'How exactly like him!'
'How highly he does esteem you!' said Annette; 'but if he thinks me like you he would find his mistake. After what you told me—so soon! Oh, I wish it had not happened! Violet, do tell me what to do.'
'I don't think any one can advise in a matter like this.'
'Oh! don't say so, Violet; you know the people, and I don't. Pray say something.'
'He is a most excellent, admirable person,' said Violet, in an unmeaning tone.
'Yes, I know that, but—'
'Really, I think nothing but your own feeling should decide.'
'Ah! you did not hesitate when you were asked!' said Annette, sighing; and Violet at once blushed, smiled, and sighed, as she spoke her quick conscious 'No, no!'
'Such a romance cannot always be expected,' said Annette, a little mournfully. 'He is everything estimable, in spite of his oddness. But then, this affair—so recent! Violet' (impatiently), 'what DO you think? what do you wish?'
'What I wish? To have my own Annette near me. For two such people to belong to each other! Don't you know what I like? But the question is what you wish.'
'Yes!' sighed Annette.
'I don't think you wish it much,' said Violet, trying to get a view of her face.
'I don't know whether I ought to make up my mind. I am not much inclined to anything. But I dare say it would turn out well. I do like him very much. But Miss Martindale! Now, Violet, will you not tell me what you think? Take pity on me.'
'Annette,' said Violet, not without effort, 'I see you have not the feeling that would make you unhappy in giving him up, so I may speak freely. I am afraid of it. I cannot be certain that he is so completely cured of his old attachment as he supposes himself to be while the anger is fresh. He is as good as possible—quite sincere, and would never willingly pain you, whatever he may feel. But his affection for Theodora was of long standing; and without any one's fault there might be worries and vexations—'
'Yes, yes,' said Annette, in a voice that reassured her.
'I think it wiser not, and perhaps more honourable to Theodora. Hitherto I have been wishing that it might yet be made up again. If you had been disposed that way, I should have been anxious,—as you seem doubtful, I fancy it would be safer—'
'O, Violet, I am so glad! It is a great relief to me.'
'But, you know, it is only I that say so.'
'Better you than a hundred! My doubt was this. You know there are a great many of us, and papa wants to see us well married. He has talked more about it since you went. Now this is not romantic; but I was considering whether, for the sake of the rest, I ought not to try whether I could like him. But what you have said sets me quite at ease in refusing him.'
'Poor Percy!' said Violet. 'I am afraid he will be vexed.'
'And it is a great compliment, though that is to you. He takes me on trust from you.'
'And he took me on trust from John,' said Violet. 'I wish he had known you before Theodora.'
'I only hope papa will never hear of it,' said Annette, shrinking. 'How fortunate that he was not here. I shall tell no one at home.'
'If it had not been for Theodora,' sighed Violet, 'I know nothing that would have been more delightful. It was too charming to come true!'
'Violet,' said Annette, with her face averted, 'don't be sorry, for I could not have been glad of it now; though for their sakes I might have tried to work myself into the feeling. I cannot help telling you, though you will think it more wrong in me, for I shall never see HIM again, and he never said anything.'
'I know whom you mean,' whispered Violet, rightly divining it was Mr. Fanshawe.
'Don't call it anything,' said Annette, with her head drooping. 'I would not have told even you, but to console you about this. Nothing ever passed, and I was silly to dwell on the little things they laughed at me about, but I cannot help thinking that if he had seen any prospect—'
'I wonder if John could—' Violet checked herself.
'O, don't say anything about it!' cried Annette, frightened. 'It may be only my foolish fancy—but I cannot get it out of my mind. You see I have no one to talk over things with now you are gone. I have lost my pair in you, so I am solitary among them, and perhaps that has made me think of it the more.'
'Dearest! But still I think you ought to try to draw away your mind from it.'
'You do not think I ought to try to like Mr. Fotheringham?'
'Indeed, under present circumstances, I could not wish that.'
'But do you think me very wrong for considering whether I could? I hope not, dear Violet,' said Annette, who shared her sister's scrupulous, self-distrustful character, and had not, like her, been taught, by stern necessity, to judge for herself.
'No, indeed,' said Violet; 'but, since that is settled, he ought to know it at once, and not to be kept in suspense.'
It was not until after much affectionate exhortation that Violet could rouse her sister from talking rather piteously over the perplexity it would have been if his case or hers had been otherwise, arguing to excuse herself in her own eyes for the notion of the marriage for expediency, and describing the displeasure that the knowledge of the rejection would produce at home. It was the first time she had had to act for herself, and either she could not resolve to begin, or liked to feel its importance. Perhaps she was right in saying that Mr. Fotheringham would be disappointed if he supposed her Violet's equal, for though alike in lowliness, amiability, and good sense, she had not the same energy and decision.
At last the letter was begun, in the style of Matilda and the "Polite Letter Writer" combined, though the meek-spirited Annette peeped through in the connecting links of the set phrases. Violet, who was appealed to at every stage, would fain have substituted the simple words in which Annette spoke her meaning; but her sister was shocked. Such ordinary language did not befit the dignity of the occasion nor Matilda's pupil; and Violet, as much overruled as ever by respect for her elder sisters, thought it an admirable composition.
'May I see yours?' asked Annette, resting before making her fair copy.
'And welcome, but it is not worthy of yours.'
'My Dear Mr. Fotheringham,—I wish with all my heart it could be—I am very sorry it must not. Pray say nothing to my father: it would only put her to needless pain. I beg your pardon for not being able to do anything for you. You know how glad I should have been if I had not been obliged to perceive that it would not be really right or kind to either. Only do let me thank you for liking my dear sister, and forgive us if you are grieved. I am very, very sorry.
'Yours, very sincerely,
'V. H. MARTINDALE.'
Annette raised her eyes in surprise. 'Ah!' said Violet, 'it is of no use for me to try to write like Matilda. I did once, but I am not clever enough; it looked so silly and affected, that I have been ashamed to remember it ever since. I must write in the only way I can.'
Her sister wanted to tear up her letter as a piece of affectation, but this she would not allow. It made her feel despairing to think of spending two hours more over it, and she hoped that she would be satisfied with the argument that the familiar style employed by Mrs. Martindale towards an old friend might not be suited to Annette Moss when rejecting his suit.
Each sentence underwent a revision, till Violet, growing as impatient as was in her nature, told her at last that he would think more of the substance than of the form.
Next, she had to contend against Annette's longing to flee home at once, by Theodora's own saying, 'London was wide enough for both;' and more effectually by suggesting that a sudden departure would be the best means of proclaiming the adventure. It was true enough that Mr. Fotheringham was not likely to molest her. No more was heard of him till, two days after, the owl's provider brought a parcel with a message, that Mr. Fotheringham had given up his lodging and was going to Paris. It contained some books and papers of John's, poor little Pallas Athene herself, stuffed, and directed to Master J. Martindale, and a book in which, under his sister's name, he had written that of little Helen. Violet knew he had intended making some residence at Paris, to be near the public libraries, and she understood this as a kind, forgiving farewell. She could understand his mortification, that he, after casting off the magnificent Miss Martindale, should be rejected by this little humble country girl; and she could not help thinking herself ungrateful, so that the owl, which she kept in the drawing-room, as the object of Johnnie's tender strokings, always seemed to have a reproachful expression in its round glass eyes.
The hope of seeing the expediency of her decision waxed fainter, when she received the unexpected honour of a letter from Lord Martindale, who, writing to intrust her with some commission for John, added some news. 'I have had the great pleasure of meeting with my cousin, Hugh Martindale,' he said; 'who, since the death of his wife, has so overworked himself in his large town parish, as to injure his eyesight, and has been ordered abroad for his health. It does not appear that he will ever be fit to return to his work at Fieldingsby, and I am in hopes of effecting an exchange which may fix him at Brogden in the stead of Mr. Wingfield. When you are of my age, you will understand the pleasure I have in returning to old times. Theodora has likewise been much with him, and I trust may be benefited by his advice. At present she has not made up her mind to give any definite answer to Lord St. Erme, and since I believe she hesitates from conscientious motives, I am the less inclined to press her, as I think the result will be in his favour. I find him improve on acquaintance. I am fully satisfied with his principles and temper, he has extensive information, and might easily become a valuable member of society. His sister, Lady Lucy, spends much of her time with us, and appears to be an amiable pleasing girl.'
Lord Martindale evidently wished it to be forgotten that he had called Lord St. Erme absurd-looking.
Violet sighed, and tried to counterbalance her regrets by hopes that John would have it in his power to patronize his chaplain. However, these second-hand cares did not hinder her from thriving and prospering so that she triumphed in the hopes of confuting the threat that she would not recover in London, and she gloried in the looks with which she should meet Arthur. A dozen times a day she told her little ones that papa was coming home, till Johnnie learnt to repeat it; and then she listened in ecstasy as the news took a fresh charm from his lips.
She went to meet Arthur at the station; but instead of complimenting her on the renewed carnation of her cheeks, as perhaps, in her pretty conjugal vanity, she had expected, when she had taken such pains with her pink ribbons, he gazed straight before him, and presently said, abruptly, 'Is your sister here?'
Had she been displeasing him the whole time? She only breathed a faint 'Yes.'
'Is Fotheringham in town?'
'No; he is gone to Paris.'
'Then it is humbug, as I thought. I met that precious Miss Gardner in the train going to Worthbourne, and she would have me believe you were getting up a match between those two! A fine story,—not a year since he proposed to Theodora! There was she congratulating me on the satisfaction it must be to Mrs. Martindale!'
'So she wanted to make mischief between us,' said Violet, much hurt.
'Mischief is meat and drink to her. But not a jot did I believe, I tell you, silly child. You are not wasting tears on that crocodile tongue! I had a mind to tell her to her face that Percy is made of different stuff; and for my own Violet blossom—'
The tears dropped bright and happy. 'Though, dear Arthur, it was true, as far as Percy was concerned. Annette has had to refuse him.'
'A wise girl!' exclaimed Arthur, in indignant surprise. 'But Percy! I could not have believed it. Why would she not have him?'
'Chiefly from thinking it not right to accept him. I hope I did not do wrong in telling her all about it. I thought it only fair, and she did not care enough for him to make the refusal an effort.'
'I should think not! The fickle dog. To go and take up with—No disrespect to Annette,—but after Theodora! So soon, too!'
'I fancied it more pique than inconstancy. There is so much anger about him that I suspect there is more affection than he knows.'
'And you think that mends matters,' said Arthur, laughing. 'Well, I hope Theodora will marry St. Erme at once, so as to serve him right. I am sure she will if she hears of this.'
'And I am afraid Miss Gardner will write to her.'
'That she will, with nice histories of you and me and Annette. And she will tell them at Worthbourne till old Sir Antony disinherits Percy. No more than he deserves!'
She might well be glad of the part she had taken, now that she found her husband so much more alive to the affront to his sister than she had expected. He was in high good-humour, and talked merrily of his expedition, proceeding even to such a stretch of solicitude as to say he supposed 'the brats were all right, as he had heard nothing of them.'
His greeting to Annette was warm and cordial, he complimented her on her sister's recovered looks, and tried to extort a declaration that she looked just like what she had been when he took her from Wrangerton. Annette peeped out under her eyelashes, smiled, and shook her head timidly.
'Ha! What's your treason, Miss Annette? Does not she look as well as ever?'
'Better, in some ways,' said Annette, looking at Violet, glowing and smiling, with her husband's hand on her shoulder.
'And what in others!'
'I like to look at her better than ever, but I cannot say she is not paler and thinner.'
'Yes, and sober and matronly. That I am!' said Violet, drawing herself up. 'I must stand on my dignity now I have two children. Don't I look old and wise, Annette?'
'Not a bit now,' said Annette.
There was an end of Annette's doubt and dread of her grand brother-in-law. He talked and laughed, took her on pleasant expeditions, and made much of her with all his ready good-nature, till her heart was quite won. She did not leave them till just as they were departing for Windsor, and as she looked back from her railway carriage, at Violet and her husband, arm-in-arm, she sighed a sigh on her own account, repented of as soon as heaved, as she contrasted her own unsatisfactory home with their happiness.
But the heart knoweth its own bitterness, and Annette little guessed at the grief that lurked in the secret springs of her sister's joy, increasing with her onward growth in the spirit that brought her sure trust and peace. It was the want of fellowship with her husband, in her true and hidden life. She could not seek counsel or comfort from above, she could not offer prayer or thanksgiving, she could not join in the highest Feast, without finding herself left alone, in a region whither he would not follow. It was a weariness to him. In the spring she had had hopes. At Easter, an imploring face, and timid, 'Won't you come?' had made him smile, and say he was not so good as she, then sigh, and half promise, 'Next time, when he had considered.' But next time he had had no leisure for thinking; she should do as she liked with him when they got into the country. And since that, some influence that she could not trace seemed, as she knew by the intuition of her heart, rather than the acknowledgment of her mind, to have turned him away; the distaste and indifference were more evident, and he never gave her an opening for leading to any serious subject. It was this that gave pain even to her prayers, and added an acuter pang to every secret anxiety.
'When his children are older, and he feels that they look up to him' thought Violet, hopefully, and in the meantime she prayed.
Not so, bold knight, no deed of thine Can ever win my hand; That hope, poor youth, thou must resign, For barriers 'twixt us stand. Yet what doth part us I will now reveal, Nor, noblest one, from thee the truth conceal.
Arthur guessed rightly. Miss Gardner's first leisure was spent in writing her tidings to Theodora.
It was on a strange state of mind that they fell. Theodora had gone abroad, softened and conscious of her faults, but her indomitable will boiling up at each attempt to conquer them; knowing that her fate hung in the balance, but helpless in the power of her own pride and temper. Miserable, and expecting to be more wretched, her outward demeanour, no longer checked by Violet, was more than ever harsh, capricious, and undutiful, especially under her present deprivation of the occupations that had hitherto been channels of kindly feeling.
She was less patient than formerly with her aunt, who was in truth more trying. Quickly gathering the state of affairs with regard to Lord St. Erme, she was very angry with Lord Martindale for not having consulted her, and at the same time caressed her great-niece beyond endurance. Besides, it was unbearable to hear sweet Violet scoffed at. Theodora spoke hastily in her defence; was laughed at for having been gained over; replied vehemently, and then repented of losing temper with one so aged and infirm. Her attention to Mrs. Nesbit had been one of her grounds of self-complacency; but this had now failed her—distance was the only means of keeping the peace and Theodora left her chiefly to her companion, Mrs. Garth, a hard-looking, military dame, who seemed so well able to take care of herself, that there was none of the compassion that had caused Theodora to relieve poor little Miss Piper.
It was not long before Lord St. Erme persuaded his aunt that her tour in Germany would not be complete without a visit to Baden-Baden. Mrs. Delaval and Lady Martindale immediately began to be as intimate as was possible with the latter. Theodora intended to stand aloof, and to be guarded and scornful; but Lady Lucy was such an engaging, affectionate, honest-hearted little thing, regarding Miss Martindale with all her brother's enthusiastic devotion, and so grateful for the slightest notice, that it really was impossible to treat her with the requisite cold dignity.
And to admit Lady Lucy to her friendship was much the same thing as admitting the brother. 'St. Erme' was the one engrossing subject of the young girl's thoughts and discourse, and it was soon plain that not a conversation passed but was reported to him. If Theodora expressed an opinion, 'St. Erme's' remarks on it were certain to be brought to her the next day; if a liking or a wish, he was instantly taking measures for its gratification. She might try to keep him at a distance, but where was the use of it when, if his moustached self was safely poetizing in the Black Forest, his double in blue muslin was ever at her elbow?
By and by it was no longer a moustached self. The ornaments were shaved off, and she heartily wished them on again. What could be said when Lucy timidly begged to know how she liked the change in St. Erme's face, and whether she shared her regrets for his dear little moustache? Alas! such a sacrifice gave him a claim, and she felt as if each departed hair was a mesh in the net to ensnare her liberty.
And what could she say when Lucy WOULD talk over his poems, and try to obtain her sympathy in the matter of that cruel review which had cut the poor little sister to the heart? It had been so sore a subject in London, that she could not then bear to speak of it, and now, treating it like a personal attack on his character, she told how 'beautifully St. Erme bore it,' and wanted Miss Martindale to say how unjust and shocking it was. Yet Miss Martindale actually, with a look incomprehensible to poor Lucy, declared that there was a great deal of truth in it.
However, in process of time, Lucy came back reporting that her brother thought so too, and that he had gathered many useful hints from it; but that he did not mean to attend to poetry so much, he thought it time to begin practical life; and she eagerly related his schemes for being useful and distinguishing himself.
It was not easy to help replying and commenting on, or laughing at, plans which showed complete ignorance of English life, and then Theodora found herself drawn into discussions with Lord St. Erme himself, who took her suggestions, and built his projects with a reference to her, as his understood directress and assistant; till she grew quite frightened at what she had let him take for granted, and treated him with a fresh fit of coldness and indifference, soon thawed by his sister. She could not make up her mind to the humiliating confession by which alone she could have dismissed him, and the dominion she should enjoy with him appeared more and more tempting as she learnt to know him better, and viewed him as a means of escape from her present life. If it had not been for recollections of Violet, she would have precipitated the step, in order to end her suspense, but that perfect trust that she would not accept him unless she could do so with a clear conscience always held her back.
It was at this juncture that, one day when walking with her father, there was a sudden stop at the sight of another elderly gentleman. 'Ha! Hugh!' 'What, you here, Martindale!' were mutually exclaimed, there was an ardent shaking of hands, and she found herself introduced to a cousin, whom she had not seen since she was a child.
He and her father had been like brothers in their boyhood, but the lines they had since taken had diverged far and wide. The hard-working clergyman had found himself out of his element in visits to Martindale, had discontinued them, and almost even his correspondence, so that Lord Martindale had heard nothing of his cousin since his wife's death, two years ago, till now, when he met him on the promenade at Baden, sent abroad to recruit his worn-out health and eyesight.
All have either felt or beheld, how two such relations, on the verge of old age, meet and refresh themselves with looking back, beyond the tract of middle life, to the days shared together in youth! Lord Martindale had not looked so bright, nor talked and laughed so much for years, as over his boyish reminiscences, and his wanderings up and down the promenade with his cousin seemed as if nothing could terminate them.
Clergymen and school-loving young ladies have a natural affinity, and Theodora found a refuge from the Delavals and an opportunity for usefulness. She offered to read to Cousin Hugh, she talked over parish matters, and after relieving her mind with a conversation on the question of how much the march of intellect ought to penetrate into country schools, it was wonderful how much more equable and comfortable she became. The return to the true bent of her nature softened her on every side; and without the least attempt to show off, she was so free from the morose dignity with which she had treated her own family since going abroad, that Mr. Hugh Martindale could hardly believe the account of her strange ungovernable character, as it was laid before him by her father, in his wish for counsel.
He watched her anxiously, but made no attempt to force her confidence, and let her talk to him of books, school discipline, parish stories, and abstruse questions as much as she pleased, always replying in a practical, sobering tone, that told upon her, and soothed her almost like Violet's mild influence, and to her great delight, she made him quite believe in Violet's goodness, and wish to be acquainted with her.
But all the time, Lord St. Erme was treated as her acknowledged suitor. Perhaps Mr. Martindale thought it might be better if she were safely married; or, at any rate, only knowing her personally as a high-minded person of much serious thought, he believed her to be conscientiously waiting to overcome all doubts, and honoured her scruples: while it might be, that the desire for his good opinion bound Theodora the more to Lord St. Erme, for with all her sincerity, she could not bear the idea of his discovering the part she was playing, at the very time she was holding such conversations on serious subjects. The true history of her present conduct was that she could not endure to be known as the rejected and forsaken of Mr. Fotheringham, and thus, though outwardly tamer, she was more melancholy at heart, fast falling into a state of dull resignation; if such a name can be applied to mere endurance of the consequences of her own pride and self-will.
Now came Jane Gardner's letter. Theodora read it through, then, with calm contempt, she tore it up, lighted a taper, and burnt it to ashes.
'There, Jane!' said she, as it shrivelled, black and crackling, 'there is all the heed I take. Violet would no more allow me to be supplanted than Percy could be inconstant.'
Inconstant! Where was her right so to term him? Was he not released, not merely by the cold 'Very well,' which seemed to blister her lips in the remembrance, but by her whole subsequent course? That thought came like the stroke of a knife, and she stood motionless and stunned. Love of Percival Fotheringham was a part of herself! Certain from her confidence in Violet that Jane's news was untrue, the only effect of hearing it was to reveal to her like a flash that her whole heart was his. He had loved her in spite of her faults. Suppose he should do so still! Her spirits leapt up at this glimpse of forfeited unattainable joy; but she beheld a forlorn hope. At least she would restore herself to a condition in which she might meet him without despairing shame. The impulse was given, and eager to obey it, while it still buoyed her above the dislike to self-abasement, she looked round for the speediest measure, caring little what it might be.
Her father was reading his letters in the next room, when, with flushed cheek, and voice striving for firmness, she stood before him, saying, 'It is time to put an end to this. Will you let Lord St. Erme know that it cannot be!'
'Now, Theodora!' exclaimed the much-astonished Lord Martindale, 'what is the meaning of this?'
'It cannot be,' repeated Theodora. 'It must be put a stop to.'
'What has happened! Have you heard anything to change your mind?'
'My mind is not changed, but I cannot have this going on.'
'How is this? You have been encouraging him all this time, letting him come here—'
'I never asked him to come here,' said Theodora, temper coming in, as usual.
'Theodora! Theodora! did I not entreat you to tell me what you wished, when I first heard of this in London? Could I get a reasonable answer from you?'
Theodora was silent.
'Do you know what the world thinks of young ladies who go on in this manner?'
'Let it think as it may, I cannot accept him, and you must tell him so, papa—'
'No, indeed. I will not be responsible for such usage! It must be your own doing,' said Lord Martindale, thoroughly displeased. 'I should be ashamed to look him in the face!'
Theodora turned to leave the room.
'What are you going to do?' asked her father.
'I am going to write to Lord St. Erme.'
'Come back, Theodora. I must know that you are not going to carry further this ill-usage of a most excellent man, more sincerely attached to you than you deserve. I insist on knowing what you intend to say to him.'
To insist was not the way to succeed with Theodora.
'I do not exactly know,' said she.
'I wish I knew what to do with you!' sighed Lord Martindale, in anger, grief, and perplexity. 'You seem to think that people's affections are made to serve for your vanity and sport, and when you have tormented them long enough, you cast them off!'
Theodora drew her head up higher, and swelled at the injustice. It was at that moment that Lord St. Erme entered the room. She went forward to meet him, and spoke at once. 'I am glad you are here,' said she, proudly pleased that her father should see her vindication from the charge of trifling. 'You are come to hear what I had been desiring my father to tell you. I have used you very ill, and it is time to put a stop to it.'
Lord St. Erme looked from her to her father in wonder and dismay.
'First understand,' said Lord Martindale, 'that this is no doing of mine; I am heartily grieved, but I will leave you. Perhaps you may prevail on this wilful girl—'
Theodora began a protest, and desired him to remain; but he would not, and she found herself alone with her bewildered lover.
'What is this? what have I done?' he began.
'You have done nothing,' said she. 'It is all my own fault. The truth will be a cure for your regrets, and I owe you an explanation. I was engaged to one whom I had known from childhood, but we disputed—my temper was headstrong. He rejected me, and I thought I scorned him, and we parted. You came in my way while I was angry, before I knew that I can never lose my feelings towards him. I know I have seemed to trifle with you; but false shame hindered me from confessing how matters really stood. You ought to rejoice in being freed from such as I am.'
'But with time!' exclaimed Lord St. Erme, in broken words. 'May I not hope that time and earnest endeavours—?'
'Hope nothing,' said Theodora. 'Every one would tell you you have had a happy escape.'
'And is this all? My inspiration!—you who were awakening me to a sense of the greatness of real life—you who would have led me and aided me to a nobler course—'
'That is open to you, without the evils I should have entailed on you. I could never have returned your feelings, and it would have been misery for both. You will see it, when you come to your senses, and rejoice.'
'Rejoice! If you knew how the thought of you is entwined in every aspiration, and for life!'
'Do not talk so,' said Theodora. 'It only grieves me to see the pain I have given; but it would be worse not to break off at once.'
'Must it be so?' said he, lingering before his fleeting vision.
'It must. The kindest thing by both of us is to cut this as short as possible.'
'In that, as in all else, I obey. I know that a vain loiterer, like myself, had little right to hope for notice from one whose mind was bent on the noblest tasks of mankind. You have opened new views to me, and I had dared to hope you would guide me in them; but with you or without you, my life shall be spent in them.'
'That will be some consolation for the way I have treated you,' said Theodora.
His face lighted up. 'My better angel!' he said, 'I will be content to toil as the knights of old, hopelessly, save that if you hear of me no longer as the idle amateur, but as exerting myself for something serviceable, you will know it is for your sake.'
'It had better be for something else,' said Theodora, impatiently. 'Do not think of me, nor delude yourself with imagining you can win me by any probation.'
'I may earn your approval—'
'You will earn every one's,' she interrupted. 'Put mine out of your head. Think of life and duty, and their reward, as they really are, and they will inspirit you better than any empty dream of me.'
'It is vain to tell me so!' said the Earl, looking at her glancing eye and earnest countenance. 'You will ever seem to beckon me forwards.'
'Something better will beckon you by and by, if you will only begin. Life is horrid work—only endurable by looking after other people, and so you will find it. Now, let us have done with this. Wish your sister good-bye for me, and tell her that I beg her to forgive me for the pain I have given you. I am glad you have her. She will make you happy—I have only tormented those I loved best; so you are better off with her. Good-bye. Shake hands, to show that you forgive me.'
'I will not harass you by pertinacity,' said poor Lord St. Erme, submissively. 'It has been a happy dream while I was bold enough to indulge in it. Farewell to it, though not, I trust, to its effects.'
Lingering as he held her hand, he let it go; then, returning to the grasp, bent and kissed it, turned away, as if alarmed at his own presumption, and hastened from the room.
She flung herself into her father's chair to consider of seeing Lady Lucy, of writing to Violet, of breaking the tidings to her aunt, of speaking to her Cousin Hugh; but no connected reflection could be summoned up—nothing but visions of an Athenian owl, and green cotton umbrella. At length the sound of the opening door made her start up.
'Have I interrupted you?' asked her cousin. 'I thought I should find your father here.'
'I do not know where he is,' said Theodora. 'Can I do anything for you? Oh! I beg your pardon; I had forgotten it was time to read to you.'
'You know I always hoped that you would not make it a burden.'
'If you knew the relief it is to be of any sort of use,' returned she, hastily setting his chair, and fetching the books.
Perhaps her attention wandered while she read, for they had hardly finished before she looked up and said, 'That always puts me in mind of Arthur's wife. The ornament of a meek and quiet spirit is so entirely her adorning—her beauty only an accessory.'
'Yes; I wish I knew her,' said Mr. Martindale.
'Oh! how I wish she was here!' sighed Theodora.
'For any special reason?'
'Yes; I want her to soften and help me. She seems to draw and smooth away the evil, and to keep me from myself. Nothing is so dreary where she is.'
'I should not have expected to hear you, at your age, and with your prospects, talk of dreariness.'
'That is all over,' said Theodora. 'I have told him that it cannot be. I am glad, for one reason, that I shall not seem to deceive you any more. Has papa told you what he thinks my history!'
'He has told me of your previous affair.'
'I wonder what is his view?'
'His view is one of deep regret; he thinks your tempers were incompatible.'
Theodora laughed. 'He has a sort of termagant notion of me.'
'I am afraid you do no justice to your father's affection and anxiety.'
'It is he who does me no justice,' said Theodora.
'Indeed, I do not think that can be your sister's teaching,' said Mr. Martindale.
'I wish she was here!' said Theodora, again. 'But now you have heard my father's story, you shall hear mine;' and with tolerable fairness, she related the history of the last few months. The clergyman was much interested in the narrative of this high-toned mind,—'like sweet bells jangled,' and listened with earnest and sorrowful attention. There was comfort in the outpouring; and as she spoke, the better spirit so far prevailed, that she increasingly took more blame to herself, and threw less on others. She closed her confession by saying, 'You see, I may well speak of dreariness.'
'Of dreariness for the present,' was the answer; 'but of hope. You put me in mind of some vision which I have read of, where safety and peace were to be attained by bowing to the dust, to creep beneath a gateway, the entrance to the glorious place. You seem to me in the way of learning that lesson.'
'I have bent to make the avowal I thought I never could have spoken,' said Theodora.
'And there is my hope of you. Now for the next step.'
'The next! what is it?'
'Thankfully and meekly to accept the consequences of these sad errors.'
'You mean this lonely, unsatisfactory life?'
'And this displeasure of your father.'
'But, indeed, he misjudges me.'
'Have you ever given him the means of forming a different judgment?'
'He has seen all. If I am distrusted, I cannot descend to justify myself.'
'I am disappointed in you, Theodora. Where is your humility?'
With these words Mr. Martindale quitted her. He had divined that her feelings would work more when left to themselves, than when pressed, and so it proved.
The witness within her spoke more clearly, and dislike and loathing of her proceedings during the last year grew more strongly upon her. The sense of her faults had been latent in her mind for months past, but the struggle of her external life had kept it down, until now it came forth with an overpowering force of grief and self-condemnation. It was not merely her sins against Mr. Fotheringham and Lord St. Erme that oppressed her, it was the perception of the wilful and rebellious life she had led, while making so high a profession.
Silently and sadly she wore through the rest of the day, unmolested by any remark from the rest of the family, but absorbed in her own thoughts, and the night passed in acute mental distress; with longings after Violet to soothe her, and to open to her hopes of the good and right way of peace.
With morning light came the recollection that, after all, Violet would rejoice in what she had just done. Violet would call it a step in the right direction; and she had promised her further help from above and within, when once she should have had patience to take the right move, even in darkness. 'She told me, if I put my trust aright, and tried to act in obedience, I should find a guide!'
And, worn out and wearied with the tossings of her mind, Theodora resolved to have recourse to the kind clergyman who had listened to her confidence. Perhaps he was the guide who would aid her to conquer the serpents that had worked her so much misery; and, after so much self-will, she felt that there would be rest in submitting to direction.
She sought him out, and joined his early walk.
'Help me,' she said; 'I repent, indeed I do. Teach me to begin afresh, and to be what I ought. I would do anything.'
'Anything that is not required of you, Theodora, or anything that is?'
'Whatever you or Violet required of me,' said she, 'that I would do readily and gladly, cost me what it might.'
'It is not for me to require anything,' said Mr. Martindale. 'What I advise you is to test the sincerity of your repentance by humbling yourself to ask your father's forgiveness.'
He watched her face anxiously, for his hopes of her almost might be said to depend upon this. It was one of those efforts which she made with apparent calmness. 'You and Violet ask the same thing,' she said; 'I will.'
'I am glad to hear you say this. I could not think you going on right while you denied him the full explanation of your conduct.'
'Did you mean that I should tell him all?' exclaimed Theodora.
'It would be a great relief to his mind. Few fathers would have left you such complete liberty of action, consented to your engagement, and then acted so kindly and cautiously in not forcing on you this, for which he had begun to wish ardently. You have grieved him extremely, and you owe it to him to show that this has not all been caprice.'
I have promised,' repeated Theodora.
'Your second effort,' said Mr. Martindale, encouragingly. They were nearly opposite an hotel, where a carriage was being packed. Theodora turned, he understood her, and they walked back; but before they could quit the main road, the travellers rolled past them. Lord St. Erme bowed. Theodora did not look up; but when past asked if any one was with him.
'Yes; his sister.'
'I am glad of it,' said Theodora. 'She is an excellent little thing, the very reverse of me.'
Without failure of resolution, Theodora returned to breakfast, her mind made up to the effort, which was more considerable than can be appreciated, without remembering her distaste to all that bore the semblance of authority, and the species of proud reserve that had prevented her from avowing to her father her sentiments respecting Mr. Fotheringham, even in the first days of their engagement; and she was honest enough to feel that the manner, as well as the subject of conversation, must show the sincerity of her change. She would not let herself be affronted into perverseness or sullenness, but would try to imagine Violet looking on; and with this determination she lingered in the breakfast-room after her mother and cousin had left it.
'Papa,' said she, as he was leaving the room, 'will you listen to me?'
'What now, Theodora?' said poor Lord Martindale, expecting some of those fresh perplexities that made him feel the whole family to blame.
It was not encouraging, but she had made up her mind. 'I have behaved very ill about all this, papa; I want you to forgive me.'
He came nearer to her, and studied her face, in dread lest there should be something behind. 'I am always ready to forgive and listen to you,' he said sadly.
She perceived that she had, indeed, given him much pain, and was softened, and anxious for him to be comforted by seeing that her fault, at least, was not the vanity and heartlessness that he supposed.
'It was very wrong of me to answer you as I did yesterday,' she said. 'I know it was my own fault that Lord St. Erme was allowed to follow us.'
'And why did you consent!'
'I don't know. Yes, I do, though; but that makes it worse. It was because my perverse temper was vexed at your warning me,' said Theodora, looking down, much ashamed.
'Then you never meant to accept him!' exclaimed her father.
'No, not exactly that; I thought I might,' said she, slowly, and with difficulty.
'Then what has produced this alteration?'
'I will tell you,' said she, recalling her resolution. 'I did not know how much I cared for Percy Fotheringham. Yesterday there came a foolish report about his forming another attachment. I know it was not true; but the misery it gave me showed me that it would be sin and madness to engage myself to another.'
Lord Martindale breathed more freely. 'Forgive me for putting the question, it is a strange one to ask now: were you really attached to Percy Fotheringham?'
'With my whole heart,' answered Theodora, deliberately.
'Then why, or how—'
'Because my pride and stubbornness were beyond what any man could bear,' she answered. 'He did quite right: it would not have been manly to submit to my conduct. I did not know how bad it was till afterwards, nor how impossible it is that my feelings towards him should cease.'
'And this is the true history of your treatment of Lord St. Erme!'
'Yes. He came at an unlucky moment of anger, when Violet was ill, and could not breathe her saving influence over me, and I fancied—It was very wrong, and I was ashamed to confess what I have told you now.'
'Have you given him this explanation?'
'Well, I am better satisfied. He is a most generous person, and told me he had no reason to complain of you.'
'Yes, he has a noble character. I am very sorry for the manner in which I have treated him, but there was nothing to be done but to put an end to it. I wish I had never begun it.'
'I wish so too!' said Lord Martindale. 'He is grievously disappointed, and bears it with such generous admiration of you and such humility on his own part, that it went to my heart to talk to him, especially while feeling myself a party to using him so ill.'
'He is much too good for me,' said Theodora, 'but I could not accept him while I contrasted him with what I have thrown away. I can only repent of having behaved so badly.'
'Well! after all, I am glad to hear you speak in this manner,' said her father.
'I know I have been much to blame,' said Theodora, still with her head bent down and half turned away. 'Ever since I was a child, I have been undutiful and rebellious. Being with Violet has gradually brought me to a sense of it. I do wish to make a fresh beginning, and to ask you to forgive and bear with me.'
'My dear child!' And Lord Martindale stepped to her side, took her hand, and kissed her.
No more was needed to bring the drops that had long been swelling in her eyes; she laid her head on his shoulder, and felt how much she had hitherto lost by the perverseness that had made her choose to believe her father cold and unjust.
There was another trial for the day. The departure of Lord St. Erme and his sister revealed the state of affairs to the rest of the world; Mrs. Delaval came to make Lady Martindale a parting visit, and to lament over their disappointment, telling how well Lord St. Erme bore it, and how she had unwillingly consented to his taking his sister with him to comfort him at that dull old place, Wrangerton.
Lady Martindale, as usual, took it very quietly. She never put herself into collision with her daughter, and did not seem to care about her freaks otherwise than as they affected her aunt. Mrs. Nesbit, who had thought herself on the point of the accomplishment of her favourite designs, was beyond measure vexed and incensed. She would not be satisfied without seeing Theodora, reproaching her, and insisting on hearing the grounds of her unreasonable conduct.
Theodora was silent.
Was it as her mother reported, but as Mrs. Nesbit would not believe, that she had so little spirit as to be still pining after that domineering, presuming man, who had thrown her off after she had condescended to accept him?
'I glory in saying it is for his sake,' replied Theodora.
Mrs. Nesbit wearied herself with invectives against the Fotheringhams as the bane of the family, and assured Theodora that it was time to lay aside folly; her rank and beauty would not avail, and she would never be married.
'I do not mean to marry,' said Theodora.
'Then remember this. You may think it very well to be Miss Martindale, with everything you can desire; but how shall you like it when your father dies, and you have to turn out and live on your own paltry five thousand pounds! for not a farthing of mine shall come to you unless I see you married as I desire.'
'I can do without it, thank you,' said Theodora.
Mrs. Nesbit burst into a passion of tears at the ingratitude of her nephews and nieces. Weeping was so unusual with her that Lady Martindale was much terrified, sent Theodora away and did her utmost to soothe and caress her; but her strength and spirits were broken, and that night she had another stroke. She was not in actual danger, but was a long time in recovering even sufficiently to be moved to England; and during this period Theodora had little occupation, except companionship to her father, and the attempt to reduce her temper and tame her self-will. Mr. Hugh Martindale went to take possession of the living of Brogden, and she remained a prisoner at Baden, striving to view the weariness and enforced uselessness of her life, as he had taught her, in the light of salutary chastisement and discipline.
Heartsease In thy heart shall spring If content abiding, Where, beneath that leafless tree, Life's still stream is gliding. But, transplanted thence, it fades, For it bloometh only Neath the shadow of the Cross, In a valley lonely.
—J. E. L.
Love, hope, and patience, these must be thy graces, And in thine own heart let them first keep school.
The avenue of Martindale budded with tender green, and in it walked Theodora, watching for the arrival of the sister-in-law, scarcely seen for nearly four years.
Theodora's dress was of the same rigid simplicity as of old, her figure as upright, her countenance as noble, but a change had passed over her; her bearing was less haughty; her step, still vigorous and firm, had lost its wilfulness, the proud expression of lip had altered to one of thought and sadness, and her eyes had become softer and more melancholy. She leaned against the tree where the curate had brought her the first tidings of Arthur's marriage, and she sighed, but not as erst with jealousy and repining.
There was, indeed, an alteration—its beginning may not be traced, for the seed had been sown almost at her birth, and though little fostered, had never ceased to spring. The first visible shoot had been drawn forth by Helen Fotheringham; but the growth, though rapid, had been one-sided; the branches, like those of a tree in a sea-wind, all one way, blown aside by gusts of passion and self-will. In its next stage, the attempt to lop and force them back had rendered them more crooked and knotty, till the enterprise had been abandoned as vain. But there was a soft hand that had caressed the rugged boughs, softened them with the dews of gratitude and affection, fanned them with gales from heaven, and gently turned them to seek training and culture, till the most gnarled and hardened had learnt patiently to endure the straightening hand and pruning knife.
Under such tranquil uneventful discipline, Theodora had spent the last four years, working with all her might at her labours in the parish, under Mr. Hugh Martindale, and what was a far more real effort, patiently submitting when family duties thwarted her best intentions. Parish work was her solace, in a somewhat weary life, isolated from intimate companionship.
She had, indeed, Mr. Hugh Martindale for a guide and adviser, and to her father she was a valuable assistant and companion; but her mother was more than ever engrossed by the care of Mrs. Nesbit; her eldest brother was still in the West Indies and Arthur only seen in fleeting visits, so short that it had never been convenient for his family to accompany him, nor had Theodora even been spared to attend Violet, when a little girl, now nearly two years old, had been added to her nursery.
Letters ill supplied the lack of personal intercourse: Theodora did not write with ease, and Violet could not pour herself out without reciprocity; so that though there was a correspondence, it languished, and their intimacy seemed to be standing still. Another great and heavy care to Theodora was a mistrust of Arthur's proceedings. She heard of him on the turf, she knew that he kept racers; neither his looks nor talk were satisfactory; there were various tokens of extravagance; and Lord Martindale never went to London without bringing back some uncomfortable report.
Very anxious and sad at heart, she hoped to be better satisfied by judging for herself; and after long wearying for a meeting, her wishes were at length in the way of fulfilment—Arthur's long leave was to be spent at home.
The carriage turned in at the lodge gates. She looked up—how differently from the would-be careless air with which she had once watched! But there was disappointment—she saw no brother! In a moment Violet had descended from the carriage, and warmly returned her embrace; and she was kissing the little shy faces that looked up to her, as all got out to walk up the avenue.
'But where is Arthur?'
'He is soon coming,' said the soft sweet voice. 'He would not let us wait for him.'
'What! Has he not got his leave?'
'Yes; but he is going to stay with some of his friends. Mr. Herries came yesterday and insisted.'
Theodora thought there was a mournful intonation, and looked anxiously at her face. The form and expression were lovely as ever; but the bright colouring had entirely faded, the cheeks were thin, and the pensive gentleness almost mournful. A careworn look was round the eyes and mouth, even while she smiled, as Theodora gave a second and more particular greeting to the children.
Johnnie was so little changed that she exclaimed at finding the same baby face. His little delicate features and pure fair skin were as white as ever; for not a spring had gone by without his falling under the grasp of his old enemy the croup; and his small slight frame was the more slender from his recent encounter with it. But he was now a very pretty boy, his curls of silken flax fringing his face under his broad-leafed black hat, and contrasting with his soft dark eyes, their gentle and intelligent expression showing, indeed, what a friend and companion he was to his mother; and it was with a shy smile, exactly like hers, that he received his aunt's notice.
'And Helen, my godchild, I have not looked at her! Where are you?'
But the tread of country turf seemed to have put wildness into little Helen. She had darted off, and hidden behind a tree, peeping out with saucy laughter flashing in her glorious black eyes, and dimpling in the plump roseate cheeks round which floated thick glossy curls of rich dark chestnut. Theodora flew to catch her; but she scampered round another tree, shouting with fun, till she was seized and pressed fast in her aunt's arms and called a mischievous puss, while Theodora exulted in the splendour of her childish beauty, exuberant with health and spirits. The moment she was released, with another outcry of glee, she dashed off to renew the frolic, with the ecstasy of a young fawn, while the round fat-faced Annie tumbled after her like a little ball, and their aunt entered into the spirit of the romp, and pursued them with blitheness for the moment like their own. Johnnie, recovering his mamma's hand, walked soberly beside her, and when invited to join in the sport, looked as if he implored to be excused. Violet, rather anxiously, called them to order as they came near the house, consigned Annie to Sarah, and herself took Helen's hand, observing, gravely, that they must be very good.
'One thing,' she half-whispered; 'I once had a hint from Miss Piper that Mrs. Nesbit did not like Lady Martindale to be called grandmamma. What do you think?'
'What nonsense! Mamma ought to be proud of her grandchildren, and my aunt will probably never see them or hear them at all. She never comes out of the room.'
'Indeed! Is she so much more infirm?'
'Yes, very much aged. Her mind has never been quite itself since the last stroke, though I can hardly tell the difference, but I think it has softened her.'
'I suppose Lady Martindale is very much with her!'
'Almost always. She seems to cling to our presence, and I am never quite secure that Mrs. Garth does not domineer over her in our absence, but with all my watching I cannot discover. My aunt says nothing against her, but I sometimes fancy she is afraid of her.'
'Poor Mrs. Nesbit. She must be altered indeed!'
'She is altered, but I never am clear how far it is any real change, or only weakness. One comfort is, that she seems rather to like Cousin Hugh's coming to read to her twice a week. How he will delight in these creatures of yours.'
'Ah! we know him,' said Violet. 'You know he comes to us if he is in London. How pleasant it must be for you.'
'Ah, very unlike the days when poor Mr. Wingfield used to come to ask me how to manage the parish,' said Theodora, between a laugh and a sigh. 'When did you hear from John?'
'His godson had a letter from him on his birthday.'
'O, Johnnie! that was an honour! Could you write and answer him?'
'Mamma helped me,' whispered the boy, while eyes and mouth lengthened into a bright blushing smile.
'Steady, Helen, my child! Quiet!' exclaimed Violet, as the little girl's delight grew beyond bounds at the sight of the peacock sunning himself on the sphinx's head, and Johnnie was charmed with the flowers in the parterre; and with 'look but not touch' cautions, the two were trusted to walk together hand-in-hand through the gravelled paths.
'The spirits will break out in little skips!' said Theodora, watching Helen. 'She preserves her right to be called a splendid specimen! What a pair they are!'
'Poor Helen! I shall be in dread of an outbreak all the time we are here,' said Violet; 'but she means to be good, and every one cannot be like Johnnie.'
'Ah! Johnnie one speaks of with respect.'
'I don't know what I should do but for him,' said Violet, with her sad smile; 'he is so entirely my companion, and I suppose he seems more forward in mind from being so much in the drawing-room.'
'Well! he is come to a time of life to merit his papa's notice.'
'More than the rest,' said Violet; 'but unluckily he is a little bit of a coward, and is afraid when papa plays with him. We make resolutions, but I really believe it is a matter of nerves, and that poor Johnnie cannot help it.'
'What! Arthur is rough and teasing?'
'He does not understand this sort of timidity; he is afraid of Johnnie's not being manly; but I believe that would come if his health would but be stronger. It is very unlucky,' said Violet, 'for it vexes papa, and I think it hurts Johnnie, though I am always forced to blame him for being so silly. One comfort is, that it does not in the least interfere with Johnnie's affection—he admires him almost as he used when he was a baby.'
They were at the foot of the steps, where Charles Layton, now a brisk page, was helping to unpack the carriage, more intelligently than many a youth with the full aid of his senses.
Lord Martindale met them with his grave kind welcome, which awed even Helen into quiet and decorum, though perhaps, from the corners of her eyes, she was spying the Scagliola columns as places for hide-and-seek. She opened them to their roundest extent as her grandmamma came down-stairs, and she tried to take shelter behind her brother from the ceremonious kiss, while Johnnie tightly squeezed his aunt's hand, and Lady Martindale was quite as much afraid of them as they could be of her.
So began the visit—a very different one from any Violet had hitherto paid at Martindale. Theodora's room was now her chief resort in the morning, and there Johnnie went through his lessons with almost too precocious ease and delight, and Helen was daily conquered over Mrs. Barbauld. There they were sure to be welcome, though they were seldom seen downstairs. Johnnie used to appear in the space before dinner, very demure and well-behaved, and there seemed to be a fellow-feeling arising between him and his grandfather, who would take possession of him if he met him out-of-doors, and conduct him to any sight suited to his capacity; but who was so much distressed at his forwardness in intellect and his backwardness in strength, that Violet hardly dared to hold a conversation about him for fear of a remonstrance on letting him touch a book.
One day Mrs. Nesbit suddenly said to Theodora, 'Arthur's wife and children are here, are not they?'
'Yes; Violet would have come to see you, but we doubted if you were equal to it.'
'I have nothing to say to Mr. Moss's daughter, but bring that eldest boy here, I want to see him.'
Theodora stepped out into the gallery, where Johnnie was often to be found curled up in the end window, poring over and singing to himself the "White Doe of Rylstone", which he had found among his uncle's books.
She led him in, exhorting him not to be shy, and to speak out boldly in answer to Aunt Nesbit; but perhaps this only frightened him more. Very quiet and silent, he stood under his aunt's wing with eyes cast down, answering with a trembling effort the questions asked in that sharp searching tone.
'His mother all over!' she said, motioning him away; but, the next day, she sent for him again. Poor Johnnie did not like it at all; he could hardly help shuddering at her touch, and at night begged his mamma not to send him to Aunt Nesbit; for he could not bear it without her. She had to represent that Aunt Nesbit was old and ill, and that it would be unkind not to go to her: but then came the difficult question, 'Why don't you go, mamma?' However, when his compassionate feelings were aroused, he bore it better; and though he never got beyond standing silently by her chair for ten minutes, replying when spoken to, and once or twice reading a few sentences, or repeating some verses, when Theodora thought it would please her, it was evident that his visit had become the chief event of her day. One day she gave him a sovereign, and asked what he would do with it. He blushed and hesitated, and she suggested, 'Keep it, that will be the wisest.'
'No,' came with an effort, and an imploring glance at Aunt Theodora.
'Well, then, what? Speak out like a man!' Still reluctant, but it was brought out at last: 'Cousin Hugh told us about the poor sick Irish children that have no potatoes. May I give it to him to send them?'
'Never mind the Irish children. This is for yourself.'
'Myself?' Johnnie looked up, bewildered, but with a sudden thought, 'Oh! I know, Aunt Theodora, won't it buy that pretty work-basket to give mamma on her birthday? She said she could not afford it. And Helen wanted the great donkey in the shop-window. Oh! I can get Helen the great donkey; thank you, Aunt Nesbit!'
The next day Aunt Nesbit received Johnnie by giving him five sovereigns to take to Cousin Hugh for the Irish, desiring him to say it was his own gift; and while Johnnie scrupulously explained that he should say that she gave it to him to give, she began to instruct him that he would be a rich man by and by, and must make a handsome and yet careful use of his money. 'Shall I?' said Johnnie, looking up, puzzled, at his younger aunt.
'Yes, that you will,' replied Mrs. Nesbit. 'What shall you do then?'
'Oh! then I shall buy mamma and my sisters everything they want, and mamma shall go out in the carriage every day.
'She can do that now,' said Theodora, who had expected less commonplace visions from her nephew.
'No,' said Johnnie, 'we have not got the carriage now. I mean, we have no horses that will draw it.'
It was another of those revelations that made Theodora uneasy; one of those indications that Arthur allowed his wife to pinch herself, while he pursued a course of self-indulgence. She never went out in the evening, it appeared, and he was hardly ever at home; her dress, though graceful and suitable, had lost that air of research and choiceness that it had when everything was his gift, or worn to please his eye; and as day after day passed on without bringing him, Theodora perceived that the delay was no such extraordinary event as to alarm her; she was evidently grieved, but it was nothing new. It was too plain that Arthur gave her little of his company, and his children none of his attention, and that her calmness was the serenity of patience, not of happiness.
This was all by chance betrayed; she spoke not of herself, and the nightly talks between the two sisters were chiefly of the children. Not till more than a week had passed to renew their intimacy, did Theodora advert to any subject connected with the events of her memorable stay in London, and then she began by asking, 'What did I overhear you telling papa about Lord St. Erme?'
'I was speaking of his doings at Wrangerton.'
'Oh! they are admirable. You know he went there with that good little Lady Lucy, and they set to work at once, doing everything for the parish—'
'Do your sisters know Lady Lucy?'
'Very little; it is only formal visiting now and then. She leads a very retired life, and they know her best from meeting her at the schools and cottages.'
'Good little girl! I knew there was something in her!'
'She is always with her brother, walking and riding and writing for him, carrying out all his views.'
'I saw how he came forward about those poor colliery children. Such a speech, as that, was turning his talents to good account, and I am glad to hear it is not all speechifying.'
'No, indeed, it is real self-denial. The first thing he did was to take his affairs into his own hands, so that my father has comparatively nothing to do with them. He found them in a bad state, which papa could not help, with him living abroad, and attending to nothing, only sending for money, whatever papa could say. So there was a great outlay wanted for church and schools for the collieries at Coalworth, and nothing to meet it, and that was the way he came to sell off all the statues and pictures.'
'Did he? Well done, Lord St. Erme!' cried Theodora. 'That was something like a sacrifice.'
'O yes! My sisters say they could have cried to see the cases go by the windows, and I cannot help grieving to think of those rooms being dismantled. I am glad they have kept the little Ghirlandajo, that is the only one remaining.'
'I honour them,' said Theodora.
'And it was for the sake of such a set,' proceeded Violet; 'there is a bad Chartist spirit among those colliers, and they oppose him in every way; but he says it is his own fault for having neglected them so long, and goes on doing everything for them, though they are as surly and sullen as possible.
Theodora looked thoughtful. 'Poor Lord St. Erme! Yes, he has found a crusade! I wish—! Well, I ought to be thankful that good has been brought out of evil. I deserved no such thing. Violet, I wish he would marry one of your sisters!'
'O no, don't wish that. I am glad there is no chance of it. Ranks had better not be confounded,' said Violet, with a sad seriousness of manner.
'You have just had a wedding in the family. A satisfactory one, I hope?'
'Yes, I think so. Mamma and Annette like Mr. Hunt very much. They say there is such a straightforward goodness about him, that they are sure dear Olivia will be happy.'
'Was there any difficulty about it!'
'Why—Matilda and Albert seemed to think we should not think it grand enough,' said Violet, half-smiling. 'He is a sort of great farmer on his own estate, a most beautiful place. He is quite a gentleman in manners, and very well off, so that my father made no difficulty, and I am very glad of it. Olivia is the very person to enjoy that free country life.' Violet sighed as if town life was oppressive.
'To be sure! If one could be a farmer's daughter without the pretension and vulgarity, what a life it would be! That was my favourite notion when I used to make schemes with poor Georgina Gardner. Do you ever hear what she is doing, Violet? They have quite left off writing to me.'
'Last time I heard of them they were in Italy.'
'Going on in the old way, I fear. Poor Georgina! she was sadly thrown away. But, at least, that Mark is not with them.'
'O no,' said Violet, sighing more deeply this time; 'he is always about in London.'
'Ah! you see more of him than you wish, I fear?'
'I see very little of him. Arthur would not ask him to our house at Chichester for the Goodwood races, and it was such an escape!'
'I am glad at least Arthur does not trouble you with him.'
Violet sat with her forehead resting on her hand, and there was a short space of thoughtful silence. It resulted in Theodora's saying, in a sad, low, humble tone, her eyes looking straight into the red fire, 'Do you ever hear of Mr. Fotheringham?'
'I believe he is still at Paris,' said Violet. 'I only hear of him through John, who said he had been thinking of going to Italy. When he came through London, after Lady Fotheringham's death, he left his card, but we were at Chichester. Have you seen that last article of his?'
'What, that on modern novels? I was almost sure it was his, and yet I doubted. It was like and yet not like him.'
'It was his,' said Violet. 'He always has his things sent to me. I am glad you observed the difference. I thought it so much kinder and less satirical than his writings used to be.'
'It was so,' exclaimed Theodora. 'There were places where I said to myself, "This cannot be his; I know what he would have said," and yet it was too forcible and sensible to have been written by any one else.'
'The strength is there, but not the sort of triumph in sarcasm that sometimes made one sorry,' said Violet; 'and were you not struck by his choice of extracts! I have fancied a different strain in his writings of late.'
Theodora squeezed Violet's hand. 'I feared I had hardened him,' she said. 'Thank you, good night.'
St. Osyth's well is turned aside.
On the first convenient day, Lord Martindale sent Violet to call at Rickworth Priory, a visit which she was the more desirous of making, as Emma's correspondence, after languishing for awhile, had ceased, excepting that she sent a fresh allegory of Miss Marstone's to Johnnie on each birthday; and the Brandons having given up coming to London for the season, she scarcely knew anything about them, excepting through Theodora, who reported that they retired more and more from society, and that Miss Marstone was much with them.
Theodora would have accompanied Violet, but she was sure that her absence would be a boon to Emma, whom she had of late tried in vain to draw out; and, besides, one of the housemaids was ill, and Theodora, whom her Cousin Hugh called the mother of the maids, wished not to be away at the doctor's visit. So little Johnnie was his mother's only companion; but she was disappointed in her hopes of introducing him to his godmother. To her surprise Lady Elizabeth was alone, Emma was at Gothlands with her friend Miss Marstone.
'They were very kind in asking me,' said Lady Elizabeth, 'and so was Emma about leaving me; but I do not wish to be a drag upon her.'
'Oh! how can you say so?' exclaimed Violet.
'It did not suit,' said Lady Elizabeth. 'The uncle, old Mr. Randal, is an old-fashioned, sporting squire, and the other Miss Marstones are gay ladies. I felt myself out of my element when I was there before; but now I almost wish I was with her.'
'You must miss her very much, indeed.'
'It is what we must all come to, my dear,' said Lady Elizabeth, looking at the young mother, with her boy leaning against her knee, deep in a book of illustrations. 'You have a good many years to look forward to with your little flock; but, one way or other, they will go forth from us.'
Lady Elizabeth thought Johnnie too much absorbed to hear; but Violet found his hand lightly squeezing hers.
'I thought you at least had kept your daughter,' she said.
'Emma will be five-and-twenty in the autumn.'
'But, oh! Lady Elizabeth, I thought—'
'I cannot tell, my dear. I hope Emma's arrangements may be such that we may go on together as before.'
'How do you mean?' exclaimed Violet, confounded.
'Her judgment is sound,' continued Lady Elizabeth, 'if she will only use it; and when it comes to the point, Miss Marstone's may be the same.'
'Is she gone to Gothlands to settle her plans?'
'Yes; I could not well have gone with her, for we have four little orphan girls in the house, whom I could not well leave to the servants. That is quite as I wish, if the rest could be added without Theresa Marstone making this her home, and introducing all the plans they talk of.'
'She could not introduce anything to make you uncomfortable!'
'It is not so much comfort that I mean, my dear. I do not think that I should object to giving up some of the servants, though in my time it was thought right to keep up an establishment. Perhaps a family of women are not called upon to do things in the same style, and there is no doubt that our means may be better employed. We have too many luxuries, and I would not wish to keep them. No, if it was entirely Emma's doing. I should be satisfied; but there is more influence from Miss Marstone than I quite like. I cannot fully rely on her judgment, and I think she likes to manage.'
'She could never presume to manage in your house!'
'Emma's house, my dear.'
'But that is the same.'
Lady Elizabeth sighed, and made a movement with her head, then said, 'All that they think right and conscientious they will do, I am sure, but the worst of it is that Theresa has friends who are not of our Communion, and she does speak strongly of things that do not accord with her notions. I cannot go along with her, and I must confess she sometimes alarms me.
'And does Emma think with her entirely?'
'I fear—I mean I think she does; and, by the bye, my dear, do you know anything of a Mr. Gardner?'
'I do know a Mr. Mark Gardner.'
'That is his name. He is staying in the neighbourhood of Gothlands, and seems very deep in their counsels. I am afraid he is leading them farther than Theresa Marstone herself would have gone.'
'Oh, then, he cannot be the same person. I meant a very different style of man, a cousin to those Miss Gardners who used to be friends of Theodora.'
'Ah! I meant to ask you about Miss Gardner and Percival Fotheringham. What! you have not heard?'
'No, nothing. What do you mean?'
'Married! No, never!'
'I thought you would have known, all about it, and I was anxious to hear what kind of connection it was for Percival.'
'Do tell me, how did you hear of it? When was it?'
'Not long ago, in Italy. I heard of it the other day from my nephew, Edward Howard, who is just returned, and he told me that Mrs. Finch was leading a dashing life at Florence, and that her sister had just married Mr. Fotheringham, "the author."'
'O, I do not know how to think it possible! Yet it is such an uncommon name.'
'Do you know whether his name is Antony?'
'Yes, it is his first name. I remember Arthur's laughing at him for being ashamed of it, as he said.'
'That confirms it. I asked Edward if the Christian name was Percival, and he said it was Antony, and some such name, but he could not be sure.'
'Ah! there would be a confusion owing to his being always called Percy.'
'He said, too, that it was a good match for Miss Gardner, as he was heir to an estate in Yorkshire.'
'Worthbourne! Then I am afraid it must be too true. The author, too!'
'So Edward was told.'
'I must write and ask John Martindale. He will be sure to know the whole history.'
The rest of the visit and the homeward drive were like a dream. Violet was lost in amazement, compassion, and disappointment, and in the debate how Theodora should be informed. Should she wait till there were further particulars to confirm it! But when she thought it over, there seemed no more wanting. She knew that Percy had been thinking of visiting Italy a year ago, and the name, the authorship, and connection with Worthbourne swept away all doubt. As to making inquiries, she did not know Arthur's present address; and even if she had had it, she would have shrunk from saying anything that should lead to one additional conversation with Mark Gardner; besides which, Arthur had a fashion of never answering any question asked by letter.
Nor could Violet venture to delay. It was better that such tidings should come from sympathizing lips than through the gossip of the neighbourhood; and Theodora ought to be aware of them as soon as possible, that she might no longer cherish the shade of her affection. Alas! that he should have done this at the very moment when she had truly become worthy of him, or, at least, of what he had once been!
At night, when Theodora came to linger over her fire, the intelligence was reluctantly and hesitatingly spoken; Violet's eyes were bent down, for she knew how little that spirit could brook that its suffering should be marked.
Theodora stood up before her, at her full height, with flashing eye and indignant voice: 'Do you think I believe it? No, indeed! I may have lost him for ever, but he would never lose himself. I scorn this as I did Jane Gardner's own story that you were going to marry him to your sister. I knew you both too well.'
Violet put her arm round Theodora. 'Dearest, I am the more afraid that we must believe this, because he was not always constant. He did think of Annette.'
'Think of her! What do you mean! Did he make her an offer!'
'Yes. I would never have told you if I did not think it might help you in this.'
'I don't want help,' said Theodora, raising her head and turning from Violet. 'Let him do as he likes.'
But, ere she had made two steps towards the door, her breast heaved with a convulsive sob. She threw herself on the ground, and rested her face on Violet's lap. The sobs came at long intervals, with a tight, oppressed sound. Much alarmed, Violet caressed her, and tried to soothe her with gentle words, and at last they unlocked her lips.
'It is not myself! Oh, no! I knew I had forfeited him long ago. I had proved myself unworthy. I had no right to hope. But that he should have changed—let his clear sense be blinded by her art! He, to whom I could have looked up all my life!—who was so noble in rejecting me!'
The large drops had gathered and flowed, seeming to scald their course down her cheeks. 'O Violet! I wish your sister had married him! Then he would have been happy—he would not have degraded himself. Oh! what change can have come over him?'
'You know Lady Fotheringham was fond of Jane Gardner, and he might have taken her upon her word.'
'As if Percy would see with any old woman's eyes, when once he came in contact with her! No, I see but one explanation. It must have been I who lowered his estimate of woman. Well I might do so, when I treated like a toy the happiness he had confided to me. I, on whom he had fixed his ardent soul for so many years past. No wonder he learnt to hold all women cheap alike! O, that summer of madness! If I have dimmed the brightness of that noble nature!'
'Dear, dear Theodora, what can I say to comfort you? She may be altered; he may have improved her.'
'She is not capable of it,' said Theodora; 'there is nothing in her but time-serving and selfishness. And he, with that large true heart, so detesting falsehood—he must either be wretched or deceived—debased! No, there is no comfort—there never will be.'
'Except the best sort,' tenderly whispered Violet. Theodora rested her head on her hands, and remained perfectly still for some moments, then looked up, and spoke in a depressed voice.
'I cannot talk any more. I feel shattered from head to foot. I must be quiet.'
'Then, dearest, pray go to bed at once, and I will come and see you.'
'I cannot. I undertook to give Maria her draught at one o'clock. May I stay here while you go to bed?'
'Anything, dearest, dearest sister.'
'Only let me be in the room with you, and be quiet.'
She would not, as Violet entreated, lie down on the bed beside her, but remained seated on the floor, her eyes riveted on the fire, never looking round, her face stupefied, her hands hanging motionless, like one stunned; and when Violet's anxious gaze was closed by irresistible sleep, that dark head was still motionless before the fire.
Her mind was indeed a blank, sensible of nothing but the effect of the shock. The phrase now and then occurred, 'Percy is married to Jane;' but her perceptions were so sluggish that she scarcely knew that it concerned her. She seemed to have forgotten who Percy was, and to shrink from recalling the remembrance. There was a repose in this state of stupor which she was reluctant to break; and after the great clock, so melancholy in the silence, had tolled half-past twelve, her sensations were absorbed in the dread of hearing One! the summons to exertion.
The single note pealed out, and died quivering slowly away; she rose, lighted her candle, and quitted the room, feeling as if the maid's illness and the doctor's directions belonged to some period removed by ages.
This house of splendour and of princely glory Doth now stand desolated, the affrighted servants Rush forth through all its doors. I am the last Therein.
Theodora was no sooner in the gallery than she was recalled to the present. There was a strange gleam of light reflected on the avenue. Roused at once to action, she hurried towards the window. The fire was within the house. She pushed open the door leading to Mrs. Nesbit's apartments. Light was flashing at every chink of the bed-room door. She threw it back. Out rolled a volume of smoke, the glare of flame burst on her, the curtains were blazing! 'Aunt! Aunt Nesbit, are you there? she cried, in tones low with horror and choked with smoke; she plunged between the burning curtains, felt that she had a hold of something, dragged it out, found it move and gasp, bore it from the room, and, depositing it on a couch in the gallery, only then could perceive that it was indeed Mrs Nesbit, uninjured, though half-suffocated.
Mrs. Garth, who slept in the adjoining room, with the door open, had been waked by her call, and came running out. An old soldier, she had full self-possession, and was at once effective, and it was well, for she exclaimed, 'Miss Martindale, you are on fire,' just as the light and the scorching were revealing the same to herself. There was no time for personal terror, barely for pain, the fire was crushed out between them by the help of a woollen table-cover, they scarcely knew how, they only saw that the draught had increased the blaze in the room, and dense clouds of smoke came bursting out upon them.
Mrs. Nesbit clung terrified to her niece, but Theodora, with a word or two of encouragement, freed herself from her grasp, and leaving her to Mrs. Garth's care, flew up the nursery stairs. She must have the children in their mother's sight before the alarm should reach her. Sarah's first waking impulse was to growl, that Master Johnnie would catch his death of cold, but the next moment she was equal to any emergency; and the little ones were at their mother's door just as she was opening it, thinking the noise more than Maria's illness could occasion, and setting forth to see whether there was anything amiss in the nursery. Theodora put Annie into her arms. 'All safe. It is only the north wing. Don't be frightened. Stay where you are.'
Violet could only obey, thankful at having her three around her, and trying to keep her terror from being visible enough to increase Johnnie's exceeding alarm, or to frighten Helen out of her happy state of inquisitive excitement and curiosity.
Theodora had hurried to call her parents. They were already in motion. Lord Martindale's first care was for Violet and the children, Lady Martindale's for her aunt, and almost instantly she was embracing and supporting the pale shrunken figure, now feebly tottering along the gallery, forsaken by Mrs. Garth, who had gone back to secure her own valuables.
By this time, the gallery was full of screaming maids, whom Sarah had, with difficulty, prevented from leaping at once from attic windows; and staring men, hallooing for water, which no one brought, except little Helen, who, escaping from her mother's room, ran barefooted into the midst, holding aloft the water-bottle triumphantly, and very indignant at being captured, and carried back in the butler's arms.
The fire was spreading so fast that Lord Martindale decided on removing all the helpless to the gardener's house at the end of the pleasure ground. He came himself to call Violet, told her not to be alarmed, and, taking his grandson in his arms, led the way. Mrs. Nesbit was carried on a mattress between two of the servants, Lady Martindale walking beside her, absorbed in trying to guard her from injury or alarm; Annie, asleep and unconscious, was in her mother's arms, and Theodora carried the amused and chattering Helen. At the foot of the stairs, Violet exclaimed, 'My cross, I must not leave it!' and would have turned, but Theodora prevented her. 'I know where it is,' she said, 'I am going to see how they are moving Maria;' and putting Helen into the nearest pair of arms, she ran back.
Harrison's successor, Mr. Armstrong and his wife were on foot, and ready to receive them. Their spare bed was for Mrs. Nesbit, in their own the three children were placed. In all his haste, Lord Martindale paused till he could lay his little shivering ice-cold charge in the bed, and see him hide his head in his mother's bosom. 'Good boy!' he said, 'I told him not to cry for you, and he has not made a sound, though I have felt him trembling the whole way. Take care of him.'
Little did she need the recommendation, though it sent a thrill of gladness through her that it should have been made at such a time. She had great apprehension of the effect of the shock on the child's tender frame and timid nature, his obedience and self-command seeming almost to enhance the excess of terror. The shuddering horror and convulsive clinging were beyond control, and were renewed whenever a fresh glare broke out from the burning house; to turn him away from the window, or to put up blinds and curtains made it worse, for the shadows of the trees, flickering mysteriously, seemed still more terrific. His sister screamed with excitement and delight at each brighter burst of flame, till she suddenly laid down her head and fell fast asleep; but still his nervous trembling continued at intervals, and his mother could not leave him, nor cease from saying consoling words of his heavenly Guardian, the only means that soothed him, especially when his sighing exclamation recurred, 'O, if papa was but here!' the tune to which her heart was throbbing throughout that dreadful night. She felt guilty of being useless, but he was her first care, and her power of real service was small: so she could only hang over him, and as she watched the healthful sleep of her little girls, join her prayers and thanksgivings with his, that all papa's treasures were safe. Not till the flames were dying down, morning twilight showing cold and gray, and Sarah coming in with bundles of rescued garments, was Johnnie's mind free enough to unclasp his hand, and show something fast held in it. 'Aunt Helen's cross, mamma; I thought I might keep hold of it, because I was frightened.'
Her caresses lulled him at last to sleep, while she grieved at Theodora's having gone in search of the cross. She knew of her safety from Sarah, who reported that she had been working like any ten; but she had not yet seen her, and the silence and suspense became oppressive.
Theodora had hardly spent a moment in seeking the cross, she tied on Violet's bonnet over the hair falling round her, hurried to assist in carrying the sick maid to a bed made up for her at the stables, and then, missing the dumb page from among the servants, she rushed back to look for him, dashed up the stairs through thick smoke, found him asleep, and crossing a floor that almost burnt her foot, she shook him awake, and saw him too in safety. She bethought her of her brother John's possessions, now that the living were all secure; she hurried into the work, she tore down his prints and pictures, carried them and his books out,—desks, drawers, weights she would never have dreamt of lifting, were as nothing to her. Many times did her father meet her, exclaim and urge her to desist, and to go to Armstrong's; she said she was just going: he went in one of the thousand directions in which he was called at once, and presently again encountered her, where he least expected it, coming out of a cloud of smoke with a huge pile of books in her arms! On she worked, regardless of choking, blinding smoke—regardless of the glare of flame—never driven from the field but by a deluge from a fire-engine; when stumbling down-stairs, guided by the banisters, she finally dismayed her father, who thought her long ago in safety, by emerging from the house, dragging after her a marble-topped chess table, when half the upper windows were flashing with flame.
Then he locked her arm into his, and would not let her stir from his side.
Water had been the great deficiency. Fire-engines were slow in coming, and the supply from the fountains was as nothing, so that the attempt had necessarily been to carry out property rather than to extinguish the fire. Sarah, after coolly collecting all that belonged to her mistress or the children, had taken the command of Miss Altisidora Standaloft, (who usually regarded her as vulgarity personified,) scolded away her hysterics, and kept guard over her, while she packed up her lady's jewels and wardrobe, not until then allowing her the luxury of shrieking at every jet of flame. The other servants and the villagers had worked with hearty goodwill below stairs; and when Theodora had time to look around, the pleasure-ground presented a strange scene. Among the trodden plants and shrubs lay heaps of furniture, sofas, chairs lying tumbled here and there, with plate, pictures, statues, ornaments heaped in wild confusion, crowds of people, in every variety of strange dishabille, gathered round; two long lines of them handing bucket after bucket, with machine-like regularity, from the fountain; others removing the furniture from the terrace; cushions, ormolu, fine china, handed out of the lower windows; the whole seen by the wild lurid light that flashed from the windows above, strangely illuminating the quiet green trees, and bringing out every tiny leaf and spray by its fierce brilliancy, that confused every accustomed shadow, while the clouds of smoke rolled down as if to wither all around.
And above the rushing roaring sound! the thunder of falling ceilings; the red light within some familiar windows; the gray sky reflected in others, till, after a few uncertain flickers, the glow awoke in them also. Then arose the whiter gusts of vapour, when water, hissing and boiling, contended with fire.
In vain! the flame surmounted! Shouts, cries! Lord Martindale pushing nearer, calling to all for heaven's sake to come out, leave all, only come out; men rushing from the doors, leaping from the lower windows; one dark figure emerging at the moment before a tremendous crash shook the earth beneath their feet; the fire seemed for a moment crushed out, then clouds of smoke rose wilder and denser, yellowed by the light of the morning; the blaze rushed upwards uncontrolled, and the intensity of brightness, behind and above the walls, glared on the mass of awe-struck faces. There was not a movement, not a word, not a sound, save that of the roaring flame.