"It would be a tearer if she did, she is so much larger and coarser every way than Bessie," he thought, as he finally put the pillow over his head so that he could not hear.
At last, however, the sound ceased as Grey, who only snored when he was very tired, half awoke and turned upon his side, nor was it resumed again. But Neil could not sleep for thinking of it, and when at last he did fall into a restless slumber, he awoke suddenly with the impression that Bessie was frozen to death in the next room, and that Grey Jerrold was trying to bring her to life and calling her his darling.
Altogether it was a bad night for Neil, and he was glad when Anthony came in and he knew he might get up. And thus it chanced that he was first in the dining-room, where he sat, gloomily regarding the fire, when Grey came in, followed in a moment by Bessie, whose sweet girlish lips, as she bade merry Christmas to the young men, did not look as if they could ever have emitted the sounds which were still ringing in Neil's ears, and making him shudder a little.
"Oh, Mr. Jerrold," she said to Grey after the morning greetings were over, "didn't you almost freeze last night in that cold north room? I thought of you when I was awake and heard the wind howl so dismally."
"Never slept better in my life, I assure you; and I was far better pleased with the cold room than I should have been with the warm one," Grey replied.
"Wha-at!" Neil exclaimed. "Did you occupy the north room adjoining mine?"
"Yes," was Grey's reply; and crossing the hearth swiftly to where Bessie stood, Neil kissed her twice, as he said.
"I am so glad!"
If Grey occupied the room, then it was Grey who snored, and not Bessie, who again went into the scales with the ten thousand a year, and who looked up surprised, and a little displeased at this salute before a stranger.
Grey had wondered when he ought to present his Christmas gift, and glanced around the room to see if Neil's was visible; but it was not, and he concluded to wait the progress of events.
Breakfast was late that morning, for Dorothy's rheumatic feet and ankles were worse than usual, and locomotion was difficult and painful; but with Bessie's assistance it was ready at last, and the family were just seating themselves at the table when there was the sound of a vehicle outside, with voices, and a great stamping of feet, as some one entered at the side piazza and came toward the dining-room.
"Mother; it must be mother," Bessie cried, but Neil had recognized a voice he knew, and said, a little curtly:
"It is not your mother; it is Jack Trevellian," and in a moment Jack stood in the room, brushing the snow from his coat, and wishing them a merry Christmas as he shook hands with each in turn.
"Hallo, Jerrold, and Mack, you both here? This is a surprise!" he said, as he saw the two young men, and something in his tone made the watchful Neil suspect that it was not altogether a pleasant surprise.
Nor was it. Jack Trevellian had never been able to forget the soft blue eyes which had shone upon him in London, or the sweet month, with its sorry expression, which asked him not to play with the mother when he met her. No matter where he was, those eyes had haunted him, and the low earnest voice had rung in his ears until at last he had made up his mind that he would see her once more, and then he would go from her forever, for it would be madness to ask her to share his small income.
The puny Dick of Trevellian Castle was dead, and Hal was master there. Only one life now between Jack and wealth and Bessie; but as once before he called himself a murderer, so he had done again when he heard of Dick's death, and pulling the wild thought from him he wrote to Hal just as he had written to Dick, and told him he supposed he would be marrying now and settling down in the old home, and then there came over him so intense a longing for Bessie that he resolved upon the visit, feeling glad for the storm and the cold which would keep him in the house where he could have her all to himself. How then was he surprised to find both Neil and Grey Jerrold, the latter of whom he had met many times and between whom and himself there was a strong liking. But Jack was one who could easily cover up his feelings, and he greeted the young men warmly, and held Bessie's hand in his while he explained rapidly, as if anxious to get it off his mind, that he had gone to the "George" intending to take a room there as he had done before, but had found it quite shut up, and so he added, laughingly:
"I have come here bag and baggage, and if I spend the night, as I should like to, I shall have to ask for a bed, or cot, or crib, or cradle; anything will do."
Bessie could not help glancing at Grey, who detected the troubled look in her eyes as she assured the new arrival of her readiness to grant the hospitality he craved. In Grey's mind there could be no doubt now as to what Neil would do. "He will offer to share his room with Jack, of course," he thought, and so, perhaps, thought Bessie; but into Neil's mind no such alternative entered; first come first served was his motto, and besides, what business had Jack to come there anyway, uninvited and unannounced? For his part, he thought it rather cheeky, and there was a cloud on his face all through the breakfast, nor was it at all dispelled when, after the meal was over, Jack brought out a lovely seal-skin cap and pair of seal-skin gloves which he had bought as a Christmas gift for Bessie, and a handsomely bound edition of Shakespeare for Archie, who he knew was very fond of the poet.
Now was Grey's time, and the work-box was produced, and Bessie's face was a study in its surprise and delight, for Christmas presents of any value were rare with her, and the cap and the gloves were just what she wanted, and the box was so beautiful that there were tears in her eyes as she thanked the donors for their kindness, and asked Neil if the gifts were not pretty.
"Yes, very," he said, inwardly cursing himself for an idiot that he, too, had not thought to bring anything. "I never do think till it is too late," he said to himself; "but then, I never have any spare money, while Grey is rich and Jack is his own master;" and entrenching himself behind these excuses he tried to seem at his ease, though he was very far from being so.
In the course of the morning Grey managed to see Jack alone for a few moments, and immediately broached the subject of the bed, or cot, or crib which the latter had bespoken.
"I am afraid it will be a crib," he said, "unless you share my room with me;" and then he told of the north chamber which he had insisted upon taking on account of his phthistic, which required so much fresh air.
"Phthisic!" Jack repeated. "You have the phthisic, when I know you have climbed the Rigi and Montanvert, and half the mountains in Switzerland! Why, you are the longest-winded fellow I ever knew."
"Still, I have the asthma so terribly that I could never sleep in Miss Bessie's room, knowing she was freezing in that north wing," Grey said, affecting a terrible wheeze.
"Yes, I see," Jack replied, a light beginning to dawn upon him. "I see—and I am tisicky, too, and must have fresh air; so, old chap, if you'll take me in, I'm yours."
"But you will have to smoke cubebs," Grey rejoined. "You remember Mrs. Opie's 'White Lies' and the 'Potted Sprats?' My asthma has proved a sprat, and there is a clay pipe at this moment waiting for me in the kitchen, and pretty soon you will see me puffing like a coal-pit. Do you suppose they will make me vomit?"
"No doubt of it; they are awful nasty, but I will be a coal-pit too if necessary," Jack said, ready for any emergency; but this was not required of him, and only Grey paid the penalty of the white lie, and smoked cubebs until everything around him grew black except the stars which danced before his eyes, and he was so dizzy he could scarcely stand.
The day passed rapidly, and both Jack and Grey enjoyed it immensely, especially the latter, who conducted himself as if he were perfectly at home and had known Bessie all his life.
After the dinner, which proved a great success, except that it was not served, as Neil would like to have had it, by liveried servants instead of the hobbling Dorothy. Bessie announced her intention of washing the dishes to save the tired old woman's feet.
"Nonsense, Bessie," Neil said to her, in an aside "You surely will not do that before Jack and Grey; besides, so much dishwater will spoil your hands, which are red enough now."
But Bessie cared more for Dorothy than for her hands, and proceeded with her dishwashing, while Grey insisted upon helping her.
"I know how to wipe dishes. I've done it many a time for Aunt Hannah," he said, while Jack proffered his assistance so earnestly that the two were soon habited in long kitchen aprons, that of Grey's having a bib, which Bessie herself pinned upon his shoulders, standing on tiptoe to do it, her bright hair almost touching his moustache, and her fingers, as they moved upon his coat, sending strange little thrills through every nerve in his body.
What sport they had, and how awkwardly they handled the silver and the china, Jack assuming the Irish brogue he knew so well, and Grey the Yankee dialect, with the nasal twang, which nearly drove Bessie into hysterics, and made Archie laugh as he had not laughed in years.
Neil was disgusted, and thought the whole a most undignified proceeding, and wondered what his mother and Blanche would say could they see it, and if, after all, he had not made a mistake in coming to Stoneleigh instead of going with them. He changed his mind, however, when, after the dishwashing was over, and the aprons discarded, and the Irish brogue and Yankee dialect dropped, he was alone a moment with Bessie, who came shyly up to him, and laying her hand, red with dishwater, on his arm, said to him, softly:
"Are you sick, that you seem so sober?"
"No," he replied, taking her hand in his, and drawing her closely to him, with his arm around her, "I am not sick, but I cannot enjoy myself—in just the way—Trevellian and Jerrold do. I think them rather too free and easy for strangers, and quite too familiar with you. Don't let them make a fool of you."
There was something very pathetic and pleading in his voice, and it went to Bessie's heart, and when he took her face between his two hands and kissed her lips, she kissed him back again, and then withdrew from him just as Jack and Grey entered the room. They had been out for a little walk after dinner, and had returned, reporting the weather beastly, as Jack Trevellian expressed it.
"But it is jolly here," Grey said, rubbing his hands, and holding them to the bright fire. "Just the night for whist. What do you say?" he continued, turning to Bessie, who, having no objection to the game as she knew they would play it, assented readily, and the round table was brought out and the chairs arranged for the four.
Then arose the question:
"With whom should Bessie play?"
"Naturally with me, as I am the eldest and the last arrival," Jack said, while Grey rejoined, laughingly:
"I don't know about that. I think we will draw cuts for her; the longest wins," and he proceeded to arrange three slips of paper in his hand.
"Be fair, now. I can't trust you where a lady is concerned," Jack replied, while Neil maintained a dignified silence, and, when told to draw first, drew, and lost.
"Your turn next, Trevellian. Hurry up; faint heart never won fair lady. Suppose you try that one," Grey said, indicating, with his finger, one of the two remaining slips.
"I shall not do it; there is some trick about it. You have fixed them. I shall take this," Jack said, and he did, and lost.
"I have won; the lady is mine," Grey cried, exultingly, as he held up the longest slip of paper.
Then, leading the blushing Bessie to her chair, he took his seat opposite her, and continued;
"Now I know you English are never happy unless you play for something, and as none of us, I hope, would play for money, suppose we try for that knot of plaid ribbon at Miss Bessie's throat. I think it exceedingly pretty."
There was a gleam of triumph in the glance which Bessie flashed upon Neil, for she had not quite forgiven him his criticisms upon the ribbon, which both Grey and Jack seemed to admire, and which she consented to give to the victor.
"If your side beats you will draw cuts for the prize," Grey said to Jack; "and if my side beats there is no cut about it, it is mine."
And so the game began, Neil bending every energy to win, and feeling almost as much excited and eager as if it were a fortune at stake, instead of the bit of Scotch ribbon he had affected to dislike. And it did almost seem to him as if he were playing for Bessie herself; playing to keep her from Grey, the very man to whom he had said he would rather give her than to any one else in the world, if she were not for him. The first game was Grey's, the second Neil's; then came the rubber, and Bessie dealt.
"Oh, Bessie," Neil said, in a despairing voice, when he found that he did not hold a single trump, while Jack gave out the second time round, and Grey turned up five points, making six in all.
Suddenly the tide turned and Neil's was the winning side until they stood six and four, and then Grey roused himself and played as he had never done before, carefully watching the cards as they fell, knowing exactly what had been played, and calculating pretty accurately where the others were, and finally coming off victorious.
"The ribbon is mine, and I claim my own!" Grey said, with a ring in his voice and a warmth in his manner which brought the hot blood to Bessie's cheeks, as she took the knot from her throat and presented it to him, blushing still more when he raised it to his lips and then pinned it upon his sleeve.
"What a cad he is! I'd like to knock him down, if he were any one but Grey," Neil thought, and pushing back his chair from the table he said he had had enough of cards for one night. Whist was a stupid game anyway, and he never had any luck.
Neil was very quiet the remainder of the evening, though he could not altogether resist Grey, who was at his best, and kept them all in a roar of laughter at his jokes and the stories he told of the genuine Yankees whom he had seen in New England, and the Johnny Bulls he had encountered in England, and whose peculiarities of voice and expression he imitated perfectly. Then he recited poetry, comic and tragic and descriptive; and was so entertaining and brilliant, and so very courteous and gentlemanly in all he did and said, that Bessie was enraptured and showed it in her speaking face, which Neil knew always told the truth, and when at last he retired to his room he could not sleep, but lay awake, torn with jealousy and love and doubt as to what he ought to do.
The next morning both Grey and Jack departed by different trains, for the latter was going to the Scottish house where Lady Jane and Blanche were staying, and then to Trevellian Castle to see his cousin Hal, while Grey was going another way. And Neil said good-by without a pang, but Bessie was full of regret, especially for Grey, whom she should miss so much and to whom she said she hoped she should see him again.
"I am sure you will," he answered. "I am to leave Oxford next summer and join my Aunt Lucy, who is coming in June for a trip on the Continent. But before I go home I shall come here again, and I shall always remember this Christmas as the pleasantest I ever spent, and shall keep the knot of ribbon as a souvenir of Stoneleigh and you. Good-by," and with a pressure of the hand he had held in his all the time he was talking, he was gone, and Bessie felt that something very bright and strong and helpful had suddenly been taken from her, and nothing left in its place but Neil, who, by contrast with the American, did not seem to her quite the same Neil as before.
For nearly a week longer, Neil remained at Stoneleigh, growing more and more undecided as to his future course, and more and more in love with Bessie, whose evident depression of spirits after the departure of Jack Trevellian and Grey Jerrold had driven him nearly wild. All the better part of Neil's nature was in the ascendant now, and he was seriously debating the question whether it were not wiser to marry the woman he loved, and share his poverty with her, than to marry the woman he did not love, even though she had ten thousand a year. Yes, it was better, he decided at last, and one day when Archie had gone to Bangor and he was alone with Bessie, who sat by the window engaged in the very unpoetical occupation of darning her father's socks, he spoke his mind.
The storm, which was raging at Christmas, had ceased, and the winter sunshine came in at the window where Bessie was sitting, lighting up her hair and face with a halo which made Neil think of the Madonnas which had looked at him from the walls of the galleries in Rome.
"There!" she said, as she finished one sock, and removing from it the porcelain ball, held it up to view. "That is done, and it looks almost as good as new."
Then she took another from the basket, and adjusting the ball inside, began the darning process again, while Neil looked steadily at her. Had Grey Jerrold been there, he would have thought her the very personification of what a little housewifely wife should be, and would have admired the skill with which she wove back and forth, over and under, filling up the hole with a deftness which even his Aunt Hannah could not have excelled. But Neil saw only her soft, girlish beauty, and cared nothing for her deftness and thrift. In fact he was really rebelling hotly against the whole thing—the socks, the yarn, the porcelain ball, and more than all, the darning-needle she handled so skillfully. What had the future Mrs. Neil McPherson to do with such coarse things? he thought, as, forgetful of his mother's anger, he began:
"I say, Bessie, I wish you would stop that infernal weaving back and forth with that darning-needle, which looks so like an implement of warfare and makes me shudder every time you jab it into the wool. I want to talk to you."
"Talk on; I can listen and work too. I have neglected father's socks of late and have ever so many pairs to mend," Bessie said, pointing to the piled-up basket, without looking at the flushed, eager face bending close to her.
But when Neil took her hands in his, and removing from them the sock and darning-needle, said to her, "Bessie, I did not mean to tell you, at least not yet, but I cannot keep it any longer. I love you and want you for my wife," she looked up an instant, and then her eyes fell before the passionate face, and she cried:
"Oh, Neil! You are not in earnest! You do not mean what you say. You cannot want me. I am so very poor. I must take care of my father, and then—there is—there is—oh, Neil, I am sorry if it is wrong to say it—there is my mother!"
She put the whole hard facts before him at once, her poverty, her father, for whom she must always care, and her mother, the greatest obstacle of all.
"I know all that. Don't you suppose I thought it out before I spoke?" Neil said, drawing her closer to him as he continued: "I am going to tell you the whole truth about myself, and show you my very worst. I am a great, lazy, selfish fellow, and have never in my life done any one any good. I have lived for myself and my pleasure alone. I am not one quarter as good as Grey Jerrold, or even Jack Trevellian."
At the mention of Grey, Bessie gave a little start, for a thought of him seemed to cast a shadow over the sky, which for a moment had been very bright, if Neil really and truly loved her. But the shadow passed as Neil went on, rapidly:
"I never had any home training; that is, never met any opposition to my wishes. Everything bent to me until I came to believe myself supreme; but, Bessie, I know that there is in me the material for a man, something like Grey Jerrold. I speak of him because he represents to me the noblest man I ever knew, and I always feel my inferiority when I am with him, and show at my worst by contrast. You know what I mean. You felt his power when he was here; the tone of his voice; the way he put things; the indescribable something which makes him so popular everywhere, I don't know what it is. I would give the world if I possessed it. I have watched him many a time at Eton and at Oxford and elsewhere, when he was surrounded by a lot of London swells, young lords and sons of earls, who would cut me dead, but who took to the American at once and made him more than their equal. Once I asked him how he did it and if it were not an awful bore always to consider others before himself. I shall never forget the expression of his face as he hesitated a moment and seemed to be looking far off at something in the past. Then he said: 'Sometimes it is hard; but long ago, when I was a boy, I made a vow to live for others rather than myself, to try to make somebody happy every day with a kind word or act or look, and only think, if I live to a good old age, how many people's lives will have been a little sunnier because of me. Suppose I commenced this plan at fourteen and that I live to be seventy, which is not very old, it will make over twenty thousand, and that surely ought to atone for a great deal—don't you think so?—and in a way my life is a kind of atonement.' That is what he said, or the substance of it, and I have often thought of it and wondered what he meant by an atonement."
In his enthusiasm over Grey, Neil forgot for a moment what he had been saying to Bessie, who had listened intently, and who exclaimed:
"Twenty thousand people happier because of him. Oh, Neil, that is worth more than the crown of England I wish you—I wish we could be like him."
"You are like him," Neil said, coming back to his original subject. "You make me think of him so much in your sweet forgetfulness of yourself and your thoughtfulness of others, and, Bessie, I am going to try to be like him, too, if you will help me, if you will be my wife, by and by, when I have made a man of myself, and am more worthy of you. Will you, Bessie, will you promise to be my little wife when I come to claim you?"
He had her face between his hands and was looking into her eyes where the tears were shining, as she said to him:
"Neil, you do not know what you ask, or all it involves. I cannot leave my father, and there is Blanche. You are as good as engaged to her; you said so in your letter."
"I know I wrote you so," Neil said, "because I wanted to fortify myself against doing just what I have done, but I shall never marry Blanche Trevellian; if you tell me no, I shall remain single forever; but you will not, Bessie. You will not destroy my last chance to be a man. You do love me, I am sure, and you will love me more when you know all I mean to do. I shall not separate you from your father. He shall live with us, and Anthony and Dorothy too; though not here at Stoneleigh, except it be in the summer when the roses are in bloom. Father has a small house in London, in Warwick Crescent; he will let us live there, and—and—"
Here Neil stopped, for he remembered his mother's threat of disinheritance if he should marry Bessie, and he knew she was capable of performing it and if she did how was he to live even in that small house in Warwick Crescent? But Bessie's eyes were upon him; Bessie's upturned face was between his hands, and poverty with her did not seem so very terrible. They could manage some way, but he would be frank with her, and, he continued, at last, "Bessie, I shall not deceive you, or pretend that mother will receive you at first, for she will not. She means me to marry Blanche, and will be very angry for a time, and perhaps refuse to give me my present allowance, so we may be very poor; but that I shall not mind if you are with me. Poverty will be sweet if shared with you, who, I know, are not afraid of it."
"No, Neil," Bessie said, getting her face free from his hands, "I am not afraid of poverty, and I do love you; but—"
"But what?" Neil cried, in alarm, as be caught her hands in his and held them fast, "You are not going to tell me no? Surely you are not?"
"No, Neil. I am going to tell you nothing as yet. I was only thinking, that if we are so poor, couldn't you do something? Couldn't you work?"
It was the same question put by the girl Daisy to the boy Archie years before in the old yew-shaded garden, and as the boy Archie had then answered the girl Daisy, so the man Neil now made reply:
"I am afraid not, my darling. It is not in the McPherson blood to work, and I dare not be the first to break the rule."
"Don't you think Grey Jerrold would work if he were poor?" Bessie asked, and Neil replied:
"Grey is an American, and that makes a difference; every body works there, and it does not matter."
"Then let us go to America and be Americans, too," Bessie said, but Neil only shook his head, and replied:
"I could never live in that half-civilized land of equality, where the future President may be buttoned up in the jacket of my bootblack. I am an out-and-out aristocrat and would rather be poor and be jostled by nobility than be rich and brush against Tom, Dick and Harry and have to bow to their wives."
Bessie gave a little sigh, for this was not at all like Grey Jerrold, whom Neil was going to imitate; but before she could speak, he continued:
"We shall pull through somehow in London, and in time mother will come round when she finds I am determined. So, Bessie, it is settled, and you promise to be my wife when I can fix things?"
He was taking his consent too much for granted, and Bessie did not like it, and said to him:
"No, Neil; it is not settled for sure. I can never be yours without your mother's sanction. Think what you would be taking upon yourself—poverty, father and me!"
"The me would not be so very bad," Neil said, drawing her closely to him, and caressing her hair as he talked, advancing argument after argument why she should consent to a secret engagement, the greatest argument of all being the influence such an engagement would have over him, helping him in his new resolution to be a man after the Grey Jerrold order; for Grey's name was mentioned often in the strange plighting of vows, and when at last Bessie's consent was won to be Neil's wife as soon as his mother was reconciled, her mind was almost as full of Grey as it was of Neil, who, now that she was his, became the most tender and devoted lover during his remaining stay at Stoneleigh, and Bessie was happier than she had ever been in her life, though there was one drawback upon her happiness: she would like to have told her father, but Neil had said she must not, and she obeyed, wondering to herself if Grey would have bound her to secrecy.
Grey was a good deal mixed up in Bessie's thoughts after Neil was gone, and she often found herself thinking:
"More than twenty thousand happier because of him! Could any life be nobler than that, and why should not I imitate it?"
And then Bessie began the experiment of trying to make somebody happy every day; and the butcher's boy of whom she bought the meat, and the girl who brought the milk, and the man of whom she bought their bread, and the beggar woman who came to the door for cinders and cold bits, found an added graciousness of manner in the young girl who smiled so sweetly upon them and interested herself so kindly in their welfare, and who, in her limited sphere, was imitating Grey Jerrold, and trying to make a few people happier, even though she could never hope, like him, to number twenty thousand!
THE NEW GREY.
That was what Neil signed himself in the first letter he sent to Bessie after his return to London, and in which he assured her that he was instant in season and out of season in his endeavors to be like the American and make himself worthy of the dearest little girl a man ever called his wife. He had borne with perfect equanimity his mother's frequent ebullitions of temper; had read aloud to Blanche for two hours, when she had a headache, although he wanted so much to go to his club; and had listened daily, without a sign of impatience, to his father's tiresome talk upon politics and the demoralized condition of the country generally. Then he told her how much he loved her, and how a thought of her and her sweet face was constantly in his mind, inspiring him to a nobler life than he had hitherto been living.
And Bessie, as she read his letter, felt her love grow stronger for him, and her face grew brighter and lovelier each day, and there was a ring of gladness and hopefulness in her voice as she went singing about the house thinking of the future which stretched so pleasantly before her, and in which she could be always with Neil, "the new Grey." Sometimes she thought of the real Grey, who was still at Oxford, which Neil had left for good. He was not fond of study, and greatly preferred his idle, pleasant life at home, breakfasting when he pleased and as he pleased, either in bed or in the breakfast-room, lounging through the morning, playing duets with Blanche, sorting her worsteds for her, or teasing her about the grotesque figures she was embroidering and calling shepherd boys and girls. The comfort and luxury of Trevellian House suited him better than Stoneleigh, and now that he was engaged and there was no probability of his marrying Blanche, her society was not half as distasteful to him as it had formerly been, neither were her eyebrows as light nor her shoulder-blades as sharp, and he began to think she really was a good-natured kind of a girl and played splendidly. And then he remembered with a pang that Bessie did not play at all, except simple accompaniments to songs, and found himself wondering in a vague kind of way what people would say to a Mrs. Neil McPherson who had no accomplishments except a sweet voice for ballad singing and a tolerable knowledge of French and German, which she had picked up when a child leading a Bohemian life on the Continent. Bessie was neither learned, nor accomplished, nor fashionable; but she was good and pure and beautiful, and Neil loved her with all the intensity of his selfish nature, and meant to be true to her. He wrote to her, three times a week, long letters, full of love and tenderness, and of Grey Jerrold, with whom he corresponded.
Once he tried to tell his mother of his engagement. She had been speaking to him of Blanche, talking as if everything were settled, and asking why it were not as well to announce the engagement at once.
"Because," Neil said to her, "I am not engaged to Blanche, and do not know that I ever shall be. To tell you the truth, mother, I love my Cousin Bessie better than any woman living, and if I had money of my own I would marry her to-morrow."
This was a great deal for Neil to say, knowing his mother as he did, and possibly he might not have said it could he have foreseen the storm which followed his declaration. What she had once before said to him upon the subject was nothing when compared with her present anger and scorn, as she assured him again and again that if he married Bessie McPherson, she would at once cut off his allowance and leave him to shirk for himself. That was the way she expressed it, for she could be very coarse in her language at times, even if she were a titled lady. Bessie should never enter her house as her daughter-in-law, she said, and she would not only cut off Neil's allowance during her life, but at her death would leave what little money she had to some one else—Jack Trevellian, perhaps, who would represent the family far better than her scapegrace son, with his low McPherson tastes.
After this Neil could not tell her. On the contrary, he bent every energy to keep the secret from her, and never again mentioned Bessie or Stoneleigh in her presence, but devoted himself to Blanche in a friendly, brotherly kind of way, which kept the peace in that quarter and left him in quiet. But his thoughts were busy with plans for the future, when Bessie would be his wife and he disinherited, for her sake. Once he calculated the possibility of living at Stoneleigh on the meagre annuity which he knew Archie received, and which would die with him. But he could not do that, and he called himself a sneak for considering the matter an instant.
"If there was something I could do which would not compromise me," he thought. "I might become an inventor, or an author. I could do better at that, for I have some talent for yarning, they say. Wilkie Collins and George Eliot make heaps of money with their pens. Yes, I believe I'll try it."
And so Neil shut himself in his room for some hours each day, and commenced the story which was to make his fortune. But as Bessie sat for his heroine and Grey Jerrold for his hero, he became furiously jealous when he reached the love passages, and tearing up his manuscript in disgust, abandoned the field of authorship forever.
Suddenly his thoughts turned to the old aunt in America, whom, his fancy painted as fabulously rich. She could help him, and perhaps if he wrote her the right kind of a letter she would. And so he set himself to the task, which proved harder, even, than the story-writing had been. Neil knew his Aunt Betsey was very eccentric, and he hardly knew how to make her under stand him without saying too much and so ruining his cause.
"By Jove, I'll tell her the truth, that I want money in order to marry Bessie," he said, and he took Bessie for his starting paint, and waxed eloquent as he described her sweetness and beauty, and told of her life of toil and care and self-denial at Stoneleigh, with her father, whom he represented as just on the verge of the grave. Then he told of his engagement and his mother's fierce opposition to it, and the sure poverty which awaited him if he remained true to his cousin, as he meant to do, and then he came to the real object of his letter, and asked for money on which to live until his mother was reconciled, as she was sure to be in time, when she knew how lovely and good Bessie was. A few thousand pounds would suffice, he said, as he knew his father would allow him to occupy a house in Warwick Crescent which belonged to him and which would save his rent. And then, growing bolder as he advanced, he hinted at the possibility that his aunt might be intending to make Bessie her heir, and said if it were so he should be glad to know it, and would keep the secret religiously from Bessie until such time as he might reveal it. A speedy answer to this letter was desired, and Neil closed by signing himself:
"Your very affectionate nephew, Neil McPherson."
He posted the letter himself, and feeling almost sure of a favorable response, went and bought Bessie a small solitaire ring, such as he could afford, and sent it with the most loving, hopeful letter he had yet written to her.
MISS MCPHERSON AND THE LETTER.
Nine years had made but little change in Miss Betsey McPherson, either mentally or physically. As she had been at the Thanksgiving dinner where we first met her, so she was now, with possibly a little sharper tone in her voice and a shade more of eccentricity in her nature. As she lived alone then with her two servants, so she lived alone now, with the same cook in the kitchen, but not the same housemaid to attend her. Flora had been married for five or six years to a respectable mechanic, and lived in a small white house across the common, with three children to care for—two boys and a girl. This last she had thought to call for her former mistress to whom she had timidly expressed her intention, asking if she would be godmother.
"Flo is a fool to saddle her child with a name she hates," Miss McPherson thought, but she consented to act as sponsor, and wore her best black silk in honor of the occasion, when Sunday came and she took her accustomed seat in church.
But her thoughts were evidently not upon the service, for she knelt in the wrong place, and once said aloud in her abstraction, "Let us pray," and there was a twinkle in her round bright eyes, and a grim smile on her face when she at last arose, and straight and stiff as a darning-needle walked up the aisle, and took in her arms the little pink and white baby who was to bear her name. It was a pretty child, and as she held it for a moment and looked into its clear blue eyes fixed so questioningly upon her face, there came to her the thought of another little blue-eyed girl who had come to her on the sands of Aberystwyth, and the touch of whose hands as they rubbed and patted the folds of her dress she could feel even now after the lapse of many years. That child had said to her that Betsey was a horrid name; this child in her arms would think so, too, and hate it all her life, and when the clergyman, said, "Name this child," she answered, in a loud, clear voice, which rang distinctly through the church:
"No, no; oh, no!" Flora gasped in a whisper, "it is Betsey, ma'am; it is for you."
"Hush! I know what I am about," was whispered back, and so Bessie McPherson, and not Betsey, was received into Christ's flock and signed with the sign of the cross, and given to the happy mother happier than she dared to own because of the change of name.
The next day five hundred dollars were placed in the Allington Savings Bank to the credit of Bessie McPherson Bowen, and the spinster washed her hands of the whole affair, as she expressed it to herself. But she could not quite forget the child, and when on the Monday evening after the christening she sat by her open fire with her round tea table at her side, there was a thought of it in her mind, and she said to herself:
"I am glad I did not give it my name. Betsey is not very poetical, and they are sure to call you Bets when they are angry at you. Bessie is better and sweeter every way."
And then her thoughts went over the sea after that other Bessie, her own flesh and blood, of whom she had not heard in years. It was very seldom that her brother John wrote to her, and when he did he never mentioned Archie or his family, and so she knew nothing of them except that Daisy was still carrying on her business at Monte Carlo and was known as an adventuress to every frequenter of the place. But where was Bessie? Miss McPherson asked herself, us she gazed dreamily into the fire. Was she like her mother, a vain coquette and a mark for coarse jests and vulgar admiration?
"For the girl must be pretty," she said, "There was the promise of great beauty in that face, and true, pure womanhood, too, if only she were well brought up."
And then through the woman's heart there shot a pang as she wondered if she had done right to leave Archie and his child to their poverty all these years. Might she not have done something for them, and so perhaps have saved the daughter from sin? The little room at the head of the stairs was still kept just as it was when she was expecting Bessie. There was the big doll in the corner, the dishes on the shelf, and the single bed with its lace hangings was freshly made every month, and by its side each night the lonely woman knelt and prayed for the little girl who had come to her on the sands and looked into her eyes with a look which had haunted her ever since. But of what avail was all this? Ought she not to have acted as well as prayed? What was faith without works, and if Bessie had gone to destruction, as most likely she had, was it not in part her fault? Such were the questions tormenting Miss McPherson when at last Winny came in to remove the tea things and brought with her a letter, which she gave into her mistress' hand. It was Neil's letter, and Miss Betsey examined it very carefully before opening it, wondering who had written her from London, and experiencing a feeling that its contents would not prove altogether agreeable. Adjusting her spectacles a little more firmly on her nose, she opened it at last, and read it through very slowly, taking in its full meaning as she read, and commenting to herself in her characteristic way.
Two years before, she had met an old acquaintance from London, who knew Neil and disliked him, consequently the impression she had received of him was not altogether favorable.
"A good-looking, well-meaning fellow," the man had said, "but very indolent, and selfish, and proud, with an inordinate love of money, and respect for those who have it."
And in this opinion the spinster was confirmed by his letter.
"Let me see!" she said, taking off her glasses, and regarding the fire intently. "He wishes me to send him a few thousand pounds to enable him to marry his cousin and live in idleness in his father's house on Warwick Crescent until his mother is reconciled, and he wishes to know if I intend to make Bessie my heir. No, my fine London gentleman! If Bessie ever has a fortune it will not be from me. Now, if Neil wanted this money to set himself up in business; if he was going to work to earn his own bread and butter and support his family like an honest man, I would let him have it cheerfully. But work is the last thing he thinks about. It would degrade him. Ugh! it makes me so mad!" and she shook her head fiercely at the fire, as she went on:
"But the girl, if he tells the truth, is the right kind of stuff, staying at home, caring for her father, wearing shabby clothes, and even washing the dishes, which I have no doubt hurts him the most. I rather like this girl, and for her sake I will give Neil a chance, though I don't suppose he will accept it. There are those cotton mills which I had to take on that debt of Carson's. They have been nothing but a torment to me for the want of a capable man to look after them. I will offer the situation to Neil with a salary of two thousand dollars a year, and ten per cent. of the net profits, and I will let him have, rent free, the house which Carson occupied, and will furnish it, too, and have everything in running order when he gets here with his bride. That I call a right generous offer, but, bless your soul, do you suppose he will take it?"
And she interrogated the fire, which made no response, except that a half dead coal dropped into the pan and went out into blackness.
"Of course he won't," she continued, "for that would be doing something! But we shall see. I will write the letter to-night," and ringing for her writing materials the old lady began her letter to Neil, telling him what she would do for him if he chose to come to America and try to help himself.
"The work is not hard," she wrote. "It requires more thought, and judgment, and tact, than anything else, but it will bring you in contact with some very second-class people—scum, if you choose to call them so—and with some of the excellent of the earth as well for all grades are represented in the mills, and for what I know, the future Governor of Massachusetts is working there to-day; but if he is, you may be sure he has a book somewhere around and studies it every chance he gets, for in this way our best men are made. If you do not choose to take my offer, I shall do nothing for you, and Bessie will be a fool to marry one who does not care enough for her to be willing to work and support her. I have no intention of making her my heir. My will is made, and I do not often change my mind. Still, I have a fancy for the girl—have always had a fancy for her, and if you bring her to me on the terms I offer, you will never be sorry."
This last Miss Betsey wrote because of the desire which kept growing in her heart as once it had before, to look again in Bessie's face, to hear her voice, to feel the touch of her hands; and in short, to have some one to love and be interested in, as something told her she could be interested in and love Bessie McPherson.
The letter was sent to Neil, and the same mail took another to a well-known banking house in London with which Miss McPherson had business relations. To this house she gave instructions that the sum of one hundred pounds should at once be forwarded to Archibald McPherson, who was not on any account to know from whom the money came.
When her letters were gone she began again to build castles with regard to Bessie, whom she was expecting, in spite of her lack of confidence in Neil's willingness to accept her offer.
In fancy she furnished the large stone house on the cliff above the mills, which Bessie was to occupy, and furnished it with no sparing hand. In fancy she climbed the sleep steps every day, and went in and out with the freedom of a mother, for such she meant to be to the young couple, both her own blood, and both seeming very near to her now when there was a chance of their coming to her and dispelling the loneliness of her monotonous life. But she kept her expectations to herself, not even telling them to Lucy Grey, or Hannah Jerrold, her most intimate friends, both of whom noticed a change in her, but did not guess why she seemed so much more cheerful and happy, or why she was so often in Worcester, inquiring the prices of china and glassware, and household furniture generally.
Once she was very near letting it out, and that was when Hannah was spending the afternoon with her, and said: "I have received a letter from Grey, who writes that he spent a day at Stoneleigh and saw your grandniece Bessie."
"What did he think of her?" Miss Betsey asked, and Hannah replied:
"He thought her the loveliest creature he had ever seen. I do believe he is more than half in love with her, for I never knew him so enthusiastic over a girl before."
"Yes," Miss McPherson said, and remembering what she knew Grey to be and what she feared Neil was, she thought, "Oh, if it were Grey and Bessie;" and that night she dreamed that it was Grey and Bessie, and that she tore down the house on the cliff, overlooking the mill, and built there a palace something after the fashion of Chatsworth, except that it was more modern in its style and general appearance, and many pairs of eyes like those seen on the terrace at Aberystwyth looked into hers, and many little hands rubbed holes in her stuff dress, and many little voices called her grandma the name she bade them give her in place of auntie.
FROM JANUARY TO MARCH.
Never had Neil been more gracious or agreeable than during the interval when he was waiting for the answer to his letter. He felt sure of a favorable reply and that Bessie would be his before the June roses were in bloom, and that of itself kept him in a happy frame of mind. He was very attentive to Blanche and very kind to his mother, and he wrote long letters to Bessie three times a week, and went to church every Sunday and gave a half-penny to every little ragged child he met, and felt that Neil McPherson was a pretty good fellow after all.
At last the letter came, and Neil read it in the privacy of his room, and, being alone with no one to hear, called his aunt a name which sounded a little like swearing, and paced up and down the apartment with the perspiration standing thickly around his white lips, and a feeling at his heart as if he were not only bitterly disappointed but had also been insulted by the offer made to him.
"An overseer in some cotton mills!—factories they call them there. Not if I know myself!" he said. "I stoop to that? Never! The old woman is a fool," (this with an adjective), "and she evidently thinks she is doing a big thing. Two thousand dollars a year! Why, that is not much more than mother allows me now, and I am awfully hard up at times. No, Bessie, you must wait a little longer until something turns up, as I am sure there will. An overseer! I!" and Neil's voice was indicative of the scorn and contempt with which he regarded an overseer of cotton mills, and the vast difference he felt there was between such an individual and himself.
Neil was very sore and very much depressed, and his depression told upon his health, and he became so pale and haggard that his mother was alarmed, and insisted upon his leaving England for a time and going down to Cannes, in Southern France, where several of her friends were spending the winter. To this Neil made no objection, and wrote to Bessie of his plans, and made himself out so great an invalid that Bessie felt a fear in her heart lest her lover should die and she be left in the world alone, in case—She did not dare finish the thought, or put into words her conviction that her father was daily growing weaker, with less care for or interest in any thing passing around him. This change for the worse had commenced with a heavy cold, taken soon after the holidays, and which none of Dorothy's prescriptions could reach. It was in vain that Bessie tried to persuade him to let her call a physician.
"No, child," he said, "it's nothing. I shall be better in a few days, when the weather moderates. I do not want a doctor, and if I did we are too poor. How much have we on hand?"
Bessie did not tell him the exact amount, for fear of troubling him in his weak, nervous condition.
Their Christmas hospitalities had cost them dear, and there was very little in the family purse with which to meet their necessities. Just after Neil's departure there had come a letter from Daisy, who was in Nice, with some Americans, whose acquaintance she had made in Paris and whose party she had joined.
"These American friendships cost a great deal," she wrote, "for they stop at the most expensive hotels, and I must have a parlor and bedroom in order to keep up appearances, so I really have nothing to spare just now; but I send you a five-pound note which I borrowed for you from Mr. Jack Trevellian, who came day before yesterday and told me of his visit to Stoneleigh. If I am any judge, he is more than half in love with you, and when I said I was going to write and regretted that I could not send you any money, as I was sure you must need it after so much company, he insisted upon loaning me twenty pounds, and when I refused so large a sum he made me take ten, which I will divide with you. It was very generous in him, and when I said I should pay him as soon as possible, he begged me never to speak of it, as he would gladly give ten times that sum to one as faithful and kind to her father as you are. Jack is a good fellow, and there is only one life between him and a, title, I hear. Try for him, Bessie; I know you can get him. Write him a little note and tell him how kind it was in him to loan me the money. That will be a beginning, but you need not say how much of it I sent you; as he designed it all for you, he might not like it if he knew I kept half. How is your father? The last time I was home I really thought he was threatened with softening of the brain, he seemed so sleepy and stupid and forgetful. Give him my love, and believe me always your affectionate mother,
"P.S.—I hear Lord Hardy has returned from Egypt and is expected here. I am glad, for a sight of him will do me good. He is the best friend I ever had, and the first, except, of course, your father."
Such, in part, was Daisy's letter, which Bessie read with an aching heart and cheeks which burned with shame. She wanted money sadly, for her boots were giving out at the sides, and the butcher's bill was unpaid, and her father needed wine and jellies to tempt his sickly appetite and keep up his failing strength. But she would have gone barefoot and denied herself food for a week sooner than touch the five-pound note her mother had wrung from Jack Trevellian, her recent guest.
"It was begged; it is a charity; it burns my hand," she said, as she held the note between her thumb and finger. "I will not have it in the house," and the next moment it was blackening on the fire where the indignant girl had thrown it, together with her mother's letter, which her father must never see.
Oh, how for an instant Bessie loathed herself as she thought of her mother and saw in fancy the whole sickening performance at Nice, the daily jesting and badinage with those people around her—second-class Americans, she was sure, or they would not take up her mother; but worst of all was the interview with Jack Trevellian, whose feelings had been wrought upon until he gave her ten pounds, because of her poverty!
"Oh, it is too horrible; but I will pay it back some time," she said, and kneeling by the firelight with her hot, tear-stained face buried in her hands, Bessie prayed earnestly that in some way see might be enabled to pay this debt to Jack Trevellian.
In her excitement she did not then regret that she had burned the note, though she knew that it was a rash act, and that it necessitated extra self-denials which would tell heavily upon her. With strong black linen thread and a bit of leather she patched her boots; she dressed and undressed in the cold, for she would allow no fire in her room; she never tasted meat, or tarts, or sweets, or delicacies of any kind, but contented herself with the simplest fare, and piled her father's plate, begging him to eat, and watching him with feverish anxiety as her mother's dreadful words rang in her ears—softening of the brain! Was that terrible disease stealing upon him? Would the time come when the kind eyes which now always brightened when they rested on her would have in them no sign of recognition, and the lips which spoke her name so lovingly utter only unmeaning words? It was terrible to contemplate, and Bessie felt she would rather see him dead than an imbecile.
"But what should I do with father gone?" she said, and her thoughts turned to Neil, who would surely take her then, even if he took her into poverty.
And so in a measure Bessie was comforted, and watched her father with untiring vigilance, and felt that he was slipping from her and that in all the world there was for her no ray of joy except in Neil's love, which she never doubted, and without which her heart would have broken, it was so full of care and pain. And it was just when her heart was saddest because her father had that morning called her Daisy, and when she corrected him had said, "Yes, but I can't think of your name; words go from me strangely at times; everything is confused," that Neil's letter came, bringing her fresh cause for anxiety, and seeming with its brevity and strangeness, to put him farther from her than he would be in Cannes, whither he was going.
That night Bessie cried herself to sleep, and was so weak and sick the next morning that Dorothy persuaded her to stay in bed and brought her up her breakfast of toast, crisp and hot, with a fresh boiled egg and a cup of tea which she declared would almost give life to a dead man.
"But, Dolly," Bessie said, "you should not have brought me the egg; they are two pence apiece, and father must have them all. Can't you keep it and warm it up for him?"
"Warm up an egg! Bless the child," and Dorothy laughed till the tears ran. "You can't warm over a boiled egg, so eat it down; it will do you good, and you are growing so thin and pale. Here is a letter for your father; but as he is asleep I brought it to you."
Taking the letter, Bessie examined the address, which was a strange one to her. Evidently it was on business, and as nothing of that kind could mean anything but fresh anxiety and annoyance for her father, she resolved to know the contents and, if possible, keep them from the weak invalid. So she broke the seal and read with astonishment that Messrs. Blank & Blank, bankers, in Lombard street, London, had been instructed by one who did not wish his name to appear, to send to Mr. Archibald McPherson of Stoneleigh, Bangor, the sum of one hundred pounds, and inclosed was a check for the same.
"Oh!" Bessie exclaimed, as she sprang up and began to dress herself rapidly. "One hundred pounds! Why, we are rich, and father can have everything he wants. I wonder how much a bottle of Johannisberger wine would cost."
Then there crept into her mind the question, who sent it? Was it the Hon. John? Was it Neil? or—and Bessie's heart stood still a moment and then beat with a heavy pain—or was it Jack Trevellian, who had done this because of what her mother had told him of their needs? It was like him, she knew, but if it were he, she could never touch the money, and without a word to her father of the letter, she wrote at once to Messrs. Blank & Blank, Lombard street, asking if it were Mr. Trevellian, and saying if it were, she must return the check as they could not keep it.
"Direct your answer to me," she wrote, "as I transact all my father's business for him."
In two days the answer come, very stiffly worded, but assuring her that the donor was not Mr. Trevellian and that her father need have no scruples about taking the money, and would have none did he know from whom it came. This satisfied Bessie, who took the letter to her father, confessing all she had done, and with him trying to guess who had been so kind to them.
"I can think of no one except my aunt in America," Archie said, "and she is not likely to remember us in this way after so many years' silence."
"If I thought it were she I would write to her," Bessie said, "and at all events I will write to somebody and thank them, and send the letter to Messrs. Blank & Blank, in London. They know who it is and will forward it for me."
Accordingly the next Bangor mail for London bore in it a letter from Bessie to their unknown friend.
"DEAR MADAM, OR SIR, whichever you may be," she began, "I wish I could tell you how much joy and gladness, and relief, too, your generous gift of one hundred pounds brought to both father and me. God bless you for it, and may you never know the want and actual need which made your gift so very welcome that instead of shrinking from it we could only cry over it, and be glad that somewhere in the world there was somebody thinking and caring for us. Every night of my life I shall pray for you, and if I ever know who you are, and meet you face to face, I will try and thank you better than I feel that I am doing on paper. Yours gratefully and sincerely,"
"P.S.—If, as papa half suspects, you are his Aunt Betsey, I am doubly glad, because it shows that you sometimes think of us in the old home at Stoneleigh, and I wish you would write a few words to father. It will do him so much good, and he is so sick and helpless, and lonely, and—I dare not tell you what I fear, only he sometimes forgets my name and his own, too, and calls things different from what they are. Oh, if he should die, I should die, too!"
This was sent to Messrs. Blank & Blank with instructions to forward it to the donor. But Messrs. Blank & Blank were very busy with other matters than forwarding letters of thanks. They had just written to Miss McPherson that her orders had been obeyed and the money paid, and so Bessie's letter was put aside and forgotten, for weeks and even months, when an incident occurred which brought it to their minds and it was forwarded to Miss McPherson.
FROM MARCH TO JUNE.
When Bessie knew that the money was really theirs, when she had it in her hand and counted the bank-notes, her happiness knew no bounds, and she felt richer than Blanche Trevellian ever had with fifty times that sum. To her that hundred pounds represented so much actual good and comfort for her father, for whom she would use nearly all of it. But first she must pay Jack Trevellian, and she said to her father:
"May I have ten pounds of this to do with as I like? I promise to make good use of it."
"Yes, child," he answered, "it is all yours to do with as you please."
So she sent ten pounds to Jack, and wrote:
"I return the money you were so good as to loan mother. Ten pounds she said it was. It was very kind in you to let her have it, and I know you meant it well. You could not mean otherwise; but please, Mr. Trevellian, for my sake don't do it again.
This done, Bessie paid the butcher and the baker and the grocer, and a part of what they were owing Anthony and Dorothy, and bought herself a pair of shoes, and then religiously put by what was left to buy the medicines and dainties, the beef tea and wine and jellies and fruit, which were to nurse her father back to health physically and mentally. But it would take more than fruit or jelly to repair a constitution never strong and now greatly weakened by disease. Every day Archie grew weaker, while Bessie watched over and tended him with anguish in her heart and a terrible shrinking from the future when he would be gone forever. From Neil she heard often, but his letters did not do her much good they were so full of regret for the poverty which was keeping her from him and would keep her indefinitely for aught he knew. From her mother she seldom heard. That frivolous butterfly was too busy and gay to give much time or thought to her dying husband and overburdened child. She was still at Nice and still devoted to her American friends, the Rossiter-Brownes, as they called themselves, to the great amusement of their neighbors, who had known them when they were plain Mr. and Mrs. Isaac R. Brown, of Massachusetts, or, as they were familiarly called, Miss Brown and Ike. But they were rich people now; a turn in the wheel had made Ike a millionaire and transformed him into Mr. Rossiter-Browne, and with his wife and his two children, Augusta and Allen, he was doing Europe on a grand scale, and Mrs. Rossiter-Browne, an ambitious but well-meaning woman, had taken a violent fancy to Daisy, and had even invited her to go home with her in June, offering to defray all her expenses out and back if she would do so.
"And I half made up my mind to go," Daisy wrote to Bessie in May. "I have often wished to see America, and shall never have a better chance than this. Though not the most refined people in the world, the Rossiter-Brownes are very nice and very kind to me. Lady June, I dare say, would call them vulgar and second-class, and I am inclined to think they are what their own countrymen call shoddy. They have not always been rich as they are now. Indeed, Mrs. Rossiter-Browne makes no secret of the fact that she was once poor and did her own washing, which is very commendable in her, I am sure. By some means or other—either oil, or pork, or the war—they have made a fortune and have come abroad to spend it in a most princely manner. Mrs. Rossiter-Browne is good-looking, and wears the finest diamonds at Nice, if I except some of the Russian ladies, but her grammar is dreadful, her style of dress very conspicuous, and her voice loud and coarse. Augusta, the daughter, is twenty, and much better educated than her mother. She is rather pretty and stylish, but indolent and proud. Allen, the son, is twenty-two, tall, light-haired, good-natured, and dandified, kisses his mother night and morning, calls her ma and his father pa, and his sister sis; drives fast horses, wears an eye-glass, carries a cane, and affects the English drawl. Pere Rossiter-Browne is a little dapper man, with a face like a squirrel. At breakfast, which is served in their parlor, he eats with his knife, and pours his tea into his saucer in spite of Augusta's disgust and his wife's open protestations.
"'Now, Angeline, you shet up with your folderol,' he will say, with the most imperturbable good humor. 'At table dote I can behave with the best of 'em, but in my own room I'm goin' to be comfortable and take things easy like, and if I want to cool my tea in my sasser I shall. Miss McPherson don't think no less of me for that, you bet.'
"They have given me a standing invitation to breakfast with them when I like.
"'It don't cost no more for five than for four,' Mr. Rossiter-Browne says, and as juicy beefsteaks and mutton chops and real cream have a better relish than rolls and tea, I accept their hospitality in this as in many other things.
"They take me everywhere, and I am really quite useful to them in various ways. None of them speak French at all except Augusta, and she very badly. But she is improving rapidly, for I hear her read both French and Italian every day, and help her with her pronunciation. Then I have introduced them to a great many people, among whom are some English lords and ladies and German barons and baronesses; and, as all Americans dote on titles, notwithstanding their boasted democracy, so Mrs. Rossiter-Browne is not an exception, but almost bursts with dignity when she speaks to her Yankee friends of what Lady So-and-so said to her and what she said to Baron Blank. She nearly fell on her face when I introduced her to Lord Hardy, who has returned from Egypt and was here for a few days. He took to her wonderfully, or pretended that he did, and she was weak enough to think he had an eye to Augusta's charms, and asked if I supposed him serious in his attentions to her daughter, and what kind of a husband he would make. What an absurd idea! Lord Hardy and Augusta Browne! I laughed till I cried when I told Ted about it and asked him what he thought of it.
"'I might do worse,' he said, and then walked away, and that afternoon took Mrs. Browne and Augusta over to Villefranche.
"Ted is very much changed from the boy whom I smuggled into the play-room at Monte Carlo as my Cousin Susan, and I can't get him near there now. It seems that he lost a great deal of money one night, and actually left the Casino with the intention to kill himself. But he had not the courage to do it, though he told me he put the muzzle of the pistol to his forehead, when a thought of his mother stayed his hand and the suicide was prevented. She was in heaven, he said, and he wanted to see her again. If he killed himself he knew he should not, and so he concluded to live, but made a vow never to play again, and he has kept it and become almost as big a spoony as Jack Trevellian. By the way, I saw Trevellian the other day, and when I said something about hoping to pay him his ten pounds soon, he told me you had paid it. Very kind in you, I am sure, but I don't see where you got the money. You might have kept it, as he would never have pressed me for it, and I could not pay it if he did. My rooms cost me so much that I never have a shilling to spare, and I do not go to Monte Carlo often, for these Rossiter-Brownes profess to be very religious people—Baptists, I believe—and hold gambling in great abhorrence, so, as I wish to stand well with them I have to play on the sly, or not at all. They have a house in New York and another in the country somewhere, and a cottage at the sea-side; and they have a maid and a courier, and Mrs. Rossiter-Browne talks as familiarly with both of them as she does with me, and I think feels more at ease in their society than in mine. But she is a good woman, and since commencing this letter I have decided to accept her invitation and accompany her to America. They sail the last week in June, and I shall manage to spend a few days at Stoneleigh before I go. How is your father? Write me soon, and if you can do so please send me a pound or two. I have so very little; and I had to borrow of Ted, who, I must say, loaned me rather unwillingly, I thought, while Trevellian, whom I tried cautiously, never took the hint at all. It must be I am going off and have not the same power over the men which I once had; and yet Mrs. Rossiter-Browne told me the other day that I was called the prettiest woman in Nice, and said she was very proud to have me of her party. What a fool she is, to be sure!"
This letter filled Bessie with disgust and anxiety, too, while for a moment there arose within her a feeling of rebellion and bitter resentment against the woman who got so much from life and left her to bear its burdens alone.
"But I would far rather be what I am than what she is," she thought, as she wiped her tears away and stole softly to her father's room to see if he were still sleeping.
He was usually in a half-unconscious condition now, seldom rousing except to take his meals, or when Bessie made a great effort to interest him, and she did not guess how fast he was failing. The second week in June Daisy came, fresh and bright and eager, and looking almost as young as Bessie, who knew no rest day or night, and was pale and thin and worn, with a look on her face and in her eyes very sad to see in a young girl.
"Oh, mother, I am so glad you have come," she cried, and laying her head in her mother's lap, she sobbed passionately for a moment, while she said: "And you will not go away; will not leave me here alone, with no one to speak to all day long but Dorothy. Oh, mother, the loneliness is so terrible and life is so dreary to me."
For a moment Daisy's heart was stirred with pity for the tired, worn girl, and she half resolved to give up America and stay at home where she was needed. But as the days went on and she saw just what life at Stoneleigh meant, she felt that she could not endure it, and, fondly stroking Bessie's hair and smoothing her pale cheek, she told her she would not be gone long. She should return in September and would positively remain at home all winter and take the care from Bessie.
"Your father will not die," she said. "People live years with his disease; he is better than when I first came home; at least he is more quiet, which is a gain."
And so Bessie gave it up and entered at last into her mother's anticipations of her journey, and listened with some interest to what she had to say of the Rossiter-Brownes, the best and most generous people in the world, for they were not only to bear all her expenses to and from America, but Mrs. Browne had given her a twenty-pound note for any little expenditures necessary for her journey.
"I am sure I don't know why they fancy me as they seem to," Daisy said, "unless they have an idea that I am a much more important personage than I am, and that to take me home as their guest will raise them in the estimation of their friends. They know the McPherson blood is good, and they know about Lady Jane, who Mrs. Browne persists in thinking is my sister-in-law. Did I tell you that the Rossiter-Brownes' old home is near Allington, where your father's aunt is living?"
"No," Bessie replied, looking up with more interest in her manner.
"Well, it is," Daisy continued, "and I mean to beard the old woman in her den and conquer a peace. She has heaps of money, the Brownes say, and is greatly respected in spite of her oddities, and is quite an aristocrat in the little place; and, as I suspect, is far above Mrs. Rossiter-Browne, who wishes to show me to her. She does not guess how the old woman hates us all."
And so Daisy rattled on with her small, tiresome talk, to which Bessie sometimes listened and sometimes did not. The Rossiter-Brownes were in Leamington now, but were coming through Wales on their way to Liverpool, and Mrs. Browne and Augusta were to stop for a day or two at the "George" and take Daisy with them when they left.
"I wish we could show them some attention," Daisy said to her daughter. "Don't you think we might manage a French tea in the garden at four o'clock? We have some rare old china and some solid silver and Dresden linen, and we could get Lucy Jones to wait upon us. Do you think we can do it?"
"Perhaps we can," Bessie replied, reflecting that a French tea in the garden at four o'clock meant only thin slices of bread and butter, with biscuits and possibly some little sponge cakes which would not cost much. She could go without a pair of gloves and make the old ones do. All extras came out of poor little Bessie, but she was accustomed to it, and did not mind, and just now she was so glad to have her mother with her, for Daisy, as if a little remorseful for what she was about to do, was unusually sweet and affectionate and kind, and devoted herself to her husband as she had never done since Bessie could remember. She washed his face and hands and brushed his hair, and wheeled him out into the garden under the old yew tree, where he once slept on the summer morning while she kept the sun and the flies from him. And stooping over him, she asked if he remembered the little girl who used to come to him there when he was a boy.
"Yes; that was Daisy," he said, "but I have not seen her in many a year. Where is she now?" and he looked at her in a strange, bewildered way. Then, as the brain fog lifted a little and cleared away, his chin quivered and he went on: "Oh, Daisy, Daisy; it comes back to me now, the years that are gone, and you as you were then. I loved you so much."
"And don't you love me now, Archie?" she asked, kneeling beside him with her white arms across his knees, while she looked into his face with the old look she could assume so easily, and which moved even this weak man.
Laying his thin, pale hands upon her head, he burst into tears and said;
"Yes, Daisy, I have always loved you, though you have made no part of my life these many years."
"And have you missed me? Have you been unhappy without me?" she asked, and he replied:
"Missed you? Yes; but I have not been unhappy, for I have had Bessie. No man could be unhappy with Bessie, I think I will go in now and find her. I am better with her; and the birds are not singing here."
"What birds?" Daisy asked, looking curiously at him, as, with closed eyes, he leaned wearily back in his chair and replied:
"The birds which sing to me so often; birds of the future, and the past, too, I think they are, for they sing sometimes of you, but oftener of Bessie and a journey far away where she is going to be happy when we are both gone and the winds are blowing across our graves—over there," and he pointed toward the little yard where his father and mother were lying side by side, and where he soon would lie.
For an instant Daisy shuddered, and fancied she felt an icy chill, as if her husband's words were words of prophecy and a blast were blowing upon her from some dark, cold grave. But she was too young to die; death was not for her these many years; it was only waiting for this enfeebled man, whom she wheeled back to the house where Bessie was, and where the birds he heard so often came and sang to him of green fields and flowery meadows beyond the sea, where he saw always Bessie with a look of rest and sweet content upon her face, instead of the tired, watchful, waiting look habitual to it now.
And so, listening to the birds, he fell asleep, as was his wont, and Daisy shook off the chill which had oppressed her, and busied herself with the preparations for her journey.
In due time Mrs. Rossiter-Browne and her daughter, Augusta, came to the "George," with their maid, and took possession of the best rooms, and scattered shillings and half-crowns with a lavishness which made every servant their slave. Of course Daisy called, bearing Bessie's compliments and regrets, and then Mrs. Browne and Augusta came to Stoneleigh in the finest turn-out which the hotel could boast, for though the distance was short, Mrs. Browne never walked when she could ride, and on this occasion she was out for a drive, "to see the elephant of Bangor, trunk and all, for she was bound nothing should escape her which she ought to see, if she died for it, and she guessed she should before she got round home, as she was completely tuckered out with sight-seeing," she said, as she sank pantingly into an easy-chair in the large cool room, which Daisy had made very bright and attractive with fresh muslin curtains, a rug, a table-spread, and some tidies brought from Nice. This room, which was only used in summer, had on the floor a heavy Axminster, which had done service for forty years at least, but still showed what it had been, and spoke of the former grandeur of the place, as did the massive and uncomfortable chairs of solid mahogany, the old pier-glass against the wall, and the queerly shaped sofa, on which Daisy had thrown a bright striped shawl, which changed its aspect wonderfully. She wished to make a good impression upon her American friend, and she succeeded beyond her most sanguine hopes. With her ideas of the greatness and importance of the McPhersons, who, if poor, were aristocrats, Mrs. Browne was prepared to see every thing couleur de rose, and the old wainscoted room and quaint furniture delighted her more even than the pretty little devices with which Daisy had thought to make the room more modern and heighten the effect.
"If there's anything I dote on particularly, it's on ancestry halls," Mrs. Rossiter-Browne said, as she looked admiringly around her. "Now them chairs, which a Yankee would hide in the garret, speak of a past and tell you've been somebody a good while. I'd give the world for such an old place as this at home; but, my land! we are that new in America that the starch fairly rattles as we walk. We are only a hundred years old, you know; had our centennial two or three years ago. That was a big show, I tell you; most as good as Europe, and better in some respects, for I could be wheeled in a chair and see things comfortable, while over here, my land! my legs is most broke off, and I tell Gusty I'll have to get a new pair if I stay much longer. Think of me climbing up Pisa, and St. Peter's, and all the Campyniles in the country, and that brass thing in Munich to boot, where I thought I should of sweltered, and all to say you've been there. It's a park of nonsense, I tell 'em, though I s'pose it does cultivate you, and that reconciles me to it."
Here the lady paused for breath, and Augusta, whose face was very red, began to talk to Bessie of Wales and the wild, beautiful scenery. She was as well educated as most young ladies of her class, and was really a very pretty, lady-like girl, who expressed herself well and intelligently, and was evidently annoyed by her mother's manner of speaking, for she tried to keep the conversation in her own hands, and Bessie, who guessed her design, helped her to do so; and after a few moments Mrs. Browne arose to go, and, shaking out her silk flounces and pulling her hands to her ears to make sure her immense diamonds were not unclasped, because, as she said, she would not for a farm lose her solitarys, she said good-morning, and was driven away to see the elephant of Bangor and vicinity.
Bessie drew a long breath of relief as she saw the carriage leave the park, and said: "Oh, mother, how can you find pleasure in her society, and are the Americans generally like her?"
"Not half as good as she, some of them, though vastly more refined and better educated," Daisy replied, warming up in defense of the woman who was so kind to her, and whom she knew to be honest and true as steel. "There are plenty of ignorant, vulgar women in England, traveling on their money recently acquired, who at heart are not half as good as Mrs. Browne," she said; "and for that matter there are titled ladies too who know precious little more than she. Why, old Lady Oakley once sent me a note, in which more than half the words were misspelled, and her capitals were everywhere except in the right place; but she is my lady, and so it is all right. I tell you Bessie, there is, after all, but little difference between the English and the Americans, who, as a class, are better informed than we are and know ten times more about our country than we do about theirs."
Daisy grew very eloquent and earnest as she talked, but Bessie was not convinced, and felt a shrinking from Mrs. Rossiter-Browne as from something positively bad; and here she did the woman great injustice, for never was there a kinder, truer heart than Mrs. Browne's, and if, in her girlhood, she had possessed a tithe of her present fortune, she would have made a far different woman from what she was.
For a few days longer she staid at the "George," and astonished the guests with the richness of her toilets and the singularity of her speech, which was something wonderful to her hearers, who looked upon her as a specimen of Americans generally. But this she would not permit; and once, when she overheard the remark, "that's a fair sample of them, I suppose," turned fiercely on the knot of ladies who, she knew, were discussing her, and said:
"If it's me you are talking up and think a fair sample let me tell you that you are much mistaken. I ain't a sample of nothin'. I am just myself, and Uncle Sam is not at all responsible for me, unless it is that he didn't give me a chance, when young, to go to school. I was poor, and had to work for my livin', and my old blind mother's, too. She is dead this many a year; but if she could of lived till now, when I have so much more than I know what to do with, I'd have dressed her up in silks and satins, and brought her over the seas and flouted her in your faces as another sample of your American cousins, who, take 'em by and large, are quite as refined as your English women, and enough sight better informed about everything. Why, only t'other day one of 'em asked me what language was generally spoken in New York city, and didn't a school-girl from Edinburgh ask Gusty if the people out West were not all heathens, and if Chicago was near Boston! I tell you, ladies, folks who live in glass houses should not throw stones. You are well enough, and nice enough, and on voices you beat us all holler, for 'tis a fact that most of us pitch ours too high and talk through our noses awful, and maybe you'd do that too, if you lived in our beastly climate, but as a rule you have not an atom more learning or refinement at heart than we."
Thus speaking, she sailed from the room with an air which would have befitted a grand duchess, leaving her astonished auditors to look at each other a moment in silence, and then to express themselves fully and freely and unreservedly with regard to American effrontery, American manners, and American slang, as represented by Mrs. Rossiter-Browne.
It was a day or two after this that the French tea was served in the Stoneleigh garden, with strawberries and cream and sponge cakes, and Daisy did the honors as hostess admirably, and Mrs. Rossiter-Browne, resplendent in garnet satin and diamonds, sat in a covered garden-chair and noted everything with a view to repeat it sometime in the garden of her country house at home. "She'd show 'em what was what," she thought. "She'd Let 'em know that she had traveled and had been invited out among the gentry," for such she believed Daisy to be, and she anticipated with a great deal of complacency the sensation which that airy, graceful, woman would create in Ridgeville, the little place a mile or more from Allington, where her husband's farm was situated, and where stood the once old-fashioned house, but now very pretentious residence, which she called the Ridge House. She was going there direct after reaching New York, and thither numerous boxes had preceded her, containing pictures and statuary and other trophies of her travels abroad, and Daisy, whose exquisite taste she knew and appreciated, was to help her arrange the new things, and then "she'd give a smasher of a party," she said, as she sat in her garden-chair and talked of the surprise and happiness in store for the Ridgevillians when she issued cards for her garden party.
"I sha'n't slight nobody at all edible to society," she said, "for I don't believe in that. I shall have Miss Lucy Grey, of course, from Grey's Park, for she is the cream-dilly-cream of Allington, she and your Aunt, Miss McPherson," turning to Daisy, "and mebby I shall ask Hanner Jerrold, though she never goes anywheres—that's Grey's aunt," and now she nodded to Bessie, who at the mention of the name Jerrold, evinced a little interest in what the lady was saying.
Turning to Augusta, who was eating her strawberries and cream in silence, with a look of vexation on her face as her mother floundered on, she said:
"I think you told me you knew Mr. Grey Jerrold?"
"Yes," Augusta replied, "that is, he once spent a summer in Allington and I went to the same school with him; since then we have met several times in Allington and two or three times here. Still, I really know very little of him."
"Who's that you know very little of—Grey Jerrold?" Mrs. Browne chimed in. "Well, I call that droll. Have you forgot how often he used to come home from school with you, and how he fished you out of the pond that time you fell in? Why, he was that free at our house, that he used always to ask for something to eat, and would often add on, 'something baked to day.' You see, he didn't like dry victuals, such as his Aunt Hannah gave him. She is tight as the bark of a tree, and queer too, with it all."
It grated on Bessie's nerves to hear Mrs. Browne speak of Grey as if she were his equal, and recognized as such at home, and she was glad when Augusta said, quietly:
"But, mother, I was a little girl then, six or seven years old, and Grey felt at home at our house because—"
She did not finish the sentence, as she had evidently struck against a reef which her mother overleaped by saying:
"Yes, I know, Grey was always a nice boy, and not one bit stuck up like his proud mother. I hate Geraldine Grey; yes, I do!" and Mrs. Browne manifested the first sign of unamiability which Daisy had ever seen in her. But Daisy, who remembered perfectly the haughty woman she had met at Penrhyn Park years before, hated her, too, and so there was accord between her and her guest.
"Mr. Jerrold told me of his aunt who lives in the pasture, and whom he loves very much. Do you know her?" Bessie asked, and Mrs. Browne replied:
"Yes; that's his Aunt Hanner, the one I told you was so tight. She is an old maid, and queer, too; lives all alone, and saves and lays up every cent. I believe she wears the same black gown now for best which she wore thirteen years ago to her father's funeral. He was a queer one too; crazy, some said, and I guess 'twas true. He took a fancy to stay in one room all the time and would not let anybody in but Hanner, and now he is dead she keeps that room shet up and locked, some say. I was at the funeral, and Grey, who was a boy, took on awful, and hung over the coffin ever so long. He was sick with fever after it, and everybody thought he'd die. He was crazy as a loon. I watched with him one night and he talked every thing you could think of, about a grave hid away somewhere—under his bed, he seemed to think—and made me go down on all fours to look for it. I suppose he was thinking of his grandfather so lately buried. And then, he kept talking about Bessie and asking why she did not come."
"Bessie! Me!" the young girl exclaimed, with crimson cheeks, and Mrs. Browne replied:
"No; 'taint likely it was you; and yet, let me see! Yes, well, I declare; I remember now that his Aunt Lucy, who sat up with me, told me it was a little girl they had talked about before him, a grandniece of Miss Betsey McPherson. Yes, that was you, sure! Isn't it droll, though?"
Bessie did not reply, but in her heart there was a strange feeling as she thought that before she had ever heard of Grey Jerrold, he had been interested in and talked of her in his delirium and in his fevered dreams.
Soon after this, Mrs. Browne arose to go, and said good-by to Bessie, whom she did not expect to see again, as they were to leave on the morrow for Chester, where her husband and son were to meet them. It was Daisy's last day at home, and though she had been away many times for a longer period than it was now her intention to stay, this going was different, for the broad sea she was to cross would put an immense distance between her and her husband and child, and she was unusually quiet and gentle and affectionate, telling Bessie, who seemed greatly depressed, that the summer would pass quickly and she should be back to stay for good until the invalid was better or worse.
The next morning when she went to say good-by to her husband he welcomed her with a smile, and with something of his old, courteous manner put out his hand to greet her. She took it between her own, and raising it to her lips, knelt beside him, and laying her head against his arm, said to him, softly:
"Archie, I have come to say good-by, but only a little while. I shall soon be back to stay with you always, or until you are better."
"I shall never be any better," he replied, never suspecting how far she was going from him, "but go, if you like," he continued, "and be happy. I do not mind it as I used to, for I have Bessie and the birds, who sing to me now all the time. Can't you hear them? They are saying 'Archie, Archie, come,' as if it were my mother calling to me."
His mind was wandering now, and Daisy felt a thrill of pain as she looked at him and felt that he was not getting better, that he was failing fast, though just how fast she did not guess.
"Archie," she said, at last, "you love me, don't you? You told me you did in the garden the other day, but I want to hear it again."
"Love you? You?" he said, inquiringly, as he looked at her with an unsteady, imbecile gaze as if to ask who she was that he should love her.
"Yes," she said. "I am Daisy. Don't you remember the little girl who used to come to you under the yews?"
"Yes," and his lip trembled a little. "The girl who gave herself and her bonnet to shield me from the flies and sun. You did that then; but Bessie has given herself to me, body and soul, through cold and hunger, sunshine and storm. God bless her, God bless my darling Bessie."
"And won't you bless me, too, Archie? I should like to remember that in time to come," Daisy said, seized by some impulse she could not understand.
Archie hesitated a moment as if not quite comprehending her, then drawing her down to him he kissed her with the old, fervent kiss he used to give her when they were boy and girl together, and, laying his hand upon her head, said tremblingly: