Miss Betsey had expected to see him thin and worn, but she was not prepared for the white, wasted face, which turned so wistfully to her, or for the expression of the dark eyes so like her brother Hugh, Archie's father. Hugh had been her favorite brother, the one nearest her age, with whom she had played and romped in the old garden at Stoneleigh. He had been with her at Monte Carlo when her lover was brought to her dead, and in the frightened face which had looked at her then there was the same look which she saw now in Neil, as he came slowly forward. She had expected a dandy, with enough of invalidism about him to make him interesting to himself at least; but she saw a broken, sorry young man, as far removed from dandyism as it was possible for Neil to be, and she felt herself melting at once.
He was her own flesh and blood, nearer to her even than Bessie; he was sick; he was subdued; he had crossed as a second-class passenger, and this went further toward reconciling her to him than anything he could have done.
"Why Neil, my boy," she said, as she took both his hands, "I am sorry to see you so weak. Sit down; don't try to stand; or rather, lie down, and I will sit beside you."
She arranged his pillows and made him lie down again, he protesting the while, and saying, with a faint smile:
"It hardly seems right for a great hulking fellow like me to be lying here, but I am very tired and weak," and in proof thereof the perspiration came out in great drops upon his forehead and hands, and about his pallid lips.
Miss Betsey did not talk long with him that night, but when she left him she promised to come again next day and bring him some wine, which she had made herself, and which was sure to do him good.
"Sleep well to-night, and you will be better to-morrow," she said.
But Neil did not sleep well, and he was not better on the morrow, and for many days he kept his room, seeming to take little interest in anything around him, except Bessie. At sight of her he always brightened and made an effort to be cheerful and to talk, but nothing she could do availed to arouse him from his state of apathy.
"All life and hope have gone out of me," he said to her one day, "and I sometimes wonder what has become of that finefied swell I used to know as Neil McPherson. I never felt this more, I think, than the day I hesitated before paying my penny for a chair in the park because I did not know as I could afford it. That was the time I saw Blanche go by in her grand carriage, where I might have sat, I suppose; but I preferred my hired chair, and sent no regret after her and her ten thousand a year. I saw Jack, too, that day; did I tell you? He stumbled upon me, and I think would have offered me money if he had dared. I am glad he did not. He was staying in London, at Langham's, and Flossie was with him. I did not see her, but he told me of her, and of his twin boys, Jack and Giles, whom Flossie calls 'Jack and Gill.' Roguish little bears he said they were, with all their mother's Irish in them, even to her brogue. He has grown stout with years, and seemed very happy, as he deserves to be. Everybody is happy, but myself; everybody of some use, while I am a mere leech, a sponge, a nonenitity in everybody's way, and I often wish I were dead. Nobody would miss me. Don't interrupt me, please," he continued, as he saw Bessie about to speak. "Don't interrupt me, and do not misunderstand me. I know you and Grey would be sorry just at first, but you have each other, and you have your children. You could not miss me long, or be sorry except for my wasted life. No, Bessie. I would far rather die, and I think I shall."
This was Neil's state of mind, and nothing could rouse him from it until one day in August when Miss Betsey drove over to Stoneleigh Cottage, and went up to his room, where he sat as usual by the window looking out upon the plateau, where Bessie's children were frolicking with their nurse. Of late he had evinced some interest in the children, and once or twice had had them in his room, and had held Baby Bessie on his knee and kissed her fat hands, and the boy Neil, who saw everything, had said to his mother, in speaking of it:
"He looked as if he wanted to cry, when sister patted his face and said 'I love oo,' and when I asked him if he didn't wish she was his baby, he looked so white, and said, 'Yes, Neil; will you give her to me?'
"I told him 'No, sir-ee, I'd give him my ball, and velocipede, and jackknife, but not baby.'"
This was the day before Miss Betsey came, straight and prim as usual, but with a different look on her face and tone in her voice from anything Neil had known, as she asked him how he was feeling, and them, sitting down beside him, began abruptly:
"I say, Neil, why, don't you rouse yourself? I've been talking to the doctor, and he says you have no particular disease, except that you seem discouraged and hopeless, and have made up your mind that you must die."
"Yes, auntie, that is just it; hopeless and discouraged, and want to die—oh, so badly!" Neil replied, as he leaned back in his chair. "What use for me to live? Who wants me?"
The words rang sharply through the room, and Neil started as if a pistol had been fired at him.
"You want me? You!" he said, staring blankly at her as she went on rapidly:
"Yes, I want you, and have come to tell you so. I am an odd old woman, hard to be moved, but I am not quite calloused yet. I did not like you, years ago, when those letters passed between us and you would not accept my offer because you thought it degrading. I am glad now you did not, for if you had, Bessie would not have been Grey's wife, but yours; and you are not fit to be her husband, or in fact anybody's. You are only fit to live with me, and see to my business. I am cheated at every turn, and I need somebody who is honest to look after my rents and investments. You can do this. It is not hard, and will pay in the end. I am old and lonesome, and want somebody to speak to besides the cat—somebody to sit at table and say good-morning to me. In short, I want you for my son, or grandson, if you like that better. I shall be queer, and cranky, and hard to get along with at times, but I shall mean well always. I shall give you a thousand dollars a year to manage my affairs, and when I die I shall divide with you and Bessie. I have made a new will to that effect this very morning, so you see I am in earnest. What do you say?"
He said nothing at first, but cried like a child, while Miss Betsey cried, too, a little, and blew her nose loudly, and told him not to be a fool, but to go outdoors on the plateau, where the children were, and sit there in the shade, and try to get some strength, for she wanted him very soon.
Then she went away, and he dragged himself out to the plateau, and let Neil and Robin play that he was a balky horse who would not go, notwithstanding their shouts and blows with dandelions and blades of grass, while Baby Bessie pelted him with daisies from the white cross and pansies from the border.
From that day on, Neil's improvement was rapid, and when, on the last day of September, the Jerrolds returned to their house in Boston, they left him domesticated with Miss Betsey, and to all appearance happy and contented. He would never be very strong again, for the malaria contracted in India had undermined his constitution; but he was able to do all his aunt required of him, even to overseeing at times the hands in the cotton-mill, an office he had once spurned with contempt, and from which he undoubtedly shrank a little, although he never made a sign to that effect.
A year or more after his arrival in America he wrote to Jack Trevellian as follows:
"I hardly think you would know the once fastidious Neil McPherson, if you could see him now in a noisy cotton-mill, screaming at the top of his voice to the stupid operatives, and button-holed confidentially by the Brother Jonathans, who address him as 'Square, and speak of his aunt as the 'old woman.' But it is astonishing how soon one gets accustomed to things, and I really am very happy, especially when scouting the country on my beautiful bay, a present from my aunt, who gave it to me on condition that I would take care of it myself. Think of me in overalls and knit jacket, currying a horse and bedding him down, for I do all that; in fact, I do everything, even to splitting the kindlings when the chore-boy (that's what they call him here) does not come.
"Ah, well; I have learned many things in this land of democracy, and am content; though in my heart I believe I still have a hankering after old aristocratic England, provided I could be one of the aristocrats. I suppose you know that poor Blanche died last winter of fever in Naples, but perhaps you do not know that she left me ten thousand pounds! Fifty thousand dollars they count that in America, and I actually do not know what to do with it. My aunt gives me a thousand a year for spending money, and when she dies, I shall have, as nearly as I can estimate it, half a million, which in this country makes a rich man. If Bessie had not provided for old Anthony and Dorothy, I should care for them; but as she has, I believe I shall use the interest of Blanche's money in paying for scholarships in India, and China, and Japan, and Greece, and I'll call them the Blanche Trevellian and the Bessie McPherson scholarships. That will please Bessie, for she is great on missions, both at home and abroad, and her kitchen is a regular soup-house in the winter, for every beggar in Boston knows Mrs. Grey Jerrold. Jack, you don't know what a lovely woman Bessie is. Sweeter and prettier even than when she was a girl and you and I were both in love with her. And Grey—well, you ought to see how he worships her! Why, she is never within his reach that he does not put his hands upon her, and if he thinks no one is looking on he always kisses her, and by Jove, she kisses him back as if she liked it! And I—well, I bear it now with a good deal of equanimity. Eels, they say, can get used to being skinned, and so I am getting accustomed to think of Bessie as Grey's wife instead of mine, and I really have quite an uncleish feeling for her children. Indeed. I intend to make them my heirs
"And so good-by to you, old chap; with love to Flossie and the twins, from your Yankeefied friend,
And now our story winds to a close, and we are dropping the curtain upon the characters, who go out one by one and pass from our sight forever. In the cozy rectory Hannah Jerrold's last days are passing happily and peacefully with the Rev. Charles Sanford, who loves her just as dearly and thinks her just as fair as on that night years and years ago, when she walked with him under the chestnut trees, and while her heart was breaking with its load of care and pain, sent him from her with no other explanation than that it could not be.
At Grey's Park Lucy Grey lives her life of sweet unselfishness, looked up to by the villagers as the lady par excellence of the town, and idolized by the little ones from Boston, who know no spot quite as attractive as her house in the park.
Miss Betsey and Neil still scramble along together, he indolent at times and prone to lapse into his old habits of luxurious ease, for which she rates him sharply, though on the whole she pets him as she has never petted a human being before.
"Boys will be boys," she says, forgetting that Neil is over thirty years of age, and she keeps his breakfast warm for him, and gets up to let him in when he has staid later than usual at the Ridge House, where he is a frequent visitor, for he and Allen Browne are fast friends and boon companions. Together they ride and drive, and row on the lakes around Allington; together they smoke and lounge on the broad piazza of the Ridge House, but Neil never drinks or plays with Allen, or any one else, for his aunt made it a condition of her friendship, that he should never touch a drop of anything which could intoxicate, or soil his hands with cards, even for amusement. The shadow of that awful tragedy at Monte Carlo is over her still, and she looks upon anything like card-playing as savoring of the pit.
Allen Browne is a young man of elegant leisure, who takes perfumed baths, and wears an overcoat which comes nearly to his feet, and a collar which cuts his ears. He is a graduate from Harvard, and his mother says his 'schoolin' has cost over fifteen thousand dollars, though where under the sun and moon the money went she can't contrive.
Mrs. Rossiter-Browne is very proud of her son and of her daughter, the Lady Augusta, who comes home nearly every summer with a retinue of servants and her little boy, who calls himself Lord Rossiter-Browne Hardy, and Neil Jerrold, when he is angry with him, "a little Yankee," while Neil promptly returns the compliment by calling him a "freckled-faced paddy."
In the old home on Beacon street, Mrs. Geraldine still affects her air of exclusiveness and invalidism, although a good deal softened and improved by the grandchildren, of whom she is very fond, and whose baby hands and baby prattle have found their way to her heart, making her a better because a less selfish woman.
In the street and among men Burton Jerrold holds his head as high as ever, for all his shame and dread are buried in the grave under the white cross at Stoneleigh Cottage, where Bessie spends every summer, with her children, and where Grey spends as much time as possible. He is a man of business now, and many go to him for counsel and advice, and this, except in the hottest weather, keeps him in the city during the week. But every Saturday afternoon the Jerrold carriage, with Bessie and the children in it, stands behind the station waiting for the train, the first sound of which in the distance is caught up and repeated by Neil and Robin, while Baby Bessie claps her hands and calls out, "Papa is coming." And very soon papa comes, with an expression of perfect content on his fine face as he kisses his wife and babies, and then in the delicious coolness of the late afternoon is driven up the shaded avenue to the cottage where the plateau is bright with flowers, and where the daisy cross in its purple heart of pansies, gleams white and pure in the summer sunshine.