'I shall never be as strong as other men,' he said to himself; 'some women might object to me on that score. But she is not that sort: she loves to take care of people, to feel herself necessary to them.' And here a smile came to his lips. 'I have never spoken to her, never dropped a hint of my feelings; but, somehow, I do not think she would be surprised if I ever told them—we have been so much to each other. I think I could teach her to love me in time—at least, I would try, my sweet.' And here there was a sudden gleam and fire in his eyes, and then he took up Audrey's letter, and began to read it.
But when he had finished the first sentence, a curious dull feeling came over him, and he found that he could not understand what he was reading; he must go over the passage again. But as he re-read it the same numbness and impossibility of comprehension came over him; and yet the words were very clearly written:
'Shall you be very much surprised, my dear Michael, to hear some news I have to tell you? I am engaged to Mr. Blake. I will tell you all about it presently, just as though you were my father-confessor; I will not hide one little thing from you. But I was never one to beat about the bush, and I hope my abruptness has not made you jump; but oh, Michael dear, I am so happy!' etc.
He read this sentence half a dozen times, until something of its meaning had taken hold of his dense brain; and then he read the letter straight through to the very end, slowly, and often pausing over a sentence that seemed to him a little involved. And as he read there was a pinched gray look upon his face, as though some sudden illness had seized him; but he was not conscious of any active pain, though the whole plan and purpose of his life lay crushed in the dust before him, like the chrysanthemum that Booty was tearing, petal by petal, until his master's coat-sleeve was covered with golden-brown shreds. On the contrary, as he sat there, holding the letter between his limp hands, his mind wandered off to a story he had once read.
Was it the wreck of the Royal George, he wondered? The name of the vessel had escaped him, but he knew the story was a true one; it had really happened. He had read how the vessel was doomed. She was a troop-ship, and there were hundreds of brave English soldiers on board; and when they knew there was no hope, the officers drew up their men on the deck, just as though they were on parade; and the gallant fellows stood there, in rank and file, as they went down to their watery grave.
'And not a man of them flinched, you may depend on that,' he said, half aloud; 'for they were Englishmen, and Englishmen know how to die.'
And it seemed to him that he was still ruminating over this old story that had happened so many, many years ago, when Kester returned, and he must needs tell him the story again, and he told it very well, too.
'And not a man of them flinched,' he repeated, rising a little feebly from his chair, 'for they were Englishmen, and Englishmen know how to die. Why are you staring at me, boy? It is a good story, is it not?'
'Very good indeed, but I was only afraid you were not quite well, Captain Burnett; you look so queer, somehow, and your hand is shaking.'
'I have sat too long. I think I must walk off my stiffness. Don't wait lunch for me, Kester. I may go to my club.'
And then he took down his hat, and went out in the streets, with Booty ambling along at his heels.
But he did not go far; he strolled into the Park and sat down on a bench. The air refreshed him, and the miserable numb feelings left him, and he had power to think.
But there were deep lines in his face as he sat there, and a great sadness in his eyes, and just before he rose to go home a few words escaped him. 'Oh, my darling, what a mistake, when you belong to me! Will you ever find it out for yourself? Will you ever recognise that it is a mistake?' And then he set his teeth hard, like a man who knows his strength and refuses to be beaten.
And the next morning, as they sat at breakfast, Michael looked up from his newspaper and asked Kester if he had heard the Rutherford news.
'Perhaps your mother or Mollie has written to you?' he observed, as he carelessly scanned the columns.
Kester looked up a little anxiously.
'No one has told me anything,' he said, rather nervously. 'I hope it is not bad news.'
'Most people would call it good news. Your brother and Miss Ross are engaged. Well'—as Kester jumped from his seat flushing scarlet—'aren't you delighted? I think you ought to write a pretty note to Miss Ross to go with my letter.'
'Have you written to her? Will you give her a message from me? I would rather write to Cyril. I don't take it in, somehow; you are quite sure it is true, Captain Burnett? Of course, I am glad that Cyril should be happy, but I always thought——'
And here Kester stammered and got confused; but Michael did not help him. He took up his paper again, and left him to finish his breakfast in silence, and after that he remarked that he was going down to his club.
Kester curled himself up on the window-seat as soon as he was left alone, and fell into a brown study. Somehow he could not make it out at all. He was sharp-witted by nature, and years of suffering and forced inaction had made him more thoughtful than most boys of his age. He had long ago grasped the idea that his idolised hero was not happy, and during their stay in Scotland some dim surmise of the truth had occurred to him.
'Dear old Cyril!' he observed, half aloud; 'I am awfully glad for his sake; but it always seemed to me as though Miss Ross were a cut above us. If only I were sure that he was glad, too.'
And here a troubled look crossed the boy's face; he was thinking of the story Captain Burnett had told him yesterday, and of the strange dazed look in Michael's eyes: 'And not a man of them flinched; for they were Englishmen, and Englishmen know how to die.' 'Ah, and to live, too!' thought Kester, as he roused himself at last and sat down to his Greek.
When Audrey heard that Michael was really coming home, she felt as though she had nothing more to wish. She had read his letter at least a dozen times; its brotherly tenderness and anxiety for her welfare had touched her to the heart.
'I am very grateful for your confidence,' he wrote, after a few earnest wishes for her happiness. 'I would like, if it were possible, to keep my old place as Mentor—we have always been such friends, dear, such true and trusty comrades; and I do not think that Mr. Blake will object to my cousinly surveillance. I could not afford to lose you out of my life, Audrey; so let me subscribe myself, now and for ever, your faithful friend and brother—MICHAEL.'
Audrey sighed gently as she put down the letter; it touched, but it did not completely satisfy her. Michael had not said he was glad to hear of her engagement. He was truthful almost to a fault. The conventional falsehoods that other men uttered were never on his lips. If he could not approve, he would take refuge in silence. 'Silence never damages a man's character,' he was fond of saying; but many people found this oppressive. Audrey had secretly longed for some such word of approval. If Michael had only told her that he applauded her courage in marrying a poor man, if he had praised her unworldliness, she would have been utterly content; but the letter that Michael had written with a breaking heart held no such comfort for her. He had accepted her decision without a word, and though his message of congratulation to Cyril was all that could be wished, there was no further allusion to him.
'Michael thinks I have been rash,' she said to herself a little sorrowfully. 'I suppose he, too, considers that Cyril is rather too young. If Michael were only on our side, I should not care what the rest of the world thinks;' and then she folded up the letter.
But on the day Michael was expected her face was so radiant that Cyril pretended to be jealous. 'You are very fond of your cousin,' he observed as he followed her to the window, where she was watching the clouds a little anxiously.
Audrey heard him rather absently. She was thinking that the dampness might bring on Michael's neuralgia, and that, if he had only named his train, the carriage might have been sent for him—indeed, she would have driven out herself to meet him and Kester. 'Oh yes,' she rejoined; 'I have missed him terribly all this time. Nothing is right without Michael——' and as Cyril looked a little surprised at this, she added quickly: 'He is like my own brother, Cyril, so it is perfectly natural, you see; ever since his illness he has been one of us.' And as Cyril professed himself satisfied with this explanation, there was nothing more said, and Audrey went up to put the finishing touches to Michael's rooms, and to arrange the chrysanthemums and coloured leaves in the big Indian jars. If she had only known how Michael would shudder at the sight of these chrysanthemums! He had taken a dislike to the flowers ever since Booty had covered his coat-sleeve with golden-brown petals.
After all, Michael came before he was expected. Audrey was sitting chatting to her mother in the twilight, when they heard the hall door open and close, and the next moment they saw Michael standing on the threshold looking at them.
'My dear Michael!' exclaimed Mrs. Ross; but Audrey had already crossed the room: both her hands were in Michael's, and he was looking at her with his old kind smile, though he did not say a word; but Audrey did not seem to notice his silence.
'Have you walked from the Gray Cottage? We did not hear any wheels. Why did you not let us know your train, and I would have driven in to meet you? Mother, I am going to ring for the lamp and tea; Michael will be tired!' And Audrey did as she said, and then picked up Booty and lavished all sorts of caresses on the little animal, while she listened to the quiet explanations that Michael was giving to Mrs. Ross.
'You are looking very well, Audrey,' he said at last; 'you have not lost your moorland colour yet.' And though he said this in his usual tone, he thought that never in his life had he seen her look so sweet.
'I wish I could return the compliment,' was her answer; 'you are looking thin and pale, Michael. You have been giving us such a good account of yourself, but London never suits you.'
'I think it suits me better than it did,' he returned quietly; but he could not quite meet her affectionate look. 'I shall have to run up there pretty frequently now; one must look up one's friends more: out of sight is out of mind in many cases.'
Audrey gave an incredulous smile. She thought Michael would not act up to this resolution; but he fully meant what he said. Woodcote, dearly as he loved it, would never be his home now. Of course, he would do things by degrees: his brief absences should grow longer and more frequent, until they had become used to them; and perhaps in time he might break with his old life altogether. But he put away these thoughts, and talked to them in his usual easy fashion, asking questions about Geraldine and her husband; and presently Dr. Ross came in and monopolised him entirely.
Audrey felt as though she had not had a word with him when she went upstairs to dress for dinner. True, he had asked after Cyril, and inquired if he were coming in that evening; but on Audrey's replying in the negative he had made no observation.
'When father is in the room he never will let Michael talk to anyone else,' she said to herself rather discontentedly; 'if I could only get him alone!'
She had her wish presently, for on her return to the drawing-room she found him lying back in an easy-chair, looking at the fire. He was evidently thinking intently, for he did not hear her entrance until she was close beside him; but at the touch of her hand on his shoulder he started violently.
'A penny for your thoughts, Michael,' she said gaily, as he jumped up and stood beside her on the rug.
'They are too valuable to be saleable,' he returned lightly; 'suppose you let me hear yours instead.'
'You shall have them and welcome. Oh, Michael, how delicious it is to be talking to you again; letters are so stupid and unsatisfactory!'
'Do you mean my letters in particular?'
'Oh no! They were as nice as possible; but, all the same, they did not quite satisfy me. Do you know,' and here her tone was a little wistful, 'you have not told me that you are glad about my engagement? You said so many nice things; but somehow I was longing for just one word of approval from my old Mentor.'
An uneasy flush crossed Michael's face; but the firelight was flickering just then, and Audrey could not see him distinctly. For one moment he was silent; then he put her gently in a seat and placed himself beside her. It would be easier to talk to her so, and perhaps he was conscious of some sudden weakness.
'How cold your hands are!' she observed anxiously; 'if you will break the big coal the fire will burn more brightly.' And as he obeyed her she continued: 'Ah, now we can see each other! I do dislike a flickering, uncertain light. Now, will you tell me frankly if you were glad or sorry when you got my letter?'
He was more prepared now, and his voice was quite steady as he answered her.
'Mentor has no objection to be catechised, but he wishes to put one question first. Are you quite content and happy, Audrey?'
'Indeed I am!' turning to him one of the brightest faces he had ever seen.
'Then, my dear, I am satisfied, too.'
'Oh, but that will not do! You must tell me your own private opinion. I know you like Cyril—you have always spoken well of him; but are you sure that in your heart you thoroughly approve my choice?'
She was pressing him close, but he did not flinch; he only turned to her rather gravely.
'My dear Audrey, there are limits even to Mentor's privileges. When two people make up their minds to take each other for better, for worse, no third person has a right to give an opinion. I know little of Mr. Blake, but I have already a respect for him. I am perfectly sure that in time we shall be good friends.'
'I hope so—I hope so from my heart!' she returned earnestly. 'You are very guarded, Michael; and, though you are too kind to say so, I know you think I have acted rather hastily. Perhaps you would rather I had waited a little longer; but Cyril was so unhappy, and I—well, I was not quite comfortable myself. It is so much nicer to have it all settled.'
'Yes, I see.'
'And now everything is just perfect. Oh, Michael, you must not go away for a long time! I cannot do without you.'
'I hope you don't expect me to believe that?'
'But it is perfectly true, I assure you. Actually, Cyril pretended to be jealous to-day, because I could think of nothing but your coming home. He was only teasing me; for of course he understands what we feel for each other. If you were my own brother, Michael, I could not want you more. But that is the best of Cyril; he is really so unselfish—almost as unselfish as you.'
'My dear child,' returned Michael lazily, 'did you ever hear of a certain philosopher named Diogenes, and how he set off one day, lamp in hand, to search through the city for an honest man? Really, your remark makes me inclined to light my own private farthing dip, and look for this curious anomaly, an unselfish man.'
'You would not have to go far,' she returned innocently. 'There are two of them in Rutherford at the present moment.'
But he only shook his head and laughed at this guileless flattery, and at that moment, to his relief, Dr. Ross came into the room.
But as he took his place at the dinner-table he had a curious sensation, as though he had been racked; and, though he laughed and talked, he had an odd feeling all the time as though he were not quite sure of his own identity; and all that evening a few words that Audrey had said haunted him like a refrain:
'If you were my own brother, Michael, I could not want you more—if you were my own brother I could not want you more!'
MICHAEL TURNS OVER A NEW LEAF
'My privilege is to be the spectator of my own life-drama, to be fully conscious of the tragi-comedy of my own destiny; and, more than that, to be in the secret of the tragi-comic itself.
* * * * *
'Without grief, which is the string of this venturesome kite, man would soar too quickly and too high, and the chosen souls would be lost for the race, like balloons, which, but for gravitation, would never return from the empyrean.'—AMIEL.
Michael's return had greatly added to Audrey's happiness. In spite of her lover's society and her natural joyousness of disposition, she had been conscious that something had been lacking to her complete contentment.
'No one but Michael could take Michael's place,' as she told him a little pathetically that first evening.
But when a few days had elapsed she became aware that things were not quite the same between them—that the Michael who had come back to her was not exactly the old Michael.
The old Michael had been somewhat of an autocrat—a good-natured autocrat, certainly, who tyrannised over her for her own good, and who assumed the brotherly right of inquiring into all her movements and small daily plans. They had always been much together, especially since Geraldine's marriage had deprived her of sisterly companionship; and it had been an understood thing in the Ross family that where Audrey was, Michael was generally not far off.
Under these circumstances, it was therefore quite natural that Audrey should expect her cousin to resume his usual habits. She had counted on his companionship during the hours Cyril was engaged in his schoolroom duties. In old times Michael had often accompanied her on her visits to her various protegees; he had always been her escort to the garden-parties that were greatly in vogue at Rutherford, or he would drive her to Brail or some of the outlying towns or villages where she had business.
It was somewhat of a disappointment, then, to find that Michael had suddenly turned over a new leaf, and was far too occupied to be at her beck and call. Kester came to him almost daily, and it became his custom to spend the remainder of the morning in Dr. Ross's study. He had a habit, too, of writing his letters after luncheon; in fact, he was seldom disengaged until the evening, when he was always ready to take his place in the family circle.
Audrey accused herself of selfishness. Of course she ought to be glad that Michael's health had so much improved. Her father was always remarking on the change in a tone of satisfaction.
'He is like the old Mike,' he said once; 'he has taken a new departure, and has shaken off his listlessness. Why, he works quite steadily now for hours without knocking up. He is a different man. He takes a class for me every morning; it does me good to see him with half a dozen boys round him. Blake will have to look out for himself; he is hardly as popular as the Captain.'
Audrey took herself to task severely when her father said this. It was evident that Michael had spoilt her. She was determined not to monopolise him so selfishly; but, somehow, when it came to the point, she was always forgetting these good resolutions.
And another thing puzzled Audrey: Michael was certainly quieter than he used to be; when they were alone—which was a rare occurrence now—he seemed to have so little to say to her. Sometimes he would take up his book and read out a few passages, but if she begged him to put it down and talk to her instead, he would dispute the point in the most tiresome fashion.
'I think people talk too much, nowadays,' he would say in his lazy way; 'it is all lip-service now. If women would only cultivate their minds a little more, and learn to hold their tongues until they have something worth saying, the world would not be flooded with all this muddy small-talk. Now, for example, if you would allow me to read you this fine passage from Emerson.'
But if Audrey would allow nothing of the kind, and if, on the contrary, she manifested an obstinate determination to talk, he would argue with her in the same playful fashion; but she could never draw him into one of their old confidential talks.
But when they were all together of an evening, Michael would be more like his old self. He would sit beside the piano when she sang, and turn over the leaves for her, or he would coax her to be his partner in a game of whist, and lecture her in his old fashion; but all the time he would be looking at her so kindly that his lectures never troubled her in the least.
But when Cyril spent the evening at Woodcote, which was generally once or twice a week, Michael never seemed to think that they wanted him: he would bury himself in his book or paper, or challenge Dr. Ross to a game of chess. He never took any notice of Audrey's appealing looks, and her kindly attempts to draw him into conversation with her and Cyril were all disregarded.
Audrey bore this for some time, and then she made up her mind that she must speak to him. She was a little shy of approaching the subject—Michael never seemed to give her any opening now—but she felt she must have it out with him.
One evening, when she and Cyril had exchanged their parting words in the hall, she went back to the drawing-room and found Michael standing alone before the fire. She went up to him at once, but as he turned to her she was struck with his air of weariness and depression.
'Oh, Michael, how tired you look!' she observed, laying her hand on his arm. 'Have you neuralgia again?' And as he shook his head, she continued anxiously: 'Are you sure you are quite well—that nothing is troubling you? You have been so very quiet this evening. Michael'—and here she blushed a little—'I want to say something to you, and yet I hardly know how to put it—it is just like your thoughtfulness—but, indeed, there is no need: you are never in the way.'
'Is this an enigma? If so, I may as well tell you I give it up at once. I never could guess conundrums;' and Michael twirled his moustache in a most provoking way; but, all the same, he perfectly understood her. 'I give it up,' he repeated.
Audrey pretended to frown.
'Michael, I never knew you so tiresome before. It is impossible to speak seriously to you—and I really am serious.' And then her tone changed, and she looked at him very gently. 'You mean it so kindly, but indeed it is not necessary. Neither Cyril nor I could ever find you in the way.'
He looked down at the rug as she spoke, and there was a moment's silence before he answered her. She had come straight to him from her lover to say this thing to him. It was so like Audrey to tell him this. An odd thought occurred to him as he listened to her—one of those sudden flashes of memory that sometimes dart across the mind: he remembered that once in his life he had kissed her.
It had been half a lifetime ago. She was only a child. They were staying in London, and he had come to see them on his way from some review. He remembered how Audrey had stood and looked at him. She had the same clear gray eyes then.
'How grand you look, Mike!' she exclaimed in an awestruck tone, for as a child she had always called him 'Mike.' 'I wish you would always wear that beautiful scarlet coat; and I think, if you did not mind, I should like you to kiss me just for once.'
Michael remembered how he had felt as she made that innocent request, and how Dr. Ross had laughed; and then, when he kissed her cheek, she thanked him quite gravely, and slipped back to her father.
'Why don't you ask for a kiss, too, Gage?' Dr. Ross observed in a joking way.
But Geraldine had looked quite shocked at the idea.
'No, thank you, father; I never kiss soldiers,' she replied discreetly—at which reply there had been a fresh laugh.
'He may be a soldier, but Mike's Mike, and I wanted to kiss him,' returned Audrey stoutly. 'Why do you laugh, daddy?—little girls may kiss anybody.'
Had he cared for her ever since then, he wondered; and then he pulled himself up with a sort of start.
'Michael, why do you not answer me?'
'Because I was thinking,' he returned quietly. 'Audrey, do you know you are just as much a child as you were a dozen years ago? Does it ever occur to you, my dear, that Blake might not always endorse your opinion? Stop,' as she was about to speak; 'we all know what a kind-hearted person our Lady Bountiful is, and how she never thinks of herself at all. But I have a sort of fellow-feeling with Blake, and I quite understand his view of the case—that two is company and three are none.'
'But, Michael,' and here Audrey blushed again, most becomingly, 'indeed Cyril is not so ridiculous. I know what people generally think: that engaged couples like to be left to themselves—and I daresay it is pleasant sometimes—but I don't see why they are to be selfish. Cyril has plenty of opportunities for talking to me; but when he comes of an evening there is no need for you to turn hermit.'
'It is a character I prefer. All old bachelors develop this sort of tendency to isolate themselves at times from their fellow-creatures. To be sure, I am naturally gregarious; but, then, I hate to spoil sport. "Do as you would be done by"—that is the Burnett motto. So, by your favour, I intend Blake to have his own way.'
'Oh, how silly you must think us!' she returned impatiently. 'I wish you would not be so self-opinionative, Michael; for you are wrong—quite wrong. I should be far happier if you would make one of us, as you do on other evenings.'
'And this is the role you have selected for me,' replied Michael mournfully: 'to play gooseberry in my old age, and get myself hated for my pains. No, my dear child; listen to the words of wisdom: leave Mentor to enjoy a surreptitious nap in his arm-chair, and be content with your Blake audience.' And, in spite of all her coaxing and argument, she could not induce him to promise that he would mend his ways.
'You are incorrigible!' she said, as she bade him good-night. 'After all, Cyril gives me my own way far more than you do.'
But Michael seemed quite impervious to this reproach: the smile was still on his face as she left him; but as the door closed his elbow dropped heavily on the mantelpiece, and a sombre look came into the keen blue eyes.
'Shall I have to give it up and go away?' he said to himself. 'Life is not worth living at this price. Oh, my darling! my innocent darling! why do you not leave me in peace? why do you tempt me with your sweet looks and words to be false to my own sense of honour? But I will not yield—I dare not, for all our sakes. If she will not let me take my own way, I must just throw it all up and go abroad. God bless her! I know she means what she says, and Mike is Mike still.' And then he groaned, and his head dropped on his arms, and the tide of desolation swept over him. He was still young—in the prime of life—and yet what good was his life to him?
Audrey was a healthy-minded young person; she was not given to introspection. She never took herself to pieces, in a morbid way, to examine the inner workings of her own mind, after the manner of some folk, who regulate themselves in a bungling fashion, and wind themselves up afresh daily; and who would even time their own heart-beats if it were possible.
Audrey was not one of these scrupulous self-critics. She would have considered it waste of time to be always weighing herself and her feelings in a nicely-adjusted balance. 'Know thyself,' said an old thinker; but Audrey Ross would have altered the saying: 'Look out of yourself; self-forgetfulness is better than any amount of self-knowledge.'
Nevertheless, Audrey was a little thoughtful after this conversation with Michael, and during the next few weeks she was conscious of feeling vaguely dissatisfied with herself. Now and then she wondered if she were different from other girls, and if her absence of moods, and her constant serenity and gaiety, were not signs of a phlegmatic temperament.
She was perfectly content with her own position. She had never imagined before how pleasant it would be to be engaged, and to have one human being entirely devoted to her. She was very much attached to her fiance. He never disappointed her; on the contrary, she discovered every day some new and admirable trait that excited her admiration, and as a lover he was simply perfect. He never made her uneasy by demanding more than she felt inclined to give; at the same time, it deepened her sense of security and restfulness to feel how completely he understood her.
But now and then she would ask herself if her love for Cyril were all that it ought to be. She began to compare herself with others—with Geraldine, for example. She remembered the months of Geraldine's engagement, and how entirely she and Percival had been absorbed in each other. Geraldine had never seemed to have eyes or ears for anyone but her lover, and in his absence she had hardly seemed like herself at all.
She had been obliged to pay a few weeks' visit to some friends in Scotland, and Audrey had accompanied her, and she remembered how, when their visit was half over, she had jestingly observed that she would never be engaged to anyone if she were compelled to lose her own identity. 'For you know you are not the same person, Gage,' she had said; 'instead of taking pleasure in our friends' society, you shut yourself up and write endless letters to Percival; and when we drive out or go in the boat, you never seem to see the beautiful scenery, and the mountains and the loch might be in the clouds; and when anyone asks you a question, you seem to answer it from a distance, and everyone knows that your thoughts are at Rutherford.' And though Geraldine had chosen to be offended at this plain speaking, she had not been able to defend herself. And then, had not Audrey once found her crying in her room, and for a long time she had refused to be comforted? Audrey had been much alarmed, for she thought something must be wrong at Woodcote; but it was only that Percival had a headache and seemed so dull without her. 'He says he really cannot bear the place without me, that he thinks he must go to Edith—and, and, I want to go home dreadfully,' finished Geraldine tearfully; 'I don't think engaged people ought to leave each other, and I know Percival thinks so too.'
Audrey remembered this little episode when during the Christmas holidays Cyril was obliged to go up to town for ten days. She missed him excessively, and wrote him charming little letters every day; but, nevertheless, the time did not hang heavily on her hands. But she was glad when the day of his return arrived, and she went down to the Gray Cottage to welcome him. Mrs. Blake had suggested it as a little surprise, and Audrey had agreed at once. Cyril's delight at seeing her almost deprived him of good manners. He knew his fiancee objected to any sort of demonstration before people; and he only just remembered this in time, as Audrey drew back with a heightened colour.
But he made up for it afterwards when Mrs. Blake left them alone, and Audrey was almost overwhelmed by his vehement expressions of joy at finding himself with her again.
'It has been the longest ten days I have ever spent in my life,' he observed; 'I was horribly bored, and as homesick as possible. I am afraid Norton found me very poor company. If it had not been for your letters, I could not have borne it. You shall never send me away again, dearest.'
'But that is nonsense,' she returned, in her sensible way; 'you cannot stop at Rutherford all the year round, and it will not do for you to lose your friends. I shall have to pay visits myself; and I am afraid I shall not always ask your leave if any very tempting invitations come.'
'You will not need to do so,' he answered quietly; 'do you think I should begrudge you any pleasure? I have no wish, even if I had the right, to curtail your freedom. I am not so selfish.'
'You are never selfish,' she returned softly. 'Cyril dear, I suppose I ought to be pleased that you feel like this; but, do you know, I am just a little sorry.'
'Sorry!' and indeed he could hardly believe his ears, for was he not paying her a pretty compliment?
'Yes; it makes me rather uncomfortable. It seems to me as though I ought to feel the same, as though there were something wanting in me. I sometimes fancy I am different from other girls.'
'Do not compare yourself with other people,' he returned quickly, for he could not bear her to look troubled for a moment. This mood was new to him, and he had never seen a shade on her bright face before. 'You have a calm temperament—that is your great charm—you are not subject to the cold and hot fits of ordinary mortals. It is my own fault that I cannot be happy without you; but I do not expect you to share my restlessness.'
'Ah, that is right,' she replied, very much relieved by this. 'You are always so nice at understanding things, Cyril. Do you know, I was blaming myself for feeling so comfortable in your absence. But I was so busy—I had so many things to interest me; and, then, I had Michael.'
The young man flushed slightly, but he had learnt to repress himself: he knew, far better than she did, that his love was infinitely greater than hers. But what of that? She was a woman made to be worshipped. It never troubled him when she talked of Michael—Cyril's nature was too noble for jealousy—but just for the moment her frankness jarred on him.
'I think I was nearly as happy as usual,' she went on, determined to tell the truth; 'and yet, by your own account, you were perfectly miserable.'
'But that was my own fault,' he returned lightly. 'Men are unreasonable creatures; they are not patient like women. It is true that I have no life apart from you now, and that I always want to be near you; but I do not expect you to feel the same.'
Audrey looked at him thoughtfully; he gave her so much, and yet he seemed to demand so little.
'You are very good to me, Cyril,' she said, in a low voice. 'I never thought you would understand me so thoroughly. You leave me so free, and you make me so happy. I wonder where you have learnt to be so wise.'
'My love for you has taught me many things,' he answered. 'Do I really make you happy, sweetheart?'
But the look in her eyes was sufficient answer. This was his reward—to see her perfect content and trust in him, and to bask in her sweet looks and smiles.
TWO FAMILY EVENTS
'A solemn thing it is to me To look upon a babe that sleeps, Wearing in its spirit deeps The undeveloped mystery Of our Adam's taint and woe; Which, when they developed be, Will not let it slumber so.'
One morning, as the Ross family were sitting at breakfast, Audrey noticed that Michael seemed very much absorbed by a letter he was reading. He laid it down presently, but made no remark, only he seemed a little grave and absent during the remainder of the meal.
Just as they were rising from table, she heard him ask her father in rather a low tone if he would come into the study for a moment, as he wanted a few words with him; and as they went out together he mentioned the word dogcart—could he have it in time to catch the 11.15 train?
Audrey felt a sudden quickening of curiosity. Michael's manner was so peculiar that she was sure something must have happened. She wondered what this sudden summons to town meant. It was a bitterly cold day, and a light fall of snow had whitened the ground. A three miles' drive in a dogcart was not a very agreeable proceeding, only Michael seemed so strangely callous to weather now. Surely her father would insist on his having a fly from the town? He was always so careful of Michael's comfort.
Audrey could settle to nothing; it was impossible to practise or answer notes until she had had a word with Michael. So she took up the paper and pretended to read it, until the study door opened and she heard her cousin go up to his room. The next moment Dr. Ross walked in, looking as though he were very much pleased.
'Mike's a droll fellow,' he said, addressing his wife, who was looking over the tradesmen's books. 'He has just told me, with a very long face, that his uncle, Mr. Carlisle, is dead, and that he has left him all his money; and he is as lugubrious over it as though he had been made bankrupt.'
Audrey uttered an exclamation, but Mrs. Ross said, in her quiet way:
'Perhaps he is grieved at the loss of his uncle, John. It would hardly be becoming to rejoice openly at the death of a relative, however rich he might be.'
'I am afraid many men would if they were in Mike's shoes. Why, they say Mr. Carlisle was worth six or seven thousand a year—most of it solid capital, and locked up in safe securities and investments. He was always a canny Scotsman, and liked to take care of his money. And here is Mike pretending not to care a jot about it, and looking as though he had the cares of all the world on his shoulders.'
'I think he shows very good feeling. Michael was never mercenary, and the loss of his only near relative would make him dull for a time.'
'My dear Emmie, that is very pretty sentiment; but, unfortunately, it does not hold good in this case. Mike has never seen his uncle since he was a lad of eighteen—that is about seventeen years ago—and he has often owned to me that Mr. Carlisle was very close in his money dealings. "It is a pity there is no sympathy between us," he said once. "Uncle Andrew does not seem to have a thought beyond his money-grubbing. He is a decent sort of old fellow, I believe, and I daresay he will end by marrying some pretty girl or other, and then he will be properly miserable all the rest of his life." That does not sound much like an affectionate nephew.'
'Oh, he never cared for him!' interposed Audrey; 'Michael and I have often talked about him. It seems so strange that he should leave him his money, when he took so little notice of him all these years.'
'Well, he was not a demonstrative man,' returned her father; 'but in his way he seemed both fond and proud of Mike. I remember when he got the Victoria Cross, and was lying between life and death, poor lad! that Mr. Carlisle wrote very kindly and enclosed a cheque for two hundred pounds. I had to answer the letter for him, and I remember when he got better, and first came down here, that I recommended him to keep up a friendly intercourse with his uncle, though I do not believe he took my advice. Mike was always such a lazy beggar!'
'And he has to go up to town to see his lawyer, I suppose?'
'Yes, and he thinks he may be away a week or two; but, there, I must not stand here talking. I have told Reynolds to order a fly from the town; but he need not start for three-quarters of an hour.'
Audrey waited impatiently for another twenty minutes before Michael made his appearance. He looked very cold, and at once proceeded to wheel an easy-chair in front of the fire.
'I may as well get warm,' he observed. 'I expect we shall have a regular snowstorm before night. Look at that leaden sky! Well, what now?'
For Audrey was kneeling on the rug, and she was looking at him with her brightest and most bewitching smile.
'Michael, I am so glad, so very, very glad. I think I am as pleased as though the fortune were mine.'
'Do you think that is a decent remark to make to a fellow who has just lost his uncle? Really, Audrey, you may well look ashamed of yourself; I quite blush for you. "Avarice, thy name is woman!"'
'Now, Michael, don't be absurd. I am not a bit ashamed of myself. Of course, I am sorry the poor man is dead; but as I never saw him, I cannot be excessively grieved; but I am delighted that he has done the right thing and left you all his money, and I am sure in your heart that you are glad, too.'
'It does not strike you that I may regard it in the light of an unmitigated bore. What does an old bachelor like myself want with this heap of money? I should like to know how I am to spend six or seven thousand a year—why, the very idea is oppressive!'
'You are very good at pretence, Michael; as though I am not clever enough to see through that flimsy attempt at philosophy! You think it would be infra dig. to look too delighted.'
'Oh, you think I am going in for a stoic?' he returned blandly.
'Yes, but you are not really one; you were never cut out for a poor man, Michael; the role did not suit you at all. It is a pain and a grief to you to travel second class, and it is only the best of everything that is good enough for you; and you like to put up at first-class hotels, and to have all the waiters and railway officials crowding round you. Even when we were in Scotland the gillie took you for some titled aristocrat, you were so lavish with your money. It is a way you have, Michael, to open your purse for everyone. No wonder the poor widow living down by the fir-plantation called you the noble English gentleman.'
'Why, what nonsense you talk!' he replied.
But all the same it pleased him to think that she had remembered these things. Oh, those happy days that would never come back!
'And now you will be able to gratify all your tastes. You have always been so fond of old oak, and you can have a beautiful house, and furnish it just as you like; and you can buy pictures, and old china, and books. Why, you can have quite a famous library, and if you want our assistance, Gage and I will be proud to help you; and if you will only consult us, it will be the loveliest house you ever saw.'
'What do I want with a house?' he returned a little morosely. 'I should think rooms would be far better for a bachelor.'
'Ah, but you need not be a bachelor any longer,' she replied gaily. 'You have always told us that you could not afford to marry; but now you can have the house and wife too.' But here she stopped for a moment, for somehow the words sounded oddly as she said them. Michael's wife! What a curious idea! And would she be quite willing for Michael to marry? His wife must be very nice—nicer than most girls, she said to herself; and here she looked at him a little wistfully; but Michael did not make any response. He had the poker in his hand, and when she left off speaking he broke up a huge coal into a dozen glowing splinters.
'And, then, do you remember,' she went on, 'how you used to long for a mail phaeton, and a pair of bay horses? "When my ship comes I will drive a pair!" How often you have said that to me! Will you drive me in the Park sometimes, Michael, until you have someone else whom you want to take?—for, of course, when you have a wife——'
But here he interrupted her with marked impatience:
'I shall never have a wife. I wish you would not talk such nonsense, Audrey;' and there was such bitterness in his tone that she looked quite frightened. But the next moment he spoke more gently. 'Do you not see, dear, that I am a little upset about all this money coming to me? It is a great responsibility, as well as a pleasure.'
Then as she looked a little downcast at his rebuke, he put his hand lightly upon her brown hair and turned her face towards him.
'Why, there are tears in your eyes, you foolish child!' he said quickly. 'Did you really mind what I said, my dear Audrey?' in a more agitated tone—for, to his surprise, a large bright tear fell on his other hand.
'Oh, it was not that!' she returned, in rather a choked voice. 'Please don't look so concerned, Michael. You know I never mind your scolding me.'
'Then what is it?' he asked anxiously. 'What can have troubled you? Was it my want of sympathy with your little plans? The old oak, and the carvings and the books, and even the mail phaeton, may come by and by, when I have had time to realise my position as Croesus. Did my apathy vex you, Audrey?'
'No; for of course I understood you, and I liked you all the better for not caring about things just now. It was only—you will think me very foolish, Michael'—and here she did look ashamed of herself—'but I felt, somehow, as though all this money would separate us. You will not go on living at Woodcote, and you will have a home of your own and other interests; and perhaps—don't be vexed—but if ever you do marry, I hope—I hope—your wife will be good to me.'
'I think I can promise you that,' he returned quietly. 'Thank you, dear, for telling me the truth.'
'Yes; but, Michael, are you not shocked at my selfishness?'
'Not in the least. I understand you far better than you understand yourself;' and here he looked at her rather strangely as he rose.
'Must you go now?'
'Yes, it is quite time; I can hear wheels coming up the terrace.' And then he took her hands, and his old smile was on his face. 'Don't have any more mistaken fancies, Audrey; all the gold of the Indies would not separate us. If I furnish my house, I will promise you that Gage and you shall ransack Wardour Street with me; and when you are married, my dear, you shall choose what I shall give you;' and as he said this he stooped over her, for she was still kneeling before the fire, and kissed her very gently just above her eyes. It was done so quietly, almost solemnly, that she was not even startled. 'I don't suppose Blake would object to that from Cousin Michael,' he said gravely. 'Good-bye for a few days;' and then he was gone.
'I am glad he did that,' thought Audrey; 'he has never done it before. As though Cyril would mind! I was so afraid I had really vexed him with all my foolish talking. But he looked so sad, so unlike himself, that I wanted to rouse him. I will not tease him any more about a possible wife; it seems to hurt him somehow—and yet why should he be different from other men? If he does not go on living here with father and mother, he will want some one to take care of him.' And here she fell into a brown study, and the work she had taken up lay in her lap. After all, it was she who was leaving him—when she was Cyril's wife, how could she look after Michael?
Audrey could think of nothing else for the remainder of the day. She told Cyril about her cousin's good fortune when he took her out for a walk that afternoon. Neither of them minded the hard roads and gray wintry sky; when a few snowflakes pelted them they only walked on faster.
Cyril showed a proper interest in the news.
'I am delighted to hear it,' he said heartily. 'Captain Burnett is one of the best fellows I know, and he deserves all he has got.'
And then, as it was growing dark, and they could hardly see each other's face, he coaxed her to go back with him to the Gray Cottage to tell Kester the wonderful news. Now, it so happened that Mrs. Blake and Mollie had gone to a neighbour's, and were not expected back for an hour; but Cyril begged her to stay and make tea for them: and a very cosy hour they spent, sitting round the fire and making all kinds of possible and impossible plans for their hero.
But the next day Audrey's thoughts were diverted into a different channel, for Geraldine's boy was born, and great was the family rejoicing. Dr. Ross himself telegraphed to Michael. Audrey never liked her brother-in-law so well as on the morning when he came down to Woodcote to receive their congratulations.
Mrs. Ross was at Hillside, and only Audrey and her father were sitting at breakfast. Mr. Harcourt looked pale and fagged, but there was marvellous content in his whole mien. The slight pomposity that had always jarred on Audrey had wholly vanished, and he wrung her hand with a warmth of feeling that did him credit.
Once, indeed, she could hardly forbear a smile, when he said, with a touch of his old solemnity, 'Nurse says that he is the finest child that she has seen for a long time—and Mrs. Ross perfectly agrees with her;' but she commanded herself with difficulty.
'I wonder if he is like you or Gage, Percival?'
'It is impossible to say at present—one cannot get to see his eyes, and he is a little red. Mrs. Lockhart says they are all red at first. But he is astonishingly heavy—in fact, he is as fine a boy as you could see anywhere.'
Audrey went on with her breakfast. It was so inexpressibly droll to see Percival in the character of the proud father, but Dr. Ross seemed perfectly to understand his son-in-law. Audrey's pleasure was a little damped when she found that she must not see Geraldine. She went about with her head in the air, calling herself an aggrieved aunt; and she pretended to be jealous of her mother, who had taken up her residence at Hillside during the first week.
But when the day came for Audrey to be admitted to that quiet room, and she saw Geraldine looking lovelier than ever in her weakness, with a dark, downy head nestled against her arm, a great rush of tenderness filled her heart, and she felt as though she had never loved her sister so dearly.
'Will you take him, Aunt Audrey?' and Geraldine smiled at her.
'No, no! do not move him—let me see mother and son together for a moment. Oh, you two darlings, how comfortable you look!' but Audrey's tone was a trifle husky, and then she gave a little laugh: 'Actually, boy is a week old to-day, and this is the first time I have been allowed to see my nephew.'
'It did seem hard,' returned Geraldine, taking her hand; 'but mother and nurse were such tyrants—and Percival was just as bad; we were not allowed to have a will of our own, were we, baby? It was such nonsense keeping my own sister from me, as I told them.'
'Percival is very pleased with his boy, Gage;' and then a soft, satisfied look came into the young mother's eyes.
'I think it is more to him than to most men,' she whispered. 'He is not young, and he did so long for a son. Do you know, mother tells me that he nearly cried when she put baby into his arms—at least, there were tears in his eyes, and he could scarcely speak when he saw me first. Father loves his little boy already,' she continued, addressing the unconscious infant, and after that Audrey did consent to take her nephew.
'What do you mean to call him, Gage?'
'Mother and I would have liked him to be called John, after father; but Percival wishes him so much to have his own father's name, Leonard; and of course he ought to have his way. You must be my boy's godmother, Audrey—I will have no one else; and Michael must be one godfather—Percival told me this morning that Mr. Bryce must be the other.'
'I am glad you thought of Michael,' responded Audrey rather dreamily: baby had got one of her fingers grasped in his tiny fists, and was holding it tightly; and then nurse came forward and suggested that Mrs. Harcourt had talked enough: and, though Audrey grumbled a little, she was obliged to obey.
Audrey took advantage of the first fine afternoon to walk over to Brail. It was more than three miles by the road, but she was a famous walker. The lanes were still impassable on account of the thaw; February had set in with unusual mildness: the snow had melted, the little lake at Woodcote was no longer a sheet of blue ice, and Eiderdown and Snowflake were dabbling joyously with their yellow bills in the water and their soft plumes tremulous with excitement.
Audrey had set out early, and Cyril had promised to meet her half-way on her return; the days were lengthening, but he was sure the dusk would overtake her long before she got home.
Audrey was inclined to dispute this point: she liked to be independent, and to regulate her own movements. But Cyril was not to be coerced.
'I shall meet you, probably by the windmill,' he observed quietly. 'If you are not inclined for my companionship, I will promise to keep on the other side of the road.'
And of course, after this remark, Audrey was obliged to give in; and in her heart she knew she should be glad of his company.
She had not seen Mr. O'Brien for some weeks. During the winter her visits to Vineyard Cottage were always few and far between. Michael had driven her over a few days before Christmas, but she had not been there since. She had heard that Mrs. Baxter had been ailing for some weeks, and her conscience pricked her that she had not made an effort to see her. She would have plenty of news to tell them, she thought: there was Michael's fortune, and Gage's baby. Last time she had told them of her engagement, and had promised to bring Cyril with her one afternoon. She had tried to arrange this more than once, but Cyril had proposed that they should wait for the spring.
Audrey enjoyed her walk, and it was still early in the afternoon when she unlatched the little gate and walked up the narrow path to the cottage. As she passed the window she could see the ruddy gleams of firelight, and the broad back of Mr. O'Brien as he sat in his great elbow-chair in front of the fire.
Mrs. Baxter opened the door. She had a crimson handkerchief tied over her hair, and her face looked longer and paler than ever.
'Why, it is never you, Miss Ross?' she cried in a subdued crescendo. 'Whatever will father say when he knows it is you? There's a deal happened, Miss Ross, and I am in a shake still when I think of the turn he gave me only the other night. I heard the knock, and opened the door, as it might be to you, and when I saw who it was—at least——Why, father! father! what are you shoving me away for?' For Mr. O'Brien had come out of the parlour, and had taken his daughter rather unceremoniously by both shoulders, and had moved her out of his way.
'You leave that to me, Priscilla,' he said in rather a peculiar voice; and here his great hand grasped Audrey's. 'You have done a good deed, Miss Ross, in coming here this afternoon, for I am glad and proud to see you;' and then, in a voice he tried in vain to steady: 'Susan was right—she always was, bless her!—and Mat has come home!'
'I COULD NOT STAND IT ANY LONGER, TOM'
'The beautiful souls of the world have an art of saintly alchemy, by which bitterness is converted into kindness, the gall of human experience into gentleness, ingratitude into benefits, insults into pardon.'—AMIEL.
'Mat has come home!'
Audrey uttered an exclamation of surprise and pleasure as she heard this unexpected intelligence.
'Is it really true? Oh, Mr. O'Brien, I am so glad—so very glad! When did he come? Why did you not send for me? My dear old friend, how happy you must be to get him back after all these years of watching and waiting!'
A curiously sad expression crossed Mr. O'Brien's rugged face as Audrey spoke in her softest and most sympathetic voice.
'Ay, I am not denying that it is happiness to get the lad back,' he returned, in a slow, ruminative fashion, as though he found it difficult to shape his thoughts into words; 'but it is a mixed sort of happiness, too. Come in and sit down, Miss Ross—Mat has gone out for a prowl, as he calls it—and I will tell you how it all happened while Prissy sees to the tea;' and as Mrs. Baxter withdrew at this very broad hint, Mr. O'Brien drew up one of the old-fashioned elbow-chairs to the fire, and then, seating himself, took up his pipe from the hob, and looked thoughtfully into the empty bowl. 'Things get terribly mixed in this world,' he continued, 'and pleasures mostly lose their flavour before one has a chance of enjoying them. I am thinking that the father of the Prodigal Son did not find it all such plain sailing after the feast was over, and he had time to look into things more closely. That elder brother would not be the pleasantest of companions for many a long day; he would still have a sort of grudge, like my Prissy here.'
'Oh, I hope not!'
'Oh, it is true, though. Human nature is human nature all the world over. But, there, I am teasing you with all this rigmarole; only I seem somehow confused, and as though I could not rightly arrange my thoughts. When did Mat come home? Well, it was three nights ago, and—would you believe it, Miss Ross?—it feels more like three weeks.'
'I wish you had written to me. I would have come to you before.'
'Ay, that was what Prissy said; she was always bidding me take ink and paper. "There's Miss Ross ought to be told, father"—she was always dinning it into my ears; but somehow I could not bring myself to write. "Where's the hurry," I said to Prissy, "when Mat is a fixture here? I would rather tell Miss Ross myself." And I have had my way, too'—with a touch of his old humour—'and here we are, talking comfortably as we have been used to do; and that is better than a stack of letters.'
Audrey smiled. Whatever her private opinion might be, she certainly offered no contradiction. If she had been in his place, all her world should have heard of her prodigal's return, and should have been bidden to eat of the fatted calf; she would have called her friends and neighbours to rejoice with her over the lost one who had found his way home. Her friend's reticence secretly alarmed her. Would Vineyard Cottage be a happier place for its new inmate?
'Yes, it is better for you and me to be talking over it quietly,' he went on; 'and I am glad Mat took that restless turn an hour ago. You see, the place is small, and he has been used to bush-life; and after he has sat a bit and smoked one or two pipes, he must just go out and dig in the garden, or take his mile or two just to stretch his muscles; but he will be back by the time Prissy has got the tea.'
'And he came back three nights ago?' observed Audrey.
'Ay. We were going upstairs, Prissy and I; the girl had been in bed for an hour. I was just smoking my last pipe over the kitchen fire, as I like to do, when we heard a knock at the door, and Prissy says to me:
'"I expect that is Joshua Ruddock, father, and Jane has been taken bad, and they cannot get the nurse in time." For Prissy is a good soul at helping any of her neighbours, and sometimes one or other of them will send for her to sit up with a sick wife or child. And then she goes to the door, while I knock the ashes out of my pipe. But the next moment she gave a sort of screech, and I made up my mind that it was that rascal Joe asking for a night's lodging—not that he would ever have slept under my roof again. I confess I swore to myself a bit softly when I heard Prissy fly out like that.
'"Father," she says again, "here is a vagrant sort of man, and he says he is Uncle Mat."
'"And she won't believe me, Tom; so you had better come and look at me yourself;" and, sure enough, I knew the lad's voice before I got a sight of his face.
'I give you my word, Miss Ross,' he continued, somewhat huskily, 'I hardly know how I got to the door, for my limbs seemed to have no power.
'"Do you think I don't know your voice, lad?" I said; and, though it was dark, I got hold of him and pulled him into the light.
'We were both of us white and shaking as we stood there, but he looked me in the face with a pitiful sort of smile.
'"I could not stand it any longer, Tom," he said; "I suppose it was home-sickness; but it would have killed me in time. I have not got a creature in the world belonging to me. Will you and Susan take me in?" And then, with a laugh, though there were tears in his eyes: "I am precious tired of the husks, old chap."
'Well, I did not seem to have my answer ready; for I was fairly choked at the sight of his changed face, and those poor, pitiable words. But he did not misunderstand me, and when I took his arm and pushed him into a chair by the fire, he looked round the place in a dazed kind of way.
'"Where's Susan?" he asked. "I hope she is not sick, Tom." And with that he did break me down; for the thought of how Susan would have welcomed him—not standing aloof as Prissy was doing—and how she would have heartened us up, in her cheery way, was too much for me, and I fairly cried like a child.
'Well, I knew it was my lad—in spite of his gray hairs—when he cried, too—just for company. Mat had always a kind heart and way with him.
'"I never thought of this, Tom," he said, when we were a bit better. "All to-day Susan's face has been before me bonnie and smiling, as I last saw it. Prissy there is not much like her mother. And so she is in her coffin, poor lass! Well, you are better off than me, Tom, for you have got Prissy there to look after you, and I have neither wife nor children."
'"Do you mean they are gone?" I asked, staring at him; and he nodded in a grim, sorrowful kind of way.
'"I have lost them all. There, we won't talk about that just yet. What is it Susan used to say when the children died? 'The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.' Those are pious words, Tom." And then he looked at me a bit strangely.
'Well, it was Prissy who interrupted us, by asking if Mat wanted food. And then it turned out that he was 'most starving.
'"I think I was born to ill-luck, Tom," he went on; "for some scamp or other robbed me of my little savings as soon as I reached London, and I had to make shift to pay my fare down here. It is a long story to tell how I found you out. I went to the old place first, and they sent me on here. I had a drop of beer and a crust at the Three Loaves, and old Giles, the ostler, knew me and told me a long yarn about you and Prissy."
'And then we would not let him talk any more. And when he was fed and warmed Prissy made up a bed for him, for we saw he was nearly worn out, and there was plenty of time for hearing all he had to tell us.
'But I could not help going into his room before I turned in, for there came over me such a longing to see Mat's face again—though it was not the old face. And I knew my bright, handsome lad would never come back. Well, he was not asleep, for he turned on his pillow when he saw me.
'"If one could only have one's life again!" he said—and there was a catch in his voice. "I could not sleep for thinking of it. I have shamed you, Tom, and I have shamed all that belonged to me; and many and many a time I have longed to die and end it all, but something would not let me. I was always a precious coward. Why, I tried to shoot myself once; but I could not do it, I bungled so. That was when things were at the worst; but I never tried again, so don't look so scared, old chap!"
'Well, it was terrible to hear him talk like that, of throwing his life away, and I said a word or two to show what I thought of it; but he would not listen.
'"Don't preach, Tom: you were always such a hand at preaching; but I will tell you something you may care to hear. It was when I was out in the bush. I had been down with a sort of fever, and had got precious low. Well, it came over me one day as I was alone in the hut, that, if that sort of life went on, I should just lose my reason; for the loneliness, and the thought of the prison life, and all the evil I had done, and the way I had thrown aside my chances, seemed crowding in upon my mind, and I felt I must just blow my brains out, and I knew I should do it this time; and then all at once the thought came to me: 'Why not go to Tom? Tom and Susan are good sort; they won't refuse a helping hand to a poor wretch;' and the very next day I packed up my traps and started for Melbourne."
'"My lad," I said, "it was just Providence that put that thought in your head;" and then I left him, for my heart was too full to talk, except to my Maker. But I dreamt that night that Susan came to me, and that we stood together by Mat's bedside looking down at him while he slept.
'"He looks old and gray," I heard her say quite distinctly; "but he will grow young again beside my Tom." And then she looked at me so gently and sighed: "Be patient with him; he is very unhappy," and then I woke.'
'Oh, I hope you told him that dream!'
'Ay, I did. I told him a power of things about Susan and myself and Prissy, and he never seemed tired of listening; but after that first evening he did not open out much of his own accord. He told us a few things, mostly about his bush-life, and where he went when he got his ticket-of-leave; but somehow he seemed to dislike talking about himself, and after I had questioned him pretty closely, he suddenly said:
'"Look here, old chap: I don't mean to be rough on you, but I have grown used to holding my tongue during the last few years. What is the use of raking up bygones? Do you suppose I am so proud of my past life that I care to talk about it? Why can we not start afresh? You know me for what I am, the good-for-nothing Mat O'Brien. I know I am no fit companion for you and Prissy; and if you tell me to go, I will shift my quarters without a reproachful word. Shall I go, Tom?"
'"No," I said, almost shouting at him, and snapping my pipe in two; "you will just stay where you are, lad. Do you think I will ever suffer you to wander off again?" And then, as he looked at me very sadly, I opened the big Bible we had been reading in that morning, and showed him the verse that was in my thoughts that moment: "The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part me and thee."
'"Do you mean that, Tom?" and his voice was rather choky.
'"Ay, I do," was my answer. And then he gripped my hand without speaking, and went out of the room, and we did not see him for an hour or two. And that is about all I have to tell you, Miss Ross.'
'Thank you, old friend,' returned Audrey gently.
And she looked reverently into the thoughtful face beside her. The rugged, homely features were beautified to her. He was only a small tradesman, yet what nobleman could show more tender chivalry to the fallen man who had brought disgrace on his honest name? In her heart Audrey knew there was no truer gentleman than this simple, kindly Tom O'Brien.
'There's Mat,' he observed presently; and Audrey roused herself and looked anxiously at the door.
She was longing, yet dreading, to see this much-loved prodigal. Priscilla's description of 'a vagrant sort of man' had somewhat alarmed her, and she feared to see the furtive look and slouching gait that so often stamp the man who has taken long strides on the downward path.
She was greatly surprised, therefore, when a tall, fine-looking man, with closely-cropped gray hair and a black moustache, came quickly into the room. On seeing a young lady he was about to withdraw; but his brother stopped him.
'Don't go away, lad. This is Miss Ross, the young lady who I told you was with Susan when she died.'
'And I am very glad to welcome you back, Mr. O'Brien,' observed Audrey cordially, as she held out her hand.
Mat O'Brien reddened slightly as he took the offered hand with some reluctance, and then stood aside rather awkwardly. He only muttered something in reply to his brother's question of how far he had walked.
'I think I will go to Priscilla,' he said, with a touch of sullenness that was mere shyness and discomfort. 'Don't let me interrupt you and this young lady, Tom.' And before Mr. O'Brien could utter a remonstrance, he was gone.
'I am afraid I am in the way,' suggested Audrey. 'Perhaps your brother does not like to see people. It is growing dark, so I may as well start at once. Mr. Blake has promised to meet me, so I shall not have a solitary walk.'
'Nay, you must not go without your cup of tea,' returned the old man, rubbing up his hair in a vexed manner; 'I hear Prissy clattering with the cups. Don't fash your head about the lad; he is a bit shamed of looking honest folk in the face; but we'll get him over that. Sit you down, and I will fetch him out of the kitchen.' And without heeding her entreaties to be allowed to go, Mr. O'Brien hurried her into the next room, where the usual bountiful meal was already spread, and where Mrs. Baxter awaited them with an injured expression of face.
'I think father has gone clean daft over Uncle Mat,' she observed, as Mr. O'Brien departed on his quest. 'Draw up to the table, Miss Ross. Father will be back directly; but he won't touch a mouthful until he sees Uncle Mat in his usual place; he fashes after him from morning to night, and can hardly bear him out of his sight. It is "Mat, come here, alongside of me," or "Try this dish of Prissy's, my lad," until you would think there was not another person in the house. It is a bit trying, Miss Ross, I must confess; though I won't fly in the face of Providence, and say I am not glad that the sinner has come home. But there, one must have one's trials; and Heaven knows I have had a plentiful share of thorns and briars in my time!'
'I am sorry to hear you speak like this, Mrs. Baxter. I was hoping that you would rejoice in Mr. O'Brien's happiness. Think how he has longed for years to see his brother's face again!'
Mrs. Baxter shook her head mournfully.
'Ay, Miss Ross; but the best of us are poor ignorant creatures, and, maybe, the blessings we long for will turn to a curse in the end. I doubt whether our little cottage will be the restful place it was before Uncle Mat came home. He has gone to a bad school to learn manners; and wild oats and tares and the husks that the swine did eat are poor crops, after all, Miss Ross,' finished Priscilla a little vaguely.
Audrey bent over her plate to conceal a smile; but she was spared the necessity of answering, as just then the two men entered.
It was the first meal that Audrey had failed to enjoy at Vineyard Cottage; and notwithstanding all her efforts to second Mr. O'Brien's attempt at cheerfulness, she felt that she failed most signally. Neither of them could induce Mat O'Brien to enter into conversation; his gloomy silence or brief monosyllabic replies compelled even his brother at last to desist from any such attempt.
Now and then Audrey stole a furtive glance at him as he sat moodily looking out into the twilight. The handsome lad was still a good-looking man; but the deep-seated melancholy in the dark eyes oppressed Audrey almost painfully: there was a hopelessness in their expression that filled her with pity.
Why had he let that one failure, that sad lapse from honesty, stamp his old life with shame? Had he not expiated his sin? Why was he so beaten down and crushed with remorse and suffering that he had only longed to end an existence that seemed God-forsaken and utterly useless? And then, half unconsciously, she noted the one serious defect in his face—the weak, receding chin; and she guessed that the mouth hidden under the heavy moustache was weak too.
'I will not ask you what you think of Mat to-night,' observed Mr. O'Brien, as he accompanied Audrey to the gate; 'he has not been used to a lady's company, and he has grown into silent ways, living so much alone.'
'He looks terribly unhappy.'
'Ay, poor chap, he is unhappy enough; he has got a load on his heart that he is carrying alone. Sometimes it makes my heart ache, Miss Ross, to see him sitting there, staring into the fire, and fetching up a sigh now and then. But there, as Susan says, "The heart knoweth its own bitterness"; but if ever a man is in trouble, Mat is that man.'
And Audrey felt that her old friend was right.
'WILL YOU CALL THE GUARD?'
'Plead guilty at man's bar, and go to judgment straight; At God's no other way remains to shun that fate.'
Captain Burnett had settled his business, and was returning again to Rutherford after more than a month's absence. He would willingly have lingered in town longer. Lonely as his bachelor quarters were, he felt he was safer in them than in his cosy rooms under his cousin's roof, where every hour of the day exposed him to some new trial, and where the part he played was daily becoming more difficult. In town he could at least be free; he had no need to mask his wretchedness, or to pretend that he was happy and at ease. No demands, trying to meet, were made on his sympathy; no innocently loving looks claimed a response. At least, the bare walls could tell no tales, if he sat for long hours brooding over a future that looked grim and desolate.
And he was a rich man. Heavens! what mockery! And yet how his friends would have crowded round him if they had known it! Comfort—nay, even luxury—was within his power; he could travel, build, add acre to acre; he could indulge in philanthropic schemes, ride any hobby. And yet, though he knew this, the thought of his gold seemed bitter as the apples of Sodom.
It had come too late. Ah, that was the sting—his poverty had been the gulf between him and happiness, and he had not dared to stretch his hand across it to the woman he loved; and now, when his opportunity had gone and he had lost her irrevocably, Fate had showered these golden gifts upon him, as though to bribe him as one bribes children with some gilded toy.
Was it a wonder that, as he sat trying to shape that dreary future of his, his heart was sore within him, and that now and again the thought crossed him that it might have been well for him if his battered body could have been laid to rest with those other brave fellows in Zululand? And then he remembered how Kester had once told him that he must be the happiest man in the world. He had never quite forgotten that boyish outburst.
'Don't you see the difference?' he could hear him say. 'I have got this pain to bear, and no good comes of it; it is just bearing, and nothing else. But you have suffered in saving other men's lives; it is a kind of ransom. It must be happiness to have a memory like that!'
Was he suffering for nothing now? Would any good to himself or others come from a pain so exquisite, so rife with torture—a pain so strongly impregnated with fear and doubt that he scarcely dared own it to himself? Only now and again those few bitter words would escape his lips:
'Oh, my darling, what a mistake! Will you ever find it out before it is too late?' And then, with a groan, he would answer, as though to himself: 'Never! never!'
Old habits are strong, and it was certainly absence of mind that made Captain Burnett take his usual third-class ticket; and he had seated himself and dismissed his porter before he bethought himself that the first-class compartment was now within his means.
Audrey had told him laughingly that such creature comforts were dear to him—that he was a man who loved the best of things, to whom the loaves and fishes of bare maintenance were not enough without adding to them the fine linen and dainty appendages of luxury; and he had not contradicted her. But, all the same, he knew that he would have been willing to live in poverty until his life's end if he could only have kept her beside him.
Happily, the third-class compartment was empty, and he threw himself back in the farthest corner, and, taking out his Baedeker, began to plan what he called his summer's campaign—a tour he was projecting through Holland and Belgium, and which was to land him finally in the Austrian Tyrol. He would work his way later to Rome and Florence and Venice, and he would keep Norway for the following year; and he would travel about in the desultory, dilettante sort of fashion that suited him best now. He would probably go to America, and see Niagara and all the wonders of the New World, that was so young and fresh in its immensity. Indeed, he would go anywhere and everywhere, until his trouble became a thing of the past, and he had strength to live and work for the good of his fellow-creatures; but he felt that such work was not possible to him just yet.
Michael studied his Baedeker in a steady business-like way. He had made up his mind that to brood over an irreparable misfortune was unworthy of any man who acknowledged himself a Christian—that any such indulgence would weaken his moral character and make him unfit for his duties in life. The sorrow was there, but there was no need to be ever staring it in the face; as far as was possible, he would put it from him, and do the best for himself and others.
Michael's stubborn tenacity of purpose brought its own reward, for he was soon so absorbed in mapping out his route that he was quite startled at hearing the porters shouting 'Warnborough!' and the next moment the door was flung open, and a shabbily-dressed man, with the gait and bearing of a soldier, entered the compartment, and, taking the opposite corner to Michael, unfolded his paper and began to read.
Michael glanced at him carelessly. He was rather a good-looking man, he thought, with his closely-cropped gray hair and black moustache; but his scrutiny proceeded no further, for just then he caught sight of a familiar face and figure on the platform that made him shrink back into his corner, and wish that he, too, had a newspaper, behind which he could hide himself.
There was no mistaking that slim, graceful figure and the little, close black bonnet. There was something about Mrs. Blake which he would have recognised a quarter of a mile off. By Jove! she was coming towards his compartment. Her hands were full of parcels, and she was asking a gray-headed old gentleman to open the door for her—how handsome and bright and alert she looked, as she smiled her acknowledgment! The old gentleman looked back once or twice—even old fogeys have eyes for a pretty woman—but Mrs. Blake was too busy arranging her parcels in the rack to notice the impression she had made.
If only he had had that newspaper he might have pretended that he was asleep; but when the parcels were in their place she would see him. There was nothing for him but to take the initiative.
'Let me put that up for you, Mrs. Blake;' and at the sound of his voice she turned round.
In a moment he knew that she was not pleased to see him—that if she had discovered that he was there, nothing would have induced her to enter the compartment. It was his extraordinary quickness of intuition that made him know this, and the sudden shade that crossed her face when he addressed her. Underneath Mrs. Blake's smooth speeches and charm of manner he had always been conscious of some indefinable antagonism to himself; as he had once told Geraldine, there was no love lost between them. 'In a ladylike way, she certainly hates me,' he had said.
'Dear me, Captain Burnett, how you startled me! I thought there were only strangers in the carriage. Thank you; that parcel is rather heavy. I have been shopping in Warnborough and am terribly laden; I hope Cyril will meet me—if the omnibus be not at the station, I must certainly take a fly. I had no idea you were coming back until to-morrow. Kester certainly said to-morrow. How delighted he will be, dear boy, when I tell him I have seen you!'
'The christening will be to-morrow, you know, and I have to stand sponsor to my small cousin.'
'Ah, to be sure! How stupid of me to forget! and yet Mollie told me all about it. It is very soon—baby is only a month old, is he not? But I hear Mrs. Harcourt is not to be allowed to go to the church.'
'No; so Audrey tells me.'
'I think that a pity. When my children were christened I was always with them. To be sure, both Kester and Mollie were two months old at least. What is your opinion, Captain Burnett—you are a strict Churchman, I know—ought not the mother to be there as a matter of course?'
Mrs. Blake spoke in a soft voice, with her usual engaging air of frankness, but Michael's answer was decidedly stiff. Of all things he hated to be entrapped into a theological argument, but he would not compromise truth.
'I think there is one thing even more desirable than the mother's presence,' he returned quickly, 'and that is that these little heathens be made Christians as soon as possible; and I think Harcourt is perfectly right to have his son baptized without exposing his wife to any risk.'
'And she is still so delicate, as dear Audrey tells me. She was up at Hillside last evening, and Cyril fetched her. My boy is a most devoted lover, Captain Burnett.'
'Cela va sans dire,' returned Michael lightly—he may be forgiven for regarding this speech in the worst possible taste—and then he stopped, attracted by a singular action on the part of their fellow-passenger.
He had put down his paper, and was leaning forward a little in his seat, and staring intently into Mrs. Blake's face.
'Good God, it is Olive!' he muttered. 'As I live, it is Olive herself!' and then he threw out both his hands in a strange, appealing sort of way, and his face was very pale. 'Olive,' he went on, and there was something strained and pitiful in his voice, as though pleading with her; 'how am I to sit and hear you talk about the little chaps and take no notice? How am I to mind my promise and not speak to my own wife?'
Michael gave a violent start, but he had no time to speak, for Mrs. Blake suddenly clutched his arm with a stifled scream; she looked so ghastly, so beside herself with terror, that he could not help pitying her.
'Captain Burnett,' she gasped, 'will you stop the train? I will not travel any longer with this madman. I shall die if I am in this carriage a moment longer. Don't you see he is mad? Will you call the guard? I—I——' She sank down, unable to articulate another syllable.
Captain Burnett hardly knew how to act. They would reach the station for Rutherford in another quarter of an hour. He knew the man opposite him was no more mad than he was—there was no insanity in those deep-set, melancholy eyes, only intense pain and sadness. The very sound of his voice brought instant conviction to Michael's mind that he was speaking the truth. Whatever mystery lay beneath his words, he and Mrs. Blake were not strangers to each other—her very terror told him that.
'Mrs. Blake,' he said, endeavouring to soothe her, 'there is nothing to fear. Do try to be reasonable. No one could molest you while you are under my protection. Perhaps this gentleman,' with a quick glance at the man's agitated face and shabby coat, 'may have made some mistake. You may resemble some friend of his.'
'No fear of that,' interposed the man sullenly, and now there was an angry gleam in his eyes that alarmed Michael; 'a man can't mistake his own wife, even if he has not seen her for fifteen or sixteen years. I will take my oath before any court of justice that that is my lawful wedded wife, Olive O'Brien.'
Mrs. Blake uttered another faint scream, and covered her face with her hands. She was shaking as though in an ague fit.
'I assure you, you must have made some mistake,' replied Michael civilly; 'this lady's name is Blake: she and her family are well known to me. If you like, I will give you my card, if you should wish to satisfy yourself by making further inquiries; but, as you must see, it is only a case of mistaken identity.'
If Michael spoke with the intent of eliciting further facts, he was not wholly unsuccessful.
'It is nothing of the kind,' returned the man roughly; 'don't I tell you it is no mistake. I can't help what she calls herself. If she has taken another husband, I'll have the law of her and bring her to shame; she has only one husband and his name is Matthew O'Brien.'
'Good heavens! do you mean that Thomas O'Brien, of Vineyard Cottage, is your brother?' And as Michael put this question he felt the plot was thickening.
'Yes. Tom, poor old chap! is my brother; but he knows nought about Olive and the young ones. He thinks they are dead. I told him I had lost them all. Has she not been talking about them—Cyril and Kester and my little Mollie!' And here there were tears in Matthew O'Brien's eyes.
'Hush!' interposed Michael; 'don't say any more. Don't you see she has fainted? Will you move away a moment, that she may not see you? Open the window; make a thorough draught.'
Michael was doing all that he could for Mrs. Blake's comfort. He loosened her bonnet-strings and made his rug into a pillow, and, taking out his brandy flask, moistened her white lips. However she had sinned, he felt vaguely, as he knelt beside her, that hers would be a terrible expiation. Mat O'Brien stood a little behind, talking half to himself and half to Michael.
'Ah, he is a handy chap,' he soliloquised; 'he must have a wife of his own, I'm thinking. Poor lass! she does look mortal bad. I have frighted her pretty nearly to death, but it is her own fault. I never would have hurt a hair of her head. She is as handsome as ever, and as hard-hearted, too. I used to tell her she was made of stone—not a bit of love, except for the children. She is coming to, sir,' he continued excitedly; 'I was half afraid she was dead, lying so still.'
'Yes, she is recovering consciousness,' replied Michael quietly; 'but it is rather a serious fainting fit, and I must ask you to leave her to me, Mr. O'Brien. There is my card. I shall be at Rutherford, and will try to see you to-morrow—no, not to-morrow, there is the christening—but the next day. I will come over to Vineyard Cottage; there, we are stopping. Please send a porter to me.' And then Michael turned again to his patient.
She had opened her eyes and was looking at him as though she were dazed. 'Where am I? what has happened? why are you giving me brandy, Captain Burnett?'
'You have been ill,' he returned coolly; 'are you subject to these fainting fits? I want you to try and stand, and then I will help you to my fly. Porter, will you take those parcels, please. Now, Mrs. Blake, do you think you can walk?'
'I will try,' she replied in an exhausted voice, but just at that moment Mat O'Brien passed. 'Oh, I remember,' she gasped; 'the madman! It was he who frightened me so, Captain Burnett,' looking at him with a return of the old terror in her face and a sort of wildness in her eyes. 'You did not believe that improbable story? How can I, a widow, have a living husband?' And she laughed hysterically.
'Will you permit me to assist you?' was Michael's sole answer, as he lifted her from the seat; 'can you fasten your bonnet? I was obliged to give you air.' But as her trembling hands could not perform the office, he was compelled to do it himself. 'Now you can come,' he went on in a quiet, authoritative voice, that was not without its effect on her, and half leading, half supporting her, he placed her at last safely in the fly. But as he seated himself beside her, and they drove off, in the gathering dusk of the March evening, he felt a cold hand grip his wrist.
'Oh, Captain Burnett, do say that you did not believe him!'
Michael was silent.
'It was too utterly horrible, too improbable altogether!' she continued with a shudder; 'no man calling himself a gentleman ought to believe such an accusation against a woman.'
'If it should reach my boy's ear, he will be ready to kill him.'
'Mrs. Blake, will you listen to me a moment, for your children's sake. I desire to stand your friend.'
'And not for my sake—not for the sake of a lonely, misjudged woman?'
'No,' he returned coldly; 'I will confess the truth: it is the best. In our hearts we are not friends, you and I. From the first I have mistrusted you. I have always felt there was something I could not understand. Friends do not have these feelings; but, all the same, I wish to help you.'
'Oh, that is kind; and now I do not mind your hard words.'
'But I must help you in my own way. To-morrow I shall come to you, and you must tell me the whole truth, and whether this man Matthew O'Brien be your husband or not.'
'I tell you—' she began excitedly, but he checked her very gently.
'Hush! Do not speak now; you will make yourself ill again.'
'Oh yes,' she said, falling back on her seat. 'I have palpitations still. I must not excite myself.'
'Just so; and to-morrow you will be calmer and more collected, and you will have made up your mind that the truth will be best because——' he paused, as though not certain how to proceed.
'Because of what?' she asked sharply; and he could detect strained anxiety in her tone.
'Because it will be better for you to tell your story in your own way, far better than for me to hear it from Mr. O'Brien.'
'You would go to him?' and there was unmistakable alarm in her voice.
'Most certainly I would go to him. This is a very important matter to others as well as yourself, Mrs. Blake.'
'I will kill myself,' she said wildly, 'before I tell any such story! You have no heart, Captain Burnett; you are treating me with refined cruelty; you want to bring me to shame because you hate me, and because——'
But again he checked her:
'Do not exhaust yourself with making all these speeches; you will need all your strength. I will come to you to-morrow evening, and if you will tell me the truth I will promise to help you as far as possible. Surely at such a crisis you will not refuse such help as I may be able to offer you, if only——' he paused, and there was deep feeling in his voice, 'for your children's sake.'
But though he could hear her sob as though in extremity of anguish, she made him no answer, nor could he induce her to speak again until they reached the Gray Cottage, where the fly stopped, and he got out and assisted her to alight. She kept her face averted from him.
'I will be with you to-morrow,' he repeated, as he touched her hand.
But to this there was no audible reply; she only bowed her head as she passed through the gate he held open for her, and disappeared from his sight.