"Theo is very wearisome at times," she thought, as she walked rapidly through the woodlands.
But after all there had been no need for haste. She found Dinah alone; the walking party had not returned.
"Oh, how tired you look, Betty dear!"—this had been Dinah's constant remark of late. "You have been shut up with those noisy children and Theo all the morning, instead of sitting on the hillside enjoying the breeze from the moor. I am afraid"—here Dinah hesitated—"that Mr. Herrick was a little hurt about it. Don't you think one ought to do something to entertain one's guests?"
This was quite a severe reproof from her gentle sister; but Elizabeth only laughed a little mirthless laugh.
"He is your guest, not mine, Dinah—you ought to have gone to the valley yourself"—which was carrying the attack into the enemy's country. "No one wanted my society—a disagreeable, cross old maid—eh, Dinah?" Elizabeth's poor little joke nearly ended disastrously, for her lip quivered and she was very near a sob; but in another minute she recovered herself, and Dinah wisely said no more.
But the moment Elizabeth saw Malcolm's face at luncheon she knew her sister was right: he was unusually silent, rather constrained in manner, and hardly addressed her.
Then an evil spirit of contradiction entered into Elizabeth, and she became suddenly extremely talkative. To listen to her, Rotherwood might have been a rustic paradise, full of "village Hampdens and mute, inglorious Miltons," and that in its idyllic streets peace and simplicity reigned. Even the heavy, loutish Tommies and Jacks, who had exasperated her by their dense stupidity that morning, were only subjects for a humorous anecdote or two, with little effective and sprightly touches which made Cedric throw back his head with a boyish laugh. But Malcolm never raised his eyes from his plate. To him Elizabeth's graphic descriptions were far from amusing. He was thankful when the meal was over and they were ready to set out for Rotherwood.
Dinah had some calls to pay, so Elizabeth had the house to herself for an hour or two; but she would not be idle for a moment. The sun was hot on the terrace and flower-beds, but the vases were to be replenished. Dinah had returned and brought her a cup of tea before she had finished. "I should not be surprised if they all had tea at the vicarage," she observed, and Elizabeth assented.
But a little later, as she stood on the terrace with a few sprays of lilac in her hand, which she meant to carry off to her own room, she heard Cedric's laugh distinctly from the drive. Her cheeks burned suddenly and a curious revulsion came over her. She had not expected them back so soon: she was not ready to meet them. She glanced at the drawing-room windows behind her. It would not do to go in that way; they would come face to face in the hall. She would go down to the Pool; no one would look for her there. He—Mr. Herrick—had never once been there since that day. She knew how he avoided the place. Yes, she would be safe there, and could get cool and collect her thoughts, and to-night she would behave better and sing some of the old songs. Elizabeth was half over the rustic bridge as she made this resolution; then she walked quickly through the little gap which led to the shady pool, with its moss-grown boulders; but the next minute she recoiled in absolute terror. Some one was standing there, gazing down into the still water, with bent head and folded arms. It was Malcolm!
She would have crept away; but at the sound of her footsteps he turned round, and her retreat was cut off. "You quite startled me, Mr. Herrick," she said rather nervously; "I thought you never came here." It was the last thing she ought to have said, but she was confused by the sudden surprise. A faint smile crossed Malcolm's pale face.
"You are right," he said in a curious undertone, "I have never seen it since that day, three and a half years ago. But it has haunted me: more than once I have dreamt of it—such foolish dreams! You were Ophelia, and the water-weeds were strangling you and dragging you down, and I was trying to help you."
"Well," with a forced laugh, "did you succeed in saving me?"
"I think not; I have a fancy that you told me that you preferred strangling to my help. Oh, it was only a dream," as Elizabeth looked rather horrified at this; "my dreams of the Pool were never happy ones."
Elizabeth made no reply to this—perhaps words were a little difficult at the moment. But as Malcolm said no more, she observed presently—"I suppose you thought you could exorcise the nightmares by seeing the place again?" Then he turned round and looked her full in the face, and the lines round his mouth were fixed and stern.
"No," he said with unnatural calmness, "any such exorcism would be useless in my case; I have only come to take a last look at it."
Elizabeth's strength seemed to forsake her, and she sank down on the boulder. "What—what do you mean?" she asked faintly.
"What do I mean?" with a bitter laugh, but his eyes flashed ominously. "I mean that I am a coward. Cowards run away, do they not? Elizabeth, I am beaten—I confess it—I am going to give it up. I shall come here no more."
"No more—not come to the Wood House?" Elizabeth could scarcely gasp out the words.
"No," he replied quietly, "not even to see your sister. I mean to tell her so before I leave; she will understand me. Why should I come here to be treated as you have treated me to-day? Each time I come you show me more plainly that my love and devotion are nothing to you. Well, dear as you are to me—God only knows how dear—I can lead my life without you. Yes, I will free myself from my bonds—I will be no woman's slave."
If she could only speak! The tears were running down her face now; he must have seen them if he had looked; but as she put up her hands to hide them, a little choking sob escaped her and reached his ear.
He bent over her and spoke in a gentler tone. "Why are you weeping, Elizabeth? Are those tears for yourself or me?"
"For myself," she whispered; "because you are leaving me, and I want you—I want you so."
Strong man as he was, Malcolm trembled from head to foot with the sudden shock and revulsion. What could she mean? The next minute he was kneeling on the ground beside her, and had drawn away her hands, so that she was as defenceless as a child:
"I must see your face, Elizabeth," very firmly. "You are a truthful woman, you never deceived any one; let me read the truth in your eyes. You want me you say—does that mean you are beginning to care for me?"
"I think so;" but Elizabeth's eyes refused to meet his.
"Does it mean that you love me well enough to be my wife?" he asked again, and his voice thrilled her through and through. Then a lovely colour came to Elizabeth's face.
"I think I do, Malcolm," she whispered timidly. "I believe I have been caring a long time, but I would not let myself believe it. Oh," dropping her hot cheek against his shoulder, "it nearly broke my heart when you said you would never come again."
"I meant it, dearest; it seemed to me that my last hope was gone. Oh, my beloved—my own at last!" and then Malcolm's long, passionate kiss set the seal to their betrothal, and for a little while there was the silence of a great peace.
An hour had passed—no one had come in search of them, and the evening shadows were beginning to steal over the Pool—but still they sat hand in hand, talking earnestly and lovingly after the manner of lovers, until the gong warned them that it was time to return to the house. But even then they lingered.
"Is the spirit of the Pool properly exorcised now, Malcolm?" asked Elizabeth, with her old playfulness. Then he clasped her close.
"I have her safe in my own keeping. Dearest," in a low, vibrating tone full of tenderness, "if I ever grow supine or forgetful in my great happiness, and the memory of these long years of misery and unrest fade away, you must bring me here and I shall remember."
"You shall remember nothing but that I love you," she whispered. "Malcolm, you will not leave me to-morrow? I cannot part with you so soon." And he promised that he would certainly remain over Sunday.
Elizabeth had not entirely laid aside her mourning, but the black silk dress she selected that evening fitted her exquisitely, and the dull, heavy folds suited her tall, queenly figure. She looked at herself for a moment, then with a hesitating hand she fastened a spray of white lilac in her dress. The next moment there was a familiar tap at her door, and Dinah, flushed and agitated, came into the room.
Elizabeth watched her smilingly; then she opened her arms without a word, and for a few moments the sisters held each other very closely.
"Oh, Betty, my darling—my darling, if you knew how happy this has made me!"
"How did you know, Die—have you seen him?"
"Yes, just now; he was crossing the hall, and I saw his face. We were alone, there was no one near, and he caught hold of my hands—oh, such a grip. 'Dinah,' he said—'you will let me call you Dinah now? for I am going to be your brother.' But we had no time for another word, for Cedric and Anna came out of the drawing-room."
"We shall not tell them this evening," returned Elizabeth. "Malcolm has promised to keep it quiet. I told him that only you—my other self—must know to-night. You will be careful, will you not, Die?"
"Yes, dear, but you must let me hear more. How did it happen, Betty? I thought you and Malcolm Herrick never meant to speak to each other again. It has been such a tiresome, uncomfortable day. When I brought you that cup of tea on the terrace I did so long to say a word to you; but I saw by your face that I should only make things worse."
"I am glad you refrained. Do you know, Die, I thought I heard them in the drive—I had no idea that Malcolm had returned an hour before—and I got into such a panic that I went down to the Pool to recover myself, and—and he was there."
"At the Pool?"
"Yes, and he heard me, and I was obliged to stay; and then he told me that the place haunted him, and gave him bad dreams—oh, such ghastly dreams; and then all at once he said he was taking his last look at it—that he never meant to come here again."
"Poor fellow, did he really say that?"
"It was poor Betty, I think, then. Oh, Die, if you knew how limp and helpless I felt when he said that; I trembled so that I was obliged to sit down, and—and I could not help crying. I know I acted like a fool, but the next moment I could feel him bending over me, and his voice was quite changed and gentle when he asked me why I was crying."
"Of course you told him?"
"Yes, I could not keep it back; and then somehow it all came right, and we were both so happy. Oh, Die, how wonderful it seems that two such men should love me—my own dear David, and now Malcolm! I am not young or beautiful, or even clever."
"I think I understand it," returned Dinah, affectionately. And then Elizabeth put the last touches to her toilet, and a moment later they went downstairs, and found Malcolm still pacing the hall. He put out his hand silently to Elizabeth as they followed Dinah into the dining-room. That warm, quiet grasp was full of comforting assurance: as long as life lasted Elizabeth would have her lover and her friend; she had found her rightful mate, and the old restless days were over.
"MY DEAREST REST"
She loves thee even as far-forth than As any woman may a man; And is thine own, and so she says; And cares for thee ten thousand ways. —SURREY.
Something in Elizabeth's aspect seemed to attract Cedric's attention; perhaps it was the veiled brightness of her expression, or the white flowers at her breast, but more than once he eyed her in a puzzled fashion.
"What have you done to yourself, Betty?" he burst out at last; "you look scrumptious—ten years younger, and as though you had turned up trumps;" and though Elizabeth pretended to frown at these personal remarks, it was impossible not to laugh. Cedric had no idea how nearly he had gauged the truth: he little knew the good news that awaited him the next day. The knowledge that his dearest and most honoured friend was to be his brother-in-law would fill his cup of bliss to the brim.
Anna was somewhat weary with her unusual exertions that day, and after dinner Dinah established her in a cosy corner of the drawing-room, promising that Cedric should come and talk to her there.
"I will stay with you till he comes, and then I have a letter to write," she observed, for Dinah's tact was never at fault.
Elizabeth kissed her hand to them smilingly; then she wrapped herself up in a soft fleecy shawl and went out into the moonlight, and presently Malcolm joined her.
"I had some difficulty in shaking off Cedric," he remarked, as he took her hand and placed it on his arm; "he was in a talkative mood, but I told him his ladye-love would be waiting for him. He little knew my ladye-love was waiting for me too."
"No; how pleased he will be when we tell him." How sweetly that "we" sounded in Malcolm's ears! "Malcolm, there is something I want to ask you. Will you go with me to Rotherwood to-morrow? I must see Mr. Carlyon. He will be so happy about this"—with a light emphasising pressure on his arm—"and he is like my own father. And then I want you to come with me to David's grave."
"Did you fear I should refuse?" for Elizabeth's voice had been somewhat hesitating. "Do you think I should refuse any wish that it is in my power to gratify?"
"No," she said gently; "I know how good you will be to me—that if it were possible you would strew my daily path with thornless roses. But it is not possible, Malcolm."
"Then we will take our share of the briars and thorns together."
"Indeed we will. Malcolm, there is something I want to tell you before we stand by that grave to-morrow—something I should like you to know;" and then, in a voice broken by emotion, Elizabeth repeated the substance of her conversation with Mr. Carlyon.
"It has made me so much happier," she faltered, when she had finished. Then Malcolm drew her closer to him.
"I am glad you told me this," he said in a moved tone. "Dear Elizabeth, I have a confession to make. In those old unhappy days I used to wonder how you could care so much for him. He was good and true and earnest, and he loved you dearly; but all the same I could not understand."
"Dinah and Mrs. Godfrey could not understand either," she replied gently; "but you none of you knew my David: it made me a better woman only to be near him. His father has just the same simple, guileless nature—my two Nathanaels I used to call them."
"Dear, I understand better now," returned Malcolm kindly; "but I ask myself, could I have done the same in his place? I fear—I greatly fear, my love is not so selfless. If I had to die and leave you—" but Elizabeth would not listen to this.
"If you had been in his place you would have been equally generous; I know your good heart far too well to doubt that, Malcolm." Elizabeth was a tall woman, and as she bent involuntarily towards him, her cheek rested for a moment against his; that simple womanly caress seemed to set the seal to her sacred confidence. But when she would have moved away he held her fast.
"Elizabeth—Elizabeth," it was all he could say; but it was enough—no words were needed. Silently they said their Te Deum together, and the fair white moonlight lay on their bowed heads like a benison.
Two or three days later Malcolm found his way to 27 Queen's Gate, and entered his mother's study unannounced. Mrs. Herrick was writing as usual. Her keen gray eyes lighted up with pleasure when she saw him.
"My dear boy, at this hour—what a delightful surprise! I was just writing to Anna. Cedric will not hear of bringing her back until Thursday."
Malcolm smiled at his mother's tone. Strong-willed woman as she was, he knew that Cedric would rule her utterly; the lad's wheedling ways and blarneying tongue had already won her heart. Cedric never could be made to understand why people were afraid of Mrs. Herrick.
"Have you come to spend the afternoon with me, Malcolm?"
"Yes, if you will have me. I have some news for you, mother." Malcolm was little nervous, and spoke with some abruptness. Mrs. Herrick laid down her pen and looked at him intently.
"You need not tell me," she returned quietly. "I know your news—I can read it in your face—Elizabeth Templeton has promised to marry you."
"Mother, are you a witch?" in an astonished tone. "It is not possible that any one has betrayed me; Anna and Cedric promised not to say a word."
"No one has betrayed your confidence, Malcolm; and a mother does not need witchcraft to enable her to read her children's hearts."
"My dear boy," she continued—her strong features working a little with emotion,—"do you really imagine that I have been blind all these years—that, although you chose to withhold your confidence from me, I was not aware of your trouble. You are a reserved, self-contained man like your father, Malcolm—he always kept things to himself too—but all the same you could not hide from your mother that your poor heart was almost broken because the woman you wanted refused to marry you."
Malcolm took his mother's hand and kissed it. "You have been very good to me," he murmured; "but I could not speak, the pain was too great. Thank God, Elizabeth is mine now."
"I say, thank God, too"—and the keen eyes filled with tears. "Will you bring her to me, Malcolm?"
"Will I not, mother! But you must send her a message."
"Tell her, that from this hour she shall be the dearest of daughters to me, and that, for your sake, I shall love her dearly. And tell her—no, I will keep that for my own lips when we meet—that my son, God bless him! is worthy of any woman's love." And then, as Malcolm bent over her, she folded him in her motherly embrace. At that moment Malcolm and his mother fully understood each other.
Malcolm was anxious to be married as soon as possible; and as his mother and Dinah were on his side, and there was really no reason for delay, Elizabeth soon yielded to his persuasions, and a day was fixed early in August. Cedric and Anna were to wait until the elder couple returned from Scotland, and then Malcolm would give his adopted sister away; and after a fair amount of grumbling, Cedric acquiesced in this arrangement.
In the middle of June, Dinah and Elizabeth paid a long visit to 27 Queen's Gate, and Elizabeth did her shopping and saw the house in South Kensington that Malcolm had described to her in such glowing terms. A friend of his had recently bought it and furnished it in admirable taste; and now his wife's ill-health obliged him to part with it, and Malcolm was in treaty for it. The sisters were charmed with the house when they saw it, and Elizabeth strongly advised Malcolm to take most of the furniture. "It suits the house so exactly, and it will save you so much trouble," she observed sensibly; "I know Dinah agrees with me." And Dinah smiled and nodded.
"Die has made such a charming suggestion," continued Elizabeth, as she stepped out through the French window at one end of the long drawing-room on to a balcony, pleasantly shaded by an awning and prettily fitted up with flower-boxes and Indian matting and delightful lounging-chairs. "She says we must call this our town house, but that the Wood House must be our country house. She wants us to be there ail the summer and autumn;" and here Elizabeth looked at Malcolm rather wistfully.
"And you think that arrangement would suit you?" he asked with a smile; but he knew her answer before hand.
"Oh, I should love to be with Die;" she replied earnestly. "Dear, do you mean that you will consent? Think what it would mean to me. I shall not be separated from Mr. Carlyon and my poor people; and I do so love the country; and we should have our winter and spring in town."
"I think it will work excellently," returned Malcolm in a tone of such conviction that Elizabeth's doubts vanished. "I can do my work as well at Staplegrove as here, and I love the country too. As long as we are together and you are happy, I shall be satisfied."
"Dearest, how good you are," she whispered, with one of her rare, shy caresses. "Die has planned everything so beautifully. You know the large end room we call our morning-room, that is to be your study. You are to have all your own books and things. Die is going to fit it up; she says it is to be her wedding present to you. The smaller room near it is to be the morning-room."
"But you will not leave me alone in my study!" observed Malcolm in an alarmed voice. "Your writing-table must be there too, Elizabeth. Do you think I could bear you out of my sight?"
Elizabeth laughed and blushed, and called him a foolish, jealous boy; but in her heart she loved to think that she was the delight of his eyes, and that every day she grew dearer to him.
It was the evening before the wedding, and a quiet little house-party had assembled at the Wood House—Mrs. Herrick and Anna, Colonel and Mrs. Godfrey; and Malcolm, who had taken up his quarters at the "King's Arms," had joined them at dinner. The wedding was to be at an early hour the next morning, and no other guests were to be invited. Colonel Godfrey would give the bride away, and the vicar and Mr. Carlyon would perform the ceremony between them. Anna would be the solitary bridesmaid.
The sunset clouds were fading behind the little fir wood when Elizabeth and Malcolm came out on the terrace. Elizabeth had been a little grave and thoughtful during dinner, and Malcolm, who could read her perfectly, knew that she was somewhat oppressed by all the talk. The still peacefulness of the evening, only broken by the sleepy twittering of the birds, seemed to calm and refresh her.
"Malcolm," she said presently, "did you hear what Mrs. Godfrey was telling me at dinner—that Mr. Rossiter is coming to the Manor House?"
"Yes, I heard her," was the reply. "The Colonel was talking to me this afternoon; he says it is a foregone conclusion that Leah Jacobi will not refuse him a third time. His kindness and devotion after her brother's death have already won her gratitude. Hugh Rossiter is one of the best fellows I know," he observed, "and Leah will be a happy woman the day she marries him. And marry him she will, you may take my word for it."
"Poor Leah, I am so glad he cares for her. Of course you know Mrs. Richardson is dying, Malcolm, and that she is likely to be left alone in the world?"
"Yes, and then Hugh Rossiter will have his innings." And Malcolm was right, for before long the news of Leah's marriage reached them.
"I am so glad Mrs. Godfrey told me that," went on Elizabeth. "I want every one to be as happy as we are to-night. But for saying good-bye to Die and Mr. Carlyon I should not have a care. I can think of David without sadness, and life looks so beautiful. Dear," with the vivid, bright smile he loved so well, "I am so glad you are an author and a famous man—I shall be so proud of you; and though I cannot share your work as some women could, I can help you in other ways. I must be your right hand, Malcolm."
"Shall I tell you what you will be to me," he returned, in a voice of deep, vibrating tenderness that thrilled her through and through. "I once read an old Scandinavian ballad where a warrior calls his love 'My dearest Rest.' 'Three grateful words,' the annotator goes on to say, 'and the most perfect crown of praise that ever woman won.' Shall I call you that, Elizabeth?—'my dearest Rest.'"
"It is far too beautiful for me," she whispered; "I do not deserve it." But even as Elizabeth said this, her woman's heart registered its first wifely vow.
Yes, she would be that to him—his haven and comfort when he was weary with the storm and stress of life—God helping her, now and for ever "his dearest Rest."