"Do you think she will be nice?" said Fan, wandering from the subject.
"Nice! That depends on your own taste. I fancy I can draw a picture of what she is like. A tall thin lady of an uncertain age. Thin across here"—placing her hands on her own shoulders. "And very flat here," —touching her own well-developed bust.
"But I should like to know about her face."
"Should you? I'm afraid that it is not a very bright smiling face, that it is rather yellow in colour, that the hair is rather dead-looking, of the door-mat tint, and smoothed flat down. The eyes are dim, no doubt, from much reading, and the nose long, straddled with a pair of spectacles, and red at the end from dyspepsia and defective circulation. But never mind, Fan, you needn't look so cast down about it. Miss Churton will be your teacher, and I wish you joy, but you will have plenty of time for play, and other things to think of besides study. When your lessons are over you can chase butterflies and gather flowers if you like. Luckily Miss Churton has not included botany and entomology in the long list of her acquirements."
Fan did not quite understand all this; her mistress was always mocking at something, she knew; she only asked if it was really in the country where she would live.
Miss Starbrow took up the letter and read the remaining portion, which contained a description of Wood End House—the Churtons' residence—and its surroundings. The house, the writer said, was small, but pretty and comfortable; and there was a nice garden and a large orchard with fruit in abundance. There were also some fields and meadows, her own property, let to neighbouring farmers. East of the house, and within fifteen minutes walk, was the old picturesque village of Eyethorne, sheltered by a range of grassy hills; also within a few minutes' walk began the extensive Eyethorne woods, celebrated for their beauty.
Nothing could have been more charming than this, and the picture of garden and orchard, green meadows and hills and shady woods, almost reconciled Fan to the prospect of spending a whole year in the society of an aged and probably ailing couple, and a lady of uncertain age, deeply learned and of unprepossessing appearance—for she could not rid her mind of the imaginary portrait drawn by Mary.
For some mysterious reason, or for no reason, Miss Starbrow resolved to close at once with the Churtons; and as if fearing that her mind might alter, she immediately tore up the other letters, although in some of them greater advantages had been held out, lower terms, and the companionship of girls of the same age as Fan. And in a very few days, after a little further correspondence, everything was settled to the entire satisfaction of everyone concerned, and it was arranged that Fan should go down to Eyethorne on the 10th of May, which was now very near.
"I shall have one good dress made for you," said Miss Starbrow, "and you can take the material to make a second for yourself; you are growing just now, Fan. A nice dress for Sundays; down in the country most people go to church. And, by the way, Fan, have you ever been inside a church in your life?"
She seemed not to know how to answer this question, but at length spoke, a little timidly. "Not since I have lived with you, Mary."
"Is that intended for a sarcasm, Fan? But never mind, I know what you mean. When you are at Eyethorne you must still bear that in mind, and even if questioned about it, never speak of that old life in Moon Street. I suppose I must get you a prayer-book, and—show you how to use it. But about dress. Your body is very much more important than your soul, and how to clothe it decently and prettily must be our first consideration. We must go to Whiteley's and select materials for half a dozen pretty summer dresses. Blue, I fancy, suits you best, but you can have other colours as well."
"Oh, Mary," said the girl with strange eagerness, "will you let me choose one myself? I have so long wished to wear white! May I have one white dress?"
"White? You are so white yourself. Don't you think you look simple and innocent enough as it is? But please yourself, Fan, you shall have as many white dresses as you like."
So overjoyed was Fan at having this long-cherished wish at last gratified that, for the first time she had ever ventured to do such a thing, she threw her arms round Mary's neck and kissed her. Then starting back a little frightened, she exclaimed, "Mary, was it wrong for me to kiss you without being told?"
"No, dear, kiss me as often as you like. We have had a rather eventful year together, have we not? Clouds and storms and some pleasant sunshine. For these few remaining days there must be no clouds, but only perfect love and peace. The parting will come quickly enough, and who knows—who knows what changes another year will bring?"
At the last moment, when all the preparations were complete, Miss Starbrow determined to accompany Fan to her new home, and, after dropping her there, to pay a long-promised visit before leaving England to an old friend of her girlhood, who was now married and living at Salisbury. Eyethorne took her some distance out of her way; and at the small country station where they alighted, which was two and a half miles from the village, she found from the time-table that her interview with the Churtons would have to be a short one, as there was only one train which would take her to Salisbury so as to arrive there at a reasonably early hour in the evening. At the station they took a fly, and the drive to Eyethorne brought before Fan's eyes a succession of charming scenes— green hills, broad meadows yellow with buttercups, deep shady lanes, and old farm-houses. The spring had been cold and backward; but since the beginning of May there had been days of warm sunshine with occasional gentle rains, and the trees, both shade and fruit, had all at once rushed into leaf and perfect bloom. Such vivid and tender greens as the foliage showed, such a wealth of blossom on every side, such sweet fragrance filling the warm air, Fan had never imagined; and yet how her prophetic heart had longed for the sweet country!
A sudden turn of the road brought them in full sight of the village, sheltered on the east side by low green hills; and beyond the village, at some distance, a broad belt of wood, the hills on one hand and green meadowland on the other. Five minutes after leaving the village they drew up at the gate of Wood End House, which was at some distance back from the road almost hidden from sight by the hedge and trees, and was approached by a short avenue of elms. Arrived at the house, they were received by Mr. and Mrs. Churton, and ushered into a small drawing-room on the ground floor; a room which, with its heavy-looking, old-fashioned furniture, seemed gloomy to them on coming in from the bright sunshine. Mrs. Churton was rather large, approaching stoutness in her figure, grey- haired with colourless face, and a somewhat anxious expression; but she seemed very gentle and motherly, and greeted Fan with a kindliness in her voice and manner which served in a great measure to remove the girl's nervousness on coming for the first time as an equal among gentlefolks.
Mr. Churton had not, in a long married life, grown like his spouse in any way, nor she like him. He was small, with a narrow forehead, irregular face and projecting under-lip, which made him ugly. His eyes were of that common no-colour type, and might or might not have been pigmented, and classifiable as brown or blue—Dr. Broca himself would not have been able to decide. But the absence of any definite colour was of less account than the lack of any expression, good or bad. One wondered, on seeing his face, how he could be a retired barrister, unless it meant merely that in the days of his youth he had made some vague and feeble efforts at entering such a profession, ending in nothing. Possibly he was himself conscious that his face lacked a quality found in others, and failed to inspire respect and confidence; for he had a trick of ostentatiously clearing his throat, and looking round and speaking in a deliberate and somewhat consequential manner, as if by these little arts to counterbalance the weakness in the expression. His whole get-up also suggested the same thought—could anyone believe the jewel to be missing from a casket so elaborately chased? His grey hair was brushed sprucely up on each side of his head, the ends of the locks forming a supplementary pair of ears above the crown. He was scrupulously dressed in black cloth and spotless linen, with a very large standing-up collar. In manner he was gushingly amiable and polite towards Miss Starbrow, and as he stood bowing and smiling and twirling the cord of his gold-rimmed glasses about his finger, he talked freely to that lady of the lovely weather, the beauty of the country, the pleasures of the spring season, and in fact of everything except the business which had brought her there. Presently she cut short his flow of inconsequent talk by remarking that her time was short, and inquiring if Miss Churton were in.
Mrs. Churton quickly replied that she was expecting her every moment; that she had gone out for a short walk, and had not perhaps seen the fly arrive. No doubt, she added a little nervously, Miss Starbrow would like to see and converse with Miss Affleck's future teacher and companion.
"Oh, no, not at all!" promptly replied the other, with the habitual curling of the lip. "I came to-day by the merest chance, as everything had been arranged by correspondence, and I am quite satisfied that Miss Affleck will be in good hands." At which Mr. Churton bowed, and turning bestowed a fatherly smile on Fan. "It is not at all necessary for me to see Miss Churton," continued Miss Starbrow, "but there is one thing I wish to speak to you about, which I omitted to mention in my letters to you."
Mr. and Mrs. Churton were all attention, but before the other had begun to speak Miss Churton came in, her hat on, and with a sunshade in one hand and a book in the other.
"Here is my daughter," said the mother. "Constance, Miss Starbrow and Miss Affleck."
Miss Churton advanced to the first lady, but did not give her hand as she had meant to do; for the moment she appeared in the room and her name was mentioned a cloud had come over the visitor's face, and she merely bowed distantly without stirring from her seat.
For the real Miss Churton offered a wonderful contrast to that portrait of her which the other had drawn from her imagination. She might almost be called tall, her height being little less than that of the dark-browed lady who sat before her, regarding her with cold critical eyes; but in figure she was much slimmer, and her light-coloured dress, which was unfashionable in make, was pretty and became her. She was, in fact, only twenty-two years old. There were no lines of deep thought on her pure white forehead when she removed her hat; and no dimness from much reading of books in her clear hazel eyes, which seemed to Fan the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen, so much sweet sympathy did they show, and so much confidence did they inspire. In colour she was very rich, her skin being of that tender brown one occasionally sees in the face of a young lady in the country, which seems to tell of a pleasant leisurely life in woods and fields; while her abundant hair was of a tawny brown tint with bronze reflections. She was very beautiful, and when, turning from Miss Starbrow, she advanced to Fan and gave her hand, the girl almost trembled with the new keen sensation of pleasure she experienced. Miss Churton was so different from that unlovely mental picture of her! She imagined for a moment, poor girl, that Mary would show her feelings of relief and pleasure; but she quickly perceived that something had brought a sudden cloud over Mary's face, and it troubled her, and she wondered what it meant.
Before Miss Churton had finished welcoming Fan, Miss Starbrow, looking at her watch and directly addressing the elder lady, said in a cold voice:
"I think it would be as well if Miss Affleck could leave us for a few minutes, and I will then finish what I had begun to say."
Miss Churton looked inquiringly at her, then turned again to Fan.
"Will you come with me to the garden?" she said.
Fan rose and followed her through a back door opening on to a grassy lawn, beyond which were the garden and orchard. After crossing the lawn and going a little way among the shrubs and flowers they came in sight of a large apple-tree white with blossoms.
"Oh, can we go as far as that tree?" asked the girl after a little delighted exclamation at the sight. When they reached the tree she went under it and gazed up into the beautiful flowery cloud with wide-open eyes, and lips half-parted with a smile of ineffable pleasure.
Miss Churton stood by and silently watched her face for some moments.
"Do you think you will like your new home, Miss Affleck?" she asked.
"Oh, how lovely it all is—the flowers!" she exclaimed. "I didn't know that there was any place in the world so beautiful as this! I should like to stay here for ever!"
"But have you never been in the country before?" said the other with some surprise.
"Yes. Only once, for a few days, years ago. But it was not like this. It was very beautiful in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, but this—"
She could find no words to express her feeling; she could only stand gazing up, and touching the white and pink clustering blossoms with her finger-tips, as if they were living things to be gently caressed. "Oh, it is so sweet," she resumed. "I have always so wished to be in the country, but before Miss Starbrow took me to live with her, and before—they— mother died, we lived in a very poor street, and were always so poor and —" Then she reddened and cast down her eyes and was silent, for she had suddenly remembered that Miss Starbrow had warned her never to speak of her past life.
Miss Churton smiled slightly, but with a strange tenderness in her eyes as she watched the girl's face.
"I hope we shall get on well together, and that you will like me a little," she said.
"Oh, yes, I know I shall like you if—if you will not think me very stupid. I know so little, and you know so much. Must you always call me Miss Affleck?"
"Not if you would prefer me to call you Frances. I should like that better."
"That would seem so strange, Miss Churton. I have always been called Fan."
Just then the others were seen coming out to the garden, and Miss Churton and Fan went back to meet them. Mr. Churton, polite and bare-headed, hovered about his visitor, smiling, gesticulating, chattering, while she answered only in monosyllables, and was blacker-browed than ever. Mrs. Churton, silent and pale, walked at her side, turning from time to time a troubled look at the dark proud face, and wondering what its stormy expression might mean.
"Fan," said Miss Starbrow, without even a glance at the lady at Fan's side, "my time is nearly up, and I wish to have three or four minutes alone with you before saying good-bye."
The others at once withdrew, going back to the house, while Miss Starbrow sat down on a garden bench and drew the girl to her side. "Well, my child, what do you think of your new teacher?" she began.
"I like her so much, Mary, I'm sure—I know she will be very kind to me; and is she not beautiful?"
"I am not going to talk about that, Fan. I haven't time. But I want to say something very serious to you. You know, my girl, that when I took you out of such a sad, miserable life to make you happy, I said that it was not from charity, and because I loved my fellow-creatures or the poor better than others; but solely because I wanted you to love me, and your affection was all the payment I ever expected or expect. But now I foresee that something will happen to make a change in you—"
"I can never change, or love you less than now, Mary!"
"So you imagine, but I can see further. Do you know, Fan, that you cannot give your heart to two persons; that if you give your whole heart to this lady you think so beautiful and so kind, and who will be paid for her kindness, that her gain will be my loss?"
Fan, full of strange trouble, put her trembling hand on the other's hand. "Tell me how it will be your loss, Mary," she said. "I don't think I understand."
"I was everything to you before, Fan. I don't want a divided affection, and I shall not share your affection with this woman, however beautiful and kind she may be; or, rather, I shall not be satisfied with what is over after you have begun to worship her. Your love is a kind of worship, Fan, and you cannot possibly have that feeling for more than one person, although you will find it easy enough to transfer it from one to another. If you do not quite understand me yet, you must think it over and try to find out what I mean. But I warn you, Fan, that if ever you transfer the affection you have felt for me to this woman, or this girl, then you shall cease to be anything to me. You shall be no more to me than you were before I first saw you and felt a strange wish to take you to my heart; when you were in rags and half-starved, and without one friend in the world."
The tears started to the girl's eyes, and she threw her arms round the other's neck. "Oh, Mary, nothing, nothing will ever make me love you less! Will you not believe me, Mary?"
"Yes, dear Fan, don't cry. Good-bye, my darling. Write to me at least once every fortnight, and when you want money or anything let me know, and you shall have it. And when May comes round again let me see you unchanged in heart, but with an improved mind and a little colour in your dear pale face."
After Miss Starbrow's departure Fan was shown to her room, where her luggage had already been taken by the one indoor servant, a staid, middle-aged woman. It was a light, prettily furnished apartment on the first floor, with a large window looking on to the garden at the back. There were flowers on the dressing-table—Miss Churton had placed them there, she thought—and the warm fragrant air coming in at the open window seemed to bring nature strangely near to her. Looking away, where the trees did not intercept the view, it was all green country—gently- sloping hills, and the long Eyethorne wood, and rich meadow-land, where sleepy-looking cows stood in groups or waded knee-deep in the pasture. It was like an earthly paradise to her senses, but just now her mind was clouded with a great distress. Mary's strange words to her, and the warning that she would be cast out of Mary's heart, that it would be again with her as it had been before entering into this new life of beautiful scenes and sweet thoughts and feelings, if she allowed herself to love her new teacher and companion, filled her with apprehension. She sat by the window looking out, but with a dismayed expression in her young eyes; and then she remembered how Mary, in a sudden tempest of rage, had once struck her, and how her heart had almost burst with grief at that unjust blow; and now it seemed to her that Mary's words if not her hand had dealt her a second blow, which was no less unjust; and covering her face with her hands she cried silently to herself. Then she remembered how quickly Mary had repented and had made amends, loving her more tenderly after having ill-treated her in her anger. It consoled her to think that Mary had so great an affection for her; and perhaps, she thought, the warning was necessary; perhaps if she allowed her heart to have its way, and to give all that this lovely and loving girl seemed to ask, Mary would be less to her than she had been. She resolved that she would strive religiously to obey Mary's wishes, that she would keep a watch over herself, and not allow any such tender feelings as she had experienced in the garden to overcome her again. She would be Miss Churton's pupil, but not the intimate, loving friend and companion she had hoped to be after first seeing her.
While Fan sat by herself, occupied with her little private trouble, which did not seem little to her, downstairs in the small drawing-room there was another trouble.
"Before you go up to your room I wish to speak to you, Constance," said her mother.
Miss Churton stood swinging her straw hat by its ribbon, silently waiting to hear the rest.
"All right, Jane," said Mr. Churton to his wife. "I am just going to run up to the village for an hour. You don't require me any more, do you?"
"I think you should remain here until this matter is settled, and Constance is made clearly to understand what Miss Starbrow's wishes are. My wishes, which will be considered of less moment, I have no doubt, shall be stated afterwards."
"Very well, my dear, I will do anything you like. At the same time, I think I really must be going. I have been kept in all day, you know, and should like to take a little—ahem—constitutional."
"Yes, Nathaniel, I have no doubt you would. But consider me a little in this. I have succeeded in getting this girl, and you know how much the money will be to us. Do you think it too much to keep away from your favourite haunt in the village for a single day?"
"Oh, come, come, Jane. It's all right, my dear. I'm sure Miss Starbrow was greatly pleased at everything. You can settle all the rest with Constance. I think she's quite intelligent enough to understand the matter without my presence." And here Mr. Churton gave vent to a slight inward chuckle.
"I insist on your staying here, Nathaniel. You know how little regard our daughter has for my wishes or commands; and as Miss Starbrow has spoken to us both, you cannot do less than remain to corroborate what I have to tell Constance."
Her daughter reddened at this speech, but remained silent.
"Well, well, my dear, if you will only come to the point!" he exclaimed impatiently.
"Constance, will you give me your attention?" said her mother, turning to her.
"Yes, mother, I am attending."
"Miss Starbrow has informed us that Miss Affleck, although of gentle birth on her father's side, was unhappily left to be brought up in a very poor quarter of London, among people of a low class. She has had little instruction, except that of the Board School, and never had the advantage of associating with those of a better class until this lady rescued her from her unfortunate surroundings. She is of a singularly sweet, confiding disposition, Miss Starbrow says, and has many other good qualities which only require a suitable atmosphere to be developed. Miss Starbrow will value at its proper worth the instruction you will give her; and as to subjects, she has added nothing to what she had written to us, except that she does not wish you to force any study on the girl to which she may show a disinclination, but rather to find out for yourself any natural aptitude she may possess. And what she particularly requests of us is, that no questions shall be put to her and no reference made to her early life in London. She wishes the girl to forget, if possible, her suffering and miserable childhood."
"I shall be careful not to make any allusion to it," replied the other, her face brightening with new interest. "Poor girl! She began to say something to me about her early life in London when we were in the garden, and then checked herself. I dare say Miss Starbrow has told her not to speak of it."
"Then I suppose you had already begun to press her with questions about it?" quickly returned Mrs. Churton.
"No; she spoke quite spontaneously. The flowers, the garden, the beauty of the country, so strangely different to her former surroundings—that suggested what she said, I think."
Her mother looked unconvinced. "Will you remember, Constance, that it is Miss Starbrow's wish that such subjects are not to be brought up and encouraged in your conversations with Miss Affleck? I cannot command you. It would be idle to expect obedience to any command of mine from you. I can only appeal to your interest, or whatever it is you now regard as your higher law."
"I have always obeyed you, mother," returned Miss Churton with warmth. "I shall, as a matter of course, respect Miss Starbrow's and your wishes in this instance. You know that you can trust me, or ought to know, and there is no occasion to insult me."
"Insult you, Constance! How can you have the face to say such a thing, when you know that your whole life is one continual act of disobedience to me! Unhappy girl that you are, you disobey your God and Creator, and are in rebellion against Him—how little a thing then must disobedience to your mother seem!"
Miss Churton's face grew red and pale by turns. "Mother," she replied, with a ring of pain in her voice, "I have always respected your opinions and feelings, and shall continue to do so, and try my best to please you. But it is hard that I should have to suffer these unprovoked attacks; and it seems strange that the girl's coming should be made the occasion for one, for I had hoped that her presence in the house would have made my life more bearable."
"You refer to Miss Affleck's coming," said her mother, without stopping to reply to anything else, "and I am glad of it, for it serves to remind me that I have not yet told you my wishes with regard to your future intercourse with her."
At this point Mr. Churton, unnoticed by his wife, stole quietly to the door, and stepping cautiously out into the hall made his escape.
"You need not trouble to explain your wishes, mother," said Miss Churton, with flushing cheeks. "I can very well guess what they are, and I promise you at once that I shall say nothing to cause you any uneasiness, or to make any further mention of the subject necessary."
"No, Constance, I have a sacred duty to perform, and our respective relations towards Miss Affleck must be made thoroughly clear, once for all."
"Why should you wish to make it clear after telling me that you cannot trust me to obey your wishes, or even to speak the truth? Mother, I shall not listen to you any longer!"
"You shall listen to me!" exclaimed the other; and rising and hurrying past her daughter, she closed the door and stood before it as if to prevent escape.
Miss Churton made no reply; she walked to a chair, and sitting down dropped her hat on the floor and covered her face with her hands. How sad she looked in that attitude, how weary of the vain conflict, and how despondent! For a little while there was silence in the room, but the girl's bowed head moved with her convulsive breathing, and there was a low sound presently as of suppressed sobbing.
"Would to God the tears you are shedding came from a contrite and repentant heart," said the mother, with a tremor in her voice. "But they are only rebellious and passing drops, and I know that your stony heart is untouched."
Miss Churton raised her pale face, and brushed her tears away with an angry gesture. "Forgive me, mother, for such an exhibition of weakness. I sometimes forget that you have ceased to love me. Please say what you wish, make things clear, add as many reproaches as you think necessary, and then let me go to my room."
Mrs. Churton checked an angry reply which rose to her lips, and sat down. She too was growing tired of this unhappy conflict, and her daughter's tears and bitter words had given her keen pain. "Constance, you would not say that I do not love you if you could see into my heart. God knows how much I love you; if it were not so I should have ceased to strive with you before now. I know that it is in vain, that I can only beat the air, and that only that Spirit which is sharper than a two-edged sword, and pierceth even to the dividing of the bones and marrow, can ever rouse you to a sense of your great sin and fearful peril. I know it all only too well. I shall say no more about it. But I must speak to you further about this young girl, who has been entrusted to my care. When I replied to the advertisement respecting her, I thought too much about our worldly affairs and the importance of this money to us in our position, and without sufficiently reflecting on the danger of bringing a girl at so impressible an age under your influence. The responsibility rests with me, and I cannot help having some very sad apprehensions. Wait, Constance, you must let me finish. I have settled what to do, and I have Miss Starbrow's authority to take on myself the guidance of the girl in all spiritual matters. I spoke to her about it, and regret to have to say that she seems absolutely indifferent about religion. I was deeply shocked to hear that Miss Affleck has never been taught to say a prayer, and, so far as Miss Starbrow knows, has never entered a church. Miss Starbrow seemed very haughty and repellent in her manner, and declined, almost rudely, to discuss the subject of religious teaching with me, but would leave it entirely to me, she said, to teach the girl what I liked about such things. It is terrible to me to think how much it may and will be in your power to write on the mind of one so young and ignorant, and who has been brought up without God. Constance, I will not attempt to command, I will ask you to promise not to say things to her to destroy the effect of my teaching, and of the religious influence I shall bring to bear on her. I am ready to go down on my knees to you, my daughter, to implore you, by whatever you may yet hold dear and sacred, not to bring so terrible a grief on me as the loss of this young soul would be. For into my charge she has been committed, and from me her Maker and Father will require her at the last day!"
"There is no occasion for you to go on your knees to me, mother. I repeat that I will obey your wishes in everything. Surely you must know that, however we may differ about speculative matters, I am not immoral, and that you can trust me. And oh, mother, let us live in peace together. It is so unspeakably bitter to have these constant dissensions between us. I will not complain that you have been the cause of so much unhappiness to me, and made me a person to be avoided by the few people we know, if only—if only you will treat me kindly."
"My poor girl, do you not know that it is more bitter to me, a thousand times, than to you? Oh, Constance, will you promise me one thing?— promise me that you will go back to the Bible and read the words of Christ, putting away your pride of mind, your philosophy and critical spirit; promise that you will read one chapter—one verse even—every day, and read it with a prayer in your heart that the Spirit who inspired it will open your eyes and enable you to see the truth."
"No, mother, I cannot promise you that, even to save myself from greater unhappiness than you have caused me. It is so hard to have to go over the old ground again and again."
"I have, I hope, made you understand my wishes," returned her mother coldly. "You can go to your room, Constance."
The other rose and walked to the door, where she stood hesitating for a few moments, glancing back at her mother; but Mrs. Churton's face had grown cold and irresponsive, and finally Constance, with a sigh, left the room and went slowly up the stairs.
For the rest of the day peace reigned at Wood End House. Mr. Churton, whose absence at mealtime was never made the subject of remark, did not return to tea when the three ladies met again; for now, according to that proverb of the Peninsula which says "Tell me who you are with, and I will tell you who you are," Fan had ceased to belong to the extensive genus Young Person, and might only be classified as Young Lady, at all events for so long as she remained on a footing of equality under the Churton roof-tree.
There was not much conversation. Miss Churton was rather pale and subdued in manner, speaking little. Fan was shy and ill at ease at this her first meal in the house. Mrs. Churton alone seemed inclined to talk, and looked serene and cheerful; but whether the late scene in the drawing-room had been more transient in its effects in her case, or her self-command was greater, she alone knew. After tea they all went out to sit in the garden for an hour; Miss Churton taking a book with her, which, however, she allowed to rest unread on her lap. Her mother had some knitting, which occupied her fingers while she talked to Fan. The girl, she perceived, was not yet feeling at home with them, and she tried to overcome her diffidence by keeping up an easy flow of talk which required no answer from the other, chiefly about their garden and its products—flowers, fruit, and vegetables.
Presently they had a visitor, who came out across the lawn to them unannounced. He shook hands with the Churtons, and then with Fan, to whom he was introduced as Mr. Northcott. A large and rather somewhat rough- looking young man was Mr. Northcott, in a clerical coat, for he was curate of the church at Eyethorne. His head was large, and the hair and a short somewhat disorderly beard and moustache brown in colour; the eyes were blue, deep-set, and habitually down-cast, and had a trick of looking suddenly up at anyone speaking to him. His nose was irregular, his mouth too heavy, and there was that general appearance of ruggedness about him which one usually takes as an outward sign of the stuff that makes the successful emigrant. To find him a curate going round among the ladies in a little rural parish in England seemed strange. He had as little of that professional sleekness of skin and all-for-the-best placidity of manner one expects to see in a clergyman of the Established Church as Mr. Churton had of that confident, all-knowing, self-assured look one would like to see in a barrister's countenance before entrusting him with a brief.
He at once entered into conversation with Mrs. Churton, replying to some question she put to him; and presently Fan began to listen with deep interest, for they were discussing the unhappy affairs of one of the Eyethorne poor—a bad man who was always getting drunk, fighting with his wife, and leaving his children to starve. The curate, however, did not seem deeply interested in the subject, and glanced not infrequently at Miss Churton, who had resumed her reading; but it was plain to see that she gave only a divided attention to her book.
Mrs. Churton was at length summoned to the house about some domestic matter; then, after a short silence, the curate began a fresh conversation with her daughter. He did not speak to her of parish affairs and of persons, but of books, of things of the mind, and it seemed that his heart was more in talk of this description. Or possibly the person rather than the subject interested him. Miss Churton was living under a cloud in her village, which was old-fashioned and pious; to be friendly with her was not fashionable; he alone, albeit a curate, wished not to be in the fashion. He even had the courage to approach personal questions.
"Fan, I know what you are thinking of," said Miss Churton, turning to the girl. "It is that you would like to go and caress the flowers again—you are such a flower-lover. Would you like to go and explore the orchard by yourself?"
Fan thanked her gladly, and going from them, soon disappeared among the trees.
"You live in too small a place, too remote from the world, and old-world in character, to be allowed to live your own life in peace," said the curate, at a later stage of the conversation. "Your set here is composed of barely half a dozen families, and they take their cue from the vicarage. In London, in any large town, one is allowed to think what one likes without the neighbours troubling their heads about it. Do you know, Miss Churton, it is strange to me that with your acquirements and talent you do not seek a wider and more congenial field."
She smiled. "You must forgive me, Mr. Northcott, for having included you among the troublers of my peace. It gives me a strange pleasure to tell you this; it makes me strong to feel that I have your friendship and sympathy."
"You certainly have that, Miss Churton."
"Thank you. I must tell you why I remain here. I am entirely dependent on my parents just now, and shrink from beginning a second dependent life— as a governess, for instance."
"There should be better things than that for you. You might get a good position in a young ladies' school."
"It would be difficult. But apart from that, I shrink from entering a profession which would absorb my whole time and faculties, and from which I should probably find myself powerless to break away. I have dreams and hopes of other things—foolish perhaps—time will show; but I am not in a hurry to find a position, to become a crystal. And I wish to live for myself as well as for others. I have now undertaken to teach Miss Affleck, who will remain one year at least with us. I am glad that this has given me an excuse for remaining where I am. I do not wish my departure to look like running away."
"I am glad that you have so brave a spirit."
"I did not feel very brave to-day," she replied, smiling sadly. "But a little sympathy serves to revive my courage. Do you remember that passage in Bacon, 'Mark what a courage a dog will put on when sustained by a nature higher than its own'? That is how it is with us women—those of the strong-minded tribe excepted; man is to us a kind of melior natura, without whose sustaining aid we degenerate into abject cowards."
A red flush came into Mr. Northcott's dull-hued cheeks. "I presume you are joking, Miss Churton; but if—"
"No, not joking," she quickly returned; "although I perhaps did not mean as much as I said. But I wish I could show my gratitude for the comfort you give me—for upholding me with your stronger nature."
"Do you, Miss Churton? Then I will be so bold as to make a request, although I am perhaps running the risk of offending you. Will you come to church next Sunday? I don't mean in the morning, but in the evening. Please don't think for a moment that I have any faith in my power to influence your mind in any way. I am not such a conceited ass as to imagine anything of the sort. My motive for making the request was quite independent of any such considerations. My experience is that those who lose faith in Christianity do not recover it. I speak, of course, of people who know their own minds."
"I know my own mind, Mr. Northcott."
"No doubt; and for that very reason I am not afraid to ask you this. You used occasionally to come to church, so that it can't be scruples of conscience that keep you away. As a rule, in London we always have a very fair sprinkling of agnostics in a congregation, and sometimes more than a sprinkling."
"I am not an agnostic, Mr. Northcott, if I know what that word means. But let that pass. In London the church-goer is in very many cases a stranger to the preacher; if he hears hard things spoken in the pulpit of those who have no creed, he does not take it as a personal attack. I absented myself from our church because the vicar in his sermon on unbelief preached against me. He said that those who rejected Christianity had no right to enter a church; that by doing so they insulted God and man; and that their only motive was to parade their bitter scornful infidelity before the world, and that they cherish a malignant hatred towards the faith which they have cast off, and much more in the same strain. Every person in the congregation had his or her eyes fixed on me, to see how I liked it, knowing that it was meant for me; and I dare say that what they saw gave them great pleasure. For a stronger nature than my own was not sustaining me then, but all were against me, and the agony of shame I suffered I shall never forget. I could only shut my eyes and try to keep still; but I felt that all the blood in my veins had rushed to my face and brain, and that my blood was like fire. I seemed to be able to see myself fiery red—redder than the setting sun—in the midst of all those shadowed faces that were watching me. I have hated that man since, much as it distresses me to have such a feeling against any fellow-creature."
"I remember the circumstance," said the curate, his face darkening. "I do not agree with my vicar about some things, and he had no warrant for what he said in the teachings of his Master. Since you have recalled this incident to my mind, Miss Churton, I can only apologise for having asked you to come on Sunday."
"I think I was wrong to let that sermon influence me so much," she returned. "I feel ashamed of keeping my resentment so long. Mr. Northcott, I will promise to go on Sunday evening, unless something happens to prevent me."
He thanked her warmly. "Whatever your philosophical beliefs may be, Miss Churton, you have the true Christian spirit," he said—saying perhaps too much. "I am glad for your sake that Miss Affleck has come to reside with you. Your life will be less lonely."
"Tell me, what do you think of her?"
"She has a rare delicate loveliness, and there is something indescribable in her eyes which seemed to reveal her whole past life to me. Do you know, Miss Churton, I often believe I have a strange faculty of reading people's past history in the expression of their faces?"
"Tell me what you read?"
"When I was talking to your mother about that drunken ruffian in the village, and his ill-treatment of his miserable children, I caught sight of the girl's eyes fixed on me, wide open, expressing wonder and pain. She had never, I feel sure, even heard of such things as I spoke about. I seemed to know in some mysterious way that she was an only child—the child, I believe, of a widowed father, who doted on her, and surrounded her with every luxury wealth could purchase, and permitted no breath of the world's misery to reach her, lest it should make her unhappy. Now, tell me, have I prophesied truly?"
She smiled, but had no desire to laugh at his little delusion about a mysterious faculty. It is one common enough, and very innocent. The girl was an orphan, and that, she told him, was all she knew of her history.
The curate went away with a feeling of strange elation; for how gracious she had been to him, how happy he was to have won her confidence, how sweet the tender music of her voice had seemed when she had freely told him the secrets of her heart! Poor man! his human nature was a stumbling- block in his way. By-and-by he would have to reflect that his sympathy with an unbeliever had led him almost to the point of speaking evil of dignities—of his vicar, to wit, who paid him seventy pounds a year for his services. That was about all Mr. Northcott had to live on; and yet— oh, folly!—a declaration of love, an offer of marriage, had been trembling on his lips throughout all that long conversation.
Miss Churton hurried off in search of Fan, surprised that she had kept out of sight so long; and as she walked through the orchard, looking for her on this side and that, she also felt surprised at her own light- heartedness. For how strangely happy she felt after a morning so full of contention and bitterness! Fan saw her coming—saw even at a distance in her bright face the reflection of a heartfelt gladness. But the girl did not move to meet her, nor did she watch her coming with responsive gladness; she stood motionless, her pale face seen in profile against the green cloud of a horse-chestnut tree that drooped its broad leaves to touch and mingle with the grass at her very feet. It seemed strange to Constance as she drew near, still glad, and yet with lingering footsteps so that the sight might be the longer enjoyed, that her pupil should have come at that precise period of the day to stand there motionless at that particular spot; that this pale city girl in her civilised dress should have in her appearance at that moment no suggestion of artificiality, but should seem a something natural and unadulterated as flowering tree and grass and sunshine, a part of nature, in absolute and perfect harmony with it. The point to which Fan had wandered was a little beyond the orchard, close to an old sunk fence or ha-ha separating it from the field beyond. The turf at her feet was white with innumerable daisies, and the only tree at that spot was the great chestnut beside which she stood, and against which, in her white dress and with her pallid face, she looked so strangely pure, so flower-like and yet ethereal, as if sprung from the daisies whitening the turf around her, and retaining something of their flower-like character, yet unsubstantial—a beautiful form that might at any moment change to mist and float away from sight. In the field beyond, where her eyes were resting, the lush grass was sprinkled with the gold of buttercups; and in the centre of the field stood a group of four or five majestic elm-trees; the sinking sun was now directly behind them, and shining level through the foliage filled the spaces between the leaves with a red light, which looked like misty fire. On the vast expanse of heaven there was no cloud; only low down in the east and south-east, near the horizon, there were pale vague shadows, which in another half-hour's time would take the rounded form of clouds, deepening to pearly grey and flushing red and purple in the setting beams. From the elms and fields, from the orchard, from other trees and fields further away, came up the songs of innumerable birds, making the whole air ring and quiver with the delicate music; so many notes, so various in tone and volume, had the effect of waves and wavelets and ripples, rising and running and intersecting each other at all angles, forming an intricate pattern, as it were, a network of sweetest melody. Loud and close at hand were heard the lusty notes of thrush and blackbird, chaffinch and blackcap; and from these there was a gradation of sounds, down to the faint lispings of the more tender melodists singing at a distance, reaching the sense like voices mysterious and spiritualised from some far unseen world. And at intervals came the fluting cry of the cuckoo, again and again repeated, so aerial, yet with such a passionate depth in it, as if the Spirit of Nature itself had become embodied, and from some leafy hiding-place cried aloud with mystic lips.
Listening to that rare melody Fan had stood for a long time, her heart feeling almost oppressed with the infinite sweetness of nature; so motionless that the yellow skippers and small blue-winged butterflies fluttered round her in play, and at intervals alighting on her dress, sat with spread wings, looking like strange yellow and blue gems on the snow- white drapery. Her mind was troubled at Miss Churton's approach; for it now seemed to her that human affection and sympathy were more to her than they had ever been; that a touch, a word, a look almost, would be sufficient to overcome her and make her fall from her loyalty to Mary. Even when the other was standing by her side, curiously regarding her still pale face, she made no sign, but after one troubled glance remained with eyes cast down.
"Are you not tired of being alone with nature yet, Fan?" said Miss Churton, with a smile, and placing her hand on the girl's neck.
"Oh no, Miss Churton; it is so—pleasant to be here!" she replied. But she spoke in a slow mechanical way, and seemed to the other strangely cold and irresponsive; she shivered a little, too, when the caressing hand touched her neck, as if the warm fingers had seemed icy cold.
"Then you were not sorry to be left so long alone?"
"No—I could not feel tired. I think—I could have stayed alone here until—until—" then her inability to express her thoughts confused her and she became silent.
"Yes, Fan, until—" said the other, taking her hand. But the hand she took rested cold and still in hers, and Fan was silent.
At length, reddening a little, she said:
"Miss Churton, I cannot say what I feel."
"Do you feel, Fan, that the sight of nature fills your heart with a strange new happiness, such as no pleasure in your London life ever gave, and at the same time a sadness for which you cannot imagine any cause?"
"Oh, do you feel that too, Miss Churton? Will you tell me what it is?"
The other smiled at the question. "If I could do that, Fan, I should be a very wise girl indeed. It is a feeling that we all have at times; and some day when we read the poets together you will find that they often speak of it. Keats says of the music of the nightingale that it makes his heart ache to hear it, but he does not know why it aches any more than we do. We can say what the feeling is which human love and sympathy give us —the touch of loving hands and lips, the words that are sweet to hear. This we can understand; but that mixed glad and melancholy feeling we have in nature we cannot analyse. How can anything in nature know our heart like a fellow-being—the sun, and wind, and trees, and singing birds? Yet it all seems to come in love to us—so great a love that we can hardly bear it. The sun and wind seem to touch us lovingly; the earth and sky seem to look on us with an affection deeper than man's—a meaning which we cannot fathom. But, oh, Fan, it is foolish and idle of me to try to put what we feel into words! Don't you think so?"
"I think I feel what you say, Miss Churton."
"And when you said just now that you could stand here alone, seeing and hearing, until—until—and then stopped, perhaps you wished to say that you could remain here until you understood it all, and knew the meaning of that mysterious pain in your heart?"
"Yes—I think I felt that"; and glancing up she met the other's eyes full on her own, so dark and full of affection, and with a mistiness rising in their clear depths. She was sorely tempted then to put her arms about her teacher's neck; the struggle was too much for her; she trembled, and covering her face with her hands burst into tears.
"Dearest Fan, you must not cry," said Miss Churton, tenderly caressing her; but there was no response, only that slight shivering of the frame once more, as if it pained her to be caressed, and she wondered at the girl's mood, which was so unlike that of the morning. A painful suspicion crossed her mind. Had her mother, in her anxiety about Fan's spiritual welfare, already taken the girl into her confidence, as she had taken others, or dropped some word of warning to prejudice her mind? Had she told this gentle human dove that she must learn the wisdom of the serpent from a serpent—a kind of Lamia who had assumed a beautiful female form for the purpose of instructing her? No, it could not be; there had been no opportunity for private conversation yet; and it was also hateful to her to think so hardly of her mother. But she made no further attempt just then to win her pupil's heart, and in a short time they returned to the house together.
Fan was up early next morning—the ringing concert of the orchard, so different from the dull rumble of the streets, had chased away sleep, and all desire to sleep—and punctually at eight o'clock she came down to breakfast. Mr. Churton alone was in the room, looking as usual intensely respectable in his open frock-coat, large collar, and well-brushed grey hair. He was standing before the open window looking out, humming or croaking a little tune, and jingling his chain and seals by way of accompaniment.
"Ha, my dear, looking fresh as a flower—and as pretty!" he said, turning round and taking her hand; then, after two or three irresolute glances at her face, he drew her towards him, and was about to imprint a kiss on her forehead (let us hope), when, for some unaccountable reason, she shrank back from him and defeated his purpose.
"Why, why, my dear child, you surely can't object to being kissed! You must look on me as—ahem—it is quite the custom here—surely, my dear—"
Just then Mrs. Churton entered the room, and her husband encountering her quick displeased look instantly dropped the girl's hand.
"My dear," he said, addressing his wife, "I have just been pointing out the view from the windows to Miss Affleck, and telling her what charming walks there are in the neighbourhood. I think that as we are so near the end of the week it would be just as well to postpone all serious studies until Monday morning and show our guest some of the beauties of Eyethorne."
"Perhaps it would, Nathaniel," she returned, with a slight asperity. "But I should prefer it if you would leave all arrangements to me."
"Certainly, my dear; it was merely a suggestion made on the spur of the moment. I am sure Miss Affleck will be charmed with the—the scenery, whenever it can conveniently be shown to her."
His wife made no reply, but proceeded to open a Bible and read a few verses, after which she made a short prayer—a ceremony which greatly surprised Fan. The three then sat down to breakfast, Miss Churton not yet having appeared. It was a moderately small table, nearly square, and each person had an entire side to himself. They were thus placed not too far apart and not too near.
Presently Miss Churton appeared, not from her room but from an early walk in the garden, and bringing with her a small branch of May jewelled with red blossoms. She stood for a few moments on the threshold looking at Fan, a very bright smile on her lips. How beautiful she looked to the girl, more beautiful now than on the previous day, as if her face had caught something of the dewy freshness of earth and of the tender morning sunlight. Then she came in, walking round the table to Fan's side, and bidding her parents "Good morning," but omitting the usual custom of kissing father and mother. Stopping at the girl's side she stooped and touched her forehead with her lips, then placed the branch of May by the side of her plate.
"This is for you," she said. "I know what a flower-worshipper you are."
"Constance, you ought not to say that!" said her mother, reprovingly.
"Why not?" said the other, going to her place and sitting down, a red flush on her face. "It is a common and very innocent expression, I fancy."
"That may be your opinion. The expression you use so lightly has only one and a very solemn meaning for me."
Fan glanced wonderingly from one to the other, then dropped her eyes on her flowers. In a vague way she began to see that her new friends did not exist in happy harmony together, and it surprised and troubled her. The bright sunny look had gone from Miss Churton's face, and the meal proceeded almost in silence to the end.
And yet father, mother, and daughter all felt that there was an improvement in their relations, that the restraint caused by the presence of this shy, silent girl would make their morning and midday meetings at meal-time less a burden than they had hitherto been. To Miss Churton especially that triangle of three persons, each repelling and repelled by the two others, had often seemed almost intolerable. Husband and wife had long ceased to have one interest, one thought, one feeling in common; while the old affection between mother and daughter had now so large an element of bitterness mingled with it that all its original sweetness seemed lost. As for her degenerate, weak-minded, tippling father, Miss Churton regarded him with studied indifference. She never spoke of him, and tried never to think of him when he was out of the way; when she saw him, she looked through him at something beyond, as if he had no more substance than one of Ossian's ghosts, through whose form one might see the twinkling of the stars. It was better, she wisely thought, to ignore him, to forget his existence, than to be vexed with feelings of contempt and hostility.
Mr. Churton, after finishing his breakfast, retired to his "study," with the air of a person who has letters to write. His study was really only a garret which his wife had fitted up as a comfortable smoking den, where he was privileged to blow the abhorrent tobacco-cloud with impunity, since the pestilent vapour flew away heavenwards from the open window; moreover, while smoking at home he was safe, and not fuddling his weak brains and running up a long bill at the "King William" in the village.
Miss Churton finished her coffee and rose from the table.
"Constance," said her mother, "I think that as it is Friday to-day it might be as well to defer your lessons until Monday, and give Miss Affleck a little time to look about her and get acquainted with her new home."
"If you think it best, mother," she returned; and then after an interval added, "Have you formed any plans for to-day—I mean with reference to Fan?"
"Why do you say Fan?"
"Because she asked me to do so," returned the other a little coldly.
Fan was again looking at them. When they spoke they were either constrained and formal or offending each other. It was something to marvel at, for towards herself they had shown such sweet kindliness in their manner; and she had felt that if it were only lawful she could love them both dearly, as one loves mother and sister.
With a little hesitation she turned to Mrs. Churton and said, "Will you please call me Fan too? I like it so much better than Miss Affleck."
"Yes, certainly, if you wish it," said the lady, smiling on her. After a while she continued—"Fan, my dear child, before we settle about how the day will be spent, I must tell you that we have arranged to share the task of teaching you between us." Her daughter looked at her surprised. "I mean," she continued, correcting herself, "that it will be arranged in that way. Did Miss Starbrow speak to you about it in the garden before she left?"
Fan answered in the negative: she had a painfully vivid recollection of what Miss Starbrow had said in the garden.
"Well, this is to be the arrangement, which Miss Starbrow has sanctioned. There are several things for you to study, and Miss Churton will undertake them all except one. It will be for me to instruct you in religion."
Fan glanced at her with a somewhat startled expression in her eyes.
"Do you not think you would like me to teach you?" asked Mrs. Churton, noticing the look.
She answered that she would like it; then remembering certain words of Mary's, added a little doubtfully, "Mrs. Churton, Mary—I mean Miss Starbrow—said she hoped I would not learn to be religious in the country."
Mrs. Churton heard this with an expression of pain, then darted a quick glance at her daughter's face; but she did not see the smile of the scoffer there; it was a face which had grown cold and impassive, and she knew why it was impassive, and was as much offended, perhaps, as if the expected smile had met her sight. To Fan she answered:
"I am very sorry she said that. But you know, Fan, that we sometimes say things without quite meaning them, or thinking that they will perhaps be remembered for a long time, and do harm. I am sure—at least I trust that Miss Starbrow did not really mean that, because I spoke to her about giving you instruction in religious subjects, and she consented, and left it to me to do whatever I thought best."
Fan wondered whether Mary "did not quite mean it" when she told her what the consequences would be if she allowed herself to love Miss Churton. No, alas! she must have meant that very seriously from the way she spoke.
"You must not be afraid that we are going to make you study too much, Fan," the lady continued; "that is not Miss Starbrow's wish. I shall only give you a short simple lesson every day, and try to explain it, so that I hope you will find it both easy and pleasant to learn of me. And now, my dear girl, you shall choose for yourself to-day whether you will go out for a walk in the woods with Miss Churton, or remain with me and let me speak with you and explain what I wish you to learn."
The proposed walk in the woods was a sore temptation; she would gladly have chosen that way of spending the morning, but the secret trouble in her heart caused by Mary's warning words made her shrink from the prospect of being alone with Miss Churton so soon again; and it only increased the feeling to see her beautiful young teacher's eyes eagerly fixed on her face. With that struggle still going on in her breast, and compelled to make her choice, she said at length, "I think I should like to stay with you, Mrs. Churton."
The lady smiled and said she was glad.
Miss Churton moved towards the door, then paused and spoke coldly: "Do you wish me to understand, mother, that Miss Affleck is to devote her mornings to you, and that I shall only have the late hours to teach her in?"
"No, Constance; I am surprised that you should understand it in that way. Only for these two days Miss Affleck will be with me in the morning. I know very well that the early part of the day is the best time for study, when the intellect is fresh and clear; and when you begin teaching her she will of course devote the morning to her lessons."
After hearing this explanation her daughter left the room without more words. In a few minutes she came down again with hat and gloves on, a book in her hand, and went away by herself, feeling far from happy in her mind. She had so confidently looked forward to a morning with her pupil, and had proposed to go somewhat further than she had ventured on the previous evening in a study of her character. For it seemed to her at first so simple a character, so affectionate and clinging, reflecting itself so transparently in her expressive face, and making itself known so clearly in her voice and manner. Then that mystifying change had occurred in the orchard, when her words had been eagerly listened to, and had seemed to find an echo in the girl's heart, while her advances had met with no response, and her affectionate caresses had been shrunk from, as though they had given pain. Then the suspicion about her mother had come to disturb her mind; but she had been anxious not to judge hastily and without sufficient cause, and had succeeded in putting it from her as an unworthy thought. Now it came back to her, and remained and rooted itself in her mind. Now she understood why her mother, with an ostentatious pretence of fairness, even of generosity, towards her daughter, had left it to Fan to decide whether she would walk in the woods or spend the morning receiving religious instruction at home. Now she understood why Fan, a lover of flowers and of the singing of birds, had preferred the house and the irksome lessons. Her mother, in her fanatical zeal, had been too quick for her, and had prejudiced the girl's mind against her, acting with a meanness and treachery which filled her with the greatest resentment and scorn.
We know that her judgment was at fault; and her anger was perhaps unreasonable. All anger is said to be unreasonable by some wise people, which makes one wonder why this absurd, perverse, and superfluous affection was ever thrust into our souls. But the feeling in her was natural, for her mother had indirectly inflicted much unhappiness on her already, in her mistaken efforts to do her good; and when we suffer an injury from some unknown hand, we generally jump to the conclusion that it comes from the enemy we wot of; and, very often, the surmise is a correct one. She, Miss Churton, certainly regarded this thing as a personal injury. She had anticipated much pleasure from the society of her pupil, and after that first conversation in the garden had resolved to win her love, and be to her friend and sister as well as teacher. Now it seemed that the girl was to be nothing to her and everything to her mother, and naturally she was disappointed and angry. We have all seen women—some of them women who read books, listen to lectures, and even take degrees, and must therefore be classed with rational beings—who will cry out and weep, and only stop short of tearing their raiment and putting ashes on their heads, at the loss of a pet dog, or cat, or canary; and Miss Churton had promised herself a greater pleasure from her intercourse with this girl, who had so won her heart with her pale delicate beauty and her feeling for nature, than it is possible for a rational being to derive from the companionship of any dumb brute—even of such a paragon among four-footed things as a toy-terrier, or pug, or griffon. All through her walk in the shady woods, and when she sat in a sequestered spot under her favourite tree with her book lying unread on her lap, she could only think of her mother's supposed treachery, and of that look of triumph on her face when Fan had decided to remain in the house with her—rejoicing, no doubt, at her daughter's defeat. All this seemed hard to endure uncomplainingly; but she was strong and proud, and before quitting her sylvan retreat she resolved to submit quietly and with a good grace to the new position of affairs, though brought about by such unworthy means. She would make no petulant complaints nor be sullen, nor drop any spiteful or scornful words to spoil her mother's satisfaction; nor would she make any overt attempts to supplant her mother in the girl's confidence, or to win even a share of her affection. She would hide her own pain, and faithfully perform the dry, laborious task of instruction assigned her, unrelieved by any such feelings of a personal kind, and looking for no reward beyond the approval of her own conscience. It was impossible, she said to herself with bitterness, that she should ever stoop, even in self-defence, to use one of those weapons which were to be found in her mother's armoury—the little underhand doings, hypocrisies, and whispered insinuations which her religion sanctified.
That decision of Fan's to remain at home had really come with a little surprise on Mrs. Churton; for although it was what she had hoped, the hope had been a faint one, and the pleasure it gave her was therefore all the greater. With this feeling another not altogether to her credit was mingled—a certain satisfaction at finding her company preferred to that of her daughter. For it could not be supposed that the girl experienced just then any eager desire after religious knowledge; she had just reported Miss Starbrow's scoffing words with such a curious simplicity, as if she looked on religion merely as a branch of learning, like mineralogy or astronomy, which was scarcely necessary to her, and might therefore very well be dispensed with. No, it was purely a matter of personal preference; and Mrs. Churton, albeit loving and thinking well of herself, as most people do, could not help finding it a little strange: for her daughter, notwithstanding that her mind was darkened by that evil spirit of unbelief, was outwardly a beautiful, engaging person, ready and eloquent of speech, and seemed in every way one who would easily win the unsuspecting regard of a simple-minded affectionate girl like Fan. It was strange and—providential. Yes, that explained the whole mystery, and so fully satisfied her religious mind that she was instantly relieved from the task of groping after any other cause.
While these thoughts were passing through her mind they were standing together before the open window, following Miss Churton's form with their eyes, as she went away in the direction of Eyethorne woods. But Fan had a very different feeling; she recalled that interview of the last evening in the orchard, the clear, tender eyes looking invitingly into hers, the touch of a warm caressing hand, the words in which her own strange feelings experienced for the first time had been so aptly described to her; and the thought gave her a dull pain—a vague sense of some great blessing missed, of something which had promised to make her unspeakably happy passing from her life.
It was some slight compensation that the scene of that first lesson in religious doctrine she had expressed herself willing to receive was in the garden, where they were soon comfortably seated under an acacia-tree; and that is a tree which does not shut out the heavenly gladness, like beech and elm and lime, but rather tempers the sunshine with its loose airy foliage, making a half-brightness that is pleasanter than shade.
By means of much gentle questioning, herself often suggesting the answers, Mrs. Churton gradually drew from the girl an account of all she knew and thought about sacred subjects. She was shocked and grieved to discover that this young lady from the metropolis was in a state of ignorance with regard to such subjects that would have surprised her in any cottage child among the poor she was accustomed to visit in the neighbourhood. The names of the Creator and of the Saviour were certainly familiar to Fan; from her earliest childhood she had heard them spoken with frequency in her old Moon Street home. But that was all. Her mother had taught her nothing—not even to lisp, when she was small, the childish rhyme:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Her Scripture lessons at the Board School had powerfully impressed her, but in a confused and unpleasant way. Certain portions of the historical narrative affected her with their picturesque grandeur, and fragments remained in her memory; the Bible and religion generally came to be associated in her mind with dire wrath, and war, and the shedding of blood, with ruin of cities and tribulations without end. It was processional—a great confused host covered with clouds of dust, shields and spears, and brass and scarlet, and noise of chariot-wheels and blowing of trumpets—an awful pageant fascinating and terrifying to contemplate. And when she stood still, a little frightened, to see a horde of Salvationists surge past her in the street, with discordant shouting and singing, waving of red flags and loud braying of brass instruments, this seemed to her a kind of solemn representation of those ancient and confused doings she had read about; beyond that it had no meaning. Before her mother's death she had sometimes gone to St. Michael's Church on wet or cold or foggy winter evenings; for in better weather it was always overcrowded, and the vergers—a kind of mitigated policemen, Fan thought them—would hunt her away from the door. For in those days she was so ragged and such a sad-looking object, and they doubtless knew very well what motive she had in going there. She had gone there only because it was warm and dry, and the decorations and vestments, the singing and the incense, were sweet to her senses; but what she had heard had not enlightened her.
Mrs. Churton sighed. How unutterably sad it seemed to her that this girl, so lovely in her person, so sweet in disposition, with so pure and saint- like an expression, should be in this dark and heathenish condition! But there was infinite comfort in the thought that this precious soul to be saved had fallen into her hands, and not into those of some worldling like Miss Starbrow herself, or, worse still, of a downright freethinker like her own daughter. After having made her first survey of Fan's mind, finding nothing there except that queer farrago of Scripture lessons which had never been explained to her, and were now nearly forgotten, it seemed to Mrs. Churton that it was almost a blank with regard to spiritual things, like that proverbial clean sheet of paper on which anything good or bad may be written. It troubled her somewhat, and this was the one cloud on that fair prospect, that her daughter would have so much to do with Fan's mind. She was anxious to trust in her daughter's honour, yet felt, with her belief concerning the weakness of any merely human virtue, that it would scarcely be safe or right to trust her. She resolved to observe a middle course—to trust her, but not wholly, to pray but to watch as well, lest the fowls of the air should come in her absence and devour the sacred seed she was about to scatter.
These, and many more reflections of a like kind, occurred to her while she was occupied in turning over that pitiful rubbish, composed of broken fragments of knowledge, in the girl's mind; then she addressed herself fervently to the task of planting there the great elementary truth that we are all alike bad by nature, and that only by faith in the Son of God who died for our sins can we hope to save our souls alive. This was unspeakably bewildering to Fan, for in a vague kind of way her neglected mind had conceived a system of right and wrong of its own, which was entirely independent of any narrative or set of doctrines, and did not concern itself with the future of the soul. To her mind there were good people and bad people, besides others she could not classify, in whom the two opposite qualities were blended, or who were of a neutral moral tint. The good were those who loved their fellow-creatures, especially their relations, and were kind to them in word and deed. The bad were those who gave pain to others by their brutality and selfishness, by untruthfulness and deceit, and by speaking unkind and impure words.
Now to be told that this was all a vain delusion, mere fancy, that she was a child of sin, as unclean in the sight of Heaven as the worst person she had ever known—a Joe Harrod or a Captain Horton, for instance—and that God's anger would burn for ever against her unless she cast away her own filthy rags—Fan thought that these had been cast away a long time ago—and clothed herself with the divine righteousness—all that bewildered and surprised her at first. But being patient and docile she proved amenable to instruction, and as she unhesitatingly and at once yielded up every point which her instructress told her was wrong, there was nothing to hinder progress—if this rapid skimming along over the surface of a subject can be so described. And as the lesson progressed it seemed to Mrs. Churton that her pupil took an ever-increasing interest in it, that her mind became more and more receptive and her intelligence quicker.
The girl's shyness wore off by degrees, her tremulous voice grew firmer, her pallid cheeks flushed with a colour tender as that of the wild almond blossom, and her eyes, bright with a new-born confidence, were lifted more frequently to the other's face. Their hands touched often and lingered caressingly together, and when the elder lady smiled, a responsive smile shone in the girl's raised eyes and played on her delicately-moulded mouth—a smile that was like sunlight on clear water, revealing a nature so simple and candid; and deep down, trembling into light, the crystalline soul which had come without flaw from its Maker's hands, and in the midst of evil had caught no stain to dim its perfect purity. It seemed now to Mrs. Churton, as she expounded the sacred doctrines which meant so much to her, that she had not known so great a happiness since her daughter, white even to her lips at the thought of the cruel pain she was about to inflict, yet unable to conceal the truth, had come to her and said with trembling voice, "Mother, I no longer believe as you do." For how much grief had the children God had given her already caused her spirit! Two comely sons, her first and second-born, had after a time despised her teachings, and had grown up almost to manhood only to bring shame and poverty on their home; and had then drifted away beyond her ken to lose themselves in the wandering tribe of ne'er-do-wells in some distant colony. But her daughter had been left to her, the clear-minded thoughtful girl who would not be corrupted by the weakness and vices of a father, nor meet with such temptations as her brothers had been powerless to resist; and in loving this dear girl with the whole strength of her nature—this one child that was left to her to be with her in time and eternity—she had found consolation, and had been happy, until that dark day had arrived, and she heard the words that spoke to her heart
A deeper sorrow Than the wail upon the dead.
It is true that she still hoped against hope; that she loved her daughter with passionate intensity, and clove to her, and was filled with a kind of terror at the thought of losing her, when Constance spoke, as she sometimes did, of leaving her home; but this love had no comfort, no sweetness, no joy in it, and it seemed to her more bitter than hate. It showed itself like hatred in her looks and words sometimes; for in spite of all her efforts to bear this great trial with the meekness her Divine Exemplar had taught, the bitter feeling would overcome her. "Mother, I know that you hate me!"—that was the reproach that was hardest to bear from her daughter's lips, the words that stung her to the quick. For although untrue, she felt that they were deserved; so cold did her anger and unhappiness make her seem to this rebellious child, so harsh and so bitter! And sometimes the reproach seemed to have the strange power of actually turning her love to the hatred she was charged with, and at such times she could scarcely refrain from crying out in her overmastering wrath to invoke a curse from the Almighty on her daughter's head, to reply that it was true, that she did hate her with a great hatred, but that her hatred was as nothing compared to that of her God, who would punish her for denying His existence with everlasting fire. Unable to hide her terrible agitation, she would fly to her room, her heart bursting with anguish, and casting herself on her knees cry out for deliverance from such distracting thoughts. After one of these stormy periods, followed by swift compunction, she would be able again to meet and speak to her daughter in a frame of mind which by contrast seemed strangely meek and subdued.
Now, sitting in the garden with Fan, all the old tender motherly feelings, and the love that had no pain in it, were coming back to her, and it was like the coming of spring after a long winter; and this girl, a stranger to her only yesterday, one who was altogether without that knowledge which alone can make the soul beautiful, seemed already to have filled the void in her heart.
On the other side it seemed to Fan, as she looked up to meet the grave tender countenance bent towards her, that it grew every moment dearer to her sight, It was a comely face still: Miss Churton's beauty was inherited from her mother—certainly not from her father. The features were regular, and perhaps that grey hair had once been golden, thought Fan—and the face now pallid and lined with care full of rich colour. Imagination lends a powerful aid to affection. She had found someone to love and was happy once more. For to her love was everything; "all thoughts, all feelings, all delights" were its ministers and "fed its sacred flame"; this was the secret motive ever inspiring her, and it was impossible for her to put any other, higher or lower, in its place. Not that sweet sickness and rage of the heart which is also called love, and which so enriches life that we look with a kind of contemptuous pity on those who have never experienced it, thinking that they have only a dim incomplete existence, and move through life ghost-like and sorrowful among their joyous brothers and sisters. Such a feeling had never yet touched or come near to her young heart; and her ignorance was so great, and the transition to her present life so recent, that she did not yet distinguish between the different kinds of that feeling—that which was wholly gross and animal, seen in foul faces and whispered in her ears by polluted lips, from which she had fled, trembling and terrified, through the dark lanes and streets of the City of Dreadful Night; and the same feeling as it appears, sublimed and beautified, in the refined and the virtuous. As yet she knew nothing about a beautiful love of that kind; but she had in the highest degree that purer, better affection which we prize as our most sacred possession, and even attribute to the immortals, since our earthly finite minds cannot conceive any more beautiful bond uniting them. It was this flame in her heart which had kept her like one alone, apart and unsoiled in the midst of squalor and vice, which had made her girlhood so unspeakably sad. Her soul had existed in a semi- starved condition on such affection as her miserable intemperate mother had bestowed on her, and, for the rest, the sight of love in which she had no part in some measure ministered to her wants and helped to sustain her.
One of the memories of her dreary life in Moon Street, which remained most vividly impressed on her mind, was of a very poor family whose head was an old man who mended broken-bottomed cane-chairs for a living; the others being a daughter, a middle-aged woman whose husband had forsaken her, and her three children. The eldest child was a stolid-looking round- faced girl about thirteen years old, who had the care of the little ones while her mother was away at work in a laundry. This family lodged in a house adjoining the one in which Fan lived, and for several weeks after they came there she used to shrink away in fear from the old grandfather whenever she saw him going out in the morning and returning in the evening. He was a tall spare old man, sixty-five or seventy years old, with clothes worn almost to threads, a broad-brimmed old felt hat on his head, and one of his knees stiff, so that he walked like a man with a wooden leg. But he was erect as a soldier, and always walked swiftly, even when returning, tired no doubt, from a long day's wandering and burdened with his bundle of cane and three or four old broken chairs—his day's harvest. But what a face was that old man's! He had long hair, almost white, a thin grey stern face with sharp aquiline features, and, set deep under his feather-like tufty eyebrows, blue eyes that looked cold and keen as steel. If he had walked in Pall Mall, dressed like a gentleman, the passer-by would have turned to look after him, and probably said, "There goes a leader of men—a man of action—a fighter of England's battles in some distant quarter of the globe." But he was only an old gatherer of broken chairs, and got sixpence for each chair he mended, and lived on it; an indomitable old man who lived bravely and would die bravely, albeit not on any burning plain or in any wild mountain pass, leading his men, but in a garret, where he would mend his last broken chair, and look up unflinching in the Destroyer's face. Whenever he came stumping rapidly past, and turned that swift piercing eagle glance on Fan, she would shrink aside as if she felt the sting of sleet or a gust of icy-cold wind on her face. That was at first. Afterwards she discovered that at a certain hour of the late afternoon the eldest girl would come down and take up her station in the doorway to wait his coming. When he appeared her eyes would sparkle and her whole face kindle with a glad excitement, and hiding herself in the doorway, she would wait his arrival, then suddenly spring out to startle him with a joyous cry. The sight of this daily meeting had such a fascination for Fan that she would always try to be there at the proper time to witness it; and after it was over she would go about for hours feeling a kind of reflected happiness in her heart at the love which gladdened these poor people's lives.
Afterwards, in Dawson Place, Mary's affection for her had made her inexpressibly happy, in spite of some very serious troubles, and now, when Mary's last warning words had made any close friendship with Miss Churton impossible, her heart turned readily to the mother. In this case there had been no prohibition; Mary's jealousy had not gone so far as that; Mrs. Churton was the one being in her new home to whom she could cling without offence, and who could satisfy her soul with the food for which it hungered.