Gwen, who had not been immaculate herself, was her cruellest enemy, never losing an opportunity of inflicting a sting upon her helpless victim, whose presence in the household she had always resented.
The day following Gwen's sneering remark, Valmai took her daily walk to Abersethin post-office.
The old man beamed at her over his counter.
"Letter come at last, miss," he said.
And her heart stood still. She was white to the lips as she sat down on a convenient sack of maize.
"It is a long walk," said the postmaster, hunting about for the letter. "Dear me, wherrs I put it?"
And he looked in a box of bloaters and a basket of eggs.
"Here it is. I 'member now; I put it safe with the cheese was to go to Dinas."
Valmai took it with trembling fingers; it had a deep black edge.
"It is not for me," she said.
"Indeed! I was not notice that. I was only see 'Powell, Dinas.' I am sorry, miss, fach; but you must cheer up," he added, seeing the gathering tears; "it's never so dark that the Lord can't clear it up."
"No," said Valmai, rising from her seat. "Thank you; good-bye."
And, blinded by her tears, she passed out into the driving wind and sleet. Perhaps the letter bore some news of Cardo! Perhaps bad news, for it had a black edge! She drew her red cloak tightly around her and once more bravely faced the buffeting wind which swept the path before her, and with fitful gusts threatened to lift her off her feet.
When she reached Dinas, Gwen was already laying the dinner in the little parlour.
"You have been a long time," she said. "Where have you been? To the post again to-day? You never used to go to the post, Valmai."
The girl did not answer, but sat down breathless on the sofa.
"Where is uncle? I have a letter for him." And as she spoke her uncle entered.
"A letter for me? Well, indeed! What can it be?"
Essec Powell's correspondence was very limited; he hated writing, and never answered a letter which could possibly be ignored. He adjusted his spectacles, and after turning the envelope in every direction, opened it.
"Reuben Street, Fordsea," he began. "Oh, dear, dear! here's writing! Caton pawb! I could write better myself. Read it, Valmai."
And she obeyed.
"REV. ESSEC POWELL,
"DEAR SIR,—I am grieve more than words can say to tell you this sad news, and I hope you will prepare for the worst. Becos your brother, Captain John Powell, No. 8 Reuben Street, Fordsea, was drownded yesterday in the harbour, and I have loast the best frind ever I had and ever I will have. Please to tell Miss Powell the sad news, and please to tell her that Captain Powell was oleways talking great deal about her, and was missing her very much. Oh, we shall never see nobody like him again. He went out in a small boat with two frinds to the steamer Penelope, Captain Parley, and coming back the boat was capsize and the three gentlemen was upset in the water. One was saved, but Captain Powell and Mr. Jones was drownded. Please to come and see about the funeral as soon as you can.
"I remain in great sorrow,
Valmai's trembling voice failed, and letting the letter drop, she covered her face with her hands and burst into a flood of tears, as she realised that her best friend had slipped away from her. In the trouble and anxiety which had latterly clouded her life, she had often been comforted by the thought that at all events there was one warm heart and home open to her, but now all was lost, and her loneliness and friendlessness pressed heavily upon her. Sob after sob shook her whole frame.
Essec Powell picked up the letter, and read it again.
"Well, well," he said, "to think that John, my brother, should go before me! Poor fellow, bach! To be taken so suddenly and unprepared as he was."
"Oh, no, uncle," said Valmai, between her sobs, "he was not unprepared. There never was a kinder soul, a more unselfish man, nor a more generous. Oh, you don't know how good he was to the poor, how kind and gentle to every one who suffered! Oh, God has him in His safe keeping somewhere!"
"Well, well," said Essec Powell, sitting down to his dinner, "we won't argue about it now, but some day, Valmai, I would like to explain to you the difference between that natural goodness and the saving grace which is necessary for salvation. Come to dinner, Valmai. I wonder how much did he leave? When is the funeral?" he said, addressing Gwen.
"You've got to go down and settle that," she answered. "Will I tell Shoni to put the gig ready?"
"Yes, yes. I better go. I will be back by Sunday."
"James Harris will help you in every way, uncle, and will settle everything for you."
"Oh! very well, very well. Tis a pity about the 'Mabinogion,' too; but we'll go on with them next week, Valmai."
Shoni and Gwen continued until bedtime to discuss with unction every item of information past, possible, or prospective, connected with the death of the old Captain, while Valmai lay on the old red sofa, and thought sadly of her loss.
"There's sudden," said Gwen, "but 'twill be a good thing for the master, whatever!"
Valmai lay awake far into the night recalling with tears the kindness and even tenderness of her old uncle.
On the following Saturday Essec Powell returned from the funeral, and as he stepped out of the gig at the door, his face wore an unusual expression which Valmai noticed at once. He seemed more alive to the world around him; there was a red spot on each cheek, and he did not answer his niece's low greeting, but walked into the parlour with a stamping tread very unlike his usual listless shuffle.
"Are you tired, uncle?" the girl asked gently.
"No, I am not tired; but I am hurt and offended with you, Valmai. You are a sly, ungrateful girl, and it is very hard on me, a poor, struggling preacher very badly paid, to find that my only brother has left all his worldly goods to you, who are already well provided for. What do you think yourself? Wasn't it a shame on you to turn him against his brother?"
"Oh, I never did," said Valmai; "I never thought of such a thing! Dear, dear Uncle John! I didn't want his money, I only wanted his love."
"What is the matter?" said Gwen, coming in.
"Matter enough," said her master, in angry, stammering tones. "John, my brother, has left all his money to this Judas of a girl! A hundred and fifty pounds a year, if you please! and only a paltry 100 pounds to me, and the same to Jim Harris, the sailor. Ach y fi! the greediness of people is enough to turn on me."
Between Gwen's exclamations and Essec Powell's angry harping on the same string, the evening was made miserable to Valmai, and she was glad enough to escape to her bedroom.
The next day she awoke with a throbbing headache.
"You are not going to chapel to-day, I suppose?" said Gwen.
"No, my head aches too badly. I have never missed before, but to-day I think I will rest at home."
"Yes, rest at home, certainly," said Gwen. "You ought to have stopped at home long ago; in my opinion, it would be more decent."
Her meaning was too plain, and Valmai's head drooped as she answered:
"Perhaps it would have been wiser, considering all things."
"Considering all things, indeed!" sneered Gwen. "Yes, they will turn you out of the 'Sciet, because when the calf won't go through the scibor door he has to be pushed out!" And with a toss of her head she carried the tray away.
It was a miserable day for Valmai, and not even after events of more bitterness were able to efface it from her memory.
She roamed about the house restlessly, and round the garden, which was beginning to show signs of the budding life which had slept through the storms and snows of winter. Already in a sheltered corner she detected the scent of violets, an early daffodil nodded at her, a bee hummed noisily, and a sweet spring breeze swept over the garden. What memories it awoke within her! How long ago it seemed since she and Cardo had roamed together by the Berwen! Years and years ago, surely! Her reverie was disturbed by Shoni, who, coming back early from chapel, had found his way into the garden.
"You wass quite right not to go to chapel this morning," he said. "Don't go to-night again, neither!"
"No," said Valmai, "I won't. But why, Shoni?"
"Why?" he said, "because you better not. John Jones and William Hughes, the deacons, is bin speaking to master about you, and next week is the 'Sciet, and you will be turn out."
Valmai turned a shade paler; she knew the disgrace this excommunication implied; but she only turned with a sigh towards the house, Shoni marching before her with the air of a man who felt he had performed a disagreeable duty. Essec Powell had stopped to dine with a farmer living near the chapel, and did not return home until near tea-time. Then burst upon the girl the storm she had so long dreaded; her uncle's anger had already been roused by his brother's "will," and his feelings of greed and spite had been augmented by the information imparted to him by his deacons.
"How dare you?" he said. His eyes flashed with anger, and his voice trembled with the intensity of his fury.
Valmai, who was arranging something on the tea-table, sank down on a chair beside it; and Gwen, carrying a slice of toast on a fork, came in to listen. To hear her master speak in such excited tones was an event so unusual as to cause her not only astonishment but pleasure.
Shoni, too, was attracted by the loud tones, and stood blocking up the doorway.
Valmai flung her arms on the table, and leant her head upon them, sobbing quietly.
"Are you not ashamed of yourself?" thundered the old man. "Sitting at my table, sleeping under my roof, and attending my chapel—and all the time to be the vile thing that you are! Dear Uncle John, indeed! what would your dear Uncle John say of you now? You fooled him as you have fooled me. Do you think I can bear you any longer in the house with me?"
There was no answer from Valmai, and the old man, angered by her silence, clutched her by the arm and shook her violently.
"Stop there!" said Shoni, taking a step forward, and thrusting his brawny arm protectingly over the girl's bent head. "Stop there! Use as many bad words as you like, Essec Powell, but if you dare to touch her with a finger, I'll show you who is the real master here."
"She is a deceitful creature, and has brought shame and dishonour on my name!" stammered the old man. "Am I, a minister of religion, any longer to harbour in my house such a huzzy? No; out you go, madam! Not another night under my roof!"
"Will you send her out at this late hour?" said Shoni. "Where is she to go?"
"I don't care where she goes! She has plenty of money—money that ought to belong to me. Let her go where she likes, and let her reap the harvest that her conduct deserves. Remember, when I come back from chapel to-night I will expect the house to be cleared of you."
Valmai rose wearily from the table, and went up the stairs to her own room, where she hastily gathered a few things together into a light basket, her heavier things she had packed some time before in readiness for some such sudden departure as this.
Meanwhile, in the parlour below the sturdy Shoni faced his irate master.
"Man," he said, "are you not ashamed of yourself?"
"How dare you speak to me in that tone?" said the old man. "Because I owe you two or three hundred pounds you forget your position here."
"No," said Shoni, "I don't forget, and I'll remind you sooner than you think if you don't behave yourself! Man! you haven't learnt the ABC of religion, though you are a 'preacher.' Christ never taught you that way of treating a fallen woman. Shame upon you! And your own brother's child! But I'll see she's taken care of, poor thing! And the villain who has brought this misery upon her shall feel the weight of this fist if ever he returns to this country; but he won't; he has got safe away, and she has to bear the shame, poor thing! Wait till I tell the 'Vicare du' what I think of his precious son."
"The 'Vicare du'?" said the old man, turning white with rage. "Do you mean to say that his son has been the cause of this disgrace? I'll thrash her within an inch of her life!" and he made a rush towards the door.
"Sit down," said Shoni, taking him by the arm and pushing him back into his easy-chair, "sit down, and calm yourself, before you stand up and preach and pray for other people. Tis for yourself you ought to pray."
"True, Shoni, true. I am a miserable sinner like the rest, but don't let me see that girl again."
"Put her out of your thoughts," said Shoni; "I'll see to her." And as Valmai came silently down the stairs, he opened the front door for her, and quietly took her basket from her.
"Well, howyr bach!" said Gwen, looking after them, "there's attentions! We'd better all walk in the wrong path!" and she banged the door spitefully, and returned to the parlour to arrange her master's tea.
"And, now, where are you going to, my dear?" said Shoni kindly. "Will you come to Abersethin? Jane, my sister, will give you lodgings; she is keeping a shop there."
"No, no, Shoni," said the girl, "you are kind, indeed, and I will never forget your kindness; but I will go to Nance, on the island; she will take me in, I know."
"Will she?" said Shoni. "Then you could not go to a better place. 'Tis such lonesome place, the pipple will forget you there."
"Oh, I hope so," said Valmai; "that is all I desire."
"The tide will be down. We can get there easy, only 'tis very cold for you."
"No, I like the fresh night-wind."
"Well, my dear," said Shoni, "I daresay your uncle will be shamed of himself to-morrow, and will be wanting you to kom back. I will bring the gig for you; 'tis a long walk."
"No, never, Shoni; I will never go back there again, so don't bring the gig for me; but if you will kindly send my big box to the Rock Bridge, I will send somebody across for it."
"'S' no need for you to do that. I will take it down to the shore on the whilbare and row it over in Simon Lewis's boat. I will kom before dawn tomorrow, then no one will know where you are. I'll put it out on the rocks before Nance's house and carry it up to her door."
"Thank you, thank you, Shoni; but wouldn't tonight be better?"
"Oh, no; Sunday to-night," said Shoni, in quite another tone.
He waited until he saw Nance's door opened in response to Valmai's timid knock, and then made his way back over the Rock Bridge at once before the tide turned.
When Nance opened her door and saw the figure of a woman standing there, she was at first surprised, for the dress struck her at once as not being that of a peasant.
"Nance, fach! it is I!" said Valmai. "You will let me in?"
"Let you in! yes, indeed. Haven't I been longing to see you all day! Come in, my child, from this bitter wind; come in and get warm. I see you have brought your basket, that means you are going to stay the night. Right glad I am. You will have the little bed in the corner. Keep your red cloak on, dear little heart, because the wind is blowing in cold here at nights, and you have been used to warm rooms. I am well used to cold, and sickness, and discomfort."
"But, Nance—" and then the terrible revelation had to be made, the truth had to be told, and then the loving arms were clasped round the sorrowful girl, and words of comfort and hope were whispered into her ear. No reproaches, no cruel taunts here; nothing but the warmth of human sympathy, and the loving forgiveness of a tender pure woman.
In the early dawn, while Valmai still slept, Shoni's "yo-hoy!" was heard from the rocks, through which he was guiding his boat. Nance opened her door, and, in the gray of the morning, the "big box" was brought in and safely deposited in the tiny bedroom, which it nearly filled.
"Good-bye," said Shoni. "Take care of her, and if she wants anything get it for her, and remember I will pay you." And he rowed away, and was busily ploughing when Gwen went out to milk the cows in the morning.
"Where is she gone?" she asked. "That shameful girl."
"Gone away," said Shoni shortly, and Gwen knew it was useless trying to get anything more out of him.
Thus Valmai slipped quietly out of her old life, though for some time she was the subject of much gossip in the neighbourhood.
It was not long before Shoni found an opportunity of speaking to the Vicar, and as he saw the effect of his tidings upon the cold, hard man, a feeling of pity stirred within him.
"Is this all news to you?" he said. "Didn't you know that your son was haunting the footsteps of this innocent girl, to bring her to ruin?"
"Had I known," said the Vicar, in a stern voice, "that my son held any communication with the Methodist preacher's family, however innocent it might be, I would have closed my doors against him."
"Where is he?" asked Shoni, clenching his fist.
"I don't know," said the Vicar, turning away.
Shoni called after him, "When he comes back he'll feel the weight of this fist, if it's twenty years to come."
 Society meeting.
"THE BABIES' CORNER."
A glorious summer was once more brooding over sea and land, when one morning, in Nance's cottage, a feeble wail was heard; a sound which brought a flood of happiness to Valmai, for nothing could wholly crush the joyous welcome of a mother's heart. For a little while the past months of sorrow and weariness were forgotten. The bitter disappointment caused by Cardo's silence, lying deep below the surface, was of so mysterious a nature that she scarcely found words to express it even to herself. That he was false, that he had forgotten her, never entered her mind. Some dire misfortune had befallen him; some cruel fate detained him. Was it sickness? Was it death? There was nothing for her but to bear and to wait; and God had sent this tiny messenger of love to help and comfort her in her weary waiting. She still believed that Cardo would return; he had promised, and if he were living he would keep his promise—of this she felt certain. Secure from the sneers and scornful glances of the world, alone in Nance's cottage, her heart awoke afresh to the interests of life. Her baby boy was bright and strong, and she watched with delight his growing likeness to Cardo; the black hair, the black eyes, and the curve on the rosebud mouth, which reminded her so much of his smile. Nance wondered much at the girl's cheerfulness, and sometimes felt it her duty to remind her, by look or tone, of the sorrow connected with her child's birth.
"Look at him, Nance. See these lovely little feet, and there's strong he is!"
"Yes, druan bach, he is a beautiful boy, indeed," she would answer with a sigh, drawing her wrinkled finger over the fresh soft cheek.
Valmai began to chafe at the want of brightness which surrounded her little one's life. She was proud of him, and wished to take him into the village.
"No, my child," said Nance gently, "you had better not."
"Why not?" was on Valmai's lips, but she hesitated. A deep blush crimsoned her face. "My boy has nothing to be ashamed of," she said, with a proud toss of her head.
"When is he to be christened?" was Nance's next question.
"September!" gasped the old woman, "he will be three months old; and what if anything should happen to him before then?"
"Nothing shall happen to him," said Valmai, folding him to her heart. "My life and my body are larger than his, and they will both have to go before any harm reaches him."
"There's a foolish thing to say," said Nance, "and I wonder at you, merch i. You ought to know by this time that we are clay in the hands of the Potter. Little heart, he ought to be christened, and have a name of his own."
"He can be 'Baby' till September, and then he will be christened."
"And why, September, child?"
Here Valmai took refuge in that silence which had been her only resource since Cardo's departure. She would be perfectly silent. She would make no answer to inquiries or taunts, but would wait patiently until he returned. September! What glowing pictures of happiness the word brought before her mind's eye. Once more to stroll with Cardo by Berwen banks! Once more to linger in the sunshine, and rest in the shade; to listen to the Berwen's prattling, to the whispering of the sea-breeze. Such happiness, she thought, was all in store for her when Cardo came home in September; and the words, "When Cardo comes home in September," rang in her ears, and filled her heart and soul. Yes, the long weary months of waiting, the sorrow and the pain, the cruel words, and the sneering glances, were all coming to an end. She had kept her promise, and had never spoken a word to implicate Cardo, or to suggest that the bond of marriage had united them. He would come home, at latest in a year, and remove every sorrow; and life would be one long shining path of happiness from youth to age.
The light returned to her eyes, and the rose to her cheek; her step was once more light and springy, as she paced the lonely shore, dressed in her favourite white serge, and carrying her little white-robed baby in her arms. She was an object of great interest to the inhabitants of the fishing village on the other side of the island, and they often found an excuse (more especially the young sailor lads) to pass by the cottage, and to stop at the open door for a drink of water or a chat with Nance. They were as loud in their condemnation of her faithless lover as in admiration of her beauty and pleasant manners.
Once more life seemed full of promise and hope for her, until one day when the bay was glistening in the sunshine, and the sea-gulls, like flecks of snow, flew about the rocks; the soft waves plashing gently between the boulders, a little cloud arose on her horizon. Her baby was fretful and feverish, and Nance had roused her fears.
"He is too fat, merch i," she said, "and if he had any childish illness it would go hard with him."
Valmai had taken fright at once.
"Can you take care of him, Nance, while I go to Abersethin and fetch Dr. Hughes?" she asked.
"Yes, but don't be frightened, cariad; I daresay he will laugh at us, and say there is nothing the matter with the child."
"Being laughed at does not hurt one," said Valmai, as she tied on her hat. "I will bring him back with me if possible."
She took a long look at the baby, who lay with flushed face on Nance's knees, and ran with all speed across the Rock-Bridge, from which the tide was just receding, up the straggling street of Abersethin, and through the shady lane, which led to the doctor's house.
There was great peering and peeping from the kitchen window, as Valmai made her progress between the heaps of straw in the farm-yard to the back door, which stood open. The doctor's wife, who had her arms up to her elbows in curds and whey, looked up from her cheese-tub as she appeared at the door.
"Dear me, Miss Powell! Well, indeed, what's the matter?"
"Oh, it's my baby, Mrs. Hughes! Can Dr. Hughes come with me at once?"
"There's a pity, now," said Mrs. Hughes; "he is gone to Brynderyn. Mr. Wynne is not well. Grieving, they say, about his son."
Valmai blushed, and Mrs. Hughes was pleased with her success.
"When will he be back, d' you think?"
"Not till evening, I'm afraid. But there's Mr. Francis, the assistant—shall I call him? he is very clever with children. Here he is. Will you go with Miss Powell, to see—h'm—a baby which she is taking a great interest in on Ynysoer?"
"Yes, certainly," said the young assistant, colouring, for he had heard Valmai's story, and never having seen her, was now rather bewildered by her beauty, and the awkwardness of the situation.
"Oh, thank you; can you come at once?" said Valmai.
"At once," said the young man. "Is the child very ill?"
"Indeed, I hope not," said Valmai; "he is very flushed and restless."
"Whose child is it?"
"Good-bye, Mrs. Hughes. It is mine," she added, in a clear voice, as they left the kitchen door together.
"Wel, anwl, anwl! there's impidence," said one of the servants, looking after them. "It is mine! As bold as brass. Well, indeed!"
"Yes, I must say," said her mistress, with a sniff, "she might show a little more shamefacedness about it."
"There's a beauty, she is," said Will the cowman, coming in.
"Beauty, indeed!" said the girl. "A pink and white face like a doll!"
"Her beauty has not done her much good, whatever," said Mrs. Hughes, as she finished her curds and dried her arms.
Meanwhile Valmai and the doctor were walking rapidly down the lane to the shore.
"Dan, will you take us across?" said Valmai to a man who stood leaning against the corner of the Ship Inn.
"With every pleasure, miss fach; you've been out early," he said, as he pushed out his boat, and, seeing the doctor—"if you please, miss, I hope there's nobody ill at Nance's?"
"Yes," said Valmai, hesitating, "the little one is ill."
She did not say, "my baby," as she had done at the doctor's. At the first contact with the world beyond Ynysoer, where she had been so long secluded and sheltered, a feeling of nervous shyness began to over-shadow her.
"Dear, dear!" was all Dan's answer,
Once on the island, Mr. Francis found it difficult to keep up with Valmai's hurrying steps. He was full of pity for the beautiful girl beside him, so young and so friendless, and was anxious to serve her, and to cure her child if possible.
As they entered the cottage together, Nance endeavoured gently to prevent Valmai's approaching the child.
"Not you, my dear, not you; let the doctor see him."
Mr. Francis was already attending to the little sufferer.
"No," he said, looking backwards, "not you, Miss Powell; let me manage him."
Valmai turned white to the lips, and, gently putting the old woman aside, took her place at the bedside, where a pitiful sight met her eyes. Her little one lay in the terrible throes of "convulsions," and again the doctor tried to banish Valmai from the scene.
"Let me be," she said, in a quiet voice, which astonished the young man. "Let me be; I am used to trouble." And passing her arm under the little struggling frame, she supported it until the last gasp put an end to its sufferings.
Mr. Francis took the child into his own arms and laid it on the bed, turning his attention to Valmai, who had fallen fainting on the floor.
"Poor thing! poor thing!" said the tender-hearted young man. "It is a pity she cannot remain unconscious."
But he applied the usual restoratives, and she soon opened her eyes, while Nance straightened the folds of the little night-gown with loving fingers, tears coursing each other down her wrinkled face.
"Oh, dear heart! how will she bear it?"
Mr. Francis was silently bathing the girl's forehead.
"You are better now?" he asked.
"Yes," she said; "thank you. You have been very kind, but do not trouble to stay longer; I am quite well," and she slowly rose from the settle.
"I will go now," said the young man. "You would like to be alone, but I will call in the afternoon. You will want someone to—to—make arrangements for you."
"Arrangements? To have my little one buried? Yes, yes, of course. I shall be thankful, indeed."
"Here, or at Penderin?"
"Oh, here—in the 'rock' churchyard."
"I will go at once," and he went out, gently closing the door upon the two women in their sorrow.
In the afternoon he came again, and, being a man of very warm feelings, dreaded the scene of a woman's tears and sobs, though he longed to soothe and comfort the girl who so much interested him. But there were no tears or wailings awaiting him.
Valmai sat in the low rush chair in stony despair, her hands clasped on her lap, her face white as her dress, her blue eyes dry, and with a mute, inquiring gaze in them, as though she looked around for an explanation of this fresh misery.
He did not tell her more than was necessary of his interview with the Vicar. The child was supposed to be illegitimate as well as unbaptised, and could not, therefore, be allowed to sleep his last sleep in the company of the baptised saints.
Old Shon, the sexton, was already digging the little grave in a corner of the churchyard relegated to such unconsidered and unwelcomed beings as this. However, it was a sunny corner, sheltered from the sea-wind, and the docks and nettles grew luxuriantly there.
Such dry-eyed, quiet grief amongst the emotional Welsh was new to the doctor, and he knew that if tears did not come to her relief her health would suffer, so he gently tried to make her talk of her little one.
"I saw you had tried a hot bath, or I would have recommended it," he said.
"Yes, Nance had."
"I truly sympathise with you; he was a fine child."
"Yes, he is a beautiful child," said Valmai.
"I am sorry to wound your feelings, but what day would you wish him to be buried?"
"Oh, any day; it makes no difference now."
"To-day is Friday. Shall we say Monday, then?"
"Yes, Monday will do. At what time?" said Valmai.
"At four o'clock."
Nance was crying silently.
"Mrs. Hughes wants to know if you will come and stay with her till after Monday. I have my gig at Abersethin, and can row you over now."
Valmai smiled, and the sadness of that smile remained in Mr. Francis' memory.
"No," she said, shaking her head slowly, "I will not leave my baby until he is buried, but thank her for me, and thank you, oh, so much. I did not know there was so much kindness left in the world."
As she spoke the tears gathered in her eyes, and, throwing her arms over the feet of the little dead child, she rested her head upon them, and broke into long, deep sobs.
Mr. Francis, more content, went quietly out of the house, and did not see Valmai again until on Monday he met the funeral in the churchyard. Valmai, to the horror of Nance and her friends, wore her usual white dress. She had a bunch of white jessamine in her hand, and, as the little coffin disappeared from sight, she showered the flowers upon it. Nance was too infirm to accompany her, so that she stood alone beside the grave, although surrounded by the fisher folk of the island. She sobbed bitterly as she heard the heavy clods fall on the coffin, and when at last everything was over, and it was time to move away, she looked round as if for a friend; and Mr. Francis, unable to resist the pleading look, pushed his way towards her, and, quietly drawing her arm within his own, led her homewards down the grassy slope to the shore, over the rough, uneven sand, and in at the humble cottage door. Nance received her with open arms, into which Valmai sank with a passionate burst of tears, during which Mr. Francis went out unnoticed.
 Poor little fellow.
The summer months had passed away, and September had come and gone, and yet Cardo had not arrived. Valmai had trusted with such unswerving faith that in September all her troubles would be over—that Cardo would come to clear her name, and to reinstate her in the good opinion of all her acquaintances; but as the month drew to its close, and October's mellow tints began to fall on all the country-side, her heart sank within her, and she realised that she was alone in the world, with no friend but Nance to whom to turn for advice or sympathy.
A restless feeling awoke in her heart—a longing to be away from the place where every scene reminded her of her past happiness and her present sorrow. Every day she visited the little grave in the churchyard, and soon that corner of the burying-ground, which had once been the most neglected, became the neatest and most carefully tended. For her own child's sake, all the other nameless graves had become sacred to Valmai; she weeded and trimmed them until the old sexton was proud of what he called the "babies' corner." A little white cross stood at the head of the tiny grave in which her child lay, with the words engraved upon it, "In memory of Robert Powell ——." A space was left at the end of the line for another name to be added when Cardo came home, and the words, "Born June the 30th; died August the 30th," finished the sad and simple story. Nance, too, who seemed to have revived a good deal latterly, often brought her knitting to the sunny corner, and Valmai felt she could safely leave her grassy garden to the care of her old friend.
"You are better, Nance," she said one day, when she had been sitting long on the rocks gazing out to sea, in one of those deep reveries so frequent with her now, "and if I paid Peggi 'Bullet' for living with you and attending to you, would you mind my going away? I feel I cannot rest any longer here; I must get something to do—something to fill my empty hands and my empty heart."
"No, calon fach," said Nance the unselfish, "I will not mind at all, I am thinking myself that it is not good for you to stay here brooding over your sorrow. Peggi 'Bullet' and I have been like sisters since the time when we were girls, and harvested together, and went together to gather wool on the sheep mountains. You have made me so rich, too, my dear, that I shall be quite comfortable; but you will come and see me again before very long, if I live?"
"Oh, yes, Nance. People who have asthma often live to be very old. You know that, wherever I am, I will be continually thinking of you, and of the little green corner up there in the rock churchyard; and I will come back sometimes to see you."
"But where will you go, my dear?"
"To my sister. Ever since this trouble has come upon me I have longed for a sister's love, and now I think I will go to her I will tell her all my troubles, and ask her to help me to find employment."
"Perhaps she has never heard of you—what do I know?—and perhaps she will spurn you when she hears your story. If she does, come back to old Nance, my dear; her arms will always be open to receive you. Yes, begin the world again. Caton pawb! you are only twenty now You have your life before you; you may marry, child, in spite of all that has happened."
"Nance!" said Valmai, and the depth of reproach and even injury in her voice made plain to Nance that she must never suggest such a thing again.
"Don't be angry with me, my dear!"
"Angry with you! No, I am only thinking how little you know—how little you know. But where shall I find my sister? You said once you had her address, where is it?"
"Oh, anwl! I don't know. Somewhere in the loft—" and Nance looked up at the brown rafters. "I haven't seen it for twenty years, but it's sure to be there, I remember, then somebody wrote it out for me, and I tied it up with a packet of other papers. They are in an old teapot on the top of the wall under the thatch, just there, my child, over the door. You must get the ladder and go up. It is many a long year since I have climbed up there."
But Valmai's agile limbs found no great difficulty in reaching the brown boards which lay loosely across the rafters.
"Now, straight along, my dear."
"It is very dark, but I have found it," and coming down the ladder backwards, she placed the cracked and dust-begrimed teapot on the table. "Oh, how brown and faded the papers are! Nance, what is this? I do believe it is your marriage certificate!"
"Very likely, my dear, and you will find the bill for my husband's funeral, too; and a pattern of my scarlet 'mantell,' the one I nursed my children in; oh! I thought a lot of that, and here it is still, you see, folded over my shoulders."
"What is this? You had bad ink, but I think it must be the address. Let me see, here is 'Mrs. Besborough Power.'"
"I knew it was a hard, long name," said the old woman.
"'Carne,' but the last word, oh, Nance, what is it? It begins with M o, and ends with r e—r e is the end of the shire, of course. Merionithshire? No, it is M o, so must be Monmouthshire or Montgomeryshire, stay, there is a t in the middle. Mrs. Besborough Power, Carne—I will try Carne anyway," and next day she wrote to her sister addressing the letter:
Miss Gwladys Powell, c/o Mrs. Besborough Power, Carne, Montgomeryshire.
In a few days her letter was returned.
"Not known," said Valmai; "then we have not read the address aright. I will go myself, Nance. I will go next week." And the following days were occupied with arrangements for her departure and Nance's comfort during her absence.
On one of these latter days Mr. Francis came in.
"I am glad you have come to-day," said Valmai, holding out her hand. "I wanted to thank you before I left for all your kindness to me, and to ask you to continue to see Nance sometimes."
"Are you going to leave us, then?" said the young man, in a disappointed tone.
He had felt deeply interested in the girl who bore her desertion and sorrow with such patience, and had unconsciously been looking forward to a continuance of the friendship begun between them.
"You are not going away for long, I hope?"
"Yes, for long; possibly for ever, except for a hasty visit to Nance sometimes I shall trust her to you, Mr. Francis, and I hope you will be as kind to her as you have been to me."
"Certainly I will; but do not talk of kindness. It has been a great privilege to me, and a pleasure to know you, and I hope in the future if I can be of any service to you, you will let me know."
Valmai took out her purse nervously, she hesitated to speak of remuneration to this kind friend.
"You are not going to wound me," he said, gently laying his hand on her purse, "by offering to pay me?"
"No, no," said Valmai; "only for the future, for your care of Nance."
"There will be nothing much to do for her, I think; just a call in passing and a few cheering words, and they don't cost much." And he rose to go.
"Good-bye, then," said Valmai. "I shall never forget your kindness."
"Good-bye," said Mr. Francis, holding her hand for a moment. He seemed about to say something more, but changed his mind, and abruptly left the house.
The next day was Valmai's last in Nance's cottage. She rose early, and, after her simple breakfast, put on her white hat, and, kissing the old woman tenderly, said:
"I am going out for a few hours; there are one or two people I want to see—Peggi Bullet, and Shon, the sexton. Then I am going to cross the Rock Bridge."
She did not tell Nance that her chief object was to pay a last visit to her old haunts by the Berwen. After making all arrangements with Peggi Bullet and Shon, she took her way across the bridge. The year that had passed since Cardo had left her, with its varied experiences and trials, the bitter sense of loneliness and desertion, the pains and the delights of motherhood, the desolation and sorrow of bereavement, all had worked a change in the simple girl's character, that now surprised even herself, and she thankfully realised that her troubles had at all events generated a strength which enabled her to act for herself and attend to matters of business which had before been unapproachable mysteries to her. She shrank a little as she met the bold, admiring gaze of a knot of sailors, who stood at the door of the Ship Inn, where she explained to the buxom landlady that she wanted the car to meet her at the Rock Bridge on the following morning at ten.
"Yes, miss fach, and Jackie will drive you safe; but, indeed, there's long time since we saw you! You never come to see us now, and there's many warm hearts on this side the Rock Bridge as on the island, I can tell you."
"Yes, indeed, I know, and I thank you all," said Valmai, as she went out again into the sunshine.
The sailors were gone now, and she was free to make her way over the golden sands so often trodden by her and Cardo.
Every boulder, every sandy nook, every wave that broke, brought its own sad memories.
She turned up the path by the Berwen, which led to the old church, carefully avoiding even a glance at the tangled path on the other side of the river, which she and Cardo had made their own.
Pale and dry-eyed, she pressed her hands on her bosom as if to still the aching throbbing within. Every step that brought her nearer to the old church increased the dull aching that weighed her down; but still she pressed on, longing, yet dreading, to see the spot on which she and Cardo had made their vows together on that sunny morning which seemed so long ago.
As she entered the porch, she disturbed the white owl, who emerged from the ivy with a flap of her great wings, and sailed across the Berwen.
The worm-eaten door of the church stood wide open. Entering the aisle with light footsteps, she approached the altar rails. The light was very dim in the chancel, as every year the ivy grew thicker over the windows. Surely in that dark corner within the rails some black object stood, something blacker and darker than the shadow itself, and she stood still for a moment, startled. Yes, there was a sound of heavy breathing and the rustling of paper. She drew nearer, even close to the altar rails, and, as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she saw a man, who stooped over a musty, tattered book.
The sound of her footstep attracted his attention, and as he rose from his stooping position, Valmai recognised the marble face and the black eyebrows of the "Vicar du."
He was looking at one of the leaves in the old registry book, and for a moment as he raised his eyes to the silent, white figure before the altar, he took her for a ghostly visitant; but Valmai, with a sudden inrush of recognition, clasped her hands, a faint exclamation escaped her lips, and the "Vicare du" knew it was no spirit who stood trembling before him. For a moment both were speechless—then pointing to the page before him, he asked in a husky voice, "What is the meaning of this?" and from beginning to end he read, with this strange hoarseness in his voice, the entry of his son's marriage to Valmai. Not a word escaped him, not even the date, nor the names of the witnesses. Then he turned his black eyes upon her once more, and repeated his question.
"What is the meaning of this? I have heard of your shame, of your dishonour—of the disgraceful way in which you have entrapped my poor boy. But what is this farce enacted here? How dare you enter the House of God and forge this ridiculous statement? Where is my son, whom you have lured to destruction?"
Valmai was shaken like a reed by this sudden and unexpected meeting, and the outburst of feeling exhibited by the "Vicare du" awoke in her own heart such a tumult of doubt and suspense, that she could no longer restrain the tears which for days she had kept in check; long, silent sobs heaved her bosom, she covered her face with her hands, and the tears trickled through her fingers, but she made no answer.
"Speak, girl," said the Vicar, "have you nothing to say for yourself? no excuse to make for your conduct? My son and I lived in perfect happiness together until you came to this neighbourhood; now you have led a young man on to his ruin and broken the heart of an old man—for this," he said, tapping the register with a trembling finger, "this is a lie—a forgery—a foolish piece of deceit, not worth the paper on which it is written!"
Still Valmai spoke not a word. Oh, what happiness it would have been to throw herself at the old man's feet, and to confess everything, here, where Cardo and she had plighted their troth—to have told him of her ignorance of his fate, of her distracted longing for his return. Surely, surely he would have forgiven her! She was torn with conflicting feelings. But, no! Had she borne the contempt and scorn of all her acquaintances and friends to break down now, and disclose her secret to the man of all others from whom Cardo desired to keep the knowledge of it? No, she would die rather than divulge it—and with an earnest prayer for strength she remained silent, for in silence alone she had taken refuge since her troubles had come upon her.
"Speak, girl, I implore you! Tell me, is this true?" His voice trembled, and he came a step nearer to her. "Tell me that it is true, and I will forgive you and him, for I shall then have a hope that his love for you will bring him home, though he has no love for me." And completely overcome by his feeling's he dropped on his knees by the table, and, leaning his head on his arms, broke into a torrent of tears. "Oh, Cardo, Cardo, my boy!" he cried. "Come back to me."
There was no answer from Valmai, and when he raised his head again she was gone. At the words, "Oh! Cardo, Cardo," she had fled down the aisle, out into the golden sunshine, down the rugged path to the shore, where behind a huge boulder she flung herself down on the sands, crying out in a long pent-up agony of tears, "Oh Cardo, Cardo, come back!"
The morning hours passed on, and noontide drew near.
The "Vicare du" emerged from the church porch, pale and calm as usual. He looked at his watch as he came out into the sunshine, and followed the same path over which Valmai had sped an hour before. He had replaced the old registry book in the rusty, iron chest, had closed the door methodically, and when he had disappeared through the trees the white owl had flapped back into the tower, and the dimly-lighted church which had been the scene of such stormy human feelings was once more silent and deserted.
At noontide, too, Valmai had regained her composure, and had risen from her attitude of despair with a pale face and eyes which still showed traces of their storm of tears.
Next day she bade her faithful Nance good-bye, leaving with her a promise to write as soon as she was settled in some place that she could call "home," and to return for a few days in the spring.
Arrived at Caer Madoc, she took her place in the coach in which she had journeyed a year before; and reaching the station at Blaennos, soon arrived at Fordsea. Leaving her luggage at the station, she made her way into the well-remembered town. There was the white-flashing harbour, here was the crooked Reuben Street, and here the dear little house once occupied by her uncle, where she and Cardo had spent their happy honeymoon. Yes, she remembered it all; but she held her head up bravely, and crushed down every tender memory, hardening her heart, and setting herself to attend to the business of the hour.
In the broad High Street she easily found the shining brass plate which bore the words, "Mr. William Lloyd, Solicitor," and she entered the office with as business-like an air as she could assume.
"Can I see Mr. William Lloyd himself?"
"You see him, madam; I am he," said a middle-aged, pleasant-faced man, who met her in the doorway. "I was just going out, but if your business is not likely to keep us long—"
"I don't think so," said Valmai. "I am the niece of Captain Powell, who used to live in Reuben Street. He once told me you were his lawyer, and I have heard that in his will he has left me some money."
"Bless me! You are his niece Valmai! Of course. I have been wondering when you would turn up, and was really beginning to think I must advertise for you. I have written to your uncle at Abersethin, but have had no reply."
"He never writes if he can help it. I am very ignorant of money matters and business ways," said Valmai, as Mr. Lloyd handed her a chair, "but would like to know in plain words how much my dear uncle has left me, as I am leaving this part of the country to-morrow."
"Not going out of England, I suppose?" said the lawyer.
"No, oh no; not even out of Wales."
"Well, I have your uncle's will here, and I can read it to you at once."
"No, indeed," said Valmai, "I don't think I want to hear it read. I know from dear Uncle John's perfect faith in you that I can trust you. If you will only tell me plainly how much money I can have now, and how I am to receive it in the future, I shall be quite satisfied; and if I owe you anything you can deduct it, please."
Mr. Lloyd smiled and shook his head at this unbusiness-like proposal.
"Well," he said, "young ladies can't be expected to know much of business ways, but I should certainly like to go into the accounts with you at the first opportunity. He has left you the bulk of his property, the income of which is about 150 pounds a year; and, after deducting the legacies and my costs and all expenses, I shall have in hand about 300 pounds for you."
"Three hundred pounds," said Valmai, "what a lot of money! Could you take care of it for me, Mr. Lloyd? and let me send to you for it when I want it," she added nervously.
"Certainly, my dear young lady, and I will send you a statement of accounts as soon as possible."
After a few more business arrangements Valmai left the office, feeling she had quite acted up to her new role of an independent woman of business.
Making her way to a quiet hotel, the landlord of which she remembered had been an intimate acquaintance of her uncle's, she procured a bed there for the night, and in the morning arose with the feeling that the dear old past was dead, and that a new and unlovely life lay before her.
In the spacious, handsomely-furnished drawing-room of a large country-house, two ladies sat on a quiet evening in autumn. The large bay window looked out over extensive grounds to the blue hills beyond. In the pale evening sky the crescent moon hung like a silver boat, the trees in the quiet air looked black as if drawn in ink. In the grate a large wood fire crackled, which the elder lady seemed much to enjoy as she rubbed her hands one over another on her knee, and spoke in a low, purring tone. The younger occupant of the room was a girl about twenty years of age; she was fair and fragile-looking compared with her portly companion, who was rather florid in complexion.
"Put your work away, my dear," said the elder lady; "it is getting too dark for you to see."
"This is the last petal, auntie," said the girl, still bending her head with its wealth of golden hair over her work. At last with a satisfied "There!" she laid it on the table and turned towards the bay window, through which might be seen a fair view of the park, with its undulating knolls and clumps of trees, between which wound in flowing curves the well-kept drive leading to the high road.
"You had better ring for the lights, Gwladys," said the elder lady, as she settled herself to what she called "five minutes' snooze," a slumber which generally lasted till dinner-time.
"There is a carriage coming down the drive; what can it be, auntie?" But auntie was already in dreamland, and Gwladys stood still at the window watching with curiosity the vehicle which drew nearer and nearer.
"The fly from the Red Dragon at Monmouth! who can it be?" and her blue eyes opened wide as she saw alighting from it a girl in a quiet black travelling dress. "She's young and has golden hair like mine—a dressmaker, probably, for one of the servants, but she would scarcely come to the front door."
Before she had time to conjecture further, the door was opened by a servant man, who seemed rather flustered as the visitor entered quickly, unannounced. She had merely asked him, "Miss Gwladys Powell lives here?" and, receiving an answer in the affirmative, had walked into the hall and followed the puzzled man to the drawing-room door.
As she entered the room in the dim twilight, Gwladys stood still with astonishment, while William so far forgot himself as to stand open-mouthed with his hand on the door-handle, until Gwladys said, "The lamps, William," when he disappeared suddenly.
The visitor stood for one moment frightened and doubtful.
"I am Valmai," she said, approaching Gwladys with her hands extended.
"Valmai?" said Gwladys, taking both the offered hands. "I don't know the name—but—surely, surely, we are sisters! You are my twin-sister. Oh, I have heard the old story, and have longed for and dreamt of this meeting all my life," and in a moment the two girls were clasped to each other's hearts.
Gwladys seemed more unnerved by the meeting than Valmai, for she trembled with eagerness as she drew the new-comer nearer to the window, where the evening light shone upon the fresh pure face, so completely the image of her own, that both were impelled over and over again to renew their embraces, and to cling closely together.
When William entered with the lights, they were seated on the sofa with clasped hands, and arms thrown round each other's necks.
"Please, m'm, is the carriage to go or to stay?"
"Oh, to go—to go, of course," said Gwladys, rising to her feet.
"I have paid him," said Valmai; "but I couldn't be sure, you know, whether—whether—"
"No, darling, of course. Auntie, auntie, awake and see who has come."
Mrs. Besborough Power blinked lazily.
"Dinner?" she said.
"No, no, auntie, not for another hour, it is only seven o'clock; but do wake up and see who has come."
But the sight of the strange girl had already recalled her aunt to her senses; her beady black eyes were fixed upon her, and her high-bridged nose seemed to be aiding them in their inquiries, as she pressed her lips together, and sniffed in astonishment.
"Gwladys," she said, "is it possible that I have invited anyone to dinner, and then forgotten it?"
Gwladys had removed her sister's hat, and as she stood now before Mrs. Power, in the full light of the lamp and the fire, that poor lady was smitten by the same bewilderment which had taken possession of William at the front door. She could only ejaculate:
"Gracious goodness, Gwladys! What is the meaning of this? Who is it, child? and which are you? Are you this one or that one? For heaven's sake say something, or I shall be quite confused."
"It's Valmai, auntie, my twin-sister, though you could not remember her name, but of whom I have thought often and often. Auntie, you will welcome her for my sake? Is she not the very image of me? alike—nay, not so, but the same, the very same, only in two bodies. Oh, Valmai! Valmai! why have we been separated so long?" and, sinking into a chair, she trembled with agitation.
Mrs. Power held her hands out, though not very cordially. She was beginning to arrange her ideas.
"Welcome her! Why, of course, of course. How do you do, my dear? Very glad to see you, I am sure, though I can't think where you have dropped from. Gwladys, calm yourself; I am surprised at you. I thought you were in Figi, or Panama, or Macedonia, or some place of that kind."
"Patagonia," said Valmai, smiling. "My parents both died there, and I have come home to live in Wales again—"
"Well, to be sure," said Mrs. Power, rubbing one hand over another, her favourite action. "Come, Gwladys, don't cry—don't be silly; as your sister is here, she will stay with us a week or so. Can you, my dear?"
"Yes," said Valmai, whose clear mind quickly drew its own conclusions and formed its own plans. "Yes, indeed, I hoped you would ask me to stay a week or so; but do not think I am come to be dependent on you. No, I am well off, but I had an intense longing to see my sister; and having no ties or claims upon me, I made up my mind to find her out before I settled down into some new life."
Alas, poor human nature! The few words, "I am well off," influenced Mrs. Besborough Power at once in her reception of the friendless girl.
"Of course, my dear, stay as long as you like. Go upstairs now and take your things off, and after dinner you shall tell us all your story."
And arm-in-arm the two girls left the room, "like twin cherries on a stalk." The resemblance between them was bewildering; every line of feature, every tone of colouring was the same.
"Let us stand together before this cheval glass," said Gwladys, "and have a good look at each other. Oh, Valmai, my beloved sister, I feel as if I had known you all my life, and could never bear to part with you."
And as they stood side by side before the glass, they were themselves astonished, puzzled, and amused at the exact likeness of one to the other. The same broad forehead, in which, at the temples, the blue veins showed so plainly, the same depth of tenderness in the blue eyes, the same slender neck, and the same small hands; the only difference lay in the expression, for over Gwladys's upper lip and half-drooped eyelids hovered a shade of pride and haughtiness which was absent from Valmai's countenance.
"Oh, see," she said playfully, "there is a difference—that little pink mole on my arm. Valmai, you haven't got it."
"No," said Valmai, critically examining her wrist, with rather a dissatisfied look, "I haven't got that; but in everything else we are just alike. How lovely you are, Gwladys."
"And you, Valmai, how sweet." And again they embraced each other.
"I have no dress to change for dinner, dear. Do you dress?"
"Oh, only just a little, and I won't at all this evening. How strange we should both be in mourning, too! Mine is for Mrs. Power's sister. Who are you wearing black for?"
A hot blush suffused Valmai's face and neck as she answered slowly:
"I am not in mourning, but thought black would be nice to travel in. I generally wear white."
"How strange! so do I," said Gwladys; "white or something very light. Shall we go down, dear? Would you like a bedroom to yourself, or shall we sleep together?"
"Oh, let us sleep together!"
And with arms thrown over each other's shoulders, they descended the broad staircase, just as Mrs. Power, in answer to William's summons, was crossing the hall to the dining-room.
"Here we are, auntie, or here I am and here is she."
"Come along, then, my dears."
"Well, indeed, I never did," said William, when he entered the kitchen; "no, I never, never did see such a likeness between two young leddies. They are the same picture as each other! And missus says to me, 'William,' she says, 'this is Miss Gwladys's sister, her twin-sister,' she says, 'Miss Valmai Powell.' And I couldn't say nothing, if you believe me, with my eyes as big as saucers. Ach y fi! there's an odd thing!"
In the drawing-room after dinner there were endless questions and answers, each one seeming to find in the other's history a subject of the deepest interest. Mrs. Besborough Power, especially, with her nose in the air, sometimes looking over her spectacles, and sometimes under them, sometimes through them, did not hesitate to question Valmai on the minutest particulars of her life hitherto—questions which the latter found it rather difficult to answer without referring to the last eighteen months.
"H'm!" said Mrs. Power, for the twentieth time, "and ever since your father's death you have been living with your uncle?"
"With my uncles, first one and then the other; and the last few months with dear Nance, my old nurse."
"What! Nance Owen? Is she alive still?"
"Yes; she is, indeed."
"She must be very old now?"
"Yes, and frail; but as loving and tender as ever."
And so on, and so on, until bed-time; and the two girls were once more together in their bedroom.
The maid, who was deeply interested in the strange visitor, lingered about the toilet-table a little unnecessarily, until Gwladys, in a voice which, though not unkind, showed she was more accustomed to command than Valmai, said:
"That will do, thank you, I will do my own hair to-night. My sister and I wish to talk." And, having dismissed Maria, she drew two cosy chairs round the wood fire.
"Come along, Valmai, now we can chat to our heart's content." And soon, with feet on fender and hair unloosed, the sisters talked and talked, as if making up for the long years of silence which had divided them.
"And how happy that neither of us is married," said Gwladys. "We might never have met then, dear."
"Possibly," said Valmai.
"And what a good thing we haven't the same lover to quarrel about."
"Yes," said Valmai, rather absently. She was struggling hard with the tumult of feelings which she had hitherto restrained, endeavouring to smile and laugh as the occasion required; but now the tide of emotions, which had been pent up all day, threatened to burst its bonds.
"What is it, dear?" said Gwladys. "What makes your voice tremble so? There is something you are hiding from me?" and, flinging herself down on the hearth-rug at Valmai's feet, she clasped her arms around her knees, and leant her head on her lap, while Valmai, giving way to the torrent of tears which had overpowered her, bent her own head over her sister's until their long unbound hair was mingled together.
"Oh, Gwladys! Gwladys!" she said, between her sobs, "yes, I have hidden something from you. Something, oh, everything—the very point and meaning of my life. And I must still hide it from you. Gwladys, can you trust me? Can you believe your sister is pure and good when she tells you that the last eighteen months of her life must be hidden from you? Not because they contain anything shameful, but because circumstances compel her to silence."
The effect of these words upon Gwladys was, at first, to make her rigid and cold as stone. She drew herself away from her sister, gently but firmly, and, standing before her with blanched face and parched lips, said:
"I thought it was too good to be true; that I, who have so longed for a sister's love, should have my desire so fully satisfied seemed too good for earth, and now I see it was. There is a secret between us, a shadow, Valmai; tell me something more, for pity's sake!"
"I will tell you all I can, Gwladys, the rest I must keep to myself, even though you should spurn me and cast me from you to-morrow, for I have promised one who is dearer to me than life itself, and nothing shall make me break that promise. Gwladys, I have loved, but—but I have lost."
"I know very little of the world," said Gwladys, speaking in cold tones, "and still less of men; but the little I know of them has made me despise them. Three times I have been sought in marriage, and three times I have found something dishonourable in the men who said they loved me. Love! What do men know of love? Fortunately my heart was untouched; but you, Valmai, have been weaker. I see it all—oh! to my sorrow I see it all! You have believed and trusted, and you have been betrayed? Am I right?"
"Yes, and no; I have loved and I have trusted, but I have not been betrayed. He will come back to me, Gwladys—I know he will, some time or other—and will explain the meaning of this long silence. Meanwhile I must go on bearing and waiting."
"Look into my eyes, Valmai," said Gwladys, kneeling once more before her sister.
And Valmai looked full into the blue orbs, the counterpart of her own, with fearless, open gaze.
"Now speak," said Gwladys, taking her sister's hand, and holding it on her own fast-beating heart; "now tell me, here as we kneel together before the All-seeing God and His holy angels, do you know of any reason why we two, when we have dropped these bodies, should not stand in equal purity before the Throne of God?"
"Before God there is none! Of course, Gwladys, my heart is full of the frailties and sin belonging to our human nature; but I understand what you mean; and again I say, there is none!"
"I will believe you, darling," said her sister, throwing her arms around her, "I will believe you, dearest; I will take you into my warm heart, and I will cling to you for ever!"
"But I must go, Gwladys; I want to find some home where I can make myself useful, and where I can fill my mind and hands with work until—until—"
"Until when, dear?" said Gwladys.
Valmai rose with a troubled face and tearful eyes, and, stretching out her hands, she gazed over them into the far distance, with a dreamy look which gradually changed into a brightening smile.
"Until the happy future comes! It will come some day, Gwladys, and then you will be glad you trusted your sister."
"Then to-night, dear," said Gwladys, "we will bury the last eighteen months. I will never think of them or allude to them until you choose to enlighten me. One thing only, Valmai," she added, "forget that man—learn to despise him as I do; here is the fourth on my list! Let us go to bed, dear; we are both tired."
And the two sisters were soon sleeping side by side, so much alike in every feature and limb, that no one looking at them would have been able to distinguish one from the other.
"What a strange thing," said Mrs. Power, a few days afterwards, as they roamed about the grounds together, "that the Merediths should have written to me just the day before you came! My dear, I think it will be a delightful home for you. True, Mifanwy is an invalid, and you will be her companion; but then they are advised to amuse her as much as possible, and she sees a good deal of life, often going about from one place to another. Let me see! they will get my letter to-morrow, and I have no doubt they will write by return of post; but we can't spare you for a month, dear. You know you promised us that!" And the old lady purred on, walking between the twins, and much interested in her plans.
"Yes, indeed," said Valmai, "I shall be thankful for such a situation; it is just what I would have chosen for myself, whatever."
"'Whatever' and 'indeed' so often is very Welshy, my love," said Mrs. Power, with a sniff of disapproval.
"Yes, I am afraid, indeed," said the girl; "but you should have heard me two years ago. I could scarcely speak any English then!"
"Well, my dear, I hope Gwladys won't catch your Welsh accent; but the Merediths have it very strongly themselves."
"Oh! I hope they will like me," said Valmai. "I must not count my chickens before they are hatched!"
But they were hatched, and in this matter everything turned out well for Valmai.
The Merediths, who lived in an adjoining county, had for some time been looking out for a companion for their eldest and invalid daughter. They were delighted, therefore, when Mrs. Besborough Power's letter arrived telling them of Gwladys's meeting with her twin-sister, and of the latter's desire to find some situation of usefulness; and in less than a month Valmai was domiciled amongst them, and already holding a warm place in their regard.
Mifanwy opened her heart to her at once, and seemed every day to revive under the influence of her bright companionship; and her parents, delighted with the change which they began to perceive in their daughter, heaped kindnesses and attention upon Valmai, who was soon looked upon as one of the family; even Gwen and Winifred, the two younger girls, taking to her in a wonderful manner.
Yes! Valmai was outwardly happy and fortunate. She hid from every eye the sorrow which lay at the bottom of her heart like a leaden weight, and little did those around her guess that every night, in the privacy of her own room, she drew from her bosom a plain gold ring, and, laying it on the bed before her, prayed over it with clasped hands and streaming eyes.
Gwladys and she corresponded very regularly, and she frequently went to Carne for a few days' change when Mifanwy was well enough to spare her; always regretted by the whole family when she left, and warmly welcomed when she returned.
Two months had slipped away, and still Charles Williams remained a patient in the Westlake Hospital at Sydney. At length, after a consultation of the doctors, it was proposed that he should be consigned to the workhouse infirmary.
"We can't keep him here forever," said Dr. Emerton; "and as all the beds will be wanted with this outbreak of diphtheria, I see nothing else to be done."
"Well," said Dr. Belton, "I am deeply interested in his case, and if you agree, I will take him under my own particular charge. You know I have a few rooms set apart for such cases in my house at Brookmere. I will take him there, and see what I can do for him."
"Very kind of you, I am sure," said Dr. Emerton. "You can afford that sort of thing—I can't. I should have sent him to the infirmary, where he would be under Dr. Hutchinson's care; but, of course, he will be better off in your private hospital."
And one day in the following week, Dr. Belton took home with him the invalid, whose case he had already described to his wife and children, so that when the stooping figure emerged from the carriage leaning heavily on the arm of the nurse who accompanied him, he was received with kindness and warmth, Mrs. Belton herself meeting him with outstretched hands of welcome.
"Very glad to see you, Mr. Williams. You will soon get better here, I think."
Cardo looked at her with no intelligence in his eyes. "Yes, thank you," was all he said, as he passed with his nurse into the bright, cosy room relegated to the use of the patients, who were so fortunate, or so unfortunate as to arouse more than usual interest in Dr. Belton's mind.
"Now, nurse," said the doctor, "give him a good tea, and a little of that cold quail, and after tea I will come and have a chat with him."
Later on in the evening he kept his word and found Cardo sunk in the depths of an arm-chair, watching with lack-lustre eyes, while the Dr.'s two boys tried their skill at a game of bagatelle.
"Well, Williams, and how are you now? tired, eh?" he asked.
"Yes," said Cardo, turning his eyes upon the doctor with a look of bewilderment, which reminded him of the look of dumb inquiry in the eyes of a troubled dog.
"You will like this better than the hospital I am sure. Do you love children?"
"No," was Cardo's laconic reply, at which the doctor smiled.
He tried many subjects but failed to get any further answer than "yes" or "no." Most men would have been discouraged when several weeks passed over, and still his patient showed very little signs of improvement. It is true, now he would answer more at length, but he was never heard to volunteer a remark, though he sat for hours in what looked like a "brown study," in which probably only indistinct forms and fantastic shapes passed before his mind's eye. And latterly the doctor too had frequently been observed to fall into a reverie, while his eyes were fixed on Charles Williams's motionless attitude. After much thought, he would sit beside his patient and try to interest him in something going on around him.
Indeed, Cardo's gentle ways, together with his handsome person, had endeared him to all who came in contact with him, and there was not one in the house, from the cook in the kitchen to Dr. Belton's youngest child, who would not have rejoiced to see health restored to the invalid.
One evening, when Jack, a boy of twelve, returned from school, he came bounding into the room in which Cardo sat with his eyes fixed on a newspaper, which he had not turned nor moved for an hour, Sister Vera sitting at the window with her work.
"See, Mr. Williams," said the boy, "what Meta Wright gave me, some gilded gingerbread! isn't it pretty? I have eaten a pig and a lamb—now there is a ship for you."
Cardo put down the paper, and taking the gingerbread in his thin fingers, looked at it with eyes that gradually filled with tears.
"Gingerbread?" he said, looking next at the boy, "gilded gingerbread in the moonlight!"
Sister Vera's eyes and ears were instantly on the alert, while she made a sign of silence to the boy.
Cardo continued to look at the gingerbread. Suddenly he held up his finger and seemed to listen intently.
"Hush!" he whispered, "do you hear the Berwen?" and he ate his gingerbread slowly, sighing heavily when it was finished.
This was good news for Dr. Belton, told garrulously at tea by his young son, and more circumstantially by Sister Vera; but for long afterwards there was no further sign of improvement in Cardo.
It was not until three more months had passed that another sign of reviving memory was seen in him, and again it was Jack who awoke the sleeping chord.
"Isn't it a shame?" he said, excitedly running into the room one day; "mother is cutting Ethel's hair; says she's getting headaches from the weight of it. Rot, I call it! See what a lovely curl I stole," and he handed it to Cardo, who first of all looked at it with indifference, but suddenly clutching it, curled it round his finger, and became very excited.
"Whose is it?" said Sister Vera, standing over him.
His lips trembled and with a husky voice he said.
"Valmai—" The sound of the name seemed to charm his ear, for he continued to speak it in all sorts of varying tones—sometimes in whispering tones of love—at others in loud and imploring accents. "Oh, Valmai, Valmai!" he called, and when Dr. Belton entered the room, he held out his hands towards him, and in a beseeching voice cried, "Valmai! Valmai!"
There was no rest for anyone in the hospital that night, for all night long the house echoed with the cry of "Valmai! Valmai!"
On the following morning, endeavouring to create some distraction from this ever-recurring cry, Dr. Belton drove his patient with him for some miles into the bush; the fresh air and motion seemed to quiet his brain, and he fell into the silent stupor so constantly hanging over him.
"Come, Williams," said the doctor at last, as they emerged into a well-kept road leading up to a handsome house which stood on a rising ground before them, surrounded by its broad acres of well-cultivated land. "You must brighten up now, for I am going to take you to see an old friend of mine. Why, here he is!" and they were greeted by a jovial shout as a portly, pleasant-faced man caught them up.
"Hello! doctor, glad to see you; you havent honoured us with a visit for some time."
"I have been so busy lately, and even now you see I have brought a patient with me. I thought a little change would do him good."
"Of course, of course! the more the merrier. I'll ride on and prepare Nellie for your coming," and off he galloped on his well-kept, spirited horse, looking as he felt, perfectly at home in the saddle.
"Nellie," a sweet-looking lady with a brunette's face, which retained much of the beauty of youth, although she had now attained to middle age, was as hearty as her husband in her greeting.
"So glad to see you—you are just in time for dinner; for a wonder Lewis is punctual today."
She shook hands with Cardo, and placed a chair for him at the well-filled table. He took his seat with a pleasant smile, but soon fell into his usual dreamy state, which the company at a sign from Dr. Belton took no notice of.
"I do believe, Williams," said Dr. Belton at last, "that I have never introduced you to my friends. These are Mr. and Mrs. Wynne."
Cardo looked up almost eagerly.
"Cardo Wynne?" he said.
"No," said the doctor; "Mr. Lewis Wynne. But do you know that name?"
"Yes, Cardo Wynne."
"Is that your name?" asked the shrewd doctor.
"Yes, Cardo Wynne."
"Merciful goodness!" said the host, in excited astonishment, which his wife seemed in a great measure to share, "that is the name of my brother's son, Caradoc, commonly called Cardo Wynne; that is what Dr. Hughes told us, Nellie, didn't he?"
"Yes, I have often thought of the name and wondered what he was like. How sad," she said, "and such a handsome fellow, too."
"Caradoc!" Dr. Belton called suddenly.
"Yes," said Cardo, with one of his pleasant smiles, "Cardo Wynne, Brynderyn."
"Good heavens!" said Mr. Wynne, "there can be no doubt about it; that is my brother's home."
And both he and Dr. Belton, aided by Mrs. Wynne's gentle suggestions, made every endeavour to elicit further information from Cardo, but in vain. He had fallen again into an apparently unconscious and deadened stupor.
"Sunstroke, did you say? are you sure of that, Belton?"
"Not at all," said the doctor; "in fact, I have had serious doubts of it lately, and to-day's experience decides me. I will have a thorough examination of his skull."
"I will ride in to-morrow, to hear what further discoveries you have made," said Mr. Wynne. And Dr. Belton returned home early, leaving his host and hostess deeply interested.
Calling Sister Vera to him he told her of his plans.
"I have long thought it possible that poor fellow might have had a blow of some kind on his head, and that he is still suffering from the effects of it. I shall at once administer an anaesthetic and have a thorough examination of his head. The idea of sunstroke was so confirmed by the symptoms when he was brought to the hospital that no one thought of anything else."
"How soon?" asked the nurse.
And the next afternoon, Cardo's head was thoroughly examined, with the result that Dr. Belton soon found at the back of the skull near the top a small but undoubted indentation.
"Of course," he said, "we must have been blind not to guess it before; but we are blind sometimes—very blind and very stupid."
Cardo was kept under the influence of a sedative that night, and next day Dr. Belton, with the promptness of action which he now regretted he had not sooner exercised, procured the help of one of the most noted specialists in Sydney, and an operation was successfully performed.
Mr. and Mrs. Wynne's visits of inquiry and sympathy were of almost daily occurrence during the next month, while Cardo in the darkened, quiet room, slowly regained his powers of mind and body. It was a very slow progress, though it did not seem to be wholly unsatisfactory to Dr. Belton. That good man, after weeks, nay months, of anxious interest, was, however, at last rewarded by the pleasant spectacle of a young and ardent temperament gradually re-awakening to the joys of life.
The mind which had been darkened for so long could not be expected to regain its elasticity and spring at once, in an hour, or a day. But it was evident to the doctor that the healing process which had begun would continue, unless retarded by some unforeseen accident. Gradually the children were admitted into his presence, and while they played with Cardo, Mrs. Belton came and chatted with Sister Vera.
A few days later on Mr. and Mrs. Wynne entered through the verandah with Dr. Belton, and although Cardo looked a little flustered and puzzled, the pleasant smile and warm clasp of the hand with which he greeted them showed there was no great depth of distrust or fear in his mind. His uncle and aunt possessed much good sense and judgment, and did not hurriedly thrust the recognition of themselves upon their nephew, but waited patiently, and let it dawn gradually upon him.
One afternoon, while Cardo, accompanied by his uncle and aunt, were walking up and down the verandah conversing on things in general, in a friendly and unconstrained manner, he suddenly stopped, and looking full into his uncle's face, said:
"Uncle Lewis, I cannot imagine how you and I have come here together; some things seem so very clear to me, and others so dim and indistinct."
"But every day they grow clearer, do they not?"
"Yes, I think so. Have I been ill?"
"Yes, my dear fellow," said his uncle, gently laying his hand on his arm, "you have been very ill, and your recovery depends entirely upon your keeping your mind calm and restful. Do not attempt to remember anything that does not come clearly into your mind; in fact, live in the present as much as you can, and the past will come back to you gradually."
At this moment Dr. Belton appeared on the verandah, having just returned from a visit to one of the Sydney hospitals. After greeting his friends, he sat down on a rustic chair, and with a stretch and a yawn brought out from his coat pocket a leather pocket-book which he flung across to Cardo.
"There, Cardo, is that yours?"
"Yes," he answered, carelessly taking the pocketbook and placing it in his pocket.
"Come, you have disposed of it quickly; look at it again."
Cardo drew it out once more, and, looking at it more carefully, said:
"I do not remember where I dropped it; but I do remember being in a hot, scorching atmosphere, and feeling a terrific blow on my head, and then—nothing more but cloud and darkness, until I awoke here to light and memory, though that sometimes fails me, for I cannot remember exactly what happened before that day of burning heat."
"Well! the blow on your head and the loss of your pocket-book I can explain, for to-day in the Eastlake Hospital, I was with a dying man, who confessed that about a year and a half ago he was standing idly on the docks, when he saw a gentleman suddenly struck on the back of his head by the swinging arm of a huge crane, used for lifting heavy weights to and from the shipping. The young man fell forward, his pocket-book—that one I have just given you—fell out of his pocket, and was pounced upon by the man who died to-day. That was you, Cardo Wynne; you were struck down insensible by the iron bar, and while you were quickly surrounded by a crowd and carried to the hospital, the man escaped with your pocket-book. He returned it to me with great penitence, having spent all your money, I am afraid; but your papers, I think, are intact, and I see you have in it a letter of credit upon the Bank of Australasia."
"Why, yes," said Cardo, "I remember coming to the harbour in a ship. What was it called? The Burrawalla!" and as he fingered the papers in the pocket-book, and came upon his father's signature, Meurig Wynne, he became much excited, and hunted eagerly until he found a folded paper, out of which he drew a long curl of golden hair.
"Valmai!" he said, "oh, Valmai, Valmai!" and dropping on to a seat, he covered his face with his hands, and through his fingers trickled some silent tears.
"I must forbid any more excitement for the present," said the doctor; "let us go in to dinner."
And as they gathered round the table, Cardo took his seat next to his uncle, with more cheerfulness and alacrity than usual.
The thread of memory, once awakened, never wholly slept again. Daily and almost hourly memories of the past returned to him, and as he gained bodily and mental strength, he gradually unfolded to his uncle the incidents which had preceded his coming to Australia.
When Lewis Wynne became fully aware of his brother's deep-seated affection for him, and of the penitence and remorse which had darkened his life, he was filled with an impatient anxiety to return to the land of his birth and the brother whom he had loved so much. Indeed, before his acquaintance with his nephew, he had already begun to arrange his affairs with the intention of disposing of his property in Australia, for he had prospered in all his undertakings, and was now a wealthy man.
It was delightful news therefore to Cardo when his uncle one day appeared at Dr. Belton's, with the information that he had concluded a satisfactory sale of his property.
"So we'll go back together, old boy," he said, slapping Cardo on the back in his usual jovial manner; "you can write to your father, and tell him to look out for a house for Nellie and me."
"I will write to him to-day," said Cardo; "poor old dad, poor old dad! What he must have suffered! I only hope the suspense has not killed him!"
"Well, if he is alive," said his uncle, "your good news will make up to him for all the past! We'll have some happy days in the old country yet. You must get married, Cardo, and settle down near us!"
"I am married," said Cardo, with a whole-hearted laugh at Dr. Belton's look of astonishment.
"Married!" said the doctor, "I never suspected that! I did think that long golden curl pointed to some love-affair."
"It did, indeed," said Cardo; "it is one of my sweet wife Valmai's curls!"
"Where is she now?" said Mr. Wynne, "with your father?"
"No," he said, with a more serious look, "living with her uncle. The truth is, my father knows nothing about our marriage, and I have only yesterday written to tell him the whole truth; and now that I am able to add the delightful news that you are returning with me, I think it will soften his heart, and he will forgive our secrecy."
"What objection has he to the lady?"
"She is the Methodist minister's niece."
At this remark Lewis Wynne burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
"The richest thing I ever heard of. Ha, ha, ha! Meurig Wynne's son married to a Methodist preacher's niece. My dear boy, he'll never give his consent. Why, he hated them like the very devil himself, and now you expect him to agree to your marrying a Methodist."
"He'll have to," said Cardo, "and I think he will."
"Never, my boy, never," said Lewis, rubbing his hands gleefully. "I expect we shall have some exciting times down there, Nellie?"
"Yes; there will be one thing missing, and that will be dear Agnes."
"It will always be a mystery to me," said Lewis Wynne, "how I missed your father's letter, although certainly I was roaming about a good deal at the time, and afterwards never hearing my brother's name from Dr. Hughes, who wrote occasionally, I naturally thought he was still keeping up his unaccountable anger against me; and the busy life of an Australian station soon occupied my life entirely; but, hurrah! for old Cymry now. We'll go back and make it all right, Cardo."
And in less than a month from this time, a very bright and cheerful party went on board the fast sailing steamer Wellingtonia. Mr. and Mrs. Wynne especially were full of life and spirits.