Miss Frances was very seldom mentioned in Cyril's frequent letters to Kester. The boy used to bring them to Audrey to read with a glow of satisfaction on his face.
'Cyril is awfully good,' he said once; 'he never used to write to me at all; mother always had his letters. But look what a long one I have had to-day—two sheets and a half—and he has asked such a lot of questions. Please, do read it, Miss Ross; there are heaps of messages to everybody.'
Audrey was quite willing to read it. As she took the letter, she again admired the clear, bold handwriting. It was just like the writer, she thought—frank, open, and straightforward. But as she perused it, a glow of amusement passed over her face.
Mr. Blake's letters were very kind and brotherly, but were they only intended for Kester's eyes? Were all those picturesque descriptions, those clever sketches of character, those telling bits of humour, meant solely for the delectation of a boy of sixteen? And, then, the series of questions—what did they do all day when the weather was rainy, for example? did Miss Ross always join the Doctor and Mr. Harcourt on their fishing expeditions? and so on. Mr. Blake seldom mentioned her name, although there were many indirect allusions to her; but Miss Frances was scarcely ever mentioned. She was only classed in an offhand way with 'the Hackett girls' or 'the young ladies.' 'The Hackett girls went with us; the two younger ones are famous walkers,' etcetera.
Sometimes there would be an attempt to moralise.
'I am getting sick of girls,' he wrote on this occasion. 'I will give you a piece of brotherly advice, my boy: never have much to do with them. Do not misunderstand me. By girls, I mean the specimens of young ladies one meets at tennis-parties, garden-parties, and that sort of thing. They are very pretty and amusing, but they are dangerous; they seem to expect that a fellow has nothing else to do but to dangle after them and pay them compliments. Even Miss F——. But, there, I will not mention names. She is a good sort—a lively little soul; but she is always up to mischief.'
Audrey bit her lips to keep from smiling as she read this passage, for she knew Kester was watching her. It was one of the 'saft days' common in the Highlands, and, not being ducks, the two households had remained within doors. Dr. Ross and Michael were classifying butterflies and moths in the den; Mrs. Ross was in her room; and Mr. and Mrs. Harcourt—'cabined, cribbed, confined,' as Mr. Harcourt expressed it—were getting through alarming arrears of correspondence by way of passing the time. Audrey had lighted a fire in the parlour, and sat beside it snugly, and Kester was on the couch opposite her.
'I wonder if it be Miss Frances!' thought Audrey, as she replaced the letter in the envelope. '"A lively little soul, and a good sort." I don't think Mr. Blake's dislike to girls counts for much. Young men seldom write in that way unless they are bitten; and, of course, it could be no one else but Miss Frances. But it is no use arguing out the question.'
'It is a very good letter,' she said aloud. 'You are lucky to have such a correspondent. I suppose'—taking up her embroidery—'that your brother will not mind our seeing his letters?'
'Oh dear no!' returned Kester, falling innocently into the snare. 'I have told him that you always read them; and, you see, he writes just as often. Do you think Cyril is enjoying himself as much as we are, Miss Ross? Now and then it seems to me that he is a little dull. When Cyril says he is bored, I think he means it.'
Audrey evaded this question. She also had detected a vein of melancholy running through the letters. If he were so very happy in Miss Frances' society, would he wish quite so earnestly that the vacation were over, and that he was amongst his boys in the big schoolroom? Would he drop those hints that no air suited him like Rutherford air?
'I think he ought to be enjoying himself,' she said, a little severely. 'He is amongst very kind people, who evidently try to make him happy, and who treat him like one of themselves; and, then, the girls seem so good-natured. Young men do not know when they are well off. You had better tell him so, Kester.'
'Shall I say it as a message from you?'
'By no means;' and Audrey spoke very decidedly. 'I never send messages to gentlemen.' And as the boy looked rather abashed at this rebuke, she continued more gently: 'Of course you will give him our kind regards, and I daresay mother will send a message—Mr. Blake is a great favourite of hers. But it is not my business if your brother chooses to be discontented and to quarrel with his loaves and fishes.'
'I think Cyril would like to be in my place,' observed Kester, quite unaware that he was saying the wrong thing; but Audrey took no notice of this speech. 'Well, he need not envy me now,' he went on, in a dolorous voice. 'It has been a grand time—I have never been so happy in my life; but it will soon be over now. Only a fortnight more.'
'I am so glad you have been happy, Kester; and you do seem so much better,' looking at him critically.
And indeed a great change had passed over the boy. His face was less thin and sharp, and there was a tinge of healthy colour in his cheeks; his eyes, too, were less sunken and hollow, and had lost their melancholy expression. When Audrey had first seen him on that June afternoon, there had been a subdued air about him that contrasted painfully with his extreme youth; but now there was renewed life and energy in his aspect, as though some heavy pressure had been suddenly removed.
'I am ever so much better,' he returned gratefully; and it was then that Audrey noticed for the first time his likeness to his brother. He was really a nice-looking boy, and but for his want of health would have been handsome. 'When I go home'—and here a cloud passed over his face—'these weeks will seem like a dream. Fancy having to do nothing all day but enjoy one's self from morning to night!'
'Why, I am sure you and Michael work hard enough.'
'Oh, but that is the best pleasure of all!' he replied eagerly. 'I should not care for idleness. I like to feel I am making progress; and Captain Burnett says I am getting on first-rate. And then think of our study, Miss Ross!' and here Kester's face kindled with enthusiasm. 'How I shall dream of those moors, and of those great patches of purple heather, and the bees humming over the thyme, and the golden gorse, and the bracken! No wonder Cyril wants to be in my place!'
'You and Michael are great friends, are you not, Kester?'
'Oh yes!' But though Kester turned on her a beaming look of assent, he said no more. He had a boy's dislike to speak of his feelings; and Audrey respected this shy reticence, for she asked no further questions. But she knew Kester almost worshipped Michael, that a word from him influenced him more than a dozen words from any other person; even Cyril's opinion must defer to this new friend. For was not Captain Burnett a hero? did he not wear the Victoria Cross? and were not those scars the remains of glorious wounds, when he shed his blood freely for those poor sick soldiers? And this hero, this king of men, this grave, clear-eyed soldier, had thrown the aegis of his protection round him—Kester—had stooped to teach and befriend him! No wonder Kester prayed 'God bless him!' every night in his brief boyish prayers; that he grew to track his footsteps much as Booty did, and to read him—as Audrey failed to do—by the light of his honest, youthful love.
For Kester's hero was Kester's friend; and in time friends grow to understand each other.
YELLOW STOCKINGS ON THE TAPIS
'We school our manners, act our parts, But He who sees us through and through Knows that the bent of both our hearts Was to be gentle, tranquil, true.'
Audrey had not forgotten Mollie all this time. She kept her promise, and wrote to her frequently; and she had long letters from her in return. Mollie's girlish effusions were very innocent and loving. One day Michael asked to read one of them. He smiled as he handed it back.
'She is a dear little girl!' he said heartily; 'I do not wonder that you are so fond of her. She is only an undeveloped child now, but there is plenty of good raw material. Mollie will make a fine large-hearted woman one day—like someone else I know,' he finished to himself. 'If I do not mistake, Mollie is cut after Audrey's pattern.'
Now and then Mrs. Blake wrote also. Her letters were airy and picturesque, like her talk. Audrey would read them aloud to her mother and Michael.
'I really feel as though our Richmond dreams had come true,' she wrote once—'as though our favourite castle in the air were built. "Not really, mother? you don't think this beautiful house and garden belong to us really?" asks Mollie, in her stupid way. You know what a literal little soul she is. "Oh, go away, Mollie!" I exclaim quite crossly. "How can I help it if you have no imagination?" For all I know, the place is ours: no one interferes with us; we come and go as we like; the birds sing to us; the flowers bloom for our pleasure. Sometimes we sit by the lake, or Mollie paddles me to Deep-water Chine, or we read our history on that delicious circular seat overlooking the terraces. Then the silence is invaded: a neat-handed Phyllis—isn't that poetically expressed?—comes up with a message from that good Mrs. Draper: "Where would Mrs. Blake and Miss Mollie have their tea?" Oh, you dear, thoughtful creature, as though I do not know who has prompted Mrs. Draper! Of course Mollie cries: "The garden, mamma!" and "The garden so be it," say I. And presently it comes—such a tea! such fruit, such cream, such cakes! No wonder Mollie is growing fat. And how am I to thank you and dear Mrs. Ross? I must give it up; words will not express my sense of your goodness. But before I finish this rigmarole I must tell you that Mollie practises every day for an hour, and keeps up her French, and the Roman history progresses well. I am carrying Mollie so fast over the ground that we shall soon be dragged at Pompey's chariot-wheels; and as she complains that she forgets what we have read, I make her take notes and copy them neatly in a book. I know you will be glad to hear this.'
'Humph!' was Michael's sole observation, when Audrey had finished.
'It is a very interesting letter—very droll and amusing,' remarked Mrs. Ross, in her kindly way. 'Mrs. Blake is a clever woman; don't you think so, Michael?'
But Michael could not be induced to hazard an opinion; indeed, his behaviour was so unsatisfactory that Audrey threatened to keep the next letter to herself.
But the last week was nearly at an end, and, though everyone loudly lamented over this fact, it was observed that Mrs. Ross's countenance grew brighter every day. She never willingly left her beautiful home, and she always hailed her return to it with joy. Not even her Highland home, with its heather and long festoons of stag-horn moss, could divert her affections from her beloved Woodcote; and the young mistress of Hillside fully echoed these sentiments.
'It has been a lovely time, and has done Percy a world of good,' she said to her mother, as they were packing up some curiosities together; 'but I can see he is growing a little tired of idleness; and, after all, there is no place like home.'
'I am sure your father and I feel the same; and really, Geraldine, on a wet day these rooms are terribly small. I used to take my work upstairs; one seemed to breathe freer than in that stuffy parlour that Audrey and Michael think so charming.'
'So our last evening has come,' observed Audrey, in a curious tone, as she and Michael wandered down to the little bridge they called their trysting-place. A tiny rivulet of water trickled over the stones, and two or three ducks were dibbling with yellow bills among the miniature boulders. Audrey sat down on the low wall, and Michael stooped to pick up a pebble, an action that excited frantic joy in Booty's breast.
'Ah, to be sure!' he replied, as he sent it skimming along the water, while Booty pattered after it, barking with glee. 'Don't you remember De Quincey's observation?' And as Audrey shook her head, for she never remembered quotations, he went on: 'He declares that it is a true and feeling remark of Dr. Johnson's, that we never do anything consciously for the last time (of things, that is to say, which we have long been in the habit of doing) without sadness of heart.'
'I think he is right;' and Audrey bent over the low parapet to watch a sudden scrimmage below.
Booty was frisking among the boulders, and the ducks, evidently ruffled in their feelings, were swimming under the bridge, quacking a loud, indignant protest. Even ducks lose their tempers sometimes, and the angry flourish of their tails and the pouting of their soft necks and their open bills showed keen remonstrance and utter vexation of spirit.
'Booty, come here, and leave those ducks in peace;' and then, while Michael threw another pebble or two, she sat asking herself if she felt this sadness. Was she glad or sorry to know that to-morrow they would be on their way to Rutherford?—would it not be a matter of regret if their return were to be suddenly postponed? She had been very happy here; she had seen so much of her father and Michael; but——Here Audrey brought her inward questioning to an abrupt end.
'It has been a nice time, Michael,' she said gently—'a very nice time indeed.'
'Look here! I wish you would substitute another adjective,' he remonstrated, quite seriously. '"Nice" is such an insipid, sugary sort of word: it has no sort of character about it. Now, if you had said "a good old time——"'
'And have drawn down a reproof on myself for talking slang.'
'Well, "a glorious time,"' he corrected—'shall we say that instead? You have enjoyed it, have you not?' with one of his searching looks.
'Oh yes; I have never enjoyed myself more. And, Michael'—her love of mischief predominating—'I do believe we have not quarrelled once.'
'You have been such a brick, you know, and have given in to me in everything. Somehow,' continued Michael, throwing up a pebble and catching it again, 'if people give in to me, I am remarkably sweet-tempered. We were very near a quarrel once, I remember, but it never came to anything. It was a hot afternoon, I think, and we were both sleepy.'
'I cannot say I remember it.'
'Well, let it pass. I am in that sort of magnanimous mood that I am ready to pronounce absolution on all offences—past, present, and to come. By the bye, Audrey, I forgot to tell you something. Kester has had the letter he wanted, and Widow Blake graciously signifies her assent.'
'Michael, let me give you a timely warning. We shall quarrel if you call my friend by that ridiculous name.'
'A quarrel cannot be carried on by one party alone,' he returned lazily; 'and I absolutely refuse to consider a mere statement of facts in the light of a grievance. Still, if your feelings are wounded, and you object to my allusion to your fair friend's bereaved condition——'
'Michael!' with a little stamp, 'will you leave off talking about Mrs. Blake and tell me what you mean?'
'It is perfectly simple, I assure you. Kester wrote to his mother to ask if he might go up to town with me, and she said "Yes."'
'Must you really go?' rather regretfully. 'It would be so much nicer if you came to Rutherford with us. You know,' she continued affectionately, 'I always miss you so much when you are away.'
Michael gave her one of his quick looks, and then he picked up a smooth white stone that had attracted his attention.
'I shall follow you in ten days—at least, that is my present intention, unless Stedman's business keeps me.'
'But will not Kester be in your way?'
'Not a bit; he will be a famous companion. He will have the run of my rooms, and when I am at the club or with the other fellows he will find a hundred ways of amusing himself.'
'It will be such a treat to him.'
'I want it to be a treat; he has not had much pleasure in his life, poor fellow! Do you know, Audrey, he has never really seen London. Won't he enjoy bowling along the Embankment in a hansom, and what do you suppose he will say to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament? I mean to take him to the theatre. Actually he has never seen a play! We will have dinner at the Criterion, and I will get Fred Somers to join us. Well, what now?' regarding her with astonishment; for Audrey was looking at him, and her beautiful gray eyes were full of tears.
'Because you are so kind,' she said a little huskily; 'because no one else ever did such kind, thoughtful things, and because you never think of yourself at all.'
'Oh, come, you must not begin praising me after this fashion!' he said lightly; for he would not show her how much he was touched that there were actually tears in her eyes for him.
'And I think it no wonder at all that Kester is so devoted to you.'
'Booty!' exclaimed Michael sadly; and as the little creature jumped on his knee, he continued in a melancholy tone: 'Do you know, Booty, you have a rival? Someone else beside yourself dares to be devoted to your master. Ah, no wonder you wag your tail so feebly! "The moon loves many brooks, but the brooks love one moon"—it is an affecting image.'
'Michael, I do wish you would be a little serious this last evening. I really mean it. Kester thinks more of you than he does of his own brother.'
'Oh, he will be wiser some day,' returned Michael, with the utmost cheerfulness. 'You must make allowance for his youth and inexperience. He is an odd boy, rather precocious for his age, and his weak health has fostered his little peculiarities.'
'You speak as though some apology were needed. You are very dense this evening, Michael. I believe I said I was not at all surprised at Kester's devotion, you have been so good to him.'
'I think the air of this place is enervating,' replied Michael, jumping up from the parapet. 'I know people do not generally consider moorland air enervating; but mine is a peculiar constitution, and needs more bracing than other men's. Shall we walk back, my dear?' But as he gave her his hand to rise, the gentle melancholy of his smile smote her with a sudden sense of sadness, for it spoke of some hidden pain that even her sympathy could not reach; and she knew that his whimsical words only cloaked some vague uneasiness. 'Come, dear, come,' he continued; 'these Scotch twilights are somewhat damp and chilly. We will burn that pine log this evening, and we will sit round it and tell stories—eh, Audrey?'
But, in spite of these cheerful words, Michael was the quietest of the group that evening, as he watched from his dusky corner, unperceived himself, the play of the firelight on one bright, earnest face. Audrey sat on the rug at her father's feet, with her head against his knee. It was a favourite position of hers.
'Now, Daddy Glass-Eyes, it is your turn,' she said, using the old baby-name. 'Michael has turned disagreeable and has gone to sleep, so we will miss him. Kester, are you thinking of your story? It must be a nice creepy one, please.'
'I think we ought all to go to bed early, John,' interrupted Mrs. Ross. 'Audrey is in one of her sociable moods; but she forgets we have a long journey before us. Kester is looking as sleepy as possible.' And as Dr. Ross always acted on his wife's quiet hints, the fireside circle soon broke up.
It had been arranged that the whole party should sleep two nights in town. Geraldine and Audrey had shopping to do, and both Dr. Ross and his son-in-law had business appointments to detain them. Audrey and her mother had tea with Michael one evening, and then they bade him and Kester good-bye.
'You will tell Mollie all about me, will you not, Miss Ross?' Kester exclaimed excitedly. 'Tell her I am going to St. Paul's, and the National Gallery, and the British Museum. Fred Somers is going to pilot me about, as Captain Burnett has so much to do. Do you know Fred Somers, Miss Ross? He seems a nice sort of fellow.'
Oh yes, Audrey knew all about Fred Somers. He was another protege of Michael's; indeed, the whole Somers family considered themselves indebted to Captain Burnett.
Fred's father was only a City clerk, and at one time his head had been very much below water. He was a good, weak sort of man; but he had not sufficient backbone, and when the tide sat dead against him he lost courage.
'The man will die,' said the doctor. 'He has no stamina; he simply offers no resistance to the disease that is carrying him off. You should cheer him up a bit, Mrs. Somers—crying never mended a sick man yet.' For he was the parish doctor, and a little rough in his ways.
'A man has no right to lose courage and to show the white feather when he has a wife and six children depending on him,' said Michael.
Some chance—or rather say some providential arrangement—had brought him across their threshold. Michael came across all sorts of people in his London life, and, though his acquaintance among City clerks was rather limited, he had known Mr. Somers slightly.
When Michael stepped up to that sick-bed with that wholesome rebuke on his tongue, but his heart very full of sympathy for the stricken man, Robert Somers' difficulties were practically over. The debts that were chafing the life out of him—debts incurred by sickness, by a hundred little disasters—were paid out of Michael's small means; and, despite his doctor's prophecy, Robert Somers rose from his bed a braver, stronger man.
Michael never lost interest in the family. They would always be pinched and struggling, he knew—a City clerkship is not an El Dorado of riches, and growing boys and girls have to be clothed and educated. Michael took the eldest boy, Fred, under his wing—by some means or other he got him into Christ's Hospital. How Fred's little sisters admired those yellow stockings!—though it may be doubted whether they were not too warm a colour for Fred's private taste. Fred was a Grecian by this time—a big strapping fellow he looked beside Kester—with a freckled, intelligent face and a mop of dark hair. He was a great favourite of Audrey's, and she had once induced her mother to let him spend a fortnight at Woodcote. Dr. Ross also took a kindly interest in him.
'Fred will make his mark one day. You are right, Michael,' he observed. 'He has plenty of brains under that rough thatch of his. He will shoulder his way through the world. Christ's Hospital has turned out many a fine scholar, and Fred does not mean to be behind them.'
Audrey bade good-bye to Michael somewhat reluctantly.
'You will follow us in ten days, will you not?' she asked rather anxiously. 'Remember that London never suits you; you are always better at Rutherford, and it will be such a pity to lose your good looks—Scotland has done wonders for you. Percival was only saying so this morning.'
'I shall be sure to come as soon as I have settled this troublesome piece of business,' he returned cheerfully. 'Take care of yourself, my Lady Bountiful, and do not get into mischief during your Mentor's absence.'
But when the hansom had driven off, Michael did an unusual thing. He walked to a small oak-framed mirror that hung between the windows, and regarded himself with earnest scrutiny. He was alone; the two boys had started off in an omnibus to the National Gallery, and Michael had promised to lunch with a friend in Lincoln's Inn.
'My good looks,' he soliloquised. 'I wonder if my health has really improved? She was right. I felt a different man in Scotland. I have not felt so well and strong since that Zulu slashed me—poor devil! I sent him to limbo. It is true the doctors were not hopeless; in time and with care, if I could only keep my nerves in order—that was what they said. Oh, if I could only believe them—if I could only feel the power for work—any sort of work—coming back to me, I would—I would——' He stopped and broke off the thread of his thoughts abruptly. 'What a fool I am! I will not let this temptation master me. If I were once to entertain such a hope, to believe it possible, I should work myself into a restless fever. Avaunt, Satanas! Sweet, subtle, most impossible of impossibilities—a sane man cannot be deluded. Good God! why must some men lead such empty lives?' For a moment the firm, resolute mouth twitched under the reddish-brown moustache, then Michael rang the bell and ordered a hansom.
It was late on a September evening when Audrey drove through Rutherford. She leaned forward in the carriage a little eagerly as they passed the Gray Cottage—surely Mollie would be at the window! But no! the windows were blank; no girlish face was there to greet her, and with a slight feeling of disappointment she drew back again. But nothing could long spoil the joy of returning home.
'Oh, mother, does it not all look lovely?' she exclaimed, later on that evening. She had been everywhere—to the stables, the poultry-yard, the dairy, and lastly to Mrs. Draper's room. The twilight was creeping over the gardens of Woodcote before Audrey had finished her rambles. She had been down to the lake, she had sat on 'Michael's bench,' she had looked at her favourite shrubs and flowers, and Dr. Ross smiled as he heard her gaily singing along the terraces.
'Come in, you madcap!' he said good-humouredly. 'Do you know how heavy the dews are? There, I told you so; your dress is quite damp.'
'What does it matter?' returned Audrey, with superb disdain. '"The rains of Marly do not wet!"—do you recollect that exquisite courtier-like speech?—so, no doubt, Woodcote dews are quite wholesome. Is it not delicious to be home again? And there is no more "Will you come ben?" from honest Jean, and "Will you have a sup of porridge, Miss Ross, or a few broth to keep out the cold?" "Home, home, there is no place like home!"' And then they heard her singing at the top of her fresh young voice, as she roamed through the empty rooms, some old ballad Michael had taught her:
'Oh, there's naebody hears Widow Miller complain, Oh, there's naebody hears Widow Miller complain; Though the heart of this world's as hard as a stane, Yet there's naebody hears Widow Miller complain.'
'Dear child!' observed her mother fondly. 'I do not think anyone ever was happier than our Audrey. She is like a sunbeam in the house, John;' and then they both paused to listen:
'Ye wealthy and wise in this fair world of ours, When your fields wave wi' gowd, your gardens wi' flowers, When ye bind up the sheaves, leave out a few grains To the heart-broken widow who never complains.'
'THE LITTLE RIFT'
'And sigh that one thing only has been lent To youth and age in common—discontent.'
Audrey was very busy the next morning unpacking and settling a hundred things with her mother and Mrs. Draper. She had fully expected that Mollie would have made her appearance at her usual time; but when the luncheon-hour arrived, and still no Mollie, she felt a little perplexed. Kester had entrusted her with numerous messages, and she had now no resource but to go herself to the Gray Cottage and deliver them. Audrey was never touchy, never stood on her dignity as most people do; but the thought did cross her that for once Mollie had been a little remiss.
'I would so much rather have seen her at Woodcote,' she said to herself, as she walked quickly down the High Street. Mrs. Ross was going up to Hillside to look after Geraldine, and Audrey had promised to join her there in an hour's time. 'I never can talk comfortably to Mollie at the Gray Cottage; Mrs. Blake always monopolises me so.'
But Audrey carefully refrained from hinting, even to herself, the real reason for her reluctance. She had a curious dread of seeing Mr. Blake, an unaccountable wish to keep out of his way as much as possible; but not for worlds would she have acknowledged this.
She opened the green gate, and Zack bounded out to meet her with his usual bark of welcome; but no Mollie followed him, only Biddy, looking more like a witch than ever, with a red silk handkerchief tied over her gray hair, hobbled across the passage.
'The mistress and Miss Mollie are in the drawing-room,' she said, fixing her bright hawk-like eyes on Audrey. 'And how is it with yourself, Miss Ross?—you look as blooming as a rose before it is gathered. It is a purty compliment,' as Audrey laughed; 'but it is true, and others will be telling you so, Miss Ross, avick.'
Audrey blushed a little, for there was a meaning look in the old woman's eyes. Then she ran lightly upstairs; the drawing-room door was half open, and she could hear Mollie's voice reading aloud; 'Pompey and Pharsalia' caught her ear; then she gave the door a little push, and Mollie's book dropped on the floor.
'Miss Ross! oh, Miss Ross!' she exclaimed half hysterically, but she did not move from her place.
It was Mrs. Blake who took Audrey's hands and kissed her airily on either cheek.
'My dear Miss Ross!' she exclaimed, in her soft, impressive voice, 'this is almost too good of you. I told Mollie that I knew you would come. "Do you think she will have the heart to stay away when she knows that we are perfectly famished for a sight of her?" that was what I said when Mollie was plaguing me to let her go to Woodcote this morning.'
'But I was expecting her, Mrs. Blake,' returned Audrey, drawing the girl to her side as she stood apart rather awkwardly. 'I thought it was unkind of Mollie to desert me the first morning. Every time the door opened I said to myself, "That is Mollie." I half made up my mind to be offended at last.'
'There, mamma, I told you so!' observed Mollie rather piteously; 'I knew Miss Ross would be hurt; that is why I begged so hard to go.'
'Poor mamma! she is always in the wrong,' returned Mrs. Blake, with a touch of petulance. 'I put it to you, Miss Ross: would it not have been utter want of consideration on my part to allow Mollie to hinder you with her chattering just when you were unpacking and so dreadfully busy? "Take my advice, and stop away until you are wanted," that is what I said to Mollie, and actually the foolish child got into a regular pet about it; yes, you may look ashamed of yourself, Mollie, but you know I said I should tell Miss Ross. You can see by her eyes how she has been crying, and all because I insisted you were not to be worried.'
'Mollie never worries me,' returned Audrey, with a kind look at her favourite's flushed face.
But she did not dare pursue the subject; she knew poor Mollie was often thwarted in her little plans. If her mother had a sudden caprice or whim to be gratified, Mollie was the one who must always set her own wishes aside—for whom any little disappointment was judged salutary. Perhaps the discipline did not really harm Mollie; her humility and unselfishness guarded her against any rankling bitterness.
'Mamma never likes me to do things without her,' she said later on that afternoon. 'I think she is a little jealous of my going to you so much, Miss Ross; she was so angry when I asked to run across this morning, because she said I wanted you all to myself. I know I was silly to cry about it, but I was so sure you would be expecting me; and last night mamma made me come out with her, and I wanted to stay at home and watch for you: we went all the way to Brail; that is quite mamma's favourite walk now—and, oh, I was so tired.'
'But you must not fret, Mollie; and of course you must do as your mother wishes: you know I shall always understand.'
'Mamma says that you are her friend, and not mine,' returned Mollie, with big melancholy eyes; 'and that I ought not to put myself so forward: but you are my friend, too, are you not, Miss Ross?'
'Of course I am, my dear little girl, just as Michael is Kester's friend; and now I must tell you some more about him.'
But this was when she and Mollie were walking towards Hillside.
Audrey had deftly changed the subject after Mrs. Blake's remonstrance; but as she talked she still held Mollie's hand. She felt very happy to be sitting in that pretty shady drawing-room again, watching the pigeons fluttering among the old arches. There was a bowl of dark crimson carnations on the little work-table, and a cluster of the same fragrant flowers relieved the sombreness of Mrs. Blake's black gown. She was looking handsomer than ever this afternoon; she wore a little lace kerchief over her dark glossy hair, and the delicate covering seemed to enhance her picturesque, Mary Queen of Scots beauty, and to heighten the brilliancy of her large dark eyes. Audrey had never seen her look so charming, and her soft playful manners completed the list of her fascinations. As usual, Audrey forgave her petulance and want of consideration for Mollie. It was difficult to find fault with Mrs. Blake; she was so gay and good-humoured, she so soon forgot anything that had ruffled her, she was so childlike and irresponsible, that one seemed to judge her by a separate code.
'I must go!' exclaimed Audrey, starting up, when it had chimed the hour. She was in the midst of a description of one of their walking expeditions—an attempt to reach a lovely tarn in the heart of the hills. 'I must not wait any longer, as my mother will be expecting me. Mollie, put on your hat; you can walk with me to Hillside;' and then she hesitated.
It was very strange that all this time Mr. Blake's name had not been mentioned. They had talked about Kester and Michael, but for once Cyril's name had not been on his mother's lips.
'I hope your son enjoyed his holiday?' she asked, as she picked a little sprig of scented geranium.
'I am afraid Cyril is not quite in the mood for enjoying himself,' returned Mrs. Blake in rather a peculiar tone. 'Mollie, run and put on your hat, as Miss Ross told you; and for goodness' sake do brush your hair. My boy is not looking like himself,' she continued when they were alone. 'I am rather uneasy about him; he has grown thin, and does not seem in his usual spirits.'
'He wrote very cheerfully to Kester,' returned Audrey, taken aback at this.
'Oh, letters never tell one anything,' replied Mrs. Blake impatiently. 'I daresay you thought I was as happy as possible from mine, just because I must have my little jokes. We Blakes are all like that. I daresay, if Cyril were here, you would see nothing amiss with him; but you cannot blind a mother's eyes, Miss Ross.'
'I am very sorry,' returned Audrey gravely; 'perhaps Cornwall did not agree with him; but he seemed very gay.'
'Oh, as to that, he was gay enough; people always make so much of him—he has been a favourite all his life. I never knew any young man with so many friends. He has gone up to London now to bid good-bye to one of them who is going to India. We do not expect him back until quite late to-morrow.'
'Indeed,' was Audrey's brief reply; but as she walked up the hill with Mollie she was sensible of a feeling of relief. She liked Mr. Blake, she had always liked him; but she had begun to find his quiet, persistent watchfulness a little embarrassing—she felt that it invaded the perfect freedom in which she delighted. Nevertheless, she was sensible of a vague curiosity to know why Mr. Blake was not in his usual spirits—could it be Miss Frances, after all?
'Mamma sent me away because she wanted to talk about Cyril,' observed Mollie, with girlish shrewdness; 'she is worrying about him, because he looks grave, and does not talk quite so much as usual; but I am sure he is not ill. He was terribly vexed when Mr. Plumpton telegraphed for him. I don't think I ever saw Cyril so put out before. He was quite cross with mamma when she wanted to pack his big portmanteau. He declared he did not mean to stay away longer than one night; but mamma said she knew he could not be back until to-morrow evening. Just before he went away he asked what time you were expected, and——'
'Never mind about that,' interrupted Audrey; 'we shall be at Hillside directly, and I have heard nothing about yourself. Were you very dull without Kester, Mollie? and were our letters long enough to satisfy you?'
'Oh, they were just lovely!' returned Mollie enthusiastically; 'only mamma complained that everyone had forgotten her, for even Cyril did not write half so often. I used to read them over in the evening, and try and imagine what you were doing; and I was not always dull, because I had so much to do: but that Roman history—oh, Miss Ross!'
'You have worked hard at that, have you not, Mollie?'
'You would say so if you had heard us,' returned Mollie with a shrug; 'we used to grind away at it until I was quite stupid. Sometimes I wanted to practise or to go on with my French. But no: mamma had promised Cyril, and there was no help for it. I have filled one note-book, but I am not sure I remember half. Mamma reads so fast, and she is always vexed if I do not understand; but,' with a look of relief, 'I don't think we shall do so much now. Mamma has got her walking mood again.'
Audrey tried not to smile. 'Next week we shall resume our lessons, Mollie.'
'Oh, that will be delightful,'—standing still, for they were now entering the shrubberies of Hillside; 'somehow, no one teaches like you, Miss Ross: you never seem to grow impatient or to mind telling things over again; but mother is always in such a hurry, and she is so clever herself that she has no patience with a dunce like me.'
'My dear Mollie, please do not call yourself names—you are certainly no dunce.'
'I don't mean to be one any longer,' replied Mollie, brightening up. 'Oh, Miss Ross, what do you think Cyril says! that I am not to help Biddy any more, and that we are to have a woman in to do the rough work. I don't think mamma was quite pleased when he talked about it. She said it was uncalled-for extravagance, and that we really could not afford it; that a little work did not hurt me, and that I ought to be glad to make myself useful. Mamma was almost annoyed with Cyril, but he always knows how to soothe her down. Of course it will be as he wishes, and mamma has promised to speak to you about a woman; and so I shall have plenty of time to do my lessons; and it will be my own fault if I am a dunce now,' finished Mollie, with a close hug, as the thick shrubs screened them from any prying eyes.
'Poor little soul! I must help her all I can,' thought Audrey, as she walked on to the house. 'I am glad her brother takes her part;' and then her brother-in-law met her in the porch and took her into the morning-room, where the two ladies were sitting, and where Geraldine welcomed her as though months, and not hours, had separated them.
Audrey's first visit had always been paid to the O'Briens; so the following afternoon she started off for Brail as a matter of course.
'Perhaps you will come and have tea with mother, Gage,' she had said on bidding her sister good-bye; 'my Brail afternoons always keep me out until dinner-time;' and Geraldine had generously assented to this. She admired Audrey's benevolence in walking all those miles to see her old friend; the whole family took a lively interest in honest Tom O'Brien, though it must be allowed that Mrs. Baxter was by no means a favourite.
Audrey would have enjoyed her walk more if she could have kept her thoughts free from Mr. Blake; but, unfortunately, the long grassy lanes she was just entering only recalled the time when he had carried Booty and had walked with her to the gate of Woodcote; and she found herself wondering, in a vexed manner, as to the cause of the gravity that had excited his mother's uneasiness.
But she grew impatient with herself presently.
'After all, what does it matter to me?' she thought, as she stopped to gather some red leaves. 'I daresay it was only Miss Frances, after all.'
And then she recoiled with a sort of shock, for actually within a few feet of her was a tall figure in a brown tweed coat. She had been so busy with her thoughts and the red and yellow leaves that she had not seen Mr. Blake leaning against the gate that led into the ploughed field. She might even have passed him, if he had not started up and confronted her.
'Miss Ross,' grasping her hand, 'please let me gather those for you; they are too difficult for you to reach—the ditch is so wide. How many do you want? Do you care for that bit of barberry?'
'Thank you; I think I have enough now,' returned Audrey very gravely.
She was quite unprepared for this meeting. She had seen the flash of joy in his eyes as he sprang forward to meet her, and she was annoyed to feel that her own cheeks were burning. And she was clear-sighted enough to notice something else—that Mr. Blake was talking eagerly and gathering the coloured leaves at random, as though he hardly knew what he was doing, and that, after that first look, he was avoiding her eye, as though he were afraid that he had betrayed himself. Audrey's maidenly consciousness was up in arms in a moment. The gleam in Cyril's eyes had opened hers. Some instinct of self-defence made her suddenly entrench herself in stiffness; the soft graciousness that was Audrey's chief charm seemed to desert her, and for once in her life she was a little abrupt.
'There is no need to gather any more, thank you. I have all I want, and I am in a great hurry;' and she held out her hand for the leaves.
But Cyril withheld them.
'Let me carry them for you,' he returned, evidently trying to speak as usual; but his voice was not quite in order. 'I know where you are going—to that pretty, old-fashioned cottage with the jasmine-covered porch; it is not far, and I have not seen you for so long.' Then he stopped suddenly, as though something in Audrey's manner arrested him. 'That is, if you do not object,' he finished, with a pleading look.
But for once Audrey was obdurate.
'Thank you, I would rather carry them myself. There is no need to take you out of your way.'
Audrey felt that her tone was cold—that she was utterly unlike herself; but her one thought was to get rid of him. But she need not have feared Cyril's importunity. He drew back at once, and put the leaves in her hand without speaking; but he turned very pale, and there was a hurt look in his eyes. Audrey put out her hand to him, but he did not seem to see it; he only muttered something that sounded like 'Good-morning,' as he lifted his cap and went back to the gate. Audrey walked on very fast, but her cheeks would not cool, and a miserable feeling of discomfort harassed her. She was vexed with him, but still more with herself. Why need she have taken alarm so quickly? It was not like her to be so missish and disagreeable. Why had she been so cold, so unfriendly, just because he seemed a little too pleased to see her?
And now she had hurt him terribly—she was quite sure of that—she who never willingly offended anyone. He had been too proud, too gentlemanly, to obtrude himself where he was evidently not wanted; but his pained, reproachful look as he drew back would haunt her for the rest of the day. And, then, how splendidly handsome he had looked! She had once likened him to a Greek god, but it may be doubted whether even the youthful Apollo had seemed more absolutely perfect when he revealed himself in human form to some Athenian votary, than Cyril Blake in the glory of his young manhood. Audrey had not recognised this so keenly before.
'I must make it up to him somehow. I cannot bear to quarrel with anyone. I would rather do anything than hurt his feelings,' she thought; and it needed all her excellent common-sense to prevent her from running back to say a kind word to him.
'I was in a hurry—I was too abrupt; I did not mean to be unkind'—this was what she longed to say to him. 'Please come with me as far as the cottage, and tell me all you have been doing.' Well, and what withheld her from such a natural course—from making her amends in this graceful and generous fashion? Simply that same maidenly instinct of self-preservation. She did not go back; she dare not trust herself with Cyril Blake, because she was afraid of him, and perhaps—though this was not quite so clear to her—she was afraid of herself. But, all the same, she was very miserable—for doing one's duty does not always make one happy—and she felt the joy of her home-coming was already marred; for, with a person of Audrey's temperament, there is no complete enjoyment if she were not in thorough harmony with everyone. One false note, one 'little rift within the lute,' and the whole melody is spoiled. So Audrey's gaiety seemed all quenched that afternoon, and though her old friend testified the liveliest satisfaction at the sight of her, and Priscilla could not make enough of her, she was conscious that, as far as her own pleasure was concerned, the visit was a failure.
But she was aware that no one but herself was conscious of this fact. Certainly not honest Tom O'Brien, as he sat smoking his pipe in the porch, and listening to her descriptions of Highland scenery with a beaming face; neither was Mrs. Baxter a keen observer, as she testified by her parting speech.
'You have done father a world of good, Miss Ross,' she said, as she walked down to the little gate with Audrey. 'I think there is no one he so loves to see, or who cheers him up in the same way as you do. You are young, you see, and young people take more cheerful views of life; and it is easy to see you have not a care on you. Not that I begrudge you your happiness, for no one deserves it more; and long may it continue, Miss Ross,' finished Mrs. Baxter, with her usual mournfulness.
'HE IS VERY BRAVE'
'Ah! life grows lovely where you are; Only to think of you gives light To my dark heart; within whose night Your image, though you hide afar, Glows like a lake-reflected star.'
For the first time Audrey closed the little gate of Vineyard Cottage with a sense of relief that her visit was over. The two hours she had just passed had been quite an ordeal to her. True, she had exerted herself to some purpose: she had talked and amused her old friend; she had partaken of Mrs. Baxter's cakes; she had even summoned up a semblance of gaiety that had wholly deceived them. But all the time her heart had been heavy within her, and her remembrance of Cyril's grieved look came between her and enjoyment.
It had been a lovely afternoon when she had started for her walk, but now some heavy clouds were obscuring the blue sky. The air felt heavy and oppressive, and Audrey quickened her steps, fearing lest a storm should overtake her in the long unsheltered lanes that still lay between her and home. She drew her breath a little as she approached the place where she had parted with Cyril more than two hours ago. Then she gave a great start, and again the blood rushed to her face, for through a gap in the hedge she could see a brown tweed coat quite plainly. He was still there—still in the same position. She could see the line of his shoulders as he stooped a little over the gate, with the peak of his cap drawn over his eyes.
Audrey slackened her pace. She felt a little breathless and giddy. She would have to pass him quite close, and, of course, if he meant to speak to her——But no: though he heard her footsteps, and half turned his head and seemed to listen, he did not move his arms from the gate. He evidently meant to take no advantage, to let her pass him if she wished to do so. Audrey could read this determination in his averted face. Most likely he wished her to think that his abstraction was too great to allow him to notice her light footfall; he would make it easy for her to pass him—a man's eyes can only see what they are looking at. But this time Audrey's prudence counselled her in vain; her soft heart would not allow her to go past him as a stranger. She stopped and looked at him; but Cyril did not turn his head.
'Mr. Blake,' she said gently; and then he did move slightly.
'I am not in your way, I hope,' he said rather coldly. 'I did not know it was so late, or I would have gone back. Please do not let me keep you, Miss Ross; I am afraid there will be a storm directly.'
'In that case you had better come with me,' she returned, trying to speak with her usual friendly ease. But his proud, sad look rather daunted her. How could she leave him and go on her way, when he seemed so utterly cast down and miserable; and it was all her fault? 'Please do not shake your head, Mr. Blake. I know you are hurt with me because I was rather abrupt just now; but I meant nothing at all, only that I was in a hurry, and——'
'That you did not wish for my company,' he added bitterly.
'Oh, Mr. Blake!'
'You are right—quite right,' he went on, in a tone that pierced Audrey's heart, it was so hopeless, so full of pain; and now he did place himself at her side. 'I do not blame you in the least; it was the truest kindness. I can see that now. It is not your fault that I have been a fool. Miss Ross, I wished you to pass; I never meant to speak or to obtrude myself on you, but you stopped of your own accord.'
'I wished to apologise to you for my abruptness. I did not like you to think me unkind.'
'You are never unkind, you could not be if you tried,' he returned in the same passionate tone; 'you are only so absolutely true. You saw what I ought never to have shown you, and you thought it only right to check me. Yes, I was hurt for a moment, I will allow it. Perhaps in some sort of sense I am hurt now. I suppose a man may own to being hurt when his heart is half broken.'
'Please, please do not talk so.'
'I will promise never to talk so again,' he returned with sad humility; 'but I have gone too far to stop now.'
'No, oh no!' trying to check him; but she might as well have tried to check a river that had broken bonds. For once Cyril determined that he would be heard.
'It is your own fault,' he returned, looking at her; 'you should have passed on and left me to my misery. Yes, I am miserable; and you have made me so: and yet for all that you are not to be blamed. How could I see you, how could I be with you, and not love you? I have loved you from the very first hour I saw you.'
'Oh, hush, hush!' Audrey was half sobbing. There were great tears rolling down her face; she could hardly bear to hear him or to look at him, his face was so white and strained.
'I must always love you,' he went on in the same low concentrated voice. 'I have never seen anyone like you; there is not another girl in the world who would do as you are doing. How can I help losing my heart to you? No man could, in my position.'
'I am very sorry,' she murmured.
'Do not be sorry'—and then he saw her tears, and his voice softened from its vehemence and became very gentle. 'You are so kind that I know you would spare me this pain if you could—but it is not in your power; neither is it in mine. Do not be afraid of me,' he went on quickly, as she would have spoken. 'Remember I am asking you for nothing. I expect nothing. What right have I to aspire to such as you? Even if I have dared to dream, my dreams are at an end now, when you have shown me so plainly——' He stopped and turned aside his face, but no words could have been so eloquent as that silence.
'Mr. Blake, will you let me say something? I am grieved, grieved to the heart, that this should have happened. If I could have prevented it, not a word of all this should have been spoken; but it is too late to say so now.'
'Far, far too late!'
'So we must make the best of it. I must try to forget all that has passed, and, Mr. Blake, you must promise me to do the same.'
'I have promised,' he returned proudly. 'I promised you of my own accord that I would never talk to you in this way again; but you must not ask anything more of me.'
'May I not?' in rather a faltering voice.
'It would be useless,' he replied quickly. 'I can never leave off loving you. I would part with my life first. I think I am not one of those men who could ever love twice. I am young, still something tells me this; but all the same you have nothing to fear from me. I know your position and mine.'
'You must not speak as though we were not equal,' she said, in her desire to comfort him and raise him up from his despondency; 'it is not that. What does one's poverty or wealth matter?'
'No, it is not that,' he answered, with a significance that made her lower her eyes; 'in one sense we are equals, for one cannot be more or less than a gentleman, and when one has youth and strength, and a moderate amount of talents, one can always raise one's self to the level of the woman one loves. And if I had thought that you could ever have cared for me——' His voice trembled; he could not proceed.
'Mr. Blake, I must beg, I do entreat you to say no more.' Audrey's lips were quivering; she looked quite pale. At that moment she could bear no more.
'Forgive me,' he said remorsefully. 'I was thinking more of myself than you. I am trying you too much.'
She could not deny this, but with her usual unselfishness she strove again for some comforting word.
'It will be as though you had not spoken,' she said, in so low a voice that he had to stoop to hear her. 'It will be sacred, quite sacred; do not let it spoil everything—we—I have been so happy; let us try to remain good friends.'
'I will try my best, but it will be very hard.' Perhaps, if she had seen his face that moment, she would have known that what she asked was impossible. How could he be friends with this girl? Even while he assented to that innocent request he knew it could never be.
'Miss Ross,' he said suddenly, for his position was becoming too difficult for him, and it was his duty to shield her as much as possible, 'we are just in the town, and perhaps it would be better for me to drop behind a little. It will not do for people to notice; and now the rain is beginning, and if you do not hurry on you will be wet.'
'Very well,' she returned; and then rather timidly she put out her hand to him. Cyril did not ignore it this time; he held it fast for a moment.
'You have been good, very patient with me,' he said rather huskily. 'Thank you for that, as well as for everything else: and then he stepped aside and waited for her to leave him.
Audrey's limbs were trembling; she had never felt so agitated in her life. She hurried on, panting a little with her haste; but the drops fell faster and faster, and just at the entrance to the town she was obliged to take refuge in a shed by the roadside. The street was dark, and she knew no one could see her. She would have time to recover herself a little before she had to answer all her mother's anxious questions. There was a carpenter's bench and a pile of planks; she sat down on them, and looked out at the heavy torrents of rain. By and by Cyril passed, but he did not notice her; he was walking very fast and his head was erect, as though he were not conscious of the rain beating down on him. Audrey shrank back a little as she saw him. 'He is young, but he is strong,' she said to herself; 'he is almost as strong as Michael;' and then her tears flowed again, but she wiped them away a little impatiently. 'I must be strong, too, for his sake as well as my own; it will never do for people to find out his secret. He must be spared as much as possible. I must help him all I can.' But as she argued herself into calmness she told herself again and again how thankful she was that Michael was away. Michael was so observant, so clear-sighted, that it was impossible to hoodwink him. He had a terrible habit of going straight to the point, of putting questions that one could hardly evade. He would have seen in a moment that she had been crying, and any refusal on her part to satisfy his inquiries would only have deepened his suspicions. 'I could not have faced Michael,' she thought, as the rain suddenly stopped and she stepped out into the wet gleaming roads.
Audrey played her part in the conversation so badly that night that Mrs. Ross observed, uneasily, that she was sure Audrey had taken a chill:
'For she is quite flushed, John,' she continued anxiously, 'and I noticed her shiver more than once. She has overheated herself in that long walk, and then being caught in that heavy rain has done the mischief.'
Dr. Ross looked at his daughter. Perhaps, in spite of his short-sight, he was more observant than his wife, for he took the girl's face between his hands:
'Go to bed, my child,' he said kindly, 'and I will finish that game of chess with your mother;' and Audrey, with a grateful kiss, obeyed him. But as Dr. Ross placed himself opposite his wife he seemed a little absent, as though he were listening in vain for something. For it was Audrey's habit to sing snatches of some gay tune as she mounted the stairs. But to-night there was no 'Widow Miller'; it was the Doctor who hummed the refrain to himself, as he captured an unwary pawn:
'When ye bind up the sheaves, leave out a few grains To the heart-broken widow who never complains.'
Audrey felt that night as though she should never sing again—as though she had committed some crime that must for ever separate her from her old happy self.
To most people this remorse for an unconscious fault would have seemed morbid and exaggerated. Thousands of girls have to inflict this sort of pain at least once in their lives; the wrong man loves them, and the disastrous 'No' must be spoken. Audrey had not even said 'No,' for nothing had been asked her—she had only had to listen to a declaration of love, an honest, manly confession, that had been wrung from the speaker's lips. Wherein, then, did the blame consist? and why was Audrey shedding such bitter tears as she sat by her window that night looking over the dark garden? For a hundred complex reasons, too involved and intricate to disentangle in one brief hour.
Audrey was accusing herself of blindness—of wilful and foolish blindness. She ought to have seen, she must have seen, to what all this was tending. Again and again Mr. Blake had shown her quite plainly the extent of her influence over him. Could she not have warned him in time to prevent this most unhappy declaration? Would it not have been kinder to have drawn back in the first months of their intimacy, and have interposed some barrier of dignified reserve that would have kept him silent for ever? But no! she had drawn him on: not by coquetry—Audrey was far too high-minded to coquet with any man—but simply by the warm friendliness of her manner. She had liked his company; she had accepted his attentions, not once had she repulsed him; and the consequence was his attachment had grown and increased in intensity day by day, until it had overmastered him. He had said that his heart was almost broken, and it was her fault. What right had she to be so kind to him, until her very softness and graciousness had fed his wild hopes? Was it not true when he had implied that his misery lay at her door?
Audrey felt as though her own heart was broken that night—such a passion of pity and remorse swept over her. What would she not give to undo it all!
'If I could only bear some of his suffering,' she thought, 'if I could only comfort him, I should not care what became of myself. I would sooner bear anything than incur this awful responsibility of spoiling a life;' and Audrey wept again.
But even at this miserable crisis she shrank from questioning herself too closely. A sort of terror and strange beating at the heart assailed her if she tried to look into her own thoughts. Was there no subtle sweetness in the knowledge that she was so beloved? No wish, lying deep down in her heart, that it might have been possible to comfort him?
'It would not do—it would not do. I am sure of him, but not of myself,' she thought, 'and it would make them all so unhappy. If I could only think it right——' and then she stopped, and there was a sad, sad look in her eyes. 'I will not think of it any more to-night.' And then she knelt and, in her simple girlish way, prayed that God would forgive her, for she had been wrong, miserably wrong; and would comfort him, and make it possible for them to remain friends: 'for I do not wish to lose him,' thought Audrey, as she laid her head on her pillow that, for once in her bright young life, seemed sown with thorns.
It seemed to Audrey as though she had never passed a more uncomfortable three weeks than those that followed that unfortunate talk in the Brail lanes; and, in spite of all her efforts to appear as though nothing had happened, her looks and gravity were noticed by both Mrs. Ross and Geraldine.
'I told your father that it was a chill,' observed Mrs. Ross, on more than one occasion. 'She is growing thin, and her eyes are so heavy in the morning. There is nothing worse than a suppressed cold,' she went on anxiously, for even a small ailment in one of her children always called forth her motherly solicitude.
But Geraldine held another opinion. Audrey never took cold; she had often got wet through in Scotland, and it had never hurt her. She thought it more probable that Audrey was troubled about something—perhaps she missed Michael, or—then she paused, and looked at her mother with significance—perhaps, who knows? she might even be a little hurt at Mr. Blake's desertion. For a certain little bird—that fabulous winged purveyor of gossip, dear to the feminine mind—had whispered into young Mrs. Harcourt's ear a most curious story. It was said that Mr. Blake had fallen deeply in love with a Cornish beauty, a certain Miss Frances Hackett, and that his moody looks were all owing to this.
'Edith has seen her,' went on Geraldine, as she repeated this story with immense relish; 'she is a pretty little thing, a dark-eyed brunette. The Hacketts are very wealthy people, and they say Miss Frances will have a few thousand pounds of her own; so he will be lucky if he gets her. Perhaps the pere Hackett is obdurate, and this may account for Mr. Blake's gloom—for he is certainly very bad company just now.'
'Your father thinks he looks very ill; he was speaking to me about him last night. It is wonderful what a fancy he has taken to him.'
'I think we all like him,' returned Geraldine, who could afford to praise him now her fears about Audrey were removed. 'Miss Frances might do worse for herself. He is very clever—a rising young man, as Percy says—and then he is so handsome: a girl might well lose her heart to him.'
Mrs. Ross was quite willing to regard Mr. Blake as Miss Frances' suitor—an unhappy lover was sure to excite her warmest sympathy—but she was a little shocked and scandalised at Geraldine's hint.
'My dear,' she said, in a more dignified tone than she usually employed to her eldest daughter, 'I do not think you have any right to say such a thing of your sister. Audrey is the last girl in the world to fancy any man was in love with her, or to trouble herself because he chose to fall in love with some one else. I have often seen her and Mr. Blake together—he has dined here a dozen times—and her manner has always been perfectly friendly with him, as frank as possible—just as it is to Michael.'
'I thought she seemed a little constrained and uncomfortable last night when Mr. Blake came into the room,' returned Geraldine, who certainly seemed to notice everything; but she knew her mother too well to say more just then.
With all her softness, Mrs. Ross had a great deal of womanly dignity, and nothing would have ruffled her more than to be made to believe that one of her girls cared for a man who had just given his heart to another woman, and that Audrey—her bright, unselfish Audrey—should be that girl. No, she would never have been brought to believe it.
Audrey was quite aware that her sister's eyes were upon her, and she exerted herself to the utmost on every occasion when Geraldine was present. But gaiety was very far from her, and she felt each day, with a certain sickness of heart, that her burden was growing too heavy for her. Her position with regard to Mr. Blake was becoming more difficult. In spite of his efforts to see as little as possible of her, circumstances were perpetually throwing them together. Every day they met at luncheon; she must still keep her seat between him and her father, but how differently that hour passed now! Instead of that eager, low-toned talk, that merry interchange of daily news and plans, Cyril would be absorbed in his carving, in his supervision of the boys; he seemed to have no leisure to talk to Audrey. A grave remark upon the weather, a brief question or two, and then he turned to his fellow-master, Mr. Greville. Audrey never tried to divert his attention; she listened to the two young men a little wearily. Politics could still interest him, she thought; yes, politics were always safe. Once, when he had no excuse to offer—for he was very ready with his excuses—he joined them at the family dinner. Audrey never passed such a miserable evening. She sat opposite him; there was no other guest to break the awkwardness—only Mr. Blake and her mother and father and herself.
It was the first time she had been compelled to look at him, and she was painfully struck with the alteration in him. Her father was right; he certainly looked ill. He was thinner, older, and there were dark lines under his eyes. Just at that moment Cyril seemed to become aware of her scrutiny; their eyes met, but it was Audrey who blushed and looked embarrassed. Cyril did not flinch, only his right hand contracted under the table-cloth. She played chess with him afterwards. There was no help for it; Dr. Ross had proposed it. Audrey was so nervous that she played shamefully, and lost her queen at the third move.
'How stupid of me!' she said, trying to laugh it off.
Cyril looked at her very gravely.
'I am afraid you find this a bore,' he said, with such evident understanding of her nervousness that the tears came to her eyes.
When they had played a little longer, he suddenly jumbled the pieces together.
'It is unfair to take advantage of you any longer,' he said, jumping up; 'no one can play without a queen, and you have lost your castles and one of your knights, and I was just going to take the other. It is only trying your patience for nothing; the game is mine.'
'Yes, it is yours,' returned Audrey, in rather a melancholy voice.
Why had he ended it so abruptly? Could he have noticed how her hand shook? How very nervous she had been! She did not dare look at him as he bade her good-night.
'I must go,' she heard him say to Dr. Ross. 'I have work to finish;' and then he went out, and she heard the door close behind him.
'Is it always to be like this?' thought Audrey, as she stood by her window. 'Will he never speak to me or look at me again in the old way? To-night he went away to spare me, because he saw how uncomfortable I was. He is very brave; I suppose a man's pride helps him. Somehow, I think it is easier for him than me. Perhaps I am different from other women, but I always feel as though I would rather bear pain myself than inflict it on another person.'
'NO, YOU HAVE NOT SPARED ME'
'Thy word unspoken thou canst any day Speak; but thy spoken ne'er again unsay.'
Michael was still away. The business that detained him was not to be settled as easily as he had expected; there were complications—a host of minor difficulties. He was unwilling to return until things were definitely arranged.
'I am too proud of my present position,' he wrote to Audrey; 'the mere fact that I am of some use in the world, and that one human being feels my advice helpful to him, quite reconciles me to my prolonged absence. Of course I mean to keep Kester with me. He is perfectly happy, and fairly revels in London sights. He and Fred are thick as thieves. Abercrombie saw him the other day—you know who I mean: Donald Abercrombie. He is a consulting physician now, and is making quite a name for himself. He has good-naturedly promised to look into the case. He says, from the little he has seen, he is sure the boy has been neglected, and that care and medical skill could have done much for him in the beginning. Abercrombie is just the fellow to interest himself thoroughly in a case like Kester's, and I have great hopes of the result. I have written to his brother, but perhaps you would be wise to say as little as possible to Mrs. Blake. She is far too sanguine by nature; and it would never do to excite hopes that might never be gratified. Mr. Blake is of a different calibre; he will look at the thing more sensibly.'
Audrey sighed as she laid aside Michael's letter. She seemed to miss him more every day, and yet she was quite willing that his absence should be prolonged. Michael would have noticed her want of spirits in a moment; she would never have been free from his affectionate surveillance. At a distance everything was so much easier; she could write cheerfully; she could fill the sheets with small incidents and matters of local interest, with pleasant inquiries about himself and Kester.
Nevertheless, Michael's face grew graver over each letter. He could not have told himself what was lacking to his entire satisfaction, only some strange subtle chord of sympathy, as delicate as it was unerring, warned him that all was not right with the girl.
'She is not as bright as usual,' he thought. 'Audrey's letters are generally overflowing with fun. There is a grave, almost a forced, tone about this last one. And she so seldom mentions the Blakes.'
Audrey had certainly avoided the Gray Cottage during the last three weeks; even Mollie's lessons were irksome to her. Mollie's tongue was not easily silenced. In spite of all her efforts, her cheeks often burnt at the girl's innocent loquacity. Mollie was for ever making awkward speeches or asking questions that Audrey found difficult to answer; she would chatter incessantly about her mother and Cyril.
'Mamma is so dreadfully worried about Cyril!' she said once. 'She wants him to speak to Dr. Powell; she is quite sure that he is ill. He hardly eats anything—at least, he has no appetite—and mamma says that is so strange in a young man. And he walks about his room half the night; Biddy hears him. You recollect that evening he dined at Woodcote? Well, he never came home that night until past twelve, and Biddy declares that his bed was not slept in at all; he must just have thrown himself down on it for an hour or two. And he had such a bad headache the next morning.'
Audrey walked to the piano and threw it open.
'I am very sorry your brother is not well,' she said in rather a forced voice, as she flecked a little dust off the legs. 'Mollie, I think Caroline has forgotten to dust the piano this morning. Will you hand me that feather-brush, please? I want you to try this duet with me; it is such a pretty one!' And after that Mollie's fingers were kept so hard at work that she found no more opportunity for talking about Cyril.
Another time, as Audrey looked over her French exercise, she heard a deep sigh, and glancing up from the book, found Mollie gazing at her with round sorrowful eyes.
'Well, what now?' she asked a little sharply.
'Oh, I am so sorry, Miss Ross!' returned Mollie, faltering and turning red; 'I am so dreadfully sorry, Miss Ross, that Cyril has offended you. I thought you were such good friends, but now——' She stopped, somewhat abashed at Audrey's displeased expression.
'My dear Mollie, I have never been really vexed with you before; but you will annoy me excessively if you talk such nonsense. I am not in the least offended with your brother—whatever made you say such a thing?—and we are perfectly good friends.'
Audrey spoke with much dignity as she took up her pen again.
Poor Mollie looked very much frightened.
'Oh dear, Miss Ross,' she said penitently, 'you are not really cross with me, are you? It was not my own idea; only mamma said last night that she was sure you were offended about something, for you never come to see us now, and your manner was so different when she spoke to you after chapel on Sunday; and then she said perhaps Cyril had offended you.'
'I tell you it is all nonsense, Mollie!'
'Yes, but I am sure there is something,' returned Mollie, half crying, for Audrey had never been impatient with her before. 'Cyril will never let me talk to him about you; he gets up and leaves the room when mamma begins wondering why you never come. Cyril was quite cross when she asked him to give you a message the other day. "It is more in Mollie's line," he said; "I never can remember messages," and he walked away, and mamma cried, and said she could not think what had happened to him—that he had never been cross with her in his life before; but that now she hardly dared open her lips to him, he took her up so.'
Audrey sighed wearily, then she gave Mollie a comforting little pat.
'Mollie, dear,' she said kindly, 'I did not mean to be cross with you; but you do say such things, you know, and really you are old enough to know better'—and as Mollie only looked at her wonderingly—'oh, go away!—you are a dear little soul; but you talk as though you were a baby; no one is offended. If your brother is not well, why cannot you leave him in peace? I don't think you understand that men never like to be questioned about their ailments; they are not like women. Cornwall certainly did not agree with him.'
'Do you think it is only that? Oh, I won't say another word if you will only not be cross with me;' and Mollie relieved her feelings by one of her strangling hugs.
Mollie was quite used to people finding fault with her and telling her she was a goose. When Audrey kissed her, she sat down and copied her exercise in a humble and contrite spirit; it was Audrey who felt sad and spiritless the rest of the day. 'It has gone deeper than I thought; it has gone very deep,' she said with a sort of shiver, as she walked up to Hillside that afternoon.
But a far worse ordeal was before Audrey—one that threw all Mollie's girlish chatter into the shade. A few days afterwards she received a little note from Mrs. Blake.
'MY DEAR MISS ROSS,' it began,
'I am nearly desperate. What have Mollie or I done that we should be sent to Coventry after this fashion? At least, not Mollie—I am wrong there: Mollie still basks in the light of your smiles, is still allowed to converse with you; it is only I who seem to be debarred from such privileges. Now, my dear creature, what can you mean by keeping away from us like this? I was at Woodcote yesterday, but you had flown. I had to sit and chat with Mrs. Ross instead; she is delightful, but she is not her daughter; no one but yourself can ever fill your place; no one can be Miss Ross. Now will you make us amends for all this unfriendliness? If you will only come to tea with me to-morrow I will promise you full forgiveness and the warmest of welcomes.
'Yours affectionately but resentfully, M. BLAKE.'
Audrey wrote a pretty playful little answer to this. She was sorry to be accused of unfriendliness, but nothing was farther from her thoughts; she was very busy, very much engaged. Relays of parents had been interviewing them at Woodcote; her sister had not been well, and all her afternoons had been spent at Hillside. Mrs. Blake must be lenient; she would come soon, very soon, and so on. Mrs. Blake was more formidable than Mollie, and Audrey was determined to delay her visit as long as possible. Just now she had a good excuse. Geraldine was a little delicate and ailing, and either she or her mother went daily to Hillside.
Audrey breathed more freely when she had sent off her note; she had given it into Cyril's hand at luncheon—a sudden impulse made her choose that mode of delivery.
'I wish you would give this to your mother,' she said, addressing him suddenly as he sat beside her. 'She wants me to have tea with her to-morrow; but it is impossible, I have so much to do just now.'
'I could have told her; there was no need for you to write or to trouble yourself in any way. I am afraid my mother is rather exacting; it is a Blake foible.' He smiled as he spoke, and there was no special meaning in his tone; he seemed to take it as a matter of course that Audrey's visits to the Cottage had ceased. 'It will be all right,' he said, as he put the letter in his breast-pocket; and then he stopped and called some boy to order. 'You will stay in after luncheon, Roberts,' he said severely, and after that he did not speak again to Audrey.
But that letter, strange to say, brought things to a climax. The very next morning Mollie gave Audrey a note.
'It is from mamma,' she said, rather timidly. 'Would you like me to begin my piece, Miss Ross, while you read it?'
'Yes, certainly; but it does not seem a long letter.' And, indeed, it only contained a few words:
'DEAR MISS ROSS,
'I must see you. If you will not come to me, will you tell Mollie when I may call? But I must and will speak to you alone.'
Audrey twisted up the paper in her hand; then she stood behind Mollie and beat time for a moment.
'Mollie,' she said hurriedly, as she turned over the page, 'will you tell your mother that I will come to her this afternoon a little before three? I shall not be able to stay, but just for half an hour;' and then she sat down and quietly and patiently pointed out how an erring passage ought to be played. But there was a tired look on her face long before the lesson ended.
All her life long Audrey never forgot the strange chill sensation that came over her as she read that note; it was as though some dim, overmastering force were impelling her against her own will. As she crushed the letter in her hand, she told herself that circumstances were becoming too strong for her.
Her face was very grave that afternoon as she pushed open the green gate and walked up to the open door. It seemed to her as though she were someone else, as she crossed the threshold and stood for a moment in the little hall. Biddy came out of the kitchen. The mistress was in the drawing-room, she said, and Miss Mollie was out; and Audrey, still with that strange weight at her heart, went upstairs slowly. Mrs. Blake was sitting in her usual seat by the window. She rose without speaking and took Audrey's hands, but there was no smile upon her face. She looked very pale, and Audrey could see at once that she had been weeping.
'You have come,' she said quietly; 'I thought my letter would bring you. Perhaps it was wrong of me to write; I ought to have come to you instead. But how was I to speak to you alone? Last night I was almost desperate, and then I was obliged to send for you.'
'If you wanted me so much, of course you were right to send for me.'
Audrey was conscious that her manner was cold, and that her voice was hardly as sympathetic as usual. She was sure Mrs. Blake noticed it, for her eyes filled with tears.
'Oh, how coldly you speak! My poor boy has indeed offended you deeply. Oh, I know everything; he was too unhappy last night to hide it any longer from his mother. Do you know what he said to me?—that with all his strength he could not bear it, and that he must go away.'
'Go away—leave Rutherford?'
'Yes;' and now the tears were streaming down her face, and her voice was almost choked with sobs. 'He said he must give it up, and that we must all go away—that the effort is killing him, and that no man could bear such an ordeal. Oh, Miss Ross'—as Audrey averted her face—'I know you are sorry for him; but think what it was for his mother to stand by and hear him say such things. My boy—my brave, noble-hearted boy, who has never given me an hour's pain in his life!'
'And you have sent for me to tell me this?'
There was something proud, almost resentful, in Audrey's tone.
'Yes; but you must not be angry with me. I think that, if Cyril knew that I was betraying him, he would never give me his confidence again. Last night I heard him walking about his room, and I went up to him. He wanted to send me away, but I would not go. I knelt down beside him and put my arms round his neck, and told him that I had found out his secret. It had come to me with a sudden flash as I sat beside him in chapel last Sunday. You passed up the aisle, and I saw his face, and then I knew what ailed him. And in the darkness I whispered in his ear, "My poor boy, you love Audrey Ross!"'
Audrey put up one hand to shield her face, but she made no remark. She must hear it all; she had brought this misery upon them, and she must not refuse to share it.
'He owned it then. I will not tell you what he said; it must be sacred between my boy and me. Oh, you do not know him! His nature is intense, like mine; he takes nothing easily. When he says that it is killing him by inches, and that we must go away, I know he is speaking the truth. How is he to live here, seeing you every day, and knowing that there is no love for him in your heart? How could any man drag out such a hopeless existence?'
'Such things are done every day.' Audrey hardly knew what she was saying. A dull pain seemed to contract her heart; he was going away. Somehow, this thought had never occurred to her.
'Yes, but not by men of Cyril's nature. He is strong, but his very strength seems to make him suffer more keenly. If he stayed here, people would begin to talk; he would not always be able to hide what he felt. He thinks he ought to go away for your sake. "I am giving her pain now, and by and by it will be worse"—those were his very words.'
'I think it would be braver to stay on here. Will you tell him so, Mrs. Blake?'
'No, Miss Ross, I will not tell him so; I will not consent to see him slowly tortured. If he tells us we must go, I will not say a dissenting word. What is my own comfort compared to his? I have had a hard life, God knows! and now it will be harder still.'
'But you have other children to consider,' remonstrated Audrey faintly. 'If you leave here, Mollie and Kester will be sacrificed. Surely, you have put this before him.'
'No, indeed, I have not; he has always been my first consideration. Of course, I know how bad it will be for the poor children; but if it comes to that—to choose between them and Cyril——' And a strange, passionate look came into her eyes.
'Hush, hush! I do not like to hear you talk so,' replied Audrey. 'It is wrong; no mother ought to make such a difference. You are not yourself, or you would not say such things. It is all this trouble.'
'Perhaps you are right,' she returned drearily. 'I think it has half crazed me to know we must go away. Oh, if you knew what my life has been, and what a haven of rest this has seemed!' She looked round the room, and a sort of spasm crossed her face. 'It is all so sweet and homelike, and he has loved it so; and now to begin all afresh, and to go amongst strangers—and then the loss——' She stopped as though something seemed to choke her.
Audrey felt as though she could hear no more. 'It is all my fault,' she burst out; 'how you must hate me!' But Mrs. Blake shook her head with a sad smile.
'I don't seem to have the power of hating you,' she said, so gently that Audrey's lip quivered. 'How can I hate what my boy loves?' and then she paused and looked at Audrey, as though the sight of her suppressed emotion stirred some dim hope within her: 'If I thought it would help him, I would kneel at your feet like a beggar and pray you to have compassion upon him; but I know what such pity would be worth—do you think Cyril would accept any woman's pity?'
'No, no,' and then Audrey rose and put out her hands in a beseeching way. 'Will you let me go? Indeed, indeed, I can bear no more——'
'Yes, you shall go,' returned Mrs. Blake in a stifled tone. 'I have not been generous, I have spared you nothing, and yet it is not your fault. You have not played with my boy's heart; you never tried to win his heart. Cyril said so himself.'
'No, you have not spared me,' was Audrey's answer, and then the two women parted without kissing each other—Audrey was too sore, too bewildered, for any such caress. They stood holding each other's hands for a moment, and then Mrs. Blake walked to the other end of the room and threw herself down upon a couch. Audrey looked at her for an instant, then she turned and went slowly down the stairs. But as she closed the green gate after her, she told herself that she must be alone for a little, and with a sudden impulse she turned into the courtyard that led to the school-house and chapel. There was one spot where she would be in perfect seclusion, and that was the school library; even if some stray boy were to make his appearance in search of a book—a very unlikely thing at this time in the afternoon—her presence there would attract no notice: she had several times chosen it as a cool, quiet retreat on a hot summer's afternoon. The sight of the big shabby room, with its pillars and book recesses and sloping desks, gave her a momentary sense of relief. The stillness soothed her, and the tumultuous singing in her head and ears seemed to lull. She sat down in one of the inner recesses and looked out on the row of ivy-covered studies and the little gate that led down to the town. A tame jackdaw was hopping among the stones, and a couple of fan-tail pigeons were strutting near him. The mellow brightness of the October sunshine seemed to flood the whole court. Oh, how peaceful it looked, how calm and still! and then Audrey suddenly put down her face on her hands and cried like a baby. 'Oh, if it were only not my fault!' she sobbed; 'but I cannot, cannot bear it,' and for a time she could do nothing but weep.
'DADDY, I WANT TO SPEAK TO YOU'
'To his eye There was but one beloved face on earth, And that was shining on him.'
Audrey never knew how long she sat there, shedding those healing tears, every one of which seemed to relieve her overcharged heart; it was a luxury to sit there in that cool shadowed stillness. Presently she would rouse herself and go back to her world again; presently, but not just now! By and by she would think it all out, she would question her own heart more closely. Hitherto she had feared any such scrutiny—now it would be selfish, cowardly, to avoid it any longer; but at the present minute she was only conscious that she and everyone else were miserable.
At this moment she heard footsteps crossing the courtyard. Then, to her dismay, they entered the lobby. She had only just time to drag down a book from the shelves and open it haphazard; it was a volume on natural history. Anyone would have thought her absorbed, she pored so attentively over that plate of gaudy butterflies, never raising her head to look at the new-comer, who stood a few yards off regarding her with unqualified astonishment. Cyril Blake—for it was he, and no other, who had entered the library—would willingly have withdrawn without attracting her notice; but one of the boys in the sanatorium wanted a certain fascinating book of adventures, and he had promised to fetch it. He knew the volume was in this very recess, and he saw with some annoyance that it would be necessary to disturb her.
'Miss Ross,' he said, in that quiet, guarded tone in which he always addressed her now, 'may I trouble you to move just for one moment? I am so sorry to disturb you, but Willie Taylor—' and then he stopped as though he were suddenly petrified.
Audrey had risen quickly, but as she moved aside he had a full view of her face—the flushed cheeks and swollen eyelids told their own tale.
'Good heavens!' he exclaimed, forgetting his errand and speaking in excessive agitation, 'you are unhappy—something is the matter!' and Cyril turned quite pale.
Poor Audrey! her feelings were not very enviable at that moment. That she should be discovered by the very person whom she was most anxious to avoid! If he would only go away and leave her, and not stand there asking her questions! But nothing was farther from Cyril's intentions. For the minute he had forgotten everything, except that she was unhappy.
'You are not well, or else something has been troubling you,' he continued, and his voice softened with involuntary tenderness. 'Miss Ross, you promised that we should be friends—will you not treat me as one now? There is nothing I would not do to help you, if you would only tell me what is troubling you.'
'It is impossible,' she returned with a little sob. Oh, if he would only go away, and not speak to her so kindly! 'One must be troubled sometimes, and no one can help me—if you will only leave me to myself.'
'Leave you like this?'
'Yes, indeed—indeed. I cannot talk;' and Audrey wiped away the tears that seemed to blind her. She so seldom gave way—she so seldom permitted herself this feminine luxury of tears—but when once she set them flowing they were simply uncontrollable. She could not help what Cyril thought of her. 'If you would only go away,' she repeated, turning from him as he stood there as though rooted to the spot.
'I cannot go;' and here Cyril's lips became quite white under his moustache.
Some sudden intuition of the truth had come to him. Why had he not thought of that before? It had never even occurred to him. An hour ago he had met Mollie wandering about the town disconsolately. Miss Ross was at the Cottage, she had said; it was only a call, and she had taken the message herself; and then her mother had given her some errands to do, and had charged her strictly not to return for at least an hour.
'Mamma never likes me to be at home when Miss Ross comes,' Mollie had observed in an aggrieved tone. But Cyril had taken no notice of the speech—he knew his mother's little ways, and no suspicion of the truth had come to him. It was only the sight of Audrey's emotion that quickened it into life now.
'You have seen my mother,' he exclaimed; and here his face grew dark and stern. 'She has been talking to you—making you unhappy. Miss Ross,' as she remained silent, 'you must answer me. This concerns me very closely. I have a right to know if my mother has betrayed me!'
His tone frightened Audrey.
'You must not be vexed with her,' she said, rousing herself to defend the absent. 'She is very unhappy, and of course it troubled me.' Audrey spoke with her usual simplicity—what was the use of trying to hide it any longer? Cyril's impetuous pertinacity gave her no chance of escape.
'And she told you that I was going away?'
Audrey bowed her head.
'It was very wrong,' he returned, still sternly. 'Whom is a man to trust, if he cannot trust his own mother? She has betrayed my confidence. It was cruel to me, but it was far more cruel to you—it is that I cannot forgive.'
'No, no! You must not say that—she did not mean to be cruel, Mr. Blake. Of course I ought not to have known this, and of course it has made me very unhappy. But now I must ask you something. Will you not wait a little? Things may be better—easier——' And here she looked at him timidly, and her expression was very sweet.
But Cyril was not looking at her; he was having a hard fight with himself. He was angry—justly angry, as he thought; nay, more, he was humiliated that his mother should have appealed to this girl—that, knowing her kind heart, she should have inflicted this pain on her. The sight of her grief, her gentleness, almost maddened him, and he averted his eyes as he answered her.
'They cannot be easier. But do not mistake my meaning—perhaps my mother has misled you—let me put it right. No pain or difficulty is driving me away; do not think that for a moment. However hard it might be to go on living here, I think I could have endured it, if it were only right to do so. But I have made up my mind that it is not right, and to-morrow morning I shall speak to Dr. Ross.'
'Oh no, no!' and here Audrey clasped her hands involuntarily. But Cyril's eyes were fixed on some carrier-pigeons fluttering across the courtyard.
'It is my duty to do it, and it must be done. If Dr. Ross questions me, I shall tell him the truth: "I must go away because I have dared to love your daughter; and if I stayed here I should never cease from my efforts to win her." That is what I should tell him, Miss Ross. I think he will not press me to remain under these circumstances.' And Cyril gave a bitter little laugh.
'Perhaps not;' and here Audrey sank down upon her chair, for she felt weak and giddy.
'I am glad, at least, that you think I am doing right.'
'I did not say so.'
'Pardon me;' and here Cyril did try to get a glimpse of her face, for something in her tone baffled him. 'You, who know all, must of course approve my conduct. If I stayed here I could not answer for myself; it is better—safer—that I should go; though wherever I am,' here his voice trembled with exquisite tenderness, 'I must always love you.'