They had been sitting together over two hours in the garden when Mrs. Churton at length rose from her seat.
"I hope that I have not tired you—I hope that you have liked your lesson," she said, taking the girl's hand.
"I have liked it so much," answered Fan. "I like to be with you so much, because"—she hesitated a little and then finished—"because I think that you like me."
"I like you very much, Fan," she returned, and stooping, kissed her on the forehead. "I can say that I love you dearly, although you have only been with us since yesterday. And if you can love me, Fan, and regard me as a mother, it will be a great comfort to me and a great help to both of us in our lessons."
Fan caressed the hand which still retained hers, but at the same time she cast down her eyes, over which a little shade of anxiety had come. She was thinking, perhaps, that this relationship of mother and daughter might not be an altogether desirable one.
On Sunday Fan accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Churton to morning service, and thought it strange that her teacher did not go with them. In the evening the party was differently composed, the master of the house having absented himself; then just as Mrs. Churton and Fan were starting, Constance joined them, prayer-book in hand. Mrs. Churton was surprised, but made no remark. Fan sat between mother and daughter, and Constance, taking her book, found the places for her; for Mary had failed after all to teach her how to use it. Mr. Northcott preached the sermon, and it was a poor performance. He was not gifted with a good delivery, and his voice was not of that moist mellifluous description, as of an organ fattened on cream, which is more than half the battle to the young cleric, certainly more than passion and eloquence, and of the pulpit pulpity. There was a restless spirit in Mr. Northcott; he took a somewhat painful interest in questions of the day, and in preaching was prone to leave his text, to cast it away as it were, and, taking up modern weapons, fight against modern sins, modern unbelief.
His piping took a troubled sound, Of storms that rage outside our happy ground; He could not wait their passing.
But one who was over him could, and the piping was not pleasing to him, and scarcely intelligible to the drowsy villagers; and when in obedience to his vicar's wish he went back to preach again of the Jews and Jehovah's dealings with them, his sermons were no better and no worse than those of other curates in other village pulpits. It was a sermon of this kind that Constance heard. If some old Eyethorner, dead these fifty years, had risen from his mouldy grave in the adjoining churchyard, and had come in and listened, he would not have known that a great change had come, that the bright sea of faith that once girdled the earth had withdrawn.
Down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world.
He took his text from the Old Testament, and spoke of the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt. It was a dreary discourse, and through it all Miss Churton sat leaning back with eyes half closed, but whether listening to the preacher or attending to her own thoughts, there was nothing in her face to show.
When they came out into the pleasant evening air Mrs. Churton lingered a little, as was her custom, to exchange a few words with some of her friends, while Constance and Fan went slowly on for a short distance, and finally moved aside from the path on to the green turf. Here presently the curate joined them.
"I am glad you came, Miss Churton," he spoke, pressing her hand. And after an interval of silence he added, "I hope I have not made you hate me for inflicting such a horribly dull discourse on you."
"You should be the last person to say that," she returned. "You might easily have made your sermon interesting—to me I mean; but I should not have thought better of you if you had done so."
"Thanks for that. I am sometimes troubled with the thought that I made a mistake in going into the Church, and the doubt troubled me this evening when I was in the pulpit—more than it has ever done before."
She made no reply to this speech until Fan moved a few feet away to read a half-obliterated inscription she had been vainly studying for a minute or two. Then she said, looking at him:
"I cannot imagine, Mr. Northcott, why you should select me to say this to."
"Can you not? And yet I have a fancy that it would not be so very hard for you to find a reason. I have been accustomed to mix with people who read and think and write, and to discuss things freely with them, and I cannot forget for a single hour of my waking life that the old order has changed, and that we are drifting I know not whither. I do not wish to ignore this in the pulpit, and yet to avoid offending I am compelled to do so—to withdraw myself from the vexed present and look only at ancient things through ancient eyes. I know that you can understand and enter into that feeling, Miss Churton—you alone, perhaps, of all who came to church this evening; is it too much to look for a little sympathy from you in such a case?"
She had listened with eyes cast down, slowly swinging the end of her sunshade over the green grass blades.
"I do sympathise with you, Mr. Northcott," she returned, "but at the same time I scarcely think you ought to expect it, unless it be out of gratitude for your kindness to me."
"Gratitude! It hurts me to hear that word. I am glad, however, that you sympathise, but why ought I not to expect it? Will you tell me?"
"Yes, if it is necessary. I cannot pretend to respect your motives for ignoring questions you consider so important, and which occupy your thoughts so much. If your heart is really with the thinkers, and your desire to be in the middle of the fight, why do you rest here in the shade out of it all, explaining old parables to a set of sleepy villagers who do not know that there is a battle, and have never heard of Evolution?"
He listened with a flush on his cheeks, and there was trouble mingled with the admiration his eyes expressed; but when she finished speaking he dropped them again. Before he could frame a reply Mrs. Churton joined them, whereupon he shook hands and left them, only remarking to Constance in a low voice, "I shall answer you when we meet again—we do things quietly in Eyethorne."
On their way home Mrs. Churton made a few weak attempts to draw her daughter into conversation, and was evidently curious to know what she had been talking about so confidentially with the curate; but her efforts met with little success and were soon given up.
Mr. Churton met them on their arrival at the house. "What, Constance, you too! Well, well, wonders will never cease," he cried, smiling and holding up his hands with a great affectation of surprise.
"Mr. Churton!" exclaimed his wife, rebuke in her look and tones. Then she added, "It would have been better if you had also gone with us."
"My dear, I fully intended going. But there it is, man proposes and— ahem—I stayed talking with a friend until it was past the time. Most unfortunate!" and finishing with a little inconsequent chuckle, he opened the door for them to enter.
He was extremely lively and talkative, and Mrs. Churton had some difficulty in keeping him within the bounds of strict Sunday-evening propriety. At supper he became unmanageable.
"What was the text this evening, Constance?" he suddenly asked a propos of nothing, and still inclined to make a little joke out of her going to church.
"I don't remember—I think it was from one of the prophets," she returned coldly.
"That's interesting to know," he remarked, "but a little vague—just a little vague. Perhaps Miss Affleck remembers better; she is no doubt a more regular church-goer," and with a chuckle he looked at her.
Fan was distressed at being asked, but Mrs. Churton came almost instantly to her relief. "It is rather unfair to ask her, Nathaniel," she said, with considerable severity in her voice. "The text was from Exodus—the tenth and eleventh verses of the sixteenth chapter."
"Thanks—thanks, my dear. These tenths and elevenths and sixteenths are somewhat confusing to one's memory, but you always remember them. Yet, if my memory does not play me false, that is a text which most young ladies would remember. It refers, I think, to the Israelitish ladies making off with the jewellery—always a most fascinating subject."
"It does not, Nathaniel," she said sharply. "And I wish you would reflect that it is not quite in good taste to discuss sacred subjects in this light tone before—a stranger."
"My dear, you know very well that I am the last person to speak lightly on such subjects."
"I hope so. Let us say no more about it."
"Very well, my dear; I'm quite willing to drop the subject. But, my dear, now that it occurs to me, why should I drop it? Why should you monopolise every subject connected with—with—ahem—our religious observances? It strikes me that you are a little unreasonable."
His wife ignored this attack, and turning to Fan, remarked that the evening was so warm and lovely they might spend half an hour in the garden after supper.
"Yes, that will be charming," said Mr. Churton. "We'll all go—Constance too," he added, with a little vindictive cackle of laughter. "Don't be alarmed, my dear, I sha'n't smoke—pipes and religion strictly prohibited."
"Mr. Churton!" said his wife.
"Yes, my dear."
Constance rose from her seat.
"Will you come with us, Constance?" said her mother.
"Not this evening, mother. I wish to read a little in my room." After bidding them good-night, she left the room.
"Wise girl—strong-minded girl, knows her own mind," muttered Mr. Churton, shaking his head, conscious, poor man, that he had anything but a strong mind, and that he didn't know it.
His wife darted an angry look at him, but said nothing.
"My dear," he resumed. "On second thoughts I must ask to be excused. I shall also retire to my room to read a little."
"Very well," she answered, evidently relieved.
"I don't quite agree with you, my dear. I don't think it is very well. There's an old saying that you can choke a dog with pudding, and I fancy we have too much religion in this house," and here becoming excited, he struck the table with his fist.
"Mr. Churton, I cannot listen to such talk!" said his wife, rising from her seat.
Fan also rose, a little startled at this domestic jangling, but not alarmed, for it was by no means of so formidable a character as that to which she had been accustomed in the old days.
"I will join you presently in the garden, Fan," said Mrs. Churton, and then, left alone with her husband, she proceeded to use stronger measures; but the little man was in plain rebellion now, and from the garden Fan could hear him banging the furniture about, and his voice raised to a shrieky falsetto, making use of unparliamentary language.
The Monday morning, to which Fan had been looking forward with considerable apprehension, brought no new and frightful experience: she was not caught up and instantly plunged fathoms down beyond her depth into that great cold ocean of knowledge; on the contrary, Miss Churton merely took her for a not unpleasant ramble along the margin—that old familiar margin where she had been accustomed to stray and dabble and paddle in the safe shallows. Miss Churton was only making herself acquainted with her pupil's mind, finding out what roots of knowledge already existed there on which to graft new branches; and we know that the time Fan had spent in the Board School had not been wasted. Miss Churton was not shocked nor disappointed as her mother had been: the girl had made some progress, and what she had learnt had not been wholly forgotten.
If this easy going over old ground was a relief to Fan, she experienced another and even a greater relief in her teacher's manner towards her. She was gentle, patient, unruffled, explaining things so clearly, so forcibly, so fully, as they had never been explained before, so that learning became almost a delight; but with it all there was not the slightest approach to that strange tenderness in speech and manner which Fan had expected and had greatly feared. Feared, because she felt now that she could not have resisted it; and how strange it seemed that her finest quality, her best virtue, had become in this instance her greatest enemy, and had to be fought against, just as some fight against the evil that is in them.
But Miss Churton never changed. That first morning when she had, so to speak, looked over her pupil's mind, seeking to discover her natural aptitudes, was a type of all the succeeding days when they were together at their studies. The girl's fears were quickly allayed; while Mrs. Churton more slowly and little by little got over her unjust suspicions. And the result was that with the exception of little petulant or passionate outbreaks on the part of Mr. Churton, mere tempests in a tea- cup, a novel and very welcome peace reigned at Wood End House. Between mother and daughter there was only one quarrel more—the last battle fought at the end of a long war. For a few days after that evening when Constance had accompanied her to church, the poor woman almost succeeded in persuading herself that a long-desired change was coming, that the quiet curate, who had all learning, ancient and modern, at his finger- ends, had succeeded at last in touching her daughter's hard heart, and in at least partially lifting the scales that darkened her eyes. For he was always seeking her out, conversing with her, and it was evident to her mind that he had set himself to bring back that wanderer to the fold. But the very next Sunday brought a great disillusion. As usual her daughter did not go to church in the morning, but when the bells were calling to evening service, and she stood with Fan ready to leave the house, she still lingered, looking very pale, her hands trembling a little with her agitation, afraid to go out too soon lest Constance should also be coming. With sinking heart she at last came out, but before walking a dozen yards she left Fan and went back to the house, and going up to her daughter's bedroom, tapped at the door.
Constance opened it at once; her hat was on, and she had a book in her hand.
"Are you not coming to church with us, Constance?" said the mother, speaking low as if to conceal the fact that her heart was beating fast.
"No mother, I am only going to the garden to read."
Mrs. Churton turned aside, and then stood for some moments in doubt. There was such a repelling coldness in her daughter's voice, but it was hard to have all her sweet hopes shattered again!
"Is it because I have expected it this evening, Constance, and have asked you to go? Then how unkind you are to me! Last Sunday evening you went unsolicited."
"You are mistaken," returned the other quietly. "I am not and never have been unkind. All the unkindness and the enmity, open and secret, has been on your side. That you know, mother. And I did not go unasked last Sunday. Do you wish to know why I went?"
"Why did you go?"
"Only to please Mr. Northcott, and because he asked me. He knew, I suppose, as well as I did myself, that it makes no difference, but I could not do less than go when he wished it, when he is the only person here who treats me unlike a Christian."
"Unlike a Christian! Constance, what do you mean?"
"I mean that he has treated me kindly, as one human being should treat another, however much they may differ about speculative matters."
"May God forgive you for your wicked words, Constance."
"Leave me, mother; Fan is waiting, and you will be late at church. I have not interfered with you in any way about the girl. Teach her what you like, make much of her, and let her be your daughter. In return I only ask to be left alone with my own thoughts."
Then Mrs. Churton went down and joined Fan, deeply disappointed, wounded to the core and surprised as well. For hitherto in all their contests she, the mother, had been the aggressor, as she could not help confessing to herself, while Constance had always been singularly placable and had spoken but little, and that only in self-defence. Now her own gentle and kind words had been met with a concentrated bitterness of resentment which seemed altogether new and strange. "What," she asked herself, "was the cause of it?" Was this mysterious poison of unbelief doing its work and changing a heart naturally sweet and loving into a home of all dark thoughts and evil passions? Her words had been blasphemous, and it was horrible to reflect on the condition of this unhappy lost soul.
But these distressing thoughts did not continue long. Mr. Northcott happened that evening to say a great deal about kindness and its effects in his sermon; and Mrs. Churton, while she listened, again and again recalled those words which her daughter had spoken, and which had seemed so wild and unjust—"All the unkindness and the enmity, open and secret, has been on your side." Had she in her inconsiderate zeal given any reason for such a charge? For if Constance really believed such a thing it would account for her excessive bitterness. Then she remembered how Fan had been mysteriously won over to her own side; to herself the girl's action had seemed mysterious, but doubtless it had not seemed so to Constance; she had set it down to her mother's secret enmity; and though that reproach had been undeserved, it was not strange that she had made it.
In the evening when Miss Churton, who had recovered her placid manner, said good-night and left the room, her mother rose and followed her out, and called softly to her.
Constance came slowly down the stairs, looking a little surprised.
"Constance, forgive me if I have been unkind to you," said the mother, with trembling voice.
"Yes, mother; and forgive me if I said too much this evening—I did say too much."
"I have already forgiven you," returned her mother; and then for a few moments they remained standing together without speaking.
"Good-night, mother," said Constance at length, and offering her hand.
Her mother took it, and after a moment's hesitation drew the girl to her and kissed her, after which they silently separated.
That mutual forgiveness and kiss signified that they were now both willing to lay aside their vain dissensions, but nothing more. That it would mark the beginning of a closer union and confidence between them was not for a moment imagined. Mrs. Churton had been disturbed in her mind; her conscience accused her of indiscretion, which had probably given rise to painful suspicions; she could not do less than ask her enemy's forgiveness. Constance, on her side, was ready to meet any advance, since she only desired to be left in possession of the somewhat melancholy peace her solitary life afforded her.
Meanwhile Fan was happily ignorant of the storm her coming to the house had raised, and that these two ladies, both so dear to her, one loved openly and the other secretly, had been fighting for her possession, and that the battle was lost and won, one taking her as a lawful prize, while the other had retired, defeated, but calmly, without complaint. Her new life and surroundings—the noiseless uneventful days, each with its little cares and occupations, and simple natural pleasures, the world of verdure and melody of birds and wide expanse of sky—seemed strangely in harmony with her spirit: it soon became familiar as if she had been born to it; the town life, the streets she had known from infancy, had never seemed so familiar, so closely joined to her life. And as the days and weeks and months went by, her London life, when she recalled it, began to seem immeasurably remote in time, or else unreal, like a dream or a story heard long ago; and the people she had known were like imaginary people. Only Mary seemed real and not remote—a link connecting that old and shadowy past with the vivid living present.
Her mornings, from nine till one o'clock, were spent with her teacher, and occasionally they went for a walk after dinner; but as a rule they were not together during the last half of the day. After school hours Miss Churton would hand over her pupil, not unwillingly, to her mother, and, if the state of the weather did not prevent, she would go away alone with her book to Eyethorne woods.
A strangely solitary and unsocial life, it seemed to Fan; and yet she felt convinced in her mind that her teacher was warm-hearted, a lover of her fellow-creatures, and glad to be with them; and that she should seem so lonely and friendless, so apart even in her own home, puzzled her greatly. A mystery, however, it was destined to remain for a long time; for no word to enlighten her ever fell from Mrs. Churton's lips, who seldom even mentioned her daughter's name, and never without a shade coming over her face, as if the name suggested some painful thought. All this troubled the girl's mind, but it was a slight trouble; and by-and- by, when she had got over her first shyness towards strangers, she formed fresh acquaintances, and found new interests and occupations which filled her leisure time. Mrs. Churton often took her when going to call on the few friends she had in the neighbourhood—friends who, for some unexplained reason, seldom returned her visits. At the vicarage, where they frequently went, Fan became acquainted with Mr. Long the vicar, a large, grey-haired, mild-mannered man; and Mrs. Long, a round energetic woman, with reddish cheeks and keen eyes; and the three Miss Longs, who were not exactly good-looking nor exactly young. Before very long it was discovered that she was clever with her needle, and, better still, that she had learnt the beautiful art of embroidery at South Kensington, and was fond of practising it. These talents were not permitted to lie folded up in a napkin. A new altar-cloth was greatly needed, and there were garments for the children of the very poor, and all sorts of things to be made; it was arranged that she should spend two afternoons each week at the vicarage assisting her new friends in their charitable work.
But more to her than these friends were the very poor, whose homes, sometimes made wretched by want or sickness or intemperance, she visited in Mrs. Churton's company. The lady of Wood End House was not without faults, as we have seen; but they were chiefly faults of temper—and her temper was very sorely tried. She could not forget her lost sons, nor shut her eyes to her husband's worthlessness. But the passive resistance her daughter always opposed to her efforts, her dogged adherence to a resolution never to discuss religious questions or give a reason for her unbelief, had a powerfully irritating, almost a maddening, effect on her, and made her at times denunciatory and violent. Her daughter's motive for keeping her lips closed was a noble one, only Mrs. Churton did not know what it was. But she was conscious of her own failings, and never ceased struggling to overcome them; and she was tolerant of faults in others, except that one fatal fault of infidelity in her daughter, which was too great, too terrible, to be contemplated with calm. In spite of these small blemishes she was in every sense a Christian, whose religion was a tremendous reality, and whose whole life was one unceasing and consistent endeavour to follow in the footsteps of her Divine Master. To go about doing good, to minister to the sick and suffering and comfort the afflicted—that was like the breath of life to her; there was not a cottage—hardly a room in a cottage—within the parish of Eyethorne where her kindly face was not as familiar as that of any person outside of its own little domestic circle. Mrs. Churton soon made the discovery that she could not give Fan a greater happiness than to take her when making her visits to the poor; to have the gentle girl she had learnt to love and look on almost as a daughter with her was such a comfort and pleasure, that she never failed to take her when it was practicable. At first Fan was naturally stared at, a little rudely at times, and addressed in that profoundly respectful manner the poor sometimes use to uninvited visitors of a class higher than themselves, in which the words border on servility while the tone suggests resentment. How inappropriate and even unnatural this seemed to her! For these were her own people—the very poor, and all the privations and sufferings peculiar to their condition were known to her, and she had not outgrown her sympathy with them. Only she could not tell them that, and it would have been a great mistake if she had done so. For no one loves a deserter—a renegade; and a beggar-girl who blossoms into a lady is to those who are beggars still a renegade of the worst description. But the keen interest she manifested in her shy way in their little domestic troubles and concerns, and above all her fondness for little children, smoothed the way, and before long made her visits welcome. She would kneel and take the staring youngster by its dirty hand—so perfectly unconscious of its dirtiness, which seemed very wonderful in one so dainty-looking—and start a little independent child's gossip with it, away from Mrs. Churton and the elders of the cottage. And she would win the little bucolic heart, and kiss its lips, sweet and fragrant to her in spite of the dirt surrounding them; and by- and-by the mother's sharp expression would soften when she met the tender grey eyes; and thereafter there would be a new happiness when Fan appeared, and if Mrs. Churton came without her, there would be sullen looks from the little one, and inquiries from its mother after "your beautiful young lady from London."
All this was inexpressibly grateful to Mrs. Churton, all the more grateful when she noticed that these visits they made together to the very poor seemed to have the effect of drawing the girl more and more to her. To her mind, all this signified that her religious teachings were sinking into the girl's heart, that her own lofty ideal was becoming increasingly beautiful to that young mind.
But she was making a great mistake—one which is frequently made by those who do not know how easily some Christian virtues and qualities are simulated by the unregenerate. All the doctrinal religion she had imparted to Fan remained on the surface, and had not, and, owing to some defect in her or for some other cause, perhaps could not sink down to become rooted in her heart. After Mrs. Churton had, as she imagined, utterly and for ever smashed and pulverised all Fan's preconceived and wildly erroneous ideas about right and wrong, the girl's mind for some time had been in a state of chaos with regard to such matters. But gradually, by means of a kind of spiritual chemistry, the original elements of her peculiar system came together, and crystallised again in the old form. Her mental attitude was not like that of the downright and doggedly-conservative Jan Coggan, who scorned to turn his back on "his own old ancient doctrines merely for the sake of getting to heaven." There was nothing stubborn or downright in her disposition, and she was hardly conscious of the change going on in her—the reversion to her own past. She assented readily to everything she was told by so good a woman as Mrs. Churton, and in a way she believed it all, and read her Bible and several pious books besides, and got the whole catechism by heart. It was all in her memory—many beautiful things, with others too dreadful to think about; but it could not make her life any different, or supplant her old simple beliefs, and she could never grasp the idea that a living faith in all these things was absolutely essential, or that they were really more than ornamental. Her lively sympathy for those of her own class was the only reason for the pleasure she took in going among the poor, and it also explained her natural unconstrained manner towards them, which so quickly won their hearts. During these visits she often recalled her own sad condition in that distant time when she lived in Moon Street; thinking that it would have made a great difference if some gracious lady had come to her there, with help in her hands and words of comfort on her lips. It was this memory, this thought, which filled her with love and reverence for her companion; it was gratitude for friendship to the poor, but nothing loftier.
This was a quiet and uneventful period in Fan's life; a time of growth, mental and physical, and of improvement; but as we have seen, the new conditions she found herself in had not so far wrought any change in her character. Those who knew her at Eyethorne, both gentle and simple, would have been surprised to hear that she was not a lady by birth; in her soul she was still the girl who had begged for pence in the Edgware Road, who had run crying through the dark streets after the cab that conveyed her drunken and fatally-injured mother to St. Mary's Hospital. Let them disbelieve who know not Fan, who have never known one like her.
One afternoon in early August Fan accompanied Mrs. Churton on a visit to some cottages on the further side of Eyethorne village; she went gladly, for they were going to see Mrs. Cawood, a young married woman with three children, and one of them, the eldest, a sharp little fellow, was her special favourite. Mrs. Cawood was a good-tempered industrious little woman; but her husband—Cawood the carpenter—was a thorn in Mrs. Churton's tender side. Not that he was a black sheep in the Eyethorne fold; on the contrary, he was known to be temperate, a good husband and father, and a clever industrious mechanic. But he was never seen at church; on Sundays he went fishing, being devoted to the gentle craft; and it was wrong, more so in him because of his good name than in many another. Mrs. Churton was anxious to point this out to him, but unfortunately could not see him; he was always out of the way when she called, no matter when the call was timed. "I wish you could get hold of Cawood," had been said to her many times by the parson and his wife; but there was no getting hold of him. The curate had also tried and failed. Once he had gone to him when he was engaged on some work, but the carpenter had reminded him very pleasantly that there is a time for everything, that carpentering and theology mixed badly together.
But all things come to those who wait, and on this August afternoon the slippery carpenter was fairly caught, like one of his own silly fish; but whether she succeeded in landing her prize or not remains to be told. Apparently he did not suspect that there were strangers in the cottage— some prearranged signal had failed to work, or someone had blundered; anyhow he walked unconcernedly into the room, and seemed greatly surprised to find it occupied by two lady visitors. Mrs. Churton sat with a book in her hand, gently explaining some difficult point to his wife; while at some distance Fan was carrying on a whispered conversation with her little friend Billy. The child sprung up with such sudden violence that he almost capsized her low chair, and rushing to his father embraced his legs. With a glance at his wife, expressing mild reproach and a resolution to make the best of it, he saluted his visitors, then deposited his bag of tools on the floor.
Cawood was a Londoner, who had come down to do some work on a large house in the neighbourhood, and there "met his fate" in the person of a pretty Eyethorne girl, whom he straightway married; then, finding that there was room for him, and good fishing to be had, he elected to stay in his wife's village among her own people. He was a well-set-up man of about thirty-five, with that quiet, self-contained, thoughtful look in his countenance which is not infrequently seen in the London artisan—a face expressing firmness and intelligence, with a mixture of bonhomie, which made it a pleasant study.
"I am glad you have come in," said the visitor. "I have been wishing to see you for a long time, but have not succeeded in finding you at home."
"Thank you, ma'am; it's very kind of you to come and see my wife. She often speaks of your visits. Also of the young lady's"; and here he looked at Fan with a pleasant smile.
"Yes; your wife is very good. I knew her before you did, Mr. Cawood; I have held her in my arms when she was a baby, and have known her well up till now when she is having babies of her own."
"And very good things to have, ma'am—in moderation," he remarked, with a twinkle in his eye.
"And since she makes you so good a wife, don't you think you ought to comply with her wishes in some things?"
"Why, yes, ma'am, certainly I ought; and what's more, I do. We get on amazingly well together, considering that we are man and wife," and with a slight laugh he sat down.
Mrs. Churton winced a little, thinking for the moment that he had made a covert allusion to the state of her own domestic relations; but after a glance at his open genial face, she dismissed the suspicion and returned to the charge.
"I know you are happy together, and it speaks well for both of you. But we do not see you at church, Mr. Cawood. Your wife has often promised me to beg you to go with her; if she has done so you have surely not complied in this case."
"No, ma'am, no, not in that; but I think she understands how to look at it; and if she asks me to go with her, she knows that she is asking for something she doesn't expect to get."
"But why? I want to know why you do not go to church. There are many of us who try to live good lives, but we are told, and we know, that this is not enough; that we cannot save ourselves, however hard we may try, but must go to Him who gave Himself to save us, and who bade us assemble together to worship Him."
"Well, ma'am, if anyone feels like that, I think he is right to go to church. I do not object to my wife going; if it is a pleasure and comfort to her I am glad of it. I only say, let us all have the same liberty, and go or not just as we please."
"We all have it, Mr. Cawood. But if you believe that there is One who made us, and is mindful of us, you must know that it is a good thing to obey His written word, and serve Him in the way He has told us."
"I'm sorry I can't see my way to do as you wish. My wife has given me all your messages, and the papers and tracts you've been so good as to leave for me. But I haven't read them. I can't, because you see my mind's made up about such things, and I don't see the advantage of unmaking it again."
Here was a stubborn man to deal with! His wife heard him quietly, as if it were all familiar to her. Fan, on the other hand, listened with an expression of intense interest. For this man answered not like the others. He seemed to know his own mind, and did not instantly acquiesce in what was said, and unhesitatingly make any promise that was asked of him. But how had he been able to make up his mind? and what to think and believe? That was what she wanted to know, and was waiting to hear. Mrs. Churton, glancing round on her small audience, encountered the girl's eager eyes fixed on her face; and she reflected that even if her words should avail nothing so far as Cawood was concerned, their effect would not be lost on others whose hearts were more open to instruction. She addressed herself to her task once more, and her words were meant for Fan and for the carpenter's wife as well as for the carpenter.
"I think," she began, "that I can convince you that you are wrong. There cannot be two rights about any question; and if what you think is right— that it is useless to attend church and trouble yourself in any way about your eternal interests—then all the rest of us must be in the wrong. I suppose you do not deny the truth of Christianity?"
"Since you put it in that way, I do not."
"That makes it all the simpler for me. I know you to be an honest, temperate man, diligent in your work, and that you do all in your power to make your home happy. Perhaps you imagine that this is enough. It would not be strange if you did, because it is precisely the mistake we are all most liable to fall into. What more is wanted of us? we say; we are not bad, like so many others; and so we are glad to put the whole question from us, and go on in our own easy way. Everything is smooth on the surface, and this pleasant appearance of things lulls us into security. But it is all a delusion, a false security, as we too often discover only when death is near. Only then we begin to see how we have neglected our opportunities, and despised the means of grace, and lived at enmity with God. For we have His word, which tells us that we are born in sin, and do nothing pleasing in His sight unless we obey Him. There is no escape from this: either He is our guide in this our pilgrimage or He is not. And if He is our guide, then it behoves us to reflect seriously on these things—to search the Scriptures, to worship in public, and humbly seek instruction from our appointed teachers."
This was only a small portion of what she said. Mrs. Churton was experienced in talk of this kind, and once fairly started she could run on indefinitely, like a horse cantering or a lark singing, with no perceptible effort and without fatigue.
"I think, ma'am, you could not have put it plainer," said the carpenter, who had sat through it all, with eyes cast down, in an attitude of respectful attention. "But if I can't go with you in this matter, then probably it wouldn't interest you to know what I hold and where I go?"
Now that was precisely what Fan wanted to know; again she looked anxiously at Mrs. Churton, and it was a great relief when that lady replied:
"It will interest me very much to hear you state your views, Mr. Cawood."
"Thank you, ma'am. I must tell you that I've attended more churches, and heard more good sermons, and read more books about different things, and heard more good lectures from those who spoke both for and against religion, than most working-men. In London it was all to be had for nothing; and being of an inquiring turn of mind, and thinking that something would come of it all, I used my opportunities. And what was the result? Why nothing at all—nothing came of it. The conclusion I arrived at was, that if I could live for a thousand years it would be just the same—nothing would come of it; so I just made up my mind to throw the whole thing up. I don't want you to think that I ever turned against religion. I never did that; nor did I ever set up against those who say that the Bible is only a mixture of history and fable. I did something quite different, and I can't agree with you when you say that we must be either for or against. For here am I, neither for one thing nor the other. On one side are those who have the Bible in their hands, and tell us that it is an inspired book—God's word; on the other side are those who maintain that it is nothing of the sort; and when we ask what kind of men they are, and what kind of lives do they lead, we find that in both camps there are as good men as have ever lived, and along with these others bad and indifferent. And when we ask where the intelligence is, the answer is the same; it is on this side and on that. Now my place is with neither side. I stand, so to speak, between the two camps, at an equal distance from both. Perhaps there is reason and truth on this side and on that; but the question is too great for me to settle, when the wisest men can't agree about it. I have heard what they had to say to me, and finding that I did nothing but see-saw from one side to the other, and that I could never get to the heart of the thing, I thought it best to give it all up, and give my mind to something else."
Mrs. Churton remained silent for some time, her eyes cast down. She was thinking of her daughter, wondering if her state of mind resembled that of this man. But no; that careless temper in the presence of great questions and great mysteries would be impossible to one of her restless intellect. She had chosen her side, and although she refused to speak she doubtless cherished an active animosity against religion.
"It grieves me to find you in this negative state," she returned, "and I can only hope and pray that you will not always continue in it. You do not deny the truth of Christianity, you say; but tell me, putting aside all that men say for and against our holy faith, and the arguments that have pulled you this way and that, is there not something in your own soul that tells you that you are not here by chance, that there is an Unseen Power that gave us life, and that it is good for us, even here in this short existence, if we do that which is pleasing to Him?"
"Yes, I feel that. It is the only guide I have, and I try my best to follow it. But whether the Unseen Power sees us and reads all our thoughts as Christians think, or only set things going, so to speak, is more than I am able to say. I think we are free to do good or evil; and if there is a future life—and I hope there is—I don't think that anyone will be made miserable in it because he didn't know things better than he could know them. That's the whole of my religion, Mrs. Churton, and I don't think it a bad one, on the whole—for myself I mean; for I don't go about preaching it, and I don't ask others to think as I do."
With a sigh she resigned the contest; and after a few more words bade him good-bye, and went out with the carpenter's wife into the garden.
Fan remained standing where she had risen, some colour in her cheeks, a smile of contentment playing about her lips.
"Good-bye, Mr. Cawood," she said; and after a moment's hesitation held out her hand to him.
He looked a little surprised. "My hand is not over-clean, miss, as you see," opening it with a comical look of regret on his face. "I've just come in from work and haven't washed yet."
"Oh, it's clean enough," she said with a slight laugh, putting her small white hand into his dusty palm.
On her way home Mrs. Churton talked a good deal to her companion. She went over her discussion with the carpenter, repeating her own arguments with much amplification; then passing to his, she pointed out their weakness, and explained how that neutral state of mind is unworthy of a rational being, and dangerous as well, since death might come unexpectedly and give no time for repentance.
Fan listened, readily assenting to everything; but in her heart she felt like a bird newly escaped from captivity. That restful state she had been hearing about, in which there was no perpetual distrust of self, vigilance, heart-searching, wrestling in prayer, looked infinitely attractive, and suited her disposition and humble intellect.
A fortnight later, one hot afternoon, Fan was reading beside the open window of the dining-room. After dinner Mrs. Churton had given her The Pleasures of Hope, in a slim old octavo volume, to read, and for the last hour she had been poring over it. Greatly did she admire it, it was so fine, so grand; but all that thunderous roll of rhetoric—the whiskered Pandoors and the fierce Hussars, and Freedom's shriek when Kosciusko fell, and flights of bickering comets through illimitable space—a kind of celestial fireworks on a stupendous scale—and all the realms of ether wrapped in flames—all this had produced a slight headache, a confusion or giddiness, like that which is experienced by a person looking down over a precipice, or when carried too high in a swing.
Constance came down from her room with her hat on and a book in her hand.
"Are you going for a walk, Constance?" asked her mother, who was also sitting by the open window.
"Yes, only to the woods, where I can sit and read in the shade."
Mrs. Churton glanced suspiciously at the book in her daughter's hand—a thick volume bound in dark-green cloth. There was nothing in its appearance to alarm anyone, but she did not like these thick green-bound books that were never by any chance found lying about for one to see what was in them. However, she only answered:
"Then I wish you would persuade Fan to go with you. She is looking pale, it strikes me."
"I shall be glad if Fan will go," she answered, a slight accent of surprise in her tone.
Fan ran up to get her hat and sunshade, and when she returned to them her pallor and headache had well-nigh vanished at the prospect of an afternoon spent in the shady woodland paradise. Mrs. Churton, with a prayer in her heart, watched them going away together—two lovely girls; it made her anxious when her eyes rested on the portly green volume her daughter carried, but it struck her as a good augury when she noticed that the younger girl in her white dress had The Pleasures of Hope in her hand.
For now a new thought, a hope that was very beautiful, had come into Mrs. Churton's heart. All her life long she had had the delusion that "spiritual pride" was her besetting sin; and against this imaginary enemy she was perpetually fighting. And yet if some shining being had come down to tell her that her prayers for others had been heard, that all the worthless and vicious people she wished to carry to heaven with her would be saved, and all of them, even the meanest, set above her in that place where the first is last and the last first, joy at such tidings would have slain her. She had as little spiritual pride as a ladybird or an ant. Now the new thought had come into her mind that her daughter would be saved; not in her way, nor by her means, but in a way that would at the same time be a rebuke to her spiritual pride, her impatience and bitterness of spirit, and zeal not according to knowledge. Not she, but this young girl, herself so ignorant of spiritual things a short time ago, would be the chosen instrument. She remembered how the girl had taken to her from the first, but had not taken to her daughter; how in spite of this distance between them, and of her infidelity, her daughter had continued to love the girl—to Mrs. Churton it was plain that she loved her—and to hunger for her love in return. It was all providential and ordered by One
Who moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.
"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast Thou ordained strength," she murmured, praising God who had put this gladness in her heart, the Christian's and the mother's love filling her eyes with tears. Up till now it had been her secret aim to keep the girls as much apart as possible out of school hours; now it seemed best to let them come together; and on this August afternoon, as we have seen, she went so far as to encourage a greater intimacy between them. Poor woman!
After they had entered the wood Fan began straying at short intervals from the path to gather flowers and grasses, or to look more closely at a butterfly at rest and sunning its open brightly-patterned wings.
"I think I shall sit down on the grass here to read," said Constance at length. "You can ramble about and gather flowers if you like, and you'll know where to find me."
They had now reached a spot to which Constance was in the habit of resorting almost daily, where the ground was free from underwood, and thickly carpeted with grass not yet wholly dry, and where an oak-tree shaded a wide space with its low horizontal branches.
Fan thanked her, and dropping her book rambled off by herself, happy in her flower-hunting, and forgetting all about the magnificent things she had been reading. Two or three times she returned to the spot where Constance sat reading, with her hands full of flowers and grasses, and after depositing them on the turf went away to gather more. Finally she sat down on the grass, took off her hat and gloves, and set to work arranging her spoils. This took her a long time, and after making them up two or three times in various ways she still seemed dissatisfied. At length she tried a fresh plan, and discarding all the red, yellow, and purple flowers, she made a loose bunch of the blue and white only, using only those fine open grass-spears with hair-like stems and minute flowers that look like mist on the grass. The effect this time was very pretty, and when she had finished her work she sat for some time admiring it, her head a little on one side and holding the bunch well away from her. She did not know how beautiful she herself looked at that moment, how the blue and white flowers and misty grasses had lent, as it were, a new grace to her form and countenance—a flower-like expression that was sweet to see. Looking up all at once she encountered her companion's eyes fixed earnestly on her face. It was so unexpected that it confused her a little, and she reddened and dropped her eyes.
"Forgive me, Fan, for watching your face," said Constance. "When I looked at you I wondered whether it would not be best to tell you what I was thinking of—something about you."
"About me? Will you tell me, Miss Churton?" returned Fan, a half- suppressed eagerness in her voice, as if this approach to confidence had fluttered her heart with pleasure.
"But if I tell you what was in my mind, Fan, I should have to finish by asking you a question; and perhaps you would not like to be asked."
"I think I can answer any question, Miss Churton, unless it is about—how we lived at home before Miss Starbrow took me to live with her. She wishes me not to speak of that, but to forget it."
Constance listened with softening eyes, wondering what that sorrowful past had been, which had left no trace on the sweet young face.
"I know that, Fan," she replied, "and should be very sorry to question you about such matters. It saddens me to think that your childhood was unhappy, and if I could help you to forget that period of your life I would gladly do so. The question I should have to ask would be about something recent. Can you not guess what it is?"
"No, Miss Churton—at least I don't think I can. Will you not tell me?"
"You know that my life here is not a happy one."
"Is it not? I am so sorry."
"When I first saw you I imagined that it would be different, that your coming would make me much better off. I had been wondering so much what you were like, knowing that we should be so much together. When I at length saw you it was with a shock of pleasure, for I saw more than I had dared to hope. A first impression is almost infallible, I think, and to this day I have never for a single moment doubted that the impression I received was a right one. But I was greatly mistaken when I imagined that in your friendship I should find compensation for the coldness of others; for very soon you put a distance between us, as you know, and it has lasted until now. That is what was passing through my mind a little while ago when I watched your face; and now, Fan, can you tell me why you took a dislike to me?"
"Oh, Miss Churton, I have never disliked you! I like you very, very much —I cannot say how much!" But even while this assurance sprang spontaneously from her lips, she remembered Mary's warning words, and her heart was secretly troubled, for that old danger which she had ceased to fear had now unexpectedly returned.
"Do you really like me so much, Fan?" said Constance, taking the girl's hand and holding it against her cheek. "I have thought as much sometimes —I have almost been sure of it. But you fear me for some reason; you are shy and reticent when with me, and out of lesson-time you avoid my company. You imagine that it would be wrong to love me, or that if you cannot help liking me you must hide the feeling in your heart."
It startled Fan to find that her companion was so well able to read her thoughts, but she assented unhesitatingly to what the other had said. This approach to confidence began to seem strangely sweet to her, all the sweeter perhaps because so perilous; and that contact of her hand with the other's soft warm cheek gave her an exquisite pleasure.
"And will you not tell me why you fear me?" asked Constance again.
"I should like you to know so much ... but perhaps it would not be right for me to say it ... I wish I knew—I wish I knew."
"I know, Fan—I am perfectly sure that I know, and will save you the trouble and pain of telling it. Shall I tell you? and then perhaps I shall be able to convince you that you have no reason to be afraid of me."
"I wish you would," eagerly returned Fan.
"My mother has prejudiced you against me, Fan. She imagines that if we were intimate and friendly together my influence would be injurious, that it would destroy the effect of the religious instruction she gives."
"I do not understand you," said Fan, looking unmistakably puzzled.
"No? And yet I thought it so plain. My mother has told you that I am not religious—in her way, that is—that I am not a Christian. She does not know really; I do not go about telling people what I believe or disbelieve, and prefer to say nothing about religion for fear of hurting any person's feelings. But that is not her way, and through what she has said at the vicarage, and elsewhere about me I am now looked upon as one to be avoided. I see you are reading The Pleasures of Hope. Let me have it. Do you see this passage with pencil-marks against it, and all the words underscored?
"Ah me! the laurel wreath that Murder rears, Blood-nursed, and watered by the widow's tears, Seems not so foul, so tainted, and so dread, As waves the nightshade round the sceptic head.
"These words were marked for my benefit—this is what she thinks of me —her own daughter—because I cannot agree with her in everything she believes!" And here she flung the volume disdainfully on the grass. "When I agreed to be your teacher I never imagined that such things would have been put into your head. Her anxiety about your spiritual welfare made it seem right in her eyes to do so, I suppose. But I should not have harmed you, my dear girl, or interfered with your religion in any way; she might have given me that much credit. When she knew how lonely my life was, and how much your affection would have been to me, it was unkind of her to set you also against me from the first."
All this came as a complete surprise on her listener, who now for the first time began to understand the reason of the estrangement of mother and daughter. But Constance was allowed to finish her speech without interruption. She said more than she had meant to say, but her feelings had carried her away, and when she finished it was with a half-suppressed sob.
"Dear Miss Churton, I am so sorry you are unhappy," said Fan at length, taking her hand. "I did not know you were not a Christian, nor why it was that you and Mrs. Churton were always so cold to each other. But it would have made no difference if I had known, because—I am not religious."
Constance looked at her.
"What do you mean by that, Fan?" she said. "It is my turn now, it seems, to say that I do not understand you."
The other hesitated; then she remembered the carpenter's words, and began a little doubtfully:
"I mean that I do not think that going to church and—reading the Bible, and praying, and all that, make any difference. I think we can be good without that—don't you, Miss Churton? I wish I could tell you better—it seems so hard to say it. But Mrs. Churton never said anything to me about you—in that way—I mean about your religion."
Constance listened to all this with the greatest surprise. That this very simple-minded girl, impressible as soft wax as it seemed to her, should think independently about such a subject as religion, and that she should hold views so opposed to those which Mrs. Churton had for several months been diligently instilling into her mind, seemed almost incredible. The second statement was nearly as surprising, so sure had she been that her suspicions were well-founded. "Then I have been very unjust to my mother in this instance," she said, "and am very sorry I spoke so warmly about older things which should be forgotten." After an interval of silence she continued, withdrawing her hand from the other, "I can make no further guess, Fan; and if you have any secret reason for keeping apart from me you must forgive me for speaking to you and trying to win your confidence."
Fan was more distressed than ever now, and the tears started to her eyes as she felt that the distance was once more widening between them, and that it all depended on herself whether she was to drink from this sweet cup or set it down again scarcely tasted.
"I must tell you, Miss Churton," she said at length; and then, not without much hesitation and difficulty, she explained Miss Starbrow's views with regard to the impossibility of a woman, or of a girl like her, loving more than one person, or having more than one friend.
Constance gave a laugh, which, however, she quickly checked.
"Dear Fan," she said, "does not your own heart tell you that it is all a mistake? And if you feel that you do love me, do you not know from your own experience, whether you hide the feeling or not, that your love for others, and chiefly for so dear a friend as Miss Starbrow, remains just as strong as before?"
Fan gladly answered in the affirmative.
"We are all liable to strange errors about different things, and Miss Starbrow is certainly in error about this. Besides, my dear girl, we can't always love or not love as we like; the feeling comes to us spontaneously, like the wind that blows where it listeth. Be sure that we are not such poor creatures that we cannot love more than one person at a time. But Miss Starbrow is not singular in her opinion—if it is her opinion. I have heard men say that although a man's large heart can harbour many friendships, a woman is incapable of having more than one friendship at any time. That is a man's opinion, and therefore it is not strange that it should be a wrong one, since only a woman can know the things of a woman. How strange that Miss Starbrow should have so mean an opinion of her own sex!"
Fan then remembered something which she imagined might throw some light on this dark subject. "I know," she said, "that she always prefers men to women for friends. I have heard her say that she hates women."
Constance laughed again.
"She does not hate herself—that is impossible; and that she did not hate you, Fan, is very evident. Don't you think that, intimate as you were with Miss Starbrow, you did not always quite understand her way of speaking, that you took her words too literally? You know now that she did not really mean it when she spoke of hating women, and perhaps she did not really mean what she said about your being unable to love more than one person."
"Yes; I think you are right. I know that she does not always mean what she says. I am sure you are right."
"And will you be my friend then, and love me a little?"
"You know that I love you dearly, and it makes me so happy to think that we are friends. But tell me, dear Miss Churton—"
"If we are really friends now you must call me Constance."
"Oh, I shall like that best. Dear Constance, do you think when I write to Mary that I must tell her all we have talked about?"
"No," said the other, after a moment's reflection. "It is not necessary, and would not be fair to me, as we have been speaking about her. But you must be just as open about everything, as I suppose it is your nature to be, and conceal nothing about your feelings towards others. I do not think for a moment that you will offend her by being good friends with your teacher."
That assurance and advice removed the last shadow of anxiety from Fan's mind, and after some more conversation they returned home, both feeling very much happier than when they had started for this eventful walk.
Mrs. Churton was quickly made aware of the now in one sense improved relations between the girls when they returned from their walk; and with that new hope in her heart she was not displeased to see it, although its suddenness startled her a little. She did not know until the following morning how great the change was. She was an early riser, and hearing voices and laughter in the garden while dressing, she looked out of the window, and saw the girls walking in the path, Constance with an open book in her hand, while Fan at her side had an arm affectionately thrown over her teacher's shoulder. It was a pretty sight, but it troubled her; she had not expected so close a friendship as that, which had made them rise so long before their usual time for the pleasure of being together. If, after all, a vain hope had deluded her, then there might be an exceedingly sad end to her experiment. With deep anxiety and returning jealousy she reflected that the simple-minded affectionate girl might prove as wax in the hands of her clever godless daughter. But it was too soon to intervene and try to undo her own work. She would watch and wait, and hope still that the infinite beauty and preciousness of a childlike faith would touch the stony heart that nothing had touched, and win back the wandering feet to the ways of pleasantness.
From her watching nothing much resulted for some days, although she soon began to suspect that Fan now wore a look of patience, almost of weariness, whenever she was spoken to on religious subjects, that it seemed a relief to her when the lesson was finished, and she could go back to Constance. They were constantly together now, in and out of doors, and the woods had become their daily haunt. And one day they met with an adventure. Arriving about three o'clock at their favourite tree, they saw a young man in a dark blue cycling costume lying on the grass with his hands clasped behind his head, and gazing up into the leafy depths above him. At the same moment he saw them, standing and hesitating which way to turn; and in a moment he sprang to his feet. He was a handsome young fellow, a little below the medium height, clean shaved, with black hair and very dark blue eyes, which looked black; his features were very fine, and his skin, although healthy-looking, colourless.
"I perceive that I am an intruder here," he said with a smile, and with an admiring glance at Miss Churton's face.
"Oh, no," she returned, with heightened colour. "This wood is free to all; we can soon find another spot for ourselves."
"But it is evident that you were coming to sit here," he said, still smiling. "I suppose you have done so on former occasions, so that you have acquired a kind of prescriptive right to this place. I am putting it on very low grounds, you see," he added with a slight laugh, and raising his cap was about to turn away; but just at that moment he glanced at Fan, who had been standing a little further away, watching his face with very great interest. He started, looked greatly surprised, then quickly recovering his easy self-possessed manner, advanced and held out his hand to her. "How do you do?" he said. "How strange to meet you here! You have not forgotten me, I hope?"
Fan had taken his hand. "Oh, no, Mr. Chance," she returned, blushing a little, "I remember you very well."
"I'm very glad you do. But I am ashamed to have to confess that though I remember your Christian name very well I can't recall your surname. I only remember that it is an uncommon one."
"My name is Affleck. But you only saw me once, and it is not strange you should have forgotten it."
It was true that she had only seen him once; for in spite of the brave words he had spoken to Miss Starbrow after she had rejected his offer of marriage, he had never returned to her house. But Fan had heard first and last a great deal about him, and Mary had even told her the story of that early morning declaration, not without some scornful laughter. Nevertheless at this distance from town it seemed very pleasant to see him once more. It was like meeting an old acquaintance, and vividly brought back her life in Dawson Place with Mary.
For some minutes he stood talking to her, asking after Miss Starbrow and herself, and saying that since he left Bayswater he had greatly missed those delightful evenings; but while he talked to Fan he glanced frequently at the beautiful face of her companion. Once or twice their eyes met, and Mr. Chance, judging from what he saw that he had made a somewhat favourable impression, in his easy way, and with a little apology, asked Fan to introduce him. This little ceremony over, they all sat down on the grass and spent an hour very agreeably in conversation. He told them that he was spending a month's holiday in a bicycle ramble through the south-west of England, and had turned aside to see the village of Eyethorne and its woods, which he had heard were worth a visit. From local scenery the conversation passed by an easy transition to artistic and literary subjects; in a very short time Fan ceased to take any part in it, and was satisfied to listen to this new kind of duet in which harmony of mind was substituted for that of melodious sound. With a pleased wonder, which was almost like a sense of mystery, she followed them in this rapid interchange of thoughts about things so remote from every-day life. They mentioned a hundred names unknown to her—of those who had lived in ancient times and had written poems in many languages, and of artists whose works they had never seen and could yet describe; and in all these far-off things they seemed as deeply interested as Mrs. Churton was in her religion, her parish work, and her housekeeping. How curious it was to note their familiarity with an endless variety of subjects, so that one could not say anything without a look of quick intelligence and ready sympathy from the other! How well they seemed to know each other's minds! They were talking familiarly as if they had been acquainted all their lives!
To Constance the pleasure was more real and far greater; for not only had her unfortunate opinions concerning matters of faith separated her from her few educated neighbours, but in that rustic and sleepy-minded spot there were none among them, excepting the curate, who took any interest in literary and philosophical questions. Her friends were not the people she knew, but the authors whose works she purchased with shillings saved out of the small quarterly allowance her mother made her for dress. These were the people she really knew and loved, and their thoughts were of infinitely deeper import to her than the sayings and doings of the men and women of her little world. In such circumstances, how pleasant it was to meet with this young stranger, engaging in his manner and attractive in appearance, and to converse freely with him on the subjects that constantly occupied her thoughts. There was a glow of happy excitement on her face, her eyes shone, she laughed in a free glad way, as Fan had never heard her laugh before; she was surprised at the extent of her own knowledge—at that miracle of memory, when many fine thoughts, long forgotten, and multitudes of strange facts, and glowing passages in verse and prose, came back uncalled to her mind; and above all she was surprised at a ready eloquence which she had never suspected herself capable of.
Merton Chance had often conversed with clever and beautiful women, but this country girl surprised him with the extent of her reading, her vivacity and wit, and quick sympathy; and the more they talked the more he admired her.
Then insensibly their conversation took a graver tone, and they passed to other themes, which, to Constance at least, had a deeper and more enduring interest. In all philosophical questions she could follow and even go beyond him, although she didn't know it, and very soon they made the discovery that towards the faith still professed by a large majority of their fellow-beings their attitude was the same. Or so it appeared to Constance. Christianity was one of the forms in which the universal religious sentiment had found expression for a period among a large portion of the human race. They were not agnostics, so they both declared, and yet were contented to be called so by others, not yet having invented a word better than this one of the materialistic Professor Huxley to describe themselves by. They had moved onwards and had left the creed of the Christian behind them, yet were confident that the vast unbounded prospect before them would not always rest obscured with clouds. But what the new thing was to be they knew not. Time would reveal it. They were not left without something to cheer them—gleams of a spiritual light which, although dim and transient, yet foretold the perfect day. Like so many others among the choice spirits of the earth, they turned their eyes this way and that, considering now the hard and pitiless facts of biology and physics, now the new systems of philosophy, that come like shadows and so depart, and now the vague thoughts, or thoughts vaguely expressed, of those the careless world calls mystics and wild-minded visionaries; and after it all they were fain to confess that the waters have not yet abated; and that although for them there could be no return to the ark, they were still without any rest for the soles of their feet.
If, instead of that young ignorant girl, their listener had been a grey- haired disillusioned man, he would have shaken his head, and perhaps remarked that they were a couple of foolish dreamers, that the light which inspired such splendid hopes was a light from the past—a dying twilight left in their souls by that sun of faith which for them had set. But there was nothing to disturb their pleasing self-complacency—no mocking skeleton to spoil their rare intellectual feast.
Merton was not yet satisfied, he wished to go more fully into these great subjects, and pressed her with more and more searching questions. Constance, on her side, grew more reticent, and seemed troubled in her mind, glancing occasionally into his face; and at length, dropping her hand on Fan's, who still listened but without understanding, she said that for reasons which could not be stated, which he would be able to guess, further discussion had better be deferred.
He assented with a smile, and returning her look with quick intelligence. The talk drifted into other channels, and at length they all rose to their feet, but he did not go at once. He began to ask Fan about her botanical studies, one of the subjects which Constance had taught her. He had, he said, studied botany at school and was very fond of it. Presently he became much interested in a plant, a creeper, hanging from a low shrub about twenty-five or thirty yards from where they were standing, and Fan at once started off to get a spray for him to see.
"I am very glad, Miss Churton, that our discussion is only to be deferred," he said. "It has interested me more deeply than you can imagine, and for various reasons I should be glad to go further with it."
She did not reply, although looking pleased at his words, and then he continued:
"I cannot bear to think of leaving this place without seeing you again. I wished for one thing—please don't think me very egotistical for saying it—to tell you about some little papers I am writing, and one or two of which have been printed in a periodical. I think the subject would interest you. Will you think me very bold, Miss Churton, if I ask you to let me call on you at your home?"
His request troubled her, and after a little hesitation she answered:
"I shall be perfectly frank with you, Mr. Chance, and perhaps if I tell you why I can scarcely do what you ask you will not think hardly of me. I cannot open my lips at home on the subject we have been discussing, and I am looked on coldly here, in my own village, on account of my heterodox opinions. My mother would receive you well, but she would think it wrong in me to invite a sympathiser to the house."
"Then, Miss Churton, how lonely your life must be!"
"You must not think more about me, Mr. Chance."
"You are asking too much," he answered smiling, and the words brought a blush to her cheek. "But I cannot bear to go away from Eyethorne without seeing you once more. May I hope to meet you tomorrow in this place?"
"I cannot promise that. But if—no, I cannot say more now."
Fan was back with a spray of the plant, but he had somehow lost all interest in it. That about his botany had all been pure fiction; but it had served its purpose, and now, he regretfully remarked, his plant-lore, he found, had completely faded from his mind. And after a little further conversation he shook hands and left them.
On their way home the conversation of the girls turned chiefly on their encounter with Mr. Chance. Constance displayed an unusual amount of feminine curiosity, and asked a great many questions about him. Fan had nothing to tell, for she dared not tell what she knew. It was a peculiarity of her character, that if she knew anything to a person's disadvantage she was anxious to conceal it, as if it had been something reflecting on herself; apart from this, she felt that Miss Starbrow's description of Mr. Chance would not be what Miss Churton wished to hear. For it was plain that Constance had been favourably impressed, and had taken Merton at his own valuation, which was a high one. While she kept silence it troubled her to think that one who had been despised and ridiculed by Mary should be highly esteemed by Constance, since she now loved (or worshipped) them both in an equal degree.
At the gate it all at once occurred to her to ask whether she should tell Mrs. Churton about meeting Mr. Chance in the wood or not.
"You may tell her if you like," said the other after a little hesitation. "He is a friend of Miss Starbrow's; it was only natural that we should talk with him." Then she added, "I shall say nothing about it, simply because mother and I never talk about anything. You needn't mention it unless you care to, Fan. I really don't believe that mother would feel any interest in the subject."
She reddened a little after speaking, knowing that she had been slightly disingenuous. Fan understood from her face more than from her words what she really wished.
"Then I shall not say anything, unless Mrs. Churton asks me about our walk, and if we met anyone," she returned.
But nothing was asked and nothing told.
At dinner next day Constance heard that Fan was going out with Mrs. Churton to visit a neighbour. A bright look came into her expressive face, followed by a swift blush, but she said nothing, and after dinner went back to her room. As soon as the others had left the house she began to dress for a walk, paying a great deal more attention to herself at the glass than she was accustomed to do. Her luxuriant brown hair was brushed out and rearranged, her artful fingers allowing three or four small locks to escape and lie unconfined on her forehead and temples. She studied her face very closely, thinking a great deal about that peculiar shade of colour which she saw there. But her own face was so familiar to her, how could she tell what another would think of it, and whether to city eyes that brown tint would not make it look less like the face of a Rosalind than of an Audrey? With her dress she was altogether dissatisfied, and there was nothing to give a touch of beauty to it but a poor flower—a half-open rose—which she pinned on her bosom. Then she envied Fan her beautiful watch and chain, the half-score of rings, bangles, and brooches which Miss Starbrow had given her; and this reminded her of an ornament she possessed, an old-fashioned gold brooch with an amethyst in it, and which in the pride of philosophy she had looked on with a good deal of contempt. Now the rose was flung away, and the despised jewel put in its place. Taking her book and sunshade she finally left the house, and turned her steps towards the wood. Scarcely had she left the gate behind before a tumult of doubts and fears began to assail her. She was hurrying away alone to the wood, glad to be alone, solely to meet Mr. Chance. Would he not at once divine the reason of her strange readiness to obey his wishes? Could she in her present agitated state, with her cheek full of hot blushes, and her heart throbbing so that it almost choked her, hide her secret from him? This thought frightened her and she slackened her pace, and argued that it would be better not to go to the wood, not to run the risk of such a self-betrayal and humiliation. But perhaps he would not come after all to meet her, for no appointment had been made, and no promise of any kind given—why should she be so anxious in her mind about it? It gave her a pang to think that the meeting and conversation which had been so important an event in her life were perhaps very little to him, that they were perhaps fading out of his mind already, and would soon be, like his botanical knowledge, altogether forgotten. Perhaps he was even now on the road speeding away far from Eyethorne on his bicycle. Then the fear that she might betray her secret was overmastered by this new fear that she would never see him again, that he had gone out of her life for ever; and she quickened her slow steps once more, and at last gaining the wood, and coming to the spot where she had parted from him, and not finding him there, her excitement left her, and she sat down with a pang of bitter disappointment in her heart.
But before many minutes had gone by she heard approaching footsteps, and looking up saw him coming towards her. The tell-tale blood rushed again to her cheeks and her heart throbbed wildly, but she bent her eyes resolutely on her book and pretended not to see his approach. Poor girl, so innocent of wiles! she did not know, she could not guess, that he had been for upwards of an hour on the spot waiting for her, his heart also agitated with hopes and fears. He had watched her coming with glad triumphant feelings, and then, prudent and artful even in his moment of triumph, had concealed himself from her to come on to the scene after allowing her a little time to taste her disappointment.
He was already standing before her and speaking, and then in a moment the outward calm which she had been vainly striving to observe came unexpectedly to her aid. She shook hands with him and explained why she was alone, and then, surprised at her own new courage, she added:
"I am glad that we have met again, Mr. Chance; I came here hoping to meet you; our conversation yesterday gave me so much pleasure, and I wished so much to hear about your literary work. After to-day I do not suppose that we shall ever meet again."
"I sincerely hope we shall!" he returned, sitting down near her. "It is really painful to think that you should be immured in this uncongenial place with your tastes and—advantages."
"Please do not pity my condition, Mr. Chance. I can endure it very well for a time, I hope; it is not my intention to stay here always, nor very much longer, and just now I am not altogether alone, as I have Fan to teach and for a companion."
"She is a very charming girl," he returned; "and I must tell you that she has improved marvellously since I last saw her. Miss Starbrow has, I think, been singularly fortunate in having put her into your hands."
"Thank you," said Constance, with a quick glance at his face. Then she added, "I suppose you know Miss Starbrow very well?"
"Yes," he returned with a slight smile, and she was curious to know why he smiled in that meaning way, but feared to ask. "But she is your friend, I suppose, and you know her as well as I do," he added after a while.
"Oh no, she is a perfect stranger to me. We only saw her once for a few minutes when she brought Fan down to us last May."
"How strange! But I should have thought that Miss Affleck would have told you everything about her before now."
"No; I never question Fan about her London life, and when left to herself she is a very reticent girl."
"Really!" said he, not ill-pleased at this information. "But, Miss Churton, how very natural that you should wish to know something about this lady!"
She smiled without replying, but no reply was needed. He had been studying her face, and knew that she was curious to hear what he had to say, and this interest in Miss Starbrow, he thought, was a very new feeling, and rose entirely out of her interest in himself.
He told her a great deal about the lady, without altogether omitting her little eccentricities, as he leniently called them, and her little faults of temper; he paid a tribute to her generous, hospitable character, only she was, he thought, just a little too hospitable, judging from the curious specimens one met at her Wednesday evening gatherings. But he was very good-natured, and touched lightly on the disagreeable features in the picture, or else kindly toned them down with a few skilful touches, producing the impression on his listener that he did not dislike Miss Starbrow, but regarded her with a kind of amused curiosity. And that, in fact, was precisely the impression he had wished to make, and he was well pleased with himself when he saw how well he had succeeded.
Afterwards they spoke of other things, and soon came to those literary topics in which Miss Churton took so keen an interest. They talked long and earnestly, and Merton Chance neglected no opportunity of saying pretty things with a subtle flattery in them at which the other was far from being displeased.
"You draw your mental nutriment from a distance," he said. "Being without sympathy from those around you, you are like a person in a diving-bell, shut in on all sides by a medium through which a current of life- preserving oxygen comes, but dark and cold and infinitely repelling to the spirit."
It was true, and very pleasant to meet with appreciation. And finally, before he left her, he had promised to send, and she had promised to accept gratefully, some magazines containing contributions from his pen, also some books which he wished her to read. But he did not say anything about writing, he did not wish to show himself too eager to continue the acquaintance which chance had brought about: in his own mind, however, it was already settled that there was to be a correspondence.
After Merton's departure from Eyethorne things drifted back to their old state at Wood End House, the slight change in Constance becoming less and less perceptible, until the time came when Fan began to think, with a secret feeling of relief, that the visitor had after all made only a passing impression, which was already fading out of her teacher's mind. But by-and-by there came from London a letter and a packet of books and periodicals for Constance, and Fan remarked the glad excitement in her friend's face when she carried her treasures away to her room, and her subsequent silence on the subject. And after that Constance was again much occupied with her own thoughts, which, to judge from her countenance, were happy ones; and Fan quickly came to the conclusion that the books and letter were from Merton. Mrs. Churton, who knew nothing about this new acquaintance, imagined only that her daughter had sucked out all the impiety contained in the books she already possessed, and had sent for a fresh supply. For, she argued, if there had been nothing wrong in the books Constance would have allowed her to read or see them. She made herself very unhappy over it, and was more incensed than ever against her sinful daughter, but she said nothing, and only showed her dissatisfaction in her cold, distrustful manner.
Another bitterness in her cup at this period was her inability to revive Fan's interest in sacred things, for she had begun to notice an increasing indifference in the girl. All the religious teaching, over which she had spent so much time and labour, seemed to have failed of its effect. She had planted, apparently in the most promising soil, and the vicar and the vicar's wife had watered, and God had not given the increase. This was a new mystery which she could not understand, in spite of much pondering over it, much praying for light, and many conversations on the subject with her religious friends. So sweet and good and pure- hearted and pliant a girl; but alas! alas! it was only that ephemeral fictitious kind of goodness which springs from temper or disposition, which has no value in the eyes of Heaven, cannot stand the shocks of time and circumstance. It was not through any remissness of her own; she had never ceased her efforts, yet now after many months she was fain to confess that this young girl, who had promised such great things, seemed further than at the beginning from that holiness which is not of the earth, and which delights only in the contemplation of heavenly things. She could see it now with what painful clearness! for her eyes in such matters were preternaturally sharp, like those of a sailor who has followed the sea all his life with regard to atmospheric changes; no sooner would the lesson begin than all brightness would fade from that too expressive countenance, and the girl would listen with manifest effort, striving to keep her attention from wandering, striving to understand and to respond; but there was no response from the heart, and in spite of striving her thoughts, her soul, were elsewhere, and her eyes wore a distant wistful look. And Mrs. Churton was hot-tempered; in all the years of her self-discipline she had never been able to wring from her heart that one drop of black blood; and sometimes when she talked to Fan, and read and prayed with her, and noticed that impassive look coming over her face to quench its brightness like a cloud, her old enemy would get the best of her, and she would start up and hurriedly leave the room without a word, lest it should betray her into passionate expression.
"Yes, I have also noticed this in Miss Affleck," the vicar said to her one day when she had been speaking to him on the subject. "She seemed at one time so docile, so teachable, so easy to be won, and now it is impossible not to see that there is something at work neutralising all our efforts and making her impervious to instruction. But, my dear Mrs. Churton, we know the reason of this; Miss Affleck is too young, too ignorant and impressible not to fall completely under the influence of your daughter."
"But my daughter has promised me and has given me her word of honour that nothing has been said or will be said or done to alienate her pupil's mind from religious subjects. And we know, Mr. Long, that even those who are without God may still be trusted to speak the truth—that they have that natural morality written on their hearts of which St. Paul speaks."
"Yes, that's all very well, and I don't say for a moment that your daughter has deliberately set herself to undo your work and win her pupil to her own pernicious views. But is it possible for her, even if she wished it, to conceal them altogether from one who is not only her pupil but her intimate friend and constant companion? Her whole life—thoughts, acts, words, and even looks—must be leavened with the evil leaven; how can Miss Affleck live with her in that intimate way without catching some of that spirit from her? You know that so long as they were not thus intimate this girl was everything that could be desired, that from the time they became close friends she began to change, and that religion is now becoming as distasteful to her as it is to her teacher."
Poor woman! she had gone for comfort and counsel to her pastor, and this was all she got. He was a good hater, and regarded Miss Churton with a feeling that to his way of thinking was a holy one. "Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them mine enemies." As for separating two inseparable things, the sinner and the sin (matter and an affection of matter), and loving one and hating the other, that was an intellectual feat altogether beyond his limited powers, although he considered it one which Mr. Northcott might be able to accomplish. He had made it impossible for his enemy to do any injury in the parish; she had been dropped by Eyethorne "society," and she did not go among the poor; but this was not enough to satisfy him, and the sermon he had preached against her, which drove her from the church, had been deliberately prepared with the object of driving her from the parish. He had failed in his object, and now he was angry because he could not separate Fan from her, and, unjust and even cruel in his anger, he turned on the unhappy mother.
To his words Mrs. Churton could only reply, "What can I do—what can I do?" And as he refused to answer her, having said his last word, she rose and went home more unhappy than ever, more angry with Fan, and embittered against her daughter; for that the vicar had truly shown her the reason of her failure she could not doubt.
They were both entirely wrong, although the mistake was a very natural one, and, in the circumstances, almost unavoidable. Constance had scrupulously observed the compact. Nothing could be further from her mind than any desire to win others to her way of thinking. The religious instinct was strong in her, and could flourish without the support of creed or doctrine; at the same time she recognised the fact that in others—in a very large majority of persons, perhaps—it is a frail creeping plant that trails along the ground to perish trodden in the dust without extraneous support.
Fan, on her side, had drifted into her present way of thinking, or not thinking, independently of her teacher, and entirely uninfluenced by her. At the beginning she responded readily to Mrs. Churton's motherly teaching; but only because the teaching was motherly, and intimately associated with those purely human feelings which were everything to her. Afterwards when others, who were strangers and not dear to her, began to take part in her instruction, then gradually these two things—human and divine—separated themselves in her mind, and she clung to the one and lost her interest in the other. It was pleasant to go to church, to take part in singing and praying with the others, and to sit with half-closed eyes among well-dressed people during sermon-time, and think of other things, chiefly of Mary and Constance. But when religion came to be more than that, it began to oppress her like a vain show, and it was a relief to escape from all thoughts on the subject. So low and so earthly, in one sense, was Fan's mind. While she was in this frame that visit to the carpenter's cottage occurred, and the carpenter's words had taken a strong hold on her and could not be forgotten; for they fitted her case so exactly, and seemed so clearly to express all that she had had in her mind, and all that it was necessary for her to have, that it had the effect of making her spirit deaf to all other and higher teachings. If she could have explained it all to Mrs. Churton it would have been better, at all events for Constance, but she was incapable of such a thing, even if she had possessed the courage, and so she kept silence, although she could see that her want of interest was distressing to her kind friend.