"Father, it's settled! We take this house on the spot. These walls decide it. Think how inspiring it will be to live our lives against a background of carved oak!" she cried in a rapture, and the colonel tugged at his moustache with a smile of complacent satisfaction.
"Looks about right, Peg, doesn't it? That Indian furniture would look well in here, and the old delf. We'll put all the delf here, I fancy, and—"
"And have blue walls in the drawing-room—blue paper and white wood, and a touch of yellow in the draperies. I saw some brocade at Liberty's which would be the very thing!" chimed in his wife, while Mrs Asplin gasped and looked askance at the extraordinary trio who began to discuss the furnishings of a house before they had even ascended the staircase. She coughed in a deprecatory manner, and said:
"The reception rooms are certainly fine—they have always been considered the strong point of the house, but the bedroom accommodation is not nearly so good. There are fewer rooms than you would expect, and they are mostly small. I'm afraid you will be disappointed when you see them."
"If there are three or four decent rooms, that is all we need. I want my home for myself, and not for a crowd of visitors. One spare room, or two at most, is all I would have furnished if there were a dozen empty. Give me retirement and a quiet home life!" cried the colonel, whereat his wife and daughter exchanged glances of amusement, for if ever there lived a man who adored his fellow-creatures, and delighted in crowding his house from floor to ceiling with unexpected guests, that man was Colonel Saville, and would be until his death.
Mrs Asplin understood the meaning of that glance, and giving up the colonel as a hopeless case, addressed herself instead to his wife.
"And I am afraid the pantry is poor, and the scullery also. Mrs Selby used to complain of them and of the lack of conveniences. There are no cupboards, and the—"
It was of no use. Mrs Saville was as intractable as her husband, and refused to listen to any warning.
"Dear Mrs Asplin," she said sweetly, "I don't know anything about cupboards. We never worried about these things in India; the servants managed somehow, and I presume they can manage here. The entertaining rooms are large enough to take in our furniture, and Peggy likes them. Those are the great points which we have to consider. If there are enough bedrooms to take us in, I think we shall be satisfied."
This Saville trio was the most impracticable party of house-hunters whom the vicar's wife had ever known, and she wondered no longer at the difficulty they had experienced in finding a house to their taste, when she noted the spirit in which they surveyed the present premises. A convenience was not a convenience at all if it interfered with a fad or fancy, and a serious drawback was hailed with delight if it appeared in quaint or unexpected fashion. As a matter of fact, the purchase of the house had been a foregone conclusion, since the moment when Peggy had beheld the oak walls of the dining-room, and within twenty-four hours from that moment it was a concluded fact.
Ah, then and there was hurrying to and fro, and endless journeys up to town, and interviews with obstinate decorators, who would insist on obtruding their own ideas, and battles waged with British workmen, who could not understand why one shade of a colour was not as good as another, or wherein lay the deadly necessity that they should match. Peggy put a penny in the slot and weighed herself on the machine at the station every second or third day, to verify her statement that she was wasting to a shadow beneath the nervous strain. She was left at the vicarage in order to superintend the workmen, while Colonel and Mrs Saville stayed in town to interview furniture dealers and upholsterers; and every morning she walked over to Yew Hedge and made a procession round the rooms, to note what progress had been made since the day before. Half-a-dozen men were at work, or, to be strictly accurate, were engaged to work, at the house; but beyond the fact that it grew steadily dirtier and dirtier, and that the splashes of whitewash and shavings of paper stretched further and further down the drive, it was difficult to see what progress was being made.
Then Peggy made a desperate resolve, begged a bundle of sandwiches from the old cook, packed it with sundry other properties in a basket, and announced her intention of spending the day at Yew Hedge, and keeping the men up to their work by the influence of her presence. Mrs Asplin laughed at the idea of their being awed by anything so small and dainty, but small as she was Miss Peggy had contrived to instil a very wholesome awe of herself among the workmen. She never expressed open disapproval, and was invariably courteous in manner, but there was a sting in her stately speeches which made them wince, though they would have found it difficult to explain the reason of their discomfiture. On the present occasion the usual group of idlers was discovered lazing in the hall when the little white figure appeared suddenly among them. They flushed and slouched away, but the young lady was all smiles and amiability.
"Good-morning!" she cried. "I have brought my tools with me to-day, for I am going to stay and garden. If you can spare the time, I shall be much obliged if you will boil some water for me later on, but it will do when you make your own tea. Don't let me interrupt your work! I shall be in the garden, if you want to consult me at any time, so we shall all be busy together!"
The abashed faces stared at her in a solid wall of discomfiture, and Peggy retreated hastily, and paused behind a harberry fence to have her laugh out, before repairing to the shed where the gardening tools were stored. Then she unrolled an apron, tied it over her skirt, rolled up her sleeves to protect the starched little cuffs, took a rake in one hand and a hoe in the other, and surveyed the prospect. With ambition untempered by ignorance, she had openly avowed her intention of possessing the finest flowers in the county, and giving an object-lesson in gardening to ignorant professors of the art, so that it was more than time to begin preparation.
"The finest garden in the county!" Even allowing for the prejudices of possession, it was impossible to bestow such a title upon Yew Hedge in its present unkempt condition. The house had been unlet for two years, during which time the grass had grown coarse and rank, wallflowers and forget-me-nots were dying a lingering death in the borders, and nothing was coming on to take their place. It was not the first time that Peggy had given her mind to this subject, but so far she had not succeeded in finding a solution of the difficulty, nor had the suggestion of the village gardener met with her approval.
"It's bedding-out as you want," he had explained. "You must bed out. That's the tastiest thing for those 'ere round beds, and the tidiest too. They last well on into the autumn, if it comes in no sharp frosts. There's nothing like them for lasting!"
"Like what? Do you mean geraniums?"
"Ay, geraniums for sure, and calcies, and lobelias, and a nice little hedge of pyrethrum. Can't do better than that, can yer? Geraniums in the centre,"—he drew a circle on the ground with the end of his stick, and prodded little holes here and there to illustrate his plan. "A nice patch of red, then comes yellar, then the blue, then the green. In circles or in rows, according as you please."
"I seem to have seen it somewhere! I have certainly seen it," mused Peggy solemnly, so solemnly, that the poor man took her words in good faith, and looked at her with wondering pity.
"I should say you 'ad! You couldn't travel far without seein' of 'em in the summer time. There's nuthin' else to see in a manner of speaking, for they all 'as 'em. 'Igh and low, gentle and simple."
"Then I won't!" quoth Peggy unexpectedly. "Henceforth, Bevan, when sightseers come to the neighbourhood, send them up to Yew Hedge to inspect the one garden in England which does not go in for bedding-out! If I want fireworks, I'll have them in gunpowder on the fifth of November, but not in flowers if I know it! It's an insult to Nature to rule a garden in lines and transform a bed into a mathematical figure!"
The old gardener looked at her more in sorrow than in anger, and shook his head dejectedly as he went back to his work. He had the gravest doubts about the sanity of a young lady who objected to "bedding-out;" but if Peggy gained no approval from him for her new-fangled notions, she reaped her reward in Rob's unaffected delight, when the conversation was detailed for his benefit.
"Bravo, Mariquita!" he cried. "I recognise in you the instinct of the true gardener—a rare thing, let me tell you, to find in a woman. Women like show and colour, a big effect, rather than interesting detail, but I'm thankful to find you are an exception. Come over to-morrow and see my garden! I keep a corner for myself at the end of the shrubbery, and forbid any of the men to touch it, and I flatter myself I have some treasures you won't find in any other garden in England. I brought them home from my travels, and have coaxed them to grow by looking after them myself and studying their little ways. They need a lot of care, and get sulky if they are not humoured, but it's the whole interest of gardening to master these little eccentricities."
"Just my sentiments!" cried Peggy; but when in due time Rob escorted her to see his precious garden, her face was blank with disappointment. Two straggling beds with a rockery filling up the corner, and scarcely a gleam of colour from one end to another! That at least was the effect from a distance, but as the proprietor pointed out his treasures, insignificant little blossoms were distinguishable among the greenery, and flowers the size of a threepenny piece were produced proudly from lurking-places and exhibited for admiration. They all came from some unheard-of spots at the other side of nowhere, had been reared with prodigious difficulty, and were of such rarity and value that the heads of public gardens had paid special pilgrimage to The Larches in order to behold them. Peggy's eyebrows went up in a peak, and her face lengthened, but it was no use, she could not be enthusiastic, could not even affect an interest in the struggling little lives.
After exclaiming: "How strange!" "How odd!" and "Fancy that!" a dozen times in succession, her very powers of exclamation seemed to depart, and she was reduced to sighs and grunts of response. In the middle of the history of a jungle plant which was the glory of the collection, Rob suddenly lifted his head and put a startling question:
"Are you interested? Do you care to hear about it?"
Peggy looked at him and made a little sign of apology.
"Not—much, Rob! It's curious, of course, but very 'niggly,' don't you think? It makes no effect at all in the bed."
Rob rose from his knees, flicked the dust off his trousers, and cleared his throat in that dry sepulchral manner which people adopt when they long to say something sharp and cutting, but are too high-minded to allow themselves to do so. Then he pushed his cap back from his head, whistled three bars of a popular tune, and said politely:
"There are some pink peonies coming out in the drive. Better come along and see them."
"Robert Darcy, I will—not—be—patronised!" cried Peggy, flashing indignant eyes upon him from the altitude of his highest waistcoat button. "Don't pink peony me, if you please! If it comes to a matter of taste, I prefer my own to yours. You have an interesting museum, sir, but, allow me to tell you, a most inadequate garden!"
Then Rob was obliged to laugh, and in that laugh lost the last trace of vexation.
"Sorry, Peg! I'm a crusty beggar, but it's your own fault if I expected too much. You were always so patient with my hobbies that I thought you would be interested in this too. I'll do penance for baring you by helping to arrange your garden in the way you do like. We'll draw out our plans together, or rather you shall give the orders, and I'll do the work. Any leading ideas to offer?"
"Harmony of colour, and sequence of effect. A constant succession of flowers, assorted as to size, and forming agreeable contrasts to their neighbours. No red and magentas next door to each other in my garden, thank you! Order in disorder, and every season well represented!"
"I see," said Rob gravely. "It's an admirable idea, Mariquita, admirable! We'll set to work at once. By means of digging up everything that is in the beds at present, working diligently, and waiting until you are old and grey-headed, there is no reason why you should not attain your ambition in the course of the next twenty years!"
But Peggy had no intention of waiting twenty years, or twenty months either. Immediate effect was what she demanded, and she said as much to Rob, and repeated the words with much emphasis, backing into a bed as she spoke, and trampling some cherished seedlings to pieces with her sharp little heels, whereupon Rob hastily called her attention in an opposite direction, and promised meekly to further her desire.
Not for worlds would she have acknowledged the fact to another, but as Peggy stood this afternoon surveying the empty beds before her, sundry prickings of conscience began to rise, lest perchance she had been too hasty in her decision to have naught to say to bedding-out plants. Something must be done, and that quickly, or she trembled to think what her friends and relatives would have to say upon the subject of the "finest garden in the county." With a vision of a prophetess she saw before her paths of green sward arched with roses, a lily garden, sweet and cool, and fragrant harmonies of colour massed against the trees; but these were in the future, and in the present there were only empty beds, with little sprigs of green peering up here and there through the dry caked soil.
"At least I can dig up the beds and get rid of the weeds, and then perhaps for this summer only we might take refuge in geraniums and begonias. Just for one summer, till something else will grow." She sighed, and set to work with her spade, giving it a push into the ground with her foot in professional style, and pausing to gasp and straighten her back between every second or third attempt. Astonishing what hard work it was, and how hot one got all of a sudden! Peggy gathered the weeds together, moralised darkly on their number, and set to work on the surrounding beds, digging so vigorously that in an hour's time she felt as if a week in bed would be barely sufficient to recoup her exhausted energies. Too weary to cross to a seat, she was holding on to her spade, and slowly straightening her back, when she became conscious that the foreman had approached from the house, and was regarding her with curious eyes.
"There's two pieces short of that there paper for the drawing-room," he announced. "I thought fourteen pieces would ha' done it; but it's been a mistake, it seems. 'Ave to get it made, I suppose, to finish the corner."
"Oh, how dreadfully, dreadfully tiresome! We will have to wait weeks and weeks before we can get it, and it will keep everything back."
Peggy wrung her tired hands and looked the image of despair.
"You said that you were sure fourteen pieces would be enough; and we told you at the time to be careful, as it had to be made!"
"Ay, it do seem a pity, don't it? They rarely ever gets it the same shade a second time," the man replied blandly. Then he jerked his thumb towards the flower-beds, and put a deprecatory question: "Didn't you like them, then? Wasn't they your fancy?"
"I don't know what you are talking about. Was what my fancy?"
"Those 'ere things as they put in yesterday. I thought, maybe, they was something special, from the care they took about 'em." He gave an explanatory kick with his foot to the weeds piled up on the gravel path, and there was a pause of two whole minutes before a weak little voice inquired faintly:
"Who took such care? Who put them in? I don't understand."
"The young master up at The Larches and one of his gardeners. They was here for a good two hours. We wondered to see you scratching them up. Joe says to me, he says, 'Go down and tell her,' he says. 'Oh,' I says, 'she knows what she's about!' I says. 'She's not the sort to do a trick like that,' I says."
Peggy's lips positively ached with the effort of twisting them into a smile.
"That was very kind of you," she said. "It would be a silly trick, would it not? Do you think you could boil the kettle for me now? I feel badly in need of some tea."
Rob received Peggy's confession of her latest gardening exploit with a roar of good-natured laughter. She had been afraid lest he might be angry, or—what would have been even worse—superior and forbearing; but he was neither the one nor the other. Such a genuine, Peggy-Pickle trick, he declared, was worth taking some trouble to enjoy, and went far towards consoling him for the advent of a fashionable young lady in the place of his mischievous little friend. His generosity was not sufficient, however, to prevent him from enlarging on the exceeding beauty of the seedlings which had been so ruthlessly disturbed, and Peggy listened in an agony to a string of names wherein syllables ran riot. Salpiglossis! Alas, alas! she had not the faintest idea what the flower was like, but the name was exquisite, all-satisfying. It rolled off her tongue with sonorous effect. To speak of it alone would have been joy. She looked so meek and wretched that Rob nerved himself to fresh efforts, and wrought miracles on her behalf, so that if by any chance she admired a plant in The Larches' garden, that plant was transplanted bodily to Yew Hedge, and smiled a welcome to her on her next approach.
The gardener pointed out the folly of moving plants in bloom, and prophesied failure; but no failure came, for plants have their likes and dislikes, like other living creatures, and there is no doubt that they are more amiably disposed to some people than to others. If another man had been rash enough to disturb their flowering, they would have sulked for the rest of the season, and made him suffer for his boldness; but no plant ever sulked at Robert Darcy. He had simply to lay it down in any spot he liked, and, behold, it grew and flourished! His fingers seemed to possess the power to impart health and strength, and, thanks to his care, Peggy soon felt safe from ridicule, at least on the score of her garden, and could devote herself with an easy mind to the work indoors. She experienced the usual string of aggravations which are known to every one moving into a new house; tradesmen took twice the allotted time to fulfil an order, and eventually sent home the wrong article; patterns selected were invariably "out of stock"; escapes of gas made it necessary to deface newly decorated walls; and effects which were intended to be triumphs of artistic beauty, turned out snares and disappointments. From the lofty frame of mind which aims at nothing short of perfection, Peggy subsided by degrees into that resigned melancholy in which the exhausted strugglers feel that "anything will do," if only, by chance, a house may be made fit to live in.
It was on the occasion of a final visit to town, two days before the removal, that Mrs Asplin surprised Peggy by expressing a desire to bear her company.
"I have several things to do, and I should like to go when I can have your help," she said; and the vicar's face instantly assumed an expression of the profoundest dejection. He knew that his wife's expeditions into town invariably demanded toll in the shape of a nervous headache the next day, and hastened to raise his usual note of protest. Why need she go? Could she not send her order by post, or could not Peggy buy what was wanted? Why tire herself needlessly, when she had no strength to spare? She knew very well—"How unwell I shall be!" concluded his wife for him with a laugh. "Really and truly, Austin dear, I want to do something this time that no one else can do for me. I'll promise to be careful, and drive about all the time, and get a good lunch."
"Penny omnibuses, and tea and scones! I know your days in town. Ah, well, a wilful woman must have her way! If you have made up your mind to go, it's no use arguing; but I don't know what it can be you need so badly. We seem to have everything we need."
"Blessed, blessed, ignorance of man!" cried Peggy, rolling her eyes to the ceiling. "It's all very well for you, sir, who can never wear anything but a black coat and hat, but consider the fascinations of summer fashions to poor defenceless women! Mrs Asplin and I want to look at the shops, and groan in chorus over all the distracting fripperies which we want so badly, and can't afford. We pretend we have weighty business; but that is the true explanation, isn't it, dear?"
"Oh yes—I love shop windows!" replied Mrs Asplin vaguely. She had wandered to the window, and stood looking out on to the garden, with her back turned to her companions. Peggy would have followed, but, on her approach, the other walked quickly forward and began stooping over the flower-beds, and snipping off the withered blossoms. For some reason it was evident that she did not wish to be followed, and Peggy felt an uneasy pang at the sight of her flushed, exhausted face. During her lengthened visit to the vicarage she had become more and more conscious of the lack of strength shown by the dear mistress of the house. Her spirit was as cheery as ever, but she no longer raced up and down in her old impetuous manner, but rather spent half her time resting on the sofa, with the busy hands lying idly on her lap.
She did not like to make any protest, since Mrs Asplin's mind was evidently set on going to town, but she privately registered a determination to charter a hansom by the hour, and see that the shopping expedition was conducted in the most luxurious manner possible.
It did not seem as if there was much to be done after all, for Peggy's business being concluded, her companion invested in a yard of ribbon, and some Berlin wool, and then pronounced her shopping finished.
"But there is something else I have to do, dear," she explained, catching the girl's glance of amazement. "The real reason why I came up to-day was to see a doctor. I did not wish to distress them at home, but I've not been feeling well, Peg; I have not been well for a long time. I have made an appointment with a doctor in Harley Street, and if you will go with me I'll be very grateful. I am not nervous, but—but it feels a little bit lonesome to go alone!"
She turned her face towards the girl and smiled at her, with sweet, tired eyes, and Peggy's heart gave a sickening throb of apprehension. She put out her hand and slid it lovingly through the other's arm.
"Of course I'll go, and proud that you ask me! Poor darling! so that is the way you do your shop-staring! It is just like you to allow yourself to be blamed, rather than give pain or anxiety. I thought you were looking ill, and am so glad you have made up your mind to consult a first-rate man. He will find out what is the matter, and put you right again in no time."
"He can't put new works into an old machine. Not even the cleverest doctor can do that. The springs are giving out, Peg, and I can only be repaired, not cured. I don't expect to be made well, but I want to keep going if possible, for the sake of Austin and the children. I have been intending to pay this visit for a year back, but I kept putting it off and off. I was afraid of what he might say."
"Nonsense! Afraid, indeed! He'll laugh at your fears, and give you a tonic which will make you perfectly well again."
Mrs Asplin smiled, and was silent. Twenty-one could not be expected to realise the weakness and pain which come as companions, and not as guests; the weakness which must grow greater instead of less; the pain which cannot be charmed away. It is not to be wished that it should, for youthful optimism has its own work to accomplish in the world; but it would tend to a better understanding between old and young, if the latter would remember that it is the lack of hope which makes the bitterest drop in the cup of age! To bear the weary ache, and know that it will grow worse; to feel one power after another slipping away, and to realise that it is for ever; to be lonely, and to see the loneliness closing in ever deeper and deeper. Ah, think of it, young impatient soul! Think of it and be tender, be loving! Spare not the sweet gift of sympathy. The time will come when you will long to have done still more.
Peggy held Mrs Asplin's hand in her own as they sat waiting together in the doctor's study, and kept her seat sturdily through the interview which followed. She felt instinctively that her presence was a support to her friend, and that the consciousness of her sympathy was a support during the trying ordeal. The doctor questioned, and the patient replied. He scanned her face with his practised eyes, felt her pulse, and produced a stethoscope from the table. Then for a time there was silence, while he knelt and listened, and listened again, and Peggy heard her own heart throb through the silence. He was an old man, with an expression full of that large tenderness which seems the birthmark of the true physician, and he lingered over his task, as if unwilling to face what lay beyond. At last he rose and laid the stethoscope carefully on the table, letting his fingers linger over the task. Peggy heard him catch his breath in a struggling sigh, and for a moment his eyes met her own, anxious and troubled.
"Well?" queried Mrs Asplin gently. "Well, tell me the verdict!"—and the doctor crossed the room again and seated himself by her side.
"My dear lady, you ask a hard question. It is difficult to say in a few words all that one thinks of a case. You are not strong; you need rest. I will prescribe for you, and see you again later on, and meanwhile I should like to see your husband, if he could have a talk with me here. There are certain rules which I should like you to observe, but we don't care to trouble patients with these matters. It is simpler and better to instruct their friends."
Mrs Asplin looked at him steadily, a smile lighting up her face.
"Ah, doctor, it won't do. You can't take me in at all!" she cried in her winsome Irish voice. "It's the truth I want, and no pretence. My husband believes that I am shop-gazing in Regent Street, and that's all he is going to hear about this visit. He is delicate himself, and puts an altogether exaggerated value on his old wife. Indeed, he'd worry us both to death if he knew I were ill. Don't be frightened to speak plainly. I am not a coward! I can bear the truth, whatever it may be. It is the heart that is wrong?"
"Yes," he said, and looked at her with kindly eyes. There was an invincible fascination about Mrs Asplin which strangers were quick to acknowledge, and it was easy to see that admiration and respect combined to make his task exceptionally trying. "Yes, the heart is very weak. It can never have been strong, I think, and you have not spared yourself. You are the kind of woman who has lived, in the fullest sense of the word; lived in every faculty—"
"Every single one, and I'm thankful for it! I've been so happy, so rich, so sheltered! Whatever happens now, I have been one of the most fortunate of women, and dare not complain. So tell me, please, what does it mean? To what must I look forward?"
"You must face the fact that you can no longer afford to live at full pressure. You must be content to let others work, and to look on quietly. I fear you must face increasing weakness and languor."
"And for—how long? My children are still young. I should like to see them settled. I should like to feel my husband had other homes open to him when he was left alone. If I am very careful—for how long?"
Peggy closed her eyes with a feeling of suffocation. The pulses in her ears were beating like hammers, the floor seemed to rock to and fro beneath her feet, and the doctor's voice sounded from an immense distance.
"Perhaps three years. I don't think more. If you ask me for an honest opinion, I should say probably three years—"
Three years to live, and then—death. Three years longer in that happy home, and then good-bye to all who loved her. Three years! Three years! The words repeated themselves over and over in Peggy's brain as she sat motionless in her chair, staring at the opposite wall. Outside in the street an organ was grinding out a popular air, the front door opened and shut, and footsteps passed along the hall, a little heathen idol upon the mantelpiece nodded his head at her in mocking fashion. Some one was talking at the other end of the room in a quiet, level tone, as if nothing extraordinary had happened. It was surely—surely not Mrs Asplin herself?
"Thank you! It is kinder to tell me the truth; but the time is shorter than I expected. I should like to ask one more question. Shall I be doing my husband a wrong in keeping this from him? Could he do anything to prolong my life? I am most anxious not to throw this shadow over our home; but if he could help in any way, it would, of course, be my duty to spare him the pain of knowing afterwards that more might have been done."
"He could do nothing except shield you from exertion, and that you can do for yourself. I should say, on the whole, that it would be better for you, even physically speaking, to secure the cheerfulness of surrounding that would come from ignorance, than to be continually reminded of yourself by the anxiety of your family. Remember always that you are your own best doctor! I have told you the worst, and now I may add that I have known people in as precarious a condition as yourself live twice, and even three times the time specified by their doctors. You know what is needful—a peaceful life without excitement; fresh air, rest, and, above all things, the specific which our Quaker friends have named for us, 'The quiet mind.'"
His voice dropped to a softened cadence as he spoke those last words, and the tears started in the listener's eyes.
"Yes—yes! I know. I'll remember that. Thank you, thank you for all your kindness!"
The eyes of doctor and patient met in a long, steady glance, which had in it a light, as of recognition. They were friends indeed, though they met for the first time to-day; for they were bound together by the closest of ties, in that they both served and trusted a common Master! In that moment, when as it seemed she stood upon the brink of death, Mrs Asplin's mind travelled with lightning speed over the years which had passed since she first gave herself and her concerns into the hands of her Saviour, and trusted Him to care for her in this world and the next. Had He ever failed her? A thousand times, no! Sickness, anxiety, even death itself, had visited her home, but the peace which was Christ's parting gift to His disciples had dwelt in her heart, and He Himself had never seemed so near as when trouble fell, and for a time hid the sun in the skies. If she had known beforehand that she was to lose her first-born darling, to spend long years in painful anxiety about her husband's health, and to see her children's future crippled for lack of means to give them the best opportunities, her heart would have sunk with fear, and she would have declared the trial too great for her strength; yet He had enabled her to bear them all, and with each fresh trial had given a fresh revelation of His mercy. She had submitted to His will, weeping, it may be, but without bitterness or rebellion, and the reward had come in the serene peacefulness which possessed her soul. Christ had done all this for her, and now in this latest trial she looked to Him to support and comfort to the end.
"Thank you, doctor," she murmured once more; and a moment later Peggy and Mrs Asplin were in the passage, following the old butler towards the door. It seemed years and years since they had paced it last, but nothing had changed. The man let them pass out without a glance in their direction, as though it were the most commonplace thing in the world for people to receive a death-warrant in the course of half an hour's visit. The pavement outside was flooded with sunshine, carriages were driving to and fro; two men walking along together broke into a peal of laughter as they passed; a newsboy shouted out some item of popular interest. Nobody knew, nobody cared! The great, noisy, cruel world jostled on its way as if such things as death and parting had no meaning in its ears. Peggy's young heart swelled with bitterness. She dared not speak to Mrs Asplin, dared not trust her own voice, but she drew the thin hand through her arm, and gripped it with passionate fervour. They walked on in silence the length of the block, then stopped instinctively, and exchanged a long, earnest look. Mrs Asplin's eyes were shining with a deep inward glow, the colour had come back to her cheeks, her expression was calm and peaceful.
"Peggy, child!" she exclaimed softly; "you are so white! This has been a strain for you, dearie. You must have lunch at once."
Even at this supreme moment of her life her first thought was for others, not herself!
The pre-occupation of Peggy's manner during the next week was easily attributed to the responsibility of superintending the settling down in the new house. From morning until night she was rushing about from one worker to another, planning, instructing, superintending, and when night came she crawled into bed, a weary, sore-footed little mortal, to fall asleep before her head well touched the pillow. The revelation of Mrs Asplin's danger lay like a shadow across her path, but beyond a few brief words in the train, the subject had never been mentioned between them after leaving the doctor's study.
"I hope I have not been selfish, Peggy, in taking you with me to-day," Mrs Asplin had then said anxiously. "I can only tell you that you have helped me greatly, and thank you with all my heart for your sympathy. Later on, dearie, we will have a talk together, and I will tell you what is in my mind; but first of all I must fight my own battles, and gain the prize of which the doctor spoke. 'The quiet mind,' Peg! When that comes, it will take away the sting!"
That was all, nor through the weeks that followed did ever a word or a look in the presence of her family betray the dread that lay at Mrs Asplin's heart. Peggy, running in and out of the vicarage, would always find a smile awaiting, and a cheery word of greeting. At first she felt awkward and constrained, but by degrees the first painfulness of the impression wore away, and with the natural hopefulness of youth it seemed that the doctor must have taken an unnecessarily gloomy view of the case, since a patient in so precarious a condition could surely not be so bright, so cheery, so interested in the affairs of others! On her first few visits to the vicarage, the girl had felt that it would be sacrilege to smile or jest as of yore, but it was impossible to keep up this attitude when Mrs Asplin herself sparkled into mischief and led the bursts of laughter. That dreadful half-hour grew more and more unreal, until at times it seemed a veritable dream.
A fortnight after the removal into Yew Hedge, a letter arrived from Mrs Rollo, inviting Peggy to come up to town on a two or three days' visit, to attend some festivities, and enjoy her brother's society. Arthur had not been able to leave town during the last few weeks, and the desire to see more of him, and to be able to help him if possible, were powerful inducements in his sister's mind. She anxiously considered if by any possibility the household could exist deprived of her important services, and slowly accepted the assurance that it could! The furniture had been arranged, pictures hung and re-hung, and what remained to be done in the way of blind-fitting, curtain-hanging, and the like, could surely be managed without the assistance of a master mind. She was sorry to leave the dear, new home, but three days would quickly pass, while, apart from the joy of seeing Arthur, it would be delightful to get to know something more about that baffling personage, Miss Eunice Rollo.
Eunice was at the station to meet her visitor, all propriety and polite condolence on the fatigue of the journey; and Peggy, never to be outdone in grandeur of diction, replied in Mariquita fashion, so that an elaborate conversation all about nothing was carried on throughout the drive home. Mrs Rollo was out, Arthur busy in the study, and three long hours loomed ahead before it would be time to prepare for dinner.
"This is dreadful! We seem to be beginning all over again, from the very first moment we met!" sighed Peggy to herself. "What on earth can I talk about next? If I could only make her laugh, we should get on better, but I can't be funny to order. At the present moment I have not a joke in my composition, and it's getting serious, for we have exhausted the weather and the miseries of removing into a new house, and the health of every single person we know. There's nothing for it but books! I'll turn her on to books, and dispute everything she says, and that ought to keep us going for an hour at least." She cleared her throat, and was just beginning an insinuating, "Have you read—" when she met an earnest look from the grey eyes, and Eunice said miserably:
"I know what you are thinking! I saw you looking at the clock. You don't know how to pass the time, or what to say next. I'm dreadfully sorry to be so stupid, but the more I want to talk, the more dumb I become. I can't describe the sensation, but perhaps you have felt it for yourself. Do tell me! Do you know what it is like to be shy? Did you ever feel it?"
Peggy cudgelled her brains, unwilling to admit that any human experience was beyond her ken, but no! not one single instance of the kind could she remember. She had felt lonely at times, silent and unsociable, but never shy! She shook her head.
"No—never! I love meeting strangers. It is like opening a new book. You can never tell what good friends you may become. When I meet some one for the first time, I look into her eyes, and say to myself—'What is she? Why is she? What does she think? Right away down at the bottom of her heart, what is she like? Do we belong to each other at all, or is there no single point where we can meet?' It is so interesting! I assure you I drove through the City the other day in an omnibus, and discovered an affinity on the opposite seat! We just looked at each other, and a sort of flash passed from her eyes to mine, and I said to myself, 'Oh, I do like you!' and I knew as well as possible that she was thinking the same of me. We never spoke, and may never meet again, but we were friends all the same, and when I went away I said in my heart, 'Good-bye, dear, good luck! So pleased to have met you!' At other times I've seen people—Gr-r-r!" she hitched her shoulders to her ears and spread out her hands in disgust, "quite respectable and ordinary-looking creatures, but there! I wouldn't touch them with the end of my umbrella!"
Eunice regarded her with pensive envy.
"Oh dear, I wish I felt like that! It would be like a book, as you say. I love reading, but I always think real life is so different."
"And so much better! It's true," cried Peggy ardently, "and the other is pretence. I think it's a glorious thing to live, and just most marvellously and wonderfully interesting. Why, think of it—every day is a mystery. You make your plans in the morning, but you know nothing of what may happen before night! People sigh and moan over the uncertainty of life, but that is ungrateful, for there are happy surprises as well as sad, and all sorts of pleasant things cropping up which one never expects. And it ought to go on growing more and more beautiful as we grow older, and can appreciate and understand."
"Yes," sighed Eunice softly. "Oh yes, and so it will—for you, Peggy, at least, for you have the gift of happiness. I feel things too, but I can't express my feelings. I want to act, and I hang back trembling until some one else steps forward. I try to speak, and my lips won't move. You don't know how dreadful it is to feel as if two iron bands were placed round your mouth and would not let you speak!"
Peggy laughed in conscience-stricken fashion.
"I—don't!" she cried comically, and her eyebrows went up in a peak. "I have a pretty considerable fluency of language, as an American cousin would say, and the worst of it is, I speak first and think afterwards! Your iron bands remind me of the man in the dear old fairy-tale who was under the spell of a wicked magician, and had iron straps bound round his heart. There was only one way in which they could be broken, and no one knew what it was, but one day a peasant woman took pity on his sufferings and tried to nurse him, and snap! one of the bands broke off and fell to the ground. Another time a little child brought him some food, and snap again! another disappeared. Last of all the beautiful princess chose him for her husband before all her rich suitors, and dropped two things upon his cheek—a kiss and a tear, and at that all the other bands broke at once, and he was free. Perhaps that story really meant that the man was shy and reserved, as you are, Eunice, and could never show his real self until he found friends to love and understand. I am not going to shed tears over you, my dear, but may I kiss you, please? You only shook hands when we met at the station."
Eunice rose up swiftly and knelt down at Peggy's feet. Her face was lifted to receive the offered kiss, and the flush upon her cheeks, the smile on her lips revealed such unexpected possibilities of beauty as filled the other with admiration. The features, were daintily irregular, the skin fine and delicate as a child's, the hair rolled back in a soft, smoke-like ripple. The two girls looked at one another long and steadily, until at last Eunice said falteringly:
"What do you see in my eyes, Peggy?" and Peggy answered promptly:
"I see a friend! Please let me go on seeing her. While I'm here, Eunice, give the carpet a rest and look at me instead. You can't deny that I'm better worth seeing."
"Oh, you are, especially when you pull faces!" responded Eunice unexpectedly. "Peggy, some day, when there is nothing else to do and you are not tired, will you imitate people for me again? Will you? Will you do Hector Darcy and Miss Asplin and your father when he is angry? I have never laughed as much in my life as when you imitated the National Gallery pictures, and Mr Saville says that these are even funnier. It must be delightful to be able to mimic people, if you are sure they won't think it unkind."
"Oh, but I invariably do it before them, and they don't mind a bit. It amuses them intensely, and it's such a joke to see their faces. They wear such a funny, sheepish, found-out sort of expression. Certainly, I'll give you a seance whenever you like. How would it be if I began by imitating Miss Rollo and the iron bands, welcoming a young friend from the country?"
Eunice gasped and fell back in her chair; whereupon, taking silence for consent, Peggy placed her cup on the table, and crossed to the end of the room, where she went through a life-like pantomime of the scene which had happened on the station platform an hour before. The bows, the hand-shakes, the strained smiles of greeting were all repeated, and two chairs being drawn together to represent a carriage, Miss Peggy seated herself on the nearer of the two, and went through so word- perfect a repetition of the real dialogue as left her hearer speechless with consternation. Eunice heard her own voice bleat forth feeble inanities, saw her lips twist in the characteristic manner which she felt to be so true, listened to Mariquita's gracious responses, and saw, (what she had not seen before), the wide yawns of weariness which Peggy averted her head to enjoy. The tremulous movement of her body grew more and more pronounced, until presently the tears were rolling down her cheeks, and she was swaying in her chair in silent convulsions of laughter. To see her laugh sent Peggy into responsive peals of merriment; to hear Peggy laugh heightened Eunice's amusement; so there they sat, gasping, shaking, no sooner recovering some degree of composure than a recurring chuckle would send them off into a condition more helpless than the last.
In the midst of one of these paroxysms the door opened, and Arthur stood upon the threshold transfixed with surprise. To see Peggy laughing was no uncommon circumstance, but it was a different matter where Miss Rollo was concerned. During the months which he had spent beneath her father's roof, Arthur had been sorry for the girl who was left to her own devices by her pre-occupied parents, and had thought how few pleasures she enjoyed, but had consoled himself by the reflection that she had little taste for the ordinary amusements of youth. Like a quiet little mouse she slipped in and out, never voluntarily opening a conversation, nor prolonging it a moment longer than was necessary. A struggling smile had seemed the height of merriment to which she could attain, so that to see the quivering shoulders and streaming eyes was indeed a revelation of the unexpected. Arthur's feelings were curiously contradictory at that moment. He was gratified at the tribute to his sister's fascination, and yet in some inexplicable manner conscious of a jarring note in his satisfaction. He himself had always been regarded as a sufficiently witty and interesting personage. How had it happened that he had failed where Peggy had succeeded?
When Eunice left the room to allow brother and sister to enjoy a confidential chat, the conversation soon drifted to the subject of her own personality.
"Why did you never tell me what a darling she was?" Peggy demanded. "I love her already, and I am going to love her a great deal more. She is just as sweet as can be, and here have you been living in this house for months, and never a word have you told me about her, except that there was a daughter, and that she was twenty-two. It's not like you to be so unappreciative, my dear! Don't you think she deserves more attention than that?"
"I don't think I thought much about her in anyway," replied Arthur, with that air of masculine superiority which never failed to rouse his sister's ire. "She seems a nice quiet sort of girl."
Peggy sniffed contemptuously, and tossed her head in the air.
"Nice quiet girl indeed! Is that your verdict? She is ch-arming, my dear, that's what she is, and as for looks—Well, she may not be striking to the casual observer, but if you take the trouble to look at her face, it's like a beautiful old miniature. Did you ever see anything like her eyelashes? They come half-way down her cheeks, and her eyes are the sweetest I have ever seen, except Mrs Asplin's."
"Eyes!" echoed Arthur vaguely. "Eyelashes! Really!—I'm afraid I have never noticed."
"Then please notice at once. It's time you did. Don't let me have a bat for a brother, if you please. Some people look so much at other people that they can't see the people who are staring them in the face!" cried Miss Peggy elegantly, whereupon Arthur suddenly discovered that it was time to dress for dinner, and hurried her upstairs to her own room.
On the night of Peggy's arrival in London, Eunice voluntarily made several remarks at the dinner-table; at breakfast next morning she took a distinct part in the conversation, and at lunch, meeting the roll of Peggy's eyes, she laughed aloud, nor seemed the least alarmed at the unexpected sound. Some one else was startled, however, and that was no less a person than her father himself, who stared over his spectacles with an expression which Peggy found it difficult to understand, for it was both grave and glad, troubled and gratified. She wondered if he approved of this unusual liveliness on the part of his quiet daughter, but her doubts were put to rest before many hours were over. She had dressed early for the garden-party to which she was invited in the afternoon, and was wandering up and down the drawing-room, coaxing on her gloves, and examining the different pictures and photographs on the walls, when Mr Rollo entered the room, and stood regarding her earnestly.
"I want to thank you, Miss Saville," he began at once, "for the good you have done my daughter. You have been with us only a few hours, but already I can trace a most happy effect. I have not seen her so bright and happy for many a long day. It has often pressed on my mind that the child suffered for the want of a companion of her own age, but it was difficult to find a remedy. Now, if by chance you were one of half-a- dozen daughters, we might have borrowed you from your parents, and kept you with us most of the year, but as it is, you are a ewe lamb, and I suppose no possible bribe—"
"Oh no! my price is above rubies!" cried Peggy, laughing; "but, Mr Rollo, I shall be delighted to visit Eunice from time to time, and I want her to come to me in return. I think we are going to be friends; I hope so, at least, for I have taken a desperate fancy to her, and I am rarely attracted by strangers!"
"She is a dear child, a good, unselfish child; but, alas, she has never been young! She needs rousing, and I think," said Mr Rollo, smiling, "I think you are the person to rouse her! I hope that you will see a great deal of each other in the future, in which case I shall owe a still larger debt of gratitude to your family than I do at present. I realise my good fortune every day in having your brother's services at my command, for he is worth all the secretaries I have had before rolled into one."
"Ah-h!" cried Peggy, glowing with delight. "Of course! I knew he would be. Whatever Arthur does, he does better than anybody else. He will be a great man yet, won't he? Oh, do say he will! It was such a terrible disappointment for me when he had to give up the Army, and my only consolation has been the belief that he would distinguish himself in some other sphere. You do really believe that Arthur will be great before he dies, don't you, Mr Rollo?"
The grave man smiled down very kindly into the eager, young face.
"It is not always the best men who make the greatest mark in the world, and 'greatest,' as you mean it, has many drawbacks, my dear. I should like to advise you not to set your heart on worldly distinctions, but I suppose if I did, you would put me down as a prosy old fellow, who did not practise what he preached, so I'll make you happy instead, by telling you that I also expect great things of your brother. He is one of the most brilliant young men of his day, and some time soon we will send him into the House, and give him a chance there. I don't wonder you are proud of him. I should have been proud indeed, if Providence had seen fit to grant me such a son!"
The sigh with which the sentence ended gave a clue to the bitterest disappointment of this man's life. It was an abiding regret that he had no son to follow in his footsteps, and to carry on the good old name; but he never suspected that his quiet little daughter had divined his disappointment at her sex, and that the consciousness thereof had been one powerful factor in damping her spirits. To know that we are a disappointment to our friends has a paralysing effect on our energies, and there are many people in the world who have failed simply from want of encouragement and appreciation. A word of honest praise is as good as a tonic, and it is too rarely spoken. We feel it our duty to find fault where blame is merited, but are not nearly so careful to acknowledge work well done, or to show our gratitude for services willingly performed.
Mr and Mrs Rollo loved their daughter dearly, but were too much engrossed in their different pursuits to pay her much attention, and believed that, being of a naturally reserved disposition, she would not value outward demonstrations; wherein they erred, for it is the dumb, silent folk who most appreciate warm-hearted words and actions. What a much brighter world it would be if we were more generous in this respect; how happy we might make our friends, if we gave them the benefit of our loving thoughts, instead of locking them tightly in our own breasts!
Eunice opened like a flower beneath the sunny influence of Peggy's presence, and drove off to the garden-party with an animation most unusual under the circumstances. Garden-parties were, as a rule, unmitigated bores, but this one would be an exception! Peggy would be there, and where Peggy moved fun and brightness followed in her footsteps; and Arthur had been despatched by Mr Rollo to take his place in escorting the ladies. Eunice was persuaded that no man in the world was nobler than her father, but, socially speaking, he had his defects! It was a little trying to go about with a man who spent his time discussing politics with other old gentlemen, forgetting all about the poor, shy little daughter, who languished in a corner, shivering with cold, or grilling with heat, as the case might be, and striving, oh, so vainly I to look as if she were enjoying herself. Nor was Mrs Rollo a great improvement on her husband, for she also was weighed down with the responsibilities of Guilds, Causes, and Charities, and invariably found a fellow-member of committee with whom to discuss knotty problems. This afternoon, as Eunice sat facing her mother in the carriage, she could see the nervous fingers pull at the ends of the gloves, and the lips move in mechanical rehearsal of her next address, but the sight gave her none of the usual forebodings, for this afternoon, at least, she need not dread desertion. Arthur and Peggy would be her companions, and never a word of politics or guilds need they speak, from the time they arrived until the time they came away! Eunice rambled about the beautiful grounds with the glee of a child escaped from school, and played the part of appreciative audience with an enthusiasm which could not fail to be inspiring to her companions.
Arthur looked into the smiling face, and listened to the low sweet laughter with the incredulous amazement of one who has suddenly received his sight after a spell of blindness. "Bat," indeed, Peggy had rightly named him, since he had lived for months in the same house as this delightful creature, and never realised her charm. When they were resting together on a garden bench under the shade of a tree, Arthur cast surreptitious glances at Eunice, and formed a new estimate of her attractions to take the place of the old. He understood little about dress, but he instinctively felt that the white frock was remarkably simple for the only child of such distinguished parents, and the simplicity was in accord with the pale, well-cut face whose chief characteristics were modesty and sweetness. A little white-gloved hand lay on her lap, and, as Arthur looked at it, a swift remembrance arose of the afternoon a few weeks back when he had seen that hand stretched out to comfort a companion in distress. His lip twitched beneath his moustache and his smile faded.
"Ah, well," he said to himself sadly, "we cannot all be alike; but it does one good to see her—dear, little, gentle thing! She'll make some one very happy some day, and he will think her beautiful, for he will see his home in her eyes."
He went off into a day-dream of his own, a troubled day-dream, poor fellow, as his day-dreams were apt to be at this time of his life; but his companions did not notice his adsorption, for one was listening rapturously, while the other entertained her with imaginary conversations supposed to take place between different members of the crowd by which they were surrounded. That she could hear no word of what was being said, was but an added stimulus to Miss Peggy's inventive genius, and so aptly did her dialogues follow the expressions and gestures of the strangers that Eunice shook from head to foot in irrepressible enjoyment.
"Goodness, Clementina, here's that impossible Mrs Jones! I thought we had avoided her so successfully. Must speak now, I suppose. There's no way of dodging her. 'Dear Mrs Jones, how do you do? Such ages since we met. Is this your daughter? Grown out of knowledge! It seems but the othah day she was a little girl in short frocks. Quite impossible, don't you know, to associate you with a grown-up daughter! Sorry to hurry on, but really—so many friends!' Oh, there's Lord Algernon Fitznobody coming down that path! Don't let him pass! Waggle your parasol, Clementina! Cough! Sneeze! Do something to make him see us! 'Don't you remember me, Lord Algernon? How quite too naughty of you! Mrs Ponsonby de Tomkins, whose purse you picked up in the railway station in Lausanne. I have heard so much of you since then, for my sister's aunt's cousin's husband is quite an intimate friend of dear Lady Fitzroy—' Well, really, Clementina, he need not have rushed away in such a hurry! He seemed very distrait. He was looking round for somebody else all the time. Now, see, he is hurrying off to meet her. Ah-h!"
The deep exclamation of understanding was uttered in the speaker's natural voice, as, following the direction of the good lady's glance, Peggy suddenly divined the reason of "Lord Algernon's" pre-occupation. Rosalind Darcy was approaching, surrounded by the usual bevy of admirers, her parasol tilted over her shoulder, and her lips curved into a smile of artificial sweetness. It was easy to see that her affectation of interest in what was being said was of the thinnest possible description and Peggy wondered what could be the reason of her ill-humour, but only for a moment, for presently Rosalind's eyes wandered to the bench under the trees, and in a flash the sunshine came back into her face.
"She was looking for Arthur! She thought he was not here!" Arthur's sister said jealously to herself; and the next moment Rosalind was hurrying towards them, leaving the discarded admirers to digest their rebuff as best they might. Nothing could have been sweeter or more winsome than her greeting of her friends, but Arthur responded to her advances with a coldness which astonished his companions. They had not been present the night before, when Miss Darcy had found it convenient to ignore his presence, and to forget a promise given to him because a more distinguished partner had appeared on the scene. Arthur's pride in himself was by no means of the overweening description affected by his small sister, but he had too much self-respect to accept a smile one day at the expense of a snub the next, and Rosalind was given to playing fast and loose with her friends. It was true, she invariably repented herself of her rudeness, and endeavoured to make a gracious atonement, but it was becoming more and more difficult to appease Arthur's wounded dignity, and to-day she felt an unaccustomed thrill of nervousness at the sight of his grave, stern face.
"Arthur, come and walk wound with me!" she commanded with an unaccustomed note of timidity mingling with the imperious young voice. "I want to talk to you. Those widiculous men have been boring me to distwaction, and I want to hear about Yew Hedge. Take me into the wose garden, and tell me all about Yew Hedge."
"Peggy can do that better than I, Rosalind. I have been down only for a few hours. We will all walk round together, and Peggy can give you the interesting details."
He stepped to Eunice Rollo's side as he spoke, and, addressing a remark so pointedly to her that it could not be answered by another, led the way forward in the direction indicated. Rosalind could have borne the rebuff more complacently if he had followed in the rear, when she could have played off her little airs and graces for his benefit, but to choose another girl before herself, and then to walk on ahead, without even troubling himself to see if she followed—this was too much for her composure. Her face clouded over, and though she made a valiant effort to preserve her composure, it was in vain, and she was glad to find an outlet for her irritation in pettish complainings.
"How I do detest garden-parties! Of all the senseless, dead-alive entertainments they are the worst. Evewy fwesh one is worse than the last."
"Why don't you stay away, then? The remedy is in your own hands," retorted Peggy coolly; but at this Rosalind's ill-humour broke out in another direction.
"Peggy Saville, I think it is vewy mean and unkind of you to wefuse to visit me when I asked you, and then to wush up from the countwee to stay with new fwiends who have not half the claim upon you that I have. If you would go to the Wollos', why not to me?"
"Because you did not ask me at the same time. A month ago it was impossible for me to get away, and even now I am here for three days only. I don't wish to appear unfriendly, Rosalind, but—"
"But you feel it," replied Rosalind, her voice changing suddenly into a note of honest pathos. "Oh yes, Mawiquita, you are no better at pwetending than you used to be, and I know quite well that you don't appwove of me. I hate myself too, and twy to be diffewent, but it is no use, circumstances are too stwong for me. But it's not the way to make me better, Peggy Saville, to toss your head at me, and tweat me as if I were beyond all hope of reformation."
"Rosalind—oh!" Peggy was breathless with consternation. It was a horrible accusation, and the worst of it was that conscience told her that it was true. She stared with penitent eyes into the accusing face, nodded her head once or twice, and said with conviction:
"I'm a little wretch! Who am I, I should like to know, to judge another girl? Dear old Rosalind, snub me all you can, and take no notice of my airs. I'm not good enough to help you, I'm afraid, but I can't help loving you, you dear, beautiful thing, and wishing to make you happy!"
"But, oh, Peggy, I'm misewable! I'm abjectly misewable!" sighed Rosalind in return. She gave a glance around, to make sure no one was within ear-shot, and then continued rapidly, "All my life long I've been bwought up to look forward to this time, and to work and plan and pwepare for it. Mother talked as if it would repay me for all my pains, but I've been out thwee seasons now, and I'm tired to death of the everlasting wound. I get so cross and irritated and weary of it all. I don't think I have ever been so misewable in my life as duwing the last year!"
Peggy looked at her thoughtfully. At the moment Rosalind looked dismal enough, but recalling the occasions when she had seen her in society, Peggy could not honestly say that "wretched" was the word which best described her demeanour. On the contrary, a most well-satisfied and complacent young woman had she appeared, and Miss Peggy shrewdly suspected that the present distaste was but a transient emotion.
"If you are so tired of it, why don't you go down to the country, or join your mother abroad?" she inquired with a stern directness which her companion found somewhat embarrassing.
She shrugged her shoulders and gave a little impatient laugh.
"Because I should like that worse! I am bored to distwaction in the countwy, and poor dear mother would worry herself to death if I left town just now. She is as ambitious as ever, and will be tewwibly disappointed if I don't make a bewilliant match before the end of the season. She is expecting the news of my engagement by evewy letter, and is working herself up to a fever of anxiety as the time goes by—"
"And is there—is there some one in particular whom she expects you to marry?" queried Peggy calmly. Her heart had given a throb of nervousness at the introduction of the subject, and she had instinctively lifted her eyes to glance at the handsome figure a few yards ahead, but her pride would not allow her to show her discomfiture. No one would have suspected that a personal interest lay behind the nonchalant question.
"Oh, of course there are sevewal!" admitted Rosalind naively, "but just now there is a Special Somebody! Title, estate, family, diamonds, all complete, just the vewy parti mother had hoped for ever since I was born. He has spoken to father alweady, and is going to pwopose to me the first opportunity he gets. I know it quite well. Don't you always know, Peggy, when they are twying to speak out?"
"Always!" repeated Peggy, with a little gasp of dismay. "That's too wholesale a word for me, Rosalind! The only experience of the kind I have had happened in India, and I was entirely unprepared, for, as a matter of fact, I cherished a profound aversion for the victim! I didn't dislike him afterwards, though! I was so grieved for the poor fellow's distress, so grateful to him for liking me so much, that I felt quite tenderly towards him. It was the most unpleasant experience I have ever had, and I want only one more proposal—one to which I can say, 'Yes, please!' and settle down in peace and comfort. Do you care enough for the parti to be able to say, 'Yes, please!' to him, Rosalind?"
"I don't dislike him. He is good-looking, and not nearly so stupid as many of the men one meets. Sometimes I think I could get on with him reasonably well, but at other times I can't—I weally can't face it! Then I keep out of his way, and am cold and weserved, and twy to put it off a little longer. But it will come, I know it will! I shall have to face it soon, and I feel as I used to do when I was a child and had a visit to the dentist before me. I twy to forget it, and be happy, but evewy now and then the wemembwance comes back like a sudden pain, and catches my bweath. Oh, Peggy, isn't it difficult—isn't it twying? Aren't you sowwy for me?"
"No!" said Peggy Saville stoutly. "Not a mite!" She lifted her head and looked the other squarely in the face. Her eyes were astonishingly bright, and there was a patch of colour on each cheek. "Pray, why should I be sorry? If you look upon the question as a pure matter of business, I cannot see that you deserve any sympathy. I am sorry for him! He seems to be an extremely good bargain, and it is hard on him to be regarded in the light of a disagreeable necessity. I suppose he is devoted to you, and hopes, poor wretch! that you are going to accept him for himself. For you will accept him, Rosalind! That's certain. You may imagine that you have not made up your mind, but you have! You could never have the courage to give up all those good things. Why should you, indeed? They mean more to you than anything else. You would never feel any temptation to love a man who was not rich!"
Peggy spoke in crisp, stinging little sentences, her distress on her brother's account goading her into unusual bitterness; but she was entirely unprepared for the result of her words, stricken dumb by the sight of Rosalind's pale glance of reproach, the sudden rush of tears to the eyes. Broken words struggled for utterance, but she could only distinguish, "Unjust! Untwue!" before, as Fate would have it, the couple in front wheeled round, and came back to join them.
"I wanted to know which way you would prefer to take—" began Arthur, and then stopped short, horrified at what he beheld. Something that Peggy had said had touched Rosalind on a tender point, for having once broken down, she found it impossible to control her distress, and though she had lowered her parasol so as to form a shield between herself and the passers-by, she made no attempt to hide from Arthur, but stood gazing at him like a lovely, distressed child, with lips a-quiver, and eyes all drowned in tears. He seized her hand with an impulsive gesture, and questioned her rapidly as to the cause of her distress. His voice vibrated with tenderness, and Rosalind clutched his arm with nervous fingers, and stammered pitiful explanations.
"Peggy—oh, so cruel! So unkind! I asked her advice, and she said—she said—such cruel things!"
Arthur cast one glance at his sister, and then appeared unconscious of her presence. A group of visitors was approaching, and his great desire was to take Rosalind into some quiet corner of the grounds, where she could have an opportunity of recovering her self-possession without being observed by curious eyes.
"Come with me!" he said gently. "Come down this path to the end of the shrubbery. If you are in trouble, can't I help you, Rosie? Won't you let me try?"
They disappeared from sight, and Peggy walked on in the opposite direction, her face white and set. The iron had entered into her soul, for oh, that glance—that glance of cold anger and reproach! Could it indeed have come from Arthur—Arthur, who never looked at her in anger before—Arthur, between whom and herself there had never hovered a shadow of a cloud in all their happy, loving lives? A stranger had complained of her, and he had accepted the complaint without giving her an opportunity of justifying herself! Another girl in Peggy's position might have blamed Arthur in return, and regarded herself as a martyr, but that was not Peggy's way. Far harder to bear than her own smart would have been the necessity of admitting a flaw in her idol. Her one desire was to justify Arthur, and place him beyond the reach of blame. Before she had taken twenty steps forward, she was saying brokenly to herself:
"Yes, I deserved it! It is easy to be sharp, and say cutting things at another person's expense. I had the chance of speaking kindly, and of helping her to a better decision, but I let it go, and gave her a sneer instead. I deserved it, Arthur dear! I did deserve it, but oh! you must forgive me soon. It's like red-hot knives sticking into my heart to think that you are angry with me!"
But Arthur was not thinking about Peggy. He was standing beside Rosalind at the end of the shrubbery, his eyes shining, his face beautified by a great tenderness.
"Now, Rosie!" he cried, "now! Tell me all about it!"
Rosalind gave a little sob and flicked her handkerchief across her eyes.
"Peggy thinks I am worldly," she said brokenly, "and when I twy to confide in her, she puts her head in the air and looks as if she had no patience to listen. She says cwuel things!"
"I'm sorry, Rosalind, and so will she be herself, when she has had time to think. Peg is a hasty little mortal, but you know how loving and staunch she is, and I am sure she had not the remotest intention of wounding you. What was it all about? What was the subject under discussion?"
But at this Rosalind blushed and hesitated. A problematical marriage was no easy matter to explain to Arthur Saville, yet mingled with her embarrassment was a strange eagerness to hear what he would have to say on the subject. Never once in all these years had a word of love passed Arthur's lips, but Rosalind was too experienced a woman of the world to be in any doubt as to his sentiments. She knew that he loved her, and had been grateful to him for the reticence which made it possible to continue on terms of friendship, but at this crisis of her life the old friendship seemed insufficient, and her heart went out to Arthur in a rush of love and longing.
"I asked her advice about—accepting Lord Everscourt!" she said, faltering; and there was a moment's silence before Arthur replied quietly:
"I see! Just so. And Peggy said?"
"She said she was sowwy for him, not me. She said that I looked upon it as a business arrangement, and seemed to think that I could never really care for any man."
"And was she misjudging you? Do you care for Lord Everscourt, Rosie?"
She shook her head at him with a soundless movement of lips shaped to pronounce a "No."
"But he is a good fellow, I am told, and devoted to you. I don't agree with Peggy on this question, Rosalind. You have been brought up to value certain things so highly that you cannot be happy without them, and if you meet an honest English gentleman who can give them to you, and love you sincerely into the bargain, I believe that it would be your best chance of happiness. If you can esteem and respect him, love would probably follow."
Rosalind dropped her eyes and stood before him drooping and silent. This was not what she had expected to hear. Never in her most despondent moods had she believed it possible that Arthur Saville would advocate her marriage with another; never had she believed that he could listen unmoved to such a suggestion! The pain at her heart forced her into speech, and the words faltered forth with unconscious self- betrayal.
"No, I could never love him. It's impossible! I have no love to give."
"You mean—" began Arthur, and then stopped short, for Rosalind had lifted her eyes to his in a long, eloquent glance, and in that moment there were no secrets between them. Rosalind realised the patient, self-sacrificing love which had kept silence for her sake, and Arthur Saville knew that all that was best in Rosalind Darcy's nature was given to him, and that he held the key to the poor starved citadel of her heart.
"Oh, Rosie!" he cried brokenly, "is it really so? Am I the happy man, dear? Do you mean that you care for me instead—that that is the reason why you cannot love him?"
"Always, Arthur, oh, always!" whispered Rosalind brokenly. "Ever since I was a child! I have twied to get over it, but it is no use. I think of you all the time; I enjoy nothing if you are not with me. I have behaved badly to you often, but I have suffered for it afterwards. I have lain awake cwying half the night when you have been vexed with me and have gone away without saying good-night."
"Poor child!" sighed Arthur softly. His face was pale, and wore a troubled expression, very different from that of the ordinary happy lover who has just listened to such a speech from his lady's lips. "And I have loved you, too, Rosalind; but I never intended to let you know it. Perhaps I was wrong, but I doubted my own powers of making you happy, and thought the best thing I could do for you was to stand out of the way. But the case is altered now. You love me, and that lays a new duty on us both. The question is—how much do you love me, Rosie dear? How much are you prepared to give up for my sake? I am a poor man, and have my way to make. In ten—a dozen years from now, if I am alive and well,"—Arthur squared his shoulders and drew himself up with an air of a man who has a justifiable confidence in his own powers—"I shall have made a position for myself which will be worth your acceptance; but we must realise what ten years means. In ten years, sweetheart," he looked at her with a smile so tender that her eyes fell before his, "you will be young no longer. You will have passed the best years of your life. Could you bear to pass them as the wife of a poor man, living in a small house, without any of the luxuries and pleasures to which you are accustomed? Do you love me enough to do it willingly? I'd work with the strength of ten men, but I have had more experience of the world than you, dear, and I know that success cannot come in a day. With all my love and all my care, I could not shield you from the waiting which must come first."
"But—but—" faltered Rosalind, and was silent. The matter-of-fact manner in which Arthur had followed up the mutual declaration of love by a proposal of marriage had filled her with consternation. She did love him, oh yes! If he had been in Lord Everscourt's position, how gladly she would have been his wife! but his picture of the life which the must share if she joined in her lot with him sent a chill of dismay through her veins. Ten years of poverty and obscurity, ten years' work and waiting, with no possibility of success until youth and beauty had fled, and she was an uninteresting, middle-aged woman! Rosalind shivered at the thought, and summoned up courage to protest once more.
"It is so sudden, Arthur, that I don't know what to say. I was never sure until now that you weally did care for me. And to talk of being mawwied so soon—at once!"
"What else can we do? When you tell me that other men wish to marry you, you cannot wonder that I want to claim you as my own. You are troubled about Lord Everscourt, but if you were engaged to me the matter would settle itself dear, and it would be the best way out of the difficulty. I will speak to your father at once, and—"
"No, no!" she cried quickly, so quickly and with such an emphasis of denial that Arthur looked at her in wonder. "You must not do that. I won't allow it. He is waiting for me to give an answer to Lord Everscourt, and he would be so upset and distwessed. He likes you, and so does mother, but—Oh, you know how it is! You know what they want! You know how disappointed they would be!"
"Yes, I know, and I should be sorry for them, for it would be a reasonable disappointment. You are their only daughter, and from their point of view Everscourt can do better for you than I; but, my darling, in this matter you must think first of yourself! It is your life that is at stake, and it is for you to choose whether you prefer love or riches. Your parents will bow to your decision, for they love you too much to destroy your happiness. Your mother would feel it most, but I would do my best to reconcile her to the disappointment, and as for your dear, good father, there is one thing which would grieve him infinitely more than the loss of a brilliant marriage. Can you guess what it is, Rosie?"
"No," she said, "no," but her eyes drooped, and she fidgeted uneasily with the handle of her parasol. Arthur laid one hand over hers with a quick pressure, and, despite its firmness, his voice was very gentle as he replied:
"Yes, you do, dear. You guess what I mean. He would rather see you married to me than know that you had deliberately sold yourself for money while your heart was given to another man. In the one case he would admire your sincerity, in the other he could feel neither admiration nor respect, nothing—it seems to me—but shame and humiliation!"
Rosalind drew in her breath with a deep inhalation. It was true, and she knew it was true! Lord Darcy had never failed to hold the highest ideals before his daughter, and it would be a bitter grief to him if she condescended to an unworthy choice. Already, in imagination, she could see the shadow fall across the tired old face, and she shivered as if in pain, for her father's respect and good opinion were very precious in her eyes. Many a time in days gone past had the fear of his disapproval held her back from a foolish action, and, in this crisis of her life, it was more than ever necessary to her peace of mind to retain his approval. She stood hesitating and trembling, and, unseen to mortal eyes, the good angel of Rosalind Darcy's life stood by her side at that moment and whispered counsel in her ear. The worldly motives seemed to disappear, she looked in Arthur's face and saw, waiting for her, love and tenderness, with such joy of congenial companionship as for the moment eclipsed every other consideration. Oh, surely no life was worth having compared with one spent with him! Her mind ran swiftly over a dozen possibilities, and in each found a happy solution. Whatever happened, she could not fail to be content if Arthur were near. He was so good, so strong, so radiant, that his very presence was a guarantee of happiness, of something more than happiness, for, with all his brightness of manner, there was an underlying nobility in Arthur Saville's character which Rosalind recognised and longed after in the depths of her vacillating heart. She could be a better woman as his wife than in any other sphere in life; if she rejected him, she would reject also her own best chance of becoming a good woman. She knew it, and a little chill, as of fear, ran through her veins as she acknowledged as much to herself, for at the bottom of her heart she knew something else also. She knew that when it came to the point she had no intention of marrying Arthur Saville. It was sweet to look into his face and dream for a moment of what might be, but the chains of the world were too heavy to be broken; the prize for which she had longed was within her grasp, and she could not throw it aside. The good spirit spread her wings and flew sadly away, for when a human being sees with clear eyes the opening of the roads, and deliberately turns in the wrong direction, the angel who must then step forward to bear her company is no longer white-robed, but wears a weary countenance and sombre garment. Sometimes we call her Pain, and sometimes Experience, and there is no welcome waiting for her where she goes, though sometimes, looking back over the years, we bless her in our hearts, and realise that she has taught us lessons which her bright-robed sister was powerless to instil.
The shadow of future suffering seemed already on Rosalind's beautiful face as she raised it to Arthur's, and cried tremblingly:
"Arthur, I cannot! I love you dearly, but I cannot face it! Evewy one would be so surpwised—so astonished! They would laugh at me behind my back, and mother would bweak her heart—and—and—oh, I couldn't bear to give up so much! I could not be happy seeing other people doing things, and not being able to do them myself. I could not endure to be poor. If you were even a little better off, I might wisk it, but it is such a long, long time to wait. Ten years! And, after all, it is not certain. You might not succeed even then!"
"No, nothing is certain, not even the success of a worldly marriage, Rosalind! Health may go, riches may take wings and fly away. Suppose you married Everscourt, and one of these two things came to pass, where would your happiness be then? There is only one thing which can be trusted to remain unchanged, and that is the right sort of love. I could have given you that love, Rosalind, if you had cared enough in return to trust yourself to me, but I will not persuade you against your will. I have an uphill fight before me, and I want a wife who will help me by her faith, not drag me back by her complaining. I was right in believing that such a poor thing as my love could have no power with you against other attractions."
A note of bitterness rang in Arthur's voice, despite his effort to restrain it, and Rosalind winced, and held out her hands with a gesture of protesting pain.
"You don't understand! You will never understand, and I can't explain. I can't justify myself, Arthur, or expect you to forgive me, but twy at least to think of me as kindly as you can. I may not be able to care for any one in the way you do, but at least I have cared for you most! I could never be happy again if I thought I had bwoken your heart."
"You have not broken it, Rosalind," said Arthur quietly. "If you had loved me truly, and I had lost you, it would have been another matter, but you have never been mine even in imagination. I could not help loving you, but there was no hope in my love, only the shadow of this end hanging over all. Now at last the bolt has fallen, and I have to face the worst. That is all!"
"But you won't—you won't do anything rash?" gasped Rosalind, the sight of the set face sending a dozen wild thoughts of suicide, emigration, and the like through her foolish brain. "Pwomise me, pwomise me, to be careful of yourself! Oh, Arthur, tell me, what do you mean to do?"
Arthur Saville drew himself up with the old soldierly gesture, and the flash came back to his eyes.
"Do!" he cried. "Bury the past and begin afresh, Rosalind! This is my second defeat in life, but I'll go on fighting. I'll win my victories yet!"
Rosalind Darcy looked at him and was silent. He was speaking the truth, and she realised it, as any one must have done who saw the young fellow at that moment, and noted the strength and determination of the handsome face. Arthur Saville was not a man whose life could be wrecked by a woman's folly; there was a future before him, and the time would come when those who loved him would glory in his achievements.
In one of the bitterest moments of her life Rosalind Darcy realised that when this time arrived, she herself would have neither part nor lot in his successes!
When Peggy was dressing for dinner that evening a knock came to her door, and Arthur's voice demanded entrance. She flew to meet him, and felt her spirits go up at a bound at the sight of his smile.
"Have you come to say you have forgiven me?" she asked, linking her arm in his, and shaking back the mane of hair which fell over the white dressing-gown. "I am so thankful to see you, for I am appallingly hungry, and yet to eat a crumb while you were still angry with me, would have been a moral impossibility. I did not know how to get through dinner."
"Angry! When was I angry? I was never angry with you, Peggy kins, that I know of!"
"Oh, Arthur! This very afternoon. A most lacerating glance. It cut into me like knives."
Arthur laughed; a short, half-hearted laugh which ended in a sigh.
"Oh, is that all? I was annoyed for a moment, but it seems a small cause for so much emotion. Can't you bear even a glance of disapproval, young lady?"
"No, I can't! Not from people I love, for I do love them so badly, that there's no peace or comfort for me unless they are pleased with me in return. I am not blaming you, dear, but it was the first time, you see, that you have ever taken part against me."
"Ah, well, it won't happen again; it's the last time as well as the first!" sighed Arthur wearily. "I came to tell you, Peg, that Rosalind and I have come to a definite understanding. You knew so much that it is only fair that you should know the whole. You will soon be asked to congratulate her on her engagement to Lord Everscourt."
Peggy marched to the other end of the room, aimed a deliberate blow at an unoffending wicker work-table and hurled it to the ground. She glared with an expression of savage satisfaction at the miscellaneous articles scattered broadcast over the floor, curled her lips scornfully at her own reflection in the glass, and finally walked back to Arthur's side, and exclaimed in a tragic voice:
"I knew it! I knew it was coming! She affected to ask my advice, but I told her it was waste of time, as she had really made up her mind what she meant to do. Then she began to cry, and said I was cruel, and went away with you so willingly that I thought perhaps, after all, I had judged too quickly, for she does care for you, Arthur, I know she does! She could not deny that, I suppose?"
"No, she did not deny it. She loves me in her own way, but it's not my way, Peg—or yours! She would have been happy with me if I had been rich, but she is not prepared to make any sacrifices on my account, and would rather give me up than live a quiet, restricted life. She does not even understand how much she is losing, poor girl, or how little satisfaction she will get in return!"
Peggy set her lips tightly.
"No, she does not understand, and that makes one sorry for her, for she misses just the best thing in life. I used to think when I was a child that the thing I wanted most was for people to love me—not in an ordinary, calm, matter-of-fact sort of way, you know, but to love me frightfully, and care for me more than any one else in the world! I used to put myself to any amount of trouble to be agreeable, for even if I did not care for a person myself, it worried me to death if that person were not devoted to me! There were thirty-six girls at school besides the governesses, so you may imagine how exhausting it was to be nice to them all. Well, I've come to the conclusion that it's a mistake. It's sweet to be loved, but it's ever so much sweeter to love. It is so inspiring to forget all about one's tiresome little self, and care more for somebody else. When I love people, I feel," Peggy threw back her head and expanded her little shoulders with a terrific breath, "omnipotent! There is nothing I could not be or do or suffer to help them. The more they need from me the happier I am. Don't you know how you feel after listening to a beautiful sermon—that you really wish something disagreeable would happen, to give you an opportunity of behaving well and being sweet and unselfish? Well, that's just how one feels in a lesser way to the people one loves on earth. It's how I feel to you at this moment, Arthur darling, when I know you are suffering. I wish I could take all the misery and bear it for you. Is your heart quite broken, you dear old lad?"
"No, Peg, it is not. I feel miserable enough, but I don't delude myself that I have received a life-long wound. It has been a dream, you know, a schoolboy's dream, but I always realised that the princess was not for me. She is so lovely that one's heart goes out to her instinctively, but it never seemed possible to think of her as a part of my work-a-day life. It's dreary work walking in the cold grey light and realising that the dream is over, but I shall pull myself together as time goes on, and make the best of what remains."
"You will be surprised to discover how much that is! There are many people left who love you and long to make you happy, and in time to come you will be thankful that things are arranged as they are. There are dozens of other girls who are far better worth winning—"
"But I don't happen to want them! That makes all the difference!" sighed Arthur sadly. "Ah, Peg, it is easy to be philosophical for another person. I could offer volumes of common-sense consolations to another fellow in my position, but they fall very flat when it comes to one's own turn. It is impossible to judge for another person."
"Yet onlookers see most of the game, and no one could know you and Rosalind, and not feel that you were a thousand times too good for her! Think of mother! Think of Mrs Asplin! Compare her with them, and you will see how different she is. I can quite understand your feelings, for she fascinated me, too, and, however stern I mean to be, I have to give in when she takes the trouble to smile upon me; but one wants something more than pretty ways, and she would have disappointed you, Arthur, I know she would! You would have found her empty-headed and unsympathetic just where you needed sympathy most."
"Ah, well, well, we won't discuss her any more. It is not our business. If you want to please me, Peg, you will be as friendly as possible when you meet. She will have her own troubles to bear, poor girl, and it will be all the easier for you, since you believe that I have had a fortunate escape."