He had just fallen into a doze, with Booty stretched on the softest of rugs at his feet, when there was a light tap at his door, and to his surprise and discomposure Cyril Blake entered the room.
The visit was so wholly unexpected that Michael stared at him for a moment without speaking. Cyril had never come to his private sitting-room before without a special invitation.
'I must apologise for this intrusion, Captain Burnett,' began Cyril quickly; 'but I wanted to speak to you particularly. Were you asleep? I am so sorry if I have disturbed you.'
'No, nonsense. I only felt drowsy because I have been out in this cold wind and the room is so warm. Take a chair, Blake. I shall be wide awake in a moment. Have you seen the paper to-day? There is nothing in it, only a remarkably stupid article on Bismarck.'
'I will look at it by and by; but to tell you the truth, I have come to speak to you about my mother. I am seriously uneasy about her: either she is ill, or there is something grievously wrong. I understood from Mollie that you were with her for more than an hour yesterday; in fact, that she sent for you.'
The fire had burnt hollow during Michael's brief nap, and he seized this opportunity to stir it vigorously into a blaze; it afforded him a momentary respite. A few seconds' reflection convinced him, however, that it was no use beating about the bush with a man of Cyril's calibre. The truth had to be told, and no amount of preparation would render it palatable.
'You are right,' he returned quietly; 'Mrs. Blake sent for me. She thought that I should be able to help her in a difficulty.'
Cyril looked intensely surprised. 'I thought Mollie must have made a mistake. It seems very strange that my mother——'
He stopped as though civility did not permit him to finish his sentence. But Michael perfectly understood him.
'It seems strange to you; of course it does. My acquaintance with Mrs. Blake is so slight that it certainly gives me no right to her confidence; but she was in trouble—in great trouble, I may say—and chance threw me in her way, and so——'
But here Cyril interrupted him.
'My mother in trouble!' he returned incredulously, but Michael thought he looked a little pale; 'excuse me, Captain Burnett, if I seem rude, but from a boy I have been my mother's friend. She has never kept anything from me. I find it almost impossible to believe that she would give that confidence to a comparative stranger which she would refuse to her son. May I beg you to speak plainly? I abhor mysteries.'
Cyril spoke impatiently and curtly; his tone was almost displeased. But Michael took no offence; he regarded the young man very kindly.
'I abhor them too,' he replied gravely; 'but I want you to understand one thing: it was a mere chance that brought me in Mrs. Blake's way at a moment when she needed assistance; I was only like any other stranger who sees a lady in difficulty. Now I have told you this I can speak more plainly.'
'I wish to heavens you would!' returned Cyril with growing excitement. 'Do you know the impression you are giving me?—that there is some mysterious confidence between you and my mother. Is it too much to ask if I may know what this difficulty and trouble mean?'
'No, Blake; you shall know all in good time,' replied Michael, with disarming gentleness. 'If I do not speak out at once, it is because I fear to give you too great a shock.'
'Too great a shock?'
'Yes. Your mother, out of mistaken kindness, has kept her children in ignorance all these years that they have a father living. He was not a father of whom they could be proud, and she tried to keep the fact of his existence from them.'
'Wait a moment!' exclaimed Cyril. The poor fellow had turned very white. 'I must take this in. What are you telling me, Burnett? That my mother—my widowed mother—has a husband living?'
'I am telling you the truth. Are you ready to hear me say more? I will wait any time you like; but it is a long story, and a sad one. Your mother has left me to tell it.'
'Go on! Let me hear every word! Hide nothing—nothing!'
Cyril spoke in a dull, stifled voice, as though he felt choking. When Michael began to speak, very slowly and quietly, he almost turned his back to him; and as the story proceeded, Michael noticed how he clutched the carved arms of his chair; but he did not once see his face. Michael afterwards owned that telling that miserable story to Olive O'Brien's son was one of the toughest jobs he had ever done in his life. But he had no idea how well he did it: there was not an unnecessary word. With the utmost care he strove to shield the woman, and to show her conduct in the best light. 'It was for her children's sake she did it,' he said again and again; but there was no answering word from Cyril; if he had been turned to stone, his position could not have been more rigid.
'Have you understood me, Blake? My poor, dear fellow, if you knew how sorry Dr. Ross and I are for you——'
Then, as Michael mentioned Dr. Ross's name, Cyril seemed galvanised into sudden life.
'He knows! he knows! For God's sake give me air!' But before Michael could cross the room, Cyril had stumbled to the window and flung it up, and stood there, with the bitter east wind blowing on his face, as though it were a refreshing summer breeze.
The chill air made Michael shiver; but he knew by experience how intolerable was that sense of suffocation, and he stood by patiently until that deadly feeling had passed.
'Are you better now, Blake? My poor fellow, can you sit down and speak to me?'
Then Cyril turned his face towards him, and Michael was shocked to see how strained and haggard it looked.
'Does she know, too?'
'Not yet; her father will tell her.'
Then the poor boy shuddered from head to foot.
'They will make her give me up! O my God! how can I bear it? Burnett, I think I shall go mad! Tell me it is not true—that my mother has not lied to me all these years!'
'At least, she has lied for her son's sake.' But he knew how futile were his words, as he saw the bitter contempt in Cyril's honest eyes.
'I will never forgive her! She has ruined my life! she has made me wish that I were dead! I will never, never——'
But Michael interrupted him somewhat sternly:
'Hush! hush! You do not know what you are saying. She is your mother, Blake—nothing can alter that fact.'
'She has deceived us all! No, I will not speak; nothing can make it better or worse. If I lose Audrey, I do not care what becomes of me!'
Michael looked at him pityingly.
'Do you think you ought to marry her, Blake!'
Then Cyril flung away from him with a groan; even in his misery he understood that appeal to his generosity. But he put it from him: he was too much stunned, too dazed altogether, to follow out any train of reasoning. In a vague sort of way he understood two facts: that he and Kester and Mollie were disgraced, and that his mother—the mother whom he adored—had deceived him. Beyond this he could not go. The human mind has limits.
Afterwards, in the chill hour of darkness and solitude, Michael's words would come back to him: 'Do you think you ought to marry her, Blake? Do you think you ought to marry her?'
'I SHALL NEVER BE FREE'
'But there are true hearts which the sight Of sorrow summons forth; Though known in days of past delight, We know not half their worth.'
The words escaped from Michael almost unconsciously; he hardly knew that he spoke them aloud; but in his inner consciousness he had no doubt at all of the course that ought to be pursued. If he had been in Cyril's place he would not have hesitated for a moment. Dearly as he loved Audrey—and what that love was only he himself knew—he would have refused to marry her. He would have separated himself from her utterly, and at once.
Michael's strong, long-suffering nature would have carried him nobly through such an ordeal. He was a man who would have acted up to the spirit of the Gospel command 'to pluck out the offending eye, or to cut off the right hand;' there would have been no parleying, no weak dalliance with temptation.
'I love you, but it is my duty to leave you, so farewell for ever!'—that is what he would have said to her, knowing all the time that life would be utterly joyless to him. Would Cyril, in his hot, untried youth, be capable of a like generosity, or would he cleave to his betrothed with passionate, one-sided fealty, vowing that nothing on earth should separate them as long as they two loved each other?
'They will make her give me up!'—that was all he had said. That seemed to be the one deadly terror that assailed him.
Cyril had turned away with a groan when Michael spoke, but he made no audible answer, and the next moment his hand was on the door.
'Where are you going, Blake?' inquired Michael anxiously.
It was impossible to keep him, and yet, how could he let him leave him in such a condition?
'I must get away from here!' returned Cyril hoarsely. 'I must be alone somewhere.'
And Michael understood him.
'Let me at least walk with you,' he returned quickly. 'You might meet someone, and perhaps I may be of use. Do not refuse; I will not speak to you.' And, as Cyril made no objection—indeed, it was doubtful whether he even heard what Michael said—he followed him downstairs.
Just as they reached the hall the drawing-room door opened, and, before he could warn Cyril, Audrey came out. She had some music in her hand. She uttered an exclamation of surprise and pleasure when she saw them.
'Michael, I thought you were lost. What have you been doing with yourself all day? Were you going out with Cyril? Please don't go just yet; it is just beginning to rain, and I want him to practise this duet with me. Will you?' looking up in Cyril's face with one of her bright smiles.
'I cannot; another time. Please do not keep me!'
Cyril hardly knew what he said. He pushed by her as she stood there smiling, with the music in her hand, and went out bareheaded into the rain and darkness.
Audrey looked bewildered.
'What does he mean? Is he ill? has anything happened? He is so white, and he has forgotten his hat! He has never left me like this before. Oh, Michael, do call him back; I must speak to him!'
'I cannot. I think something is troubling him. Let me go, Audrey; he will tell you everything by and by.' And Michael snatched up his hat and Cyril's, and hurried after him as fast as his halting gait permitted.
Cyril had not gone far; he was standing by the gate quite motionless, and his hair and face were wet with the heavy rain. Michael took him by the arm and walked on with him; he must see him safely to his room, and charge Mrs. Blake not to go near him.
'He must have time; he is simply stunned and incapable of thought now,' he said to himself, as he piloted him through the dark, wet streets.
Biddy admitted them. She gave them a searching glance as they entered. Cyril's disordered condition must have told her everything, for she put her wrinkled, claw-like hand on his arm with a warning gesture.
'Don't let the mistress see you like that, Mr. Cyril avick, or you'll fright her to death. Go up softly, or she will hear you.'
But Biddy's warning was in vain. The staircase was badly lighted, and Michael made a false, stumbling step. The next moment Mrs. Blake came out on the landing. The sight of the two men together seemed to transfix her with horror.
'You have told him!—oh, heavens! you have told him!' she cried, in a despairing voice.
Cyril raised his heavy eyes and looked at her, but he did not speak; he passed her as he had passed Audrey, and went up to his room, and they heard the door close heavily behind him.
'I will go to him! How dare you detain me, Captain Burnett? I will go to my son!'
But Michael took no notice of this angry remonstrance; his hand was on her arm, and very gently, but firmly, he made her enter the drawing-room.
'Mrs. Blake, will you listen to me for a moment?'
'No, I will not listen!' she answered passionately, and her bosom began to heave. 'I will go to him and make him speak to me. Did you see how he looked at me—his mother—as he has never looked at me in his life?' And the unhappy woman broke into tears and sobs. 'Oh, my boy! my boy! Let me go to him, Captain Burnett, and I will bless you as long as I live; let me go and kneel to him, if I must. Do you think my boy will see his mother at his feet and not forgive her?'
'He will forgive you, Mrs. Blake,' returned Michael, in a pitying voice; 'but you must give him time. He cannot speak to you now—he can speak to no one; he is simply stunned. Give me your promise that you will not see him to-night.'
'Impossible! I will make no such promise. He is my son, not yours. If he cannot speak to me, I can at least take his hand and tell him that I am sorry.'
'He will not be able to hear you. As far as I can tell, he has taken nothing in; the news has simply crushed him. If you will give him time, he will pull himself together; but I would not answer for the consequences if you persist in seeing him to-night. He is not himself. There would be words said that ought never to be uttered. Mrs. Blake, do be persuaded. I am speaking for your sake as well as his.'
'You are always so hard,' she moaned.
But from her manner he thought she would not disobey him; he had managed to frighten her.
'You will be wise if you take my advice,' he returned, moving away from the door. 'I am going to him now, but I shall not stay; it is, above all things, necessary that he should be alone.'
'Will you speak to him for me? Will you tell him that my heart is nearly broken with that cold, reproachful look of his? Will you at least say this, Captain Burnett?'
'I think it would be better not to mention your name to him to-night.'
Then she threw herself back on the couch in a hysterical outburst.
Michael thought it useless to stay with her. He found Biddy outside as usual, and sent her in to do her best for her mistress; and then he went up to Cyril's room. He found him sitting on the edge of his bed; the window was wide open, and the rain was driving in, and had already wetted the carpet; a candle someone had lighted was guttering in the draught. Michael closed the window, and then he looked at the fireplace. There was plenty of fuel at hand. Cyril often worked in his own room, and now and then his mother's care had provided him with a fire. The room felt cold and damp. There were matches at hand, and Michael had no scruple in lighting a fire now; the crackle of wood seemed to rouse Cyril.
'Why do you do that? there is no need,' he said irritably.
'Pardon me, there is every need. Do you know your coat is wet, Blake? You must change it at once.'
But Cyril only gave an impatient shrug.
'Will you let me see you change it before I go?' he persisted, and he actually had his way, perhaps because Cyril was anxious to get rid of him. 'Now I am going; I only want to say one word, Blake: you will be safe to-night, your mother will not come near you.' Then a look of relief crossed Cyril's wan face. 'You shall, at least, have peace for a few hours. If I can help you in any way, you have only to speak. Will you remember that?'
'I mean it. There, that is all I have got to say. God bless you!' and as he grasped Cyril's hand there was a faint response.
Michael crept down as softly as he could. As he passed the drawing-room door he could hear Mrs. Blake's hysterical sobs, and Biddy soothing her. 'The Nemesis has come,' he said to himself; and then he went into the lower room, where he found Mollie and Kester reading over the fire.
'Don't let me disturb you,' he said hurriedly, as they both sprang up to greet him; 'Mollie, your brother wishes to be quiet to-night. He has just heard something that troubles him a good deal, and he has desired that no one should go near him. If I were you, I should take no notice at all.'
'But what are we to do about supper?' returned Mollie with housewifely anxiety; 'we have such a nice supper, and Cyril will be so cold and hungry shut up in his room. We have made such a big fire, because he was going to spend the evening with us.'
'He has a fire, too; he was very wet, and the room felt damp, so I lighted it. You might take up a tray to him presently and put it outside his door, and perhaps a cup of nice hot coffee.'
'Ah! I will go and make it at once, and mamma shall have some, too.' And Mollie ran off in her usual impetuous manner, but Kester sat still in his place.
'What is the matter, Captain Burnett?' he asked anxiously; 'we heard mother crying just now, and saying that Cyril would not speak to her. Mollie heard it quite plainly, and so did I.'
'You shall know all in good time, my dear boy,' returned Michael, laying his hand on Kester's shoulder; 'do not ask me any more just now.'
Kester looked at him wistfully, but he was trained to self-discipline, and he asked no more; and Michael went back to Woodcote.
It was just dinner-time, and the gong sounded before he was ready; but he made some easy excuse and slipped into his place, and began to talk to Dr. Ross about the new swimming-baths that were being built. It was the first topic that came handy to him, and Dr. Ross at once followed his lead; the subject lasted them until the end of dinner. Audrey was unusually silent, but neither of them made any remark on her gravity. Now and then Michael addressed some observation to her, but she answered him briefly and without interest.
They went into the schoolroom for prayers as usual, and Audrey played the harmonium; but as he was following Mrs. Ross back into the drawing-room, Audrey tapped him on the arm.
'Don't go in there just yet, Michael; I want to speak to you.'
Then he suffered himself very reluctantly to be detained by the hall fire.
'Michael,' she began, in rather a peremptory tone, 'I cannot understand either you or Cyril to-night. You are both very strange, I think. Cyril leaves me without a word, and goes out looking like a ghost, and you tell me that something is troubling him, and yet neither of you vouchsafes me one word of explanation.'
'I cannot help it, Audrey; it is not my affair. Blake was in a hurry; you must have seen that for yourself.'
'He was very extraordinary in his behaviour, and so were you. Of course, if you don't choose to answer me, Michael, I will just send a note across to Cyril, and tell him I must see him at once.'
'I should hardly do that, if I were you.'
'Not write to him!' in an offended voice. 'Really, Michael, you are too mysterious; why, this borders on absurdity! Cyril is in trouble—in one breath you tell me that—and then you would prevent my writing to ask him to come to me! I shall certainly write to him.'
'Will you go to your father instead? He has just gone into the study.'
Then Audrey looked at him with intense astonishment.
'What has my father got to do with it?'
'Never mind all that,' returned Michael slowly. 'Go to Dr. Ross, and ask him why Blake is in trouble. He will tell you; you may take my word for it.'
Audrey still gazed at him; but Michael's grave manner left her in no doubt as to the seriousness of the matter, and her eyes looked a little troubled.
'Go, dear,' he repeated gently; 'it will be best for you to hear it from him.'
Then she left him without another word, and went straight to the study.
It seemed as though her father expected her, for he looked at her as she came slowly towards him, and put out his hand.
'You have come to talk to me, my darling. Sit down beside me. No, not that chair; it is too far off. Come closer to me, my child.'
Then, as Audrey obeyed him, she felt a sense of growing uneasiness. What did that sorrowful tenderness in her father's voice mean? For the moment her courage failed her, and her lips could not frame the question she had come to ask.
'You want me to tell you about Cyril's trouble?'
Then she sat and gazed at him in speechless dread.
Dr. Ross cleared his throat and shifted his spectacles. He began to find his task difficult.
'If I only knew how to prepare you, Audrey! But I can think of no words that will break the force of such a shock. I will tell you one thing: a few hours ago Cyril was as ignorant of the great trouble that has befallen him as you are at this present moment.'
She touched him with a hand that had grown suddenly very cold.
'Wait for one minute, father; I must ask you something: Did Michael tell this thing to Cyril this afternoon?'
'Yes, dear. By some strange chance Michael was put in possession of a terrible secret. There was no one else to break it to the poor fellow, and, as you and I know, Mike is not the man to shirk any unpleasant duty.'
'I understand. You may go on now, father dear; I am prepared—I am quite prepared. I know it was no light trouble that brought that look on Cyril's face; and Michael, too, was very strange and unlike himself.' And then she composed herself to listen.
Dr. Ross told the story as carefully as he could, but he made no attempt to soften facts. A skilful surgeon cuts deep: the patient may quiver under the relentless knife, but the present pain will prevent lasting injury. Dr. Ross wished his daughter to see things from his point of view. It was impossible to spare her suffering; but she was young, and he hoped time and her own strong sense of duty would bring their own healing. He could not judge of the effect on her. Almost at his first words she had dropped her head upon his knees, and her face was hidden from him; and though his hand rested on her soft hair, she made no sign or movement.
'That is all I have to tell you, my darling. No one knows but you and I and Michael. I have not told your mother; I thought it best to wait.' Then she stirred a little uneasily under his caressing hand. 'My own child, you do not need to be told how I grieve for you and Cyril; it is a bitter disappointment to you both; but—but'—his voice dropped a little—'you must give him up.'
There was no perceptible start; only, as he said this, Audrey raised her face from his knee, and looked at him. She was very pale, but her eyes were quite dry; only the firm, beautiful lips trembled a little.
'I do not understand, father. Why must I give him up?'
'Why?' Dr. Ross could hardly believe his ears as he heard this. 'My child,' he said, with a touch of sternness, 'it is very easy to understand. Cyril is not to blame—he is as innocent as you are; but the son of Matthew O'Brien can never be my son-in-law.'
'No,' she returned slowly, 'I suppose not. I ought not to be surprised to hear you say that.'
'It is what any father would say, Audrey.'
'Anyhow, it is for you to say it, if you think it right, and it is for me to obey you.'
Then he put his arm round her with an endearing word or two. She was his good, obedient child—his dearly-loved daughter, who had never grieved him in her life.
'I trust I may never grieve you,' she replied gently; but there was a great solemnity in her eyes. 'Father, if you tell me that I must not marry Cyril, I shall be compelled to obey you; but it will break my heart to think that your mind is fully made up on this point.'
'My darling, you are both very young, and in time——' He stopped, arrested by the strangeness of her look.
'You think that we shall get over it: that is your meaning, is it not? But I am afraid you are wrong. Cyril loves me too well; he would never get over it.'
'But, my dear——'
'Father, will you listen to me for a moment? You need not fear that I should ever disobey you—you are my father, and that is enough. But I shall live in the hope that you will change your mind.'
'My child, I must forbid that hope. I cannot let you cheat yourself with any such false supposition. My mind will know no change in this matter.'
'Then, in that case, I shall never marry Cyril. If you cannot give me your blessing on my marriage, I will remain as I am—Audrey Ross. But, father, I shall never give him up! Never—never!'
'If Cyril be the man I think him, he will give you up, Audrey; he will be far too proud and honourable to hold you to your engagement.'
'That may be,' she answered a little wearily. 'I know the strong pressure that will be put on him. You will have no difficulty with him; he will do as you wish. My poor Cyril! how can he do otherwise? But all the same, I shall be true to him as long as he and I live. I shall feel that I belong to him.'
'But, my darling, do be sensible. When the engagement is broken off you will be free, utterly free.'
But she shook her head.
'I shall never be free while Cyril lives. Father, you do not understand. He may set me free to-morrow, but I shall still consider myself bound. When he comes here, I shall tell him so, and I do not think he will misunderstand me.'
Dr. Ross sighed. Here was an unexpected difficulty. She would obey him, but she would regard herself as the victim of filial obedience. She would not marry her lover without his consent, but she would have nothing to say to any other man. She would consider herself fettered by this hopeless betrothal. He had declined to accept the son of Matthew O'Brien as his son-in-law; but would not his own death set her free to fulfil her engagement? Dr. Ross groaned within himself as he thought of this. If only he could bring her to reason; but at his first word of pleading her eyes filled with tears.
'Father, I can bear no more; you have made me very unhappy. I have promised not to marry without your consent; but no one on earth could make me give him up.'
Then he looked at her very sorrowfully, and said no more. If she had thrown herself into his arms he could almost have wept with her. Would she ever know how his heart bled for her? But she only kissed him very quietly.
'You are not angry with me, father?'
'Angry with you? Oh, Audrey, my child, how can you ask such a question?'
'That is well,' she returned calmly. 'There must never be anything between us. I could not bear that.' Then her breast heaved a little, and a large tear stole down her face. 'Will you tell mother and Michael what I have said—that I will never give him up?'
And then she walked very slowly out of the room.
Half an hour later Michael came into the study. He did not speak; but the Doctor shook his head as he came silently towards him.
'It is a bad business, Mike. That girl of mine will give us trouble. She is as good as gold, but she will give us trouble.'
'She refuses to give him up?'
Michael sat down as he asked the question; his strength seemed to have deserted him.
'That is what she says—that she will regard herself as altogether bound to him. She is very firm. With all her goodness and sweetness, Audrey has a strong will.'
'Do you mean that she will still marry him?'
'Not unless I will give my consent. No, Mike; she is a dutiful child. She will never give herself to any man without her parents' blessing and approval; but she will not marry anyone else.'
Then there was a curious fixed look on Michael's face.
'I am not surprised, Dr. Ross. Audrey is too generous to forsake any man when he is in trouble. She will not think of herself—she never does; her whole heart will be set on the thought of giving him comfort. You must not try to change her resolution. It would be useless.'
'The deuce take it all!' returned the Doctor irritably. 'For there will be no peace of mind for any of us, Mike.' But Dr. Ross's voice was hardly as clear as usual. 'I suppose I must just go and have it all out with Emmie—there is nothing like getting an unpleasant job over; she and Geraldine can put their heads together, but they had better keep Harcourt away from me.'
And the Doctor stalked out of the room with an unwonted gloom on his genial face.
Michael did not follow him. He sat still for a few minutes looking at the Doctor's empty chair.
'I knew it; I could have said it. Audrey is just that sort of woman. She will never give him up—whether she loves him or not—as long as she feels he needs her. Poor Blake! poor fellow! Of the two, I hardly think he is the one to be pitied; but she will never find that out for herself. Never, never!'
And then Booty scratched and whined at the door, and he got up and let him in.
'WHO WILL COMFORT HIM?'
'Earth has nothing more tender than a woman's heart, when it is the abode of piety.'—LUTHER.
Dr. Ross had deferred telling his wife for more than one reason: he dreaded the effect on her emotional nature, and, above all things, he hated a scene. But for once he was agreeably disappointed. Mrs. Ross received the news more quietly than he expected; the very suddenness and force of the shock made her summon up all her womanly fortitude to bear such an overwhelming misfortune. Her first thought was for Audrey, and she would have gone to her at once; but her husband gently detained her.
'Give her time, Emmie; she has only just left me, and she will not be ready even for her mother. Sit down again, my dear; I cannot spare you yet.' And Mrs. Ross very reluctantly took her seat again on the couch.
They talked a little more, and Mrs. Ross wept as she thought of that poor dear boy, as she called him; for Cyril had grown very dear to her, and she had begun to look on him as her own son. But it seemed as though the whole vial of her wrath was to be emptied on the head of Mrs. Blake. At any other time, and in different circumstances, Dr. Ross would have been amused at the scathing invectives that were uttered by his sweet-tempered wife.
'But, my dear Emmie, you must consider her provocations. Think of a woman being tied to a feckless ne'er-do-well like Matthew O'Brien!'
'Don't talk to me, John; I will not listen to you. Was she not his wedded wife, and the mother of his children? Had she not vowed to be faithful to him for better and for worse?'
'Yes, my dear; but you must allow it was for worse.'
'That may be; but she was bound to him all the same by her wifely duty. She might have saved him, but instead of that she has been his ruin. How dare any woman rob her husband of his own children, and forbid him to lay claim to them? She is a false, perjured wife!' exclaimed Mrs. Ross, with rising excitement.
'My dear, I am not defending her; but at least she is to be pitied now.'
'I do not think so. It is Cyril and Kester and Mollie who are to be pitied, for having such parents. My heart bleeds for them, but not for her. What will become of them all? How will that poor boy bear his life?'
'I do not know. But, Emmie, tell me one thing—you agree with me that Audrey must not marry him?'
'Of course she must not marry him! What would Geraldine and Percival say?'
Then the Doctor muttered 'Pshaw!'
'Why, his name is not Blake at all. How could a daughter of ours form a connection with the O'Briens? My poor Audrey! And now, John, you must let me go to her.' And this time Dr. Ross made no objection.
It was nearly midnight by this time, but Audrey had not thought of retiring to bed; she was sitting by her toilet-table, with her hands folded in her lap. Her mother's appearance seemed to surprise her.
'Dear mother, why have you come? There was no need—no need at all.'
Then, as her mother put her arms round her, she laid her head on her shoulder as though she were conscious of sudden weariness. Mrs. Ross's eyes were red with weeping, but Audrey's were still quite bright and dry.
'Mother dear, you will be so tired!'
'What does that matter? It is your father who is tired; he feels all this so terribly. My own darling, what am I to say to you in this awful trouble that has come upon you, but to beg you to be brave for all our sakes?'
'Yes; and for his, too.'
'If I could only bear it for you—that is what a mother feels when her child suffers—if I could only take it from you, and carry it as my own burden!'
Then the girl gently pressed her with her arms.
'That is what I feel about him,' she returned, and there was a pained look in her eyes as she spoke. 'He is so young, and all this is so terrible; his pride will suffer, and his heart, and his mother will be no comfort to him. If he only had you!' And then she did break down a little, but she soon recovered herself. 'I have been sitting here trying to find out why this has been allowed to happen to him. I think there is no one so good, except Michael. It is very dreadful!' And here she shuddered slightly. 'How will he live out his daily life and not grow bitter over it? My poor, poor Cyril!'
'My darling, are you not thinking of yourself at all?'
'Of myself? No, mother. Why should I think of myself? I have you and father and Michael—you will all comfort me; but who will comfort him?'
'His Heavenly Father, Audrey.'
'Oh yes, you are right; but do young men think as we do? Cyril is good, but he never speaks of these things. He is not like Michael.'
'It was trouble that taught Michael.'
'Yes, I know; but I would fain have spared my poor Cyril such a bitter lesson. Mother, I want you to tell them all not to talk to me—I mean Michael and Gage and Percival; I could not bear it. As I told father, I shall never give him up. If he goes away, I must bid him good-bye; but if he will write to me I shall answer his letters.'
'I do not think your father would approve of that, Audrey. My child, consider—would it not be better, and more for Cyril's good, that you should give him up entirely?'
'No, mother; I do not think so. I believe in my heart that the knowledge that I am still true to him will be his only earthly comfort. No one knows him as I do; his nature is very intense. He is almost as intense as Michael, and that is saying a great deal.'
'My love, will you let your mother say one thing to you?—that I think you are making a grievous mistake, and that your father thinks so too.'
'I know it, mother, and it pains me to differ from you both in this; but you will never convince me. I plighted my troth to Cyril because I loved him dearly, and nothing will change that love. It is quite true,' she continued dreamily, as though she were following out some train of habitual thought, 'that I have often asked myself if I loved him in the same way in which other girls cared for their lovers—as Gage did for Percival, for example—if mine were not too quiet and matter-of-fact an attachment; and I have never been able to answer myself satisfactorily.'
'Have you not, Audrey?'
'No, mother dear; but of course this is in confidence: it must be sacred to you and me. I think I am different from most girls. I have never wished to be married; and dear as Cyril is to me, the thought of my wedding-day has always oppressed me. I have made him unhappy sometimes, because he saw that I shrank from it.'
Mrs. Ross felt a quick sense of relief that almost amounted to joy. Was Audrey in love with him, after all? She had never heard a girl talk so strangely. What an unutterable blessing it would be to them all if she were not utterly crushed by her misfortune, and if any future healing would be possible; but she was careful not to express this to her daughter.
'My experience has been very different,' she answered quietly. 'My happiest moments were those in which your dear father spoke of our future home. I think I was quite as averse to a long engagement as he was.'
'I can believe it, mother dear, but our natures are not alike; but there is one thing on which we are agreed, that an engagement is almost as binding as marriage; that is,' correcting herself, 'as long as two persons love each other.'
'It ought not to be binding under such circumstances, Audrey.'
'Ought it not? Ah, there we differ! With all my want of enthusiasm, my absence of sentimentality, I shall hold fast to Cyril. I have never yet regarded myself as his wife; I did not wish to so regard myself. But now I shall give myself up in thought wholly to him, and I pray God that this knowledge will give him comfort.'
Mrs. Ross was silent. She felt that she hardly understood her daughter; it was as though she had entered on higher ground, where the wrappings of some sacred mist enveloped her. This was not the language of earthly passion—this sublime womanly abnegation. It was not even the tender language of a Ruth, widowed in her affections, and cleaving with bounteous love and faith to the mother of her young Jewish husband, 'Whither thou goest I will go;' and yet the inward cry of her heart seemed to be like that of honest Tom O'Brien: 'The Lord do so unto me, and more also, if ought but death part me and thee.'
The one thought wholly possessed her that she might give him comfort.
'My poor, dear child, if I could only make you feel differently!'
Then Audrey laid her hand gently on her mother's lips. It was an old habit of hers when she was a child, and too much argument had proved wearisome.
'Hush! do not let us talk any more. I am so tired, so tired, mother, and I know you are, too.'
'Will you let me stay with you, darling?'
Then Audrey looked at her trim little bed, and then at her mother, and smiled.
'There is no room. What can you mean, mother dear? and I am not ill; I am never ill, am I?'
'Thank God at least for that; but you are worse than ill—you are unhappy, my dear. Will you let me help you to undress, and then sit by you until you feel you can sleep?'
But Audrey only shook her head with another smile.
'There is no need. Kiss me, mother, and bid me good-night. I shall like to be with my own self in the darkness. There, another kiss; now go, or we shall both be frozen;' and Audrey gently pushed her to the door.
'She would not let me stop with her, John!' exclaimed Mrs. Ross, as she entered her husband's dressing-room. 'She is very calm: unnaturally so, I thought; she hardly cried at all; she is thinking nothing of herself, only of him.'
'Do you know it is one o'clock, Emmie?' returned her husband rather shortly. He was tired and sore, poor man, and in no mood to hear of his daughter's sufferings. 'The deuce take the woman!' he said to himself fretfully, as Mrs. Ross meekly turned away without another word; but he was certainly not alluding to his wife when he spoke. 'From the days of Eve they have always been in some mischief or other'—from which it may be deduced that Mrs. Ross was not so far wrong when she thought her husband was threatened with gout, only his malaise was more of the mind. He was thinking of the interview that awaited him on the morrow. 'I would as lief cut off my right hand as tell him that he must not have Audrey,' he said to himself, as he laid his head on the pillow.
Now, as Michael lay awake through the dark hours revolving many things in his uneasy brain, it occurred to him that he would send a note across to Cyril as soon as he heard the household stirring, and he carried out this resolution in spite of drowsiness and an aching head.
'MY DEAR BLAKE,' he wrote,
'Don't bother yourself about early school. I am on the spot, and can easily take your place. You will want to pull yourself together, and under the circumstances the boys would be an awful nuisance. I hope you have got some sleep.
'M. O. BURNETT.'
To this came the following reply, scrawled on a half-sheet of paper:
'Thanks awfully; will accept your offer. Please tell Dr. Ross that I will come across to him soon after ten.'
'Poor beggar! he is awake now, and pulling himself together with a vengeance. This looks well; now for the grind.'
And Michael went down to the schoolroom and gave Cyril's class their divinity lesson with as much coolness and gravity as though his whole life had been spent in teaching boys.
Dr. Ross winced slightly as he gave him Cyril's message after breakfast, but he said, a moment afterwards: 'I intended sending for him; but I am glad he has saved me the trouble—only I wish it were over, Mike.'
Michael shrugged his shoulders with a look of sympathy. He had no time to say more; he must take Cyril's place in the schoolroom again, in spite of all Booty's shivering solicitations for a walk this fine morning. 'Booty, old fellow,' he observed, as he noticed the little animal's manifest disappointment, 'you and I are not sent into the world to please ourselves; there are "still lame dogs to help over stiles," and a few burdens to shift on our own shoulders. If our head ache, what of that, Booty? It will be the same a hundred years hence. Now for Greek verbs and general discord, so right about face!' And if Booty did not understand this harangue, he certainly acted up to the spirit of it, for he pattered cheerfully after his master to the schoolroom, and curled himself up into a compact brown ball at his feet, to doze away the morning in doggish dreams.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ross made a feint of reading his letters; but he found as he laid them down that their contents were hopelessly involved. Was it Rawlinson, for example, whom an anxious mother was confiding to his care? 'He had the measles last holidays, and has been very delicate ever since, and now this severe cold——' Nonsense! It was not Rawlinson, it was Jackson minor, and he was all right and had eaten an excellent breakfast; but he thought Major Sowerby's letter ought to be answered at once. He never allowed parents to break his rules; it was such nonsense sending for Charlie home, just because an uncle had come from India. He must write and remonstrate; the boy must wait until the term was over—it would only be a fortnight. And then he read the letter again with growing displeasure, and found that Captain MacDonald was the name of the erring parent.
'I will settle all that,' he remarked, as he plunged his pen rather savagely into the inkstand; and then a tap at the door made him start, and a huge blot was the result. Of course it was Cyril, who was standing at the door looking at him.
'Are you disengaged, Dr. Ross?'
'Yes—yes. Come in, my dear fellow, and shut the door.'
And then Dr. Ross jumped up from his seat and grasped the young man's hand; but his first thought was, What would Audrey say when she saw him? Could one night have effected such a change? There was a wanness, a heaviness of aspect, that made him look ten years older. Somehow Dr. Ross found it necessary to take off his spectacles and wipe them before he commenced the conversation.
'My poor boy, what am I to say to you?'
'Say nothing, sir; it would be far better. I have come——' Here Cyril paused; the dryness of his lips seemed to impede his utterance. 'I have come to know your wishes.'
'My wishes!' repeated Dr. Ross in a pained voice; and then he put his hand on his shoulder: 'Cyril, do not misjudge me, do not think me hard if you can help it, but I cannot give you my daughter.'
He had expected that Cyril would have wrenched himself free from his detaining hand as he heard him, but to his surprise he remained absolutely motionless.
'I know it, Dr. Ross. There was no need to tell me that—nothing would induce me to marry her.'
Then the Doctor felt as though he could have embraced him.
'Why should you think so meanly of me,' went on Cyril in the same heavy, monotonous voice, as though he were repeating some lesson that he had carefully conned and got by heart, 'as to suppose that I should take advantage of her promise and yours? If you will let me see her, I will tell her so. Do you think I would drag her down to my level—mine?'
'You are acting nobly.'
'I am acting as necessity compels me,' returned Cyril with uncontrollable bitterness. 'Do you think I would give her up, even at your command, Dr. Ross, if I dared to keep her? But I dare not—I dare not!'
'Cyril, for my peace of mind, tell me this one thing—have I ever been unjust to you in all our relations together?'
'No, Dr. Ross. I have never met with anything but kindness from you and yours.'
'When you came to me five months ago and told me you loved my daughter, did I repulse you?'
Then Cyril shook his head.
'But I was very frank with you. I told you even then that I had a right to look higher for my son-in-law, but that, as you seemed necessary to my girl's happiness, your poverty and lack of influence should not stand in your way. When I said this, Cyril, when I stretched out the right hand of fellowship to you, I meant every word that I said. I was teaching myself to regard you as a son; as far as any man could do such a thing, I intended to take your future under my care. In all this I did you no wrong.'
'You have never wronged me, sir,' and with a low but distinct emphasis: 'God forbid that I should wrong either you or her.'
'No! My heart was always full of kindness to you. Young as you were—young in years and in work—you had won my entire respect and esteem. I thank you, Cyril—I thank you in my own and in my wife's name—that I can respect you as highly as ever.'
Dr. Ross's voice faltered with emotion, and the hand that still lay on Cyril's shoulder trembled visibly; but there was no answering gleam of emotion on the young man's face.
'You mean it kindly, Dr. Ross, but I have not deserved this praise.' He spoke coldly, proudly. 'Have I an unsullied name to offer any woman? And even if this difficulty could be got over, do I not know that my career is over? Would you—would any other man, do you think—employ me as a master? I have been facing this question all night, and I know that, as far as my worldly prospects are concerned, I am practically ruined.'
'No, no; you must not say that. There are plenty of openings for a clever man. You shall have my help. I will employ my influence; I have powerful friends. We might find you a secretaryship.'
'I think a clerkship will be more likely,' returned Cyril, in the same hard voice, though the pent-up pain threatened to suffocate him. 'I may have some difficulty even there; people like their clerks to be respectably connected, and when one's father has been in prison——'
But Dr. Ross would not let him proceed.
'My poor boy, your father's sin is not yours. No one can rob you of your self-respect and stainless honour. If it were not for Audrey, I might even venture to brave public opinion and keep you myself. It might bring me into trouble with Charrington, but, as you know, I am my own master. I could have talked him over and got him to hush it up, and we could have moved your mother to a little distance. Yes, Cyril, I would have done it; you should have fought out your battle at my side, if it were not for my child.'
'I do not know how to thank you for saying this;' and Cyril's rigidity relaxed and he spoke more naturally. 'I shall never forget this, Dr. Ross—never, never! But'—here his voice shook—'you will let me go—you will not make me stop when people begin to talk about it? I am no coward, but there are some things too hard to put on any man; and to do my work when I see on the boys' faces that they know everything—it would be the death of me. I could not stand it—no, by heavens! I could not.'
'You shall not be asked to bear it. My poor boy, have you no faith in me? Do you think I should ask you to perform so cruel, so impossible a duty? From this hour you are free, Cyril; do not trouble about your work. I can find a substitute, or, if that fails, I will do your work myself. You are ill—it will be no falsehood to say that—and in another fortnight the school will break up. Keep quiet—go away somewhere for a time, and take Burnett into your confidence; he will be a better friend for you just now than I.'
'I doubt it, sir.'
Then the Doctor's eyes glistened with tears.
'God help you, my dear fellow! You are doing the right, and He will. This is not good-bye; I will see you again. Now go to her, and teach my child to do the right too.' And then Dr. Ross turned his back upon him rather abruptly, and walked to the window.
'YOU WILL LIVE IT DOWN'
'Sweet the thought, our lives, my love. Parted ne'er may be, Though between thy heart and mine Leagues of land and sea.
* * * * *
Of this twofold life and love, Twofold running fate, Sad and lone we may be oft, Never desolate.'
Cyril knew where he should find Audrey; she was generally in her own little sitting-room until luncheon. Sometimes her mother or Mollie would be with her, but this morning he felt instinctively that she would be alone.
She was sitting by the window, and there was some work on her lap, but she did not seem to be employing herself. She had bidden Cyril enter, and directly she saw him she rose from her seat and crossed the room somewhat quickly to meet him; but he did not at once speak to her, neither did he offer his usual greeting.
She waited for a moment to see what he would do; then she put up her face to him.
'Why do you not kiss me, Cyril?' she said, a little reproachfully; and then he did take her in his arms.
'It is for the last time!' he murmured, as he pressed her almost convulsively to him.
But she made no answer to this; when he had set her free, she took his hand very quietly, and led him to a seat that stood beside her chair. His hand was cold, and she kept it in both her own as though to warm it.
'I knew you would come to me,' she said very softly. 'How ill you look, my poor Cyril! You have not slept. Oh yes, I know all about it. And you have been to father, and you have both made yourselves very miserable. Do you think I do not know that? Poor father! and he is so tender-hearted.'
'I tried to spare him,' he returned wearily. 'I did not wish to put him to any trouble. I must dree my own weird, Audrey.'
'But I shall have to dree it too. Cyril, my darling, you shall not bear your trouble alone; it is far too heavy for you. As far as we can—as far as our duty permits, we will bear it together.' And then, as though the haggardness of his young face was too much for her, she came closer to him, and laid her head on his shoulder. 'We will bear it together, Cyril.'
'But, Audrey, my one blessing, that cannot be. Do you know what I have come to say to you this morning? That our engagement must be at an end—that you are free, quite free.'
'But I do not wish for freedom.'
'My darling, you ought to wish for it. Under the circumstances, it is quite impossible that we should ever be married. I am a ruined man, Audrey; I have lost my good name, my work, my worldly credit; my connections are disreputable. By this time you must know that I have a father living, and that his name——'
But she gently checked him.
'Yes, dear, I know all.'
'And yet you can tell me that you do not desire freedom? But that is all your goodness, and because you do not wish to pain me. Audrey, when I tell you that I must give up the idea of ever calling you my wife, it seems to me as though the bitterness of death were on me.'
'My poor Cyril!'
'Yes, I am poor indeed; I never dreamt of such poverty. They might have taken from me everything, and I would not have murmured, if they had only left me my faith in my mother, and if they had not robbed me of my love!'
'She is yours still, Cyril. No, do not turn from me; I mean it—I mean it! If you give me up, if you say to yourself that our engagement is broken, it must be as you choose, and I must let you go. No woman can compel a man to remain bound to her. But the freedom is on your side alone; I neither ask nor desire to be free.'
'Darling, darling, what can you mean?'
'If you say that you will never marry me,' she continued, with an air of deep sadness, 'I suppose you will keep your word; perhaps you are right in saying so. I would not marry you without my father's consent, and he tells me he will never give it; but, Cyril, you may rest assured of this, that in your lifetime I will never marry another man.'
Then he threw himself at her feet, and, taking her hands in his, begged her for very pity's sake to stop.
'I love you, Audrey! I think I never loved you before as I do now! but do you think I would permit such a sacrifice?'
'How are you to help it?' she returned, with a faint smile that was very near tears; 'and it would be no sacrifice, as far as I know my own heart. I think my one wish is to comfort you, and to make your life a little less dreary, Cyril,' looking at him earnestly; and it seemed to him as though her face were like an angel's. 'You will be brave and bear this for my sake. When you are tempted to lose faith, and hope seems farthest from you, you must say to yourself: "Audrey has not deserted me; she is mine still—mine always and for ever!"'
Then he bowed his head on her hands and wept like a child. She passed her hand over his hair caressingly, and her own tears flowed; but after a little while she spoke again:
'I have told father so, and I have told mother; I said to both of them that I would never give you up. We may live apart. Oh yes, I know that it is all very sad and miserable; but you will let me keep your ring, Cyril, because I still belong to you.'
He tried to steady his voice, and failed; all his manhood could not give him fortitude at such a moment. He could only clasp her in his arms, and beg her for her own sweet sake to listen to him.
And presently, when he was a little stronger, he put it all before her. He explained to her as well as he could the future that lay before him; the yoke of his father's sin was on his neck, and it was useless to try and break it off. He might call himself Blake, and look for new work in a new place, and the miserable fact would leak out.
There is a fatality in such cases, he went on. 'One may try to hush it up, to live quietly, to attract no notice; but sooner or later the secret will ooze out. I think I am prouder than most men—perhaps I am morbid; but I feel I shall never live down this shame.'
'You will live it down one day.'
'Yes, the day they put me in my coffin; but not before, Audrey.' Then, as she turned pale at the thought, he accused himself bitterly for his selfishness. 'I am making you wretched, and you are an angel of goodness!' he cried remorsefully. 'But you must forgive me, darling; indeed, I am not myself.'
'Do you think I do not know that?'
'A braver man than I might shrink from such a future. What have I done that such a thing should happen to me? I loved my work, and now it is taken from me; as far as I know, I may have to dig for my bread.'
'No, no!' she returned, holding him fast; for this was more than she could bear to hear—that the bright promise of his youth was blasted and destroyed. 'Cyril, if you love me, as you say you do, will you promise me two things?'
He looked at her a little doubtfully.
'If I love you!' he said reproachfully.
'Then I will alter my sentence, I will say, because of your love for me, will you grant me these two things? Cyril, you must forgive your mother. However greatly she has erred, you must remember that it was for your sake.'
'I do remember it.'
'And you will be good to her?'
Then, his face became very stern.
'I will do my duty to her. I think I may promise you that.'
'Dearest, I do not doubt it. When have you ever failed in your duty? But I want more than that: you must try so that your heart may be softer to her; you are her one thought; with all her faults, I think no mother ever loved her son so well. It is not the highest love, perhaps, since she has stooped to deceit and wrong for your sake; but, Cyril, it is not for you to judge her.'
'Perhaps not; but how am I to refrain from judging her? To me truth is the one absolute virtue—the very crown and chief of virtues. That is why I first loved you, Audrey—because of your trustworthiness. But now I have lost my mother—nay, worse, she has never existed!'
'I do not quite understand you.'
'Do you think my mother—the mother I believed in—could have acted this life-long lie? Would she have worn widows' weeds, and utterly forsworn herself? No; with all her faults, such crooked ways would have been impossible. Audrey, you must give me time to become acquainted with this new mother. I will not be hard to her, if I can possibly help it; but'—here the bitterness of his tone betrayed his deep agony—'she can never be to me again what she has been.'
'Then I will not press you any more, Cyril. I have such faith in you, that I believe you will come through even this ordeal; but there is something more I must ask you: Will you let Michael be your friend?'
'We are friends, are we not?' he said, a little bewildered at this.
'Ah! but I would have you close friends. Dear, you must think of me—how unhappy I shall be unless I know you have someone to stand by you in your trouble. If you would let my father help you!' But a shake of the head negatived this. 'Well, then, it must be Michael, our good, generous Michael, who will be like a brother to you.'
'I do not feel as though any man could help me.'
'No one but Michael. Dear Cyril, give me my way in this. We are going to part, remember, and it may be for a long term of years; but if you value my peace of mind, promise me that you will not turn from Michael.'
'Very well; I will promise you that. Have you any more commands to lay upon me, Audrey?'
'No,' she returned wistfully; 'be yourself, your true, brave, honest self, and all may yet be well. Now go! We have said all that needs to be said, and I must not keep you. You are free, my dear one; but it is I who am bound, who am still yours as much as ever. When we shall meet again, God knows; but in heart and in thought I shall be with you wherever you may go. Now kiss me, but you need not tell me again it is for the last time.'
Then she put her arms round his neck, and for a minute or two they held each other silently.
'My blessing, my one blessing!' murmured Cyril hoarsely.
Then she gently pushed him from her.
'Yes, your blessing. You may call me that always, if you will.' And then, still holding his hand, she walked with him to the door; and as he stood looking at her with that despair in his eyes, she motioned to him to leave her. 'Go, dearest; I cannot bear any more.' And then he obeyed her.
* * * * *
A few hours afterwards her mother found her lying on her bed, looking very white and spent.
'Are you ill, Audrey? My dear, your father is so anxious about you, and so is Michael. When you did not appear at luncheon, they wanted me to go to you at once. Crauford says you have eaten nothing.'
'Dear mother, what does that matter? I am quite well, only so very tired. My strength seemed to desert me all at once, so I thought I would lie down and keep quiet. But you must tell father that I am not ill.'
'I shall tell him how good and brave you are,' returned her mother, caressing her; 'Audrey, did Crauford tell you that Geraldine is here?'
Then a shadow passed over Audrey's pale face.
'She came up the moment luncheon was over to ask if you could go with her to Beverley, and of course she saw at once that something was amiss. Your father took her into the study and told her himself. She is very much upset. That is why I have left you so long.'
'I did not know it was long,' returned Audrey, speaking in the same tired voice; 'it seems to me only a few minutes since Crauford took away the tray.'
'It is nearly four o'clock,' replied Mrs. Ross, looking at her anxiously—could it be her bright, strong girl who was lying there so prostrate? 'Geraldine has been here nearly two hours. She sent her love to you, darling, and wanted so much to know if she could see you; but I shall tell her you are not fit to see anyone.'
'I do not know that,' returned Audrey in a hesitating manner; 'I was just wishing that I could speak to Michael. If you had not come up, I think I should have put myself straight and gone downstairs. I think I may as well see Gage for a moment; it is better to get things over.'
'But, Audrey, I am quite sure it would be wiser for you to keep quiet to-day; you have had such a terrible strain. Everyone ought to do their best to spare you.'
'But I do not want to be spared,' returned Audrey, echoing her mother's sigh; 'so please send Gage to me, and tell her not to stop too long. Crauford can tell her when tea is ready.' And then Mrs. Ross left her very reluctantly.
Geraldine's face was suffused with tears as she sat down beside the bed and took her sister's hand. Audrey shook her head at her.
'Gage, I don't mean to allow this; you and mother are not to make yourselves miserable on my account.'
'How are we to help it, Audrey?' replied Geraldine with a sob; 'I have never seen you look so ill in your life, and no wonder—this unhappy engagement! Oh, what will Percy say when I tell him?'
'He will be very shocked, of course. Everyone will be shocked. Perhaps both he and you will say it serves me right, because I would not take your advice and have nothing to do with the Blakes. Gage, I want you to do me one favour: tell Percival not to talk to me. Give him my love—say anything you think best—only do not let him speak to me.'
'He shall not, dearest; I will not let him. But all the same, he will grieve bitterly. He knows how bad it will be for you, and how people will talk. I have been telling mother that you ought to go away until things have blown over a little.'
Audrey was silent. This was not the sympathy her sore heart needed. Geraldine's tact was at fault here; but the next moment Geraldine said, with manifest effort:
'Cyril has behaved very well. Father seems very much impressed with his behaviour; he says that he offered at once to release you from your engagement.'
'Percy will say he has acted like a gentleman; that is the highest praise from him. Dear—dearest Audrey, you will not think that I am not sorry for you both when I say that this is a great relief to me?'
'A relief to you that Cyril is free?'
'Yes, and that you are free too.'
'Ah, but I am not,' moving restlessly on her pillow. 'There you are making a mistake, Gage. I thought father would have told you. I am still engaged to Cyril; I shall always be engaged to him, although perhaps we shall never be married.'
'Now, Gage, we are not going to argue about it, I hope; I am far, far too tired, and my mind is made up, as I told father. I shall never give my poor boy up—never, never!—as long as he is in the world and needs me.' Then, as she saw the distress on her sister's face, she put her hand again into hers. 'You won't love me less for being so wilful, Gage? If anyone had asked you to give up Percival when you were engaged to him, do you think you would have listened?'
'Is that not very different, darling?'
'No; not so very different. Perhaps I do not love Cyril quite in the same way you loved Percival, our natures are so dissimilar; but, at least, he is very dear to me.'
'Do you mean that you will break your heart because of this? Oh, Audrey!' and Geraldine's face was very sad.
'No, dear; hearts are not so easily broken, and I do not think that mine would be so weak and brittle. But the thought of his sorrow will always be present with me, and, in some sense, I fear my life will be clouded.'
Then her sister caressed her again with tears.
'But it will not be as bad for me as for him; for I shall have you all to comfort me, and I know how good you will all be. You will be ready to share even your child with me, Gage, if you think that will console me.'
'Yes; and Percival will be good to you, too.'
'I am sure of that; only you must ask him not to speak to me. Now I am very tired, and I must ask you to leave me. Go down to mother, dear Gage.'
But it seemed as though Geraldine could hardly tear herself away.
'I will do anything, if only you will promise to be happy again,' she said, kissing her with the utmost affection. 'Remember how necessary you are to us. What would any of us do without you? To-morrow I shall bring your godson to see you.'
Then, at the thought of her baby-nephew, a faint smile crossed Audrey's face.
MICHAEL ACCEPTS HIS CHARGE
'Try how the life of the good man suits thee: the life of him who is satisfied with his portion out of the whole, and satisfied with his own just acts and benevolent disposition.'—M. AURELIUS ANTONINUS.
Michael's morning in the schoolroom had been truly purgatorial; fortunately for him, it was a half-holiday, and the luncheon-hour set him free from his self-imposed duties. On his way to his own room, he had overheard Geraldine's voice speaking to her father, and he at once guessed the reason why Dr. Ross had invited her into the study.
He had never been less enamoured of solitude and of his own society; nevertheless, he told himself that any amount of isolation would be preferable to the penalty of hearing Geraldine discuss the matter. He could hear in imagination her clear sensible premises and sound, logical conclusion, annotated by womanly lamentations over such a family disaster. The probable opinions of Mrs. Bryce and Mrs. Charrington would be cited and commented on, and, in spite of her very real sympathy with her sister, Michael shrewdly surmised that the knowledge that the Blake influence was waning would give her a large amount of comfort in the future.
When Crauford announced that the ladies were having tea in the drawing-room, he begged that a cup might be sent up to him.
'Will you tell Mrs. Harcourt that I have a headache?' he said; and, as Crauford delivered the message, Geraldine looked meaningly at her mother.
'I expect Michael has taken all this to heart,' she said, as soon as Crauford had left the room; 'he is very feeling, and then he is so fond of Audrey.' And as Mrs. Ross sighed in assent, she went on with the topic that was engrossing them at that moment—how Audrey was to be induced to leave home for a while.
Michael's table was strewn with books, and one lay open on his knee, but he had not once turned the page. How was he to read when the very atmosphere seemed charged with heaviness and oppression?
'She thinks that she loves him, and therefore she will suffer,' he said to himself over and over again; 'and it will be for the first time in her life; for she has often told me that she has never known trouble. But her suffering will be like a grain of sand in comparison with his. Oh, I know what he is feeling now! To have had her, and then to have lost her! Poor fellow! it is a cruel fate.'
Michael pondered drearily over the future that lay before them all. How was he to bear himself, he wondered, under circumstances so exasperating? She was free, and he knew her to be free—for Cyril would never claim her—and yet she would regard herself as altogether bound.
He must go away, he thought; not at once—not while she needed him—but by and by, when things were a little better. Life at Rutherford was no longer endurable to him; for months past, ever since her engagement, he had chafed under a sense of insupportable restlessness. A sort of fever oppressed him—a longing to be free from the influence that dominated him.
'If I stay here I must tell her how it is with me, and that will only make her more miserable,' he thought. 'She is not like other women—I never saw one like her. There is something unreasonable in her generosity. Girls sometimes say things they do not mean, and then repent of their impulsiveness; but she will never repent, whether she loves him or not. She believes that it is her mission to comfort him. Perhaps, if I had appealed to her, I might have made her believe that she had a different mission. Oh, my dear, if it only could have been so!'
And he sighed in the bitterness of his spirit; for he knew that in his unselfishness he had never wooed her.
At that moment there was a light tap at his door, and he started to his feet with a quick exclamation of surprise as Audrey entered. He had been thinking of her at that moment, and he almost felt as though the intensity of his thoughts had attracted her by some unconscious magnetism; but a glance at her dispelled this illusion.
She was dressed for dinner, and he noticed that there was an air of unusual sombreness about her attire, as though she felt that any gaiety of apparel would be incongruous. And as she came closer to him, he was struck with her paleness and the sadness in her large gray eyes.
'Michael,' she said, in a low voice, 'I want to speak to you. I hope I am not interrupting you.'
'You never interrupt me,' he returned quickly. 'Besides, I am doing nothing. Sit down, dear, and then we shall talk more comfortably.' For he noticed that she spoke with an air of lassitude that was unusual to her, and her strong lithe figure swayed a little, as though with weakness.
'Do you think you should be here?' he asked, with grave concern. 'You look ill, Audrey, as though you ought to be resting in your own room.'
'I have been resting,' she replied gently. 'And then Gage came to me, and after that I thought I had been idle long enough. Michael,'—and here her lips quivered as though she found it difficult to maintain her self-control—'you know all that has happened. Cyril has gone away—he has said good-bye to me—and he looks as though his heart were broken. I have done what I could to comfort him. I have told him that I shall always be true to him; but it is not in my power to help him more.'
'Dear Audrey,' he said—for he understood her meaning well, and there was no need for her to speak more plainly—'it was not for me to go to him after such a parting as that. The presence of one's dearest friend would be intolerable.'
'I did not mean to-day,' she returned sadly; 'but there is to-morrow, and there is the future. And he has no friend who is worthy of the name. Michael, there is no one in the whole world who could help him as you could. This is the favour I have come to ask you.'
'It is granted, Audrey.'
Then her eyes were full of tears as he said this.
'Oh, I knew you would not refuse! When have you ever refused to do a kindness for anyone? Michael, I told my poor boy to-day that if he valued my peace of mind he would consent to be guided by your advice. He is so young; he does not know the world as you do, and he is so terribly unhappy; but if you would only help him——'
'My dear,' he said very quietly, 'there is no need to distress yourself, or to say any more; we have always understood each other without words. You are giving me this charge because you are unable to fulfil it yourself. You wish me to be a good friend to poor Blake, to watch over him and interest myself in his welfare—that is, as far as one man will permit another to do so. Well, I can promise you that without a moment's hesitation. I will be as solicitous for him as though he were my brother. Will that content you?'
But he could not easily forget the look of gratitude that answered him.
'God bless you, Michael! I will not try to thank you. Perhaps some day——'
She stopped as though unable to say more.
'Oh,' he said lightly, and crushing down some dangerous emotion as he spoke, 'I have done nothing to deserve thanks. Even if you had not asked me this, do you think I would have gone on my own way, like the Levite in the parable, and left that poor fellow to shift for himself? No, my dear, no; I am not quite so flinty-hearted. Unless Blake will have none of my help—unless he absolutely repulse me—I will try as far as lies in my power to put him on his feet again.'
'He will not repulse you; I have his word for that. Ah! there is the dinner-bell, and I have not said all that I wanted. The day seems as though it would never end, and yet there is time for nothing.'
'You will not come downstairs, Audrey? Let me ask your mother to excuse you. See! you can stay in this room; I can clear the table and put things ship-shape for you.'
Then she looked at him with the same air of innocent surprise with which she had regarded her mother the previous night, when she had asked to remain with her.
'Why do you all treat me as though I were an invalid?' she said protestingly. 'I am not ill, Michael. What does it matter where one eats one's dinner? It is true I am not hungry, but there is father—why should I make him uncomfortable? We must think of other people always, and under all circumstances.'
She seemed to be saying this to herself more than to him, as though she would remind herself of her duty. Michael said no more, but as he followed her downstairs he told himself that no other girl could have borne herself so bravely and so sweetly under the circumstances.
He wondered at her still more as he sat opposite to her at table, and saw the quiet gravity with which she took her part in the conversation. She spoke a word or two about her sister, and mentioned of her own accord that she had promised to bring Leonard to see her the next day.
'I do not mean to call him baby,' she said; 'he is far too important a personage. Did you hear nurse speak of him as Master Baby the other day? I think Gage must have given her a hint about it.'
And then she listened with an air of interest as her mother related a little anecdote that recurred to her memory of Geraldine's babyhood.
But he saw her flush painfully when Mrs. Ross commented on her want of appetite.
'You have eaten nothing to-day, Crauford tells me,' she continued anxiously.
Audrey shook her head.
'One cannot always be hungry, mother dear,' she said gently; but it was evident that her mother's kindly notice did not please her.
And she seemed still more distressed when her father once rose from his place to give her some wine.
'Why do you do that?' she asked, with a touch of impatience. 'It is not for you to wait on me, father. Michael would have filled my glass quite easily.'
'You are paying me a very bad compliment, Audrey,' returned Dr. Ross with a smile. 'You are telling me that I am too much of an old fogey to wait on ladies. Mike is the younger man, of course, and if you should prefer that he should help you to madeira——'
'No, father, it is not that; but it is for me to wait on you. You must never, never do that for me again.'
And somehow Dr. Ross seemed to have no answer ready as he went back to his chair.
But when she was alone with her mother she spoke still more plainly. Mrs. Ross had persuaded her to take the corner of the couch; but as she stood by her manipulating the cushions and adjusting them more comfortably, Audrey turned round quickly and took hold of her hands.
'Mother, do please sit down. I think you have all entered into a conspiracy to-night to kill me with kindness.'
'We are so sorry for you, darling.'
'Perhaps I am sorry for myself; but is that any reason why I should be treated as though I had lost the use of my limbs? I want you to behave to me as usual; it will be far better for me and you too. Why did not father and Michael talk politics, instead of making little cut-and-dried speeches that seemed to fit into nothing?'
'I daresay they found it very difficult to talk at all under the circumstances.'
'That sounds as though I had better have remained upstairs, as Michael suggested; indeed, I must do so if you will persist in regarding me as the skeleton at the feast.'
'My darling child, how you talk! Surely you will allow your parents to share your sorrow?'
'No, mother; that is just what I cannot allow; no one shall be burdened with my troubles. Listen to me, mother dear: I think people make a great mistake about this; they mean to be kind, but it is not true kindness; they are ready to give everything—sympathy, watchfulness, attention—but they withhold the greatest gift of all, the freedom, the solitude, for which the sufferer craves.'
'Do you mean that we are to leave you alone, Audrey? Oh, my dear, this is a hard saying for a mother to hear!'
'But it is not too hard for my mother,' returned Audrey caressingly. 'Yes, I would have you leave me alone until I recover myself. I would be treated as you have always treated me, and not as though I were a maimed and sickly member of the flock. Neither would I be reminded every moment of the day that any special hurt has come to me.'
'And I am not to ask you even to rest yourself?'
'No, not even that. I would rather a thousand times that you gave me some work or errand. Mother dear,' and here her voice was very sad, 'I will not deny that this is a great trouble, and that my life will not be as easy and as happy as it used to be. The shadow of my poor boy's sorrow will be a heavy burden for me to bear; but we must ask God to lighten it for both of us. I tell you this to-night because you are my own dear mother, and such confidence is your due; but after to-night I shall not say it again. If you and father wish to help me, it will be by allowing me to feel that I am still your comfort;' and then she threw herself in her mother's arms. 'Tell father this,' she whispered, 'and ask him to give me time. One day, perhaps, I shall be more like my old self; but we must wait: it is too soon to expect much of me yet.'
'I will tell your father you are our good, dear child, Audrey, and you shall have your way.'
'Thank you; I knew you would understand. After all, there is no one like one's mother.' And then she sighed, and Mrs. Ross knew where her thoughts had wandered. 'Now, for this one evening, I will take your advice and rest. I will go up to my room now; but to-morrow'—she stopped, and then said firmly—'to-morrow everything shall be as usual.' And then she gave her cheek to her mother's kiss, and went up to her room.
Michael did not make his appearance in the drawing-room that night. To Booty's secret rapture, he put on his great-coat, and went out into the chill darkness. He had much to consider; and it was easier to make his plans under the dim March starlight. A difficult charge had been given him, and he had not shrunk from it; on the contrary, he had felt much as some knight in the olden times must have felt when his liege lady had given him some hazardous work or quest. To be sure, there was no special guerdon attached to it; but a man like Michael Burnett does not need a reward: if he could only give Audrey peace of mind, he would ask no other reward.
He made up his mind that he would go to Cyril the next morning, and he thought he knew what he should say to him. He and Dr. Ross had talked matters over after dinner. Dr. Ross had already suggested a substitute—a young Oxford man, who was staying at the Vicarage, and who was on the look-out for a mastership.
'I told Cyril that he had better discontinue his work,' he went on. 'If it were not for Audrey, he could have made some sort of shift, and kept on until the holidays; but it would never do to run the risk of another scene between them: it would be bad for her, and it would be terrible for him. It is an awkward complication, Mike; it would be better to get him away as soon as possible.' And to this Michael assented.
He went round to the Gray Cottage soon after breakfast. Audrey was watering her flowers in the hall. She looked at him as he passed her, but did not speak; of course, she guessed his errand, for he saw her head droop a little over the flowers.
Mollie received him. The poor girl's eyes were swollen with crying, and she looked up in his face very piteously, as he greeted her with his usual kindness.
'Where is your brother, Mollie?'
'Do you mean Cyril? He is in his room; but no one has seen him. Oh, Captain Burnett, is it true? Mamma has been saying such dreadful things, and we do not know whether we are to believe her. Biddy tries to hush her, but she will go on talking; she is quiet now, and Kester and I crept down here. Ah, there is Kester looking at us; he wants you to go in and speak to him.'
'Is it true?' were Kester's first words when he saw his friend. The poor lad's lips were quivering. 'Oh, Captain Burnett, do tell us that it is not true!'
'I cannot do that, my boy,' returned Michael gravely; and then he sat down and listened to what they had to tell him. He soon found that the mother's wild ravings had told them the truth. In her despair at being refused admittance to her son's room, she had given way to a frantic outburst of emotion. Biddy had tried to get rid of them, but Kester and Mollie had remained, almost petrified with horror. What could their mother mean by telling them that she hated the sight of them, and adjuring them to go to their father?
'Father is dead; does she wish us to be dead, too?' Mollie had faltered. 'Dear mamma, do let me go and fetch Cyril! You are ill; you do not know what you are saying!' But as she turned to go, her mother had started up, and gripped her arm so fiercely that the poor child could have screamed with pain.
'Yes, you shall fetch him, but he will not come; he will not listen to you any more than he would to me. When I implored him on my knees to open the door, he said that he was ill, and that he could not speak to me. But was I not ill, too? If I were dying he would not come to me! and yet he is my son!'
'Dear mamma! oh, dear mamma! do you know how you are hurting me?'
'No; it is he who is hurting me: he is killing me—absolutely killing me!—because I kept from him that his father was alive! Did I not do it for his sake—that he should not be shamed by such a father? Go to him, Mollie; tell him that you know all about it, and that Audrey Ross will have nothing to say to him, because he is the son of a felon. Why are you staring at me? Go! go!' And she pushed her from her so roughly that Mollie would have fallen if Biddy had not caught her.
'Go, Miss Mollie, or you will drive her crazy with your big eyes and frightened face. Whist! don't heed the mistress's wild talk; it is never the truth she is telling you.'
But Mrs. Blake had interrupted the old woman; her eyes were blazing with angry excitement:
'Where do you expect to go, Biddy, if you tell Mollie such lies? You are a wicked old woman! You have helped me to do all this mischief! Would you dare to tell me to my face that I am not the wife of Mat O'Brien?'
'Sorra a bit, Miss Olive; you are the widow of that honest man Blake. Heaven rest his soul!' returned the old woman doggedly. 'We must be having the doctors to you, Miss Olive avick, if you tell us these wild stories.'
'Biddy, you are a false, foolish old creature! and it is you who are driving me out of my sane senses.'
But at this point Mollie fairly fled.
'Did you see your brother?' asked Michael, as she stopped to dry her eyes. Kester had never uttered a word; he left Mollie to tell her own story, and sat leaning his head on his hands. For once Mollie's loquacity was suffered unchecked.
'It was dark, and I could not see him; it was quite late, you know—nearly twelve o'clock. He came out and listened to me; but the passage and the room were quite dark.
'"Go down, Mollie," he said, "and tell my mother that I cannot speak to her to-night. It is quite impossible; she ought not to expect it."
'"But she is ill, Cyril—I am sure she is dreadfully ill; her eyes look so strange, and she is saying such things!"
'"Biddy will take care of her; if she needs a doctor, you must go for one. But nothing on earth would induce me to see her to-night." And then he went back into his room and locked the door.'
'Oh, that was nothing to what came afterwards. Would you believe it, Captain Burnett?—mamma had heard every word. When I left Cyril, I found her crouching on the stairs in a dark corner. Oh, I shall never forget the turn it gave me! She had got her arms over her head, and they seemed quite stiff, and her fingers were clenched. Biddy was crying over her; but she did not move or speak, and it was quite an hour before we could get her into her own room.'
'You ought to have sent for the doctor.'
'Biddy would not let us; she said it was only sorrow of heart, and that she had seen her once before like that, when her husband died. What makes Biddy say that, Captain Burnett, if our father be still living?'
Michael shook his head.
'Biddy chooses to persist in her falsehood. I have seen your father, Mollie. I am very sorry for him; with all his faults, he loves his children.' Then a low sound like a groan escaped Kester's lips. 'And I think his children should be sorry for him, too; he has had a hard, unhappy life. But there is no time to talk of this now; I want you to finish about last night, and then I must go upstairs.'
'There is nothing more to tell. We could not induce mamma to undress or to go to bed, so Biddy covered her up and told me to go away. She was with her all night. With all her crossness and tiresome ways, Biddy is always good to mamma; she was talking to her almost as though she were a baby, for I stood and listened a minute before I closed the door. I could hear her say:
'"Miss Olive avick, what was the good of telling the children? You should hush it up for Mr. Cyril's sake, and for the sake of the dear young lady he is going to marry." But he is not going to marry her; mamma said so more than once.'
And then, in a few grave words, Michael told them all that it was necessary for them to know.
'Poor, poor Cyril! Oh, my dear Miss Ross!' was all Mollie could say. Kester seemed nearly choking.
'Let me go to him, dear Mollie. But I think I will see your mother first. Biddy seems to be a bad adviser. After all, she may require a doctor.'
And then he put his hand on Kester's shoulder and whispered something into his ear. Mollie could not hear what it was, but she saw the boy's face brighten a little as he took up Booty to prevent him from following his master.
'THERE SHALL BE PEACE BETWEEN US'
'Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them, then, or bear with them.'
* * * * *
'When a man has done thee any wrong, immediately consider with what opinion about good or evil he has done wrong; for when thou hast seen this thou wilt pity him, and wilt neither wonder nor be angry.'—M. AURELIUS ANTONINUS.
Biddy was hovering about the passage, as usual. She regarded Michael with marked disfavour when he asked if he could see her mistress. In her ignorant way, she had arrived at the conclusion that the Captain was at the bottom of the mischief.
'Why couldn't he leave things to sort themselves?' she grumbled within herself. 'But men are over-given to meddling; they mar more than they make.'
'My mistress is too ill to see anyone,' she returned shortly.
'Do you mean that she is in her own room?' he asked.
But even as he put the question, he could answer it for himself. The door of the adjoining room was wide open, and he was certain that it was empty.
'Sick folk do not always stop in their beds,' retorted Biddy still more sourly; 'but for all that, she is not fit to see visitors.'
She squared her skinny elbows as she spoke, as though prepared to bar his entrance; but he looked at her in his quiet, authoritative way.
'She will see me, Biddy. Will you kindly allow me to pass?' And the old woman drew back, muttering as she did so.
But he was obliged to confess that Biddy was right as he opened the door, and for a moment he hesitated on the threshold.
Mrs. Blake was half sitting, half lying on the couch in a curiously uneasy position, as though she had flung herself back in some sudden faintness; her eyes were closed, and the contrast between the pale face and dark dishevelled hair was very striking; her lips, even, were of the same marble tint. He had always been compelled to admire her, but he had done so in grudging fashion; but now he was constrained to own that her beauty was of no mean order. An artist would have raved over her; she would have made a model for a Judith or a Magdalene.
As he stood there with his hand on the door, she opened her eyes and looked at him; but she did not change her attitude or address him.
Michael made up his mind that he must speak to her.
'I am sorry to see you look so ill, Mrs. Blake.'
He took her hand as he spoke; it felt weak and nerveless. But she drew it hastily away, and her forehead contracted.
'Of course I am ill.'
'I hope Biddy has sent for a doctor; I think you should see one without delay.'
But she shook her head.
'No doctor would do me any good. I would not see him if he came.'
Michael was silent; he hardly knew how he was to treat her. Mollie's graphic account of the scene last night had greatly alarmed him. Mrs. Blake was of a strangely excitable nature; he had been told that from her youth she had been prone to fits of hysterical emotion. She was perfectly unused to self-control, and only her son had ever exercised any influence over her. Was there not a danger, then, that, the barriers once broken down, she might pass beyond her own control? He had heard and had read that ungovernable passion might lead to insanity; he almost believed it, as he listened to Mollie's story. This is why he had insisted on seeing her. He must judge of her condition for himself; he must do his best to prevent the recurrence of such a scene. And now, as he saw her terrible exhaustion and the dim languor in her eyes, he told himself that something must be done for her relief.
'If you send one, I will not see him,' she went on.
'I think you are wrong. For your children's sake you ought to do your best to throw off this illness that oppresses you.'
But she interrupted him.
'Why are you here this morning? Are you going to him?' she asked abruptly.
'Yes, certainly; that is, if he will see me.'
'He will see you. He would not refuse anyone who came from Woodcote. Captain Burnett, will you tell me this one thing: has that girl given him up?'
'Your son has broken off his engagement with Miss Ross. He felt he could not do otherwise.'
'You are not answering me straight. I do not want to hear about Cyril; of course he would offer to release her. But has Miss Ross consented to this?'
'No,' he returned reluctantly, for it pained him to enter on this subject with her; 'she has refused to be set free. As far as your son is concerned, the engagement is broken; but my cousin declares her intention of remaining faithful to him.'
'I knew it—I knew it as well as though you had told me,' returned Mrs. Blake with strong emotion; 'Audrey Ross is not the girl to throw a man over. Oh! I love her for this. She is a darling, a darling, but'—relapsing into her old melancholy—'they will never let her marry him—never, never!'
'I am afraid you are right.'
'No, he is doomed; my poor boy is doomed. If you see him, what is there that you can say to comfort him?'