Now as youth and vigour thus struggled against Law for life, near at hand Death was busy with toil and disease. In a miserable grabat, or garret, a mechanic, yet young, and stricken by a lingering malady contracted by the labour of his occupation, was slowly passing from that world which had frowned on his cradle, and relaxed not the gloom of its aspect to comfort his bed of Death. Now this man had married for love, and his wife had loved him; and it was the cares of that early marriage which had consumed him to the bone. But extreme want, if long continued, eats up love when it has nothing else to eat. And when people are very long dying, the people they fret and trouble begin to think of that too often hypocritical prettiness of phrase called "a happy release." So the worn-out and half-famished wife did not care three straws for the dying husband, whom a year or two ago she had vowed to love and cherish in sickness and in health. But still she seemed to care, for she moaned, and pined, and wept, as the man's breath grew fainter and fainter.
"Ah, Jean!" said she, sobbing, "what will become of me, a poor lone widow, with nobody to work for my bread?" And with that thought she took on worse than before.
"I am stifling," said the dying man, rolling round his ghastly eyes. "How hot it is! Open the window; I should like to see the light-daylight once again."
"Mon Dieu! what whims he has, poor man!" muttered the woman, without stirring.
The poor wretch put out his skeleton hand and clutched his wife's arm.
"I sha'n't trouble you long, Marie! Air—air!"
"Jean, you will make yourself worse—besides, I shall catch my death of cold. I have scarce a rag on, but I will just open the door."
"Pardon me," groaned the sufferer; "leave me, then." Poor fellow! perhaps at that moment the thought of unkindness was sharper than the sharp cough which brought blood at every paroxysm. He did not like her so near him, but he did not blame her. Again, I say,—poor fellow! The woman opened the door, went to the other side of the room, and sat down on an old box and began darning an old neck-handkerchief. The silence was soon broken by the moans of the fast-dying man, and again he muttered, as he tossed to and fro, with baked white lips:
There was no resisting that prayer, it seemed so like the last. The wife laid down the needle, put the handkerchief round her throat, and opened the window.
"Do you feel easier now?"
"Bless you, Marie—yes; that's good—good. It puts me in mind of old days, that breath of air, before we came to Paris. I wish I could work for you now, Marie."
"Jean! my poor Jean!" said the woman, and the words and the voice took back her hardening heart to the fresh fields and tender thoughts of the past time. And she walked up to the bed, and he leaned his temples, damp with livid dews, upon her breast.
"I have been a sad burden to you, Marie; we should not have married so soon; but I thought I was stronger. Don't cry; we have no little ones, thank God. It will be much better for you when I am gone."
And so, word after word gasped out—he stopped suddenly, and seemed to fall asleep.
The wife then attempted gently to lay him once more on his pillow—the head fell back heavily—the jaw had dropped—the teeth were set—the eyes were open and like the stone—the truth broke on her!
"Jean—Jean! My God, he is dead! and I was unkind to him at the last!" With these words she fell upon the corpse, happily herself insensible.
Just at that moment a human face peered in at the window. Through that aperture, after a moment's pause, a young man leaped lightly into the room. He looked round with a hurried glance, but scarcely noticed the forms stretched on the pallet. It was enough for him that they seemed to sleep, and saw him not. He stole across the room, the door of which Marie had left open, and descended the stairs. He had almost gained the courtyard into which the stairs had conducted, when he heard voices below by the porter's lodge.
"The police have discovered a gang of coiners!"
"Yes, one has been shot dead! I have seen his body in the kennel; another has fled along the roofs—a desperate fellow! We were to watch for him. Let us go up-stairs and get on the roof and look out."
By the hum of approval that followed this proposition, Morton judged rightly that it had been addressed to several persons whom curiosity and the explosion of the pistols had drawn from their beds, and who were grouped round the porter's lodge. What was to be done?—to advance was impossible: and was there yet time to retreat?—it was at least the only course left him; he sprang back up the stairs; he had just gained the first flight when he heard steps descending; then, suddenly, it flashed across him that he had left open the window above—that, doubtless, by that imprudent oversight the officer in pursuit had detected a clue to the path he had taken. What was to be done?—die as Gawtrey had done!— death rather than the galleys. As he thus resolved, he saw to the right the open door of an apartment in which lights still glimmered in their sockets. It seemed deserted—he entered boldly and at once, closing the door after him. Wines and viands still left on the table; gilded mirrors, reflecting the stern face of the solitary intruder; here and there an artificial flower, a knot of riband on the floor, all betokening the gaieties and graces of luxurious life—the dance, the revel, the feast—all this in one apartment!—above, in the same house, the pallet— the corpse—the widow—famine and woe! Such is a great city! such, above all, is Paris! where, under the same roof, are gathered such antagonist varieties of the social state! Nothing strange in this; it is strange and sad that so little do people thus neighbours know of each other, that the owner of those rooms had a heart soft to every distress, but she did not know the distress so close at hand. The music that had charmed her guests had mounted gaily to the vexed ears of agony and hunger. Morton passed the first room—a second—he came to a third, and Eugenie de Merville, looking up at that instant, saw before her an apparition that might well have alarmed the boldest. His head was uncovered—his dark hair shadowed in wild and disorderly profusion the pale face and features, beautiful indeed, but at that moment of the beauty which an artist would impart to a young gladiator—stamped with defiance, menace, and despair. The disordered garb—the fierce aspect—the dark eyes, that literally shone through the shadows of the room-all conspired to increase the terror of so abrupt a presence.
"What are you?—What do you seek here?" said she, falteringly, placing her hand on the bell as she spoke. Upon that soft hand Morton laid his own.
"I seek my life! I am pursued! I am at your mercy! I am innocent! Can you save me?"
As he spoke, the door of the outer room beyond was heard to open, and steps and voices were at hand.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, recoiling as he recognised her face. "And is it to you that I have fled?"
Eugenie also recognised the stranger; and there was something in their relative positions—the suppliant, the protectress—that excited both her imagination and her pity. A slight colour mantled to her cheeks—her look was gentle and compassionate.
"Poor boy! so young!" she said. "Hush!"
She withdrew her hand from his, retired a few steps, lifted a curtain drawn across a recess—and pointing to an alcove that contained one of those sofa-beds common in French houses, added in a whisper,—
"Enter—you are saved."
Morton obeyed, and Eugenie replaced the curtain.
GUIOMAR. "Speak! What are you?"
RUTILIO. "Gracious woman, hear me. I am a stranger: And in that I answer all your demands." Custom of the Country.
Eugenie replaced the curtain. And scarcely had she done so ere the steps in the outer room entered the chamber where she stood. Her servant was accompanied by two officers of the police.
"Pardon, madame," said one of the latter; "but we are in pursuit of a criminal. We think he must have entered this house through a window above while your servant was in the street. Permit us to search?"
"Without doubt," answered Eugenie, seating herself. "If he has entered, look in the other apartments. I have not quitted this room."
"You are right. Accept our apologies."
And the officers turned back to examine every corner where the fugitive was not. For in that, the scouts of Justice resembled their mistress: when does man's justice look to the right place?
The servant lingered to repeat the tale he had heard—the sight he had seen. When, at that instant, he saw the curtain of the alcove slightly stirred. He uttered an exclamation-sprung to the bed—his hand touched the curtain—Eugenie seized his arm. She did not speak; but as he turned his eyes to her, astonished, he saw that she trembled, and that her cheek was as white as marble.
"Madame," he said, hesitating, "there is some one hid in the recess."
"There is! Be silent!"
A suspicion flashed across the servant's mind. The pure, the proud, the immaculate Eugenie!
"There is!—and in madame's chamber!" he faltered unconsciously.
Eugenie's quick apprehensions seized the foul thought. Her eyes flashed —her cheek crimsoned. But her lofty and generous nature conquered even the indignant and scornful burst that rushed to her lips. The truth!— could she trust the man? A doubt—and the charge of the human life rendered to her might be betrayed. Her colour fell—tears gushed to her eyes.
"I have been kind to you, Francois. Not a word." "Madame confides in me—it is enough," said the Frenchman, bowing, with a slight smile on his lips; and he drew back respectfully.
One of the police officers re-entered.
"We have done, madame; he is not here. Aha! that curtain!"
"It is madame's bed," said Francois. "But I have looked behind."
"I am most sorry to have disarranged you," said the policeman, satisfied with the answer; "but we shall have him yet." And he retired.
The last footsteps died away, the last door of the apartments closed behind the officers, and Eugenie and her servant stood alone gazing on each other.
"You may retire," said she at last; and taking her purse from the table, she placed it in his hands.
The man took it, with a significant look. "Madame may depend on my discretion."
Eugenie was alone again. Those words rang in her ear,—Eugenie de Merville dependent on the discretion of her lackey! She sunk into her chair, and, her excitement succeeded by exhaustion, leaned her face on her hands, and burst into tears. She was aroused by a low voice; she looked up, and the young man was kneeling at her feet.
"Go—go!" she said: "I have done for you all I can."
"You heard—you heard—my own hireling, too! At the hazard of my own good name you are saved. Go!"
"Of your good name!"—for Eugenie forgot that it was looks, not words, that had so wrung her pride—"Your good name," he repeated: and glancing round the room—the toilette, the curtain, the recess he had quitted—all that bespoke that chastest sanctuary of a chaste woman, which for a stranger to enter is, as it were, to profane—her meaning broke on him. "Your good name—your hireling! No, madame,—no!" And as he spoke, he rose to his feet. "Not for me, that sacrifice! Your humanity shall not cost you so dear. Ho, there! I am the man you seek." And he strode to the door.
Eugenie was penetrated with the answer. She sprung to him—she grasped his garments.
"Hush! hush!—for mercy's sake! What would you do? Think you I could ever be happy again, if the confidence you placed in me were betrayed? Be calm—be still. I knew not what I said. It will be easy to undeceive the man—later—when you are saved. And you are innocent,—are you not?"
"Oh, madame," said Morton, "from my soul I say it, I am innocent—not of poverty—wretchedness—error—shame; I am innocent of crime. May Heaven bless you!"
And as he reverently kissed the hand laid on his arm, there was something in his voice so touching, in his manner something so above his fortunes, that Eugenie was lost in her feelings of compassion, surprise, and something, it might be, of admiration in her wonder.
"And, oh!" he said, passionately, gazing on her with his dark, brilliant eyes, liquid with emotion, "you have made my life sweet in saving it. You—you—of whom, ever since the first time, almost the sole time, I beheld you—I have so often mused and dreamed. Henceforth, whatever befall me, there will be some recollections that will—that—"
He stopped short, for his heart was too full for words; and the silence said more to Eugenie than if all the eloquence of Rousseau had glowed upon his tongue.
"And who, and what are you?" she asked, after a pause.
"An exile—an orphan—an outcast! I have no name! Farewell!"
"No—stay yet—the danger is not past. Wait till my servant is gone to rest; I hear him yet. Sit down—sit down. And whither would you go?"
"I know not."
"Have you no friends?"
"And the police of Paris so vigilant!" cried Eugenie, wringing her hands. "What is to be done? I shall have saved you in vain—you will be discovered! Of what do they charge you? Not robbery—not—"
And she, too, stopped short, for she did not dare to breathe the black word, "Murder!"
"I know not," said Morton, putting his hand to his forehead, "except of being friends with the only man who befriended me—and they have killed him!"
"Another time you shall tell me all."
"Another time!" he exclaimed, eagerly—"shall I see you again?"
Eugenie blushed beneath the gaze and the voice of joy. "Yes," she said; "yes. But I must reflect. Be calm be silent. Ah!—a happy thought!"
She sat down, wrote a hasty line, sealed, and gave it to Morton.
"Take this note, as addressed, to Madame Dufour; it will provide you with a safe lodging. She is a person I can depend on—an old servant who lived with my mother, and to whom I have given a small pension. She has a lodging—it is lately vacant—I promised to procure her a tenant—go— say nothing of what has passed. I will see her, and arrange all. Wait! —hark!—all is still. I will go first, and see that no one watches you. Stop," (and she threw open the window, and looked into the court.) "The porter's door is open—that is fortunate! Hurry on, and God be with you!"
In a few minutes Morton was in the streets. It was still early—the thoroughfares deserted-none of the shops yet open. The address on the note was to a street at some distance, on the other side of the Seine. He passed along the same Quai which he had trodden but a few hours since —he passed the same splendid bridge on which he had stood despairing, to quit it revived—he gained the Rue Faubourg St. Honore. A young man in a cabriolet, on whose fair cheek burned the hectic of late vigils and lavish dissipation, was rolling leisurely home from the gaming-house, at which he had been more than usually fortunate—his pockets were laden with notes and gold. He bent forwards as Morton passed him. Philip, absorbed in his reverie, perceived him not, and continued his way. The gentleman turned down one of the streets to the left, stopped, and called to the servant dozing behind his cabriolet.
"Follow that passenger! quietly—see where he lodges; be sure to find out and let me know. I shall go home with out you." With that he drove on.
Philip, unconscious of the espionage, arrived at a small house in a quiet but respectable street, and rang the bell several times before at last he was admitted by Madame Dufour herself, in her nightcap. The old woman looked askant and alarmed at the unexpected apparition. But the note seemed at once to satisfy her. She conducted him to an apartment on the first floor, small, but neatly and even elegantly furnished, consisting of a sitting-room and a bedchamber, and said, quietly,—
"Will they suit monsieur?"
To monsieur they seemed a palace. Morton nodded assent.
"And will monsieur sleep for a short time?"
"The bed is well aired. The rooms have only been vacant three days since. Can I get you anything till your luggage arrives?"
The woman left him. He threw off his clothes—flung himself on the bed— and did not wake till noon.
When his eyes unclosed—when they rested on that calm chamber, with its air of health, and cleanliness, and comfort, it was long before he could convince himself that he was yet awake. He missed the loud, deep voice of Gawtrey—the smoke of the dead man's meerschaum—the gloomy garret— the distained walls—the stealthy whisper of the loathed Birnie; slowly the life led and the life gone within the last twelve hours grew upon his struggling memory. He groaned, and turned uneasily round, when the door slightly opened, and he sprung up fiercely,—
"Who is there?"
"It is only I, sir," answered Madame Dufour. "I have been in three times to see if you were stirring. There is a letter I believe for you, sir; though there is no name to it," and she laid the letter on the chair beside him. Did it come from her—the saving angel? He seized it. The cover was blank; it was sealed with a small device, as of a ring seal. He tore it open, and found four billets de banque for 1,000 francs each, —a sum equivalent in our money to about L160.
"Who sent this, the—the lady from whom I brought the note?"
"Madame de Merville? certainly not, sir," said Madame Dufour, who, with the privilege of age, was now unscrupulously filling the water-jugs and settling the toilette-table. "A young man called about two hours after you had gone to bed; and, describing you, inquired if you lodged here, and what your name was. I said you had just arrived, and that I did not yet know your name. So he went away, and came again half an hour afterwards with this letter, which he charged me to deliver to you safely."
A young man—a gentleman?"
"No, sir; he seemed a smart but common sort of lad." For the unsophisticated Madame Dufour did not discover in the plain black frock and drab gaiters of the bearer of that letter the simple livery of an English gentleman's groom.
Whom could it come from, if not from Madame de Merville? Perhaps one of Gawtrey's late friends. A suspicion of Arthur Beaufort crossed him, but he indignantly dismissed it. Men are seldom credulous of what they are unwilling to believe. What kindness had the Beauforts hitherto shown him?—Left his mother to perish broken-hearted—stolen from him his brother, and steeled, in that brother, the only heart wherein he had a right to look for gratitude and love! No, it must be Madame de Merville. He dismissed Madame Dufour for pen and paper—rose—wrote a letter to Eugenie—grateful, but proud, and inclosed the notes. He then summoned Madame Dufour, and sent her with his despatch.
"Ah, madame," said the ci-devant bonne, when she found herself in Eugenie's presence. "The poor lad! how handsome he is, and how shameful in the Vicomte to let him wear such clothes!"
"Oh, my dear mistress, you must not deny it. You told me, in your note, to ask him no questions, but I guessed at once. The Vicomte told me himself that he should have the young gentleman over in a few days. You need not be ashamed of him. You will see what a difference clothes will make in his appearance; and I have taken it on myself to order a tailor to go to him. The Vicomte—must pay me."
"Not a word to the Vicomte as yet. We will surprise him," said Eugenie, laughing.
Madame de Merville had been all that morning trying to invent some story to account for her interest in the lodger, and now how Fortune favoured her!
"But is that a letter for me?"
"And I had almost forgot it," said Madame Dufour, as she extended the letter.
Whatever there had hitherto been in the circumstances connected with Morton, that had roused the interest and excited the romance of Eugenie de Merville, her fancy was yet more attracted by the tone of the letter she now read. For though Morton, more accustomed to speak than to write French, expressed himself with less precision, and a less euphuistic selection of phrase, than the authors and elegans who formed her usual correspondents; there was an innate and rough nobleness—a strong and profound feeling in every line of his letter, which increased her surprise and admiration.
"All that surrounds him—all that belongs to him, is strangeness and mystery!" murmured she; and she sat down to reply.
When Madame Dufour departed with that letter, Eugenie remained silent and thoughtful for more than an hour, Morton's letter before her; and sweet, in their indistinctness, were the recollections and the images that crowded on her mind.
Morton, satisfied by the earnest and solemn assurances of Eugenie that she was not the unknown donor of the sum she reinclosed, after puzzling himself in vain to form any new conjectures as to the quarter whence it came, felt that under his present circumstances it would be an absurd Quixotism to refuse to apply what the very Providence to whom he had anew consigned himself seemed to have sent to his aid. And it placed him, too, beyond the offer of all pecuniary assistance from one from whom he could least have brooked to receive it. He consented, therefore, to all that the loquacious tailor proposed to him. And it would have been difficult to have recognised the wild and frenzied fugitive in the stately form, with its young beauty and air of well-born pride, which the next day sat by the side of Eugenie. And that day he told his sad and troubled story, and Eugenie wept: and from that day he came daily; and two weeks—happy, dreamlike, intoxicating to both—passed by; and as their last sun set, he was kneeling at her feet, and breathing to one to whom the homage of wit, and genius, and complacent wealth had hitherto been vainly proffered, the impetuous, agitated, delicious secrets of the First Love. He spoke, and rose to depart for ever—when the look and sigh detained him.
The next day, after a sleepless night, Eugenie de Merville sent for the Vicomte de Vaudemont.
"A silver river small In sweet accents Its music vents; The warbling virginal To which the merry birds do sing, Timed with stops of gold the silver string." Sir Richard Fanshawe.
One evening, several weeks after the events just commemorated, a stranger, leading in his hand, a young child, entered the churchyard of H——. The sun had not long set, and the short twilight of deepening summer reigned in the tranquil skies; you might still hear from the trees above the graves the chirp of some joyous bird;—what cared he, the denizen of the skies, for the dead that slept below?—what did he value save the greenness and repose of the spot,—to him alike the garden or the grave! As the man and the child passed, the robin, scarcely scared by their tread from the long grass beside one of the mounds, looked at them with its bright, blithe eye. It was a famous plot for the robin— the old churchyard! That domestic bird—"the friend of man," as it has been called by the poets—found a jolly supper among the worms!
The stranger, on reaching the middle of the sacred ground, paused and looked round him wistfully. He then approached, slowly and hesitatingly, an oblong tablet, on which were graven, in letters yet fresh and new, these words:—
TO THE MEMORY OF ONE CALUMNIATED AND WRONGED THIS BURIAL-STONE IS DEDICATED BY HER SON.
Such, with the addition of the dates of birth and death, was the tablet which Philip Morton had directed to be placed over his mother's bones; and around it was set a simple palisade, which defended it from the tread of the children, who sometimes, in defiance of the beadle, played over the dust of the former race.
"Thy son!" muttered the stranger, while the child stood quietly by his side, pleased by the trees, the grass, the song of the birds, and reeking not of grief or death,—"thy son!—but not thy favoured son—thy darling —thy youngest born; on what spot of earth do thine eyes look down on him? Surely in heaven thy love has preserved the one whom on earth thou didst most cherish, from the sufferings and the trials that have visited the less-favoured outcast. Oh, mother—mother!—it was not his crime— not Philip's—that he did not fulfil to the last the trust bequeathed to him! Happier, perhaps, as it is! And, oh, if thy memory be graven as deeply in my brother's heart as my own, how often will it warn and save him! That memory!—it has been to me the angel of my life! To thee—to thee, even in death, I owe it, if, though erring, I am not criminal,—if I have lived with the lepers, and am still undefiled!" His lips then were silent—not his heart!
After a few minutes thus consumed he turned to the child, and said, gently and in a tremulous voice, "Fanny, you have been taught to pray— you will live near this spot,—will you come sometimes here and pray that you may grow up good and innocent, and become a blessing to those who love you?"
"Will papa ever come to hear me pray?"
That sad and unconscious question went to the heart of Morton. The child could not comprehend death. He had sought to explain it, but she had been accustomed to consider her protector dead when he was absent from her, and she still insisted that he must come again to life. And that man of turbulence and crime, who had passed unrepentant, unabsolved, from sin to judgment: it was an awful question, "If he should hear her pray?"
"Yes!" said he, after a pause,—"yes, Fanny, there is a Father who will hear you pray; and pray to Him to be merciful to those who have been kind to you. Fanny, you and I may never meet again!"
"Are you going to die too? Mechant, every one dies to Fanny!" and, clinging to him endearingly, she put up her lips to kiss him. He took her in his arms: and, as a tear fell upon her rosy cheek, she said, "Don't cry, brother, for I love you."
"Do you, dear Fanny? Then, for my sake, when you come to this place, if any one will give you a few flowers, scatter them on that stone. And now we will go to one whom you must love also, and to whom, as I have told you, he sends you; he who—Come!"
As he thus spoke, and placed Fanny again on the ground, he was startled to see: precisely on the spot where he had seen before the like apparition—on the same spot where the father had cursed the son, the motionless form of an old man. Morton recognised, as if by an instinct rather than by an effort of the memory, the person to whom he was bound.
He walked slowly towards him; but Fanny abruptly left his side, lured by a moth that flitted duskily over the graves.
"Your name, sir, I think, is Simon Gawtrey?" said Morton. "I have came to England in quest of you."
"Of me?" said the old man, half rising, and his eyes, now completely blind, rolled vacantly over Morton's person—"Of me?—for what?—Who are you?—I don't know your voice!"
"I come to you from your son!"
"My son!" exclaimed the old man, with great vehemence,—"the reprobate!— the dishonoured!—the infamous!—the accursed—"
"Hush! you revile the dead!"
"Dead!" muttered the wretched father, tottering back to the seat he had quitted,—"dead!" and the sound of his voice was so full of anguish, that the dog at his feet, which Morton had not hitherto perceived, echoed it with a dismal cry, that recalled to Philip the awful day in which he had seen the son quit the father for the last time on earth.
The sound brought Fanny to the spot; and, with a laugh of delight, which made to it a strange contrast, she threw herself on the grass beside the dog and sought to entice it to play. So there, in that place of death, were knit together the four links in the Great Chain;—lusty and blooming life—desolate and doting age—infancy, yet scarce conscious of a soul— and the dumb brute, that has no warrant of a Hereafter!
"Dead!—dead!" repeated the old man, covering his sightless balls with his withered hands. "Poor William!"
"He remembered you to the last. He bade me seek you out—he bade me replace the guilty son with a thing pure and innocent, as he had been had he died in his cradle—a child to comfort your old age! Kneel, Fanny, I have found you a father who will cherish you—(oh! you will, sir, will you not?)—as he whom you may see no more!"
There was something in Morton's voice so solemn, that it awed and touched both the old man and the infant; and Fanny, creeping to the protector thus assigned to her, and putting her little hands confidingly on his knees, said—
"Fanny will love you if papa wished it. Kiss Fanny."
"Is it his child—his?" said the blind man, sobbing. "Come to my heart; here—here! O God, forgive me!" Morton did not think it right at that moment to undeceive him with regard to the poor child's true connexion with the deceased: and he waited in silence till Simon, after a burst of passionate grief and tenderness, rose, and still clasping the child to his breast, said—
"Sir, forgive me!—I am a very weak old man—I have many thanks to give— I have much, too, to learn. My poor son! he did not die in want,—did he?"
The particulars of Gawtrey's fate, with his real name and the various aliases he had assumed, had appeared in the French journals, had been partially copied into the English; and Morton had expected to have been saved the painful narrative of that fearful death; but the utter seclusion of the old man, his infirmity, and his estranged habits, had shut him out from the intelligence that it now devolved on Philip to communicate. Morton hesitated a little before he answered:
"It is late now; you are not yet prepared to receive this poor infant at your home, nor to hear the details I have to state. I arrived in England but to-day. I shall lodge in the neighbourhood, for it is dear to me. If I may feel sure, then, that you will receive and treasure this sacred and last deposit bequeathed to you by your unhappy son, I will bring my charge to you to-morrow, and we will then, more calmly than we can now, talk over the past."
"You do not answer my question," said Simon, passionately; "answer that, and I will wait for the rest. They call me a miser! Did I send out my only child to starve? Answer that!"
"Be comforted. He did not die in want; and he has even left some little fortune for Fanny, which I was to place in your hands."
"And he thought to bribe the old miser to be human! Well—well—well—I will go home."
"Lean on me!"
The dog leapt playfully on his master as the latter rose, and Fanny slid from Simon's arms to caress and talk to the animal in her own way. As they slowly passed through the churchyard Simon muttered incoherently to himself for several paces, and Morton would not disturb, since he could not comfort, him.
At last he said abruptly, "Did my son repent?"
"I hoped," answered Morton, evasively, "that, had his life been spared, he would have amended!"
"Tush, sir!—I am past seventy; we repent!—we never amend!" And Simon again sunk into his own dim and disconnected reveries.
At length they arrived at the blind man's house. The door was opened to them by an old woman of disagreeable and sinister aspect, dressed out much too gaily for the station of a servant, though such was her reputed capacity; but the miser's affliction saved her from the chance of his comment on her extravagance. As she stood in the doorway with a candle in her hand, she scanned curiously, and with no welcoming eye, her master's companions.
"Mrs. Boxer, my son is dead!" said Simon, in a hollow voice.
"And a good thing it is, then, sir!"
"For shame, woman!" said Morton, indignantly. "Hey-dey! sir! whom have we got here?"
"One," said Simon, sternly, "whom you will treat with respect. He brings me a blessing to lighten my loss. One harsh word to this child, and you quit my house!"
The woman looked perfectly thunderstruck; but, recovering herself, she said, whiningly—
"I! a harsh word to anything my dear, kind master cares for. And, Lord, what a sweet pretty creature it is! Come here, my dear!"
But Fanny shrunk back, and would not let go Philip's hand.
"To-morrow, then," said Morton; and he was turning away, when a sudden thought seemed to cross the old man,—
"Stay, sir—stay! I—I—did my son say I was rich? I am very, very poor—nothing in the house, or I should have been robbed long ago!"
"Your son told me to bring money, not to ask for it!"
"Ask for it! No; but," added the old man, and a gleam of cunning intelligence shot over his face,—"but he had got into a bad set. Ask!— No!—Put up the door-chain, Mrs. Boxer!"
It was with doubt and misgivings that Morton, the next day, consigned the child, who had already nestled herself into the warmest core of his heart, to the care of Simon. Nothing short of that superstitious respect, which all men owe to the wishes of the dead, would have made him select for her that asylum; for Fate had now, in brightening his own prospects, given him an alternative in the benevolence of Madame de Merville. But Gawtrey had been so earnest on the subject, that he felt as if he had no right to hesitate. And was it not a sort of atonement to any faults the son might have committed against the parent, to place by the old man's hearth so sweet a charge?
The strange and peculiar mind and character of Fanny made him, however, yet more anxious than otherwise he might have been. She certainly deserved not the harsh name of imbecile or idiot, but she was different from all other children; she felt more acutely than most of her age, but she could not be taught to reason. There was something either oblique or deficient in her intellect, which justified the most melancholy apprehensions; yet often, when some disordered, incoherent, inexplicable train of ideas most saddened the listener, it would be followed by fancies so exquisite in their strangeness, or feelings so endearing in their tenderness, that suddenly she seemed as much above, as before she seemed below, the ordinary measure of infant comprehension. She was like a creature to which Nature, in some cruel but bright caprice, has given all that belongs to poetry, but denied all that belongs to the common understanding necessary to mankind; or, as a fairy changeling, not, indeed, according to the vulgar superstition, malignant and deformed, but lovelier than the children of men, and haunted by dim and struggling associations of a gentler and fairer being, yet wholly incapable to learn the dry and hard elements which make up the knowledge of actual life.
Morton, as well as he could, sought to explain to Simon the peculiarities in Fanny's mental constitution. He urged on him the necessity of providing for her careful instruction, and Simon promised to send her to the best school the neighbourhood could afford; but, as the old man spoke, he dwelt so much on the supposed fact that Fanny was William's daughter, and with his remorse, or affection, there ran so interwoven a thread of selfishness and avarice, that Morton thought it would be dangerous to his interest in the child to undeceive his error. He, therefore,—perhaps excusably enough—remained silent on that subject.
Gawtrey had placed with the superior of the convent, together with an order to give up the child to any one who should demand her in his true name, which he confided to the superior, a sum of nearly L300., which he solemnly swore had been honestly obtained, and which, in all his shifts and adversities, he had never allowed himself to touch. This sum, with the trifling deduction made for arrears due to the convent, Morton now placed in Simon's hands. The old man clutched the money, which was for the most in French gold, with a convulsive gripe: and then, as if ashamed of the impulse, said—
"But you, sir—will any sum—that is, any reasonable sum—be of use to you?"
"No! and if it were, it is neither yours nor mine—it is hers. Save it for her, and add to it what you can."
While this conversation took place, Fanny had been consigned to the care of Mrs. Boxer, and Philip now rose to see and bid her farewell before he departed.
"I may come again to visit you, Mr. Gawtrey; and I pray Heaven to find that you and Fanny have been a mutual blessing to each other. Oh, remember how your son loved her!"
"He had a good heart, in spite of all his sins. Poor William!" said Simon.
Philip Morton heard, and his lip curled with a sad and a just disdain.
If when, at the age of nineteen, William Gawtrey had quitted his father's roof, the father had then remembered that the son's heart was good,—the son had been alive still, an honest and a happy man. Do ye not laugh, O ye all-listening Fiends! when men praise those dead whose virtues they discovered not when alive? It takes much marble to build the sepulchre— how little of lath and plaster would have repaired the garret!
On turning into a small room adjoining the parlour in which Gawtrey sat, Morton found Fanny standing gloomily by a dull, soot-grimed window, which looked out on the dead walls of a small yard. Mrs. Boxer, seated by a table, was employed in trimming a cap, and putting questions to Fanny in that falsetto voice of endearment in which people not used to children are apt to address them.
"And so, my dear, they've never taught you to read or write? You've been sadly neglected, poor thing!"
"We must do our best to supply the deficiency," said Morton, as he entered.
"Bless me, sir, is that you?" and the gouvernante bustled up and dropped a low courtesy; for Morton, dressed then in the garb of a gentleman, was of a mien and person calculated to strike the gaze of the vulgar.
"Ah, brother!" cried Fanny, for by that name he had taught her to call him; and she flew to his side. "Come away—it's ugly there—it makes me cold."
"My child, I told you you must stay; but I shall hope to see you again some day. Will you not be kind to this poor creature, ma'am? Forgive me, if I offended you last night, and favour me by accepting this, to show that we are friends." As he spoke, he slid his purse into the woman's hand. "I shall feel ever grateful for whatever you can do for Fanny."
"Fanny wants nothing from any one else; Fanny wants her brother."
"Sweet child! I fear she don't take to me. Will you like me, Miss Fanny?"
"No! get along!"
"Fie, Fanny—you remember you did not take to me at first. But she is so affectionate, ma'am; she never forgets a kindness."
"I will do all I can to please her, sir. And so she is really master's grandchild?" The woman fixed her eyes, as she spoke, so intently on Morton, that he felt embarrassed, and busied himself, without answering, in caressing and soothing Fanny, who now seemed to awake to the affliction about to visit her; for though she did not weep—she very rarely wept—her slight frame trembled—her eyes closed—her cheeks, even her lips, were white—and her delicate hands were clasped tightly round the neck of the one about to abandon her to strange breasts.
Morton was greatly moved. "One kiss, Fanny! and do not forget me when we meet again."
The child pressed her lips to his cheek, but the lips were cold. He put her down gently; she stood mute and passive.
"Remember that he wished me to leave you here," whispered Morton, using an argument that never failed. "We must obey him; and so-God bless you, Fanny!"
He rose and retreated to the door; the child unclosed her eyes, and gazed at him with a strained, painful, imploring gaze; her lips moved, but she did not speak. Morton could not bear that silent woe. He sought to smile on her consolingly; but the smile would not come. He closed the door, and hurried from the house.
From that day Fanny settled into a kind of dreary, inanimate stupor, which resembled that of the somnambulist whom the magnetiser forgets to waken. Hitherto, with all the eccentricities or deficiencies of her mind, had mingled a wild and airy gaiety. That was vanished. She spoke little—she never played—no toys could lure her—even the poor dog failed to win her notice. If she was told to do anything she stared vacantly and stirred not. She evinced, however, a kind of dumb regard to the old blind man; she would creep to his knees and sit there for hours, seldom answering when he addressed her, but uneasy, anxious, and restless, if he left her.
"Will you die too?" she asked once; the old man understood her not, and she did not try to explain. Early one morning, some days after Morton was gone, they missed her: she was not in the house, nor the dull yard where she was sometimes dismissed and told to play—told in vain. In great alarm the old man accused Mrs. Boxer of having spirited her away, and threatened and stormed so loudly that the woman, against her will, went forth to the search. At last she found the child in the churchyard, standing wistfully beside a tomb.
"What do you here, you little plague?" said Mrs. Boxer, rudely seizing her by the arm.
"This is the way they will both come back some day! I dreamt so!"
"If ever I catch you here again!" said the housekeeper, and, wiping her brow with one hand, she struck the child with the other. Fanny had never been struck before. She recoiled in terror and amazement, and, for the first time since her arrival, burst into tears.
"Come—come, no crying! and if you tell master I'll beat you within an inch of your life!" So saying, she caught Fanny in her arms, and, walking about, scolding and menacing, till she had frightened back the child's tears, she returned triumphantly to the house, and bursting into the parlour, exclaimed, "Here's the little darling, sir!"
When old Simon learned where the child had been found he was glad; for it was his constant habit, whenever the evening was fine, to glide out to that churchyard—his dog his guide—and sit on his one favourite spot opposite the setting sun. This, not so much for the sanctity of the place, or the meditations it might inspire, as because it was the nearest, the safest, and the loneliest spot in the neighbourhood of his home, where the blind man could inhale the air and bask in the light of heaven. Hitherto, thinking it sad for the child, he had never taken her with him; indeed, at the hour of his monotonous excursion she had generally been banished to bed. Now she was permitted to accompany him; and the old man and the infant would sit there side by side, as Age and Infancy rested side by side in the graves below. The first symptom of childlike interest and curiosity that Fanny betrayed was awakened by the affliction of her protector. One evening, as they thus sat, she made him explain what the desolation of blindness is. She seemed to comprehend him, though he did not seek to adapt his complaints to her understanding.
"Fanny knows," said she, touchingly; "for she, too, is blind here;" and she pressed her hands to her temples. Notwithstanding her silence and strange ways, and although he could not see the exquisite loveliness which Nature, as in remorseful pity, had lavished on her outward form, Simon soon learned to love her better than he had ever loved yet: for they most cold to the child are often dotards to the grandchild. For her even his avarice slept. Dainties, never before known at his sparing board, were ordered to tempt her appetite, toy-shops ransacked to amuse her indolence. He was long, however, before he could prevail on himself to fulfil his promise to Morton, and rob himself of her presence. At length, however, wearied with Mrs. Boxer's lamentations at her ignorance, and alarmed himself at some evidences of helplessness, which made him dread to think what her future might be when left alone in life, he placed her at a day-school in the suburb. Here Fanny, for a considerable time, justified the harshest assertions of her stupidity. She could not even keep her eyes two minutes together on the page from which she was to learn the mysteries of reading; months passed before she mastered the alphabet, and, a month after, she had again forgot it, and the labour was renewed. The only thing in which she showed ability, if so it might be called, was in the use of the needle. The sisters of the convent had already taught her many pretty devices in this art; and when she found that at the school they were admired—that she was praised instead of blamed—her vanity was pleased, and she learned so readily all that they could teach in this not unprofitable accomplishment, that Mrs. Boxer slyly and secretly turned her tasks to account and made a weekly perquisite of the poor pupil's industry. Another faculty she possessed, in common with persons usually deficient, and with the lower species— viz., a most accurate and faithful recollection of places. At first Mrs. Boxer had been duly sent, morning, noon, and evening, to take her to, or bring her from, the school; but this was so great a grievance to Simon's solitary superintendent, and Fanny coaxed the old man so endearingly to allow her to go and return alone, that the attendance, unwelcome to both, was waived. Fanny exulted in this liberty; and she never, in going or in returning, missed passing through the burial-ground, and gazing wistfully at the tomb from which she yet believed Morton would one day reappear. With his memory she cherished also that of her earlier and more guilty protector; but they were separate feelings, which she distinguished in her own way.
"Papa had given her up. She knew that he would not have sent her away, far—far over the great water, if he had meant to see Fanny again; but her brother was forced to leave her—he would come to life one day, and then they should live together!"
One day, towards the end of autumn, as her schoolmistress, a good woman on the whole, but who had not yet had the wit to discover by what chords to tune the instrument, over which so wearily she drew her unskilful hand—one day, we say, the schoolmistress happened to be dressed for a christening party to which she was invited in the suburb; and, accordingly, after the morning lessons, the pupils were to be dismissed to a holiday. As Fanny now came last, with the hopeless spelling-book, she stopped suddenly short, and her eyes rested with avidity upon a large bouquet of exotic flowers, with which the good lady had enlivened the centre of the parted kerchief, whose yellow gauze modestly veiled that tender section of female beauty which poets have likened to hills of snow—a chilling simile! It was then autumn; and field, and even garden flowers were growing rare.
"Will you give me one of those flowers?" said Fanny, dropping her book.
"One of these flowers, child! why?"
Fanny did not answer; but one of the elder and cleverer girls said—
"Oh! she comes from France, you know, ma'am, and the Roman Catholics put flowers, and ribands, and things, over the graves; you recollect, ma'am, we were reading yesterday about Pere-la-Chaise?"
"Well! what then?"
"And Miss Fanny will do any kind of work for us if we will give her flowers."
"My brother told me where to put them;—but these pretty flowers, I never had any like them; they may bring him back again! I'll be so good if you'll give me one, only one!"
"Will you learn your lesson if I do, Fanny?"
"Oh! yes! Wait a moment!"
And Fanny stole back to her desk, put the hateful book resolutely before her, pressed both hands tightly on her temples,—Eureka! the chord was touched; and Fanny marched in triumph through half a column of hostile double syllables!
From that day the schoolmistress knew how to stimulate her, and Fanny learned to read: her path to knowledge thus literally strewn with flowers! Catherine, thy children were far off, and thy grave looked gay!
It naturally happened that those short and simple rhymes, often sacred, which are repeated in schools as helps to memory, made a part of her studies; and no sooner had the sound of verse struck upon her fancy than it seemed to confuse and agitate anew all her senses. It was like the music of some breeze, to which dance and tremble all the young leaves of a wild plant. Even when at the convent she had been fond of repeating the infant rhymes with which they had sought to lull or to amuse her, but now the taste was more strongly developed. She confounded, however, in meaningless and motley disorder, the various snatches of song that came to her ear, weaving them together in some form which she understood, but which was jargon to all others; and often, as she went alone through the green lanes or the bustling streets, the passenger would turn in pity and fear to hear her half chant—half murmur—ditties that seemed to suit only a wandering and unsettled imagination. And as Mrs. Boxer, in her visits to the various shops in the suburb, took care to bemoan her hard fate in attending to a creature so evidently moon-stricken, it was no wonder that the manner and habits of the child, coupled with that strange predilection to haunt the burial-ground, which is not uncommon with persons of weak and disordered intellect; confirmed the character thus given to her.
So, as she tripped gaily and lightly along the thoroughfares, the children would draw aside from her path, and whisper with superstitious fear mingled with contempt, "It's the idiot girl!"—Idiot—how much more of heaven's light was there in that cloud than in the rushlights that, flickering in sordid chambers, shed on dull things the dull ray—esteeming themselves as stars!
Months-years passed—Fanny was thirteen, when there dawned a new era to her existence. Mrs. Boxer had never got over her first grudge to Fanny. Her treatment of the poor girl was always harsh, and sometimes cruel. But Fanny did not complain, and as Mrs. Boxer's manner to her before Simon was invariably cringing and caressing, the old man never guessed the hardships his supposed grandchild underwent. There had been scandal some years back in the suburb about the relative connexion of the master and the housekeeper; and the flaunting dress of the latter, something bold in her regard, and certain whispers that her youth had not been vowed to Vesta, confirmed the suspicion. The only reason why we do not feel sure that the rumour was false is this,—Simon Gawtrey had been so hard on the early follies of his son! Certainly, at all events, the woman had exercised great influence over the miser before the arrival of Fanny, and she had done much to steel his selfishness against the ill- fated William. And, as certainly, she had fully calculated on succeeding to the savings, whatever they might be, of the miser, whenever Providence should be pleased to terminate his days. She knew that Simon had, many years back, made his will in her favour; she knew that he had not altered that will: she believed, therefore, that in spite of all his love for Fanny, he loved his gold so much more, that be could not accustom himself to the thought of bequeathing it to hands too helpless to guard the treasure. This had in some measure reconciled the housekeeper to the intruder; whom, nevertheless, she hated as a dog hates another dog, not only for taking his bone, but for looking at it.
But suddenly Simon fell ill. His age made it probable he would die. He took to his bed—his breathing grew fainter and fainter—he seemed dead. Fanny, all unconscious, sat by his bedside as usual, holding her breath not to waken him. Mrs. Boxer flew to the bureau—she unlocked it—she could not find the will; but she found three bags of bright gold guineas: the sight charmed her. She tumbled them forth on the distained green cloth of the bureau—she began to count them; and at that moment, the old man, as if there were a secret magnetism between himself and the guineas, woke from his trance. His blindness saved him the pain that might have been fatal, of seeing the unhallowed profanation; but he heard the chink of the metal. The very sound restored his strength. But the infirm are always cunning—he breathed not a suspicion. "Mrs. Boxer," said he, faintly, "I think I could take some broth." Mrs. Boxer rose in great dismay, gently re-closed the bureau, and ran down-stairs for the broth. Simon took the occasion to question Fanny; and no sooner had he learnt the operation of the heir-expectant, than he bade the girl first lock the bureau and bring him the key, and next run to a lawyer (whose address he gave her), and fetch him instantly.
With a malignant smile the old man took the broth from his handmaid,— "Poor Boxer, you are a disinterested creature," said he, feebly; "I think you will grieve when I go."
Mrs. Boxer sobbed, and before she had recovered, the lawyer entered. That day a new will was made; and the lawyer politely informed Mrs. Boxer that her services would be dispensed with the next morning, when he should bring a nurse to the house. Mrs. Boxer heard, and took her resolution. As soon as Simon again fell asleep, she crept into the room- led away Fanny—locked her up in her own chamber—returned—searched for the key of the bureau, which she found at last under Simon's pillow— possessed herself of all she could lay her hands on—and the next morning she had disappeared forever! Simon's loss was greater than might have been supposed; for, except a trifling sum in the savings bank, he, like many other misers, kept all he had, in notes or specie, under his own lock and key. His whole fortune, indeed, was far less than was supposed: for money does not make money unless it is put out to interest,—and the miser cheated himself. Such portion as was in bank-notes Mrs. Boxer probably had the prudence to destroy; for those numbers which Simon could remember were never traced; the gold, who could swear to? Except the pittance in the savings bank, and whatever might be the paltry worth of the house he rented, the father who had enriched the menial to exile the son was a beggar in his dotage. This news, however, was carefully concealed from him by the advice of the doctor, whom, on his own responsibility, the lawyer introduced, till he had recovered sufficiently to bear the shock without danger; and the delay naturally favoured Mrs. Boxer's escape.
Simon remained for some moments perfectly stunned and speechless when the news was broken to him. Fanny, in alarm at his increasing paleness, sprang to his breast. He pushed her away,—"Go—go—go, child," he said; "I can't feed you now. Leave me to starve."
"To starve!" said Fanny, wonderingly; and she stole away, and sat herself down as if in deep thought. She then crept up to the lawyer as he was about to leave the room, after exhausting his stock of commonplace consolation; and putting her hand in his, whispered, "I want to talk to you—this way:"—She led him through the passage into the open air. "Tell me," she said, "when poor people try not to starve, don't they work?"
"My dear, yes."
"For rich people buy poor people's work?"
"Certainly, my dear; to be sure."
"Very well. Mrs. Boxer used to sell my work. Fanny will feed grandpapa! Go and tell him never to say 'starve' again."
The good-natured lawyer was moved. "Can you work, indeed, my poor girl? Well, put on your bonnet, and come and talk to my wife."
And that was the new era in Fanny's existence! Her schooling was stopped. But now life schooled her. Necessity ripened her intellect. And many a hard eye moistened,—as, seeing her glide with her little basket of fancy work along the streets, still murmuring her happy and bird-like snatches of unconnected song—men and children alike said with respect, in which there was now no contempt, "It's the idiot girl who supports her blind grandfather!" They called her idiot still!