The first voice was Lord Martindale's: 'Are all out? Is every one safe?'
'Yes, my lord, all but the claret of 1826,' said that last to escape, half-clad, grimy, and singed, only in courteous voice, the butler.
'Thank God!' said Lord Martindale, fervently. 'And, Simmonds, thank you for what you have done to-night;' and he heartily shook the butler's hand.
'Oh, my lord, if it had been more! If that claret was but safe, I should feel I had done my duty,' said Simmonds, almost overcome, but giving place to Mr. Hugh Martindale, who, just released from a chain of buckets in the kitchen yard, was coming up to wring his cousin's hand, say there seemed no more to be done, and repeat his congratulations on the safety of life and limb. But a fresh alarm arose, lest the fire might extend to the stabling; and in watching the horses led out, the spreading of wet tarpaulins on the roof, the engines playing on the burning mass in the house, and the flames rising with diminishing fierceness in the intervals of the bursts of steam, there was such intense excitement that no one could think of aught but the sight before them.
At last there was a touch on Lord Martindale's arm; a message from the gardener's house that he must come directly: Mrs. Nesbit was in a fit.
The morning dewiness and calmness of the garden had a curious effect, as they walked hastily through it, out of sight of the confusion on the lawn; everything looked so blue and pale, especially Violet, who came down to meet them.
'I have sent for Mr. Legh,' she said. 'It is very terrible. She is quite insensible, but—'
She broke off suddenly. Theodora had sat down, untied her bonnet, then tried to rise, but tottered, and sank senseless on the floor.
Her father lifted her, so as to place her with her head on Violet's lap. Violet removed the bonnet, the hair came with it, burnt off in masses, the very eyelashes and brows were singed, the forehead, cheeks, and neck frightfully reddened and blistered. Lord Martindale took her hands to chafe them: they were bleeding, and purple from bruises, the arms scorched and burnt—injuries overlooked in the excitement, but ready to repay themselves after her five hours' violent and incessant exertion. It was a frightfully long swoon; and her father, almost in despair, had sent a second messenger for medical aid before Violet could look up consolingly, and direct his attention to the signs of returning animation. She presently half opened her eyes, perceived in whose arms she lay, and who was bending over her—she heard his fond words; but reviving no further, closed her eyes, without attempting to speak.
Lord Martindale could no longer delay going up-stairs. There the scene was most distressing; there was complete insensibility, with a tendency to convulsive movement, a condition so plainly hopeless that he would fain have removed his wife, hitherto so unaccustomed to any spectacle of suffering. But Lady Martindale was not to be detached from her who had absorbed her affection from infancy. Wrapped in that one idea, she hardly heard his representations of their daughter's state, and, with piteous looks, repelled his assurances that her care was unavailing, and ought to be relinquished to Mrs. Garth and the maids. He was obliged at length to desist, and returned just as Violet and Mr. Martindale had succeeded in moving Theodora to a slippery horse-hair sofa. She looked up and replied, 'Better, thank you,' to his first inquiry; but when asked if she was in pain, was forced to answer, 'Yes, not much,' and closed her eyes, as if she only wished not to be disturbed.
They held council over her: Mr. Martindale urged taking her at once to his parsonage; he would find the carriage, and Violet should bring her, leaving the children to follow under Sarah's charge when they should awake. Violet only demurred at leaving Lady Martindale; but Lord Martindale authoritatively told her, that it was not fit for her to be in Mrs. Nesbit's room, and he should be much obliged to her to see Theodora properly taken care of.
The transit was serious, every one longed to have it over, but dreaded the arrival of the carriage, which came before it was expected. Resolute as ever, Theodora astonished them by springing at once on her feet, disdaining aid, but she had hardly taken a step, before she faltered, and was just falling, when her father caught her in his arms and carried her to the carriage, where Violet was ready to uphold her sinking head. Mr. Martindale took the short way, and was at home before them, to lift her out, and transport her at once to her room. Since the marriage of Pauline, Theodora had given up a personal attendant, and no ladies' maids were forthcoming, except Miss Standaloft, whose nerves could not endure the sight of Mrs. Nesbit, far less of Miss Martindale, so the whole business of undressing fell upon Violet, and the rector's little under-maid, who, having been a school-girl, was of course devoted to Miss Martindale. A difficult task it was, for besides the burns, bruises, and faintness, every muscle and sinew were so strained and tender from the violent exertion, and the blows she had unconsciously received, that the gentlest touch and slightest movement were severely painful. Violet was most grateful for her never-failing resolution. Every move was made unhesitatingly the moment it was requisite, and not a complaint was uttered, scarcely even a confession of suffering; on anxious inquiry, 'Never mind, it can't be helped,' was the utmost reply, given in a blunt, almost annoyed manner, as if she could not bear to be disturbed out of that silence of endurance.
In the same manner, between stupefaction and fortitude, the surgeon's visit was gone through, and Violet heard from him that there was no serious consequence to be apprehended, provided fever could be averted. Violet, much alarmed as to the effect of the tidings of the previous night, thought it right to mention that she had undergone a severe shock, and perceived that he thought it greatly increased the chance of serious illness; but he could do nothing but insist on tranquillity; and, as Theodora had now fallen into an exhausted sleep, he returned to his other patient.
The hours seemed to have forgotten their reckoning; it was to Violet as if she had been years without looking after her children, and when she found it was only half-past nine, she was dismayed to think of the length of day yet to come. Leaving Theodora's sleep to be guarded by the little maid, she ventured down. The dumb boy was watching, with tearful eyes, at the foot of the stairs, his whole face one question about Miss Martindale. Answering him reassuringly on the slate, she opened the dining-room door, and a refreshing sight met her eyes. Round the breakfast-table sat her own three, from their glossy heads to their little shining shoes, in order trim, as if no disaster had ever come near them;—little Annie on Cousin Hugh's knee; Helen's tongue going as fast as ever; Johnnie in shy good behaviour. A general cry of joy greeted her, and they were in an instant around her, telling of the wonders of the lawn, how the dying gladiator was lying on the blue damask bed, and the case of stuffed humming-birds on the top of the kitchen dresser, and the poor peacock so frightened that he hid himself in the laurels, and would not come near them.
All alarms had gone away like a dream of the night, and the day had dawned on the happy creatures in all its freshness and newness, which their elders would fain have shared, but the necessity of attending to them had something reviving in it, and Violet could not look at them without renewed thrills of thankfulness. It was like rescued mariners meeting after a shipwreck, when her father-in-law came in and embraced her and the children affectionately, with a special caress for Johnnie, 'the best little boy he ever saw.' He looked worn and depressed, and Violet hastened to help Mr. Martindale in setting breakfast before him, while he anxiously bade her rest, hoped she had not been hurt by all she had undergone; and asked for Theodora, whose illness, and his wife's despair at her aunt's condition, were the chief actual distress. For the rest, he was so thankful that no life had been lost, as to have hardly a thought to bestow on the ruin and destruction.
There was now time for the question, how did the fire begin? Mrs. Nesbit, before her attack came on, had said, that wishing to take a draught, and not liking to call Mrs. Garth, she had drawn the light near to the curtains, and had, doubtless, left it there. It seemed as if Mrs. Garth had taught her to dread disturbing her at night, and now Lady Martindale shrank with horror from letting her even approach the patient.
But how had Mrs. Nesbit been rescued without the slightest burn, and what had occasioned Theodora's injuries? Not till Violet began to explain did it dawn on her what a heroine she was describing. All had been so simply and fearlessly done, that it had not struck her till she heard it in her own narration.
Lord Martindale was much affected. 'My brave girl!' he said; 'then under Providence the safety of every one of us is owing to her. I wish she was awake that I might tell her so this minute!'
It was delightful to see how this seemed to compensate for everything; and, indeed, he said it was almost worth while to have been burnt out for the sake of seeing how nobly every one had behaved, servants and neighbours, rich and poor, working alike at the risk of their lives, and he was positively overcome as he spoke of the warm sympathy that met him on all sides, testifying the universal respect and affection with which he was regarded. Notes and messages were coming in from all the neighbourhood to intreat to be allowed to shelter his family; but it was impossible to move at present, and his views were fixed on occupying the house which had so long stood empty.
'Arthur can have a room fitted up there directly,' he said. 'Where is he, my dear? How soon can he come?'
Violet was obliged to confess her ignorance. He had said he should be going about, and had given her no address. Much vexed, Lord Martindale forbore to distress her by remarks, and replied to his cousin's question whether the house was insured—
'For twenty thousand pounds, but that is nothing like the amount of damage. I hardly know how we shall meet it. I must have John at home to settle matters. How strange it is to look back. I remember as if it was yesterday, when John was born, Mrs. Nesbit insisting on my pulling down the poor old house, to make the place fit, as she said, for my son's inheritance, and there is an end of it! Who would have told her that she would burn it down herself, poor woman? She always detested the old hall. Don't you remember the stags' antlers, Hugh? Ay, Johnnie, you would have wondered at those—a dozen stags' heads with branching horns in the hall.'
'Oh! tell me, grandpapa! Was it where you lived when you were a little boy?'
'Ay, Johnnie,' said Lord Martindale, pausing to take him on his knee. 'Cousin Hugh could tell you how we went on together there! Such jackdaws' nests as used to be in the chimneys—'
'I do believe,' said his cousin, 'you have more regret at this moment for the old house than for this one!'
'Well! when I think of going home, the old red pediment with the white facings always comes into my mind, as it used to look up the avenue, when we came back for the holidays. Those old shields with the martlets—see, Johnnie, like that—' holding up the crest on a spoon, 'where the martins used to build their nests over the windows, were such as I never saw anywhere else. I found one of them lying about at the farm the other day.'
'Do you remember the hornet's nest in the wall of the garden—?'
'What a garden that was! They have never found any pear equal to that jargonelle, where you ate twenty the first day of the holidays. What do you think of that, Johnnie?'
'Ay, Johnnie, and I can tell you of something grandpapa did,' retorted Mr. Hugh Martindale; and to Violet's diversion, the two old cousins continued to make Johnnie an excuse for bringing up their boyish memories, which seemed to rise on them the more vividly, now that the great mansion no longer obstructed their view. It was complete oblivion of everything else, and seemed to do infinite good to Lord Martindale, but soon it was interrupted; Lady Elizabeth had driven over to beg to carry the whole party back to Rickworth with her, or at least to take home Violet and the children; but this could not be; Violet could not leave Theodora, and though Lord Martindale pressed her to consult her own comfort by removing, he was evidently gratified by her begging to be allowed to remain at the parsonage. He then returned to his wife, and Lady Elizabeth, after offers of every service in her power, took leave, while Violet returned to her charge.
Theodora awoke with less fever than they had ventured to hope, and quite composed, though much surprised with her first acquaintance with illness, and not even comprehending that she could not get up, till the pain of the attempt corroborated Violet's assurance.
'How base it is,' said she, 'not to be able to do a few hours' work without having to take to one's bed. I flattered myself I was not so despicably weak, for a woman.'
'You might be satisfied,' said Violet, her heart too full to say more.
'Not while your Sarah walks about as if nothing had happened.'
'Where should any of us be but for you?' said Violet, bending over her.
'There's not an inch of me fit for kissing!' exclaimed Theodora, turning away.
'Lord Martindale will soon come to tell you what he thinks of it.'
'Papa! Where is he? I don't remember him since we went down to Armstrong's. Yes, I do though!' she paused, 'but I can't think of it. Crying would be worse. What a queer thing fainting is! I used to speculate what it was like.'
'How do you like it?' said Violet, perceiving her mood.
'Tolerably, in some respects; but it makes one's memory hazy. What has become of mamma? I suppose she is afraid of the sight of my visage.'
'Oh! no, no!'
'My aunt, of course! How could I forget! Mrs. Armstrong spoke of her being ill. Was it another stroke!' said Theodora, alarmed as her recollection returned, and Violet was obliged to tell the whole.
'My poor mother!' said Theodora, gravely, 'I wish I could help—'
There was a knock at the door. Miss Standaloft stood hesitating and making signs to Violet.
'Is there any news of Mrs. Nesbit?' asked Theodora. 'There can be only one thing to hear. Is it over?'
It was, and the end had been quiet. Theodora drew a long breath, and repeated, 'Poor mamma!'
'Do you want me? Do you think I might go to her!' said Violet. 'She has no one with her but the gentlemen.'
'I should be very glad if you were there. Only don't hurt yourself, or Arthur will be angry; and to have you to nurse would be more than could be borne. My poor aunt! I think she softened at the last, and she loved us all very much at one time.'
'I am glad she was kind to Johnnie,' said Violet.
Miss Altisidora was induced to sit on the other side the curtain, intending to call Sarah if anything was wanted, and Violet walked across the park, dreading to enter for the first time the presence of the shadow of death, fearing in her lowliness to intrude or presume, but drawn onwards by the warmhearted yearning to perform a daughter's part, if perchance her husband's mother could derive the least solace from her attentions.
She crossed the trodden grass, and gazed on the ruin of the abode that had once almost oppressed her with its grandeur. Past away! and with it, she whose hopes and schemes were set on the aggrandizement of the family—she had gone where earthly greatness was weighed in its true balance! And the lime trees budded, new and young in their spring greenness, as when the foundation-stone was laid!
Violet thought how she had been taught to look on this as her boy's inheritance, and therewith came the prayer that he might win his true inheritance, made without hands, ever spring-like and beyond the power of the flame! She looked up at the shell, for it was no more, she only recognized the nursery windows by their bars; the woodwork was charred, the cement blackened by the fire, where yesterday Helen's and Annie's faces had been watching her return! A sick horror passed over her as she thought how much had depended on Theodora's watchful night, and imagined what might have awaited Arthur!
Then with hopeful, grateful anticipation, she looked to his coming, and his greeting after such perils endured in his absence. 'O, will not thankfulness bring him those thoughts! It must! He must join with me, when he owns the mercy and sees our children safe. Oh! then blessings on this night's danger! Let me see, he will learn it from the paper! When can he come? Oh! how his looks and one word from him will reward Theodora!'
She felt as if her happy anticipation had been selfish when she came near the cottage with its blinded windows. Lord Martindale was speaking to some one, but turned at once to her. 'You here, my dear? You have heard?'
'Yes, I have; but Theodora and I thought as Lady Martindale has no maid here, that I had better come and see if I could do anything for her. Can I?' said she, with her humble sweetness.
'I cannot tell, my dear,' he answered. 'She attends to nothing, and has not been able to shed tears. We cannot rouse her. Indeed, I am sorry you came; you ought to be resting.'
'O, no, we both wished it. Should I be troublesome to her?'
'No, indeed, my dear child,' said he, affectionately. 'It is a great relief to me that you should be with her, for here is much that I must attend to, and I wish nothing so much as to get her to the parsonage. The carriage is waiting, but she will not hear of coming away, and I do not know how to leave her here.'
So saying, he led her into the room; Violet gave one shrinking glance towards the bed, while the chill of awe shot through her veins; but the chief thought was needed for her who sat rigid and motionless, with fixed tearless eyes, and features in cold stillness more than ever like marble. Violet felt as if that deathly life was more painful to look upon than death itself, and her hand trembled in Lord Martindale's grasp; he pressed it closer, and going up to his wife, said, 'Anna, my dear, here is our child Violet so kind as to come and see you.'
Lady Martindale made a courteous movement, as if by mechanism, but without looking up. He was delaying, unable to leave them thus, though he was much wanted below stairs.
'I will stay while you go,' whispered Violet, though she longed to keep him, for that presence filled her with trembling, and promising speedy return, he departed.
For some minutes she could venture nothing, and the silence in which she heard only the beatings of her own heart seemed more than she could bear; but at last she collected herself, and an impulse suddenly occurring to her, she ventured to touch her mother-in-law, and said, 'Theodora has been asking for you.'
Lady Martindale shook her head. 'I cannot come, I cannot leave her.'
'Poor Theodora is so much hurt!' pleaded Violet; 'you will be surprised to see how she is scorched! Such arms and hands, that she cannot help herself—and she wants cold applications continually.'
Lady Martindale once looked attentive, but a glance at her aunt brought back her face of silent misery. Violet was perplexed, but strove on—'Poor Theodora! I hope you will come to her. She wants care very much. Did you know that it was in saving her that she was so sadly burnt?'
'No: was it?'
'Yes; she snatched her out through the burning curtains. That was the way Theodora's hair was all burnt off, and her arms are so blistered!' continued Violet, controlling her trembling, and speaking as when she was persuading one of the children—'Poor Theodora! Will you not come and see her?'
'Where is she?'
'She is at the parsonage. They are ready to take us.'
'Oh, no! I cannot go. You go to her.'
'Pray, pray come with me. Theodora is so ill! It would do her so much good to see you; and we are afraid of her being anxious or distressed, lest she should have fever. Won't you come?'
A motion, as if she could not bear this, made Violet fear she must desist, and she paused for a short interval, then said, 'SHE was very fond of Theodora.'
'Oh! Yes, yes—'
'She would not like her to be left so long.'
'I thought you were taking care of her.'
'Oh, yes! but I cannot be the same as you would. One always wants one's mother so much in illness.'
'She was always a mother to me!' The tears came at last, and she wept unrestrainedly; while Violet hung over her with soft caressing words of sympathy that cannot be detailed, till the first grief had had its course, and she again tried the experiment of repeating Theodora's name, and saying how much she was suffering.
Lady Martindale did not reply, but suffered Violet to put on her cloak, and gradually lead her from the room, saying at each pause something of 'poor Theodora.'
The deed was done; it might be by importunity, but it was worth achieving, even at the risk of being vexatious. Lord Martindale could hardly believe his eyes when he saw his wife on her way to the carriage, and Theodora was equally astonished when she appeared at her bedside.
It was a new thing to see one, hitherto healthy and independent, so completely prostrated; and no more was needed to awaken the natural affection so long stifled or thrust aside. Lady Martindale was greatly shocked, and, perhaps magnifying her daughter's illness, had no room for any other thought. She wished to do everything for her herself—would hardly admit Violet's assistance—and took every care, with skilfulness that was marvellous in one trained to ineffectiveness.
To Theodora her attendance was a new and exquisite repose. It was the first taste of her mother's love, and made her content to be helpless; as there she lay, murmuring thanks, and submitting to be petted with a grateful face of childlike peace, resting in her mother's affection, and made happy by the depth of warm feeling in her father's words.
'It is a good speculation to be ill,' said she, with a smile of strong feeling when they had bidden her good night, and left her to Violet, who was to sleep on a mattress on the floor.
Will you walk into my parlour?' said a spider to a fly.
And where was Arthur?
Spending the day with his sporting friends, much to his own satisfaction, till in the evening, greatly against his will, he was taken out to dine with an old Mr. Randall, of Gothlands, the master of the hounds.
His nieces, the Misses Marstone, were the ladies of the house—well-dressed people, a little 'passees', but apparently not having found it out. Arthur watched the arrivals hoping that the order of precedence might not consign him to the flow of talk, of which he had already had quite a sufficiency, when, to his surprise, two ladies, evidently at home, entered together.
One—thin, sallow, spectacled—was, as he knew, an inhabitant; but the other—small, slight, and retiring, and, in spite of clinging unfresh muslin and shrinking figure, with the unmistakable air of high breeding, was a most unexpected sight. At least, thought he, here was one lady who would not bore him, and making his way to her, he inquired for Lady Elizabeth. Emma, on the other hand, asked after Violet; and it was curious that both questions were put and answered with constraint, as if each was conscious of being something like a truant.
Another surprise. 'Mr. Gardner.' In walked Mark himself, and, after shaking hands with the elder Miss Marstone, came towards Emma and her friend, and was received with cordial familiarity. He entered into conversation with Arthur, drawing a little further from Miss Brandon at each step, till having brought him close to old Mr. Randall, and placed him under the infliction of a long prose about the hounds, he retreated, and was soon again in conversation with the two friends, Emma's face raised and lighted up with eagerness.
Colonel Martindale had no escape from the head of the table and the eldest of the Misses Marstone. Resigning himself to his fate, he made talk; and, though now broader, redder, and somewhat coarser in feature and complexion than he had been a few years ago, he looked so gay and unencumbered, that his neighbour speculated as to whether he could be the eldest son, and resolved to discover what her sister, Sarah Theresa, knew of him.
'It is so pleasant when friends meet unexpectedly,' said she. 'I did not know you were acquainted with either of our guests.'
'Miss Brandon is a near neighbour of my father, and a great friend of Mrs. Martindale.'
Death to any incipient scheme of Miss Marstone; but she smiled on, and remarked, 'A very amiable girl, and a beautiful place, is it not, Rickworth?'
'Very pretty, a fine property,' said Arthur, talking as if in his sleep, for he had caught Mark Gardner's voice saying something about an oratory.
'My sister is often staying there,' proceeded the lady. 'You know Miss Brandon's scheme of restoring the Priory?'
'I did not know that was anything more than talk.'
'I used to think so,' said Miss Marstone; 'but both she and my sister Sarah treat it quite seriously, and Mr. Gardner is their prime counsellor.'
Arthur started, and with difficulty refrained from laughing.
'Ah! I believe he has been a little wild, but that is all over now. He has taken quite a different turn now, and given up everything of that sort—throws himself into all their views.'
'Indeed!' said Arthur, who knew to his cost that if the reform had taken place at all, it must have been of extremely recent date.
'O, yes, I assure you. He is staying with the curate, Mr. Silworth.'
'Ha! that is an old name at school.'
'Yes; he was an old schoolfellow—a very good man, to whose persuasions everything is owing.'
She pointed him out, and the first glance was a revelation to Arthur, who recognized him as the boy who, at school, had been the most easily taken in. He soon understood the state of affairs. Mark, clever, gentlemanly in appearance, and apt at catching the tone of the society around him, was making a bold stroke—had persuaded his kind-hearted, simple friend to believe him a sincere penitent, and to introduce him as such to the ladies at Gothlands, from whom he caught the talk most pleasing to them. At present it was all ecclesiastical aesthetics, and discontent with the existing system, especially as regarded penitence; by and by, when his hold should be secure, he would persuade the heiress that she had been the prime instrument in his conversion, and that she had gained his heart.
A bit of rhapsody from Miss Sarah Theresa, and poor Emma's embellished and animated countenance, were sufficient indications that they were smoothly gliding into the snare; and accustomed as Arthur was to see Mark Gardner in a very different aspect, he was astonished at his perfect performance of his part—the humility and deference befitting the sense of his errors, and conversation so entirely at home in all their peculiar language and predilections, that Arthur was obliged to feel for the betting-book in his own pocket to convince himself that he was still deeply involved with this most admirable and devoted of penitents. He could not help, as he took leave, giving a knowing look, conveying how easily he could spoil his game.
However, Arthur was in reality much annoyed. Of late years his easy temper had well-nigh surrendered itself to the ascendency of Mark Gardner; and though dissatisfied, remorseful, and anxious, he had allowed himself to be led farther and farther into extravagance. The sight of his home excited regrets, therefore he shunned it; and though weary and discontented in his chains, he was devoid of force or will to break them, and a sort of torpor seemed to make it impossible for him to resist Mark Gardner. Their money matters were much entangled. They had entered into a partnership for keeping horses for the turf, and there was a debt shared between them, the amount of which Arthur dreaded to investigate.
That Gardner should obtain a rich wife would be the greatest relief to Colonel Martindale; but he had rather it should have been any heiress in the world but Emma Brandon. He had a friendly feeling towards her, and a respect for her mother, that made him shrink from allowing her to become a victim, especially when he would himself be the gainer; and, on the other hand, he could not endure to betray a friend,—while he knew that his wife, his father, and his sister would be horrified at his secrecy.
After a night spent in execrating the dinner-party, he received a call from Mr. Gardner, who, without being aware that he took any interest in Miss Brandon, came to put him upon his guard, but found him less manageable than usual. Arthur made a formidable description of Lady Elizabeth's discretion, underrated the value of Rickworth, and declared that it would be so tied up that Mark would gain nothing but a dull, plain little wife. Not thus deterred, Mark only asked of him discretion; and when, trying to cloak his earnest under faltering jest, he declared that he had a regard for the Brandons, and should get into a scrape with his father, his friend held out the allurement of freedom from his difficulties, but was obliged to touch on this lightly, for Arthur's honour was ready to take fire at the notion of being bought. It ended in Gardner's treating the matter as if he had engaged not to betray him, and being hardly gainsaid, otherwise than by a sort of bantering proviso, that in case of an appeal direct, he could not be expected to vouch for Mark's entire and disinterested reformation.
With an intense dislike to the world in general, Arthur was considering how to prevent his wife from meeting Lady Elizabeth, and how to be out of the way before the report should spread of Mark's addresses, when everything else was driven from his mind by the arrival of the papers, with the announcement of the fire at Martindale.
The safety of the infant family of the Honourable Lieutenant-Colonel Martindale was the first news that met his eye; next, that of the death of Mrs. Nesbit,—the chief thought that occupied him in his hasty homeward journey.
He had been taught to think himself her heir; and though never forgiven for his marriage, hoped that the will might not have been altered, and considered that, whether it were in his favour or not, so large a property coming into the family could not fail to render his circumstances more easy, by enabling his father to augment his allowance, which, though ample in itself, appeared far from sufficient to a man with expensive tastes and an increasing family. The hope of independence, and of not being obliged to wish success to Gardner, was an opening into liberty and happiness.
By night he was at the parsonage, and Violet in his arms as soon as the door was opened. That moment was perfect—he was so eagerly tender, so solicitous lest she should have been injured by terror or exertion, so shocked at her peril in his absence. In the fulness of her heart she even asked him to come and see the children safely asleep.
'Now? What should I do that for?'
There was no unkindness, but the full felicity of the evening was marred.
There was no room for him at the parsonage, and an apartment in the empty house had been fitted up for him, so that she only saw him for an hour of confused talk over the events of the fire, and Theodora's condition, which was very uncomfortable; for though the fever was slight, the burns and bruises were in an unsatisfactory state, and eyes, arms, and hands of very little use. She was patient, and resolute as ever, and so grateful to her nurses that waiting on her was a pleasure.
In fact, attendance on her was the only resource for occupying Lady Martindale, who, when not thus engaged, was listless and dejected, attending to nothing that passed around her, and sometimes giving way to inconsolable bursts of grief. It was as if her aunt had been her one idea in life, and without her she could turn to nothing else. Violet was very anxious to prevent the children from molesting her, and in much dread of their troubling her, now that all were in such close quarters. It was trying to be engaged with Theodora, and to hear the little feet and voices where they were not intended to be.
But when she was able to hasten to the rescue, she beheld Helen in Lady Martindale's lap, and Johnnie by her side, all three intent on making bouquets; and all apologies and proposals to fetch them away were replied to by assurances of their goodness, and the pleasure afforded by their company.
It appeared that while playing in the garden, the little brother and sister had been, as it were, fascinated by watching her fixed melancholy figure in the drawing-room. Again and again they had peeped in at the window, striving to forget, but ever attracted by the sweet compassion of their hearts; till at last, after much pausing and whispering, they had betaken themselves to the corner of the garden where Cousin Hugh had given permission to gather as they liked, and at the expense of his own small fingers, Johnnie had pulled the first bud of sweet-brier. Lady Martindale had felt a soft touch, and heard a little timid, coaxing voice—'Grandmamma, may we? Would you like this little, young rose?' while towards her was raised a face delicate and glowing with pale pink like the bud itself.
Grandchildren and flower were at once in her bosom. Warm, womanly child-love had been forced down to a far corner of her heart; but there it was, and like the rod piercing to the hidden spring, that fragrant gift of love touched it home, and thenceforth it was such fondling as Violet almost feared might be spoiling, especially of Helen; who, however unruly or exacting she might be, seemed only to endear herself the more, and was visibly far more her grandmother's darling than her gentle, well-behaved brother. This new affection for the children opened her heart to their mother, on whom she leant more than she knew. To her she talked of all her aunt's unwearied fondness and care, ever since she had come into her hands an orphan in her infancy. There had been real and entire devotion to each other on the part of the aunt and niece; and the affection she had been able to inspire, together with the solemn feelings towards the newly dead, gave her memory a softness that almost enabled Violet to think of her in Lady Martindale's point of view, forget her harshness, and the worldly pride for her niece and her family, to which she had sacrificed their best happiness.
It was a melancholy retrospect. Mrs. Nesbit might be said to have perfectly succeeded in the object of her life. She had formed her beloved niece, like the fabled image of snow, moulded by the enchanter and animated by no will but his, and had seen her attain the summit of her wishes, universally admired and distinguished for every talent and grace; while still completely under her influence, and as affectionate and devoted as ever. Could any desire be more fully attained? But there had ever been further craving, disappointment, combats, hatred, avarice, disgust; and with all around that could make old age happy and honourable, it had been a querulous melancholy struggle for power, spent in clutching at the toys that had no pleasure in them—in trying to force worldly advantages on those who cared not for them, then revenging their indifference as a personal insult. She had sunk into the grave without any one having the power to regret her save that one fond, faithful niece, the one creature she had always regarded with genuine unselfish affection.
Lord Martindale, whose wife she had ruled, and whose children had been made unhappy by her, could hardly help owning to himself that her death was a relief to him; and Arthur barely made a fair show of moderate respect, in his anxiety for the property that would free him from embarrassment. His first inquiry was whether the will were burnt. No, it was in the hands of a lawyer, who would bring it on the day of the funeral. Lord Martindale might look reprovingly at Arthur's eagerness, but the matter was no less important to him. He had begun life with an expenditure as large as his income could bear; and as his children had grown up, and unprosperous times had come, he had not been able to contract his expenses. Of late he had almost been in difficulty as to the means of meeting the calls for the year, economy was a thing unknown and uncomprehended by his wife; and the giving up the house in London had been the only reduction he could accomplish. No one else in the family had an idea of self-denial except Theodora, who, perceiving how matters stood, had refused to have a maid of her own, and had begged him no longer to keep a horse for her. Some change ought to be made, but he had gone on in this unsatisfactory manner, trusting that at Mrs. Nesbit's death all would be straight. Her West Indian estates and accumulation of wealth must be bequeathed either to his wife or among his children; and in either case he would be set at ease—either relieved from supporting Arthur, or enabled to do so without difficulty.
The funeral took place in full grandeur. Lady Martindale had made it a special request that every one would mourn as if for her mother, and it was just one of the occasions when pomp was needed to supply the place of grief.
The only real mourner shut herself up in her own room, whither Theodora begged Violet to follow her. She found her stretched on her bed, abandoned to grief. It was the sense of orphanhood; the first time she had come so close to death and its circumstances, and it was overpowering sorrow; but Violet had better learnt how to deal with her, and could venture to caress and soothe—entreat her to remember how much was left to love her—and then listen to what Lady Martindale began as the rehearsal of her aunt's care to shield her from sorrow; but Violet soon saw it was the outpouring of a pent-up grief, that had never dared to come forth. The last time the vault had been opened it had been for the infant she had lost, and just before for the little girls, who had died in her absence. 'My dear,' she said, 'you do not know how it is all brought back to me. It is as if your three darlings were the same I left when we went abroad. Your sweet Helen is exactly like my precious little Anna, whom I little thought I was never to see again! Oh, my babies!'
Violet was quite relieved to find this excessive grief was not spent on her aunt, but that it was the long-restrained sorrow for an affliction in which she could so much better sympathize. It had been of no avail for Mrs. Nesbit, in mistaken kindness, and ignorance of a mother's heart, to prevent her from ever adverting to her darlings; it had only debarred her from the true source of comfort, and left the wound to ache unhealed, while her docile outward placidity was deemed oblivion. The fear of such sorrow had often been near Violet, and she was never able to forget on how frail a tenure she held her firstborn; and from the bottom of her heart came her soothing sympathy, as she led her on to dwell on the thought of those innocents, in their rest and safety. Lady Martindale listened as if it was a new message of peace; her tears were softer, and she dwelt fondly on little Anna's pretty ways, speaking, and Violet hearing, as if it had been a loss of to-day, instead of more than thirty long years ago.
Lady Martindale opened a dressing-box, saying how relieved she had been to find it safe, and from a secret drawer drew out a paper and showed Violet some soft locks of chestnut hair. 'Their papa gave me these,' she said. 'My dear aunt would not let me look at them—she thought it hurt me; but I must see if Anna's hair is not just like Helen's.' And then she begged Violet not to be alarmed at the resemblance, and kissed her for saying she was glad of it, and had no fears on that score. She dwelt on these reminiscences as if they were a solace of which she could never taste enough, and did not cease talking over them till Lord Martindale entered. Violet understood his feeling and the reserve hitherto shown to him sufficiently to attempt breaking it down, and ventured, as she quitted the room, to lay her hand on the little curl, and say, 'Grandmamma thinks Helen like her little Anna.'
Seeing Arthur leaning on the balusters, looking discomposed, she went down to him. 'Where have you been!' he said, rather sulkily.
'With your mother; I hope she is growing more calm.'
'Very absurd of her to take it so much to heart!' said Arthur, entering the drawing-room. 'Have you heard about this will?'
'Never was such a will on this earth! It ought to be brought into court! I verily believe the old hag studied to make it a parting emanation of malice!'
'Oh, hush! hush!' cried Violet, shocked.
'It is all very well saying Hush, hush; but I should like to know what you mean to live upon?'
'What has she done?'
'She has gone and left it all to that child!'
'My son—your boy John, I tell you; but, mark you, so as to do no good to a living soul. Not a penny is he to touch till we are all dead, if we starve meantime. She has tied it up to accumulate till my eldest son—or John's, if he has one—comes to the title, and much good may it do him!'
'Poor little dear!' said Violet, inexpressibly pained by his tone.
'Anything but poor! It is L100,000 to begin with, and what will it be when he gets it? Think of that doing nothing, and of us with no dependence but the trumpery L5000 by the marriage settlements. It is enough to drive one crazy.'
'It is a pity,' said Violet, frightened by his vehemence.
'It is an end of all chance for me. When she had always taught me to look to it! It is absolute cheating.'
'Of late she never led us to expect anything.'
'No; and you never took pains to stand well with her. Some people—'
'O, Arthur, Arthur!'
'Well, don't be foolish! You could not help it. Her spitefulness was past reckoning. To see her malice! She knew John and Theodora would not let me be wronged, so she passes them over, and my mother too, for fear it should be made up to me. Was ever man served so before? My own son, as if to make it more aggravating!'
At an unlucky moment Johnnie ran in, and pulled his mother's dress. 'Mamma, may Helen dig in the bed by the garden door!'
'Go away!' said Arthur, impatiently. 'We can't have you bothering here.'
Though inattentive and indifferent to his children, he had never been positively unkind, and the anger of his tone filled the timid child's eyes with tears, as he looked appealingly at his mother, and moved away, lingering, and beginning a trembling, 'but, mamma—'
'Don't stay here!' cried Arthur, in an indiscriminating fit of anger, striking his hand on the table. 'Did I not order you to go this moment, sir?'
Poor Johnnie fled, without hearing his mother's consoling 'I'll come;' which only, with her look of grief, further irritated Arthur. 'Ay, ay! That's always the way. Nothing but the boy, whenever I want you.'
Violet saw defence would make it worse, and tried to give him the attention he required; though quivering with suppressed distress for his harshness to his poor little boy, whom she could hardly help going at once to comfort. She hardly heard his storming on about the unhappy will, it only seemed to her like the apple of discord, and great was the relief when it was ended by Lord Martindale's coming down, asking why Johnnie was crying. She hoped this might cause Arthur some compunction, but he only answered, gruffly, 'He was troublesome, he is always fretting.'
Violet found the poor little fellow with tear-glazed face trying to suppress the still heaving sobs, and be grateful to his grandmamma, who had brought him into her room, and was trying to console him, though unable to discover the secret of his woe. As he sprung to his mother's lap, his grief broke forth afresh. His affection for his father was a deep, distant, almost adoring worship; and the misery inflicted by those looks and words was beyond what could be guessed, save by his mother. He thought himself naughty, without knowing why, and could hardly be soothed by her caresses and assurances that papa was not really angry, but he must not interrupt another time.
'But, mamma, Helen wanted to dig up all Cousin Hugh's little green things.'
Violet was thus reminded that she must seek after her daughter, whom she found revelling in mischief, and was obliged to sentence to dire disgrace, causing general commiseration, excepting that her papa, ignorant that it was his own fault, declared children to be the greatest plagues in the world.
She saw him no more in private, but grieved at his moodiness all the evening, and at bed-time watched a red spark moving to and fro in the garden. Her heavy sigh made Theodora ask what was the matter.
'I wish Arthur would not stay out in the dew. He has a little cough already,' said she, putting forward the care that would best bear mention.
'You used to be above caring for dews and night airs.'
'I must for him and Johnnie!' said Violet.
'Ah! what do you say to your son's prospects?'
'I don't suppose it will make much difference to him,' was the dejected answer, Violet's eyes still following the red end of the cigar in the darkness.
'Well! that is contempt for wealth! Fancy what will be in his hands. I thought you would be moralizing on the way to bring him up to use it.'
'I have not thought of that,' said Violet; 'besides, it will be long enough before he has it.'
'What! will it not be when he is of age!'
'No, when he comes to the title.'
'Oh! I see. Mamma did not understand that! She thought it absolutely left to him. How is it, then?'
'It is put in trust till either he, or John's son, if he should have one, comes to the title.'
'Then, it does you no good?'
'Only harm,' Violet could not help saying.
'How harm? It might be worse for you to have it.'
'Most likely,' said Violet's submissive voice. 'But it vexes Arthur so much!' and the tears fell unseen.
'Well it may!' said Theodora. 'One cannot say what one thinks of it NOW, but—Poor Arthur! I was very much afraid she was going to leave it to me. Now I wish she had.'
'I wish so too.'
'It was silly of me to warn her that Arthur should have his share; but after all, I don't regret it. I would not have had it on false pretences. Did you hear when the will was dated?'
'When Johnnie was a baby. Ah! I remember. Well, I am glad we all forfeited it. I think it is more respectable. I only wish mamma had come in for it, because she is the right person, and papa is a good deal straitened. That really was a shame! Why did not she let them have it?'
'Arthur thinks it was for fear we should be helped.'
'No doubt,' said Theodora. 'Well. I wish—! It is a horrid thing to find people worse after they are dead than one thought them. There! I have had it out. I could not have borne to keep silence. Now, let us put the disgusting money matter out of our heads for good and all. I did not think you would have been distressed at such a thing, Violet.'
'I don't want it,' said Violet, amid her tears. 'It is Arthur's disappointment, and the knowing I brought it on him.'
'Nonsense!' cried Theodora. 'If I had Arthur here, I would scold him well; and as to you, he may thank you for everything good belonging to him. Ten million fortunes would not be worth the tip of your little finger to him, and you know he thinks so. Without you, and with this money, he would be undone. Now, don't be silly! You have got your spirits tired out, and sleep will make you a sensible woman.'
Violet was always the better for an affectionate scolding, and went to bed, trusting that Arthur's disappointment might wear off with the night. But his aunt's inheritance had been too much the hope of his life, for him to be without a strong sense of injury, and his embarrassments made the loss a most serious matter. He applied to his father for an increase of allowance, but he could not have chosen a worse time; Lord Martindale had just advanced money for the purchase of his company, and could so ill afford to supply him as before, that but for the sake of his family, he would have withdrawn part of his actual income. So, all he obtained was a lecture on extravagance and neglect of his wife and children; and thus rendered still more sullen, he became impatient to escape from these grave looks and reproofs, and to return to town before the disclosure of Mr. Gardner's courtship. He made it his pretext that Violet was unwell and overworked in the general service; and she was, in truth, looking very ill and harassed; but he was far more the cause than were her exertions, and it was a great mortification to be removed from his parents and sister when, for the first time, she found herself useful to them, and for such an ungracious reason too, just when they were so much drawn together by the dangers they had shared, and the children seemed to be making progress in their grandmother's affections. Poor Johnnie, too! it was hard to rob him of another month of country air, just as he was gaining a little strength and colour.
But pleading was useless; the mention of Johnnie revived the grievance, and she was told she must not expect everything to give way to that boy of hers; every one was ready enough to spoil him without his help. He would not stay crammed into this small house, with the children eternally in the way, and his father as black as thunder, with no diversion, and obliged to sleep out in that den of a cottage, in a damp, half-furnished room—an allegation hardly true, considering Violet's care to see the room aired and fitted up to suit his tastes; but he was determined, and she had not even the consolation of supposing care for her the true reason; the only ground she could find for reconciling herself to the measure was, that night walks were not mending his cough, which, though so slight that he did not acknowledge it, and no one else perceived it, still made her uneasy. Especially Violet felt the ingratitude of leaving Theodora in her weak, half-recovered state; but it was almost as if he had a sort of satisfaction in returning his father's admonitions on the care of his wife, by making it a plea for depriving them of her in their need, and he fixed his day without remorse.
E'en in sleep, pangs felt before, Treasur'd long in memory's store, Bring in visions back their pain, Melt into the heart again. By it crost affections taught Chastened will and sobered thought.
Arthur did not succeed in eluding Lady Elizabeth. She called the day after the funeral, begging especially to see Mrs. Martindale. She looked absent and abstracted, while Lord Martindale was talking to her, and soon entreated Violet to come with her for a short drive.
No sooner were they in the carriage than she said, 'Violet, my dear, can you or Arthur tell me anything of this Mr. Gardner?'
'I know very little of him personally,' said Violet, for he was too much an associate of her husband's for her to be willing to expose him; 'but are you sure we mean the same person?'
'Quite sure. Did you not hear that Arthur met him at Gothlands?'
'No; I have had very little talk with him since he came back, and this fire has put everything out of our minds.'
'Of course it must, my dear. However, Arthur came with Mr. Herries to dine there, and met Mr. Gardner as an old friend; so he must be the same, and I am particularly anxious for some account of him. I must tell you why—I know I am safe with you—but you will be very much surprised, after all her declarations—'
'O, Lady Elizabeth, it cannot be that.'
'I have always been prepared for something of the sort. But what, my dear?' seeing her agitation, and quickly infected by it.
'O, don't let her,' was all Violet could utter.
'Tell me! what is he?—what do you know of him? They spoke of him as once having been extravagant—'
Violet drew a long breath, and tried to speak with composure. 'He is a dreadful man, gambling, betting, dissipated—such a person that Arthur never lets him come near me or the children. How could he dare think of her?'
'Can it be the same?' said Lady Elizabeth, infinitely shocked, but catching at the hope. 'This man is Lady Fotheringham's nephew.'
'Yes, he is,' said Violet sadly. 'There is no other cousin named Mark. Why, don't you remember all the talk about Mrs. Finch?'
So little had Lady Elizabeth heeded scandal, that she had hardly known these stories, and had not identified them with the name of Gardner. Still she strove to think the best. 'Arthur will be able to tell me,' she said; 'but every one seems fully satisfied of his reformation—the curate of the parish and all. I do not mean that I could bear to think of her being attached to a person who had been to blame. Her own account of him alarmed me enough, poor dear child, but when I hear of the clergyman, and Theresa Marstone, and all admiring his deep feeling of repentance—'
'How can he be so wicked!' exclaimed Violet.
'You are convinced that he is not sincere?'
'Why, of course, one does not like to say anything uncharitable; but there is something shocking in the notion of his talking of being good. If he did repent he would know how horrible it would be for him to marry Emma—'
'He does affect great humility. He declares that no one can be more conscious of his unfitness than himself; but he was betrayed into this confession of his sentiments—Emma's purity and devotedness, as Theresa writes to me, having been such powerful instruments in leading him to a better course. If it was not for poor Emma's fortune, one might trust this more! Oh! Violet, I never so much was inclined to wish that her brother had been spared!'
'But surely—surely Emma cannot like him?'
'I grieve to say that she and her friend have been in one of their fits of enthusiasm. He seemed to accord with their idea of a penitent—only longing for stricter rules than are to be found with us. From what I have heard, I should have been much less surprised if he had become a monk of La Trappe; in fact, I was almost afraid of it.'
'And does not this undeceive them?'
'No; poor Emma's only doubt is because she cannot bear to be unstable, and to desert the work to which she was almost pledged; but she says she is ashamed to perceive how much the sacrifice would cost her. She adds, that decide as she may, he concurs with her in devoting everything to the restoration of the Priory.'
'Poor Emma! He has debts enough to swallow two-thirds! And Miss Marstone, what does she say?'
'His becoming a suitor seems to have been a surprise and disappointment to her; but if she thinks him a pupil of her own, or expects to govern the Priory in poor Emma's stead, she will be in his favour. No; I have no hope from Theresa Marstone's discretion.'
'The rest of the family?'
'Theresa despises the others too much to attend to them. Mr. Randall seems to be startled at the present aspect of affairs, and asks me to come; and I should have set off this morning, but that I thought I might learn something from you and Arthur.'
'Every one would tell you the same. He was expelled from the University, and has gone on shockingly ever since, breaking his mother's heart! Poor Emma! after dreading every gentleman!'
'I fear she has much to suffer. He made her think him not a marrying man, and put her off her guard. Did you say he was agreeable?'
'Perhaps I might think so if I knew nothing about him; but I have always had a repugnance to him, and it is all I can do not to dislike him more than is right. If I saw him speak to Johnnie, I think I should!'
'And now tell me, for I ought to have every proof, if you know anything that would convince Emma that this present repentance is assumed?'
Violet coloured excessively. 'Arthur could tell' she said, half choked, and as Lady Elizabeth still waited, she was obliged to add, He was active in the same way at the last races. I know there are things going on still that a man who really meant to reform would have broken off. Arthur could give you proofs.'
Violet could not bear to be more explicit. Her own secret feeling was that Mr. Gardner was her husband's evil genius, leading him astray, and robbing her of his affection, and she was not far mistaken. Sneers, as if he was under her government, were often employed to persuade him to neglect her, and continue his ruinous courses; and if she shrunk from Gardner, he in return held her in malicious aversion, both as a counter influence and as a witness against him. It was the constant enmity of light to darkness, of evil to innocence.
The whole drive was spent in conversing on this engrossing theme; Lady Elizabeth lamenting the intimacy with Sarah Theresa, a clever, and certainly in many respects an excellent person, but with a strong taste for singularity and for dominion, who had cultivated Emma's naturally ardent and clinging nature into an exclusive worship of her; and, by fostering all that was imaginative in her friends composition, had led her to so exalted an estimate of their own ideal that they alike disdained all that did not coincide with it, and spurned all mere common sense. Emma's bashfulness had been petted and promoted as unworldly, till now, like the holes in the philosopher's cloak, it was self-satisfaction instead of humility. This made the snare peculiarly dangerous, and her mother was so doubtful how far she would be guided, as to take no comfort from Violet's assurances that Mr. Gardner's character could be proved to be such that no woman in her senses could think, a second time, of accepting him.
'I cannot tell,' said poor Lady Elizabeth; 'they will think all wiped out by his reform. Emma speaks already of aiding him to redeem the past. Ah! my dear,' in answer to a look, 'you have not seen my poor child of late: you do not know how much more opinionative she has become, or rather, Theresa has made her. I wish she could have been more with you.'
'I never was enough of a companion to her, said Violet. 'In my best days I was not up to her, and now, between cares and children, I grow more dull every day.'
'Your best days! my dear child. Why, how old are you?'
'Almost twenty-two,' said Violet; 'but I have been married nearly six years. I am come into the heat and glare of middle life. Not that I mean to complain,' said she, rousing her voice to cheerfulness; 'but household matters do not make people companions for those who have their youthfulness, and their readings, and schemes.'
'I wish Emma could have been drawn to take interest in your sound practical life.'
'If she would make a friend of Theodora!'
'Yes, but the old childish fear of her is not gone; and Emma used to think her rather wild and flighty, and so indeed did I; but how she is changed! I have been much pleased with conversations with her of late. Do you think it is owing to Mr. Hugh Martindale's influence?'
'In great part it is. What a blessing it is to them all to have him here.'
'Ah! it has been one of the things that made me most dread Theresa, that she will not like that good man.'
'What can she say against him?'
'I don't exactly understand them. They called him a thorough Anglican, and said he did not feel the universal pulse! Now, I know it has been unfortunate for Emma that our own vicar does not enter into these ways of thinking; but I thought, when Mr. Hugh Martindale came into the neighbourhood, that there would be some one to appeal to; but I believe Theresa will trust to no one but of her own choosing.'
They had come back to the parsonage-gate, and Lady Elizabeth set Violet down, promising to write as soon as she arrived at Gothlands; Arthur was sauntering in the garden, and as soon as the carriage was out of sight, came to meet her.
'O, Arthur, Lady Elizabeth wanted to speak to you. Cannot you catch her?'
'I? No. Nonsense.'
'She wanted to ask you about Mr. Gardner. Was it he whom you met at Gothlands?'
'Well, what of that?'
'Poor Lady Elizabeth! Is it not shocking that he has been making an offer to Emma?'
'He has, has he? Well, and what is she going to do?'
'There can be but one answer,' said Violet. 'Lady Elizabeth came to hear about him.'
'A fine chance for gossip for you.'
'I was forced to tell her,' said she, trying to hide the pain given her by his contemptuous tone. 'I would not have spoken if I could have helped it.'
'Ay!' said Arthur, 'as he says, set on a lady to talk of her husband's friends.'
'But, oh! Arthur, what could I do? Think of poor Emma.'
'Emma is a fool.'
'Only you must not be angry with me. I would have said nothing without cause, but when it comes to this,—and he is pretending to be reformed.'
'Well, so he might be if you would let him.'
'But, Arthur!' then eagerly seizing a new hope, 'you don't mean that he is really improving? Oh! has he given up those horses, and released you?
He turned petulantly away. 'How can he? You have taken away any chance of it now. You have done for him, and it is of no use to go on any more about it.'
He marched off to his own abode, while she was obliged to sit down under the verandah to compose herself before Theodora should see her.
Theodora perceived that much was amiss; but was spared much anxiety by not being with the family, and able to watch her brother. The cottage was completely furnished from the wreck of Martindale; but the removal thither was deferred by her slow recovery. Though not seriously ill, she had been longer laid up than had been anticipated in a person so healthy and strong; the burns would not heal satisfactorily, and she was weak and languid. It seemed as if the unsparing fatigues she had been in the habit of undergoing; her immoderate country walks—her over late and over early hours, had told on her frame, and rendered the effects of her illness difficult to shake off. Or, thought Violet, those tidings might be the secret cause, although she never referred to them, and continued not merely patient, but full of vigour of mind, cheerful, and as independent and enterprising as submission to orders permitted. Her obedience to irksome rules was so ready and implicit, that Violet marvelled, till she perceived that it was part of her system of combat with self-will; and she took the departure of her sister in the same manner, forbearing to harass Violet with lamentations; and when her mother deplored it, made answer, 'It is my fault. If I had not persuaded Arthur out of living at Brogden, we should be staying with them.'
As to the chance of permanent disfigurement, she treated it very coolly, listening with indifference to her mother's frequent inquiries of the surgeon. 'Never mind, mamma, you and Violet will keep up the beauty of the family till Helen comes out.'
The first time she was able to come down-stairs was the last evening before they were to depart. One of Arthur's sparks of kindly feeling awoke when he beheld his once handsome, high-spirited sister, altered and wrapped up, entering the room with an invalid step and air; and though she tried to look about in a bright 'degage' manner, soon sinking into the cushioned chair by the window with a sigh of languor. The change was greater than he had anticipated from his brief visits to her in her bed-room; and, recollecting the cause of the injuries, he perceived the ingratitude of depriving her of Violet; but his contrition came too late, for he had already exchanged his leave of absence with another officer.
All that was in his power was to wait upon her with that engaging attention that rendered him so good a nurse. He was his pleasantest self, and she was so lively as to put every one else into good spirits. It was pretty to see the universal pleasure in her recovery—the weeding woman, going home late, and looking up at the window to see if she was there, as Miss Helen had promised, and curtseying, hardly able to speak for joy and grief together, when Theodora beckoned her to the window, and asked after her children. The dumb page, too, had watched an hour for her crossing the hall and when Arthur would have taken the tea from him, to hand to her, he gave such a beseeching glance as was quite irresistible, and the more affecting as Theodora's hands were not yet in condition to converse with him, and she was forced to constitute Johnnie her interpreter.
It was long since any of them had spent so happy an evening; and at night Arthur insisted on helping her up-stairs, and said, 'I declare it is a shame not to leave you Violet. Suppose you keep her till you are all right again?'
'O, thank you, Arthur; but—' for Violet looked doubtful.
'Why, I thought you wanted to stay, Violet?' said Arthur.
'If you could.'
'Too late for that; but you must settle it between you before to-morrow morning. Good night.'
Lady Martindale warmly pressed Violet to stay, and she found it much worse to have personally to make the choice than to be only a piece of property at Arthur's disposal. She was, however, firm, saying that he would be uncomfortable without her; and she was grateful to Theodora for perceiving her motives, and preventing further entreaties.
'You are right,' said Theodora, when her mother was gone. 'It would not be fit to leave him with an empty house, so I must yield you up; but I cannot bear to think of you in London.'
'I am used to it,' said Violet, with her patient smile.
'And it will not be four years before we meet again. I shall try hard to come to you in the autumn.'
'How comfortable that would be! But you must not be uneasy about me, nor put any one out of the way. I can get on very well, as long as I have Johnnie.'
It was not till both had laid down to rest, and the room was dark, that Theodora said, 'I understand it now. Her poor sister must have brought her into some bad foreign society, from which he could only rescue her by marrying her.'
So abrupt was this commencement that Violet had to recollect who was meant, and so decided was the tone, that she asked, 'What have you heard?'
'Nothing fresh; have you?'
'No. Arthur had heard nothing from Mr. Mark Gardner; and I am afraid we shall hear no more till John answers my letter.'
'No matter; I have found out how it must have been. Lady Fotheringham, of whom he made a sort of mother, always liked Jane. Depend upon it, she was anxious about the way in which poor Georgina was reported to be going on abroad, and told Percy, when she died, to try if he could do anything to save Jane. You see he goes to Italy, and there finds, of course, that there is no way of fulfilling his aunt's wishes but by sacrificing himself.'
'You have arranged it all most fully!'
'See if I am not right—or, rather, you will not see; but I know that was the way. It is his nature to be fantastically generous, as some people would call it; and as long as he is the same Percival Fotheringham, the rest is as nothing. I was unjust at the first moment. Jane has a better nature, which he can develop. There is a sense of religion to work on—a power of adaptation to those she is with, and if what she has seen in Italy has shocked her and made her turn to him, he may be the making of her. She is clever enough; and when she finds that nothing but truth and honesty will succeed with him, she will learn them at last.'
'How glad I am you take it in this way.'
'This quiet time has been good for me,' said Theodora. 'It would have been maddening to have had no pause before waking to ordinary life.'
'Then the fire came at the right time for you.'
'Have you not read of men rushing into battle, hoping each shot would strike them?'
'It did not last long. Don't be frightened. Woman fear, and the stifling smell, and burning feel, and the sight of the red-hot gulf, were enough to drive it off. I shall never forget the touch of the floor in Charles's room! I thought of nothing but the fire. The feeling only came back with the fainting. I remember a confused notion that I was glad to be dying with you holding my head and papa so kind. How savage I felt when every one would rouse me, and tell me I was better! I was in hopes the world was all over with me; but I see I have a great deal to do first, and the comfort of lying torpid here has been very great. I have had time to be stunned, and to get a grasp of it and of my own mind.'
'Dear Theodora! It is indeed sometimes a blessing to be laid up. It brings out so much kindness. It is the easiest of all the crosses.'
'I should not wonder if my rampant health had helped to make me the more wayward,' said Theodora. 'I would not but have been ill for the sake of the kindness from my father and mother. I was sure of you, but there is—It has given me spirit to look out upon life.'
'I hope there is peace at least in the look.'
'There is. It is not worse than before, except the vanishing of a lingering foolish hope, and that is safest. Repentance must always be there. My life is like myself; the wounds may heal, but the marks will remain and the freshness and glow will never return here. I am glad I am so much altered. I should not like to be again within the pale of attractive people.'
'It is strange to hear you say such things so calmly.'
'I made up my mind long ago. In following poor Georgina—or rather, my own self-will—I threw away the bloom of life. Percy warned me that those who reject light crosses have heavy loads imposed. I made what now seems hardly a cross of reed, into a scourge! Oh, Violet! would that I had done no harm but to myself by those races!'
'Hush!' said Violet's smothered voice.
'But for that,' said Theodora, recovering steadiness of tone, 'I should bear everything peacefully. I was unworthy of Percy, and am better off than I deserve. Oh, Violet! I have wished to thank you for making me go to Baden, and promising that if I would submit, guidance would come. There it was, the instant I really sought it. What would have become of me if I had not been haunted by your look and your words? How many times they saved me from accepting Lord St. Erme! And if I had, how my self-will, and pride, and jealousy would have grown! and how wretched I should be making him now!'
'It is much better as it is.'
'Yes, whatever pain I did give him by my very shameful usage, it would have been far worse to have gone on. I was thankful that I was stopped. Now I think I see my own life. There are my home duties; and oh! how could I have spoken as I once did of papa! How shocking it must have seemed to you!'
'I do not know what it was, but it was under great provocation, and you did not understand him then.'
'No, you and Hugh drove me to him, and in seeing him pleased with anything I can do for him, there is solid happiness. I have learnt to enter into his affection and deep feeling and anxieties, and I would not have missed these four years of reciprocity with him for anything! And I shall get on better with mamma now. I fancy she has a different nature after all, from what my aunt forced on her. Well, then, you know I have long set up for a maiden aunt, and there is John, who might want a housekeeper. Or if I am of no use to my own folks, there are the poor always. Perhaps I may come to Emma Brandon's priory. It would be fine discipline to be under Mother Theresa.
This unexpected pleasantry Violet could only answer by a groan.
'Seriously,' continued Theodora, 'my doubt would be whether it would be right to turn to such a course only when one has nothing else to do. It is a different thing from giving the energies and wishes and visions of youth, as Emma has done. I could only offer the worn-out. But that is speculation. There is present duty at home and in the village, and brightness in your children, and my hopes are on John. I have used him vilely, because he tried to teach me to take to you, and I do long to see him and ask his pardon, and you will help me, so that he shall believe in my sorrow, and we will be a sober old brother and sister together.'
'I believe he wishes for nothing more. He will feel your having worked for him, instead of saving anything of your own.'
'I had little to care for: my childhood had few recollections, and I had nothing of Helen's. It was a pleasure to work for him. Do you know, when I saw that marble chess-table which had belonged to the parsonage, and which Percy had left in John's charge, a horrid feeling came that I would not save it for Jane, and I left it. Then I remembered that was a nasty spiteful bit of revenge, and I hated myself, and dashed in when I really did know that it was not safe. I was altogether mad, I believe. I felt desperate, and rather enjoyed facing danger for it. And then I felt the heat of the fire from the gallery again, and the spout from the fire-engine came, and the smoke was so thick that I missed my footing with that great heavy thing, and fell down-stairs to the first landing, and I believe that must have been what hurt my hand and side so much.'
Then as she heard Violet's tightened breath at the thought of the frightful peril,
'Well for me I did not perish with these wild thoughts! I am glad I have told you at last. I have felt as if I ought to confess it, and yet I was ashamed. Is the thing safe?'
'Yes, I saw it at Brogden; but oh, to think of it!'
'I am glad it is safe; it was John's charge, and he ought to restore it: but you will dream of it, like poor little Johnnie, if you take it so much to heart. I should not have told you at night. Put it out of your head, and let us sleep in peace.'
'Good night, dear sister. Thank you for talking to me. O, this is better than the night we parted before.'
'As much better as it is to have found one's anchor than to be tossed at the will of the waves. That was a frightful time. Thank heaven that you made me feel for the cable! There is a dreary voyage to come, but after all, every day we end the Creed with "The life everlasting."'
What have I? Shall I dare to tell? A comfortless and hidden well, A well of love, it may be deep, I trust it is, and never dry. What matter if the waters sleep In silence and obscurity?
Violet experienced the trials to which she knew she was returning. For some time past her husband's habits had been growing less and less domestic, and his disappointment alienated him still more. It was as if Mrs. Nesbit had left behind her a drop of poison, that perverted and envenomed the pride he used to take in his son, as heir to the family honours, and made him regard the poor child almost in the light of a rival, while he seemed to consider the others as burdens, and their number a hardship and misfortune.
He was so impatient of interruption from them, that Violet kept them carefully out of his way, while he was in the house, and this was seldom for a long space of time. All the fancied trials of the first year of her marriage seemed to have actually come upon her! She hardly saw him from morning to night, and when he did spend an evening at home, he was sullen and discontented, and found fault with everything. She was far from well, but his days of solicitude were gone by, and he was too much wrapped up in his own concerns to perceive her failure in strength, and the effort it cost her to be cheerful. The children were her great solace, but the toil of attending to them was almost beyond her powers, and if it had not been for her boy, she felt as if she must have been quite overwhelmed. Quiet, gentle, and thoughtful, he was a positive assistance in the care of his sisters; and to read with him, hear his remarks, watch his sweet obedience, and know herself the object of his earnest affection, was her chief enjoyment, though even here there was anxiety. His innocence and lovingness had something unearthly, and there was a precocious understanding, a grave serious turn of mind, and a want of childish mirth, which added to the fears caused by his fragile health. Play was not nearly so pleasant to him as to sit by her, reading or talking, or to act as her little messenger; and it was plain that he missed fondness from his father almost as much as she did for him. To be in the room with papa was his most earnest desire, and it saddened her to see that little slight figure silent in the corner, the open book on his lap, but his pale face, soft dark eyes, and parted lips, intent on every movement of his father, till the instant a want was expressed, or the least occasion for a service offered, there was a bound to execute it, and the inattentive indifferent 'thank you' was enough to summon up the rosy hue of delight. Would Arthur only have looked, how could he have helped being touched? But he continued neglectful and unheeding, while the child's affection seemed to thrive the more under disregard.
Violet's only satisfaction was in the absence of Mr. Gardner. She heard constantly from Lady Elizabeth Brandon; but there was little that was hopeful in that quarter. Emma's heart was more entirely in the power of her suitor than even their fears had anticipated. She had kept so entirely aloof from gentlemen, and so suspiciously repelled the most ordinary attention, that when once she had permitted any intimacy the novelty gave it a double charm. He had come upon her at first as one bowed down with sorrow for the follies of his youth, seeking only for the means of repairing what was past, and professing that happiness was over, and all he could hope was to evidence the depth of his repentance by his devotion and self-sacrifice in the cause of the Church. Then, when at unawares he allowed it to be discovered by Theresa that the heart, supposed to be awake only to remorse, had been gained by the earnestness and excellence of her young friend, and that in her was the most powerful means of consoling and aiding him, when he seemed sunk in the depths of despair at having allowed his sentiments to transpire, and only too much humiliated by the idea of being named together with Miss Brandon, it was impossible but that Emma's gentle and enthusiastic spirit should go more than half way to raise him from his despondency. She could not believe his errors so great, after all; or even if they were, who would not overlook them, and rejoice to have the power of comforting such a penitent? Theresa Marstone, with a woman's latent love of romance, was prime confidante to both, encouraged all, and delighted in the prospect of being supreme in the Priory, and moulding the pattern household of the pair formed and united under her auspices.
In the midst of such a dream as this, what chance had Lady Elizabeth of convincing the friends that their penitent, scarcely persuaded to relinquish plans of a hermitage, was a spendthrift adventurer, seeking to repair his extravagance with the estates of Rickworth?
Emma shed indignant tears, and protested that it was cruel to bring up his past faults; talked of the Christian duty of forgiving the returning sinner; and when Lady Elizabeth showed that he had very recently been engaged in his usual courses, Theresa, with a sensible face and reasonable voice, argued that ordinary minds could not enter into the power of the Church's work, and adduced many cases of equally sudden change of life.
She did not mention whether there was always the heiress of ten thousand a year ready as a reward.
The list of charges against Mark's character deepened every day, and added to poor Lady Elizabeth's horror, but he always contrived to render them as nothing to Emma. He had always confessed them beforehand, either to her or to Theresa, with strong professions of sorrow, and so softened and explained away, that they were ready to receive each fresh accusation as an exaggeration of a fault long past, and deeply regretted, and only admired their injured Mark the more. Lady Elizabeth wrote to beg Violet to give her the clue which she had said Arthur possessed to Mark's actual present character.
In much distress Violet wrote the letter, mentioning some disgraceful transactions which she knew to have been taking place at the very time when the good curate believed his friend sincerely repentant. She had heard them, not from Arthur, but from Mrs Bryanstone, who always learnt from her brother every such piece of gossip, but still, after what had passed, and Lady Elizabeth's appeal direct to Arthur, she thought it her duty to tell him before she sent the letter, and to ask if the facts were correct.
It was a most unpleasant duty; but Arthur was not in such a mood as when first she had mentioned the subject to him. He muttered something about the intense folly of a woman who could believe a word out of Gardner's mouth; said if Emma desired to be made miserable for life she could not take a better way; wished he had never set eyes on the fellow, and then, grumbling at Violet's begging him to read the letter, he cast his eye over it, and said it was all true, and there was worse, too, if Lady Elizabeth did but know it; but what this was he would not tell her. He made no objection to her sending the letter, saying he supposed it must be done, since she was asked; but it was all her doing, and Lady Elizabeth might have gone to some one else; and inconsistently ended with, 'After all, what's the use of making such an uproar about it? Such things have happened twenty times before, and will again.'
'Not with my poor Emma, I hope. Imagine her with such a man as that!'
'Well! there are plenty of such couples. I wonder what would become of the world if wives were not better than their husbands.'
Every rational person at Gothlands thought this letter conclusive; Emma herself was shaken; but a walk in the shrubbery with Mark settled it in her mind that his newly-formed wishes of amendment had then been weak—he had not then seen her, he had not learnt so much as at present. He had not been able to confess these deeds, because others, who had now spoken, were concerned in them; but now it was a relief to be able to tell all to his Emma! The end of it was, that Emma herself was almost ready to press forward the marriage, so as to give him the means of clearing himself from the debts, which, as he insinuated, were the true cause of Colonel Martindale's accusations. He forgave him, however, though if all was known of his dealings with Arthur Martindale—! And then there was a long confidential talk with Theresa Marstone, after which she told Lady Elizabeth that, though Mr. Gardner spared Emma's feelings with regard to her friend, there could be no doubt that Colonel Martindale had done much to lead him astray.
At last, as a dutiful concession, Emma resolved on a compromise, and put him on his probation for a year. This was particularly inconvenient to him, but he was very resigned and humble; 'perhaps he had hoped more from her affection, but he knew it was his penalty, and must submit. If there was but some religious house to which he could retire for the intermediate space; for he dreaded the effect of being sent back to the world.'
Theresa was wrought upon to counsel haste; but Emma had principle at the bottom of her effervescence of folly, and was too right-minded, as well as too timid, to act in direct opposition to her mother, however she might be led to talk. Therefore they parted, with many tears on Emma's part, and tender words and promises on Mark's. Lady Elizabeth had little hope that he would not keep them; but she took advantage of the reprieve to conduct Emma to make visits amongst her relations—sober people, among whom sense was more likely to flourish, and among whom Mr. Gardner could never dare to show himself.
He went, as he told Emma, to seek for some continental convent, where perhaps he might be received as a boarder, and glean hints for the Priory. Ordinary minds believed that his creditors being suspicious of the delay of his marriage with the heiress, had contributed to this resolution.
He spent a few days in London on his way, came to call on Colonel Martindale, and was much with him, as Violet afterwards found, though she did not know of it at the time.
She perceived the renewal of his influence in a project of which Arthur began to talk, of leaving the army and establishing himself at Boulogne. Though by rigid economy and self-denial she had continued to make the original sum apportioned to her cover all household expenses, and his promotion had brought an increase of income, Arthur declared that, with such a family, his means were inadequate to the requirements of his profession, and that unless his father could assist them further, they must reside abroad. Lord Martindale treated the threat with great displeasure, and to Violet it was like annihilation. When thankful for Mark Gardner's absence, she was to be made to pursue him, probably in order that he might continue to prey on Arthur in secret, and then, at the year's end, bring them as witnesses that he had abstained from open transgression; she was to see her husband become the idling Englishman abroad, in the society most likely to be his ruin; to have her children exposed to the disadvantages of a foreign education—what more was wanting to her distress? She ventured to expostulate on their account; but Arthur laughed, and told her they would learn French for nothing; and when she spoke of the evils of bringing up a boy in France, it was with the look which pained her so acutely, that she was answered, 'No fear but that he will be looked after: he is of consequence in the family.'
Never had the future looked so desolate; but sufficient unto the day was the evil thereof. She had the root of peace and strength, and had long been trained in patient trust and endurance. To pray, to strive, to dwell on words of comfort, to bear in mind the blessings of the cross, to turn resolutely from gloomy contemplations, and to receive thankfully each present solace,—these were the tasks she set herself, and they bore the fruit of consolation and hidden support. Her boy's affection and goodness, the beauty and high health of her little girls, and the kindlier moments when Arthur's better nature shone out, were balm and refreshment, because she accepted them as gifts from the Fatherly Hand that laid the trial upon her.
Her submissive distress so far worked on Arthur, that she heard no more of the Boulogne scheme for the present, and she drove it out of her mind, grateful for his silence, whether it was only from consideration for her, or whether he had really relinquished the design, now that Mr. Gardner was no longer near to maintain his ascendancy.
The summer was dreary at Brogden, as well as in Cadogan-place. Theodora soon was able to call herself well, and to resume her usual avocations, but she had not the same sense of energy and strength of body, and her days were combats with inertness and fatigue. She did not slacken her exertions, but they had no zest, and she suffered for them. Moreover, she was uneasy about Arthur and his wife; and to partake her father's confidence was to share his many anxieties, and to be perplexed by his cares as well as her own. With her mother there were other difficulties. Lady Martindale had been kept so far apart from her daughter, that now it seemed as if they could not amalgamate, and when Theodora no longer was ill, the old habit of reserve returned. Assiduously did Theodora wait on her, read to her, and go out with her in the carriage; but still without becoming familiar, or being able to cheer her spirits. In truth, after having been for years an obedient attendant on her aunt, Lady Martindale felt the blank of the want of occupation, and thus the sense of her loss was ever renewed. Science, literature, and accomplishments had been her pursuits, chiefly because her aunt led her to them, and they had been gradually dropped with Mrs. Nesbit's interest in them. In themselves they had no charm for her, and she turned from them now as painfully recalling what she had lost. Dispirited, and without employment, the natural consequence was that her health suffered, and she became a prey to the varied torments of neuralgia, while Theodora proved herself a better nurse than could have been expected for an illness in which she only half believed.