'Excuse me, Burnett,' he said hastily; 'that old fellow looks as though he might topple over any minute;' and before Michael could understand what he meant, he had dived across the platform.
The whistle of the advancing train sounded at that moment, and almost simultaneously there was a shriek of terror from some woman standing at the farther end.
'Poor wretch! he has done for himself,' Michael heard someone say. 'He went clean over.'
Michael was slightly short-sighted, and a crowd of people intercepted his view, and he could not at once make his way through them. He could not see Cyril, but the surging, excited throng all veering towards the end of the platform told him that some serious accident had occurred.
Blake must have been an eyewitness of the whole thing, he thought, as he tried to elbow his way through horrified men and hysterical women. If he could only find him! And then a very stout man in a navvy's garb blocked up his passage.
'Is the poor old man killed?' Michael asked; but he feared what the answer would be. Was the gray-headed sinner summoned in this terrible manner to the bar of his offended Judge?
'Lord bless you, sir!' returned the man, 'he is as right as possible; the train did not touch him. It is the other poor fellow that is done for, I expect. Me and my mate have just got him out.'
A sudden horrible, almost sickening sensation of fear came to Michael.
'Oh, my God! not that, not that!' burst from his lips as he literally fought his way down the platform. 'Let me pass, sir! I believe I know him!' he cried hoarsely, and the man in pity to his white face drew back.
There was a motionless figure lying on the bench at the other end, surrounded by porters and strangers. Michael darted towards it, but when he caught sight of the face he uttered a groan. Alas, alas! he knew it too well.
'Give me place,' he said, almost fiercely; 'that dead man is my friend.'
'He is not dead, Burnett,' observed a gentleman, who was supporting Cyril's head; 'but he is badly hurt, poor fellow! We must get him away at once.'
'Thank Heaven it is you, Abercrombie!' returned Michael excitedly; 'he is safer with you than with any man alive.'
But Dr. Abercrombie shook his head gravely.
'My carriage is outside, and is at your service,' he said; 'and for the matter of that, so am I. Let me give these men directions how to move him.'
Then Michael stood aside while the doctor issued his commands.
Cyril had not regained full consciousness, but as Dr. Abercrombie placed himself beside him and applied remedies from time to time, a low moan now and then escaped from his lips.
Michael, who had to sit with the coachman, thought that long drive would never end, and yet Dr. Abercrombie drove good horses. It seemed hours before they reached Mortimer Street, and the strain on his nerves made him look so ghastly as he went into the house to prepare Mrs. Blake, that she uttered a shriek as soon as she saw his face.
'You have come to tell me my boy is dead!' she exclaimed, catching hold of him.
'No, he is not dead; but he is badly hurt, Abercrombie says. Let me go, Mrs. Blake; they want my help to carry him in. Is there a room ready? Mollie, look after your mother;' and Michael sped on his sad errand.
'Do not let anyone in, Burnett, while I examine him. Lock the door;' and Michael obeyed the doctor's orders, though an agonised voice outside entreated admittance.
Michael thought the doctor's examination would never end; but by and by he came up to Michael and drew him aside.
'Do you wish another opinion, Burnett?' he asked abruptly; 'but it is kinder to tell you that the thing is hopeless.'
'Good heavens, Abercrombie! Do you mean he will not live?'
'Only a few hours—he is hurt internally. They were both down on the rails, you know: I saw the whole thing; and he flung up the old man with one hand—I never saw anything so splendidly done—but the wheel of the engine caught him, and before they could stop the train the mischief was done.'
'Will he suffer? Can nothing be done for him? Abercrombie, I would give half my fortune to save the life of that man.'
'He will not suffer long,' returned Dr. Abercrombie kindly. He was a rough, hard-featured Scotchman, but no man had a better heart, as Michael knew. 'I will do all I can for him, Burnett, for his own sake as well as yours. I think he wants to speak to you, but he cannot talk much; it is agony to him.'
And Michael stepped up to the bed. In the emergency he had regained his old calmness of manner, and as Cyril's eyes were fixed on his face, he bent over him and said gently:
'Do not speak, my dear fellow; I know what you wish to say. I will telegraph for her at once.'
Cyril's damp, cold hand closed over his.
'Thanks, thanks! that is what I wanted. She would like it, and it will do no harm.'
The last few words seemed intended for a question, and Michael answered without hesitation.
'Harm! she would never forgive us if we did not send for her.'
Then a faint light came into Cyril's eyes.
'I hope for her sake I shall not suffer; but it will soon be over: I heard him say so.' He seemed to speak with difficulty. 'Don't look so sorry about it, Burnett; it is much better so, and the poor old man was saved. Oh!'
That expression of pain wrung unwillingly from his lips drew the doctor to him, and he made a sign to Michael to leave them.
An hour later Audrey received the following telegram:
'An accident. Cyril Blake badly hurt. Condition critical. Come at once. Will meet the last train at King's Cross.'
'He, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time.'—WISDOM OF SOLOMON.
All her life long Audrey never forgot that long weary journey. The lateness of the hour compelled her to take a circuitous route to London. Dr. Ross accompanied her part of the way, and did not leave her until he placed her under the care of the guard, who promised to keep the compartment for her.
'You will be all right now, Audrey,' he said, with a poor attempt at cheerfulness. 'I have tipped the guard half-a-crown—a piece of extravagance on my part, I believe, as you only stop once between this and King's Cross, and Michael will meet you at the other end. God bless you, my child!' he continued, with deeper feeling, as the train began to move. 'Give my love to Cyril, and try and trust him to his Heavenly Father.'
'I will try, dear father,' was Audrey's answer.
And then she leant back on her seat and attempted to pray; but she only found herself repeating over and over again the same petition—that she might be in time; for Michael's message, so carefully worded, had read to her like Cyril's death-warrant. 'He will die,' she had said with tearless eyes to her father, as she had carried him the telegram.
It was eleven o'clock before she reached King's Cross; but before the train stopped she could see Michael standing alone under a gas-lamp, and before he discerned her she was beside him.
'Am I in time, Michael?'
Then he started, and drew her hand through his arm.
'Quite in time, dear; he has still a few hours to live.'
For he saw at once that she was prepared for the worst.
'That is well,' she replied calmly; 'let us go.'
And then Michael handed her into the hansom.
How pale she was, he thought, and how sad those dear gray eyes looked, as she turned to him and asked that question that he so dreaded to hear!
'We are out of the station now, and I can hear better. What was the accident, Michael? How did it all happen? Tell me everything, please.'
Then, as far as he was able, he told her all, and she heard him very quietly, though once he felt the shudder that passed through her when she first understood the nature of the terrible thing that had happened.
'Abercrombie saw it all from the first,' he went on; 'he said he never saw anything so splendidly done. Not a man in a thousand would have ventured it. What did I tell you, Audrey?—that Blake was just the fellow to win the Victoria Cross.'
'He was very brave,' she murmured; but she trembled all over as she spoke.
'He was more than brave. What was my action in Zululand compared to his? He stepped into the jaws of death quietly, and with his eyes opened, for he must have known that two could not have been saved. He has given his noble life for a wretched worthless one. It sounds inhuman to say it, but who would have mourned if that poor old man had been swept away? Would it not have been better if he had left him to his fate?'
'You must not say that!' returned Audrey. And now the tears were running down her face. 'It is this that makes it so noble, so Christ-like—a life laid down out of love and pity for the worthless. My brave Cyril! Who is more fit to go than he? Ah, I knew him so well; he is very reserved; he is not one to speak of religion—very few young men do; he never liked to do so; but in a simple, manly way he has tried to live it. I always knew he was good. Yes, Michael, it was better for him to give up his fresh young life than for that old man to die in his sins.'
He could not steady his voice to answer her. Would any other girl have taken it in this way? He felt there were depths in her nature that he had not fathomed yet. The nobleness of the action seemed to lift her up out of her grief. The heroic death was a fit ending to that brave life, short as it was.
There were a few minutes' silence, during which she wept quietly, and then she roused herself to ask after Mrs. Blake. A deeper shade passed over Michael's face as she put the question.
'Poor soul!' he returned in a grieved voice; 'I fear it will go very hardly with her. Abercrombie tried to say a word to her about her son's hopeless condition, but she dropped at his feet like a dead thing. I had to leave him with her, and go back to poor Blake, as he was asking for her. I am afraid Abercrombie had to be very stern with her, for by and by she crept in quietly enough, and sat down beside him. When I left he was talking to her, but I do not believe that she understood a word that he said; she looks as though she has been turned to stone.'
Audrey sighed, and a moment afterwards she said a little wearily:
'Oh, how slowly we are going! Shall we ever be there?'
Then Michael took her hand gently in his; she was so patient, so good: if only he could comfort her!
'We have a very fast horse, and a capital driver. Yes, we shall be there soon now. Your journey must have tired you, dear. I wish someone could have come with you.'
'Father wanted to do so, but I told him I would rather be alone. Never mind about me, Michael; what does it matter if I am tired or not? If I could only be with him! but the time is passing so!' Then, as she saw the pained look on Michael's face, she said in a low voice: 'Don't be too sorry for me; it is hard—very hard—but we must only think of him;' and then she did not speak again until the hansom stopped.
Mollie was on the watch, for the door opened before they had alighted; but as she flung her arms round Audrey with a tearful welcome, the latter gently disengaged herself.
'Do not keep me, dear Mollie; let me go to him.'
'Yes, you shall go to him, dear Miss Ross; he is a little better just now; at least, he does not suffer so much. I wish mamma could speak to him, but she only sits there sighing as though her heart would break, and it must be so sad for Cyril to hear it. That is the door; you can go in;' and Audrey needed no more.
A tall, gray-haired man stood aside to let her pass, but it may be doubted whether she even saw him, any more than she noticed that rigid figure at the foot of the bed. Audrey saw nothing but that death-like face on the pillow, and the glad light in Cyril's eyes, as she went straight to him, and kneeling down beside him, kissed his lips.
'My poor Cyril! My poor, dear Cyril!' she said in a voice that was heavenly in its sweetness to him.
'No, not poor now,' he whispered, as he moved his head until it rested on her breast. 'My darling, it is worth even this to see you again. If you could only know what these five months have been to me!'
He spoke in a voice so low and feeble that only she could hear him. Mrs. Blake did not move as Audrey entered; her eyes were fixed on her boy's face. They seemed the only living things about her. From time to time, even in his awful suffering, he had struggled to say a word to her, but she had scarcely answered him, though now and then a low moan issued from her lips.
'I could not have borne it much longer,' he went on, as in her mute sympathy Audrey rested her face against his cold, damp forehead; 'the life was killing me. How was a man to live without hope? And I had no hope.'
'I should always have loved you,' she said simply.
'Yes, my own faithful one; but even your love, precious as it was, could not have consoled me for the unnatural loneliness that was my lot. The very knowledge that you were mine and that I could never claim you seemed to add a deep bitterness to my grief. Do not let us speak of that dreary time, my darling; it is gone now, and it is come to this: that I thank God that I lie here with only a few hours to live.'
'Oh, Cyril! for your mother's sake, do not say this!'
'She does not hear us,' he replied; 'she seems to take no notice of anything. Poor, dear mother! I am sorry for her!'
'And not for me!' Audrey's unselfishness could not refrain from that low cry.
'No, not for you,' he returned tenderly. 'It is better, far better, for you, my darling, that things are ending thus. Why should you have wasted your sweet life for me, Audrey? I could not have borne the sacrifice. In a little while I should have written to you, and begged you to give me up.'
'There would have been no use in writing such a letter.'
Then he smiled happily, as though even on his dying bed it gave him pleasure to hear that.
'Cyril, you must not talk; Michael says it hurts you.'
'No, not quite so much now; somehow the pain seems easier, and it is such a relief to say all this. Does it make you unhappy, darling?'
'Not if it gives you comfort; you may say anything—anything—to me.'
'I only wanted to tell you that it is all right. I am glad I did it. I have not done much for Him all my life,' dropping his voice reverently, and she knew what he meant. '"Inasmuch"—how does that go on, Audrey?'
Then she softly repeated the words:
'"Inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of these, My brethren, ye have done it unto Me."'
'Well, He did more than that for us. What was a moment's pain compared with His? Audrey, do you think someone could say a prayer?'
Then Audrey suggested that they should send for Michael, and he came at once.
Cyril listened with his eyes closed; but his lips moved, and Audrey's hand was in his all the time. He seemed a little exhausted after this, and Dr. Abercrombie gave him some restorative.
Michael did not leave the room for long after this. He came in from time to time to see if he were wanted. But there was very little for anyone to do. The flame of life was flickering to its close, and the practised eye of the physician knew that in another hour or two all would be over.
'You can go in,' he said to Mollie; 'nothing makes any difference now.'
Then Mollie crept to her brother's side.
Cyril lay very quiet; but by and by he roused himself to send a message to Kester. And then he spoke of his father.
'Will you give him my love?' he said. 'I wanted to see more of him. I think if I had only known him better I could have loved him.'
'I will tell him this, dear Cyril.'
And then he closed his eyes again. And as Audrey bent over him, it seemed to her as though his face were almost perfect in that stillness. Presently he asked his mother to come closer, and she at once obeyed him.
'Mother,' he said pleadingly, 'you will try to give me up?'
But she made a gesture of dissent.
'I cannot; I cannot, Cyril! I do not believe I can live without you.'
'You have Mollie and Kester,' he panted, for her suppressed agitation evidently disturbed him. 'Mother, I know what we have been to each other.'
Then she fell on her knees with a bitter cry.
'Cyril, it is all my fault that you are lying there. Your mother has killed you. It would not have happened but for me. My boy! my boy! I cannot, I will not live, without you!'
But Michael saw he could bear no more, and at a sign from the doctor he raised the unhappy woman and led her from the room.
'It is too much for them both,' he said to Biddy; 'neither of them can bear it.'
And then he saw the old woman take her mistress in her arms and cry over her like a child.
'Biddy, I shall die too. You will bury me in my boy's grave—my boy and me together.'
But Michael heard no more. He went back to the room just as Cyril was asking for him.
'Burnett, will you say good-bye?' he gasped. 'I think it will not be long now, and I have said good-bye to Mollie. Oh! this pain, doctor—it has come back again. Can you do anything for me?'
But Dr. Abercrombie shook his head sorrowfully.
'Never mind, then; it must be borne. Burnett, God bless you for all you have done! You will be good to her, I know'—with a glance at his betrothed.
'I will,' returned Michael Burnett.
And then the two men grasped hands.
Cyril hardly spoke after this—his pain was too intense. But once Audrey saw his eyes rest on her ring. 'It is still there,' she heard him murmur. And another time he made signs that she should lay his head on her shoulder.
'I want to die so,' he whispered. And a little later he asked her to kiss him again.
He lay so quiet now that they thought he was going, and Michael knelt down by the bed and offered up the commendatory prayer. But once more the dark eyes opened: there was a strange, unearthly light in them.
'Inasmuch,' he said; 'Inasmuch——'
His head fell back a little heavily, and the soul of Cyril Blake was with its God.
* * * * *
'He does not suffer now,' were Audrey's first words, as she laid him gently down and gave her last solemn kiss. When Michael put his arm round her and led her gently away, she offered no resistance.
'I must leave you for a little while, dear,' he said, as he stood beside her a moment; 'but I will send Mollie to you.'
Then she begged that she might be left alone.
'Her mother will want her; and I would rather, much rather, be alone.'
Then, when Michael had gone, she laid her head down on Cyril's writing-table, and the tears had their way. Until now she had not thought of herself; but now it seemed to her as though the world had grown suddenly cold and dark. He had loved her—oh, how well he had loved her!—and now the Divine will had taken him from her!
But Audrey wept less for herself than for that bright young life cut off so mysteriously in its early bloom, before its youthful promise had come to maturity. But as her tears flowed, certain words she had often read recurred to her mind, and comforted her:
'For honourable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years.
'But wisdom is the gray hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age.
* * * * *
'For his soul pleased the Lord: therefore hasted He to take him away from the wicked.'
Certainly there was no bitterness in Audrey's grief when, a few hours later, she stood with Michael beside that still form. How beautiful her Cyril looked! she thought; and even Michael marvelled as he gazed at him. He lay there like a young knight who had fallen in his maiden fight, and who in death was still a conqueror. The living man who stood there could almost have envied him, he was so worn and jaded with the battle of life.
'How peacefully he sleeps!' he said, in a moved voice; 'he looks as though he were dreaming happily, Audrey. Surely it will comfort his mother to see him like this!'
'She will not see him yet; Biddy says she is too ill. We must give her time to recover herself—the blow has been so awfully sudden. Yes, he looks happy; my darling sleeps well. Did you hear what he said, Michael?—that he was glad that he lay there; that it was all as it should be? If ever a man yielded his life willingly, Cyril did!'
'His life was so hard, you see.'
'Yes; but he would have given it all the same if his happiness had been perfect. He would not have stood by and seen even a beggar perish, he was so generous. You would have done it yourself, Michael.'
'I do not know,' he returned with a shudder; 'I would not answer for myself: it was such an awful death!'
'But I can answer for you,' she replied calmly: 'you would have done it if he had not been beforehand.'
And then she moved away from him, and began to arrange the few flowers that the people of the house had sent up to her.
Michael waited until she had finished. She was exhausted and weary, he knew, and he was anxious to take her to South Audley Street, where her mother would be awaiting them. Michael had telegraphed to her earlier in the day, and the answer had come that she was already on her way.
Audrey made an attempt to see Mrs. Blake before she left, but Biddy would not admit her.
'It will drive my mistress crazy to see anyone,' she said. 'She has quieted down a bit, and the doctor has given me some stuff to make her sleep; and his orders were that I was to keep her as still as possible.' And after this Audrey dared not persist.
But it grieved her to leave poor Mollie in that desolate house, the girl seemed so utterly alone; but Michael said he had spoken to the woman of the house, and that she had promised to look after her.
'We ought not to take her with us, dear Audrey,' he said gently, but firmly; 'it is her duty to stay with her mother.' And Audrey acquiesced a little reluctantly.
Mrs. Ross cried abundantly as she took Audrey in her arms; her motherly soul was filled with pity for her girl. But Audrey had no more tears to shed.
'Mother,' she said pleadingly, when, after the late evening meal, Michael had retired and left them alone together—'mother, I must wear mourning for Cyril. I hope father will not mind.'
'You shall do as you like, my love,' returned her mother sadly. 'Your father will not object to anything you wish to do. You know we all loved dear Cyril.'
'Yes, mother; and you were always so good to him. Towards the last he mentioned you and father: "Give my love to them both." Michael heard him say it.'
'Geraldine is as unhappy as possible. She drove with me to the station. She begged me over and over again to say how grieved she was for you.'
'Poor dear Gage is always so kind!' replied Audrey calmly. 'Mother dear, should you mind my going to bed now? My head aches so, and I am so tired!'
Then Mrs. Ross attended her daughter to her room, and did not leave her until her weary head was on the pillow.
'I should like to stay,' she said, looking at her child with yearning eyes; 'but I suppose you would rather be alone.'
'Yes, mother dear;' and then she drew her mother's face down to hers and kissed it tenderly. 'Dearest, you are so good to me, and so is Michael.'
'Who could help being good to you, Audrey?'
'Yes; but you must not be too kind to me. One must not let one's unhappiness spoil other people's lives. I want to be as brave as he was. Will you draw up the blind, mother dear? It is such a beautiful moonlight night.' And, as Mrs. Ross did as she was asked, Audrey raised herself upon her elbow. 'Oh, how calm and lovely it looks! Even the housetops are transfigured and glorified. Oh, mother, it is all as it should be! Cyril said so; and he is safe in his Father's house—in his Father's and mine!' she half whispered to herself, as she sank back on the pillow again.
A STRANGE EXPIATION
'When some beloved voice that was to you Both sound and sweetness faileth suddenly, And silence against which you dare not cry Aches round you like a strong disease and new, What hope? what help?... ...Nay, none of these. Speak, Thou availing Christ! and fill this pause.'
Mrs. Ross soon discovered that Audrey wished to remain in town until the funeral was over, and she at once wrote off to her husband for the required permission.
Dr. Ross made no objection; he meant to be present himself at the funeral, and as he had some important business that would detain him another day or so in London, he suggested that they should accompany him back to Woodcote.
Audrey seemed satisfied when she had read her father's letter. He had sent her a message that touched her greatly.
'I hope our child will not grieve over-much,' he wrote. 'Tell her that her father sympathises with her most fully. By and by she will read the meaning of this painful lesson. As for poor Cyril, one can only long to change places with him. His was a short and fiery trial, but at least he was spared the burden and heat of the day. When one thinks of his blameless youth, and the manly endurance with which he met and faced his trouble, one can only be thankful that he has been taken out of a life that would have been only one long struggle and disappointment, and has entered so early into his rest.'
'Father is right,' murmured Audrey, as she read this. 'Every morning I wake I thank God that he has ceased to suffer.'
Audrey went every day to see Mollie, and to spend a few minutes by Cyril's coffin. She went with Michael to Highgate to choose his last resting-place, and no other hands but hers arranged the flowers that decked the chamber of death. Mrs. Blake remained in her own room, and refused to see anyone. Biddy's account of her mistress was very unsatisfactory.
'She does not sleep unless I give her the doctor's soothing stuff,' she confessed one day, when Audrey questioned her very closely, 'and sometimes I cannot coax her to take it. "I don't want to sleep, Biddy," that is all her cry. "If I sleep I must wake, and the waking is too terrible." Unless Blessed Mary and the saints help my mistress,' continued Biddy, wiping the tears from her withered cheeks, 'I think she will go out of her mind. She spends half the night in that room. Early this morning I missed her, and found her lying in a dead faint beside the coffin. She does not eat, and I never see her shed a tear. She sits rocking herself and moaning as though she were in pain, and then she starts up and walks the room till it turns one giddy to see her. I dare not leave her a moment. If she would only see a doctor! but, poor soul, she will do nothing now to please her old Biddy.'
'I must see her,' exclaimed Audrey, horrified at this description of wild, unchastened grief. 'Biddy, will you take this note to her?' and Biddy, nothing loath, carried off the slip of paper.
Audrey had only pencilled a few words:
'My poor friend, let me come to you; ours is the same sorrow. For Cyril's sake, do not refuse me.'
But Biddy came back the next moment shaking her head very sorrowfully.
'I can do nought with her,' she said hastily. 'She sends her love, Miss Ross, but she will see no one—no one. I have done the best I can for you, but I dare not anger her,' finished the old woman, moving sadly away. 'Why, she has not seen Master Kester, though he came to her door last night! We must leave her alone until she comes round to her right mind.'
'Do you think she will be at the funeral?' Michael asked more than once; but no one was able to answer this question.
But when the day came she was there, closely veiled, so that no one could see her face, and as she walked to the grave, between Kester and Mollie, her step seemed as firm as ever. Michael had written to Matthew O'Brien the particulars of his son's death, and had told him that a place would be reserved for him among the mourners; but to this there was no reply.
Just as the service began in the chapel, however, a tall man with a gray moustache slipped into the seat behind Kester. When the sad procession filed out into the cemetery, Audrey and Michael drew back to let him pass, but he made signs for them to precede him. But at the end, as they all crowded round the open grave to take their last look at the flower-decked coffin, Mat O'Brien stood for a moment by his wife's side. Audrey said afterwards that she was sure Mrs. Blake saw him; she started slightly, but took no further notice. The tears were streaming down Mat's face, and Mollie, with girlish sympathy, had slipped her hand through his arm; but the mother stood in stony impassiveness beside them, until Kester whispered something to her and led her away. The rest of the mourners had dispersed, but Audrey stood there still, looking thoughtfully down into the grave. Dr. Ross and his wife had followed the others, but Michael had kept his place beside Audrey.
'I think they are waiting for us, dear,' he said at last, as though to rouse her.
Then she turned her face to him.
'I like being here,' she replied simply; 'and yet it is not pain to leave him lying there. Michael, I feel like Christian. Do you remember how his burden rolled off into an open grave? Somehow, mine has rolled off, too.'
'You mean that you are happy about him.'
'Yes. It is so sweet to think that he will never suffer any more. Oh, Michael, it has been such a burden! I never seemed to have a moment's peace or comfort. Every night I used to think, "How has he passed to-day? Has it been very bad with him?" And sometimes the thought of all he was bearing seemed to weigh me to the earth.'
'And you never spoke of this to anyone—you bore all this by yourself?'
'It was no use to speak. No one could help me. It was his pain, not mine. Now it will be different. He is safe and happy, and as for me, I must try to live now for other people.'
And then, with a smile that touched him to the heart, she stepped back from the grave and told him that she was ready.
Somehow, Michael felt comforted by those few words. His intuition and knowledge of Audrey's character gave him hope that after a time she would recover her old elasticity. 'Until now,' he said to himself, 'she has so fully identified herself with him, that she has simply had no life of her own. Her sympathetic nature has reflected only his thoughts and feelings. I doubt whether she has ever questioned herself as to her love for him; she has taken everything for granted. And now she has lost him, the thought of his happiness seems to swallow up all thought of her own grief. Such unselfishness will bring its own healing.' And in this way Michael comforted himself about her.
That evening Audrey received a message that surprised her greatly. Kester brought it. His mother would see her the next day; someone had told her that Audrey was going back to Woodcote, and she had at once expressed a wish that she should not leave without bidding her good-bye.
'Tell her that I can speak now, and that I have much to say to her.' And the strangeness of this message filled Audrey with perplexity.
Michael took her to Kensington the next day. He had to fetch Kester; the boy was going back to Brighton: there was no good in his lingering in London. His mother took no pleasure in his society; his overtures to his father had made a breach between them, and she had treated him with silent displeasure.
But he told Michael, as they drove to the station, that she had been kinder in her manner to him that morning than she had been for months.
'She kissed me more than once, and held my hand as though she did not like bidding me good bye. She looks awfully ill,' continued the boy, with a choke in his voice; 'and when I asked her to be good to Mollie, she said quite gently that she had been a bad mother to us both; that she had not considered us enough, and that God was punishing her for it. I begged her not to say it, but she repeated it again. "You and Mollie will be better without me," she went on. Oh, Captain Burnett! do you think she will die? I never saw anyone look quite so bad,' persisted Kester sadly.
Biddy took Audrey up at once to her mistress's room.
'You will find her better,' she said shortly; 'the dumb spirit is cast out of her. That is the blessed saints' doing. I knew my mistress would come to her senses—Heaven be praised for it!'
The room was somewhat dark, and it was not until Audrey was quite close to Mrs. Blake that she noticed the change in her that had so shocked Kester.
The blackness of the plain stuff gown, unrelieved by any whiteness, may have made the contrast of her pale face more striking; but Audrey noticed that her dark hair was now streaked with gray. She had drawn it back from her face and coiled it tightly behind, as though her own appearance had ceased to interest her, and the sunken eyes and a certain sharp look about the cheekbones made her seem at least ten years older.
With a pity amounting to tenderness, Audrey would have put her arms round her; but Mrs. Blake drew back, and only suffered her to kiss her cheek.
'Dear Mrs. Blake——'
But she interrupted her.
'Do not call me that again,' she said hastily. 'There has been enough of deception and lies; my name is Olive O'Brien. As long as I remain in the world I wish to be called by that name.'
Then Audrey gazed at her in speechless consternation. What could this strange speech portend?
'Will you sit down?' she continued, at the same time seating herself in a high-backed chair that stood beside her bed.
A crucifix lay on a little table beside her, with a framed photograph of Cyril that she always carried about with her. From time to time she looked at them as she spoke.
'Biddy told me that you were going back to Rutherford, and I could not let you go without bidding you good-bye.'
'It would have made me very unhappy if you had not allowed me to see you.'
'I cannot believe that; but of course you mean it for the truth: that is why my boy loved you, because you are so absolutely true.' Her voice sank into a whisper, and a gloomy light came into her eyes. 'That is why his mother disappointed him, why he lost all trust in her, because falsehood was easier to her than truth.'
'But not now, dear Mrs. Blake; nay, I must call you by the old name. And what does it matter between us two if you have sinned? If your wrong-doing seems a heavy burden, you can at least repent.'
'I have repented,' she said, in a voice so strange and thrilling that Audrey felt inwardly troubled. 'In the hours of darkness by my boy's coffin I have humbled myself before my Maker, I have craved to expiate my sin. Audrey, listen to me,' she continued; 'I have sent for you because you loved my Cyril, because for a few months you made him happy. He was my idol, and that is why he has been taken from me—because I forgot God and truth, and sinned for his sake.'
'Yes; but you are sorry now.'
'What does such sorrow avail, except for my own purging? In a little while the world—this cruel, hard, outer world—will know me no more. I am going back to Ireland with Mollie and Biddy, and when I have made my peace with the Church I shall enter a convent.'
'Good heavens! what can you mean?'
'I have always been at heart a Catholic,' she returned in a mechanical tone; 'but while my boy lived I was content that his Church should be mine. All my life I have had a leaning to the older faith; now in my desolation I mean to shelter in the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church. She receives all penitents; she will not refuse me.'
'But your children—Mollie: would you forsake Mollie?' pleaded Audrey, with tears in her eyes. 'Would you neglect your sacred responsibilities for duties no one would demand of a mother?'
'Am I fit to discharge my responsibilities?' she returned in a cold, hard voice. 'Has anyone but Cyril ever kept me straight? Do you think Mollie and I could go on living the same old life without him? Audrey, you do not know what you say; such an existence would rob me of my reason.'
'But what will become of Mollie?' asked Audrey, concealing her alarm at this wild speech. 'You must not only think of yourself.'
'Mollie will go with me,' she returned. 'I shall not forsake her. The convent that I propose to enter has a home attached to it, where they educate girls belonging to the upper classes. Mollie will have plenty of companions. The nuns are kind women, and they will not coerce her in any way, and there will be sufficient for her maintenance.'
'But when she grows up—when her education is finished: what will become of her then?'
But Mrs. Blake did not seem clear on this point. The convent had its boarders, she remarked; with the superior's permission, Mollie might still remain there, and lead a tolerably happy life.
'There will be other young ladies; she will not be dull,' she went on. 'The rule is a strict one—that is why I chose it—but I should be allowed to see her sometimes; perhaps she too may turn Catholic, and then all will be well.'
But Audrey's honest nature revolted against this merciless arrangement. She saw clearly that Mrs. Blake's weak, excitable nature had been under some strong influence, though it was not until later that she heard that during the last few months she had secretly attended a Roman Catholic chapel near them. Doubtless Biddy, who was a stanch Romanist, had connived at this.
And now she had planned this strange expiation for herself, and poor Mollie must be sacrificed. What would Cyril have thought of such an unnatural arrangement? For Cyril's sake, for Mollie's, Audrey felt she must combat this notion.
'Mrs. Blake,' she said very earnestly, 'it is not for me to question your actions with regard to yourself. If you are at heart a Roman Catholic—if all these years you have been an unprofessed member of that Church—it may be as well for you to acknowledge it openly. I do not believe myself that a convent life is free from its trials and temptations. Human nature is the same everywhere, and even sanctified human nature is liable to error. Wiser people than myself would tell you that peace of mind would be more surely attained by remaining in the path of duty. Dear Mrs. Blake, forgive me if I pain you, but would'—she hesitated a moment—'would not Cyril have disapproved of his mother taking such a step?'
'I think not,' was the response. 'My boy's eyes are purified now; he would judge differently. I shall devote the remainder of my life to praying for the repose of his soul, and in repentance for my miserable past; and it may be'—here she lifted her clasped hands, and a faint light came into her eyes—'that Heaven may release me from my misery before many years are over, and my purified soul may be allowed to find rest.'
'God grant you may find it, poor, misguided woman!' was Audrey's secret prayer; but she merely said aloud:
'We must live out our life as long as the Divine will ordains; but, Mrs. Blake, I must speak of Mollie. If you will sacrifice yourself, you have no right to sacrifice her. For Cyril's sake, let me have her!'
'Yes, I. Have we not been like sisters all these months? I think Cyril would love to know she was with me; he was so fond of Mollie. He liked to see us together. It will make me happier to have her; when Michael is away I have no companion.'
'Do you really mean it?' asked Mrs. Blake, in an astonished voice. 'You are very good, Audrey, but you are not your own mistress. Dr. Ross would never consent to such an arrangement.'
'I have my own money. No one would be put to any expense for Mollie, unless you wished to provide for her yourself.'
'I should certainly wish that.'
'Then in that case there will be no difficulty at all. I know my father too well to fear a refusal from him. I will go back to South Audley Street and speak to him and my mother, and to-morrow you shall know their answer; but you must promise me one thing before I go—that, if they consent, you will let me have Mollie.'
'She will be happier with you than in the convent,' replied Mrs. Blake, in a musing tone. 'After all, it would have been a dull existence for her, poor child!' There was a touch of motherliness in her voice as she spoke. 'Yes, you shall have her. I think my boy would have wished it.'
And Audrey's grateful kiss sealed the compact.
'But there is something else I must say,' continued Mrs. Blake, when they had talked a little more about Mollie—at least, Audrey had talked. 'I want you to give Mat a message from me.'
'Yes, my husband. Have I not told you that I have humbled myself to the dust? Before I leave the world I would make my peace even with him. Will you give him my message?'
'Assuredly I will.'
'Tell him that I have repented at last, and that I would fain have his forgiveness—that I know now that I had no right to rob him of his children. If the time came over again—but no; how can I tell whether things would have been different? Mat would always have been Mat, and I could not alter my own nature. Oh, if I had only been good like you, Audrey!' she sighed bitterly.
'You must not talk any more,' observed Audrey, alarmed by the look of utter exhaustion on the wan face. 'Shall I leave you now to rest a little?'
'Rest?' Audrey never forgot the tone in which the unhappy woman uttered the word. 'How can one rest on such a pillow of thorns? No; the time is too short. I must be up and about my work. Will you bid me good-bye, now? After to-day we shall not meet again. You shall write to me about Mollie; but this interview has exhausted me, and I must husband my strength.'
'If I could only comfort you!'
The sad yearning in Audrey's voice seemed to touch Mrs. Blake, and as the girl clung to her she pressed her to her bosom.
'God bless you for all your goodness to him and to me! Every day I live I shall pray for you.' Her voice broke; with a sudden impulse she kissed her again and again, then pushed her gently from her. 'Go, go!' she said faintly, 'and send Biddy to me.' And Audrey dared not linger.
But she looked quite white and shaken when she rejoined Michael; she could scarcely speak to Mollie, and she seemed relieved when her cousin told her that his hansom was at the door. The soft autumnal breeze seemed to refresh her, and after a little while she was able to tell Michael all that had passed between her and Mrs. Blake. Michael took it very coolly; he seemed to have fully expected something of the kind.
'Poor soul! she will always be true to herself,' he observed. 'It is singular how these unbalanced, pleasure-loving natures lean towards asceticism—how rapidly they pass from one extreme to another. Even her repentance is not free from selfishness. She would free herself from her maternal responsibilities, as she freed herself from her marriage vows, under the mistaken notion of expiating a sinful past; and she will labour under the delusion that such an ill-conceived sacrifice will be pleasing to the Almighty.'
'Yes; it is a great mistake,' she returned.
'A very great mistake. The longer I live, Audrey, the more I marvel at the way people deceive themselves. The name of religion cloaks hidden selfishness to an extent you could hardly credit; the majority are too much engrossed in trying to save their own souls to care what becomes of other people. One would think it was "Save yourself, and the devil take the hindmost!" when one sees so-called Christians scurrying along the narrow way, as they call it, without a thought to the brother or sister who has fallen beside them.'
'It is very grievous,' returned Audrey sadly. 'What would my poor Cyril have said to such an expiation? Michael, this interview with his mother has tried me more than anything. I think the hardest thing in life is when we see those we love turn down a wrong path, and when no entreaty will induce them to retrace their steps.'
'It is a sight one sees every day,' was Michael's reply; and then, as he saw how jaded and weary she was, he began to tell her about Kester, and after that they talked of Mollie. And when Audrey found that Michael approved of her plan, and was as anxious as she was herself that Mollie should accompany them to Woodcote, she began to discuss the subject with her old animation, and by the time the drive was over the harassed look had passed away from her face.
ON MICHAEL'S BENCH
'What can I give thee back, O liberal And princely giver, who has brought the gold And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold, And laid them out the outside of the wall, For such as I to take or leave withal, In unexpected largesse?'
Dr. Ross and his wife listened very kindly to their daughter's project. Indeed, if Audrey had expressed a wish to establish a small colony of street Arabs at the end of the Woodcote garden, Mrs. Ross would have offered no objection to the scheme. Audrey could have ruled her mother as well as ever Geraldine had ruled her; but she was too generous to exert her influence. Her mother could have refused her nothing; from morning to night her one thought was how she might console her child.
'Mollie will be such a companion for Audrey, John!' she suggested, when for one moment her husband had hesitated.
'I was thinking about Matthew O'Brien,' he replied. 'Brail is rather too near, and people will talk; it will leak out in time that O'Brien is Mollie's father.'
'Will that matter?' interposed Michael; 'talk will not hurt anyone. I think I can answer for O'Brien: he is the last man to lay claim to his own child. His brother tells me that he is perfectly content if he sees her from time to time. Kester often writes to him, and he is never tired of reading his letters. Both Mollie and Kester have grown quite fond of him.'
'I think it should be kept quiet, for Mollie's sake,' returned Dr. Ross. 'In my judgment, Matthew O'Brien is a very unfit person to take care of a girl approaching womanhood. His brother is old, and he may outlive him. I do not wish to be hard on him, but he seems to me a very irresponsible sort of person. When Mollie is of age she will, of course, judge for herself; but until then her friends will be wise not to give her up to her father's guardianship.'
'He will never claim her,' replied Michael dryly. 'I will quote your own words: an irresponsible person is only too glad to evade responsibility. Mollie may live at Woodcote quite safely, and her visits to Brail will be taken as a matter of course. Of all people I know, the O'Briens are the least likely to chatter about their private concerns. Matthew O'Brien will be too thankful that his daughter should enjoy such privileges to wish to rob her of them.'
'Father, it will make me so happy to have her!' whispered Audrey in her father's ear.
Then the Doctor's eyes glistened with tenderness.
'It shall be as you wish, my dear,' he said very gently: 'Mollie shall come. Your mother is very fond of her, and so am I. You will have another daughter, Emmie,' he continued, looking at his wife with a kind smile. And so the matter was settled.
Poor Mollie was horrified when she heard what she had escaped. The idea of the convent was terrible to her.
'Oh, dear Miss Ross,' she exclaimed, 'how can mamma do anything so dreadful? She will be miserable—quite miserable. Of course she would not like living with only Biddy and me—she would have fretted herself ill. But to be a nun and say prayers all day long! Poor, poor mamma!' And Mollie's eyes grew round with misery.
'Dear Mollie, your mother thinks she knows best, and no one can control her. Perhaps, if she does not like it—if the life be too hard—she will come out at the end of her novitiate.'
And this view of the case seemed to comfort Mollie a little.
'And I am really to live at Woodcote—at that dear, beautiful place?' she continued. 'Oh, Miss Ross, it seems too good to be true!'
'Yes; you are to be my little sister,' returned Audrey tranquilly. 'But, Mollie, I will not be called Miss Ross any longer. If you live with me, you must call me Audrey.'
And Mollie promised that she would.
Mollie said very little about her parting interview with her mother; but she cried bitterly for hours afterwards. 'Poor, poor mamma! Oh, what would Cyril say!' she exclaimed over and over again. And it was a long time before anyone could comfort her.
Michael went down with them to Woodcote, and remained with them for the next month or two. Cyril's sudden death had occurred the first week in October, and the trees in the Woodcote gardens were glorious in their autumnal livery of red and golden-brown, while every day careful hands swept up the fallen leaves from the shrubberies and paths. Michael resumed his old habits. When Audrey wanted him he was always ready to walk or drive with her. No one knew the effort it cost him to appear as usual, when every day his passion gained a stronger mastery over him. Dearly as he had loved her in her youthful brightness, he had never loved her as he did now, when he saw her in uncomplaining sadness fulfilling her daily duties and devoting herself to Mollie. Geraldine used to look at her with tears in her eyes. 'She is sweeter than ever. I never knew anyone so good,' she said to her husband; and Mr. Harcourt had assented to this very cordially. As for Mrs. Ross, before many weeks were over she had drawn down on her maternal head more than one reproof from her daughter.
'Mother,' Audrey said to her one day, 'have you forgotten what I once told you—that you are not to be so kind to me? You are spoiling me dreadfully. You give me my way in everything; and when I say anything that I ought not to say, you do not contradict me. I am growing demoralised, and it is all your and Michael's fault if I get more selfish every day.'
'You selfish, my darling?'
'Yes, selfish and stupid, and as idle as possible; and yet you never scold me or ask me to do anything for you.'
'You are always doing something, Audrey; you are busy from morning till night. Michael says you work far too hard.'
'But I must work; it is my duty to work,' she returned, a little restlessly; 'and, mother, you must help, and not spoil me. When I see you and Gage looking at me with tears in your eyes, it troubles me to see them. I want you to be happy. I want everything to go on as usual, and I mean to be happy, too.'
And then she went away and gave Mollie her music-lesson, and when it was over she went in search of Michael.
Michael knew he was necessary to her—that in certain restless moods he was able to soothe her; so he stayed manfully at his post until after Christmas.
But with the new year he resumed his Bohemian life, spending two or three weeks at South Audley Street, and then running down to Woodcote for a few days. He felt it was wiser to do so, and he could leave her more comfortably now. She was better in every way: she drooped less visibly, her smile became more frequent, and the constant society of Mollie and intercourse with her fresh girlish mind were evidently beneficial.
She would do now without him, he told himself as he went back to his lodgings, and he need no longer put such a force on himself. 'Until I can speak, until the time has come for me to open my heart to her, it is better that we should be apart.'
That Audrey held a different opinion was evident, and she could not always conceal her disappointment when Michael's brief visits became briefer and more infrequent.
'It is all that troublesome money,' she said once, when one spring morning he stood waiting for the dog-cart to take him to the station. 'Of course, Woodcote does not content you now. You want a house of your own, and to be your own master. Well, it is perfectly natural,' she added quickly.
'I have always been my own master,' he returned quietly; 'and as for the house you are so fond of talking about, it seems still in the clouds as far as I am concerned. Neither have I once visited Wardour Street.'
'No; you have been very slow about it,' she replied, smiling; 'you were never in a hurry to possess your good things, Michael. I have often envied you your patience.'
And then the mare trotted round the corner.
'There is an old saying, that "all comes round to him who waits." Do you think that is true, Audrey?'
He did not wait for her answer, as he climbed up into the driving-seat and took the reins; then he lifted his hat to her with rather a sad smile.
'Yes, I have waited a long time, and it will not come yet.' And then he touched the mare a little smartly, and the next moment she was trotting briskly towards the gate.
'Why had he looked so sad?' she wondered, as she went back to Mollie. He had not seemed like himself all the week, and now he had gone. 'If he only knew how much I want him, I think he would not go away so often,' she said to herself as she sat down to correct Mollie's French exercise.
It was in the early days of June that Michael paid one of these flying visits to Rutherford, and as he drove through the green lanes, with the sweet summer breeze just stirring the leaves, he suddenly remembered that Cyril had lain in his quiet grave just eight months. He hardly knew why the thought had occurred to him, for he had been pondering a far different subject. 'Eight months! I had no idea that it had been so long,' he said to himself; 'time passes more quickly as one grows older. If I live to the end of the year I shall be nine-and-thirty. No wonder I feel a sober middle-aged man!'
These reflections were hardly exhilarating, and he was glad when Woodcote was in sight.
'You need not drive in, Fenton,' he said to the groom; 'take the mare round to the stables, and I will walk up to the house.'
The gardens of Woodcote looked lovelier than ever this afternoon, he thought, as he walked slowly up the terrace: the tender green of the foliage, the gay tints of lilacs and laburnums and pink and white horse chestnuts, made a gorgeous background. Here a guelder rose thrust its soft puffy balls almost in his face, while the white shimmering leaves of the maple contrasted superbly with the dark-veined leaves of the copper beech. Dr. Ross had always prided himself on his rare trees and shrubs, and, indeed, no other garden in Rutherford could compete with the grounds of Woodcote; the long lawn that stretched below the terrace was kept free from daisies, and was as smooth as velvet.
Some lads were playing tennis there now, and a young lady in a gray dress was sitting under a clump of lilacs, watching them. For a moment Michael hesitated, thinking it was a stranger; but as she beckoned to him, a sudden gleam came into his eyes, and he hastily crossed the lawn.
'I have been waiting for you; you are a little late, Michael,' she said, as he shook hands with her. 'Mollie has gone out with mother; I asked her to take my place.'
But he stood looking at her, and there was a strangely pleased expression on his face.
'I did not know you,' he said, in a low voice; 'I thought it was a strange young lady sitting on the bench. It was this, I suppose;' and he touched her gown as he spoke.
Audrey coloured. The remark evidently pained her.
'I left off my black gown yesterday,' she replied hurriedly. 'I found out that it troubled father, though he was too kind to tell me so. It was Gage who spoke to me; she said that it was a pity to wear it so long.'
'I don't see that Gage had any right to speak to you. It was your affair, not hers.'
There was a trace of sharpness in Michael's tone, and the light had faded out of his eyes. After all, there was no cause for him to rejoice; she had not left off her mourning of her own accord. What a fool he had been! Of course, she had only done it to please her father.
'No; it was kind of her to speak; and, after all, what does it matter? Father seemed so relieved when I put on this, and I can remember Cyril without the help of a black gown. It is better to please other people than to please one's self, and after the first moment I did not mind. Those boys are so noisy,' she continued in her ordinary manner, as though she were not willing to discuss the subject more fully. 'Shall we go to "Michael's bench"? Booty is making for that direction, as usual, and the pond is so pretty this afternoon.'
'As you like,' he returned, a little moodily.
Strange to say, this little episode of the dress had upset his equanimity, and he could not at once regain his old calmness. Had ever any gown become her so well? he wondered, with the exaggeration natural to a lover. She had a spray of laburnum in her hand, and the sunshine seemed to thread her brown hair with gold. It seemed to him as though there was a softer look in her gray eyes, as though his return were very welcome to her.
'Michael,' she said suddenly, as they stood watching Eiderdown and Snowflake as they came sailing proudly up the pond in all the majesty of unruffled feathers, and Booty, as usual, pattered to the water's edge to bark at them until he was hoarse, 'what is this that I hear about your going away? Father tells me that you have made all sorts of plans for yourself.'
'My money is burning a hole in my purse, you see,' he returned, picking up a dry twig from the ground, a proceeding that seemed to drive Booty frantic with excitement. 'I am beginning to realise my responsibility as a man of property; and as, of course, my first duty is to look after number one——'
But she would not allow him to finish.
'Michael, will you come and sit down? How can we talk properly while you are picking up sticks for Booty?'
Then he followed her to the bench, but, instead of seating himself, he leaned lazily against a baby-willow.
'I am going abroad with Dick Abercrombie,' he said, as though he were mentioning an everyday occurrence. 'You know how often I have planned a tour in Switzerland and Italy, but I have never been able to carry it out; and now I can combine duty and pleasure.'
'Where does the duty lie, Michael?'
But she did not smile as she put the question, and it struck him that she looked a little dull.
'Why, with Dick, of course,' he returned quickly. 'Don't you know, the poor fellow is terribly out of health; his father is very anxious about him. He has been over-working, and I fancy there is some sort of love-affair as well; at least, the Doctor hinted as much. Anyhow, he is to strike work for six months; and as he wanted a travelling companion, I offered my humble services.'
'But you will not be away all that time?' she asked, with visible anxiety.
'Six months is not so very long, is it?' he returned coolly; 'and I do not see how we shall work out our plans even in that time. We are to do Switzerland thoroughly and to spend at least a month in the Engadine; then there are the Swiss Tyrol and the Italian lakes, and afterwards Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. If Dick tires of it and throws it up, I can still keep on alone. I want to do the thing properly for once in my life, and I have even thought of Greece and the Holy Land the following spring.'
But again she interrupted him, and this time he saw the pained look in her eyes.
'You will leave us for all that time—you will let him come back alone, and go on by yourself? Oh, Michael! what shall I do without you? You are more necessary to me than ever now.'
She so seldom thought of herself that this speech took him by surprise. There was a tone of reproach in her voice, as though she thought him unkind for leaving her. Michael was not his ordinary calm self that afternoon. For months he had dreaded to find himself alone with her; but now the very sweetness of that loving reproach seemed too much for him.
'A man is not always master of himself,' Cyril had once said; and at that moment Michael felt that it was no longer possible for him to be silent. He could bear it no more.
'I shall stay away,' he said in a strangely-suppressed voice, 'because it is only right for me to do so—because it is my duty to leave you.'
'Your duty to leave me,' she faltered. 'Oh, Michael, why?'
'Do you wish me to tell you?' he said, looking at her fully as he stood opposite to her; and there was a gleam in the keen blue eyes that made her suddenly avert her face. 'Is it possible that all these years you have not known what you have been to me—that you have not guessed my love?'
Then for the first time in her life she shrank from him.
'What do you mean?' she said helplessly. 'We have always loved each other; you have been like my own brother, Michael.'
'Then I can be your brother no longer,' he returned passionately; 'from a child you have been far dearer to me. I never remember the time since I was a subaltern that I did not love you, and my love has grown every year.'
'Do you mean that you cared for me as Cyril cared?'
But even as she asked the question he saw that her face was suffused with a burning blush.
'I do mean it! From a child you have been the one woman in the world to me—the only one I wished to make my wife.'
Then she covered her face with her hands, and he could see that she was trembling from head to foot.
'It is too soon,' he heard her say; 'it is terribly soon;' and he knew the shock of this discovery was very great.
'It is not too soon,' he said, sitting down beside her and trying to draw away her hands. 'Audrey, my dearest, I cannot bear this. You must not shrink from me so. Do not misunderstand me; I am asking you for nothing. Surely you are not afraid of me—of Michael?'
'I think I am afraid of you,' she whispered. 'Oh, Michael, if this be true! But I cannot—cannot believe it! Why have you never told me this before? Why have you let me——'
And then she stopped, as though a sob impeded her utterance.
'I was never in a position to tell you so,' he returned, with his old gentleness. 'For years I doubted whether I should ever be well enough to marry. Do you think I would have condemned my wife, even if I could have won her, to a life of nursing? I was far too proud to demand such a sacrifice of any woman. And then I was a poor man, Audrey.'
'What did that matter?' she replied, with a touch of scorn in her voice; 'Cyril was poor too.'
'You must not think I blame him, if I say we were very different men. I was prouder than he, and I knew your generous nature too well to take advantage of it. When the money came it was too late: you were engaged to him. I had only to hide my pain, so that you should not be made unhappy by it. I thought I was a bad actor; but you never guessed my secret—you would not have guessed it now.'
'How could I?' she returned simply; 'I was only thinking of Cyril.'
'Yes, and you are thinking of him now; he is as much my rival now he is dead as when he was living. That is why I am going away, because I can bear it no longer.'
'Must you go?'
Audrey's voice sank so that he could hardly hear the faint words. Perhaps she herself did not know what they implied; she was too shaken and miserable. That Michael, her own dear Michael, should have suffered all these years, and that she had never known it! Cyril was in his grave—he no longer needed her—what did it matter if the idea of another man wooing her so soon gave her pain, if she could only comfort Michael? But happily for them both, Michael guessed at that secret thought, and as he caught the words the flush mounted to his brow.'
'Yes, I must go,' he said firmly; 'it is my best, my only chance. In my absence you will think of me more kindly. The old Michael—who was your friend, your faithful, devoted friend—will unconsciously blend with the new Michael, who you know is your lover. There,' he continued in a pained voice, 'as I speak the word you shrink again from me; and yet I am asking you nothing. Dear, if you were to promise me this moment that you would be my wife, if you were to tell me that you would try to love me as I wish to be loved, I would not marry you! No—though you are dearer to me than anything in life—I would not marry you!'
'Do you not wish me to try, then?' she asked, rather bewildered by this strange wooing.
Was it because Cyril was young that she had never feared him as she feared Michael? There was a quiet power about him that, in spite of his gentleness, seemed to subdue her, and though he was very pale, there was a fire in his eyes that made her unwilling to look at him. Yes, it was indeed a new Michael—one she could hardly understand.
'Certainly I do not wish it,' he replied quickly. 'Can love come by trying?' But she could not answer him this. 'Any such love would not content me,' he went on; 'I must have all your heart or none. Forgive me if I say one thing, Audrey. I believe that poor Blake had not all that you have to give. I have thought this more than once; his love for you was so great that yours could hardly equal it. Nay, dear, I did not mean to hurt you by saying this,' for she was weeping now. 'You were goodness itself to him.'
'I loved him; I am sure I loved him,' she said a little piteously, for Michael's words seemed to touch a sore spot.
How often since Cyril's death had she blamed herself for not loving him more! More than once his excessive tenderness had wearied her, and she would have been content with less. She had been in no hurry to shorten her engagement, and the thought of resigning her maidenly freedom had always been distasteful to her. Could it be possible that Michael was right, and that there was something defective in her love?
'Yes, you loved him. Blake has often told me that you were an angel of goodness to him. He missed nothing, you may be sure of that; but, Audrey, I cannot help my nature. I should ask more than ever he did.'
Then her head drooped, and he knew that no answer was possible.
'So you know why I am going away.' And now he rose and again stood before her. 'Because under these circumstances it would no longer be possible for us to be together—at least, it would not be possible for me. I shall leave you to question your own heart. Let it speak truly. Perhaps—I do not say it will be so, but perhaps you may find that I am more to you than you think. If that time ever comes, will you send for me?'
'Send for you?'
'Yes; be true to your own noble self, your own honest nature, and be true to me. You need not say many words. Just "Michael, come," will be enough to bring me from the very ends of the earth.'
'But you will come before that; you will not wait for any such words?'
But though he gave no special answer to this, she saw by his face that he would wait.
'But you will write, Michael? you will not leave me'—and then she hastily substituted 'us'—'in complete silence? You may be away six months—a whole year—it may even be longer.'
'Yes, it may be longer,' he returned; and now it was he who was the calmer of the two. 'It is impossible for either of us to tell now how long my exile may last; but I will write—not often, and perhaps I may not even speak of this that has passed between us; but I shall write, and you will find no difficulty in answering my letters.'
And when he had said this he looked at her very kindly and then without another word walked to the house.
'LET YOUR HEART PLEAD FOR ME'
'We were apart; yet day by day I bade my heart more constant be. I bade it keep the world away, And grow a home for only thee; Nor fear'd but thy love likewise grew, Like mine, each day, more tried, more true.'
Audrey never knew how she got through the rest of the day. During the remainder of Michael's visit she seemed in an uneasy dream. Never before in her life had she been oppressed by such painful self-consciousness; all freedom of speech was impossible to her; she spoke with reluctance, and felt as though every word were weighed in some inward balance.
More than once her mother asked her if she were well; but, happily, Michael was not present to see how the blood rushed to her face as she framed an evasive answer. She could not have told her mother whether she were ill or well: she only knew some moral earthquake had shattered her old illusions, and that she was looking out at a changed world.
But she was conscious through it all that Michael's watchfulness and care shielded her from observation, that he was for ever throwing himself into the breach when any unusual effort was required. Once when her sister and Mr. Harcourt were present, he challenged them to a game of whist, that Audrey might leave her place at the piano. Very likely he had heard the slight quaver in her voice that told him the song tried her.
Audrey longed to thank him as she stole out into the summer dusk, and wandered down the paths between the tall sentinel lilies, that gleamed so ghostly white in the darkness. But with all his thought for her, he was never alone with her for a moment until the last day came, and he went to the morning-room to wish her good-bye. She was tending her ferns, but she took off her gardening-gloves at once as he came up to her.
'You are going, Michael; but we shall see you again before you really start?' she said, with an attempt at cheerfulness. But he shook his head.
'I think not. Abercrombie has just written to say that Dick wants to get away a week earlier. I shall not be down here again.'
Something choking seemed to rise in Audrey's throat, and if her life had depended on it she could not have got out another word. But Michael saw the troubled look in her eyes; they seemed to ask him again that question, 'Must you go?'
'Yes, dear; I must go,' he replied gently. 'It is better for us both—better for you, and far, far better for me.' And as she still looked at him without speaking, he drew her towards him and kissed her cheek. 'God be with you, my dearest!' he said very tenderly. 'Think of me as kindly as you can, and let your heart plead for me.'
And the next moment he was gone.
Audrey stood rooted to the spot; she felt as though some nightmare oppression were on her. She heard her father's voice calling to her. 'Where is Audrey?' he said. 'She must bid Michael good-bye.' And then someone—Michael, perhaps—answered him.
A great longing was on her to see him again; but as she hesitated the wheels of the dog-cart sounded on the gravel, and she knew that she was too late. With a sudden impulse she leant out of the window. Michael was looking back at the house; he saw her, and raised his hat. She had just time to wave her hand as Dr. Ross drove rapidly through the gate.
When her mother came to find her she was still standing there; she looked very pale, and the pained, wistful look was still in her eyes.
'Mother,' she said, 'Cyril has left me, and now Michael has gone, too; and the world seems a different place to me.'
'Michael will come back, my darling,' replied Mrs. Ross, vaguely troubled by the look on the girl's face. 'Your father says he has long wanted a thorough change, and this trip will do him so much good.'
'Yes, he will come back; but when and how? And he will not come back for a long time;' and then she broke down, and hid her face in her mother's shoulder. 'If I were only like you, mother! if my life lay behind me, and had not to be lived out day by day and year by year! for I seem so tired of everything.'
Mrs. Ross could make nothing of her girl; but she gave her just what she required that moment, a little soothing and extra petting.
'You have gone through so much, and you have borne it all so quietly, and now Nature is having her revenge; you will be better presently, my darling.'
And she was right: Audrey's strong will and sense of duty soon overcame the hysterical emotion.
'I think I am tired,' she acknowledged; and to her mother's relief she consented to lie still and do nothing. 'I will make up for this idle day to-morrow,' she said with a faint smile, as she closed her eyes. 'Now go downstairs, mother dear, and don't trouble about me any more, unless you want to make me ashamed of myself for having been such a baby.'
'She is just worn out with keeping everything to herself, and trying to spare us pain,' Mrs. Ross said to her husband, as she recounted this little scene to him. 'I never knew Audrey hysterical before; I was obliged to give her some sal volatile. I think she is asleep now.'
'I don't hold with sal volatile,' returned the Doctor a little grimly. 'Sleep is a far safer remedy, Emmie. Leave her to herself; she will be all right in a day or two.'
But Dr. Ross sighed as he got up and went to his study. Audrey little knew that her father was in the secret; that in his pain and perplexity Michael had at last taken his best friend into his confidence.
'We must leave things to work round,' had been his parting words to Michael that morning. 'No one, not even her father, must coerce her. All these years you have been like a son to me, Mike; and if my child could bring herself to love you as you deserve to be loved, no one would be better pleased than I should be.'
'And you will tell no one—not even Cousin Emmeline?'
'Why, I should not dare tell her,' returned the Doctor with rather a dejected smile, for he hated to keep things from his wife. 'Geraldine would get hold of it, and then it would come round to Harcourt. No, I will keep my own counsel, Mike. And now good-bye, and good luck to you!'
'It is the Burnett motto,' replied Michael, with a touch of solemnity in his voice—'"Good luck God send." Take care of her, Cousin John.'
And then the two men grasped hands and parted.
'If I had to search the whole world over for a husband for her, I'd choose Mike,' was Dr. Ross's thought as he drove himself back again to Woodcote.
Audrey kept her promise and made up for her one idle day. 'Work was good for everyone,' she said, 'and it was especially good for her.' So the following morning she resumed lessons with Mollie. She had complained a few weeks before that her German was becoming rusty, and by her father's advice she and Mollie were taking lessons together of Herr Freiligrath. The master she had selected was a very strict one, and his lessons entailed a great deal of preparation. No discipline could have been more wholesome. Audrey forgot her perplexities while she translated Wallenstein and followed the unhappy fortunes of Max and Theckla.
But she did not at once regain her cheerfulness, and the daily round of duty was not performed without a great deal of effort and inward prompting; if no task were left unfulfilled, if she were always ready to give her mother or Geraldine the companionship they needed, and if her father never missed one of her usual ministrations, it was because she would listen to no plea of self-indulgence.
'You are unhappy, and I fear you must be unhappy and not at ease for a long time,' she would say to herself in the intervals of her work; 'but idleness will not help you.' And to give her her due, she was never busier than during the summer that followed Michael's leave-taking. She had no idea that Michael knew all she was doing, and that her father often wrote to him. Michael had kept his word, and his letters to Audrey were very few and far between, and there was not a word in them that her mother or Geraldine could not have read if she had chosen to show them; but Michael's letters had always been sacred to her. Still it was impossible to answer them with her old freedom. The happy, sisterly intercourse was now a thing of the past. She could no longer pour out to her friend all her innocent girlish thoughts; a barrier—a strange, unnatural barrier—had been built up between them, and Audrey's letters, with all her painstaking effort, gave very little pleasure to Michael.
'Poor child! she is still afraid of me,' he thought, as he folded up the thin paper. And he could not always suppress a sigh as he missed the old playfulness and open-hearted affection that used to breathe in every carelessly-worded sentence. But he knew that she could not help herself; that it was impossible for her now to tell him how she missed him and how heavily the days passed without him; and how could he know it, if she thought less of Cyril and more of him every day?
Michael could not guess at all that inward self-questioning that seemed for ever making dumb utterance in her breast. Now and then, when no one needed her, she would wander down to 'Michael's bench' in the dusk or moonlight, and go over that strange conversation again.
'Let your own heart plead for me,' had been his parting words; and, indeed, it seemed as though some subtle influence were for ever bringing his words to her memory. Why had he left her? Could he not have trusted her to do even this for him? She had loved Cyril, but she had not wished to marry him; she had wished to marry no man. It was the instinct of her nature to make others happy, and not to think of herself; and if Michael had wanted her——But the next moment a sort of despair seized her.
He was not like Cyril. What she had to give would not content him in the least.
'I must have all your heart or none,' he had said to her; and his eyes seemed to dominate her as he spoke. 'I should ask more than he did.' And she had not dared to answer him.
No; she could not deceive him. She knew that no kindness on her part would ever wear in his eyes the semblance of the love he wanted. What could she do for him or for herself?
'Can love come by trying?' he had asked; and she could recall vividly the bitterness of his tone as he said this.
But the speech over which she pondered most, sometimes for an hour together, was a very different one.
'I shall leave you,' he had told her, and there had been a strange light in his eyes as he spoke—'I shall leave you to question your own heart. Let it speak truly. Perhaps—I do not say it will be so, but perhaps you may find that I am more to you than you think. If that time ever comes, will you send for me?'
'What did he mean by saying this?' she would ask herself. 'Why did his look seem to reproach me and pierce me to the heart? How could I know, unless he told me? It is not my fault that I have been so blind. I cannot send for him—I cannot! It is too soon, and——'
But Audrey did not finish her sentence. Even under the dark trees the hot flush was scorching her face.
'Oh, I am so tired of it all!' she would say, springing to her feet with a sudden, quick impatience.
The old tranquil life—the happy, careless life—was gone for ever. Cyril—her poor dear Cyril—was in his grave; and now there was this new lover, with his proud, gentle wooing: not her old Michael who had so satisfied her, but a new, powerful Michael, who half drew and half repelled her, and for whom she had no fitting answer.
Audrey was glad when August came and she could find some relief in change of scene. Dr. Ross had taken a large roomy cottage at Keswick for the summer holidays, and the Harcourts and Kester were to join them. Audrey was thankful that her father had not selected Scotland, as his son-in-law had suggested; and she made up her mind, in her sensible way, that, as far as lay in her power, she would enjoy herself as much as possible; and after a time her efforts were not unsuccessful.
Derwent-water was in unusual beauty that year, and a spell of warm, sunny weather enabled them to enjoy their boating expeditions on the lake. Audrey liked to paddle herself and Mollie to one of the islands, and sit there reading and working, while Kester and Percival fished and Geraldine roamed by the lake-side with her bonnie boy, sitting like a young prince in his little wheeled carriage, beside her. There was a long-tailed, shaggy pony belonging to the cottage—a sturdy, sure-footed, good-tempered animal, and Dr. Ross would often drive his wife through some of the lovely dales. Mrs. Ross never thoroughly enjoyed herself in a boat—she had a dislike to find herself surrounded by the deep, clear water; and she much preferred the chaise and Jemmy.
'You were always a goose, Emmie, and I suppose that is why I married you,' Dr. Ross remarked, as he tickled up Jemmy's broad back with the whip.
Nevertheless, the Doctor loved these expeditions quite as much as his wife did.
'What a handsome Darby and Joan they look, Jerry!' Mr. Harcourt once said, as he walked beside her, with Leonard proudly seated on his shoulder. 'I doubt if we shall make such a good-looking couple, my love, in thirty years' time.'
But Mr. Harcourt was smiling in a sly fashion, as he took a sidelong glance at his graceful wife. Geraldine was looking lovelier than ever in the broad-brimmed hat that her husband had chosen for her.
A sad event happened soon after their return to Woodcote. Matthew O'Brien died on the anniversary of his son's death. His end had been very sudden; no one had suspected that for months an insidious disease had been making stealthy progress. He had seemed much as usual, and had made no complaint, only Mrs. Baxter had remarked to her father that Uncle Mat seemed quieter-like and more peaceable. 'He has given up those wearisome prowls of his, and takes more kindly to the chimney-corner,' as she said.
But one evening Mat put his pipe down silently before it was half smoked, and went off to bed, and the next day he complained of pain and drowsiness; and Prissy cooked some of her messes and soothing possets, and made much of him as he lay on his pillow looking idly out on the October sunshine. And the next day, as the pain and drowsiness did not diminish, she very wisely suggested that a doctor should be sent for; and as Dr. Foster stood beside him, asking him questions rather gravely, a sudden thought came into Mat's mind, and he looked into the doctor's eyes a little solemnly.
'You need not be afraid to tell me, doctor,' he said sadly; 'my life has not been much good to me, and I shall not be sorry to part with it.' But the doctor's answer was kindly evasive.
But two or three nights afterwards, as Thomas O'Brien was sitting beside the bed for an hour to relieve Prissy, Mat stretched out his lean arm and grasped his brother's coat-sleeve.
'It is coming, Tom,' he said; 'I shall soon be with my boy—that is, if God's mercy will grant me admittance to that good place. Give my love to Mollie and the little chap, and, Tom, old fellow, God bless you!'
He murmured something drowsily, and then again more clearly:
'Tell Olive that she was not to blame so much, after all. I have been too hard on her, poor girl! but she could not help her nature. Isn't there something about "To whoever little is forgiven, the same loveth little"? I seem to remember Susie reading it.'
And Thomas O'Brien, bending over the gray face, repeated the words slowly:
'"Wherefore I say unto you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loveth much."'
But Mat interrupted him:
'He has forgiven me plenty, lad, and you too, and I love Him for it.'
And those were Matthew O'Brien's last words.
Mat O'Brien did not go unwept to his grave, in spite of his unsatisfactory life. His brother mourned for him long and sincerely, and in their way Kester and Mollie grieved, too. At Audrey's wish, Mollie wrote the full particulars of her father's death to the convent. Sister Monica's answer was, in Audrey's opinion, singularly suggestive of the ci-devant Mrs. Blake. It was a strange medley of mysticism and motherly yearnings, but at the end was a touch of real honest feeling.
'Tell Audrey that when I pray for my boy I pray for her, too; and, Mollie, do not think that your mother forgets you, for perhaps she may do you better service now than ever she did when we were together. Think of me sometimes, my child. I am glad that your father spoke of me so kindly. I can pray for him now, as I never could when he was living. Poor man! It was an ill world to him, but he is out of it now.
Your loving and repentant mother,
'SISTER MONICA MARY.'
Audrey went over to Brail constantly during the autumn and winter months that followed Mat's death. Sometimes Mollie accompanied her, but oftener she was alone. Nothing cheered Thomas O'Brien more than the society of his favourite. He loved to talk to her of the dear ones who had passed within the veil, and to Audrey herself the visits were very soothing.
She liked those solitary walks under the gray November skies, or when the December sun hung redly behind the distant hedgerows. How often she had walked there when Cyril had met her half-way, or she had come upon him lingering in the lanes, with Zack bounding beside him. It was in the Brail lanes that he first told her of his love, when she had sent him sorrowfully away from her; but somehow, as she walked there now, between hedgerows white with hoar frost, she thought less of him than of Michael; but as yet no message had been sent to recall the wanderer home.
'And she to him will reach her hand, And gazing in his eyes will stand, And know her friend and weep for glee, And cry, "Long, long, I've looked for thee."'
Kester had spent his Christmas holidays at Woodcote; Audrey loved to have him with her. Somehow he seemed to belong to Michael, and the boy warmly returned her affection.
'Do you know that Mr. Abercrombie is coming home in March?' he said to her the day before he went back to Brighton; 'he is quite well now, and Captain Burnett says he is in a fever to get back to England. Do you think Captain Burnett will come, too?' and Kester looked anxiously in her face.
Audrey could not satisfy Kester on this point; nevertheless, she felt a secret hope stirring in her heart that Michael would not stay away much longer. After all, was it likely that he would wait for the message when he must know how impossible it would be for her to send it? He had been away seven months, and by this time he must be growing homesick.
Almost the same thought occurred to Michael as, early in March, he sat in the loggia of an old Florentine palace, where he and his friend had a suite of rooms.
How long had he been away, he wondered, as he looked out on the sunset—seven, nay, eight months; and as yet there had been no recall. Had he really expected it? Would it not be as well to go back and plead his own cause, and see what these months of absence had done for him, or should he wait a little longer?
Michael's self-imposed exile had not been unhappy. His companion was congenial to him; the varied scenes through which he had passed, the historic interest of the cities, had engrossed and interested him; and, perhaps for the first time, he tasted the delights of a well-filled purse, as he accumulated art treasures and pictures; but, above all, a latent hope, to which he gave no voice or title, kept him patient and cheerful.
'It was too soon; but by and by she will find it out for herself,' he would say, as he strolled through the galleries, or stood by some moss-grown fountain to buy flowers from a dark-eyed Florentine girl.
Should he go back with Abercrombie next week, or should he push on towards Greece and the Holy Land? It was a little difficult to decide, but somehow Michael never answered that question. Fate took the matter into her own hands, as she often does when the knot becomes too intricate for the bungling fingers of poor mortals.
Somehow Audrey became convinced in her own mind that Michael would certainly accompany his friend back to England. They had started together; was it likely that Michael would allow him to return alone? and when March came she began to look anxiously for a letter announcing this intention.
She was thinking of this one afternoon as she sat talking to her mother. It was a cold, dreary day, and Audrey had just remarked that no one in Rutherford would think of leaving their fireside on such an afternoon, when Geraldine entered, glowing from the cold wind, and looking cosy and comfortable in her warm furs.
'My dear, what a day to venture out,' remonstrated her mother; 'even Audrey says the wind is cruel.'
'I am not such a foe to the east wind as Michael is,' returned Geraldine cheerfully, as she seated herself out of the range of the fire; 'and Percival never likes me to cosset myself—that is why I never take cold. By the bye, I heard something about Michael a little while ago. Just as I was talking to Mrs. Charrington, who should come in but Dora Abercrombie! You know Dora, Audrey. She is the second one; but she is not half so good-looking as Gwendoline.'
'She is related to Mrs. Charrington, is she not, Gage?'
'Yes; a step-niece, or something of that sort; not a very near relationship, but they are very intimate. She says her brother is expected in Portland Place to-morrow or the day after.' Here Audrey gave a start. 'Take care, my dear: the urn is running over; you are filling the teapot too full. Shall I ring for Crauford? No? Well, as I was saying'—rather absently, for her eyes were still following the thin stream on the tea-tray that Audrey was hurriedly wiping up—'Master Dick is expected back—and here Dora was a trifle mysterious; and then it came out that he was engaged—had been engaged for the last eight months; only the mother of his lady-love had turned restive. But now things were smoother, and she hoped that they would soon be married. Poor Michael! I am afraid he has not had a very cheerful companion all these months.'
'Did Miss Abercrombie mention Michael?' asked Audrey, speaking with manifest effort. How tiresome Gage was! as though anyone wanted to hear about Dick Abercrombie's love affairs!
'Oh dear yes! and that is the worst part of all,' returned Geraldine, with the zest that is always shown by the bearer of bad news, even by a superior person like young Mrs. Harcourt. 'I had no idea Michael would play truant for so long: actually she says her brother is coming home without him! and he is going to spend the summer and autumn in Greece and the Holy Land, and perhaps winter in Algiers. In fact, Dick Abercrombie says he does not know when he means to come back.'
'What is that you say, my dear?' asked Dr. Ross, who entered the room in time to hear the last clause. 'Were you speaking of Michael?'
'Yes, father dear.' And Geraldine willingly recapitulated the whole of her speech for his benefit. 'And I do wish someone would write and give him a good scolding for staying away so long, as though no one wanted him! And we have all been missing him so badly!'
'By the bye, that reminds me that I was called away just now to speak to Fergusson, and I have actually left my letter to Michael open on my study-table; and I meant it to go by this post. Do you mind just slipping it into its envelope, Audrey?—it is already directed. Thank you, my dear,' as Audrey silently left the room.
Was Dr. Ross really anxious about his letter, or had he noticed the white look on his daughter's face, and feared that others might notice it too?
Audrey never knew how long she sat before her father's study-table, neither could she have recalled a single thought that passed through her mind. A dull throbbing pain was at her heart; the cold numbness that had crept over her as Michael had bidden her good-bye, and which kept her dumb before him, was over her now—some strange pulse seemed beating in her head. He was going still farther away from her. He was not coming back. He would never come back. Something would happen to him. She would never see his kind face again—never, never!
Perhaps this long silence had angered him—Michael, who had always been so gentle to her, on whose face she had never seen a frown! Michael had grown weary of endurance, and had given up all hope of winning her. Oh, if he had only trusted her! if he would only have believed that she would have done her very best to make him happy! How could he be so cruel to himself and to her? How could he have the heart to punish her so bitterly, as though she were to blame? Could she help her nature any more than she could help this separation from her dearest friend?
And then there came over her the deadly feeling of possible loss, and a desolation too terrible to contemplate. She had mourned very tenderly for Cyril; but if Michael died—if any ill should befall him in those distant lands—'Oh, I could not bear it!' was her inward cry. 'Life without Michael would be impossible,' and as this thought flashed through her mind her eyes suddenly fell on an empty space at the end of her father's letter. With a sudden impulse she took up the pen and wrote three words across the page in her clear, legible writing—'Michael, come. Audrey.' She was almost breathless with her haste as she thrust it into the envelope, and carried it to the boy who was waiting for the letters. Then she went back to the drawing-room, for she dare not trust herself to be alone another moment. What had she done? What would Michael think of her? What must she think of herself? No wonder Geraldine looked at her in surprise as she crossed the room and took up her work.
'What a time you have been, Audrey!' she said, a little reproachfully. 'I have been waiting to bid you good-bye. Father is going to walk with me to Hillside, so Percival will not mind my being so late. How cold your face and hands are, and I am as warm as possible! You have been running about those draughty passages, and have taken a chill. She looks pale, doesn't she, mother?'
'Come, come,' interrupted her father impatiently, 'you must not keep me waiting any longer, Geraldine. Sit down by the fire and warm yourself, my dear.'
And for one moment Dr. Ross's hand lay lightly on Audrey's brown hair. Did he guess the real meaning of the girl's downcast and sorrowful looks? And why was there a pleased smile on his face as he followed his eldest daughter out of the room?
'I shall write to Michael and tell him to come home,' he said to himself, as he buttoned up his great-coat. 'I promised him that I would watch over his interests, and I shall tell him that in my opinion there is some hope for him now.'
The next few days were terrible to Audrey. More than once she feared she would be ill. She could not sleep properly. The mornings, the afternoons, the evenings, were endless to her. Mollie's merry chatter seemed to jar on her. Her mother's kindly commonplace remarks seemed devoid of interest, and yet above all things she dreaded to be alone. Was she growing nervous? for any sudden sound, an unaccustomed footstep, even the clanging of the door-bell, made her start, and drove the blood from her heart. Would he write or would he telegraph? Should she hear one day that he was on his way home? Audrey was asking herself these questions morning, noon, and night. She felt as though the suspense would wear her out in time. If anyone had told Audrey that for the first time in her life she had all the symptoms that belong to a certain well-known disease—that these cold and hot fits, this self-distrustfulness and new timidity that were transforming her into a different Audrey, were only its salient features—she would have scouted the idea very fiercely. That she was in love with Michael, and that her love for Cyril was a very dim, shadowy sort of affection compared with her love for Michael,—such a thought would have utterly shocked her; and yet it was the truth. Michael had always been more to her than ever she had guessed, and this long absence had taught her the unmistakable fact that she could not do without him.
Audrey struggled on as well as she could through those restless, miserable days. She would not give in; she had never given in in her life to any passing tide of emotion, and she would not be weak now. Every morning, after a wakeful, unrefreshing night, she braced herself to meet the day's duties. She read French and German with Mollie; she superintended her practising, and only wandered off in a dream when Mollie's scales and exercises became too monotonous. She went up to Hillside and played with Leonard in the nursery, and though Geraldine's sharp eyes discovered that something was amiss, and that Audrey was not in her usual spirits, she had the tact and wisdom not to press for an immediate confidence; and Audrey was very grateful for this forbearance. Audrey's sturdy nature could brook no self-indulgence, and though the March winds were cold, and the Brail lanes deep in miry clay, she persisted in paying her accustomed weekly visit to Thomas O'Brien.
Mollie had a cold, and so had established a claim to remain by the fireside; but Audrey would listen to no weak persuasion to ensconce herself comfortably in the opposite easy-chair. On the contrary, she put on her thickest boots, and, tucking up her skirts, braved wind and mud, and even a cold mizzle of rain, on her way back, and had her reward, for the walk freshened her, and in cheering her old friend she felt her own spirits revive.
She was in a happier mood as she let herself in, and shook out her wet cloak. She was in far too disreputable a state to present herself in the drawing-room; besides, she was late, and she must get ready for dinner. She ran upstairs lightly, but at the top of the staircase she suddenly stopped as though she had been turned to stone. And yet there was nothing very astonishing in the fact that a small brown dog, with very short legs, should be pattering in a cheerful manner down the corridor, or that he should utter a whine of friendly and delighted recognition when he saw Audrey; and if she stared at him as though he were some ghostly apparition, that was not Booty's fault. But the next moment she had caught him up, and had darted with him into her own room.