"No, no," he said recovering himself. "I have nothing to tell—But we are wasting time. Anne, it shall be as you say." And he drew a long hard breath. "Which of us had best write to my brother?"
Rising, he found out who had been behind him. He looked horrified.
"Agatha!—did you overhear me?"
The suspicion wounded her to the core. Her pride and sense of justice were alike roused.
"Have no fear, Mr. Harper," said she; "I shall not betray your secrets. I do not even comprehend them; except that I think it very wicked for brothers to be such enemies."
He made no answer.
"And," continued Agatha, growing bolder, as she was prone to do on the side of the mysteriously wronged, "I would have sent for Major Harper myself, had not your father seemed unwilling. But the eldest son ought to be here."
"He shall be—your husband will write," interposed Miss Valery.
The husband moved away. He had thoroughly frozen up again into the Nathanael of old, whose coldness jarred against every ardent impulse of Agatha's temperament—rousing, irritating her into opposition.
"There is no need for him to trouble himself. What was right to be done has luckily not waited for his doing it. Elizabeth herself informed her brother."
"This afternoon. I sent the letter myself to Mr. Trenchard's, where I found out he had been staying."
As Mrs. Harper said this, her husband's eyes literally glared.
"You knew where he was staying?—Agatha—Agatha?"
But Agatha's look was fixed on the door, to which her sisters-in-law had gathered hastily. There was a talking outside—a welcome as it seemed. She forgot everything except her sense of right and justice to one unwarrantably and unaccountably blamed.
"It is surely he," she cried, and ran eagerly forward.
The two brothers, elder and younger, stood confronting each other.
"Elizabeth sent for me—Elizabeth only showed me that kindness. Oh, it was very cruel of you all—you should have told me my father was dying."
It must have been a hard heart that could have closed itself altogether against Frederick Harper now.
He leant against the doorway, the miserable ghost of his gay self. Born only for summer weather, on him any real blast of remorse or misfortune fell suddenly, entirely, overthrowing the whole man.
"Elizabeth says it happened yesterday; and must have been because—because Grimes—Oh, God forgive me! it is I that have killed my father!"
Every one shrank back. None of his sisters understood what he meant; but the mere expression seemed to draw a line of demarcation between them and the self-convicted man. Agatha only approached him—she felt so very sorry for her old friend.
"You must not talk in this way, Major Harper. If you did vex him in any way, it is very sad; but he will forgive you now. You cannot have done any real harm to your father."
Her kind voice, her perfectly guileless manner, struck each of the brothers with various emotion. The eyes of both met on her face: Frederick dropped his, and groaned; Nathanael's brightened. For the first time he addressed his brother:
"Frederick, she is right; you must not talk thus. Compose yourself."
It was in vain; his easy temperament was plunged into depths of childish weakness. "Oh, what have I done? You said truly, it would kill him to hear that. And my heedlessness drove Grimes to go and tell him. Yes, your prophecy was true: I have been the disgrace of our house—the destruction of my father. What shall I do, Nathanael?"
And he held out his hands to his younger brother in the helplessness of despair.
"The first thing, Frederick, is for you to be silent Anne, take my sisters away; my brother and I have something to say to one another. What? no one will go? Then, brother, come with me."
The other rose mechanically; Agatha likewise. She began to put circumstances together, and guess darkly at what was amiss. Probably she herself had to do with it. She remembered in what strict honour the old Squire held the duty of a guardian, as he had shown in what he said about his own relation to Anne Valery. Perhaps some carelessness of his son's had caused her own loss of fortune. Yet that was not a thing to break his father's heart, or harden his brother's against him. Mere chance it must have been; ill-luck, or at the worst carelessness. There could not be any real dishonour in Major Harper. And after all what was money, when they could be so much happier without it? She determined to go to her husband and openly say so, telling all that had come to her knowledge of their secrets. They should no longer be angry with one another—if it were on her account.
So she followed after them, with her soft, noiseless step; and when the two brothers stood together in their father's deserted study, there she was between them.
"Agatha!" They both uttered her name—the elder in much confusion. He had seemed all along as though he could scarcely bear the sight of her innocent face.
"Don't send me away," she said, laying a hand on either. "I know I am a young ignorant thing, and you are wise men; but perhaps a straightforward girl may be as wise as you. Why are you angry with one another?"
Both looked uncomfortable. Major Harper tried to throw the question off.
"Are we angry with one another? Nay, I am sure"—
"Don't deceive me—this is no time for making pretences of any kind. What is this quarrel between you two?" And she turned from one to the other her fearless eyes.
Major Harper could not meet them; Nathanael did, calmly, but sorrowfully.
"Agatha, I cannot tell you."
"But I can tell you; and I will, for it is right. Major Harper, do not be unhappy. Believe me, I care not one jot for all the money I ever had. If you have lost it, I am sure it was accidentally. You would not wilfully wrong me of a straw."
Again Major Harper groaned. Nathanael stood speechless with amazement. At length he said, very gently:
"How did you find this out, Agatha?"
"Mr. Grimes told me."
"Was that all he told?"
Major Harper looked relieved. Nathanael watched him sternly. After a while he said:
"Frederick, this is the right time to explain all. Do not start; you need not fear me; in any case I shall hold to my promise. But if you would explain—for my sake, for others' sake"—
The other shrank away. "No, not now," he whispered; "oh! brother, not now. Give me a little time. Don't disgrace me before her—before them all."
Nathanael's stature rose. Without again speaking, he shook his brother's hand from off his shoulder with a gesture, slight yet full of meaning, and turned towards Agatha. He seemed to yearn over her, though he checked every expression of feeling except the softness of his voice.
"I am glad you have found out we are poor—that in some things my wife may see I have not been so cruel to her as she thought."
Agatha's cheeks crimsoned with emotion. Why—why were they not alone that she need not have smothered it down, and stood so quiet that he believed she did not feel? He went on, rather more sadly:
"But this is not a time to talk of our own affairs; you shall know all ere long. Will you be content until then?" And he held out his hand.
She took it, looking eagerly into his face. There was something there so intrinsically noble and true! Though his conduct yet seemed strange—unreasonable towards her, harsh towards his brother, still, in defiance of all, there was that in his countenance which compelled faith. And there was that in her own heart, a something neither reason nor conviction, but transcending both, which leaped to him as through intervening darkness light leaps to light. She felt that she must believe in her husband.
He seemed partly to understand this, and smiled—a pale, faint smile, that quickly vanished.
"Now, Agatha," he said, opening the door for her, "go and see how my father is, and then you must go to bed. I will sit up with him to-night. I cannot have my poor wife killing herself with watching."
His voice sunk tenderly; he even put out his hand, as if to stroke her hair after his old habit, but drew it back—Major Harper was looking on. Again the dark fire, lit so fatally on his marriage-day, and since then sometimes fiercely raging, sometimes smothered down to a mere spark, yet never wholly extinguished, rose up in the young man's strong, self-contained, strangely silent heart. Would his pride never let it burst forth, that, mingling with the common air, it might burn itself to nothingness! But how many a whole life has been tortured and consumed by just such a little flame, a mere spark, let fall by some evil tongue which is set on fire of hell.
While they paused—the wife waiting, she knew not for what, except that it seemed so easy to follow and so hard to quit her husband—there was a cry heard on the staircase at the foot of which they stood. Mrs. Dugdale came running down in terror.
"Nathanael—Agatha—I have told my father that Fred is here. Oh, come to him, do come!"
No time for pitiful earthly passions, jealousies, and regrets. Nathanael ran quick as lightning, his wife following. But at the door of the sick-room even she recoiled.
The old man sat up in bed, raised on pillows; either the paralysis had not been so entire as was at first supposed, or he had slightly recovered from it. His right arm moved feebly; his tongue was loosed, though only in a half-intelligible jabber. But his countenance showed that, however lay the miserable body, the poor old man was in his right mind. Alas! that mind was not at peace, not lighted with the holy glow cast on the dying by the world to come, It was filled with rage and torment.
Nathanael ran to him, "Father, father, you will destroy yourself. What is it you want?"
The answer was unintelligible to his son, but Agatha gathered from it that the chamber-door was to be shut and bolted. She did so; yet even then the sick man's fury scarce abated. Broken words—curses that the helpless lips refused to ratify; terrible outbursts of wrath, mingled with the piteous moan of senility. Last of all came the name, once given proudly by the young father to his first-born, and now gasped out with maledictions from the same father's dying lips—"Frederick."
Nathanael and Agatha looked at one another with horror. They both knew that the old Squire was bent on driving from his death-bed his own, his first-born son.
Agatha instinctively held down the palsied hands, which were trying to lift themselves towards heaven—not in prayers!
"Father, don't say—don't even think such terrible things. Whatever he has done, forgive him!—for the love of God, forgive him!"
The old man regarded her, and his excitement seemed redoubled. Agatha fancied it was the father's pride, dreading lest she, a stranger, knew the cause of his anger.
"No, no!" she cried, "I scarcely understand anything; my husband would not tell me. Whatever has happened can all be hushed up. We would forgive anything to a brother—oh, would we not?" And she appealed to Nathanael, who stood motionless, great drops lying on his forehead, though his features were so still.
"It is true, father," he whispered. "No one knows anything but me, and I have kept your honour safe that he might redeem it some time. Perhaps he may. And remember, he is your son—the first-born of his mother. Hush, Agatha!" Nathanael continued, as he saw a sudden change come over the old man's face. "Don't say any more now. Leave me to talk with my father."
With the grave tenderness that he always showed her, he took his wife by the hand, led her to the door, and closed it. Greatly moved, yet feeling satisfied he would do what was right, Agatha obeyed and went down-stairs.
The sisters and brother were assembled in the study. Marmaduke was there too, but took little part in the family lamentation, except in keeping a perpetual tender watch over the grief of his own Harrie. Anne Valery was absent.
Frederick Harper sat apart. A sullen gloom had succeeded to his misery—with him no feeling ever lasted long, at least in the same form. Harriet and Eulalie were inspecting with great curiosity their elder brother, whose presence among his long-estranged household seemed accompanied with such a mysterious discomfort. They eyed him doubtfully, as if he had done something very wrong that nobody knew of. Mary only, who was next eldest to himself, ventured to address some kind words, and bestir herself about his comfort.
Thus the family sat, Agatha among them, for more than an hour. No one thought of going to bed. All remained together, in a strangely quiet, subdued state, Major Harper being with them all the time, though he hardly spoke, or they to him. He seemed a stranger in his father's house.
Once when he had gone for a few minutes to Elizabeth's room—he had been with Elizabeth long before his coming was known to any of the rest, it was believed—Mary began in her lengthy wandering way to tell anecdotes of his boyish doings; how handsome he was, and how naughty too; and how, when he got into disgrace, she, by the scheming of Elizabeth, used secretly to carry bread-and-honey and apples to his bedroom. And she wiped her eyes, the good, plain-looking sister Mary, saying over and over again,
"Poor Fred!" She never thought of him, like the world, as "Major Frederick Harper," but only as "Poor Fred!"
Several times Agatha stole up-stairs to the door of the room which enclosed the sorrow-mystery of the house. It was always shut, but she could hear Nathanael's voice within—his soft, kind voice, talking quietly by the bedside.
"I never see anything like 'un," said the coachman's wife, who sat without the door. "He do manage th' Squire just as the poor dear Missus did. He do talk just like his mother." And that was evidently the perfection of everything in the old woman's eyes.
Agatha sat down beside her on the staircase, listening to the wind without, that swept fiercely over the hollow in which Kingcombe Holm lay, as if ready to bear away on its pinions a departing soul. It was an awful night to die in. Agatha listened, sensitive to every one of its terrors. But above them all—above the shadow of coming death, fear of the future, anxiety in the present—rose one thought—the thought of her husband.
It gave her no pain—it gave her no joy—yet there it was, a visible image sitting strong and calm in the half-lighted chamber of her heart, every feeling of which crept to its feet and lay there, like priestesses in the twilight before a veiled god.
Nathanael at last opened the door. He looked like one who has struggled and conquered not only with things without, but things within. His face had all the pallor, but likewise all the peace of victory. Agatha rose to meet him.
"Have you been waiting for me this long while? Good child!" And he smiled, but solemnly, as with an inward sense of the Presence which makes all things equal—softens all asperities and calms all passions.
"Do you know where my brother is?" asked Nathanael.
"Down-stairs, with the rest."
"Will you go and fetch him?"
Agatha looked up at her husband half incredulously. "Have you then succeeded? Is all made right?"
"Oh, how good—how good you are!" She grasped his hands and kissed them, her eyes floating in tears; then, lest he should be displeased, ran quickly away.
Miss Valery met her at the stairhead, coming from the gallery where were Elizabeth's rooms. They exchanged the usual question, "How is he now?" and then Agatha said:
"Be glad with me! I am sent to fetch Major Harper."
Anne pressed her hand. "Go and tell him. He is with Elizabeth."
And there Agatha found him overcome with grief—the gay, handsome Major Harper! steadfast neither in good nor evil. He sat, his head bent, his hair falling disordered, its greyness showing, oh! so plain. Plainer still were the wrinkles which a life of smiles had carved only the deeper round the mouth—token of how near upon him was creeping a desolate unhonoured age. By his side, talking softly, with his hand in hers, lay the crippled sister, perhaps the only living creature who really loved him.
"Major Harper," Agatha spoke softly, laying her hand upon his shoulder. The poor broken-down man, dropping into old age! there was no fear of his thinking she was in love with him now.
"Well, what do you want?"
"I am sent to fetch you to your father."
He looked incredulous;—Agatha repeated her message.
"My husband sent me. Your father wishes very much to see you. Come."
"Elizabeth!" He turned to her as if she could make him understand this incomprehensible news.
Elizabeth clasped his hand and loosed it. She said nothing, but Agatha saw she was weeping for joy. Her brother rose and went through the long gallery they passed, his sister-in-law carrying the light, and leading him. He had quite forgotten his courteous manners now. Agatha thought of the days in London—when he had escorted her to operas, and murmured over her in drawing-rooms, making her so happy and honoured in his notice. Poor Major Harper! How vain were all the shows of his brilliant life, the men who had courted him, the women who had flattered and admired him! Agatha forgave him all his follies—ay even all the hearts he had broken. There was not one of those poor hearts, not one, on which he could rest his tired head now!
At the door of their father's room Nathanael met him, a new and more righteous Jacob dealing with a more desolate Esau. And like Esau's was the cry that broke from Frederick Harper as he went in and flung himself on his knees by the bed.
"Bless me—even me also—O' my father."
There was no answer. The words of forgiveness were denied his hearing. The old Squire could but look at his son, and move his lips in an articulate murmur.
Agatha ran to Major Harper's side. It was pitiful to see the shock he had received, and the frenzied way in which he called upon his father to speak—if only one word.
"He cannot speak, you know, but he does indeed forgive you. Be sure that he forgives you!"
Her husband drew her away to the little curtained alcove which had been Mrs. Harper's dressing-room. There they stood, close together—for Nathanael did not let her go, and she clung to him in tears—while the father and son had their reconciliation.
It was silent throughout, for after the first burst, Major Harper was not heard to speak. Now and then came a sound like the smothered sob of a boy. No one saw the faces of father and son; they were bent together, just as when, years upon years ago, the proud father had sometimes condescended to let his baby son, his first-born and heir, go to sleep upon his shoulder.
Thus, after many minutes, Nathanael found them lying.
He held the curtain aside to see his father's countenance; it was very peaceful now, though with a dimness gathering in the open eyes. Agatha had never before seen that look—the unmistakable shadow of death. She shrank back, trembling violently. Her husband put his arm round her.
"Do not be afraid, my child," he whispered, using the old word and tone. She rested on him, and was quieted.
"I think we had better call them all in now."
"Shall I fetch them?" said his wife, and went out, flitting once more through the still, ghostly house. But she thought of her husband, of his last word and look, and had no fear.
They came in, all that were now living of the old man's children—save one—the poor Elizabeth. They stood round the bed, a full circle, his two sons, his three daughters, his son-in-law and daughter-in-law, and lastly Anne Valery. She was the palest and most serene of all.
Thus for an hour or more they waited—so slow was the last closing of the long-drawn-out life. There was no pain or struggle; merely the ebbing away of breath. The palsied hands, white and beautiful to the last, lay smooth on the counterpane; and when occasionally one or other of his daughters knelt down and kissed him, the old man feebly smiled. But whenever he opened his eyes, they travelled no farther than to the face of his eldest son—rested there, brightened and closed.
And thus, lying quietly in the midst of his children, at daybreak the old Squire died.
The old man was gathered to his fathers.
It was the day after that on which he had been borne to the place appointed for all living. A new coffin rested beside that of Catherine Harper in the family vault; the portrait still smiled, but on an empty bed. There was no separation now.
At Kingcombe Holm the house had awakened from its sleep of mourning; the shutters were opened, and the sunshine came in familiarly on the familiar rooms—where was missed the presence of him who had abided there for threescore years and ten. But what were they? Counted only as "labour and sorrow"—they had all passed away, and he was gone.
The family met—a large table circle. They looked melancholy, all in their weeds, but otherwise were as usual. A certain gravity and under-tone in speaking alone remained. Mary had again begun to busy herself over her housekeeping; and Eulalie, looking prettier than ever in her black dress, was listening with satisfaction to the Reverend Mr. Thorpe, a worthy, simple young man, who had come at once to pay the family of his affianced the respect of attending the funeral, and to plan another ceremony, when the decent term of mourning should be expired.
Major Harper, now recovering something of his old elasticity of manner, took the place at the foot of the breakfast-table, whence Mary, presiding as usual, cast over to him glances sometimes of pride, sometimes of doubtful curiosity, as if speculating on what sort of a ruler the future head of the house would be.
A very courteous and graceful one, most surely!—to judge by the way in which he was doing the agreeable to his sister-in-law. Quite harmlessly, only it seemed as necessary for Major Harper to warm himself in the fair looks of some woman or other, as for a drenched butterfly to dry its wings in the sunshine. He was indeed a poor helpless human butterfly, not made for cloudy weather, storm, or night!
But he fluttered in vain; Agatha took no notice of him whatsoever. Her whole nature had deepened down to other things—things far beneath the shallow ken of Major Harper.
During this week, when the numerous duties of the brothers of the family left its womenkind nearly alone, shut up in the house of mourning, with nothing outwardly to do or to think of beyond the fold of crape or a gown, or the make of a bonnet—Agatha had learnt strange secrets. They were not of Death, but of Love.
She had seen very little of her husband. Either by necessity or design, he had been almost constantly away; at Thornhurst, arranging business for Miss Valery, who had gone home; sometimes at Kingcombe, in his own house—his lonely house; and for two days and nights, to the astonishment and slight scandal of his sisters, he had been absent in Cornwall. But wherever he was, or whatever he had to do, he either saw or wrote to his wife every day; kind, grave words, or kinder letters; brother-like in their wisdom and tenderness—just the sort of tenderness that he seemed to believe she would wish for from him.
Agatha accepted all—these brief meetings—these constant letters; saw the wounding curiosity of his sisters relax, and even Harriet Dugdale acknowledged how mistaken had been her former notions, and on what excellent terms her brother and his wife now evidently were; she really never thought Nathanael would have made such an attentive, affectionate husband! And Agatha smiled outwardly a proud satisfied smile; while inwardly—-oh, what a crushed, remorseful, passionate heart was there!
A heart which now began to know itself—at once its fulness and its cravings. A heart thirsting for that love, wanting which, marriage is but a dead corrupting body without the soul—love, the true life-union, consisting of oneness of spirit, sympathy, thought, and will—love which would have been the same had they lived twenty thousand miles apart, ay, had they never married at all, but waited until eternity united those whom no earthly destinies could altogether put asunder. Now out of her own soul she learnt—what not one human being in a million learns, and yet the truth remains the same—the unity, the immortality, the divineness of Love, to which the One Immortal and Divine gave His own name.
She sat in her usual quiet mood, she did everything in such a quiet, self-contained fashion now—sat, idly talked to by Major Harper, whom she did not hear at all. She only heard, at the further end of the table, Nathanael talking to Mary. Sometimes she stole a glance, and thought how cordial his manner to his sister was, and how tender his eyes could look at times. And she sighed. At her sigh, her husband would turn, see her listening to Frederick with that absent downcast look—and become silent.
Not an angry jealous silence now—his whole manner showed how much he honoured and trusted his wife—but the hush of a deep, abiding pain, a sense of loss which nothing could ever reveal or remove.
But men must keep up worldly duties; it is only women, and not all of these, who can afford the luxury of a broken heart. Mr. Harper rose, nerved for the day's task—a painful one, as all the family knew. The elder brother had shrunk from it, and it had been left to Nathanael, who in all things was now the thinker and the doer. The impression of this had fixed itself outwardly, effacing the last remnant of his boyish looks. As he stood leaning over Mary, Agatha thought he had already the aspect of middle age.
"It will not take me long, Mary, since you say my father kept his papers in such order. Probably I shall have done by the time the Dugdales come. You are quite sure there was a will?"
"Quite sure; you will probably find it in the cabinet. I saw him looking there the very afternoon of the day he died. I was calling him to dinner, but his back was turned, and I could not make him understand—poor father!"
Mary's eyes filled, but the younger brother said a few kind words, and her grief ceased The rest were silent and serious, until Nathanael, going away, addressed Frederick rather formally. All speech between them, though smooth, was invariably formal and rare.
"You are satisfied to leave this duty in my hands?—you do not wish to share it?"
"Oh, no, no!" hurriedly answered the other, walking away in the sunny window-seat, and breathing its freshness eagerly, as if to drive away the bare thought of death and the grave.
Nathanael went out—but ere he had closed the door a little hand touched him.
"What do you want, Agatha?"
"I should like to go with you, if you would allow—that is, if you would not forbid me."
"Forbid you? Nay! But"—
"I want—not to interrupt you, or share any family secrets—but just to sit near you in the room. This is such a strange, dreary house now!" And she shivered.
Her husband sighed. "Poor child—such a child to be in the midst of us and our trouble! Come with me if you will." And he took her into the study.
No one had been there since the father died; directly afterwards some careful hand had locked the door, and brought the key to Nathanael; and it was the only room in the house whose window, undarkened, had met during all that week the eye of day. It felt close with sunshine and want of air. Mr. Harper opened the casement, and placed an arm-chair beside it, where Agatha might look out on the chrysanthemum bed, and the tall evergreen, where a robin sat singing. He pointed out both to her, as if wishing to fortify her with a sense of life and cheerfulness, and then sat down to the gloomy task of looking over his father's papers.
They were very few—at least those left open in the desk; merely accounts of the estate, kept with brevity and with much apparent labour; sixty years ago literature, nay, education, were at a low ebb among English country gentlemen. But all the papers were so carefully arranged, that Nathanael had nothing to do but to glance over them and tie them up—simple yearly records of the just life and honest dealings of a good man, who transferred unencumbered to his children the trust left by his ancestors.
"I think," said Nathanael—breaking the dreary silence—"I think there never was one of the Harper line who lived a long life so stainlessly, so honourably, as my father."
And somehow, as he tied up the packets, his finger slightly trembled. Agatha came and stood by him.
"Let me help you; I have ready hands."
"But why should I make use of them?"
"Have you not a right?" she said, smiling.
"Nay, I never claim as a right anything which is not freely given."
"But I give it. It pleases me to help you," said Agatha, in a low tone, afraid of her own voice. She took the papers from him, and tried to make herself busy, in her innocent way. It cheered her.
Nathanael watched her for a minute. "You are very neat-handed, Agatha, and it is kind of you to help me."
"Oh, I would help any one." Foolish, thoughtless words! He said no more, but went and looked over the cabinet.
This was a sadder duty. There were letters extending over more than a half century. The Squire received so few that he seemed never to have burnt one. The oldest—fifty years old—were love-letters, of the time when people wrote love-letters beginning "Honoured Miss," and "Dear and respected Sir," overlaying the plain heart-truth with no sentimentalisms of the pen. The signatures, "Catherine Grey," and "Nathanael Harper," in round, formal, girl and boy hand, told how young they were when this correspondence began;—young still, when its sudden ceasing showed that courtship had become marriage. From that time, for nearly twenty years, there was scarcely a letter signed Catharine Harper.
"This looks," said Agatha, who unconsciously to both had come to stand by her husband and share in his task—"this looks as if they were so rarely parted that they had no need for letter-writing."
"It was so: I believe my father and mother lived very happily together."
"I should like to read these letters all through, if I might? They are the only love-letters I ever saw."
"Are they, indeed?"
The sharp questioning look startled Agatha. She remembered that first letter of Nathanael's—perhaps he was vexed that she had apparently forgotten it—the letter which had been such a solemn epoch in her young life. She coloured vividly and painfully.
"I mean—that is"—
Her husband looked another way. "You shall have these letters if you so much desire it."
"Thank you. I would like to keep something of your mother's. And she was indeed so happy in her marriage?"
"Very happy, Anne Valery says. My father's was not a perfect temper, but she understood him thoroughly, and he trusted her. He had need; he knew—what is a rare thing in marriage now-a-days—that he had been his wife's first love."
Agatha made no reply, and the conversation dropped.
Next to Mrs. Harper's letters, and preserved with almost equal care, was another packet. It began with a child's scrawl—double-lined, upright and stiff:
"My dear Father,
"Uncle Brian has ruled me this paper, and ruled Anne another. We are all very merry at Weymouth. We don't want to come home, except to see"—(here a word, apparently "ponies" had been carefully altered, by a more delicate hand, into something like "Papa")—"Anne's love, and everybody's, from your dutiful son,
"'Frederick?'—I thought the letter was yours."
"No, if he had kept any it was sure to be my brothers. Frederick must have them back."
"Let me tie them up," said Agatha stretching out her hand.
"No—no—are they so very precious? Why do you want to touch them?" said he, sharply, drawing them out of her reach.
"Only that I might help you."
Mr. Harper regarded her a moment, and then put back the letters into her lap. "Forgive me, I did not mean to be cross with you. But this task confuses me."
He leaned his elbow on the cabinet, covering his eyes, and stood thus for two or three minutes. Agatha remained silent—who could have intruded on the emotion of a son at such a time? None but a wife who could have stolen into his heart with a closer, dearer claim, and she, alas! she dared not. Weeks ago—when she believed herself wronged—it would have been far easier. The higher he rose, the lower she sank, weighed down by the bitter humility that always comes with fervent love. She watched him—her heart throbbing, bursting, yearning to cast itself at his feet—yet she dared not.
"Now let us look over some other letters. I wonder whether Mary was right, and it is here we shall find the will!"
He, then, was only thinking of letters and wills! Agatha turned away, and went to sit by the window and watch the chrysanthemums.
At last she was attracted back by her husband's voice.
"This is the will, I see, by the endorsement. Take it, Agatha; we will not touch it till the Dugdales come. And here are more letters to my father. Do you think I ought to burn them or look them over first?"
The confidential tone in which he spoke soothed Agatha. It was a sort of tacit acknowledgment of her wifely rights to his trust.
"I think, suppose you look them over"—
"I cannot," said he, wearily. "Will you?" And he gave her a handful in her lap. Agatha felt pleased; she thanked him, and turned them over one by one.
"Here is a hand which looks like Miss Valery's."
"It is hers. Set them by."
She opened another, in a careless and very illegible hand, which she could not recognise at all:
"My dear Brother,
"The approaching marriage in your family, of which you inform me, unfortunately cannot alter my plans. I must recover my lost fortunes abroad.
"Frederick told me yesterday his certainty of being accepted by Miss Valery. He might have told me sooner, but perhaps thought me too much of a crusty old bachelor to sympathise with his felicity. Possibly I am.
"You ask if Anne has communicated to me the coming change in her life? No.
"Farewell, brother, and God bless you and yours.
"B. L. H."
"Why, this is Uncle Brian!" cried Agatha, giving the letter to her husband. He read it, laid it aside without comment, and sat thinking. She did the same. Turning, their eyes met; and they understood each other's thoughts, but apparently neither liked to speak. At last Nathanael said:
"It must have been so, though I never guessed it before."
"But I did, though she never openly told me."
"Well, it is a strange world!" mused the young man. "Poor Uncle Brian!"
"When do you expect him home?"
"Any day, every day. Thank God!"
"Did you not think she seemed a little better yesterday," said Agatha hesitatingly. "Just a very little, you know."
"A little better; is she ill? What, very ill?"—Agatha's mute answer was enough. "Oh, poor, poor Anne! And he is coming home!"
"Perhaps," said Agatha, shocked to see her husband's emotion—"perhaps if we take great care, and she is very happy,—people must live when they are happy"—
"Few would live at all then," was the answer, unwontedly bitter. "Better not—better not; poor Anne! It is a hard, cruel, miserable world."
"Why do you say that, Nathanael?"
He started, and Agatha too, for opening the door, with a bright, clear look, was she of whom they were just talking—Anne Valery.
"I knew I might come in. I heard what you were doing here," and a slight sadness crossed her face. "Is it all done, now?"
"Nearly," and Mrs. Harper hurriedly folded the letter, which lay still on her lap. Miss Valery's eye caught the writing; Nathanael gave it to her.
Anne read it; at first with a natural womanly feeling—nay, even agitation. Soon this ceased, absorbed in the infinite peace and content of her whole mien. "I knew all this long ago," she said calmly. "It was a—a mistake of Frederick's."—Then, still calmly; "What do you think I have just heard from Marmaduke!—He"—there could be but one she meant—"he has safely landed at Havre."
"Uncle Brian!" the young people both cried, and then instinctively repressed the joy. It seemed too sacred to be expressed in ordinary fashion. And passing naturally from one thought to another, Nathanael glanced round the room; the unused desk, the scattered papers left to be examined by the unfamiliar hands of a younger generation. Had the absent one come but a little sooner! "Alas!" he said, "it seems as if the world's universal sorrow lay in those words, 'Too late.'"
Miss Valery sank on a chair, her temporary strength departing. Her hands dropped into that fold that was peculiar and habitual to them—a simple attitude, not unlike Chantrey's "Resignation."
"You speak truly, Nathanael. But 'our times are in His hand.'"
She said no more, and shortly Mr. Harper, taking with him the sealed packet that was endorsed "My Will" led the way to where the family were assembled. In doing so there grew over him the hard silence always visible when he was much affected. But Agatha was not surprised or hurt: she began to understand him better now.
In the dining-room were only the immediate family. Every one knew the probable purport of the will, and how simple a document it was likely to be; for the patriarchal old Squire hated the very mention of law, and it had been his pride that, though not entailed, the inheritance of Kingcombe Holm had descended for centuries unbroken by a single legal squabble. Therefore they all waited indifferently, merely to go through a necessary form; Harriet Dugdale and her husband, Eulalie and her fiance, and the solitary Mary. Major Harper alone was rather restless, especially when the three others came in from the study. It was noticeable that, with all his smooth manner, Frederick never seemed quite at ease in the presence of Miss Valery. Nevertheless he tried, and successfully, to assume his position as elder brother and present head of the family. He gave Anne a gracious welcome.
"I scarcely expected you would have honoured us so far. This is entirely a family meeting."
"Shall I leave?"
"Oh, no," cried everybody at once, "Anne is so thoroughly one of the family."
"Certainly," responded Major Harper, bowing though his brows were knit. He waited till Anne took her seat, and then sat down, silent. Many changes, vivid, and various, passed over his flexible mouth. At last, leaning forward, he hid it with his hand. There was a brief hush in the men, of solemnity—in the women, of mourning. More than one tear splashed on the black dress of the tender-hearted Mary.
Nathanael stood—the will in his hand—hesitating.
"It seems to me, that as this is a family meeting, we might—not necessarily, but still out of kindness and respect—postpone it for a few days, that the only remaining member of the family may be present."
"Who is that?" said the elder brother.
One or two voices, especially the Dugdales, seconded this, and eagerly proposed to wait for Uncle Brian.
"Impossible!" Major Harper said, hastily. "I have engagements. I cannot wait for any one."
"Nathanael—don't argue. Remember, I am the elder brother. Give me my father's will." Nathanael paused a moment, and gave it. "The seal has been broken and re-fastened," Frederick added, breaking it with rather nervous hands. He tried to glance over it, but his eyes wandered unsteadily. "There, take it and read. I hate business."
And he threw himself back in his seat, which happened to be the old Squire's especial chair. Agatha thought it was thoughtless of him to use it.
Nathanael read the will aloud. It was dated ten years back, and was in the Squire's own hand, drawn up simply, but with perfect clearness. The division of fortune was as they all expected: a moderate funded sum to each of the daughters and to Nathanael; the estate, with all real and personal property, to go to the eldest son. There were a few small bequests to servants, and one gift of the late Mrs. Harper's jewels.
"I meant them," the old man wrote, "for my eldest son's wife. Disappointed in this, I leave them to Anne Valery."
Major Harper moved restlessly in his chair. Anne sat quiet. The young Agatha looked at them, and wondered if people grew callous as they grew old.
"Is it all read?" said Frederick.
"Yes. Stay, here are a few lines; a codicil, I fancy, affixed with seals to the body of the will I can hardly make it out."
And as Mr. Harper perused it, his wife observed his countenance change. He let the paper drop, and sat silent.
"What is it? Read,", cried Harrie Dugdale.
"I cannot—Anne, will you? God knows, brothers and sisters"—and he looked all round the circle with an eagerly appealing gaze—"God knows I never knew or dreamed of this. Anne, read."
"Shall I read, Major Harper?"
He was gazing out of the window with an absent air. At the sound of her voice he started, and gave some mechanical assent.
Anne read the date—of only twelve days back.
"That was the very day that he was taken ill, you know," whispered Mary.
The codicil began:
"I, Nathanael Harper, being in sound mind and body, do hereby make my last will and testament, utterly revoking all others, in so far as relates to my two sons. I leave to my younger son, Nathanael Locke Harper, all my landed, real, and personal estate, praying that he may long live and maintain our name in honour at Kingcombe Holm. To my eldest son—having no desire to expose to ruin the family estate, or link the family name with more dishonour than it already bears—to my eldest son, Frederick Harper, I leave the sum of One Shilling."
Anne's reading ceased. Dead silence, utter, frightened silence, followed. Then arose a chorus of women's voices—"Oh, Frederick!—oh, Frederick!"
Frederick rose, feebly smiling. "It is a mistake—all a mistake. My father was not in his right mind."
The sisterly tide turned. "Oh, hush, Frederick! How wicked of you to say so!"
"Well read it over again," said Marmaduke Dugdale, waking up into the interests of the world around him. Anne gave him the paper, and he read it with his ponderous, manly voice, rounding out every bitter word which Anne had softened down. All was undoubtedly legal, signed in his own hand, and witnessed by two of his servants. There could be no doubt it was done immediately before the paralytic attack, when he was perfectly in his senses; indeed, he could not be said ever to have lost them.
The family sat, awed by their father's deed; to question which never struck them for a moment—legal chicanery was not rife at Kingcombe Holm. They looked at the disinherited brother with a sort of shrinking wonder, as if he had done some great unknown wickedness. He might have sat there ever so long, conscience-stricken and stupified, but this family gaze stung him into violence.
"I say it is a cheat—how or by whom contrived I know not—but it is a cheat. My father loved me—the only one of you who ever did. If there was a coolness between us, he forgave me when he died. You all saw that."
There was no denying it. Every one remembered how the father's last dying look of love had been on his eldest son. Again the tide of family feeling changed. They threw doubtful glances towards Nathanael, except his wife. But she drew closer to him, and trembled and doubted no more.
He stood, meeting the eyes of all his family. In his aspect was great distress, but entire composure—not a shadow of hesitation or confusion. Nor, on the other hand, was there any triumph. When he spoke—they seemed expecting him to speak—his voice was low and steady:
"You know, brother, and all the rest of you know, that I have had no hand in this matter."
"I know nothing of the sort," cried Frederick. "I only know that I have been defrauded—disgraced.—Not by any act of my father's, or he would not lie quiet in his grave. My father always loved me." And the quick feeling natural to Major Harper made him hesitate—unable to proceed. But soon he continued, vehemently:
"I will find out this. Evil speakers, malicious, underhand hypocrites, have turned my father against me. I declare to Heaven that I never wronged any"—
Frederick stopped—interrupted not by words, for there was perfect silence—but by a certain quiet look of Anne Valery's, which fastened on his face. He turned crimson—he had so much of the woman in him, though of womanhood in its weakest form. He glanced from Miss Valery to Agatha, and then back again.
"Anne—Anne Valery, tell me do you know anything?"
"You—even you!" For the moment, he cowered in such emotion as was pitiful to see; but it passed and he grew desperate.
"I say, I will contest this will. It shall be proved invalid. My lawyer Grimes"—
"Mr. Grimes has been here, and is now gone to America," Anne whispered. "I urged and assisted him to go, that he should not throw disgrace on the family."
Again Frederick cowered down, then rose, goaded to the last degree. "Nevertheless, this will shall not stand. I will throw it into Chancery. I will leave for London this very day."
"Stay," said Nathanael, starting from deep thought, and intercepting him as he was quitting the room. "One word, Frederick."
"Not one! You are all against me, but I will brave you all. I will have my rights—ay, even if I plead my father's insanity."
"Oh, horrible!" cried his sisters.
"Frederick, you know that to be impossible," said Nathanael, sternly.
"Then I will plead what may prove a deeper disgrace to the family than madness, or even—what I am supposed to have done," catching his brother's arm, and hissing out the words in his face—"I will plead that the will is a forgery."
Nathanael wrenched away his hold, thereby throwing Frederick back almost to the floor. The two stood for a moment glaring at one another, in that deadly animosity, most deadly when it arises between brothers,—and then the younger recovered himself. It might be because, instantaneously as the struggle had begun and ended, he had heard a woman's cry of terror, and the name uttered was not "Frederick," but "Nathanael." Also, as he stood, he felt two little hands steal from behind and tighten over his own. He grew very calm then.
"Frederick, you must unsay that word. There are some things which a man cannot bear even from his brother. No doubt can exist that this is my father's own writing, and no forgery. You know that as well as I do."
"As well as you do! Exactly what I meant to observe," said Major Harper, with his keenest and politest sneer.
Nathanael moved back. A man's roused passions are always terrible; but there is something ten times more awful in fury that is altogether calm—molten down as it were to a white heat. Never but once—that uneffaceable once—had Agatha seen her husband look as he looked now.
"Pause one minute, Frederick. If you had waited and heard me speak"——
"I dare you to speak!"
"It would be better not to dare me. I am at my last ebb of patience. I have kept faithfully my promise to you. None of our family know—not even my own wife—all that is known by you and me, and our father whom we buried yesterday. I would have saved him from the knowledge if I could, but it was not to be. Now, take care. If you drive me to it"—
He hesitated. Agatha felt his hand—the thin boyish hand—grow cold as ice and rigid as iron. She uttered a faint cry.
"Agatha, my wife," with the old sweetness in the whisper, "go and sit down. Leave me to reason with my brother."
"No, let me do that," said one coming between. It was Anne Valery.
She had risen from the chair where, during almost all this time, she had sat like a statue, only none watched her, not even Agatha. When she rose, it was with a motion so slow and gliding, her soft black dress scarcely rustling as she moved, that Frederick Harper might well start, thinking a supernatural touch was on his arm.
"Anne, is it you? I had forgotten you. No"—he muttered, half to himself, turning from the contest with his brother to gaze on her—"no, I never did—never do forget you."
"I believe that. Come and speak to me here."
Unresisted, she put her arm in his, and led him away to the deep bay-window, circled with a low-cushioned sill, such as delights children. Anne sat down.
"Are you determined on this cruel course?"
"I must recover my rights," was the sullen answer. "Any man would."
"And when you have done this—supposing it practicable—what further do you purpose?"
"What further?" He looked puzzled, but at last perceived her meaning. With an impulse eagerly caught, as Major Harper caught all impulses, good and ill, he cried—"Yes, I understand you. My first act, on coming to my property shall be to right poor Agatha."
"I thought so," said Anne, kindly. "But you will not be able. There are others whose claims will be upon you the instant you have money to satisfy them—the shareholders. They know nothing of Agatha Bowen. Remember you expended her fortune as you worked the mine—in your own name."
Major Harper looked confounded with shame. "And you knew all this, Anne—you! For how long?"
"For some months—ever since I bought Wheal Caroline."
"And you never betrayed me!"
"We were playfellows, Frederick." She spoke softly, and turned her face to the other side of the bay-window.
He forgot she was old now—he remembered only the familiar voice and attitude, the same as when in her girlish days she used to sit on the cushioned window-sill and talk with him for hours.
"Playfellows! Was that all, Anne? Only playfellows?"
"Only playfellows," she repeated firmly. "Never anything more. You knew that always." And, perhaps unconsciously, Anne looked down on a ring—plain, not unlike a childish keepsake—which she always wore on the wedding-finger of her left hand.
Major Harper sighed, not one of his sentimental sighs, but one from the deeps of his heart. A smile, hollow and sad, followed it. "I suppose it is idle talking now, but—but—you were my first-love, Anne! If things had gone differently, I might have been a different man."
"Not so. God ordained your fate, not I. No man need be ruined for life because a woman cannot love him. Human beings hang not on one another in that blind way. We have each an individual soul; on another soul may rest all its hopes and joys, but on God only rests its worth, its duties, and its nobility. We may live to do His work, and rejoice therein, long after we have forgotten the very sound of that idle word—happiness."
"Go on; you talk as you always used to do."
"Not quite," said Anne, with a faint smile; "I am hardly strong enough. Frederick," and her eyes had their former lovely, earnest look—earnest almost to tears, save that girl-tears had from them long been dried,—"Frederick, for the sake of our olden days—of your mother whom we both loved—of your father who has gone to her—listen to me for a little. Trust to your brother—he will not act unjustly. Do not create dissensions in your family; do not let people say that the moment Mr. Harper's head was laid in the grave his children quarrelled over his property."
"I do not quarrel—I but take my right," cried Major Harper, becoming again the "man of the world," as he saw, the curious glances that from time to time reached the bay-window. "Thank you for this good advice; for which my brother owes you even more than I. But I am not a child now, nor a boy in love, to be talked over by a woman."
Miss Valery rose, rather proudly. "Nor am I that woman, Major Harper. But I have been so long united in affection with your family; I could not bear to think it would be brought to dishonour. Surely—surely you will not be the one to do it."
Again as he turned to go, she drew him back by those earnest eyes.
"Frederick, it would grieve me so, ay, break my heart, to see them brought into open shame, the old familiar home, and the name—the dear, dear name."
Major Harper's bitter tongue burst its control and stung. "I now see your motive. Everybody knows how very dearly Anne Valery has all her life loved the Harper name."
Anne rose to her full height, and a blush, vivid as a girl's, dyed her cheek. "I have," she said—"I have loved it, and I am not ashamed."
The blush paled—she sank back on the window-sill. Major Harper was alarmed.
"Anne—how ill you look! What have I done to you?"
"Nothing," she answered; and, catching his arm, drew herself upright once more.
"Frederick, we were children together, and you loved me; some day you will remember that. Afterwards we grew up young people, and, still thinking you loved me—but it was only vanity then—you did me a great wrong; I will not say how, or when, or why, and no one knows the fact save me—but you did it. You did the same wrong to another lately."
"You said to Mrs. Thornycroft—you see I have learnt all, for I wrote and asked her—you said that you 'feared' poor little Agatha loved you, and"—
"I know—I know."
"You know, too, that vanity misled you; that it was not true. But it was a wicked thing to say; trifling with a woman's honour—torturing those who loved her—bringing on her worlds of suffering. Still, she is young, and her suffering may end in joy;—mine"—
Anne paused; the human nature struggled hard within her breast—she was not quite old yet. At length it calmed down—that last anguished cry of the soul against its appointed destiny.
She took her old playmate by the hand, saying gently,
"I am going away soon—going home. Before I go, I would like to say, as I used to do when you were unkind to me as a child, 'Good-night, and I forgive Fred everything.'"
"Oh, Anne—Anne." He kissed her hand in strong emotion.
"Hush! I cannot talk more," she went on quickly. "You will do as I ask? You will wait until—until"—
She stopped speaking, and put her handkerchief to her lips. Slowly, slowly, red drops shone through its folds. Major Harper called wildly for his sisters.
"I knew how it would be," cried Mary Harper. "It has happened twice before, and Doctor Mason said if it happened again"—
"Oh, God forgive me!" groaned Frederick, as his brother carried Anne Valery away. "She will die—and I shall have killed her!"
Anne Valery did not die. Agatha had said she would not; and the young heart's creed was true. It had its foundation in a higher law than that of physical suffering.
After a few days she was able to be moved to her own house, according to her earnest desire; after a few more, the energy of her mind seemed to put miraculous strength into her feeble body.
"I knew you would get well," said Agatha joyfully, as she watched her patient returning to ordinary household ways; only lying down a little more than Anne was used to do, and speaking seldom and low always, for fear of the bleeding at the lungs. "I knew you must get well, but I never saw anybody get well so fast as you."
"I had need," Anne answered. "I have so much to do."
"That you always have. What a busy rich life—rich in the best sense—yours has been! How unlike mine!"
"I hope so—in many things," said Anne, to herself. "But I must not speak much. I talked my last talk with poor Frederick in the bay-window. Where is Frederick?"
"He has been riding up and down the country day after day—he seems to find no rest."
Anne looked sorry. "And we are so quiet here!"
It was indeed very quiet, that sombre house at Thorn-hurst, through whose wintry rooms no one wandered but Agatha, excepting the old, attached servants. Yet this was of her own will. She had been jealous that any one should attempt to nurse Anne but herself. She left even her own home to do it. Yet—the bitter thought followed her ever—this last was small renunciation. No one would miss her there!
During the days when Miss Valery lay ill, the world without had been shut from Agatha's view. Woman-like, she lived within the four walls and beside the sick couch, and had only seen her husband for a few minutes each day, when, though he talked to her only of Anne, his manner had a soft, reverent tenderness, and a troubled humility, as if he began to see a different image in his young wife. She was different, and he too. Neither knew how or when the change came—but it was there.
She did so miss him, when, having taken them safe to Thornhurst, and told her "that she might stay there as long as Anne needed her, but no longer"—ah, that happy "but!"—he went away to his own little house at Kingcombe, and busied himself there for three days.
"Do you think Nathanael will come and see us this morning?" said Anne, looking up from the papers with which she was occupied, towards Agatha, who stood at the window watching down the road.
"Did you want my husband!"
"Oh, no! I can do my business myself now. But I think he will come."
"Why do you think so?"
"Why?—Child, come here." And as Agatha knelt by the sofa, Miss Valery leaned over her, twisting her curls and stroking down the lids over her brown eyes in the babyish, fondling ways which all good people can condescend to at times, especially when recovering from sickness.
"She is a foolish child! Did she fancy nobody loved her? Did she think everybody believed she was wicked (and so she was, now and then, very wicked). Does she suppose nobody sees her poor little goodnesses? Oh, but they do! They will find all out without my telling. It is best to leave things alone."
"You must not speak; it will do you harm."
"Not thus whispering. Nay, lay the head down again. Imagine it only a little bird in the air talking to my child. Some kind of characters—I once knew the like well!"—and Anne's whisper came through a half sigh—"are very proud and jealous over the thing they love. They cannot bear a breath to rest on it, or to go from it to any other than themselves. They are very silent, too; would die rather than complain. They are strong-willed and secret—and as for persuading them to anything against their will, you might as well attempt to cleave with your little hand to the heart of a great oak. You must shine over it, and rain softly on it, and cling close round it, and it will take you into its arms, and support you safe, and hang you all round with beautiful leaves. But you must always remember that it is a noble forest-oak, and that you are only its dews, or its sunshine, or its ivy garland. You must never attempt to come between it and the skies."
Anne ceased. Agatha looked up with moistened eyelids.
"I understand; I will try—if you will stay with me. I cannot do anything right without you."
Anne smiled. "Poor little Agatha! Not even with the help of her husband?"
"My husband! Oh, teach me to be a good wife, such a wife as you would have been—as you may be"—
Agatha felt a soft finger closing her lips, and knew that on that subject there must still be, as ever, total silence. She hid her face, and obeyed.
At length Miss Valery started. "There is a horse coming down the road, I think. Go, look. It may be your husband."
Agatha rose, and ran to the window.
Anne half rose too. "I fancy I hear two horses. Is anybody with Nathanael?"
"Only Mr. Dugdale."
"Ah! well!" There was the slightest possible compression of eyelids and mouth, and Anne resumed her place again. "It is very kind of Marmaduke."
The visitors came in softly. Duke Dugdale was the kindest, gentlest soul to any one that was ill—wise as a doctor, merry as a child. But now—though he strove to hide it—his countenance was overcast.
"It's no use, Anne," he said, after a brief greeting, during which he felt her pulse in quite a professional way, and pronounced it "stronger—much stronger—and too quick almost."
"What is of no use?"
"Brian Harper won't come home! All his abominable, con—yes, I'll out with it—his confounded pride." And Duke tried to look very savage, but couldn't manage it.
"Where is he?"
"Somewhere near Havre; we can't make out where. He will not write. Ask Nathanael."
"I am afraid it is too true," said Nathanael, leaving his wife, to whom he had been talking by the window. "I shall have to hunt him out, and use all my persuasions before he will come home; because he is too proud to return poor as he went out. What shall I say to him, Anne? I shall start to-morrow."
Agatha turned quickly round. Her husband did not see her anxious look—he was watching Miss Valery.
"Tell him, Nathanael, that his brother is dead, and his presence needed in the family. Once make him understand that it is right to come, and he will come. No one was ever more able to do or to suffer for the right, than Brian Harper."
Marmaduke shook her hand heartily. "Anne, you are as wise as a man, and as faithful as a woman. If poor Brian were going to be hanged for murder, I do believe-his old friend would find a good word to say for him!"
"Well," said Nathanael, after a silence, "I shall go to Havre to-morrow. You can spare me, Anne? And for my wife"—
Agatha hung her head. A vague dread smote her. She would have given worlds to have courage enough to beg him not to go.
"Havre is across the sea," she murmured. "Surely Uncle Brian would come home in time, if you waited."
Waited! she caught a sight of Anne's bent profile, marble-like, with the shut eyes. Waited!
Agatha crept to her husband's side. "No—no waiting," she whispered. "Go. I would not keep you back an hour. Bring him. Quick—quick."
Could Anne have heard, that she wakened up into such a life-like smile? "No, dear, you must not send your husband away so hastily. Let him sail from Southampton to-morrow; that will do. He wants to talk to you to-day."
Nathanael looked surprised. "It is true, I did; and I told my brother to meet me here this afternoon. Did you know that too?"
"I guessed it. You are doing right, quite right. I knew you would. I knew you, Nathanael."
She held out her hand to him, warmly.
"Dear Anne! But you forget—it is not I only who have to do it."
"Not a word! Go and tell her all. Let her be the first to hear it. Away with you! the sun is coming out. Run and talk in the garden-alleys, children!"
Her manner, so playful, yet full of keen penetration, drove them away like a battery of sunbeams.
"What does she mean?" said Agatha, looking up puzzled, as they stood in the hall.
"She reads people's minds wonderfully clear; she always did, but clearer than ever now. It is strange. Agatha, do you think"—
"I think all sorts of things about her—different and contrary every hour. But the chief thought of all is, that you must go to Havre at once. I long for Uncle Brian's coming. How soon can you return?"
"As soon as practicable, you may be sure of that. But you must relax your interest even in Uncle Brian just now; I want to talk to you. Shall we go, as Anne said, into the garden-alleys?"
"Anywhere that is sunny and warm," said Agatha, with a light shiver. Her husband regarded her with that serious pathetic smile which was one of his frequent moods.
"Must you always have sunshine, Agatha? Could you not walk a little while in the shade? Not if I were with you?"
She cast her eyes down, trembling with a vague apprehension of ill; then gazed in the kind face that grew kinder and dearer every day. She put her hand in her husband's without speaking a word. He folded it up close, the soft little hand, and looked pleased.
"Come now, let us go into the garden."
Agatha wrapped a shawl about her, gipsy-fashion, and met him there. It was one of those mild days that sometimes come near upon Christmas, as if the year had repented itself, and just before dying, was dreaming of its lost springtide. The arbutus-trees were glistening with sunshine, and under the high wall a row of camellias, grown in great bushes in the open air, the pride of Anne's gardener and of the whole county of Dorset, were beginning to show buds, red, white, and variegated, as beautiful as summer roses.
"I used to be so fond of this walk when I was a little lad," said Nathanael, "I remember, after I had the scarlet-fever, being nursed well here; and how every day when my brother came, he used to carry me up and down this sunny walk on his back. Poor Fred! he was the kindest fellow to children."
"Kindness seems his nature. I think that if your brother did any harm it would never be through malice or intention, but only weakness of character."
"I perceive," Mr. Harper said, abruptly—"you have no bitter feeling against my brother Frederick."
"How could I? He never did me wrong. Except, perhaps, it was his carelessness that made me poor." Here Agatha hesitated, for she was touching upon a dangerous subject—one so fraught with present emotion and with references to past suffering, that hitherto both husband and wife had by tacit consent abstained from it. There had been no confidential talk of any kind between them.
"Go on," her husband said; "we must speak of these things some time; why not now?"
"Though he made me poor," she continued, "it was probably through accident. And I have no fear of poverty"—how simply and ignorantly she pronounced that terrible word!—"I do not mind it in the least, if you do not."
"Was there any need for that if, Agatha?"
"No," she replied, and was silent. Shame and remorse gathered over her like a cloud. She thought of those wicked words she had spoken—words which to this day he had neither answered nor revenged. He had even suffered the smooth surface of daily kindnesses to grow over that gaping wound of division. Was it there still? Did he remember it? Could she dare to allude to it, if only to implore him to forgive her? She would in a little time—perhaps when they were by themselves in their own house, when she would throw herself at his knees and weep out a confession that was beyond all words—words could but insult him the more. There are some wounds that can only be healed by love and silence.
"I think it is time," said the husband—"full time that you heard all, or nearly all, connected with this painful matter. It is mere business, which I will try to make intelligible if possible. You ought not to be quite so ignorant of worldly matters as you are, since, if anything happened to me—But I have provided against almost everything."
"What are you talking of?" said Agatha, holding him tight, with a faint intuition of his meaning.
"Of nothing painful. Do not be afraid. Only that I think it right to explain to you what has occurred to us since our marriage—in worldly things I mean."
"Yes. I am listening."
"Before we married," he continued, distinctly, and rather proudly, "I knew nothing whatever of your fortune—not even its amount. I made no inquiries, interfered in no way, except reading the settlement I signed. The settlement stated that your property was safe in the Funds. This was a"—his brow darkened—"it was—not true. The whole had been taken out, contrary to your father's expressed will, and embarked in a mining speculation in Cornwall."
"Those miners whom Miss Valery aided? Was it my money that was wasted at Wheal Caroline? Was it me from whom the poor miner came to seek redress?"
"No; the transaction was more blameable even than that. It was all carried on in my brother's name. He was made what they call 'managing director' of the company: Grimes being solicitor. There were a few shareholders—his clients—widows and unmarried women who had put by their savings, and such like poor people who wanted large interest, and some richer ones, important enough to make public their ruin—for everybody lost all."
"But the poorer shareholders—the widows—the old maids?"
"Ay, there's the pity—there's the wickedness," said Nathanael, beneath his breath. "People tell me such things are common in England, but I would have starved rather than have been mixed up in such a transaction, even in the smallest way, and with property that was bona fide my own."
"And," said Agatha, slowly understanding, "this property was not Major Harper's own. Also, his doing the thing secretly afterwards, and leading you to believe what was—not quite true. I must say it, I think it was very wrong of your brother."
"Don't let us talk of him more than we can help. Remember—a brother, Agatha!"
More light dawning on his strange conduct, his self-command, his secrecy even with her. His wife clung to his arm, her heart brimming with emotion that she dared not pour out. For he seemed inclined to be reserved even now.
"You see," he added, as they walked along, "I have had some few things to try me."
Agatha pressed his arm. Oh that she could break through that awe of him and his goodness, that shame of her own foolish erring self!
"Agatha," he said, stopping suddenly, "the thing that hurt me was my father. If only he had died a month ago, and never heard of this!"
If only now Agatha could speak! But she felt choking. They walked past the windows and looked in. "There is Anne sitting by herself as she used to sit, watching Fred and me in the garden. He was such a handsome, gay young man. I felt so proud of being his little brother. And my poor father—he had not a hope in the world that did not rest on Frederick."
He walked on rapidly back into the shadiest and darkest walk. There he stopped. "Agatha," taking both her hands, and reading her features closely—"Agatha, would you be very unhappy if we went back and lived, poor, in the little cottage?"
"I would try that you should not be. I can earn quite enough to give you many comforts. We should not be any more content if we claimed our rights and lived in prosperity at Kingcombe Holm."
"Besides, I am not sure that these are our rights, morally speaking. I think, if my father had lived long enough, he would have undone what he did in a moment of passion, and let the first will stand. This is what I have said to myself, when considering that I have duties towards my wife as well as towards others, and that this would restore what was taken from her. 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' But, Agatha, we would not urge that law?"
"Never! God forbid! And Major Harper was so kind to me when I was an orphan."
"Only kind? Did he never—No, I am getting foolish. Say on, Agatha. Come, sit here; we can talk, and nobody can see or hear us." And he led his wife to a sheltered arbutus-bower. "Well, was my brother so kind to you?"
"He was, indeed. For the sake of that time I would forgive him anything; I have already forgiven him a good deal."
"Indeed? Tell me or not, as you choose; I urge no right to pry into your secrets."
"Oh, don't look, don't speak in that way! Why should I not tell you? I would have told you before, had you asked. It was nothing—indeed nothing. But I was a proud girl, and he made me angry with him."
"For what cause?"
She grew confused—hesitated; the shamefacedness of girlhood came over her. "I will tell you," she said at last boldly. "It is surely no harm to tell anything to my husband:—Major Harper once said to Emma Thornycroft, that he thought I was 'in love' with him."
"It was cruel, it was wicked, it insulted my pride. And more than that—it wounded me to the heart that he should say so."
"Was it—don't speak if you don't like—was it true?"
"No," cried Agatha, the blood rushing in a torrent over her face. "No, it was not true. I liked, I admired him, in a free girlish way; but I never, never loved him."
There was a minute's hush in the arbutus-bower, and then Nathanael sank down to his wife's side—down, lower yet, to her very feet. He wrapped his arms round her waist, laying his head in her lap. His whole frame shook convulsively.
"Oh Heaven! You surely did not think that?" cried Agatha, appalled.
"I did, ever since the day we were married. I heard him say so in the church.—He repeated it to me afterwards.—And it was a lie! Curse"—
"No, no, forgive him!" And Agatha sobbed on her husband's neck, clasped by him as she never thought he would clasp her in this world.
At last he rose, pale and sad. "There is other forgiveness needed. I have been very cruel to you, Agatha. I had made him a promise, and to it I sacrificed myself and you too, without remorse. But now you see how it was. I could have judged my brother that I loved; I dared not slay my enemy."
The only answer was a soft hand-pressure.
"I hardly know what I am about, Agatha,—not even whether or no my wife loves me; she did not when we were first married, I fear?"
Agatha drooped her head.
"Never mind, she shall love me yet; I am quite fearless now." He stood up, holding her tight in his arms, as if daring the whole world to wrest her from him. His whole aspect was changed. It was like the breaking up of an Arctic winter, when the trees bud, and the rivers pour sounding down, and the sun bursts out, reigning gloriously. For a long time they remained thus, clasped together, so motionless that the little robin of the arbutus-trees hopped on to a bough near them and began a song.
"We must go in now," said Agatha.
"Ay; we must not forget Anne, or anybody. One can do so much good when one is happy!"
"I feel so." She rose, hanging on his arm, but trembling still, almost frightened by the insanity of his joy, whirled dizzily in the torrent of his overwhelming love.
"You understand now what I had to say to you! You can guess how I mean to act as regards my brother?"
"I think I can."
"And you will give your consent? Without it I would have done nothing. I would not have taken from my wife these worldly goods, and left her only me and my love, unless she willed it so."
"I do will it."
"God bless her." He lifted Agatha from her feet, rocking her in his arms like a baby. "I always said God bless her! even when I was most wretched—most mad. I knew she was one of His angels—a woman worthy of all love, though she had none for me. I was not very cruel to her, was I?"
"I will never be cruel to her any more. I will smother down all my pride, my reserve, the horrible suspiciousness which is rooted in my nature. I will never doubt or wound her—only love her—only love her."
Breathless, Agatha trembled to her feet again. Her husband stood by her side—calmer now, and radiant in the beauty of his youth. Manly as he was, there was something about him which could only be expressed by the word "beautiful"—a something that, be he ever so old, would keep up his boyish likeness—his look of "the angel Gabriel."
"Let us go into the house now."
They went—those two young hearts thrilling and bounding with life and joy—into the darkening house, the hushed presence of Anne Valery.
She was lying on her sofa, very still and death-like. The white cap tied under her chin, the hands folded—the perfect silence in and about the room—it was like as if she had lain down to rest, calmly and alone, in her solitary house, and in her sleep the spirit had flown away;—away into the glorious company of angels and archangels, never to be alone any more.
But it was not so. Hearing footsteps, Anne opened her eyes, and roused herself quickly. She looked from one to the other of the young people—at the first glance she seemed to understand all A great joy flashed across her; but she said nothing. She as well as they were long used to that peculiarity of nature—which especially belonged to the Harper family—a conviction of the uselessness of talk and the sacredness of silence.
"Has my brother arrived?" said Nathanael.
"Marmaduke is gone?"
"Yes; he wanted to get up a Free-trade dinner for the welcoming"—here she smiled—"of one whom he says all Dorset will be delighted to welcome—your Uncle Brian. Worthy Duke! It is his hobby, and one likes to indulge him in it."
"Most certainly. And where is the dinner—Uncle Brian's grand dinner—to take place?"
"I persuaded him to change it into a public meeting, and give the clay-cutters—many of them Mr. Locke Harper's former people, and some now old and poor—a New Year's feast instead. You will see to that, Nathanael?" And she laid her hand on his arm with rather more earnestness than the simple request warranted.
Nathanael assented hastily, and spoke of something else.
"I am rather sorry I asked my brother to meet me here; I forgot he has not been to Thornhurst for so many years."
"It is time then that he came," said Anne, gently. "I shall be very glad to see him."
While she was speaking, her old servant entered, with the announcement of "Major Harper."
Just the Major Harper of old—well-dressed, courtly, with his singularly handsome face, and his short dark moustache, sufficient to mark the military gentleman without degrading him into the puppy; Major Harper with his habitual good-natured smile and faultless bearing, so gracefully welcomed, so gaily familiar in London drawing-rooms.—But here?—
He paused at the door, glanced hastily round the old familiar room, with the known pictures hanging on the walls, and the windows opening on the straight alley of arbutus-trees. His smile grew rather meaningless—he hesitated.
"Will you come to this chair near me? I am very glad to see you, Major Harper."
"Thank you, Miss Valery."
He crossed the room to her sofa, Nathanael making way for him. He just acknowledged his brother's presence and Agatha's, then took Miss Valery's extended hand, bowing over it with an attempt at his former grace.
"I hope I find your health quite re-established? This change to your own pleasant house—pleasant as ever, I see"—he once more glanced round it—paused—then altogether broke down. "It seems but a day since we were children, Anne," he said, in a faltering voice.
Agatha and her husband moved away. They respected the one real feeling which had outlasted all his sentimentalism. For several minutes they stood at the far window apart. When Anne called them back, Major Harper had recovered himself, and was sitting by her.
"Nathanael, our old friend here says you wished to speak with me?"
"Make haste, then, for I am going to London to-night I have made up my mind. I cannot settle here in Dorsetshire."
"Not if it were your father's wish—his last longing desire?"
"Anne, for God's sake don't speak of my father." He leant his elbow on the table and covered his eyes.
Nathanael and Agatha exchanged looks, then both smiled—the happy smile of a clear conscience and a heart at rest. "Tell him now," whispered the wife to her husband.
Major Harper lifted up his head.
"My elder brother!" And Nathanael offered the hand of peace, which, in spite of all outward and necessary association, neither had offered or grasped since Frederick's return to Dorset.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that you are my elder brother—my father's favourite always. If he had lingered but another day he would doubtless have proved that, and have done—what I intend to do, just as if he had himself accomplished it. Do you understand me?"
"No!" And Major Harper looked thoroughly amazed.
"Do you see this? which you, either from forgetfulness, or trust in me—I had rather believe the latter—left in my hands on that day." And he drew from his pocket the will which had been read. "You spoke of throwing it into Chancery, and there would be scope for a century of Chancery business here. But I choose rather to respect the honour and unity of the family. Therefore, with my wife's entire consent in her presence, Anne's and yours, I here do what my father, had he lived, would certainly have done."
He took up the codicil, separated it from the will to which it was fastened by seals, and quietly, as if it had been a fragment of worthless paper, put it into the fire.
"Now, Frederick, the original will stands."
Frederick sat motionless. He seemed hardly to believe the evidence of his own eyes. He watched the curling, crackling paper with a sort of childish curiosity. When at last it was completely destroyed, he shut his eyes with a great sigh of satisfaction.
Miss Valery softly touched him. "Major Harper, every brother would not have acted thus."
"No, indeed. Just Heavens, no!" he cried, as the whole fact burst on him, touching his impressible nature to the quick. "My dear Nathanael! My dear Agatha! God bless you both."
He wrung their hands fervently, and walked to the window, strongly affected. The husband and wife remained silent. Anne Valery lay on her sofa, and smoothed her thin fingers one over the other with a soft, inward smile.
"How nobly you both act towards me! and I—how have I acted towards you?" said the elder brother, in deep and real compunction. "I would give half I possess to undo what has been done, and all through my cursed folly and weakness. Do you know that I have lost every penny of your fortune, Agatha?"
"Mr. Grimes told me so lately."
"What, only lately? Did you not know before? Did not your husband"—
"No," she cried, eagerly. "My husband never betrayed you, even by a single word. I am glad he did not. I had far rather he had broken my heart than his own honour."
Anne turned to look at the young face, flushed with feeling; and her own, caught something of the glow, though still she spoke not.
"But," said Major Harper, eagerly, addressing his sister-in-law—for Nathanael sat in one of those passive moods which those who knew him well alone could interpret—"but my honour must not be broken either. I must redeem all I lost; and I will, to the very last farthing. Only wait a little, and you shall have no cause to blame me, my poor Agatha!"
"Nay, rich Agatha," was the murmur that Nathanael heard, as two little hands came from behind and alit on his shoulders, like two soft white doves. He caught them, and rose contented, cheerful and brave.
"No, Frederick, you must dismiss that idea. It is untenable, at least for a long time. My wife and I are going to play at poverty." He smiled, and drew her nearer to him.
"Besides," said Miss Valery, putting in her quiet voice, to which every one always listened now, "I think there are perhaps stronger claims than Agatha's on Major Harper."
"Indeed? Anne, tell me what I can do. Anything," he added, much moved, "so that my old friends may think well of me. Speak!"
She did so, raising herself, though with some exertion, and re-assuming the sensible, straightforward, business-like ways which through her long life of solitary independence had caused Anne Valery to be often called, as Duke Dugdale called her, "such a wise woman!"
"I should like very much to see all things settled in the Harper family. Your sisters are provided for; Eulalie will be married next year; and you will keep Mary and Elizabeth always with you at Kingcombe Holm. Promise that, Frederick."
He assented most energetically.
"There is no need to fear for these," looking affectionately at Nathanael and his wife. "Work is good for young people; and I—or others—will always see that they have work enough supplied to bring in wherewithal to keep the wolf from their door. For the present, they are a great deal better poor than rich."
"Thank you, prudent Miss Valery," said Nathanael laughing.
She responded cheerfully, and then turning to Major Harper, went on with seriousness:
"In other instances, much suffering has been caused by your means; and I would not have it said that any suffered through the Harper family. I have done what I could to prevent this. Matters are mending at Wheal Caroline. Nathanael tells me I shall have—that is, there will be—a fine flax-harvest there next year."
Speaking of "next year," Anne's voice faltered, but the momentary feebleness passed.
"Still, there is one thing, Frederick, which nobody can do but you; and it is necessary not only to save yourself but to redeem the honour of your house. It will not cost you much—only a few years' retrenchment, living with your sisters at Kingcombe Holm."
Again Major Harper protested there was nothing in the world he would not do for the sake of virtue, and Anne Valery. She drew her desk to her, and gave him paper and pen.
"Write here, that you will pay gradually to certain shareholders I know of, the money they lost through trust in your name, and in that of the family. It is hardly a legal claim, or if it be, they are too poor to urge it—but I hold it as a bond of honour. Will you do this, Frederick? Then I shall be happy, knowing there is not a single stain on the Harper name."
In speaking, she had risen and come beside him, looking faded, wan, and old, now that she stood upright, in her black dress, and close cap. Her beauty was altogether of the past, but the moral influence remained.
Frederick Harper took the pen, hesitated, and laid it down. "I do not know what to write."
Anne wrote for him a few plain words, such as a man of honour must inevitably hold as binding. He watched idly the movement of the hand that wrote, and the written lines.
"You have the same slender fingers, Anne, and your writing looks just as it used to do," he said, in a subdued voice.
"Sign!—It is like witnessing a will," said Major Harper, laughing.
"I wish you to consider it so," returned Anne, in a low voice. "Consider it my last will—my last desire, which you promise to fulfil for me?"
He looked at her, took the pen, and signed, his hand trembling; then kissed hers.
"Anne, you know, you were my first love."
The words—said half jesting, yet with a certain mourn-fulness—were scarcely out of his lips, than he had quitted the room. They soon heard the clatter of his horse along the avenue. Major Harper was gone out into the busy world again. He never set foot in quiet Thornhurst more.
The three that were left behind breathed freer—perhaps they would hardly have acknowledged it, but it was so.
"Well, now it is all done," said Nathanael, as he drew closer to the sofa where Anne lay—with Agatha performing all sorts of little unnoticed cares about her. "And now I must think about going."
No one asked him where, but Agatha glancing out of the window, thought, with a shiver, of the dreadful sea curving over into boundlessness from behind those hills.
"I find I must start at once," he continued, "if I would catch the next boat to Havre. It sails from Southampton to-morrow morning. I have just time to ride back to Kingcombe and catch the mail train. No, I'll not let you come home with me," he added, answering a timid look of Agatha's, which seemed to ask, should she come and help him? "No, dear, I can help myself—such a useful-handed fellow doesn't want a wife even to pack up for him. And, possibly, if you were with me, I should only find it the harder to go. It is rather hard."
"But it is right"
"I think," said Anne—they had not known she was listening—"I think it is right, or I would not let Nathanael go. And Heaven will take care of him, and bring him safe home to you, Agatha. Be content."
"I was content," she said, somewhat lightly. It was a strange thing, but yet human nature, that her husband's fits of passionate tenderness only seemed to make her own feelings grow calm. Whether it was the shyness of her girlhood, or the variableness of a love not spontaneous but slowly responsive, or whether—a feeling wrong, yet alas! wondrously natural—it was the mere wilfulness of a woman who knows herself to be infinitely beloved, certain it was that Agatha appeared not quite the same as a few hours before. Affectionate still, and happy, happier than it is the nature of deep love to be; yet there was a something wanting—some strong stroke to cleave her heart, and show beyond all doubt what lay at its core. The heart often needs such teaching; and if so, surely—most surely it will come.
Agatha followed her husband to the hall. He was grave with his leave-taking of Anne Valery, who had looked less cheerful, and had breathed rather than spoken the last "God bless you!—Come back soon." The young man did not again say, even to himself, anything about his journey being "hard."
But as he stood in the hall with his wife, he lingered. Youth is youth, and love is love, and each seems so real—life's only reality while it lasts. No human being, while drinking the magic cup, ever looks or listens to those who have drank, and set it down empty. Be the history ever so sad, each one thinks, smiling, "Oh, but I shall be happier than these."
Nathanael took his wife in his arms to bid her good-bye. She stood, looking down; bashful, reserved, but so fair! And so good likewise—all her girlish whims could not hide her heart-goodness. In her whole demeanour was the germ of that noble womanhood which every good man wishes his wife to possess, that she may become his heart of hearts, the desired and honoured of his soul, and remain such, long after all passion dies. There was one thing only wanting in her—the light which played waveringly in and out—sometimes flashing so true and warm and bright, and then disappearing into clouds and mist. The husband could not catch it—not though his eyes were thirsting for the blessed ray.
"These few days will seem a long time, Agatha."
Nathanael took the smiling face between his hands, and looked down, far down, into the brown depths of her eyes.
"Do you"—He hesitated. "I never asked the question before, knowing it vain; but now, when I am going away—when"—
He paused, the deep passion quivering through his voice.—"Do you love me, Agatha?"
She smiled—some insane, wicked influence must have been upon her—but she smiled, hung her head in childish fashion, and whispered, "I don't quite know."
"Well—well!" He sighed, and after a brief silence bade her good-bye, kissed her once, and went towards the door.
"Ah—don't go yet. I was very foolish. I never, never can be half so wise as you. Forgive me."
"Forgive you, my child? Ay, anything." And he received her as she ran into his arms, kissing her again tenderly, with a sad earnestness that almost increased his love.
"Now I must go, my darling wife. Take care of yourself, and good-bye."
So they parted. Agatha went in dry-eyed; then locked herself in the library, and cried violently and long.
"They are sure to be home to-morrow; nothing can prevent their being home to-morrow," said Agatha, as she read over neither for the first time, nor the second, nor the third, her husband's letter, received from Havre.
It was night now, and they were sitting by the fire in Miss Valery's dressing-room. It had been one of Anne's best days; a wonderfully good day; she had walked about the house, and given several orders to her delighted servants, who, old as they were, would have obeyed the most onerous commands for the pleasure of seeing their mistress strong enough to give them. Some, however, wondered why she should be so particular about the order of a house that never was in disorder, and especially why various furniture arrangements which had gradually in the course of time been altered, should be pertinaciously restored, so that all things might look just as they did years and years ago. Also, though it was a few days in advance of the orthodox day, she would have the house adorned with "Christmas," until it looked a perfect bower.
"It do seem, Mrs. Harper," said the old housekeeper, confidentially—"it do seem just as on the last merry Christmas, afore the family was broke up, and Mr. Frederick turned soldier, and Mr. Locke Harper—that's his uncle—went away with little Master Nathanael, Mr. Locke Harper as is now."
And Agatha had laughed very heartily at the idea of her husband being "little Master Nathanael;" but she had not told this conversation to Anne Valery.
All afternoon the house had been oppressively lively, thanks to a visit from the Dugdale children; which little elves were sent out of the way while their mother performed the not unnecessary duty of putting her establishment in order. For Harrie was determined that her house, and none other, should have the honour of receiving Uncle Brian. As Nathanael had taken for granted the same thing, and as Mary Harper had likewise communicated her opinion, that it was against all etiquette for her poor father's only brother to be welcomed anywhere but at Kingcombe Holm, there seemed likely to be a tolerable family fight over the possession of the said Uncle Brian.