her terror—the door opened, and her husband entered.
At first Mr. Harper seemed petrified with amazement; then he turned deadly white. Crossing the room, he laid a heavy hand on his brother's shoulder:
"Frederick, you forget yourself; this is my wife,—Agatha!"
The searching agony of that one word, as he turned and looked her full in the face, was unutterable. She scarcely perceived it.
"Oh, I am so glad you are come," was all she said. He drew her to his side—indeed, she had sprung there of her own accord—and wrapped his arms tightly round her, as if to show that she was his possession, his own property.
"Now, brother, whatever you wished to say to my wife, say it to us both."
Major Harper could not speak.
"He was waiting to see you; he is ill—very ill, I think," whispered Agatha to her husband. "Shall I leave you together?"
"Yes," he answered, releasing her, but only to draw her back again, with the same wildly questioning look, the meaning of which was to her innocence quite inexplicable.—"My wife?"
"My dear husband!"
At that whisper, which burst from her full heart in the comfort of seeing him and of knowing that he would take on himself the burden of all her anxiety, Nathanael let her go. She crept away, most thankful to get out of the room, and leave Major Harper safe in his brother's hands.
But when a quarter of an hour—half-an-hour—passed by, and still the two gentlemen remained shut up together, without sending for her to join their conference, or, as she truly expected, to tell her that poor Major Harper must be taken home in the delirium of brain fever—Agatha began rather to wonder at the circumstance.
She apprehended no evil, for her even course of existence had never been crossed by those sudden tragedies, the impression of which no one ever entirely overcomes, which teach us to walk trembling along the ways of life, lest each moment a gulf should open at our feet. Agatha had read of such misfortunes, but believed them only in books; to her the real world, and her own fate therein, appeared the most monotonous thing imaginable. It never entered her mind to create an adventure or a mystery.
She waited another fifteen minutes—until the clock struck five, and the servant came up to her to announce dinner, and to know whether the same information should be conveyed to the gentlemen in the drawing-room. Servants seem instinctively to guess when there is something extraordinary going on in a house, and the maid—as she found her mistress sitting in her bed-chamber, alone and thoughtful—wore a look of curiosity which made Mrs. Harper colour.
"Go down and tell your master—no, stay, I will go myself."
She waited until the maid had disappeared, and then went down-stairs, but stopped at the drawing-room door, on hearing within loud voices, at least one voice—Major Harper's. He seemed pleading or protesting vehemently: Agatha might almost have distinguished the words, but—and the fact is much to her credit, since her brother-in-law's apparently sane tones having suppressed her fears, she was now smitten with very natural curiosity—but she stopped her ears, and ran up-stairs again. There she remained, waiting for a lull in the dispute—in which, however, she never caught one tone of Nathanael's.
At last, feeling rather humiliated at being thus obliged to flutter up and down the stairs of her own abode, and crave admittance into her own drawing-room, Mrs. Harper ventured to knock softly, and enter.
Frederick Harper was sitting on the sofa, his head crushed down upon his hands. Nathanael stood at a little distance, by the fireplace. The attitude of the elder brother indicated deep humiliation, that of the younger was freezing in its sternness. Agatha had never seen such an expression on Nathanael face before.
"What did you want?" he said abruptly, thinking it was the servant who entered.
She could not imagine what made him start so, nor what made the two brothers look at her so guiltily. The fact left a very uncomfortable impression on her mind.
"I only came"—she began.
"No matter, dear." Her husband walked up to her, speaking in a low voice, studiously made kind, she thought "Go away now—we are engaged, you see."
"But dinner," she added. "Will not your brother stay and dine with us?"
Major Harper turned with an imploring look to his brother's wife.
"No," said Mr. Harper emphatically; held the door open for Agatha to retire, and closed it after her. Never in all her life had she been treated so unceremoniously.
The newly-married wife returned to her room, her cheeks burning with no trifling displeasure. She began to feel the tightening pressure of that chain with which her life was now eternally bound.
But, after five minutes of silent reflection, she was too sensible to nourish serious indignation at being sent out of the room like a mere child. There must have been some good reason, which Mr. Harper would surely explain when his brother left. The whole conversation was probably some personal affair of the Major's, with which she had nothing to do. Yet why did her brother-in-law regard her so imploringly? It was, after all, rather extraordinary. So, genuine female curiosity getting the better of her, never did Blue Beard's Fatima watch with greater anxiety for "anybody coming" than did Agatha Harper watch at her window for somebody going—viz., Major Harper. She was too proud to listen, or to keep any other watch, and sat with her chamber-door resolutely closed.
At length her vigil came to an end. She saw her late guardian passing down the street—not hastily or in humiliation, but with his usual measured step and satisfied air. Nay, he even crossed over the way to speak to an acquaintance, and stood smiling, talking, and swinging his cane. There could not be anything very wrong, then.
Agatha thought, having been once sent out of the room, she would not re-enter it until her husband fetched her—a harmless ebullition of annoyance. So she stood idly before the mirror, ostensibly arranging her curls, though in reality seeing nothing, but listening with all her ears for the one footstep—which did not come. Not, alas! for many, many minutes.
She was still standing motionless, though her brows were knitted in deep thought, and her mouth had assumed the rather cross expression which such rich, rare lips always can, and which only makes their smiling the more lovely—when she saw in the mirror another reflection beside her own.
Her husband had come softly behind her, and put his arms round her waist.
"Did you think I was a long time away from you? I could not help it, dear. Let us go down-stairs now."
Agatha was surprised that, in spite of all the tenderness of his manner, he did not attempt the slightest explanation. And still more surprised was she to find her own questions, wonderings, reproaches, dying away unuttered in the atmosphere of silentness which always seemed to surround Nathanael Harper. This silentness had from the very beginning of their acquaintance induced in her that faint awe, which is the most ominous yet most delicious feeling that a woman can have towards a man. It seems an instinctive acknowledgment of the much-condemned, much-perverted, yet divine and unalterable law given with the first human marriage—"He shall rule over thee."
After all that Agatha had intended to say, she said—nothing. She only turned her face to her husband, and received his kiss. Very soft it was—even cold—as though he dared not trust himself to the least expression of feeling. He merely whispered, "Now, come down with me;" and she went.
But on the staircase she could not forbear saying, "I thought you two would never have done talking. Is it anything very serious? I trust not, since your brother walked down the street so cheerfully."
"Did he?—and—were you watching him?"
"Yes, indeed," returned Agatha, for she had no notion of doing anything that she would be afterwards ashamed to confess. "But what put him into such a state of mind, and made him behave to me so strangely?"
"How dared he behave?" asked the husband, with quickness, then stopped. "Forgive me. You know, I have never inquired—I never shall inquire about anything."—Again he paused, seeing how his mood alarmed her. "Do not be afraid of me! Poor child—poor little Agatha!"
Waiting for no reply, he led her in to dinner.
While the servants waited, Mr. Harper scarcely spoke, except when necessary. Only in his lightest word addressed to Agatha was a certain tremulousness—in his most careless look a constant tender observance, which soothed her mind, and quite removed from thence the impression of his hasty and incomprehensible words. She laid all to the charge of Major Harper and his unpleasant business.
At dessert, Nathanael sat varying his long silences with a few commonplace remarks which showed how oblivious he was of all around him, and how sedulously he tried to disguise the fact, and rise to the surface of conversation. Agatha's curiosity returned, not unmingled with a feeling tenderer, more woman-like, more wife-like, which showed itself in stray peeps at him from under the lashes of net brown eyes. At length she took courage to say:
"Now—since we seem to have nothing better to talk about, will you tell me what you and your brother were plotting together, that you kept poor little me out of the room so long?"
"Plotting together? Surely, Agatha, you did not mean to use that word?"
She had used it according to a habit she had of putting a jesting form of phrase upon matters where she was most in earnest. She was amazed to see her husband take it so seriously.
"Well, blot out the offending word, and put in any other you choose; only tell me."
"Why do you wish to know, little Curiosity?" said he, recovering himself, and eagerly catching the tone his wife had adopted.
"Why? Because I am a little Curiosity, and like to know everything."
"That is both presumptuous and impossible, your ladyship! If one-half the world were always bent on knowing all the secrets of the other half, what a very uncomfortable world it would be!"
"I do not see that, even if the first half included the wives, and the second the husbands; which is apparently what you mean to imply."
"I shall not plead guilty to anything by implication."
They went on a few moments longer in this skirmish of assumed gaiety, when Agatha, pausing, leant her elbows on the table, and looked seriously at her husband,
"Do you know we are two very foolish people?"
"We are pretending to make idle jests, when all the time we are both of us very much in earnest."
"That is true!" And he sighed, though within himself, as though he did not wish her to hear it. "Agatha, come over to me." He held out both his hands; she came, and placed herself beside him, all her jesting subdued. She even trembled, at the expectation of something painful or sorrowful to be told. But her husband said nothing—except to ask if she would like to go anywhere this evening.
Agatha felt annoyed. "Why do you put me off in this manner, when I know you have something on your mind?"
"Have I?" he said, half mournfully.
"Then tell it to me."
"Nay. I always thought it was wisest, kindest, for a man to bear the burden of his own cares."
Nathanael had spoken in his most gentle tone, and slowly, as if impelled to what he said by hard necessity. He was not prepared to see the sudden childish burst of astonishment, anger, and resistance.
"From this, I understand, what you might as well have said plainly, that I am not to inquire what passed between you and your brother?"
He moved his head in assent, and then sunk it on his left hand, holding out the other to his wife, as though talking were impossible to him, and all he wished were silence and peace. Agatha was too angry for either.
"But if I do not choose at nineteen to be treated like a mere child—if I ask, nay, insist"—She hesitated, lest the last word might have irritated him too far. Vague fears concerning the full meaning of the word "obey" in the marriage service rushed into her mind.
Nathanael sat motionless, his fingers pressed upon his eyelids. This silence was worse than any words.
"I hear." And the grave, sad eyes—and without any displeasure—were turned upon her. Agatha felt a sting of conscience.
"I did not mean to speak rudely to my husband; but I had my own reasons for inquiring about Major Harper, from something Emma said to-day."
"What was that?"
"How eager you look! Nay, I can keep a secret too. But no, I will not." And the generous impulse burst out, even accompanied by a few childish tears and childish blushes. "She told me he had probably lost money. I wished to say that if such a trifle made him unhappy he might take as much as he liked of mine. That was all!"
Her husband regarded her with mingled emotions, which at last all melted into one—deep tenderness. "And you would do this, even for him? Thank God! I never doubted your goodness, Agatha. And I trusted you always."
Wondering, yet half-pleased, to see him so moved, Agatha received his offered hand. "Then all is settled. Now tell me everything that passed between you."
Gentle as the tone was, there was something in it which implied that to strive with Nathanael would be like beating against a marble wall. A great terror came over Agatha—she, who had lived like a wild bird, knowing no stronger will than her own. Then all the combativeness of her nature, hitherto dormant because she had known none worthy to contend against, awoke up, and tempted her to struggle fiercely with her chain.
She unloosed her hands and sprang from him. "Mr. Harper, you are teaching me early how men rule their wives."
"I only ask my wife to trust me. She would, if she knew how great was the sacrifice."
"What sacrifice? How many more mysteries am I to be led through blindfold?"
And her crimson cheek, her quick wild step across the room, showed a new picture to the husband's eyes—a picture that all young wives should be slow to let any man see, for it is often a fatal vision.
Nathanael closed his eyes—was it to shut it out?—then spoke, steadily, sorrowfully:
"We have scarcely been married a month. Are we beginning to be angry with one another already?"
She made him no answer.
"Will you listen to me—if for only two minutes?"
She felt his step approaching, his hand fastening on hers, and replacing her in her chair. Resistance was impossible.
"Agatha, had I trusted you less than I do, I might easily have put off your questions, or told you what was false. I shall do neither. I shall tell you truth."
"That is all I wish."
Nathanael said, with a visible effort, "To-day I learnt from my brother several rather painful circumstances—some which I was ignorant of—one"—his voice grew cold and hard—"one which I already knew, and knew to be irremediable."
His wife looked much alarmed; seeing it, he forced a smile.
"But what is irremediable can and must be borne. I can bear things better, perhaps, than most people. The other cares may be removed by time and—silence. To that end I have promised Frederick to keep his confidence secret from every one, even from my own wife, for a year to come. A sacrifice harder than you think; but it must be made, and I have made it."
Agatha turned away, saying bitterly; "Your wife ought to thank you! She was not aware until now how wondrously well you loved your brother."
There was a heavy silence, and then Mr. Harper said, in a hoarse voice, "Did you ever hear the story of a man who plunged into a river to save the life of an enemy, and when asked why he did it, answered, 'It was because he was an enemy?"
"I do not understand you," cried Agatha.
"No"—her husband returned, hastily—"better not. A foolish, meaningless story. What were we talking about?"
He—when her heart was bursting with vexation and wounded feeling—he pretended to treat all so lightly that he did not even remember what they were saying! It was more than Agatha could endure.
Had he been irritated like herself—had he shown annoyance, pain—had they even come to a positive quarrel—for love will sometimes quarrel, and take comfort therein—it would have been less trying to a girl of her temperament. But that grave superior calm of unvarying kindness—her poor angry spirit beat against it like waves against a shining rock.
"We were talking of what, had I considered the matter a month ago, I might possibly have saved myself the necessity of discussing or practising—a wife's blind obedience to her husband."
"When I married," she recklessly pursued, "I did not think what I was doing. It is hard enough blindly to obey even those whom one has known long—trusted long—loved long—but you"—
"I understand. Hush! there needs not another word."
Agatha began to hesitate. She had only wished to make him feel—to shake him from that rigid quietude which to her was so trying. She had not intended to wound him so.
"Are you angry with me?" she asked at length.
"No, not angry. No reproaches of yours can be more bitter than my own."
She was just about to ask him what he meant—nay, she even considered whether her woman's pride might not stoop to draw aside the tight-pressed hands, entreating him to look up and forgive her and love her, when in burst Mrs. Thornycroft.
"Oh—so glad to catch you—have not a minute to spare, for James is waiting. Where is your husband?"
Mr. Harper had risen, and stood in the shadow, where his face was not easily visible. Agatha wondered to see him so erect and calm, while her own cheeks were burning, and every word she tried to utter she had to gulp down a burst of tears.
"Mr. Harper, it was you I wanted—to ask your decision about the house. A mere formality. But I thought I would just call as we went to grandmamma's, and then I can settle everything for you to-morrow morning."
"You are very kind, but"—
"Oh, perhaps you would rather see the house yourself! Quite right. Of course you will take it!"
"I fear not."
Agatha, as well as Mrs. Thornycroft, was so utterly astonished, that neither of them could make any observation. To give up the house, and all her dear home-visions! She was aghast at the idea.
"Bless me, what does your husband mean? Mr. Harper, what possible objection?"———
"None, except we have changed our plans. It is quite uncertain how long we may stay at Kingcombe Holm, or where we may go from thence."
"Not to America, surely? You would not break your word to poor dear Agatha?"
"I never break my word."
"Well, Mr. Harper, I declare I can't understand you," cried Emma, sharply. "I only hope that Agatha does. Is all this with your knowledge and consent, my poor child?"
She said this, eyeing the husband with doubt and the wife with curiosity, as if disposed to put herself in the breach between the two, if breach there were.
Agatha heard Nathanael's quick breathing—caught her friend's look of patronising compassion. Something of the dignity of marriage, the shame lest any third party should share or even witness aught that passes between those two who have now become one—awoke in the young girl's spirit. The feeling was partly pride, yet mingled with something far holier.
She put Emma gently aside.
"Whatever my husband's decision may be, I am quite satisfied therewith."
Mrs. Thornycroft was mute with amazement However, she was too good-natured to be really angry. "Certainly, you are the most extraordinary, incomprehensible young couple! But I can't stay to discuss the matter. Agatha, I shall see you to-morrow?"
"Yes; I will bring her to you to-morrow," said Mr. Harper, cheerfully, as their visitor departed.
The husband and wife regarded one another in silence. At last he said, taking her hand:
"I owe you thanks, Agatha, for"—
"For doing my duty. I hope I shall never forget that."
At the word "duty," so coldly uttered, Mr. Harper had let her hand fall He stood motionless, leaning against the marble chimney-piece, his face as white as the marble itself, and, in Agatha's fancy, as hard.
"Have you, then, quite decided against our taking the house?" she asked at length.
"I find it will be impossible."
"Why so? But I forget; it is useless to ask you questions."
He made no reply.
"Pardon my inquiry, but do you still keep to your plan of leaving next week for Dorsetshire?"
"If you are willing."
"I willing?" And she thought how, two hours before, she had rejoiced in the prospect of seeing her husband's ancestral home—her father-in-law—her new sisters. Her heart failed her—the poor girlish heart that as yet knew not either the world or itself. She burst into tears.
Instantly Mr. Harper caught her in his arms.
"Oh, Agatha, forgive me!—Have patience with me, and we may still be happy; at least, you may. Only trust your husband, and love him a little—a very little—as much as you can."
"How can I trust you, whom I do not thoroughly understand? how can I—love"—
Her hesitation—her pride warring with the expression of that feeling which her very anger taught her was there—seemed to pierce her husband to the soul.
"I see," he said, mournfully. "We are both punished, Agatha; I for the selfishness of my love towards you, and you—Alas! how can I make you happier, poor child?" Her tears fell still, but less with anger than emotion. "I know now, we ought never to have been married. Yet, since we are married"—
"Ay, since we are married, let us try to be good to one another, and bear with one another. I will!"
She kissed his hand, which held up her drooping head, and Nathanael pressed his lips on her forehead. So outward peace was made between them; but in sadness and in fear, like a compact sealed tremblingly over a newly-closed grave.
"And this is Dorsetshire! What a sharp bleak wind!" said Agatha, shivering.
Her husband, who was driving her in a phaeton which had met them at the railway station, turned to wrap a cloak round her.
"Except in the height of summer it is always cold across these moors. But we shall soon be safe at Kingcombe Holm. Are you very tired?"
She answered "No," which was hardly the truth. Yet her heart was more weary than her limbs.
During the few days that elapsed between Major Harper's visit and their quitting London, she had scarcely seen her husband. He had been out continually, coming home to dinner tired and exhausted, though afterwards he always tried to talk and be cheerful. To her surprise, Major Harper never again called, nor, except in the brief answer to her question, "that Frederick was gone from home," did Nathanael ever mention his brother's name.
"This is Kingcombe," said Mr. Harper, as they drove through a little town, which Agatha, half blinded by the wind, scarcely opened her eyes to look at. "My sister, Mrs. Dugdale, lives here. I thought they might have met us at the station; but the Dugdales are always late. Ah, there he is!"
"My brother-in-law, Marmaduke Dugdale—or 'Duke Dugdale,' as everybody about here calls him. Holloa, Duke!"
And Agatha, through her blue veil, "was ware," as old chronicles say, of a country-looking gentleman coming down the street in a mild, lazy, dreamy fashion, his hat pushed up at a considerable elevation from his forehead, leaving a mass of light hair straggling out at the back, his eyes bent thoughtfully on the pavement, and his hands crossed behind him.
"Holloa, Duke!" cried Nathanael, for the second time, before he caught the attention of this very abstracted personage.
"Eh—is it you? You don't say so! E—h!"
Agatha was amused by the long, sweet-sounding drawl of the last monosyllable, which seemed formed out of all the five vowels rolled into one. It was said in such a pleasant voice, with such a simple, child-like air of delighted astonishment, that Agatha, conquering her shyness at this first meeting with one of her husband's family, peeped behind Nathanael's shoulder at Mr. Dugdale.
She saw—what to her keen sense of beauty was a considerable shock—the very plainest man she thought she had ever beheld!
"Mr. Dugdale—my wife."
"Indeed! Very glad to see her." And Agatha who was intending merely to bow, felt her hand buried in another thrice its size, which gave it a shy, gentle, but thoroughly cordial shake. "And really, now I think of it, I was coming to meet you. The Missus told me to do it."
"How is 'the Missus?'" asked Mr. Harper.
"Quite well—they're all waiting for you. So make haste—the Squire is very particular as to time, you know!"
Nodding to them both with a smile which diffused such an extraordinary light over the uncomely face that Agatha was quite startled and began to reconsider her first impression regarding it,—"Duke" Dugdale turned to walk on; but just as the horse was starting, came back again.
"Nathanael, you are here just in time—general election coming. You're a Free-trader of course?"
"Why, I never thought much about the matter."
"Eh!—What a pity! But we'll convert you, and you shall convert your father. Ah, yes—I think we'll get the Squire on our side at last Good-bye."
"Who is 'the Missus' and who is 'the Squire'" asked Agatha, as they drove off.
"'The Missus' is his wife—my sister Harriet, and 'the Squire' is my father," said Nathanael, smiling. His face had worn a pleasant look ever since he caught sight of Duke Dugdale's. "When I first came home I was as much amused as yourself at these queer Dorsetshire phrases, but I like them now; they are so simple and patriarchal."
Agatha agreed; yet she could hardly help laughing. But though this brother-in-law of Mr. Harper's—and she suddenly remembered that he was her own brother-in-law too—used provincial words, and spoke with a slight accent, which she concluded was "Dorset,"—though his dress and appearance had an anti-Stultzified, innocent, country look, still there was something about Marmaduke Dugdale which bespoke him unmistakably the gentleman.
"I am glad we met him," said Mr. Harper, looking back down the street. "There he is, talking to a knot of people at the market-hall—farmers, no doubt, whom he will try to make Free-traders of, and who would listen to him affectionately, even if he tried to make them Mahometans. The good soul! There isn't a better man in all Dorsetshire."
It was evident that Nathanael greatly liked "Duke Dugdale."
Agatha would have asked a score of questions; about his age, which defied all guessing, and might have been anything from thirty to fifty-five—also about his "Missus," for he looked like a man who never could have made love, or thought of such a thing, in all his life. But her curiosity was restrained, partly by that of the old servant behind, who kept up a close though reverential observance of all the sayings and doings of "Ma-a-ester" Nathanael's wife. She did not like even accidentally to betray how very little of Kingcombe her reserved husband had told her, and how she knew scarcely more of his family than their names.
Having parted from his brother-in-law, and gradually lost the benign influence which Duke Dugdale seemed to impart, Mr. Harper's face re-assumed that gravity, almost sadness, which, except when talking with herself, his wife now continually saw it wear.
They drove on, pushing against a fierce wind, that appeared like an invisible iron barrier to intercept their way. Every now and then, Agatha could not help shivering and creeping closer to her husband; whenever she did so, he always turned round and wrapped her up with most sedulous care.
"It is a dreary day for you to see our county for the first time, Agatha. If the sun were shining, these wide bleak sweeps of country would look all purple with heather, and that dun-coloured, gloomy range of hills;—we must call them hills out of compliment, though they are so small—would stand out in a clear line against the sky. Beyond them lies the British Channel, with its grand sea-coast."
"The sea—ah! always the sea."
"Nay, dear, don't be afraid, how don't'ee—as we Dorset people would say. Kingcombe Holm lies in a valley. You would never know you were so near the ocean. It is the same at Anne Valery's house."
"Where is that!" said Agatha, brightening up at the mention of the name.
"Why, this animal seems inclined to show me—even if I did not know it of long habit," answered Mr. Harper, bestowing a little less of his attention on his wife, and more on the obstreporous pony, who, in regard to a certain turn of the road, had grown peculiarly wrong-headed.
"Don't'ee give in, sir! T'Squire bought he o' Miss Valery, and she do gi' un their own way, terrible bad," hinted the groom.
"Unfortunately, his own way happens to be a wrong one," said Nathannael, quietly, as he drew the reins tighter, and set himself to do that which it takes a very firm man to do to conquer an obstinate and unruly horse. Agatha remembered what she had heard or read somewhere about such a case being no bad criterion of a man's character, "lose your temper, and you'll lose your beast," ay, and perhaps your own life into the bargain. She was considerably frightened, but she sat quite still, looking from the struggling animal to her husband, in whose fair face the colour had risen, while the boyish lips were set together with a will, fierce, rigid, and man-like. She could hardly take her eyes from him.