Many hopes were fixed on John's return; but this was deferred,—he was in the midst of church building, and establishing schemes to which absence would be fatal, and he could only promise to come home next year, when things should be put in train. To his sister he wrote a letter so full of warm affectionate gratitude for her exertions in his behalf, that she was positively soothed and refreshed, and reckoned the more on beginning with him the fraternal union so long delayed, but to which she looked as the solace of her future life.
As to Percival Fotheringham, there was no further explanation of his marriage. John wrote to Violet that he had not heard from him for many months, for it was difficult to keep up a correspondence between Barbuda and the continental towns whither he was journeying. His last letter had spoken of a tour in Italy in contemplation, and that in which he had communicated Lady Fotheringham's death, mentioned some of her last cares being for Jane and Georgina, and how she had tried to leave some provision which might rescue the former from the necessity of following her sister into the undesirable society she found abroad. This only served to confirm Theodora's conjecture.
From other sources no intelligence was gained. London was empty, and Violet saw no one likely to know anything of his movements; and when she heard that Mark Gardner had been in town, and eagerly inquired whether he had been asked, she found that Arthur had forgotten the whole matter. Lady Elizabeth finished the letter, rejoicing in his departure, by saying—'He confirms what I told you of the marriage of his cousin and Mr. Fotheringham, and calls it a lucky thing for her. I had no opportunity of hearing the particulars.' And, finally, Mrs. Bryanstone had heard of Miss Gardner's marriage with one of the Fotheringhams of Worthbourne, and only wanted Mrs. Martindale to strengthen her in the belief that it was the dear, eccentric Crusader.
'Mid sombre shades of evening dim Upon the rock so lone, so drear, Scorning weak frame and sinking limb, My heart grows bright and bold of cheer; Out of the depths of stormy night My hope looks up with cloudless eyes, And to the one true deathless light, Its joyful pinions swiftly rise: Thanks to the seraph shape that beamed Benign upon my darkened breast, So for her service worthy deemed, My grateful heart abounds in rest.
—FOUQUE'S Minstrel Love
'Wrangerton, August 20th.
'You must not be frightened, dearest Violet—Albert is safe; thanks to that most noble-hearted, admirable Lord St. Erme, and above all, thanks to Him who directed this dreadful stroke away from us. I hope you will receive this before you see the newspaper. Mamma has gone up with them, to help them to break it to poor Lady Lucy. May she be supported!
'The history, as far as I can toll you, is this:—The men at the collieries have been as troublesome and insubordinate as ever, seeming to think opposition to Lord St. Erme an assertion of their rights as free-born Englishmen; and at last, finding it impossible to do anything with them as long as they did not depend immediately upon himself, he took the pits into his own hands when Mr. Shoreham went away, a fortnight ago. It seems that Mr. Shoreham, knowing that he was going, had let everything fall into a most neglected state, and the overlookers brought reports to Albert that there were hardly any safety-lamps used in the great pit, and that the galleries were so insufficiently supported that there was great danger in continuing to work there. However, the reports were contradictory, and after trying in vain to settle what was to be done, Lord St. Erme rode this morning to the collieries, to make a personal inspection, and insist on the men using the Davy-lamp. After trying to dissuade him, Albert proposed to go down with him; but he would not consent—he only smiled, and said there was no need for it. It did not strike Albert till afterwards that he was conscious of the risk, and would not allow another to share it! He was waiting for him, not far from the shaft, when the earth seemed to give way under his feet; there was a thundering sound, a great cry, and he fell. When he recovered his footing, the mouth of the shaft was gone, the scaffolding prostrate, the people around in horror and consternation. The pit had fallen in, and there were at least twenty men there, besides Lord St. Erme. Oh! how you will share that shuddering thankfulness and sorrow, that we felt, when Albert galloped up to the door and threw himself into the arm-chair, so unnerved by the shock that he could not at first speak. Happily his wife was here, so she heard all at once. He is gone with mamma and papa to tell the poor sister. Alas! though we think most of her, there are many other sufferers.
'Three, o'clock.—Albert is come back. He says Lady Lucy met them in the hall, pale and trembling, as if she had already worked herself into an agony of fright. She begged them to tell her at once, and stood quite still, only now and then moaning to herself, "Oh, St. Erme! St. Erme!" Mamma took her by the hand, and tried to speak soothingly; but she did not seem to attend, and presently looked up, flushed and quivering, though she had been so still before, and declared that the whole might not have fallen; she had heard of people being dug out alive; they must begin at once, and she would go to the spot. There is no hope, Albert says; even if not crushed, they must have perished from the foul air, but the poor girl has caught fast hold of the idea, and insists on going to Coalworth at once to urge it on. They cannot prevent her, and mamma cannot bear that she should be alone, and means to go with her. The carriage was ordered when Albert came here! Poor thing, there was never fonder love between a brother and sister; she hardly had a thought that did not centre in him. It breaks my heart to think how often we have seen them walking arm-in-arm together, and said they might be taken for a pair of lovers.
'Five o'clock.—Annette begs me to conclude her letter. My father has returned home, and fetched her to Coalworth, to be with my mother, and the poor young lady (already, I fear, Countess of St. Erme), who, he tells us, continues buoyed up by the delusion that her brother may yet be found alive, and is calling on all around to use the utmost exertions for his recovery. I regret that I cannot go in Annette's stead; but I cannot leave home in mamma's absence, as poor Louisa is much affected by Albert's peril, and in so nervous a state that she will not hear of my quitting her for a moment. We have indeed received a lesson, that no rank, however exalted, can protect from the strokes of Providence, or the uncertainties of human life. But the postman calls. Adieu.
'Your affectionate sister,
(The last moral sentiment, be it observed, readied Miss Martindale, rendered illegible by scrawls of ink from Violet's hand.)
'Coalworth, August 21st.
'Dearest Violet,—Matilda told you how I was sent for to come here. They are working on,—relays relieving each other day and night; but no one but poor Lady Lucy thinks there is any hope. Mr. Alder, the engineer, says Lord St. Erme must have been in the farthest gallery, and they cannot reach it in less than a week, so that if the other perils should be escaped, there would be starvation. The real number lost is fourteen, besides Lord St. Erme. It was a strange scene when I arrived at about seven o'clock yesterday evening. The moor looking so quiet, and like itself, with the heath and furze glowing in the setting sun, as if they had no sympathy for us, till, when we came near the black heaps of coal, we saw the crowd standing round,—then getting into the midst, there was the great broken down piece of blackened soil and the black strong-armed men working away with that life-and-death earnestness. By the ruins of a shed that had been thrown down, there was a little group, Lady Lucy, looking so fair and delicate, so unlike everything around, standing by an old woman in a red cloak, whom she had placed in the chair that had been brought for herself, the mother of one of the other sufferers. Mamma and papa were with her; but nothing seems to comfort her so much as going from one to the other of the women and children in the same trouble with herself. She talks to them, and tries to get them to be hopeful, and nurses the babies, and especially makes much of the old woman. The younger ones look cheered when she tells them that history which she dwells on so much, and seem as if they must believe her, but the poor old dame has no hope, and tells her so. "'Tis the will of God, my lady, don't ye take on so now. It will be all one when we come to heaven, though I would have liked to have seen Willy again; but 'tis the cross the Lord sends, so don't ye take on," and then Lady Lucy sits down on the ground, and looks up in her face, as if her plain words did her more good than anything we can say, or even the clergyman, who is constantly going from one to the other. Whenever the men come to work, or go away, tired out, Lady Lucy thanks them from the bottom of her heart; and a look at her serves to inspirit and force them on to wonderful exertions. But alas! what it must end in! We are at the house that was Mr. Shoreham's, the nearest to the spot. It was hard work to get poor Lady Lucy to come in last night. She stood there till long after dark, when the stars were all out, and mamma could only get her away by telling her, that her brother would be vexed, and that, if she made herself ill, she would not be able to nurse him. She did not sleep all night, and this morning she was out again with daylight, and we were obliged to bring her out some breakfast, which she shared with the fellow-sufferers round her, and would have taken nothing herself if the old dame had not coaxed her, and petted her, calling her "My pretty lady," and going back to her lecture on its being a sin to fret at His will. Mamma and I take turns to be with her. When I came in, she was sitting by the old woman, reading to her the Psalms, and the good old creature saying at the end of each, "Yes, yes, He knows what is good for them. Glory be to Him."
'Aug. 22nd.—As before. They have tried if they can open a way from the old shaft, but cannot do it with safety. Lady Lucy still the same, but paler and more worn, I think, less hopeful; I hope, more resigned.
'Aug. 23rd.—Poor Lucy was really tired out, and slept for two whole hours in the heat of the noon, sitting on the ground by old Betty, fairly overpowered. It was a touching sight; the old woman watching her so sedulously, and all the rough people keeping such strict silence, and driving off all that could disturb her. The pitmen look at her with such compassionate reverence! The look and word she gives them are ten thousand times more to them, I am sure, than the high pay they get for every hour they work! Next Wednesday is the first day they can hope to come to anything. This waiting is dreadful. Would that I could call it suspense!
'Aug. 24th, Sunday.—She has been to church this morning. I did not think she could, but at the sound of the bell, she looked up, and the old woman too, they seemed to understand each other without a word, and went together. The service was almost more than one could bear, but she was composed, except at the references in the sermon to our state of intense anxiety, and the need of submission. At the special mention in the Litany of those in danger, I heard from beneath her hands clasped over her face, that low moan of "O, brother, brother!" Still I think when the worst comes, she will bear it better and be supported.
'Five o'clock.—THESE IS HOPE!—O Violet! We went to church again this afternoon. The way leads past the old shaft. As we came by it in returning, Lady Lucy stood still, and said she heard a sound. We could hear nothing, but one of the wives said, "Yes, some one was working, and calling down there." I flew to the main shaft, and called Mr. Alder. He was incredulous, but Lady Lucy insisted. A man went down, and the sound was certain. No words can be made out. They are working to meet them. Lucy burst into tears, and threw her arms round my neck as soon as she heard this man's report; but oh! thankful as we are, it is more cruel than ever not to know who is saved, and this letter must go to-night without waiting for more.
'25th.—He is alive, they say, but whether he can rally is most uncertain. All night they worked on, not till six o'clock this morning was any possibility of communication opened. Then questions were asked, "How many were there?" "Fifteen, all living, but one much crushed." Oh! the suspense, the heart-beating as those answers were sent up from the depths of the tomb—a living tomb indeed; and how Lady Lucy pressed the women's hard hands, and shed her tears of joy with them. But there was a damp to her gladness. Next message was that Lord St. Erme bad fainted—they could not tell whether he lived—he could not hold out any longer! Then it was that she gave way, and indeed it was too agonizing, but the old woman seemed better able to calm her than we could. Terrible moments indeed! and in the midst there was sent up a folded paper that had been handed out at the small aperture on the point of a tool, when the poor things had first been able to see the lights of their rescuers. It was to Lady Lucy; her brother had written it on the leaf of a pocket-book, before their single lamp went out, and had given it in charge to one of the men when he found his strength failing. She was too dizzy and trembling to make out the pencil, and gave it to me to read to her. I hope I am not doing wrong, for I must tell you how beautiful and resigned a farewell it was. He said, in case this note ever came to her, she must not grieve at the manner of his death—it was a comfort to him to be taken, while trying to repair the negligence of earlier years; they were a brave determined set of men who were with him, and she must provide for their widows and children. There was much fond thought for her, and things to console her, and one sentence you must have—"If ever you meet with the "hoch-beseeltes Madchen", let her know that her knight thanks and blesses her in his last hour for having roused him and sent him forth to the battlefield. I would rather be here now than what I was when she awoke me. Perhaps she will now be a friend and comforter to you."
'I think those were the words. I could not help writing them. Poor Lucy cried over the note, and we lowered down baskets of nourishment to be handed in, but we heard only of Lord St. Erme's continued swoon, and it was a weary while before the opening could be widened enough to help the sufferers out. They were exhausted, and could work no more on their side. But for him, it seems they would have done nothing; he was the only one who kept his presence of mind when the crash came. One lamp was not extinguished, and he made them at once consider, while the light lasted, whether they could help themselves. One of the hewers knew that they were not far from this old shaft, and happily Lord St. Erme had a little compass hung to his watch, which he used to carry in his wanderings abroad; this decided the direction, and he set them to work, and encouraged them to persevere most manfully. He did not work himself—indeed, the close air oppressed him much more than it did the pitmen, and he had little hope for his own life, however it might end, but he sat the whole time, supporting the head of the man who was hurt, and keeping up the resolution of the others, putting them in mind of the only hope in their dire distress, and guiding them to prayer and repentance, such as might fit them for life or death. "He was more than ten preachers, and did more good than forty discourses," said one man. But he had much less bodily strength than they, though more energy and fortitude, and he was scarcely sensible when the first hope of rescue came. It seemed as if he had just kept up to sustain them till then, and when they no longer depended on him for encouragement, he sank. The moment came at last. He was drawn up perfectly insensible, together with a great brawny-armed hewer, a vehement Chartist, and hitherto his great enemy, but who now held him in his arms like a baby, so tenderly and anxiously. As soon as he saw Lady Lucy, he called out, "Here he is, Miss, I hope ye'll be able to bring him to. If all lords were like he now!" and then his wife had hold of him, quite beside herself with joy; but he shook her off with a sort of kind rudeness, and, exhausted as he was, would not hear of being helped to his home, till he had heard the doctors (who were all in waiting) say that Lord St. Erme was alive. Lady Lucy was hanging over him in a sort of agony of ecstasy, and yet of grief; but still she looked up, and put her little white hand into the collier's big black one, and said, "Thank you," and then he fairly burst out crying, and so his wife led him away. I saw Lord St. Erme for one moment, and never was anything more death-like, such ghastly white, except where grimed with coal-dust. They are in his room now, trying to restore animation. He has shown some degree of consciousness, and pressed his sister's hand, but all power of swallowing seems to be gone, and the doctors are in great alarm. The others are doing well—the people come in swarms to the door to ask for him.
'26th.—Comfort at last. He has been getting better all night, and this morning the doctors say all danger is over. Mamma says she can hardly keep from tears as she watches the happy placid looks of the brother and sister, as he lies there so pale and shadowy, and she hangs over him, as if she could never gaze at him enough. Several of the men, who were with him, came to inquire for him early this morning; none of them suffered half so much as he did. I went down to speak to them, and I am glad I did; it is beautiful to see how he has won all their hearts, and to hear their appreciation of his conduct. They say he tended the man who was hurt as if he had been his mother, and never uttered one word of complaint. "He told us," said one man, "God could hear us out of the depth, as well as when we said our prayers in church; and whenever our hearts were failing us, there was his voice speaking somewhat good to cheer us up, or help us to mind that there was One who knew where we were, and would have a care for us and our wives and children." "Bless him," said another, "he has been the saving of our lives;" "Bless him;" and they touched their hats and said Amen. I wish his sister could have seen them!
'Five o'clock.—Mrs. Delaval is come, and there is no room nor need for us, so we are going home. It is best, for mamma was nursing him all night, and is tired out. He has improved much in the course of the day, and they hope that he may soon be moved home. The pitmen want to carry him back on his mattress on their shoulders. He has made himself king of their hearts! He has been able to inquire after them, and Lady Lucy, who forgets no one, has been down-stairs to see the old Betty. "Ah! my pretty lady," she said, "you are not sorry now that you tried to take the Lord's Cross patiently, and now, you see, your sorrow is turned into joy." And then Lady Lucy would not have it called patience, and said she had had no submission in her, and Betty answered her, "Ah! well, you are young yet, and He fits the burden to the shoulder." How an adventure like this brings out the truth of every character, as one never would have known it otherwise. Who would have dreamt of that pattern of saintly resignation in the Coalworth heath, or that Lady Lucy Delaval would have found a poor old woman her truest and best comforter? and this without the least forwardness on the old woman's part.
'Just going! Lady Lucy so warm-hearted and grateful—and Lord St. Erme himself wished mamma good-bye in such a kind cordial manner, thanking her for all she had done for his sister. I am sorry to go, so as not to be in the way of seeing anything more of them, but it is time, for mamma is quite overcome. So I must close up this last letter from Coalworth, a far happier one than I thought to end with.
'Your most affectionate,
'P. S.—Is he not a hero, equal to his "hoch-beseeltes Madchen"? I am ashamed of having written to you what was never meant for other eyes, but it will be safe with you. If you had seen how he used to waylay us, and ask for our tidings from you after the fire, you would see I cannot doubt who the "madchen" is. Is there no hope for him? The other affair was so long ago, and who could help longing to have such minstrel-love rewarded?'
That postscript did not go on to Brogden, though Annette's betrayal of confidence had been suffered to meet the eye of the high-souled maiden.
The accounts of Lord St. Erme continued to improve, though his recovery was but slow. To talk the adventure over was a never-failing interest to Lady Martindale, who, though Theodora suppressed Annette's quotation, was much of the opinion expressed in the postscript, and made some quiet lamentations that Theodora had rejected him.
'No, we were not fit for each other,' she answered.
'You would not say so now,' said Lady Martindale. 'He has done things as great as yourself, my dear.'
'I am fit for no one now,' said Theodora, bluntly.
'Ah, my dear!—But I don't know why I should wish you to marry; I could never do without you.'
'That's the most sensible thing you have said yet, mamma.'
But Theodora wished herself less necessary at home, when, in a few weeks more, she had to gather that matters were going on well from the large round-hand note, with nursery spelling and folding, in which Johnnie announced that he had a little brother.
An interval of peace to Violet ensued. Arthur did not nurse her as in old times; but he was gentle and kind, and was the more with her as the cough, which had never been entirely removed, was renewed by a chill in the first cold of September. All went well till the babe was a week old, when Arthur suddenly announced his intention of asking for a fortnight's leave, as he was obliged to go to Boulogne on business.
Here was a fresh thunderbolt. Violet guessed that Mr. Gardner was there, and was convinced that, whatever might be Arthur's present designs, he would come back having taken a house at Boulogne. He answered her imploring look by telling her not to worry herself; he hoped to get 'quit of the concern,' and, at any rate, could not help going. She suggested that his cough would bear no liberties; he said, change of air would take it off, and scouted her entreaty that he would consult Mr. Harding. Another morning, a kind careless farewell, he was gone!
Poor Violet drew the coverlet over her head; her heart failed her, and she craved that her throbbing sinking weakness and feverish anxiety might bring her to her final rest. When she glanced over the future, her husband deteriorating, and his love closed up from her; her children led astray by evil influences of a foreign soil; Johnnie, perhaps, only saved by separation—Johnnie, her precious comforter; herself far from every friend, every support, without security of church ordinances—all looked so utterly wretched that, as her pulses beat, and every sensation of illness was aggravated, she almost rejoiced in the danger she felt approaching.
Nothing but her infant's voice could have recalled her to a calmer mind, and brought back the sense that she was bound to earth by her children. She repented as of impatience and selfishness, called back her resolution, and sought for soothing. It came. She had taught herself the dominion over her mind in which she had once been so deficient. Vexing cares and restless imaginings were driven back by echoes of hymns and psalms and faithful promises, as she lay calm and resigned, in her weakness and solitude, and her babe slept tranquilly in her bosom, and Johnnie brought his books and histories of his sisters; and she could smile in thankfulness at their loveliness of to-day, only in prayer concerning herself for the morrow. She was content patiently to abide the Lord.
But one, I wis, was not at home, Another had paid his gold away, Another called him thriftless loone, And bade him sharply wend his way.
—Heir of Lynne
'He is done for. That wife of his may feel the consequence of meddling in other folk's concerns. Not that I care for that now, there's metal more attractive; but she has crossed me, and shall suffer for it.' These short sentences met the ear of a broad-shouldered man in a rough coat, as, in elbowing his way through the crowd on the quay at Boulogne, he was detained for a moment behind two persons, whose very backs had all the aspect of the dissipated Englishman abroad. Struggling past, he gained a side view of the face of the speaker. It was one which he knew; but the vindictive glare in the sarcastic eyes positively made him start, as he heard the laugh of triumph and derision, in reply to some remark from the other.
'Ay! and got enough to get off to Paris, where the old Finch has dropped off his perch at last. That was all I wanted of him, and it was time to wring him dry and have done with him. He will go off in consumption before the year is out—'
As he spoke, the stranger turned on him an honest English face, the lips compressed into an expression of the utmost contempt, while indignation flashed in the penetrating gray eyes, that looked on him steadily. His bold defiant gaze fell, quailing and scowling, he seemed to become small, shrink away, and disappeared.
'When scamp number two looks round for scamp number one, he is lost in the crowd,' muttered the traveller, half smiling; then, with a deep breath, 'The hard-hearted rascal! If one could only wring his neck! Heaven help the victim! though, no doubt, pity is wasted on him.'
He ceased his reflections, to enter the steamer just starting for Folkestone, and was soon standing on deck, keeping guard over his luggage. The sound of a frequent cough attracted his attention, and, looking round, he saw a tall figure wrapped in great-coats leaning on the leeward side of the funnel.
'Hollo! you here, Arthur! Where have you been?'
'What, Percy? How d'ye do?' replied a hoarse, languid voice.
'Is Mrs. Martindale here?'
'No.' He was cut short by such violent cough that he was obliged to rest his forehead on his arm; then shivering, and complaining of the cold, he said he should go below, and moved away, rejecting Percy's offered arm with some impatience.
The weather was beautiful, and Percy stood for some time watching the receding shore, and scanning, with his wonted keen gaze, the various countenances of the passengers. He took a book from his pocket, but did not read long; he looked out on the sea, and muttered to himself, 'What folly now? Why won't that name let one rest? Besides, he looked desperately ill; I must go and see if they have made him comfortable in that dog-hole below.'
Percy shook himself as if he was out of humour; and, with his hands in his pockets, and a sauntering step, entered the cabin. He found Arthur there alone, his head resting on his arms, and his frame shaken by the suppressed cough.
'You seem to have a terrible cold. This is a bad time to be crossing. How long have you been abroad?'
'Ten days.—How came you here?'
'I am going to Worthbourne. How are all your folks!'
'All well;' and coughing again, he filled up a tumbler with spirits and water, and drank it off, while Percy exclaimed:
'Are you running crazy, to be feeding such a cough in this way?'
'The only thing to warm one,' said he, shuddering from head to foot.
'Yes, warm you properly into a nice little fever and inflammation. Why, what a hand you have! And your pulse! Here, lie down at once,' as he formed a couch with the help of a wrapper and bag. Arthur passively accepted his care; but as the chill again crept through his veins, he stretched out his hand for the cordial.
'I won't have it done!' thundered Percy. 'I will not look on and see you killing yourself!'
'I wish I could,' murmured Arthur, letting his hand drop, as if unequal to contest the point.
The conviction suddenly flashed on Percy that he was the victim! 'You have got yourself into a scrape' he said.
'Scrape! I tell you I am ruined! undone!' exclaimed Arthur, rearing himself up, as he burst out into passionate imprecations on Mark Gardner, cut short by coughing.
'You! with your wife and little children entirely depending on you! You have allowed that scoundrel, whose baseness you knew, to dupe you to your own destruction!' said Percy, with slowness and severity.
Too ill and wretched to resent the reproach, Arthur sank his head with a heavy groan, that almost disarmed Percy; then looking up, with sparkling eyes, he exclaimed, 'No! I did not know his baseness; I thought him a careless scape-grace, but not much worse than he has made me. I would as soon have believed myself capable of the treachery, the unfeeling revenge—' Again he was unable to say more, and struggling for utterance, he stamped his foot against the floor, and groaned aloud with rage and pain.
Percy persuaded him to lie down again, and could not refrain from forcible expressions of indignation, as he recollected the sneering exultation of Gardner's tone of triumph over one so open-hearted and confiding.
It was a moment when sympathy unlocked the heart, and shame was lost in the sense of injury. Nothing more was needed to call from Arthur the history of his wrongs, as well as he was able to tell it, eking out with his papers the incoherent sentences which he was unable to finish, so that Percy succeeded in collecting, from his broken narration, an idea of the state of affairs.
The horses, kept jointly at his expense and that of Gardner, had been the occasion of serious debts; and on Gardner's leaving England, there had been a pressure on Colonel Martindale that rendered him anxious to free himself, even at the cost of his commission. Gardner, on the other hand, had, it appeared, been desirous to have him at Boulogne, perhaps, at first, merely as a means of subsistence during the year of probation, and on the failure of the first attempt at bringing him thither, had written to invite him, holding out as an inducement, that he was himself desirous of being disembarrassed, in order that Miss Brandon might find him clear of this entanglement, and representing that he had still property enough to clear off his portion of the liability.
With this view Arthur had gone out to Boulogne to meet him, but had found him dilatory in entering on business, and was drawn into taking part in the amusements of the place; living in a state of fevered excitement, which aggravated his indisposition and confused his perceptions, so that he fell more completely than ever into the power of his false friend, and was argued into relinquishing his project of selling the horses, and into taking up larger sums for keeping them on. In fact, the sensation that a severe cold was impending, and disgust at the notion of being laid up in such company rendered him doubly facile; and, in restless impatience to get away and avoid discussion, he acceded to everything, and signed whatever Gardner pleased. Not till he was on the point of embarking, after having gambled away most of his ready money, did he discover that the property of which he had heard so much was only a shadow, which had served to delude many another creditor; and that they had made themselves responsible for a monstrous amount, for which he was left alone to answer, while the first demand would be the signal for a multitude of other claims. As they parted, Gardner had finally thrown off the mask, and let him know that this was the recompense of his wife's stories to the Brandons. She might say what she pleased now, it mattered not; Mark was on his way to the rich widow of Mr. Finch, and had wanted nothing of Arthur but to obtain the means of going to her, and to be revenged on him.
So Arthur half-expressed, and his friend understood. Save for this bodily condition, Percy could hardly have borne with him. His reckless self-indulgence and blind folly deserved to be left to reap their own fruit; yet, when he beheld their victim, miserable, prostrated by illness and despair, and cast aside with scornful cruelty, he could not, without being as cold-hearted as Gardner himself, refrain from kind words and suggestions of consolation. 'Might not his father assist him?'
'He cannot if he would. Everything is entailed, and you know how my aunt served us. There is no ready money to be had, not even the five thousand pounds that is the whole dependence for the poor things at home in case of my death, which may come soon enough for aught I care. I wish it was! I wish we were all going to the bottom together, and I was to see none of their faces again. It would be better for Violet than this.'
Percy could say little; but, though blunt of speech, he was tender of heart. He did all in his power for Arthur's comfort, and when he helped him on shore at Folkestone, recommended him to go to bed at once, and offered to fetch Mrs. Martindale.
'She cannot come,' sighed Arthur; 'she has only been confined three weeks.'
More shame for you, had Percy almost said; but he no longer opposed Arthur's homeward instinct, and, finding a train ready to start, left their luggage to its fate, and resolved not to lose sight of him till he was safely deposited at his own house. Such care was in truth needed; the journey was a dreadful one, the suffering increased every hour, and when at length, in the dusk of the evening, they arrived in Cadogan-place, he could hardly mount the stairs, even with Percy's assistance.
It was the first time that Violet had left her chamber, and, as the drawing-room door opened, she was seen sitting, pale and delicate, in her low chair by the fire, her babe on her lap, and the other three at her feet, Johnnie presiding over his sisters, as they looked at a book of prints.
She started up in alarm as Arthur entered, leaning on Mr. Fotheringham, and at once seized by a paroxysm of severe cough. Percy tried to assume a reassuring tone. 'Here, you see, I have brought him home with one of his bad colds. He will speak for himself presently.'
In a second she had placed the infant on the sofa, signed to Johnnie to watch him, and drawn the arm-chair to the fire. Arthur sank into it, throwing his arm round her for support, and resting his weary head against her, as if he had found his refuge. Percy relieved her from the two little girls, unclasping their frightened grasp on her dress so gently and firmly, that, stranger though he was, Anna did not cry on being taken in his arms, nor Helen resist his leading her out of the room, and desiring her to take her sister up-stairs and to call their nurse.
Returning, he found that necessity had brought strength and presence of mind to their mother. She did not even tremble, though Arthur's only words were, 'We are undone. If I die, forgive me.' Indeed, she hardly took in the sense of what he said; she only caressed, and tried to relieve him, assisted by Percy, who did not leave them till he had seen Arthur safely in charge of Mr. Harding.
He then walked away to his old lodgings in Piccadilly, where he was recognized with ecstasy by the quondam ragged-school boy, and was gladly welcomed by his landlady, who could not rejoice enough at the sight of his good-humoured face.
He divided his time between friendly gossip on her family affairs as she bustled in and out, in civility to the cat, and in railing at himself for thinking twice of such a selfish, ne'er-do-well as Arthur Martindale. The image of that pale young mother and her little ones pursued him, and with it the thought of the complicated distresses awaiting her; the knowledge of the debts that would almost beggar her, coming in the midst of her husband's dangerous illness.
Percy muttered to himself lines of 'Who comes here—a Grenadier,' made a face, stretched himself, and called on himself to look on reasonableness and justice. Arthur deserved no favour, because he had encumbered himself with a helpless family, and then cruelly disregarded them.
'What does a man deserve who leaves his wife with a child of a week old, to run after a swindler in foreign parts—eh, puss?' said he aloud, viciously tweaking the old cat's whiskers; then, as she shook her ears and drew back, too dignified to be offended, 'Ay, ay, while wheat and tares grow together, the innocent must suffer for the guilty. The better for both. One is refined, the other softened. I am the innocent sufferer now,' added he; 'condole with me, pussy! That essay would have been worth eighty pounds if it was worth a sixpence; and there's a loss for a striving young man! I cannot go on to Worthbourne without recovering it; and who knows how Jane will interpret my delay? While I live I'll never carry another manuscript anywhere but in my pocket, and then we should all go to the bottom together, according to poor Arthur's friendly wish. Ha! that's not it sticking out of my great-coat pocket? No such good luck-only those absurd papers of poor Arthur's. I remember I loaded my coat on him when we were going to land. What a business it is! Let us overhaul them a bit.'
He became absorbed in the contemplation, only now and then giving vent to some vituperative epithet, till he suddenly dashed his hand on the table with a force that startled the cat from her doze.
'Never mind, puss; you know of old
'I care for nobody, and nobody cares for me.'
So now, good night, and there's an end of the matter.'
The first thing he did, next morning, was to walk to Cadogan-place, to return the papers. He had long to wait before the door was opened; and when James at length came, it was almost crying that he said that Colonel Martindale was very ill; he had ruptured a blood-vessel that morning, and was in the most imminent danger.
Mr. Fotheringham could see no one—could not be of any service. He walked across the street, looked up at the windows, mused, then exclaimed, 'That being the case, I had better go at once to Folkestone, and rescue my bag from the jaws of the Custom-house.'
She left the gleam-lit fire-place, She came to the bedside, Her look was like a sad embrace, The gaze of one who can divine A grief, and sympathize. Sweet flower, thy children's eyes Are not more innocent than thine.
—M. ARNOLD—Tristram and Yseulte.
At last there was a respite. The choking, stifling flow of blood, that, with brief intervals, had for the last two hours threatened momentary death, had been at length checked; the eyes were closed that had roamed in helpless affright and agony from Violet to the doctors; and the sufferer was lying, in what his wife would fain have deemed a slumber, but the gasping respiration and looks of distress made it but too evident that it was the stillness of exhaustion, enhanced by dread of renewing the bleeding by word or motion.
There could be no concealment of the exceeding danger. His lungs had never been strong; and the slight cough, which, contrary to his usual habits, he had neglected all the summer, had been the token of mischief, which his recent expedition had aggravated to a fearful extent. Even the violent bleeding had not relieved the inflammation on the chest, and Violet had collected from the physician's looks and words that it could be hardly expected that he should survive the day.
Yet, through that dreadful morning, she had not failed in resolution or composure: never once had her husband seen in her look, or heard in her tone, aught but what might cheer and sustain him—never had her fortitude or steadiness given way. She had not time to think of consolation and support; but her habit of prayer and trust came to her aid, and brought strength and support around her "in these great waterfloods" of trouble. She was not forsaken in her hour of need. Hitherto there had been no space for reflection; now his quiescent state, though for the present so great a relief, brought the opportunity of realizing his situation; but therewith arose thankfulness for the space thus granted, and the power of praying that it might be blessed to him whether for life or death.
In watchfulness and supplication, she sat beside him, with her babe, much afraid that it should disturb him, and be unwelcome. However, when some little sound made him aware of its presence, he opened his eyes, moved his hand, as if to put back the covering that hid its face from him, and presently signed to have it placed on the bed by his side. It was a fine large dark boy, already so like him as to make the contrast the more striking and painful, between the unconscious serenity of the babe and the restless misery of the face of the father, laid low in the strength of manhood, and with a look of wretched uneasiness, as if the load on the mind was a worse torment than the weight on the labouring breath. He, who usually hardly deigned a glance at his infants, now lay gazing with inexpressible softness and sadness at the little sleeping face; and Violet, while gratified by that look of affection, could not help having it the more borne in on her mind, that death must be very near. Were the well-springs of love, so long closed up, only opening when he was about to leave his children for ever? If she could only have heard him speak!
Presently, as if there was some sting of reproach in the impassive features, he turned his head away abruptly, with a deep groan, and hid his face. She took away the child, and there was another silence, which she ventured to break now and then, by a few sentences of faith and prayer, but without being able to perceive whether he attended. Suddenly he started, as if thrilled in every vein, and glanced around with terrified anxiety, of which she could not at first perceive the cause, till she found it was the postman's knock. He held out his hand for the letters, and cast a hurried look at their directions. None were for him, but there was one in his sister's hand-writing. Violet did not feel herself able to read it, and was laying it aside, when she saw his looks following it. Her present world was so entirely in that room that she had forgotten all beyond; and it only now occurred to her to say, 'Your father? Do you wish for him? I will write.'
'Telegraph.' Even this whisper brought back the cough that was anguish and terror.
It was already so late in the day, that though thus summoned, there was no chance of Lord Martindale's arriving till the following evening; and Violet's heart sank at reckoning up the space that must elapse, more especially when she saw the perturbed eye, the startings at each sound, the determination to know the business of every one who came to speak to her—evident indications that there was some anxiety on his mind which she could not comprehend.
Thus passed the day—between visits from desponding doctors and vain measures for reducing the inflammation. At night Mr. Harding would have prevailed on her to go to rest, promising to keep watch in her stead; but she only shook her head, and said she could not. She had not seen, and had scarcely thought of, the elder children all day; but at about eleven o'clock at night she was startled by a sound of lamentable crying,—Johnnie's voice in the nursery. The poor little boy's nerves had been so much shaken by the fire at Martindale, that he had become subject to night alarms, which sometimes showed their effect for the whole subsequent day; and his mother stole away on hearing his cry, leaving Arthur in Mr. Harding's charge, and hoping not to be missed.
Sarah was standing over Johnnie, half-coaxing, half-scolding while he sat up in his little crib, shivering and sobbing, with chattering teeth, and terrified exclamations about papa all over blood, lying dead under the burning windows.
'There now, you have brought your poor mamma up!' said Sarah, indignantly.
'Mamma, mamma!' and the cold trembling little creature clasped itself upon her neck and bosom, still repeating the dreadful words. She carried him to the fire, warmed him on her lap, caressed and soothed him, as his understanding awoke, telling him that papa was safe in his own room,—he was ill, very ill, and Johnnie must pray for him; but oh! he was alive, safe in his own bed. But as Johnnie nestled to her, repeating, 'Say it again, mamma, I was so frightened! I can't get it out of my head. Oh! is papa safe?' there would come the thought that, with morning, the child might have to hear that he was fatherless.
This dread, and the desire to efface the impression of the terrible dream, induced her, when he had obediently struggled for composure, to tell him that, on condition of perfect stillness, he might come down with her, and have a little glimpse of papa. Wrapping him up, she took him in by the open dressing-room door, to which Arthur's back was turned, trusting to escape observation. But nothing eluded those fever-lighted eyes, and they instantly fell upon the little trembling figure, the quivering face and earnest gaze.
'I hope we have not disturbed you,' apologized Violet; 'we hoped you would not hear us. Poor Johnnie woke up crying so much at your being ill, that I ventured to bring him to have one look at you, for fear he should not go to sleep again.'
She need not have feared. Even while she spoke Arthur held out his hands, with a countenance that caused Johnnie, with a stifled exclamation of 'Papa! papa!' to spring on the bed, and there he lay, folded closely to his father's breast.
It was but for a moment. Violet had to lift the child hastily away, to be carried off by Sarah, that he might not witness the terrible suffering caused by the exertion and emotion; and yet, when this was passed, she could not repent of what she had done, for one great grief had thus been spared to herself and her boy.
She knew that to discover his son's ardent affection must be a poignant reproach for his neglect and jealousy, and she grieved at once for him and with him; but she could not understand half the feelings of bitter anguish that she perceived in his countenance and gestures. She did not know of his expectation that each ring of the bell might bring the creditors' claims to heap disgrace upon him, nor how painful were the thoughts of her and of the children, totally unprovided for, without claim during his father's lifetime, even on his own scanty portion as a younger son. He could only cast them on the mercy of his father and brother; and what right had he to expect anything from them, after his abuse of their kindness and forbearance? He thought of his neglect of his patient devoted wife, whom he was leaving, with her little ones, to struggle with poverty and dependence; he thought of his children growing up to know him only as the improvident selfish father, who had doomed them to difficulties, and without one tender word or kind look to grace his memory. No wonder he turned, unable to brook the sight of his unconscious babe; and that, when with morning little steps and voices sounded above, such a look of misery came over his face, that Violet hastened to order the children down to the dining-room, out of hearing.
Ere long, however, from the other room, appropriated to the baby, a face peeped in, and Johnnie sprang to her side with earnest whispers: 'Mamma, may I not say my prayers with you! I will not wake papa, but I can't bear it without!' and the tears were in his eyes.
Violet's glance convinced her that this would be anything but disturbing, and she consented. Johnnie thought his father asleep, but she saw him watching the boy, as he stood with clasped hands, and eyes in fixed steadfast gaze, repeating the Creed, so gravely and distinctly, that not one of the whispering accents was lost. Looking upwards, as if pursuing some thought far away, Johnnie said, 'Amen'; and then knelt, breathing forth his innocent petitions, with their mention of father, mother, sisters, and little brother; and therewith a large teardrop gathered in the eyes fixed on him—but she would not seem to notice, and bent her head over the boy, who, when his daily form was finished, knelt on, and pressed her arm. 'Mamma,' he whispered, very low indeed, 'may I say something for papa?' and on her assent, 'O God! make dear, dear papa better, if it be Thy heavenly will, and let it be Thy heavenly will.'
Arthur's face was hidden; she only saw his fingers holding up the covering with a quivering grasp. Johnnie rose up quite simply, and letting him continue in the belief that his father slept, she allowed him to go noiselessly away, after she had held him fast in her arms, able to feel, even now, the comfort and blessing of her child.
Some little time had passed before Arthur looked up; then gazing round, as if seeking something, he said, 'Where is he?'
'Johnnie? He is gone, he did not know you were awake. Shall I send for him?'
They came; but he was made to feel that he had disregarded them too long. They had never been familiarized with him; seldom saw him, and were kept under restraint in his presence; and there was no intimacy to counteract the fright inspired by his present appearance. Ghastly pale, with a hectic spot on each cheek, with eyes unnaturally bright and dilated, and a quantity of black hair and whiskers, he was indeed a formidable object to the little girls; and Violet was more grieved than surprised when Annie screamed with affright, and had to be carried away instantly; and Helen backed, with her hands behind her, resisting all entreaties and remonstrance, and unheeding his outstretched hand. The child was of so determined and wilful a nature, that Violet dreaded an outbreak if she were too much pressed, and was forced to let her go—though much grieved, both for the distress that it gave Arthur, and for the thought of how his daughter might remember it by and by.
They supposed that Johnnie had gone with his sisters, but at the end of half an hour became aware that he had ever since been standing, almost hidden by the curtain, satisfied with merely being in the room. The fair face, so delicately tinted, the dark shady eyes, lovingly and pensively fixed on his father, and the expression, half mournful, half awe-struck, were a touching sight in so young a child, and Arthur seemed so to feel it. He signed to him to come near; and with a flush, between joy and fear, the little boy was instantly at his side. One hot hand enfolded the small soft cool one, the other pressed fondly on the light silken waves of hair. After thus holding him for some moments, he tried to speak, in whispering breathless gasps of a word at a time.
'You'll comfort her!' and he looked towards his mother, 'You'll take care of the others—will you?'
'If I can. God takes care of us,' said Johnnie, wistfully, as if striving to understand, as he felt the pressure redoubled on hand and head, as if to burn in what was uttered with such difficulty and danger.
'Tell your grandfather I trust you all to him. He must forgive. Say so to him. You'll be a better son to him than I. When you know all, don't remember it against me.'
He could say no more, it had brought on a fit of coughing and breathlessness, through which he scarcely struggled. Silence was more than ever enforced; but throughout the day the oppression was on the increase, especially towards the evening, when he became excited by the expectation of his father's arrival. He sat, pillowed high up, each respiration an effort that spread a burning crimson over his face, while eye and ear were nervously alert.
'Arthur is very ill, and begs to see you,' was the telegraphic message that filled the cottage at Brogden with consternation. Lady Martindale was too unwell to leave home, but Theodora was thankful to her father for deciding that her presence was necessary for Violet's sake; indeed, as they travelled in doubt and suspense, and she was continually reminded of that hurried journey when her unchastened temper had been the torment of herself and of her brother, she felt it an undeserved privilege to be allowed to go to him at all. Instead of schemes of being important, there was a crashing sense of an impending blow; she hardly had the power to think or speculate in what form, or how heavily it might fall. She had only room for anxiety to get forward.
They arrived; she hurried up the stairs, only catching James's words, declaring his master no better.
She saw in the twilight a slight bending form, coming down, holding by the balusters. Violet was in her arms, clasping her with a trembling, almost convulsive tightness, without speaking.
'O, Violet, what is it? Is he so very ill?'
Lord Martindale hastened up at the same moment, and Violet recovering, in a few words, spoken very low, but clearly, told of his condition, adding, 'He has been watching for you all this time, he heard you come, and wants you directly, but don't let him speak.'
She hung on Theodora's arm, and guided them up, as if hardly able to stand. She opened the outer room door, and there (while the nurse had taken her place) sat Johnnie on the rug, with the baby lying across his lap, and his arms clasped tenderly round it. It was restless, and he looked up to his mother, who bent down and took it in her arms, while Lord Martindale passed on. Theodora stood appalled and overawed. This was beyond even her fears.
'Thank you for coming,' said Violet, who had sunk into a chair.
'O, Violet, when?—how!—'
But a look of horror came over Violet; she started up, almost threw the infant into Theodora's arms, and vanished into the other room. 'Oh! what is it! What is the matter?' exclaimed Theodora.
'The cough, the blood,' said Johnnie, in a low voice; and turning away with a suppressed sob he threw himself down, and hid his face on a chair. She was in an agony to pass that closed door, but the baby was fretting and kept her prisoner.
After some minutes had thus passed, her father appeared, and would have gone on without seeing her, but she detained him by an imploring cry and gasp, and entreated to hear what had happened.
'The blood-vessel again—I must send for Harding.'
'Shall I tell James to go?' inquired a little quiet voice, as Johnnie lifted up his flushed face.
'Do so, my dear;' and as the little boy left the room, his grandfather added, with the calmness of hopelessness, 'Poor child! it is of no use, it must soon be over now;' and he was returning, when Theodora again held him fast—'Papa! papa! I must see him, let me come!'
'Not yet,' said her father; 'the sight of a fresh person might hasten it. If there is any chance, we must do nothing hazardous. I will call you when they give up hope.'
Theodora was forced to relinquish her hold, for the baby screamed outright, and required all her efforts to hush its cries that they might not add fresh distress to the sick room. It seemed to make her own misery of suspense beyond measure unendurable, to be obliged to control herself so as to quiet the little creature by gentle movements, and to have its ever-renewed wailings filling her ears, when her whole soul hung on the sounds she could catch from the inner room. No one came to relieve her; only Johnnie returned, listened for a moment at the door, and dropped into his former position, and presently Mr. Harding passed rapidly through the room.
Long, long she waited ere the door once more opened. Her father came forth. Was it the summons? But he stopped her move towards the room. 'Not yet; the bleeding is checked.'
Then as Mr. Harding followed, they went out of the room in consultation, and almost the next moment Violet herself glided in, touched Johnnie's head, and said, 'Papa is better, darling;' then took the baby from Theodora, saying, 'Thank you, you shall see him soon; she was again gone, Johnnie creeping after, whither Theodora would have given worlds to follow.
After another interval, he returned with a message that mamma begged Aunt Theodora to be so kind as to go and make tea for grandpapa; she thought dear papa was breathing a little more easily, but he must be quite quiet now.
Obeying the sentence of banishment, she found her father sending off a hasty express to give more positive information at home. 'We must leave them to themselves a little while,' he said. 'There must be no excitement till he has had time to rally. I thought he had better not see me at first.'
'Is he worse than John has been?'
'Far worse. I never saw John in this immediate danger.'
'Did this attack begin directly after you came?'
'It was the effort of speaking. He WOULD try to say something about racing debts—Gardner, papers in his coat-pocket, and there broke down, coughed, and the bleeding came on. There is something on his mind, poor—'
Theodora made a sign to remind him of Johnnie's presence; but the child came forward. 'Grandpapa, he told me to tell you something,' and, with eyes bent on the ground, the little fellow repeated the words like a lesson by rote.
Lord Martindale was much overcome; he took his grandson on his knee, and pressed him to his breast without being able to speak, then, as if to recover composure by proceeding to business, he sent him to ask James for the coat last worn by his papa, and bring the papers in the pocket. Then with more agitation he continued, 'Yes, yes, that was what poor Arthur's eyes were saying all the time. I could only promise to settle everything and take care of her; and there was she, poor thing, with a face like a martyr, supporting his head, never giving way, speaking now and then so calmly and soothingly, when I could not have said a word. I do believe she is almost an angel!' said Lord Martindale, with a burst of strong emotion. 'Take care of her! She will not want that long! at this rate. Harding tells me he is very anxious about her: she is not by any means recovered, yet he was forced to let her sit up all last night, and she has been on her feet this whole day! What is to become of her and these poor children? It is enough to break one's heart!'
Here Johnnie came back. 'Grandpapa, we cannot find any papers. James has looked in all the clothes papa wore when he came home, and he did not bring home his portmanteau.'
'Come home! Where had he been?'
'I don't know. He was away a long time.'
Lord Martindale started, and repeated the words in amaze. Theodora better judged of a child's 'long time,' and asked whether it meant a day or a week. 'Was it since the baby was born that he went?'
'Baby was a week old. He was gone one—two Sundays, and he came back all on a sudden the day before yesterday, coughing so much that he could not speak, and the gentleman told mamma all about it.'
'What gentleman, Johnnie? Was it Mr. Gardner?'
'O no; this was a good-natured gentleman.'
'Mr. Herries, or Captain Fitzhugh?'
'No, it was a long name, and some one I never saw before; but I think it was the man that belongs to the owl.'
'What can the child mean?' asked Lord Martindale.
Johnnie mounted a chair, and embraced his little stuffed owl.
'The man that gave me this.'
'Percy's Athenian owl!' cried Theodora.
'Was Fotheringham the name?' said Lord Martindale.
'Yes, it was the name like Aunt Helen's,' said Johnnie.
'Has he been here since?'
'He called to inquire yesterday morning. I am not sure,' said the exact little boy, 'but I think he said he met papa in the steamer.'
It seemed mystery on mystery, and James could only confirm his young master's statement. After the little boy had answered all the questions in his power he slid down from his grandfather's knee, saying that it was bed-time, and wished them good night in a grave, sorrowful, yet childlike manner, that went to their hearts. He returned, in a short time, with a message that mamma thought papa a little better and ready to see them. Theodora went up first; Johnnie led her to the door, and then went away, while Violet said, almost inaudibly,
'Here is Theodora come to see you.'
Prepared as Theodora was, she was startled by the bloodlessness of the face, and the hand that lay without movement on the coverlet, while the gaze of the great black eyes met her with an almost spectral effect; and the stillness was only broken by the painful heaving of the chest, which seemed to shake even the bed-curtains. But for Violet's looks and gesture, Theodora would not have dared to go up to him, take his hand, and, on finding it feebly return her pressure, bend over and kiss his forehead.
'His breath is certainly relieved, and there is less fever,' repeated Violet; but to Theodora this seemed to make it only more shocking. If this was better, what must it not have been? Her tongue positively refused to speak, and she only stood looking from her brother to his wife, who reclined, sunk back in her chair beside him, looking utterly spent and worn out, her cheeks perfectly white, her eyes half-closed, her whole frame as if all strength and energy were gone. That terrible hour had completely exhausted her powers; and when Theodora had recollected herself, and summoned Lord Martindale, who undertook the night watch, Violet had not voice to speak; she only hoarsely whispered a few directions, and gave a sickly submissive smile as her thanks.
For one moment she revived, as she smoothed Arthur's bed, moistened his lips, and pressed her face to his; then she allowed Theodora almost to lift her away, and support her into the next room, where Sarah was waiting. Even thought and anxiety seemed to be gone; she sat where they placed her, and when they began to undress her, put her hand mechanically to her dress, missed the fastening, and let it drop with a vacant smile that almost overcame Theodora. They laid her in bed, and she dropped asleep, like an infant, the instant her head was on the pillow. Theodora thought it cruel to arouse her to take nourishment; but Sarah was peremptory, and vigorously administered the spoonfuls, which she swallowed in the same unconscious manner. She was only roused a little by a sound from the baby: 'Give him to me, he will be quieter so;' and Sarah held him to her, she took him in her arms, and was instantly sunk in the same dead slumber.
'My pretty lamb!' mourned the cold stern servant, as she arranged her coverings; 'this is the sorest brash we have had together yet, and I doubt whether ye'll win through with it. May He temper the blast that sends it.'
Gazing at her for a few seconds, she raised her hand to dry some large tears; and as if only now conscious of Miss Martindale's presence, curtsied, saying, in her usual manner, 'I beg your pardon, ma'am. There is the room next the nursery made ready for you.'
'I could not go, Sarah, thank you. Go to your children; I will take care of her. Pray go.'
'I will, thank you, ma'am. We will have need of all our strength before we have done.'
'How has she been before this?'
'About as well as usual at first, ma'am, till he threw her back with going off into they foreign parts, where he has been and as good as catched his death, and would have died if Mr. Fotheringham had not brought him home.'
'What! has he been abroad, Sarah?'
'Yes, ma'am. I was holding the baby when he says to Missus he was going to Bully, or Boulong—'
'Yes, Bullying, or some such place; and bullied him they have; stripped him even of his very portmanteau, with his eight new shirts in it, that they have! Well, Missus, she says his cold would be worse, and he said it only wanted a change, and she need never fret, for he meant to get quit of the whole concern. But for that, I would have up and told him he didn't ought to go, and that he must stay at home and mind her, but then I thought, if he did get rid of them nasty horses, and that there Mr. Gardner, with his great nasturtions on his face, it would be a blessed day. But I ought to have known how it would be: he is too innocent for them; and they have never been content till they have been and got his very clothes, and given him his death, and broke the heart of the bestest and most loving-heartedest lady as ever lived. That they have!'
Having eased her mind by this tirade, Sarah mended the fire, put every comfort in Miss Martindale's reach, advised her to lie down by her mistress, and walked off.
Theodora felt giddy and confounded with the shocks of that day. It was not till she had stretched herself beside Violet that she could collect her perceptions of the state of affairs; and oh! what wretchedness! Her darling brother, round whom the old passionate ardour of affection now clung again, lying at death's door; his wife sinking under her exertions;—these were the least of the sorrows, though each cough seemed to rend her heart, and that sleeping mother was like a part of her life. The misery was in that mystery—nay, in the certainty, that up to the last moment of health Arthur had been engaged in his reckless, selfish courses! If he were repentant, there was neither space nor power to express it, far less for reparation. He was snatched at once from thoughtless pleasure and disregard of religion—nay, even of the common charities of home! And to fasten the guilt to herself were those few half-uttered words—races, debts, Gardner!
'If you once loosen the tie of home, he will go back to courses and companions that have done him harm enough already.' 'Beware of Mark Gardner!' 'Whatever comes of these races, it is your doing, not mine.' Those warnings flashed before her eyes like letters of fire, and she turned her face to the pillow as it were to hide from them, as well as to stifle the groans that could not have been wrung from her by bodily pain. 'Oh, my sin has found me out! I thought I had been punished, but these are the very dregs! His blood is on my head! My brother! my brother! whom I loved above all! He was learning to love his home and children; she was weaning him from those pursuits! What might he not have been? I led him away! When he shrank from the temptation, I dragged him to it! I gave him back to the tempter! I, who thought I loved him—I did the devil's work! Oh! this is the heavier weight! Why should it crush others with the only guilty one? Oh! have mercy, have mercy on him! Let me bear all! Take me instead! Let me not have slain his soul!'
It was anguish beyond the power of words. She could not lie still; she knelt on the floor, and there the flood of despair fell on her more overwhelmingly; and crouching, almost cast on the ground, she poured out incoherent entreaties for mercy, for space for his repentance, for his forgiveness. That agony of distracted prayer must have lasted a long time. Some sound in her brother's room alarmed her, and in starting she shook the table. Her father came to ask if anything was the matter; told her that Arthur was quiet, and begged her to lie down. It was a relief to have something to obey, and she moved back. The light gleamed on something bright. It was the setting of Helen's cross! 'Ah! I was not worthy to save it; that was for Johnnie's innocent hand! I may not call this my cross, but my rod!' Then came one thought: 'I came not for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.' Therewith hot tears rose up. 'With Him there is infinite mercy and redemption.' Some power of hope revived, that Mercy might give time to repent, accept the heartfelt grief that might exist, though not manifested to man! The hope, the motive, and comfort in praying, had gleamed across her again; and not with utter despair could she beseech that the sins she had almost caused might be so repented of as to receive the pardon sufficient for all iniquity.
Thus have I seen a temper wild In yokes of strong affection bound Unto a spirit meek and mild, Till chains of good were on him found. He, struggling in his deep distress, As in some dream of loneliness, Hath found it was an angel guest.
—Thoughts in Past Years
Five days had passed, and no material change had taken place. There was no serious recurrence of bleeding, but the inflammation did not abate, and the suffering was grievous, though Arthur was so much enfeebled that he could not struggle under it. His extreme debility made his body passive, but it was painfully evident that his mind was as anxious and ill at ease as ever. There was the same distrustful watch to see every letter, and know all that passed; the constant strain of every faculty, all in absolute silence, so that his nurses, especially Theodora, felt as if it would be a positive personal relief to them if those eyes would be closed for one minute.
What would they have given to know what passed in that sleepless mind? But anything that could lead to speaking or agitation was forbidden; even, to the great grief of Theodora, the admission of the clergyman of the parish. Lord Martindale agreed with the doctors that it was too great a risk, and Violet allowed them to decide, whispering to Theodora that she thought he heeded Johnnie's prayers more than anything read with a direct view to himself. The cause of his anxiety remained in doubt. Lord Martindale had consulted Violet, but she knew nothing of any papers. She was aware that his accounts were mixed up with Mr. Gardner's, and believed he had gone to Boulogne to settle them; and she conjectured that he had found himself more deeply involved than he had expected. She remembered his having said something of being undone, and his words to Johnnie seemed to bear the same interpretation.
Mr. Fotheringham's apparition was also a mystery; so strange was it that, after bringing Arthur home in such a state, he should offer no further assistance. James was desired to ask him to come in, if he should call to inquire; but he did not appear, and the father and sister began to have vague apprehensions, which they would not for the world have avowed to each other, that there must be worse than folly, for what save disgrace would have kept Percy from aiding John's brother in his distress? Each morning rose on them with dread of what the day might bring forth, not merely from the disease within, but from the world without; each postman's knock was listened to with alarm, caught from poor Arthur.
His wife was of course spared much of this. That worst fear could not occur to her; she had no room for any thought but for him as he was in the sight of Heaven, and each hour that his life was prolonged was to her a boon and a blessing. She trusted that there was true sorrow for the past—not merely dread of the consequences, as she traced the shades upon his face, while he listened to the hymns that she encouraged Johnnie to repeat. In that clear, sweet enunciation, and simple, reverent manner, they evidently had a great effect. He listened for the first time with his heart, and the caresses, at which Johnnie glowed with pleasure as a high favour, were, she knew, given with a species of wondering veneration. It was Johnnie's presence that most soothed him; his distressing, careworn expression passed away at the first sight of the innocent, pensive face, and returned not while the child was before him, bending over a book, or watching the baby, or delighted at having some small service to perform. Johnnie, on his side, was never so well satisfied as in the room, and nothing but Violet's fears for his health prevented the chief part of his time from being spent there.
Her own strength was just sufficient for the day. She could sit by Arthur's side, comprehend his wishes by his face, and do more to relieve and sustain him than all the rest; and, though she looked wretchedly weak and worn, her power of doing all that was needed, and looking upon him with comforting refreshing smiles, did not desert her. The night watch she was forced to leave to be divided between his father and sister, with the assistance alternately of Sarah and the regular nurse, and she was too much exhausted when she went to bed, for Theodora to venture on disturbing her by an unnecessary word.
Theodora's longing was to be continually with her brother, but this could only be for a few hours at night; and then the sight of his suffering, and the difficulty of understanding his restlessness of mind, made her so wretched, that it took all the force of her strong resolution to conceal her unhappiness; and she marvelled the more at the calmness with which the feeble frame of Violet endured the same scene. The day was still more trying to her, for her task was the care of the children, and little Helen was so entirely a copy of her own untamed self, as to be a burdensome charge for a desponding heart and sinking spirits.
On the fifth morning the doctors perceived a shade of improvement; but to his attendants Arthur appeared worse, from being less passive and returning more to the struggle and manifestation of oppression and suffering. He made attempts at questions, insisting on being assured that no letter nor call had been kept from him; he even sent for the cards that had been left, and examined them, and he wanted to renew the conversation with his father; but Lord Martindale silenced him at once, and left the room. He looked so much disappointed that Violet was grieved, and thought, in spite of the doctors, that it might have been better to have run the risk of letting him speak, for the sake of setting his mind at rest.
Lord Martindale, however, saw so much peril in permitting a word to be uttered, that he deemed it safer to absent himself, and went out to try to trace out Mr. Fotheringham, and ask whether he could throw any light on Arthur's trouble.
The children were out of doors, and Theodora was profiting by the interval of quiet to write to her mother, when she heard James announce, 'Mr. Fotheringham.'
She looked up, then down. Her first thought was of her brother; the next brought the whole flood of remembrances, and she could not meet his eye.
He advanced, but there was no friendly greeting. As to a stranger, he said, 'I hope Colonel Martindale is better?'
Could it be himself? She gave a hasty glance. It was; he chose to disown her; to meet her without even a hand held out! Rallying her fortitude, she made answer, 'Thank you; we hope—'
She got no further—her hand was grasped. 'Theodora! I did not know you.'
She had forgotten her altered looks! Relieved, she smiled, and said, 'Yes, I am a strange figure. They think Arthur a little better to-day, thank you.'
'How has it been?'
He listened to the details with eagerness, that dismissed from her mind the sickening apprehension of his knowing of any hidden evil; then, saying he was pressed for time, begged her to ask Mrs. Martindale to let him speak to her on a matter of such importance that he must venture on disturbing her.
Theodora beckoned to Violet at the door, hoping to elude Arthur's notice; but any attempt at secrecy made him more distrustful, and the name had hardly been whispered before she was startled by hearing—'Bring him here.'
Much frightened, the wife and sister expostulated, thus making him more determined; he almost rose on his elbow to enforce his wishes, and at last said, 'You do me more harm by preventing it.'
Violet felt the same; and in fear and trembling begged Theodora to call Percy. She knew herself to be responsible for the danger, but saw the impossibility of preventing the interview without still greater risk. Indeed, while Theodora delayed Percy with cautions, impatience, and the fear of being disappointed, were colouring each sunken cheek with a spot of burning red, the hands were shaking uncontrollably, and the breath was shorter than ever, so that she was on the point of going to hasten the visitor, when he knocked at the door.
She signed to him at once to turn to Arthur, who held out his hand, and met his greeting with an anxious, imploring gaze, as if to ask whether, after all, he brought him hope.
'Well,' said Percy, cheerfully, 'I think it is settled.'
Arthur relaxed that painful tension of feature, and lay back on his pillows, with a relieved though inquiring look.
'Begging your pardon for being meddlesome,' continued Percy, 'I thought I saw a way of being even with that scoundrel. Your papers had got into my pocket, and, as I had nothing else to do, I looked them over after parting with you, and saw a way out of the difficulty. I was coming in the morning to return them and propound my plan, but finding that you could not be seen, I ventured to take it on myself at once, for fear he should get out of reach.'
He paused, but Arthur's eyes asked on.
'I had reason to think him gone to Paris. I followed him thither, and found he was making up to Mrs. Finch. I let him know that I was aware of this villainy, and of a good deal more of the same kind, and threatened that, unless he came in to my terms, I would expose the whole to his cousin, and let her know that he is at this moment engaged to Miss Brandon. She is ready to swallow a good deal, but that would have been too much, and he knew it. He yielded, and gave me his authority to break up the affair.'
As Arthur was still attentive and anxious, Percy went on to explain that he had next gone to the man who kept the horses, and by offers of ready money and careful inspection of his bills, had reduced his charge to a less immoderate amount. The money had been advanced for a portion of Arthur's share of the debts, and a purchaser was ready for the horses, whose price would clear off the rest; so that nothing more was wanted but Arthur's authority for the completion of the sale, which would free him from all present danger of pressure upon that score.
'Supposing you do not disavow me, said Percy, 'I must ask pardon for going such lengths without permission.'
A clutch of the hand was the answer, and Percy then showed him the accounts only waiting for his signature.
The money advanced was nearer five thousand pounds than four; and Arthur, pointing to the amount, inquired, by look and gesture, 'Where does it come from?'
'Never mind; it was honestly come by. It is a lot that has accumulated out of publishing money, and was always bothering me with railway shares. It will do as well in your keeping.'
'It is throwing it into a gulf.'
'In your father's, then. I will take care of myself, and speak when I want it. Don't trouble your father about it till he sees his way.'
'I must give you my bond.'
'As you please, but there is no hurry.'
Arthur, however, was bent on giving his signature at once, and, as he looked towards his wife and child, said, 'For their sakes, thank you.'
'I did it for their sakes,' said Percy, gruffly, perhaps to check Arthur's agitation; but as if repenting of what sounded harsh, he took the infant in his arms, saying to Violet, 'You have a fine fellow here! Eyes and forehead—his father all over!'
Arthur held out his hand eagerly. 'Let him be your godson—make him like any one but me.'
Percy took two turns in the room before he could answer. 'My godson, by all means, and thank you; but you will have the making of him yourself. You are much better than I expected.'
Arthur shook his head; but Violet, with a look, sufficient reward for anything, said, 'It is you that are making him better.'
He replied by inquiries about the christening. The baby was a day less than four weeks old, and Violet was anxious to have him baptized; so that it was arranged that it should take place immediately on Percy's return from Worthbourne, whither he was to proceed that same afternoon, having hitherto been delayed by Arthur's affairs. This settled, he took leave. Arthur fervently pressed his hand, and, as Violet adjusted the pillows, sank his head among them as if courting rest, raising his eyes once more to his 'friend in need,' and saying, 'I shall sleep now.'
Violet only hoped that Mr. Fotheringham understood what inexpressible gratitude was conveyed in those words, only to be appreciated after watching those six wakeful, straining days and nights.
Meantime, Theodora waited in fear, too great at first to leave space for other thoughts; but as time past, other memories returned. On coming to summon Percy she had found him standing before the little stuffed owl, and she could not but wonder what thoughts it might have excited, until suddenly the recollection of Jane dissipated her visions with so violent a revulsion that she was shocked at herself, and perceived that there was a victory to be achieved.
'It shall be at once,' said she. 'I WILL mention her. To be silent would show consciousness. Once done, it is over. It is easier with my altered looks. I am another woman now.'
She heard him coming down, and almost hoped to be spared the meeting, but, after a moment's pause, he entered.
'Well,' he said, 'I hope I have done him no harm. I think better of him now than when I came home. He looks to me as if the worst was over.'
They were the first words of hope, and spoken in that hearty, cheery voice, they almost overset her weakened spirits, and the struggle with tears would not let her answer.
'You have had a most trying time,' said he, in the kind way that stirred up every old association; but that other thought made her guarded, and she coldly hurried out the words—
'Yes; this is the first time my father has been out. He went in search of you, to ask how you met poor Arthur, who has been able to give no account of himself.'
'We met on board the steamer. He had been obliged to leave Boulogne without finishing his business there, and I went back to settle it for him.'
'And the papers he had lost?'
'I had them: it is all right.'
'And his mind relieved?'
'I hope it is.'
'Oh! then, we may dare to hope!' cried she, breathing freely.
'I trust so; but I must go. Perhaps I may meet Lord Martindale.'
With a great effort, and a 'now-or-never' feeling, she abruptly said, 'I hope Jane is well.'
He did not seem to understand; and confused, as if she had committed an over familiarity of title, she added, 'Mrs. Fotheringham.'
She was startled and hurt at his unconstrained manner.
'Very well, I believe. I shall see her this evening at Worthbourne.'
'Has she been staying there long?' said Theodora, going on valiantly after the first plunge.
'Ever since the summer. They went home very soon after the marriage.'
A new light broke in on Theodora. She was tingling in every limb, but she kept her own counsel, and he proceeded. 'I saw them at Paris, and thought it did very well. She is very kind to him, keeps him in capital order, and has cured him of some of his ungainly tricks.'
'How did it happen? I have heard no particulars.'
'After his mother's death poor Pelham was less easily controlled: he grew restless and discontented, and both he and my uncle fell under the influence of an underbred idle youth in the neighbourhood, who contrived at last to get Sir Antony's consent to his taking Pelham abroad with him as his pupil. At Florence they met with these ladies, who made much of their cousin, and cajoled the tutor, till this marriage was effected.'
'She must be nearly double his age.'
'She will manage him the better for it. There was great excuse for her. The life she was obliged to lead was almost an apology for any way of escape. If only it had been done openly, and with my uncle's consent, no one could have had any right to object, and I honestly believe it is a very good thing for all parties.'