Two or three things conduced to bring the baronet to a point. He had observed that Miss Keeldar looked pensive and delicate. This new phase in her demeanour smote him on his weak or poetic side. A spontaneous sonnet brewed in his brain; and while it was still working there, one of his sisters persuaded his lady-love to sit down to the piano and sing a ballad—one of Sir Philip's own ballads. It was the least elaborate, the least affected—out of all comparison the best of his numerous efforts.
It chanced that Shirley, the moment before, had been gazing from a window down on the park. She had seen that stormy moonlight which "le Professeur Louis" was perhaps at the same instant contemplating from her own oak-parlour lattice; she had seen the isolated trees of the domain—broad, strong, spreading oaks, and high-towering heroic beeches—wrestling with the gale. Her ear had caught the full roar of the forest lower down; the swift rushing of clouds, the moon, to the eye, hasting swifter still, had crossed her vision. She turned from sight and sound—touched, if not rapt; wakened, if not inspired.
She sang, as requested. There was much about love in the ballad—faithful love that refused to abandon its object; love that disaster could not shake; love that in calamity waxed fonder, in poverty clung closer. The words were set to a fine old air; in themselves they were simple and sweet. Perhaps, when read, they wanted force; when well sung, they wanted nothing. Shirley sang them well. She breathed into the feeling softness; she poured round the passion force. Her voice was fine that evening, its expression dramatic. She impressed all, and charmed one.
On leaving the instrument she went to the fire, and sat down on a seat—semi-stool, semi-cushion. The ladies were round her; none of them spoke. The Misses Sympson and the Misses Nunnely looked upon her as quiet poultry might look on an egret, an ibis, or any other strange fowl. What made her sing so? They never sang so. Was it proper to sing with such expression, with such originality—so unlike a school-girl? Decidedly not. It was strange, it was unusual. What was strange must be wrong; what was unusual must be improper. Shirley was judged.
Moreover, old Lady Nunnely eyed her stonily from her great chair by the fireside. Her gaze said, "This woman is not of mine or my daughters' kind. I object to her as my son's wife."
Her son, catching the look, read its meaning. He grew alarmed. What he so wished to win there was danger he might lose. He must make haste.
The room they were in had once been a picture-gallery. Sir Philip's father—Sir Monckton—had converted it into a saloon; but still it had a shadowy, long-withdrawing look. A deep recess with a window—a recess that held one couch, one table, and a fairy cabinet—formed a room within a room. Two persons standing there might interchange a dialogue, and, so it were neither long nor loud, none be the wiser.
Sir Philip induced two of his sisters to perpetrate a duet. He gave occupation to the Misses Sympson. The elder ladies were conversing together. He was pleased to remark that meantime Shirley rose to look at the pictures. He had a tale to tell about one ancestress, whose dark beauty seemed as that of a flower of the south. He joined her, and began to tell it.
There were mementoes of the same lady in the cabinet adorning the recess; and while Shirley was stooping to examine the missal and the rosary on the inlaid shelf, and while the Misses Nunnely indulged in a prolonged screech, guiltless of expression, pure of originality, perfectly conventional and absolutely unmeaning, Sir Philip stooped too, and whispered a few hurried sentences. At first Miss Keeldar was struck so still you might have fancied that whisper a charm which had changed her to a statue; but she presently looked up and answered. They parted. Miss Keeldar returned to the fire, and resumed her seat. The baronet gazed after her, then went and stood behind his sisters. Mr. Sympson—Mr. Sympson only—had marked the pantomime.
That gentleman drew his own conclusions. Had he been as acute as he was meddling, as profound as he was prying, he might have found that in Sir Philip's face whereby to correct his inference. Ever shallow, hasty, and positive, he went home quite cock-a-hoop.
He was not a man that kept secrets well. When elate on a subject, he could not avoid talking about it. The next morning, having occasion to employ his son's tutor as his secretary, he must needs announce to him, in mouthing accents, and with much flimsy pomp of manner, that he had better hold himself prepared for a return to the south at an early day, as the important business which had detained him (Mr. Sympson) so long in Yorkshire was now on the eve of fortunate completion. His anxious and laborious efforts were likely, at last, to be crowned with the happiest success. A truly eligible addition was about to be made to the family connections.
"In Sir Philip Nunnely?" Louis Moore conjectured.
Whereupon Mr. Sympson treated himself simultaneously to a pinch of snuff and a chuckling laugh, checked only by a sudden choke of dignity, and an order to the tutor to proceed with business.
For a day or two Mr. Sympson continued as bland as oil, but also he seemed to sit on pins, and his gait, when he walked, emulated that of a hen treading a hot girdle. He was for ever looking out of the window and listening for chariot-wheels. Bluebeard's wife—Sisera's mother—were nothing to him. He waited when the matter should be opened in form, when himself should be consulted, when lawyers should be summoned, when settlement discussions and all the delicious worldly fuss should pompously begin.
At last there came a letter. He himself handed it to Miss Keeldar out of the bag. He knew the handwriting; he knew the crest on the seal. He did not see it opened and read, for Shirley took it to her own room; nor did he see it answered, for she wrote her reply shut up, and was very long about it—the best part of a day. He questioned her whether it was answered; she responded, "Yes."
Again he waited—waited in silence, absolutely not daring to speak, kept mute by something in Shirley's face—a very awful something—inscrutable to him as the writing on the wall to Belshazzar. He was moved more than once to call Daniel, in the person of Louis Moore, and to ask an interpretation; but his dignity forbade the familiarity. Daniel himself, perhaps, had his own private difficulties connected with that baffling bit of translation; he looked like a student for whom grammars are blank and dictionaries dumb.
* * * * *
Mr. Sympson had been out, to while away an anxious hour in the society of his friends at De Walden Hall. He returned a little sooner than was expected. His family and Miss Keeldar were assembled in the oak parlour. Addressing the latter, he requested her to step with him into another room. He wished to have with her a "strictly private interview."
She rose, asking no questions and professing no surprise.
"Very well, sir," she said, in the tone of a determined person who is informed that the dentist is come to extract that large double tooth of his, from which he has suffered such a purgatory this month past. She left her sewing and her thimble in the window-seat, and followed her uncle where he led.
Shut into the drawing-room, the pair took seats, each in an arm-chair, placed opposite, a few yards between them.
"I have been to De Walden Hall," said Mr. Sympson. He paused. Miss Keeldar's eyes were on the pretty white-and-green carpet. That information required no response. She gave none.
"I have learned," he went on slowly—"I have learned a circumstance which surprises me."
Resting her cheek on her forefinger, she waited to be told what circumstance.
"It seems that Nunnely Priory is shut up—that the family are gone back to their place in ——shire. It seems that the baronet—that the baronet—that Sir Philip himself has accompanied his mother and sisters."
"Indeed!" said Shirley.
"May I ask if you share the amazement with which I received this news?"
"Is it news to you?"
"I mean—I mean," pursued Mr. Sympson, now fidgeting in his chair, quitting his hitherto brief and tolerably clear phraseology, and returning to his customary wordy, confused, irritable style—"I mean to have a thorough explanation. I will not be put off. I—I—shall insist on being heard, and on—on having my own way. My questions must be answered. I will have clear, satisfactory replies. I am not to be trifled with. (Silence.)
"It is a strange and an extraordinary thing—a very singular—a most odd thing! I thought all was right, knew no other; and there—the family are gone!"
"I suppose, sir, they had a right to go."
"Sir Philip is gone!" (with emphasis).
Shirley raised her brows. "Bon voyage!" said she.
"This will not do; this must be altered, ma'am."
He drew his chair forward; he pushed it back; he looked perfectly incensed, and perfectly helpless.
"Come, come now, uncle," expostulated Shirley, "do not begin to fret and fume, or we shall make no sense of the business. Ask me what you want to know. I am as willing to come to an explanation as you. I promise you truthful replies."
"I want—I demand to know, Miss Keeldar, whether Sir Philip has made you an offer?"
"You avow it?"
"I avow it. But now, go on. Consider that point settled."
"He made you an offer that night we dined at the priory?"
"It is enough to say that he made it. Go on."
"He proposed in the recess—in the room that used to be a picture-gallery—that Sir Monckton converted into it saloon?"
"You were both examining a cabinet. I saw it all. My sagacity was not at fault—it never is. Subsequently you received a letter from him. On what subject—of what nature were the contents?"
"Ma'am, is that the way in which you speak to me?"
Shirley's foot tapped quick on the carpet.
"There you sit, silent and sullen—you who promised truthful replies."
"Sir, I have answered you thus far. Proceed."
"I should like to see that letter."
"You cannot see it."
"I must and shall, ma'am; I am your guardian."
"Having ceased to be a ward, I have no guardian."
"Ungrateful being! Reared by me as my own daughter——"
"Once more, uncle, have the kindness to keep to the point. Let us both remain cool. For my part, I do not wish to get into a passion; but, you know, once drive me beyond certain bounds, I care little what I say—I am not then soon checked. Listen! You have asked me whether Sir Philip made me an offer. That question is answered. What do you wish to know next?"
"I desire to know whether you accepted or refused him, and know it I will."
"Certainly, you ought to know it. I refused him."
"Refused him! You—you, Shirley Keeldar, refused Sir Philip Nunnely?"
The poor gentleman bounced from his chair, and first rushed and then trotted through the room.
"There it is! There it is! There it is!"
"Sincerely speaking, I am sorry, uncle, you are so disappointed."
Concession, contrition, never do any good with some people. Instead of softening and conciliating, they but embolden and harden them. Of that number was Mr. Sympson.
"I disappointed? What is it to me? Have I an interest in it? You would insinuate, perhaps, that I have motives?"
"Most people have motives of some sort for their actions."
"She accuses me to my face! I, that have been a parent to her, she charges with bad motives!"
"Bad motives I did not say."
"And now you prevaricate; you have no principles!"
"Uncle, you tire me. I want to go away."
"Go you shall not! I will be answered. What are your intentions, Miss Keeldar?"
"In what respect?"
"In respect of matrimony?"
"To be quiet, and to do just as I please."
"Just as you please! The words are to the last degree indecorous."
"Mr. Sympson, I advise you not to become insulting. You know I will not bear that."
"You read French. Your mind is poisoned with French novels. You have imbibed French principles."
"The ground you are treading now returns a mighty hollow sound under your feet. Beware!"
"It will end in infamy, sooner or later. I have foreseen it all along."
"Do you assert, sir, that something in which I am concerned will end in infamy?"
"That it will—that it will. You said just now you would act as you please. You acknowledge no rules—no limitations."
"Silly stuff, and vulgar as silly!"
"Regardless of decorum, you are prepared to fly in the face of propriety."
"You tire me, uncle."
"What, madam—what could be your reasons for refusing Sir Philip?"
"At last there is another sensible question; I shall be glad to reply to it. Sir Philip is too young for me. I regard him as a boy. All his relations—his mother especially—would be annoyed if he married me. Such a step would embroil him with them. I am not his equal in the world's estimation."
"Is that all?"
"Our dispositions are not compatible."
"Why, a more amiable gentleman never breathed."
"He is very amiable—very excellent—truly estimable; but not my master—not in one point. I could not trust myself with his happiness. I would not undertake the keeping of it for thousands. I will accept no hand which cannot hold me in check."
"I thought you liked to do as you please. You are vastly inconsistent."
"When I promise to obey, it shall be under the conviction that I can keep that promise. I could not obey a youth like Sir Philip. Besides, he would never command me. He would expect me always to rule—to guide—and I have no taste whatever for the office."
"You no taste for swaggering, and subduing, and ordering, and ruling?"
"Not my husband; only my uncle."
"Where is the difference?"
"There is a slight difference—that is certain. And I know full well any man who wishes to live in decent comfort with me as a husband must be able to control me."
"I wish you had a real tyrant."
"A tyrant would not hold me for a day, not for an hour. I would rebel—break from him—defy him."
"Are you not enough to bewilder one's brain with your self-contradiction?"
"It is evident I bewilder your brain."
"You talk of Sir Philip being young. He is two-and-twenty."
"My husband must be thirty, with the sense of forty."
"You had better pick out some old man—some white-headed or bald-headed swain."
"No, thank you."
"You could lead some doting fool; you might pin him to your apron."
"I might do that with a boy; but it is not my vocation. Did I not say I prefer a master—one in whose presence I shall feel obliged and disposed to be good; one whose control my impatient temper must acknowledge; a man whose approbation can reward, whose displeasure punish me; a man I shall feel it impossible not to love, and very possible to fear?"
"What is there to hinder you from doing all this with Sir Philip? He is a baronet—a man of rank, property, connections far above yours. If you talk of intellect, he is a poet—he writes verses; which you, I take it, cannot do, with all your cleverness."
"Neither his title, wealth, pedigree, nor poetry avail to invest him with the power I describe. These are feather-weights; they want ballast. A measure of sound, solid, practical sense would have stood him in better stead with me."
"You and Henry rave about poetry! You used to catch fire like tinder on the subject when you were a girl."
"O uncle, there is nothing really valuable in this world, there is nothing glorious in the world to come that is not poetry!"
"Marry a poet, then, in God's name!"
"Show him me, and I will."
"Not at all. You are almost as good a poet as he."
"Madam, you are wandering from the point."
"Indeed, uncle, I wanted to do so, and I shall be glad to lead you away with me. Do not let us get out of temper with each other; it is not worth while."
"Out of temper, Miss Keeldar! I should be glad to know who is out of temper."
"I am not, yet."
"If you mean to insinuate that I am, I consider that you are guilty of impertinence."
"You will be soon, if you go on at that rate."
"There it is! With your pert tongue you would try the patience of a Job."
"I know I should."
"No levity, miss! This is not a laughing matter. It is an affair I am resolved to probe thoroughly, convinced that there is mischief at the bottom. You described just now, with far too much freedom for your years and sex, the sort of individual you would prefer as a husband. Pray, did you paint from the life?"
Shirley opened her lips, but instead of speaking she only glowed rose-red.
"I shall have an answer to that question," affirmed Mr. Sympson, assuming vast courage and consequence on the strength of this symptom of confusion.
"It was an historical picture, uncle, from several originals."
"Several originals! Bless my heart!"
"I have been in love several times."
"This is cynical."
"With heroes of many nations."
"She is mad——"
"Don't ring the bell, uncle; you will alarm my aunt."
"Your poor dear aunt, what a niece has she!"
"Once I loved Socrates."
"Pooh! no trifling, ma'am."
"I admired Themistocles, Leonidas, Epaminondas."
"To pass over a few centuries, Washington was a plain man, but I liked him; but to speak of the actual present——"
"Ah! the actual present."
"To quit crude schoolgirl fancies, and come to realities."
"Realities! That is the test to which you shall be brought, ma'am."
"To avow before what altar I now kneel—to reveal the present idol of my soul——"
"You will make haste about it, if you please. It is near luncheon time, and confess you shall."
"Confess I must. My heart is full of the secret. It must be spoken. I only wish you were Mr. Helstone instead of Mr. Sympson; you would sympathize with me better."
"Madam, it is a question of common sense and common prudence, not of sympathy and sentiment, and so on. Did you say it was Mr. Helstone?"
"Not precisely, but as near as may be; they are rather alike."
"I will know the name; I will have particulars."
"They positively are rather alike. Their very faces are not dissimilar—a pair of human falcons—and dry, direct, decided both. But my hero is the mightier of the two. His mind has the clearness of the deep sea, the patience of its rocks, the force of its billows."
"Rant and fustian!"
"I dare say he can be harsh as a saw-edge and gruff as a hungry raven."
"Miss Keeldar, does the person reside in Briarfield? Answer me that."
"Uncle, I am going to tell you; his name is trembling on my tongue."
"That was well said, uncle. 'Speak, girl!' It is quite tragic. England has howled savagely against this man, uncle, and she will one day roar exultingly over him. He has been unscared by the howl, and he will be unelated by the shout."
"I said she was mad. She is."
"This country will change and change again in her demeanour to him; he will never change in his duty to her. Come, cease to chafe, uncle, I'll tell you his name."
"You shall tell me, or——"
"Listen! Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington."
Mr. Sympson rose up furious. He bounced out of the room, but immediately bounced back again, shut the door, and resumed his seat.
"Ma'am, you shall tell me this. Will your principles permit you to marry a man without money—a man below you?"
"Never a man below me."
(In a high voice.) "Will you, Miss Keeldar, marry a poor man?"
"What right have you, Mr. Sympson, to ask me?"
"I insist upon knowing."
"You don't go the way to know."
"My family respectability shall not be compromised."
"A good resolution; keep it."
"Madam, it is you who shall keep it."
"Impossible, sir, since I form no part of your family."
"Do you disown us?"
"I disdain your dictatorship."
"Whom will you marry, Miss Keeldar?"
"Not Mr. Sam Wynne, because I scorn him; not Sir Philip Nunnely, because I only esteem him."
"Whom have you in your eye?"
"Four rejected candidates."
"Such obstinacy could not be unless you were under improper influence."
"What do you mean? There are certain phrases potent to make my blood boil. Improper influence! What old woman's cackle is that?"
"Are you a young lady?"
"I am a thousand times better: I am an honest woman, and as such I will be treated."
"Do you know" (leaning mysteriously forward, and speaking with ghastly solemnity)—"do you know the whole neighbourhood teems with rumours respecting you and a bankrupt tenant of yours, the foreigner Moore?"
"It does. Your name is in every mouth."
"It honours the lips it crosses, and I wish to the gods it may purify them."
"Is it that person who has power to influence you?"
"Beyond any whose cause you have advocated."
"Is it he you will marry?"
"He is handsome, and manly, and commanding."
"You declare it to my face! The Flemish knave! the low trader!"
"He is talented, and venturous, and resolute. Prince is on his brow, and ruler in his bearing."
"She glories in it! She conceals nothing! No shame, no fear!"
"When we speak the name of Moore, shame should be forgotten and fear discarded. The Moores know only honour and courage."
"I say she is mad."
"You have taunted me till my blood is up; you have worried me till I turn again."
"That Moore is the brother of my son's tutor. Would you let the usher call you sister?"
Bright and broad shone Shirley's eye as she fixed it on her questioner now.
"No, no; not for a province of possession, not for a century of life."
"You cannot separate the husband from his family."
"Mr. Louis Moore's sister you will be."
"Mr. Sympson, I am sick at heart with all this weak trash; I will bear no more. Your thoughts are not my thoughts, your aims are not my aims, your gods are not my gods. We do not view things in the same light; we do not measure them by the same standard; we hardly speak in the same tongue. Let us part."
"It is not," she resumed, much excited—"it is not that I hate you; you are a good sort of man. Perhaps you mean well in your way. But we cannot suit; we are ever at variance. You annoy me with small meddling, with petty tyranny; you exasperate my temper, and make and keep me passionate. As to your small maxims, your narrow rules, your little prejudices, aversions, dogmas, bundle them off. Mr. Sympson, go, offer them a sacrifice to the deity you worship; I'll none of them. I wash my hands of the lot. I walk by another creed, light, faith, and hope than you."
"Another creed! I believe she is an infidel."
"An infidel to your religion, an atheist to your god."
"Your god, sir, is the world. In my eyes you too, if not an infidel, are an idolater. I conceive that you ignorantly worship; in all things you appear to me too superstitious. Sir, your god, your great Bel, your fish-tailed Dagon, rises before me as a demon. You, and such as you, have raised him to a throne, put on him a crown, given him a sceptre. Behold how hideously he governs! See him busied at the work he likes best—making marriages. He binds the young to the old, the strong to the imbecile. He stretches out the arm of Mezentius, and fetters the dead to the living. In his realm there is hatred—secret hatred; there is disgust—unspoken disgust; there is treachery—family treachery; there is vice—deep, deadly domestic vice. In his dominions children grow unloving between parents who have never loved; infants are nursed on deception from their very birth; they are reared in an atmosphere corrupt with lies. Your god rules at the bridal of kings; look at your royal dynasties! Your deity is the deity of foreign aristocracies; analyze the blue blood of Spain! Your god is the Hymen of France; what is French domestic life? All that surrounds him hastens to decay; all declines and degenerates under his sceptre. Your god is a masked Death."
"This language is terrible! My daughters and you must associate no longer, Miss Keeldar; there is danger in such companionship. Had I known you a little earlier—but, extraordinary as I thought you, I could not have believed——"
"Now, sir, do you begin to be aware that it is useless to scheme for me; that in doing so you but sow the wind to reap the whirlwind? I sweep your cobweb projects from my path, that I may pass on unsullied. I am anchored on a resolve you cannot shake. My heart, my conscience shall dispose of my hand—they only. Know this at last."
Mr. Sympson was becoming a little bewildered.
"Never heard such language!" he muttered again and again; "never was so addressed in my life—never was so used!"
"You are quite confused, sir. You had better withdraw, or I will."
He rose hastily. "We must leave this place; they must pack up at once."
"Do not hurry my aunt and cousins; give them time."
"No more intercourse; she's not proper."
He made his way to the door. He came back for his handkerchief. He dropped his snuff-box, leaving the contents scattered on the carpet; he stumbled out. Tartar lay outside across the mat; Mr. Sympson almost fell over him. In the climax of his exasperation he hurled an oath at the dog and a coarse epithet at his mistress.
"Poor Mr. Sympson! he is both feeble and vulgar," said Shirley to herself. "My head aches, and I am tired," she added; and leaning her head upon a cushion, she softly subsided from excitement to repose. One, entering the room a quarter of an hour afterwards, found her asleep. When Shirley had been agitated, she generally took this natural refreshment; it would come at her call.
The intruder paused in her unconscious presence, and said, "Miss Keeldar."
Perhaps his voice harmonized with some dream into which she was passing. It did not startle, it hardly roused her. Without opening her eyes, she but turned her head a little, so that her cheek and profile, before hidden by her arm, became visible. She looked rosy, happy, half smiling, but her eyelashes were wet. She had wept in slumber; or perhaps, before dropping asleep, a few natural tears had fallen after she had heard that epithet. No man—no woman—is always strong, always able to bear up against the unjust opinion, the vilifying word. Calumny, even from the mouth of a fool, will sometimes cut into unguarded feelings. Shirley looked like a child that had been naughty and punished, but was now forgiven and at rest.
"Miss Keeldar," again said the voice. This time it woke her. She looked up, and saw at her side Louis Moore—not close at her side, but standing, with arrested step, two or three yards from her.
"O Mr. Moore!" she said. "I was afraid it was my uncle again: he and I have quarrelled."
"Mr. Sympson should let you alone," was the reply. "Can he not see that you are as yet far from strong?"
"I assure you he did not find me weak. I did not cry when he was here."
"He is about to evacuate Fieldhead—so he says. He is now giving orders to his family. He has been in the schoolroom issuing commands in a manner which, I suppose, was a continuation of that with which he has harassed you."
"Are you and Henry to go?"
"I believe, as far as Henry is concerned, that was the tenor of his scarcely intelligible directions; but he may change all to-morrow. He is just in that mood when you cannot depend on his consistency for two consecutive hours. I doubt whether he will leave you for weeks yet. To myself he addressed some words which will require a little attention and comment by-and-by, when I have time to bestow on them. At the moment he came in I was busied with a note I had got from Mr. Yorke—so fully busied that I cut short the interview with him somewhat abruptly. I left him raving. Here is the note. I wish you to see it. It refers to my brother Robert." And he looked at Shirley.
"I shall be glad to hear news of him. Is he coming home?"
"He is come. He is in Yorkshire. Mr. Yorke went yesterday to Stilbro' to meet him."
"Mr. Moore, something is wrong——"
"Did my voice tremble? He is now at Briarmains, and I am going to see him."
"What has occurred?"
"If you turn so pale I shall be sorry I have spoken. It might have been worse. Robert is not dead, but much hurt."
"O sir, it is you who are pale. Sit down near me."
"Read the note. Let me open it."
Miss Keeldar read the note. It briefly signified that last night Robert Moore had been shot at from behind the wall of Milldean plantation, at the foot of the Brow; that he was wounded severely, but it was hoped not fatally. Of the assassin, or assassins, nothing was known; they had escaped. "No doubt," Mr. Yorke observed, "it was done in revenge. It was a pity ill-will had ever been raised; but that could not be helped now."
"He is my only brother," said Louis, as Shirley returned the note. "I cannot hear unmoved that ruffians have laid in wait for him, and shot him down, like some wild beast from behind a wall."
"Be comforted; be hopeful. He will get better—I know he will."
Shirley, solicitous to soothe, held her hand over Mr. Moore's as it lay on the arm of the chair. She just touched it lightly, scarce palpably.
"Well, give me your hand," he said. "It will be for the first time; it is in a moment of calamity. Give it me."
Awaiting neither consent nor refusal, he took what he asked.
"I am going to Briarmains now," he went on. "I want you to step over to the rectory and tell Caroline Helstone what has happened. Will you do this? She will hear it best from you."
"Immediately," said Shirley, with docile promptitude. "Ought I to say that there is no danger?"
"You will come back soon, and let me know more?"
"I will either come or write."
"Trust me for watching over Caroline. I will communicate with your sister too; but doubtless she is already with Robert?"
"Doubtless, or will be soon. Good-morning now."
"You will bear up, come what may."
"We shall see that."
Shirley's fingers were obliged to withdraw from the tutor's. Louis was obliged to relinquish that hand folded, clasped, hidden in his own.
"I thought I should have had to support her," he said, as he walked towards Briarmains, "and it is she who has made me strong. That look of pity, that gentle touch! No down was ever softer, no elixir more potent! It lay like a snowflake; it thrilled like lightning. A thousand times I have longed to possess that hand—to have it in mine. I have possessed it; for five minutes I held it. Her fingers and mine can never be strangers more. Having met once they must meet again."
THE SCHOOLBOY AND THE WOOD-NYMPH.
Briarmains being nearer than the Hollow, Mr. Yorke had conveyed his young comrade there. He had seen him laid in the best bed of the house, as carefully as if he had been one of his own sons. The sight of his blood, welling from the treacherously inflicted wound, made him indeed the son of the Yorkshire gentleman's heart. The spectacle of the sudden event, of the tall, straight shape prostrated in its pride across the road, of the fine southern head laid low in the dust, of that youth in prime flung at once before him pallid, lifeless, helpless—this was the very combination of circumstances to win for the victim Mr. Yorke's liveliest interest.
No other hand was there to raise—to aid, no other voice to question kindly, no other brain to concert measures; he had to do it all himself. This utter dependence of the speechless, bleeding youth (as a youth he regarded him) on his benevolence secured that benevolence most effectually. Well did Mr. Yorke like to have power, and to use it. He had now between his hands power over a fellow-creature's life. It suited him.
No less perfectly did it suit his saturnine better half. The incident was quite in her way and to her taste. Some women would have been terror-struck to see a gory man brought in over their threshold, and laid down in their hall in the "howe of the night." There, you would suppose, was subject-matter for hysterics. No. Mrs. Yorke went into hysterics when Jessie would not leave the garden to come to her knitting, or when Martin proposed starting for Australia, with a view to realize freedom and escape the tyranny of Matthew; but an attempted murder near her door—a half-murdered man in her best bed—set her straight, cheered her spirits, gave her cap the dash of a turban.
Mrs. Yorke was just the woman who, while rendering miserable the drudging life of a simple maid-servant, would nurse like a heroine a hospital full of plague patients. She almost loved Moore. Her tough heart almost yearned towards him when she found him committed to her charge—left in her arms, as dependent on her as her youngest-born in the cradle. Had she seen a domestic or one of her daughters give him a draught of water or smooth his pillow, she would have boxed the intruder's ears. She chased Jessie and Rose from the upper realm of the house; she forbade the housemaids to set their foot in it.
Now, if the accident had happened at the rectory gates, and old Helstone had taken in the martyr, neither Yorke nor his wife would have pitied him. They would have adjudged him right served for his tyranny and meddling. As it was, he became, for the present, the apple of their eye.
Strange! Louis Moore was permitted to come—to sit down on the edge of the bed and lean over the pillow; to hold his brother's hand, and press his pale forehead with his fraternal lips; and Mrs. Yorke bore it well. She suffered him to stay half the day there; she once suffered him to sit up all night in the chamber; she rose herself at five o'clock of a wet November morning, and with her own hands lit the kitchen fire, and made the brothers a breakfast, and served it to them herself. Majestically arrayed in a boundless flannel wrapper, a shawl, and her nightcap, she sat and watched them eat, as complacently as a hen beholds her chickens feed. Yet she gave the cook warning that day for venturing to make and carry up to Mr. Moore a basin of sago-gruel; and the housemaid lost her favour because, when Mr. Louis was departing, she brought him his surtout aired from the kitchen, and, like a "forward piece" as she was, helped him on with it, and accepted in return a smile, a "Thank you, my girl," and a shilling. Two ladies called one day, pale and anxious, and begged earnestly, humbly, to be allowed to see Mr. Moore one instant. Mrs. Yorke hardened her heart, and sent them packing—not without opprobrium.
But how was it when Hortense Moore came? Not so bad as might have been expected. The whole family of the Moores really seemed to suit Mrs. Yorke so as no other family had ever suited her. Hortense and she possessed an exhaustless mutual theme of conversation in the corrupt propensities of servants. Their views of this class were similar; they watched them with the same suspicion, and judged them with the same severity. Hortense, too, from the very first showed no manner of jealousy of Mrs. Yorke's attentions to Robert—she let her keep the post of nurse with little interference; and, for herself, found ceaseless occupation in fidgeting about the house, holding the kitchen under surveillance, reporting what passed there, and, in short, making herself generally useful. Visitors they both of them agreed in excluding sedulously from the sickroom. They held the young mill-owner captive, and hardly let the air breathe or the sun shine on him.
Mr. MacTurk, the surgeon to whom Moore's case had been committed, pronounced his wound of a dangerous, but, he trusted, not of a hopeless character. At first he wished to place with him a nurse of his own selection; but this neither Mrs. Yorke nor Hortense would hear of. They promised faithful observance of directions. He was left, therefore, for the present in their hands.
Doubtless they executed the trust to the best of their ability; but something got wrong. The bandages were displaced or tampered with; great loss of blood followed. MacTurk, being summoned, came with steed afoam. He was one of those surgeons whom it is dangerous to vex—abrupt in his best moods, in his worst savage. On seeing Moore's state he relieved his feelings by a little flowery language, with which it is not necessary to strew the present page. A bouquet or two of the choicest blossoms fell on the unperturbed head of one Mr. Graves, a stony young assistant he usually carried about with him; with a second nosegay he gifted another young gentleman in his train—an interesting fac-simile of himself, being indeed his own son; but the full corbeille of blushing bloom fell to the lot of meddling womankind, en masse.
For the best part of one winter night himself and satellites were busied about Moore. There at his bedside, shut up alone with him in his chamber, they wrought and wrangled over his exhausted frame. They three were on one side of the bed, and Death on the other. The conflict was sharp; it lasted till day broke, when the balance between the belligerents seemed so equal that both parties might have claimed the victory.
At dawn Graves and young MacTurk were left in charge of the patient, while the senior went himself in search of additional strength, and secured it in the person of Mrs. Horsfall, the best nurse on his staff. To this woman he gave Moore in charge, with the sternest injunctions respecting the responsibility laid on her shoulders. She took this responsibility stolidly, as she did also the easy-chair at the bedhead. That moment she began her reign.
Mrs. Horsfall had one virtue—orders received from MacTurk she obeyed to the letter. The ten commandments were less binding in her eyes than her surgeon's dictum. In other respects she was no woman, but a dragon. Hortense Moore fell effaced before her; Mrs. Yorke withdrew—crushed; yet both these women were personages of some dignity in their own estimation, and of some bulk in the estimation of others. Perfectly cowed by the breadth, the height, the bone, and the brawn of Mrs. Horsfall, they retreated to the back parlour. She, for her part, sat upstairs when she liked, and downstairs when she preferred it. She took her dram three times a day, and her pipe of tobacco four times.
As to Moore, no one now ventured to inquire about him. Mrs. Horsfall had him at dry-nurse. It was she who was to do for him, and the general conjecture now ran that she did for him accordingly.
Morning and evening MacTurk came to see him. His case, thus complicated by a new mischance, was become one of interest in the surgeon's eyes. He regarded him as a damaged piece of clockwork, which it would be creditable to his skill to set agoing again. Graves and young MacTurk—Moore's sole other visitors—contemplated him in the light in which they were wont to contemplate the occupant for the time being of the dissecting-room at Stilbro' Infirmary.
Robert Moore had a pleasant time of it—in pain, in danger, too weak to move, almost too weak to speak, a sort of giantess his keeper, the three surgeons his sole society. Thus he lay through the diminishing days and lengthening nights of the whole drear month of November.
In the commencement of his captivity Moore used feebly to resist Mrs. Horsfall. He hated the sight of her rough bulk, and dreaded the contact of her hard hands; but she taught him docility in a trice. She made no account whatever of his six feet, his manly thews and sinews; she turned him in his bed as another woman would have turned a babe in its cradle. When he was good she addressed him as "my dear" and "honey," and when he was bad she sometimes shook him. Did he attempt to speak when MacTurk was there, she lifted her hand and bade him "Hush!" like a nurse checking a forward child. If she had not smoked, if she had not taken gin, it would have been better, he thought; but she did both. Once, in her absence, he intimated to MacTurk that "that woman was a dram-drinker."
"Pooh! my dear sir, they are all so," was the reply he got for his pains. "But Horsfall has this virtue," added the surgeon—"drunk or sober, she always remembers to obey me."
* * * * *
At length the latter autumn passed; its fogs, its rains withdrew from England their mourning and their tears; its winds swept on to sigh over lands far away. Behind November came deep winter—clearness, stillness, frost accompanying.
A calm day had settled into a crystalline evening. The world wore a North Pole colouring; all its lights and tints looked like the reflets[A] of white, or violet, or pale green gems. The hills wore a lilac blue; the setting sun had purple in its red; the sky was ice, all silvered azure; when the stars rose, they were of white crystal, not gold; gray, or cerulean, or faint emerald hues—cool, pure, and transparent—tinged the mass of the landscape.
[A] Find me an English word as good, reader, and I will gladly dispense with the French word. "Reflections" won't do.
What is this by itself in a wood no longer green, no longer even russet, a wood neutral tint—this dark blue moving object? Why, it is a schoolboy—a Briarfield grammar-school boy—who has left his companions, now trudging home by the highroad, and is seeking a certain tree, with a certain mossy mound at its root, convenient as a seat. Why is he lingering here? The air is cold and the time wears late. He sits down. What is he thinking about? Does he feel the chaste charm Nature wears to-night? A pearl-white moon smiles through the gray trees; does he care for her smile?
Impossible to say; for he is silent, and his countenance does not speak. As yet it is no mirror to reflect sensation, but rather a mask to conceal it. This boy is a stripling of fifteen—slight, and tall of his years. In his face there is as little of amenity as of servility, his eye seems prepared to note any incipient attempt to control or overreach him, and the rest of his features indicate faculties alert for resistance. Wise ushers avoid unnecessary interference with that lad. To break him in by severity would be a useless attempt; to win him by flattery would be an effort worse than useless. He is best let alone. Time will educate and experience train him.
Professedly Martin Yorke (it is a young Yorke, of course) tramples on the name of poetry. Talk sentiment to him, and you would be answered by sarcasm. Here he is, wandering alone, waiting duteously on Nature, while she unfolds a page of stern, of silent, and of solemn poetry beneath his attentive gaze.
Being seated, he takes from his satchel a book—not the Latin grammar, but a contraband volume of fairy tales. There will be light enough yet for an hour to serve his keen young vision. Besides, the moon waits on him; her beam, dim and vague as yet, fills the glade where he sits.
He reads. He is led into a solitary mountain region; all round him is rude and desolate, shapeless, and almost colourless. He hears bells tinkle on the wind. Forth-riding from the formless folds of the mist dawns on him the brightest vision—a green-robed lady, on a snow-white palfrey. He sees her dress, her gems, and her steed. She arrests him with some mysterious question. He is spell-bound, and must follow her into fairyland.
A second legend bears him to the sea-shore. There tumbles in a strong tide, boiling at the base of dizzy cliffs. It rains and blows. A reef of rocks, black and rough, stretches far into the sea. All along, and among, and above these crags dash and flash, sweep and leap, swells, wreaths, drifts of snowy spray. Some lone wanderer is out on these rocks, treading with cautious step the wet, wild seaweed; glancing down into hollows where the brine lies fathoms deep and emerald clear, and seeing there wilder and stranger and huger vegetation than is found on land, with treasure of shells—some green, some purple, some pearly—clustered in the curls of the snaky plants. He hears a cry. Looking up and forward, he sees, at the bleak point of the reef, a tall, pale thing—shaped like man, but made of spray—transparent, tremulous, awful. It stands not alone. They are all human figures that wanton in the rocks—a crowd of foam-women—a band of white, evanescent Nereids.
Hush! Shut the book; hide it in the satchel. Martin hears a tread. He listens. No—yes. Once more the dead leaves, lightly crushed, rustle on the wood path. Martin watches; the trees part, and a woman issues forth.
She is a lady dressed in dark silk, a veil covering her face. Martin never met a lady in this wood before—nor any female, save, now and then, a village girl come to gather nuts. To-night the apparition does not displease him. He observes, as she approaches, that she is neither old nor plain, but, on the contrary, very youthful; and, but that he now recognizes her for one whom he has often wilfully pronounced ugly, he would deem that he discovered traits of beauty behind the thin gauze of that veil.
She passes him and says nothing. He knew she would. All women are proud monkeys, and he knows no more conceited doll than that Caroline Helstone. The thought is hardly hatched in his mind when the lady retraces those two steps she had got beyond him, and raising her veil, reposes her glance on his face, while she softly asks, "Are you one of Mr. Yorke's sons?"
No human evidence would ever have been able to persuade Martin Yorke that he blushed when thus addressed; yet blush he did, to the ears.
"I am," he said bluntly, and encouraged himself to wonder, superciliously, what would come next.
"You are Martin, I think?" was the observation that followed.
It could not have been more felicitous. It was a simple sentence—very artlessly, a little timidly, pronounced; but it chimed in harmony to the youth's nature. It stilled him like a note of music.
Martin had a keen sense of his personality; he felt it right and sensible that the girl should discriminate him from his brothers. Like his father, he hated ceremony. It was acceptable to hear a lady address him as "Martin," and not Mr. Martin or Master Martin, which form would have lost her his good graces for ever. Worse, if possible, than ceremony was the other extreme of slipshod familiarity. The slight tone of bashfulness, the scarcely perceptible hesitation, was considered perfectly in place.
"I am Martin," he said.
"Are your father and mother well?" (it was lucky she did not say papa and mamma; that would have undone all); "and Rose and Jessie?"
"I suppose so."
"My cousin Hortense is still at Briarmains?"
Martin gave a comic half-smile and demi-groan. The half-smile was responded to by the lady, who could guess in what sort of odour Hortense was likely to be held by the young Yorkes.
"Does your mother like her?"
"They suit so well about the servants they can't help liking each other."
"It is cold to-night."
"Why are you out so late?"
"I lost my way in this wood."
Now, indeed, Martin allowed himself a refreshing laugh of scorn.
"Lost your way in the mighty forest of Briarmains! You deserve never more to find it."
"I never was here before, and I believe I am trespassing now. You might inform against me if you chose, Martin, and have me fined. It is your father's wood."
"I should think I knew that. But since you are so simple as to lose your way, I will guide you out."
"You need not. I have got into the track now. I shall be right. Martin" (a little quickly), "how is Mr. Moore?"
Martin had heard certain rumours; it struck him that it might be amusing to make an experiment.
"Going to die. Nothing can save him. All hope flung overboard!"
She put her veil aside. She looked into his eyes, and said, "To die!"
"To die. All along of the women, my mother and the rest. They did something about his bandages that finished everything. He would have got better but for them. I am sure they should be arrested, cribbed, tried, and brought in for Botany Bay, at the very least."
The questioner, perhaps, did nor hear this judgment. She stood motionless. In two minutes, without another word, she moved forwards; no good-night, no further inquiry. This was not amusing, nor what Martin had calculated on. He expected something dramatic and demonstrative. It was hardly worth while to frighten the girl if she would not entertain him in return. He called, "Miss Helstone!"
She did not hear or turn. He hastened after and overtook her.
"Come; are you uneasy about what I said?"
"You know nothing about death, Martin; you are too young for me to talk to concerning such a thing."
"Did you believe me? It's all flummery! Moore eats like three men. They are always making sago or tapioca or something good for him. I never go into the kitchen but there is a saucepan on the fire, cooking him some dainty. I think I will play the old soldier, and be fed on the fat of the land like him."
"Martin! Martin!" Here her voice trembled, and she stopped.
"It is exceedingly wrong of you, Martin. You have almost killed me."
Again she stopped. She leaned against a tree, trembling, shuddering, and as pale as death.
Martin contemplated her with inexpressible curiosity. In one sense it was, as he would have expressed it, "nuts" to him to see this. It told him so much, and he was beginning to have a great relish for discovering secrets. In another sense it reminded him of what he had once felt when he had heard a blackbird lamenting for her nestlings, which Matthew had crushed with a stone, and that was not a pleasant feeling. Unable to find anything very appropriate to say in order to comfort her, he began to cast about in his mind what he could do. He smiled. The lad's smile gave wondrous transparency to his physiognomy.
"Eureka!" he cried. "I'll set all straight by-and-by. You are better now, Miss Caroline. Walk forward," he urged.
Not reflecting that it would be more difficult for Miss Helstone than for himself to climb a wall or penetrate a hedge, he piloted her by a short cut which led to no gate. The consequence was he had to help her over some formidable obstacles, and while he railed at her for helplessness, he perfectly liked to feel himself of use.
"Martin, before we separate, assure me seriously, and on your word of honour, that Mr. Moore is better."
"How very much you think of that Moore!"
"No—but—many of his friends may ask me, and I wish to be able to give an authentic answer."
"You may tell them he is well enough, only idle. You may tell them that he takes mutton chops for dinner, and the best of arrowroot for supper. I intercepted a basin myself one night on its way upstairs, and ate half of it."
"And who waits on him, Martin? who nurses him?"
"Nurses him? The great baby! Why, a woman as round and big as our largest water-butt—a rough, hard-favoured old girl. I make no doubt she leads him a rich life. Nobody else is let near him. He is chiefly in the dark. It is my belief she knocks him about terribly in that chamber. I listen at the wall sometimes when I am in bed, and I think I hear her thumping him. You should see her fist. She could hold half a dozen hands like yours in her one palm. After all, notwithstanding the chops and jellies he gets, I would not be in his shoes. In fact, it is my private opinion that she eats most of what goes up on the tray to Mr. Moore. I wish she may not be starving him."
Profound silence and meditation on Caroline's part, and a sly watchfulness on Martin's.
"You never see him, I suppose, Martin?"
"I? No. I don't care to see him, for my own part."
"Did not you come to our house once with Mrs. Pryor, about five weeks since, to ask after him?" again inquired Martin.
"I dare say you wished to be shown upstairs?"
"We did wish it. We entreated it; but your mother declined."
"Ay! she declined. I heard it all. She treated you as it is her pleasure to treat visitors now and then. She behaved to you rudely and harshly."
"She was not kind; for you know, Martin, we are relations, and it is natural we should take an interest in Mr. Moore. But here we must part; we are at your father's gate."
"Very well, what of that? I shall walk home with you."
"They will miss you, and wonder where you are."
"Let them. I can take care of myself, I suppose."
Martin knew that he had already incurred the penalty of a lecture, and dry bread for his tea. No matter; the evening had furnished him with an adventure. It was better than muffins and toast.
He walked home with Caroline. On the way he promised to see Mr. Moore, in spite of the dragon who guarded his chamber, and appointed an hour on the next day when Caroline was to come to Briarmains Wood and get tidings of him. He would meet her at a certain tree. The scheme led to nothing; still he liked it.
Having reached home, the dry bread and the lecture were duly administered to him, and he was dismissed to bed at an early hour. He accepted his punishment with the toughest stoicism.
Ere ascending to his chamber he paid a secret visit to the dining-room, a still, cold, stately apartment, seldom used, for the family customarily dined in the back parlour. He stood before the mantelpiece, and lifted his candle to two pictures hung above—female heads: one, a type of serene beauty, happy and innocent; the other, more lovely, but forlorn and desperate.
"She looked like that," he said, gazing on the latter sketch, "when she sobbed, turned white, and leaned against the tree."
"I suppose," he pursued, when he was in his room, and seated on the edge of his pallet-bed—"I suppose she is what they call 'in love'—yes, in love with that long thing in the next chamber. Whisht! is that Horsfall clattering him? I wonder he does not yell out. It really sounds as if she had fallen on him tooth and nail; but I suppose she is making the bed. I saw her at it once. She hit into the mattresses as if she was boxing. It is queer, Zillah (they call her Zillah)—Zillah Horsfall is a woman, and Caroline Helstone is a woman; they are two individuals of the same species—not much alike though. Is she a pretty girl, that Caroline? I suspect she is; very nice to look at—something so clear in her face, so soft in her eyes. I approve of her looking at me; it does me good. She has long eyelashes. Their shadow seems to rest where she gazes, and to instil peace and thought. If she behaves well, and continues to suit me as she has suited me to-day, I may do her a good turn. I rather relish the notion of circumventing my mother and that ogress old Horsfall. Not that I like humouring Moore; but whatever I do I'll be paid for, and in coin of my own choosing. I know what reward I will claim—one displeasing to Moore, and agreeable to myself."
He turned into bed.
It was necessary to the arrangement of Martin's plan that he should stay at home that day. Accordingly, he found no appetite for breakfast, and just about school-time took a severe pain about his heart, which rendered it advisable that, instead of setting out to the grammar school with Mark, he should succeed to his father's arm-chair by the fireside, and also to his morning paper. This point being satisfactorily settled, and Mark being gone to Mr. Summer's class, and Matthew and Mr. Yorke withdrawn to the counting-house, three other exploits—nay, four—remained to be achieved.
The first of these was to realize the breakfast he had not yet tasted, and with which his appetite of fifteen could ill afford to dispense; the second, third, fourth, to get his mother, Miss Moore, and Mrs. Horsfall successfully out of the way before four o'clock that afternoon.
The first was, for the present, the most pressing, since the work before him demanded an amount of energy which the present empty condition of his youthful stomach did not seem likely to supply.
Martin knew the way to the larder, and knowing this way he took it. The servants were in the kitchen, breakfasting solemnly with closed doors; his mother and Miss Moore were airing themselves on the lawn, and discussing the closed doors aforesaid. Martin, safe in the larder, made fastidious selection from its stores. His breakfast had been delayed; he was determined it should be recherche. It appeared to him that a variety on his usual somewhat insipid fare of bread and milk was both desirable and advisable; the savoury and the salutary he thought might be combined. There was store of rosy apples laid in straw upon a shelf; he picked out three. There was pastry upon a dish; he selected an apricot puff and a damson tart. On the plain household bread his eye did not dwell; but he surveyed with favour some currant tea-cakes, and condescended to make choice of one. Thanks to his clasp-knife, he was able to appropriate a wing of fowl and a slice of ham; a cantlet of cold custard-pudding he thought would harmonize with these articles; and having made this final addition to his booty, he at length sallied forth into the hall.
He was already half-way across—three steps more would have anchored him in the harbour of the back parlour—when the front door opened, and there stood Matthew. Better far had it been the Old Gentleman, in full equipage of horns, hoofs, and tail.
Matthew, sceptic and scoffer, had already failed to subscribe a prompt belief in that pain about the heart. He had muttered some words, amongst which the phrase "shamming Abraham" had been very distinctly audible, and the succession to the armchair and newspaper had appeared to affect him with mental spasms. The spectacle now before him—the apples, the tarts, the tea-cakes, the fowl, ham, and pudding—offered evidence but too well calculated to inflate his opinion of his own sagacity.
Martin paused interdit one minute, one instant; the next he knew his ground, and pronounced all well. With the true perspicacity des ames elites, he at once saw how this at first sight untoward event might be turned to excellent account. He saw how it might be so handled as to secure the accomplishment of his second task—namely, the disposal of his mother. He knew that a collision between him and Matthew always suggested to Mrs. Yorke the propriety of a fit of hysterics. He further knew that, on the principle of calm succeeding to storm, after a morning of hysterics his mother was sure to indulge in an afternoon of bed. This would accommodate him perfectly.
The collision duly took place in the hall. A dry laugh, an insulting sneer, a contemptuous taunt, met by a nonchalant but most cutting reply, were the signals. They rushed at it. Martin, who usually made little noise on these occasions, made a great deal now. In flew the servants, Mrs. Yorke, Miss Moore. No female hand could separate them. Mr. Yorke was summoned.
"Sons," said he, "one of you must leave my roof if this occurs again. I will have no Cain and Abel strife here."
Martin now allowed himself to be taken off. He had been hurt; he was the youngest and slightest. He was quite cool, in no passion; he even smiled, content that the most difficult part of the labour he had set himself was over.
Once he seemed to flag in the course of the morning.
"It is not worth while to bother myself for that Caroline," he remarked. But a quarter of an hour afterwards he was again in the dining-room, looking at the head with dishevelled tresses, and eyes turbid with despair.
"Yes," he said, "I made her sob, shudder, almost faint. I'll see her smile before I've done with her; besides, I want to outwit all these womenites."
Directly after dinner Mrs. Yorke fulfilled her son's calculation by withdrawing to her chamber. Now for Hortense.
That lady was just comfortably settled to stocking-mending in the back parlour, when Martin—laying down a book which, stretched on the sofa (he was still indisposed, according to his own account), he had been perusing in all the voluptuous ease of a yet callow pacha—lazily introduced some discourse about Sarah, the maid at the Hollow. In the course of much verbal meandering he insinuated information that this damsel was said to have three suitors—Frederic Murgatroyd, Jeremiah Pighills, and John-of-Mally's-of-Hannah's-of-Deb's; and that Miss Mann had affirmed she knew for a fact that, now the girl was left in sole charge of the cottage, she often had her swains to meals, and entertained them with the best the house afforded.
It needed no more. Hortense could not have lived another hour without betaking herself to the scene of these nefarious transactions, and inspecting the state of matters in person. Mrs. Horsfall remained.
Martin, master of the field now, extracted from his mother's work-basket a bunch of keys; with these he opened the sideboard cupboard, produced thence a black bottle and a small glass, placed them on the table, nimbly mounted the stairs, made for Mr. Moore's door, tapped; the nurse opened.
"If you please, ma'am, you are invited to step into the back parlour and take some refreshment. You will not be disturbed; the family are out."
He watched her down; he watched her in; himself shut the door. He knew she was safe.
The hard work was done; now for the pleasure. He snatched his cap, and away for the wood.
It was yet but half-past three. It had been a fine morning, but the sky looked dark now. It was beginning to snow; the wind blew cold; the wood looked dismal, the old tree grim. Yet Martin approved the shadow on his path. He found a charm in the spectral aspect of the doddered oak.
He had to wait. To and fro he walked, while the flakes fell faster; and the wind, which at first had but moaned, pitifully howled.
"She is long in coming," he muttered, as he glanced along the narrow track. "I wonder," he subjoined, "what I wish to see her so much for? She is not coming for me. But I have power over her, and I want her to come that I may use that power."
He continued his walk.
"Now," he resumed, when a further period had elapsed, "if she fails to come, I shall hate and scorn her."
It struck four. He heard the church clock far away. A step so quick, so light, that, but for the rustling of leaves, it would scarcely have sounded on the wood-walk, checked his impatience. The wind blew fiercely now, and the thickening white storm waxed bewildering; but on she came, and not dismayed.
"Well, Martin," she said eagerly, "how is he?"
"It is queer how she thinks of him," reflected Martin. "The blinding snow and bitter cold are nothing to her, I believe; yet she is but a 'chitty-faced creature,' as my mother would say. I could find in my heart to wish I had a cloak to wrap her in."
Thus meditating to himself, he neglected to answer Miss Helstone.
"You have seen him?"
"Oh! you promised you would."
"I mean to do better by you than that. Didn't I say I don't care to see him?"
"But now it will be so long before I get to know any thing certain about him, and I am sick of waiting. Martin, do see him, and give him Caroline Helstone's regards, and say she wished to know how he was, and if anything could be done for his comfort."
"You are changed. You were so friendly last night."
"Come, we must not stand in this wood; it is too cold."
"But before I go promise me to come again to-morrow with news."
"No such thing. I am much too delicate to make and keep such appointments in the winter season. If you knew what a pain I had in my chest this morning, and how I went without breakfast, and was knocked down besides, you'd feel the impropriety of bringing me here in the snow. Come, I say."
"Are you really delicate, Martin?"
"Don't I look so?"
"You have rosy cheeks."
"That's hectic. Will you come—or you won't?"
"With me. I was a fool not to bring a cloak. I would have made you cosy."
"You are going home; my nearest road lies in the opposite direction."
"Put your arm through mine; I'll take care of you."
"But the wall—the hedge—it is such hard work climbing, and you are too slender and young to help me without hurting yourself."
"You shall go through the gate."
"But, but—will you trust me or not?"
She looked into his face.
"I think I will. Anything rather than return as anxious as I came."
"I can't answer for that. This, however, I promise you: be ruled by me, and you shall see Moore yourself."
"See him myself?"
"But, dear Martin, does he know?"
"Ah! I'm dear now. No, he doesn't know."
"And your mother and the others?"
"All is right."
Caroline fell into a long, silent fit of musing, but still she walked on with her guide. They came in sight of Briarmains.
"Have you made up your mind?" he asked.
She was silent.
"Decide; we are just on the spot. I won't see him—that I tell you—except to announce your arrival."
"Martin, you are a strange boy, and this is a strange step; but all I feel is and has been, for a long time, strange. I will see him."
"Having said that, you will neither hesitate nor retract?"
"Here we are, then. Do not be afraid of passing the parlour window; no one will see you. My father and Matthew are at the mill, Mark is at school, the servants are in the back kitchen, Miss Moore is at the cottage, my mother in her bed, and Mrs. Horsfall in paradise. Observe—I need not ring. I open the door; the hall is empty, the staircase quiet; so is the gallery. The whole house and all its inhabitants are under a spell, which I will not break till you are gone."
"Martin, I trust you."
"You never said a better word. Let me take your shawl. I will shake off the snow and dry it for you. You are cold and wet. Never mind; there is a fire upstairs. Are you ready?"
He left his shoes on the mat, mounted the stair unshod. Caroline stole after, with noiseless step. There was a gallery, and there was a passage; at the end of that passage Martin paused before a door and tapped. He had to tap twice—thrice. A voice, known to one listener, at last said, "Come in."
The boy entered briskly.
"Mr. Moore, a lady called to inquire after you. None of the women were about. It is washing-day, and the maids are over the crown of the head in soap-suds in the back kitchen, so I asked her to step up."
"Up here, sir?"
"Up here, sir; but if you object, she shall go down again."
"Is this a place or am I a person to bring a lady to, you absurd lad?"
"No; so I'll take her off."
"Martin, you will stay here. Who is she?"
"Your grandmother from that chateau on the Scheldt Miss Moore talks about."
"Martin," said the softest whisper at the door, "don't be foolish."
"Is she there?" inquired Moore hastily. He had caught an imperfect sound.
"She is there, fit to faint. She is standing on the mat, shocked at your want of filial affection."
"Martin, you are an evil cross between an imp and a page. What is she like?"
"More like me than you; for she is young and beautiful."
"You are to show her forward. Do you hear?"
"Come, Miss Caroline."
"Miss Caroline!" repeated Moore.
And when Miss Caroline entered she was encountered in the middle of the chamber by a tall, thin, wasted figure, who took both her hands.
"I give you a quarter of an hour," said Martin, as he withdrew, "no more. Say what you have to say in that time. Till it is past I will wait in the gallery; nothing shall approach; I'll see you safe away. Should you persist in staying longer, I leave you to your fate."
He shut the door. In the gallery he was as elate as a king. He had never been engaged in an adventure he liked so well, for no adventure had ever invested him with so much importance or inspired him with so much interest.
"You are come at last," said the meagre man, gazing on his visitress with hollow eyes.
"Did you expect me before?"
"For a month, near two months, we have been very near; and I have been in sad pain, and danger, and misery, Cary."
"I could not come."
"Couldn't you? But the rectory and Briarmains are very near—not two miles apart."
There was pain and there was pleasure in the girl's face as she listened to these implied reproaches. It was sweet, it was bitter to defend herself.
"When I say I could not come, I mean I could not see you; for I came with mamma the very day we heard what had happened. Mr. MacTurk then told us it was impossible to admit any stranger."
"But afterwards—every fine afternoon these many weeks past I have waited and listened. Something here, Cary"—laying his hand on his breast—"told me it was impossible but that you should think of me. Not that I merit thought; but we are old acquaintance—we are cousins."
"I came again, Robert; mamma and I came again."
"Did you? Come, that is worth hearing. Since you came again, we will sit down and talk about it."
They sat down. Caroline drew her chair up to his. The air was now dark with snow; an Iceland blast was driving it wildly. This pair neither heard the long "wuthering" rush, nor saw the white burden it drifted. Each seemed conscious but of one thing—the presence of the other.
"So mamma and you came again?"
"And Mrs. Yorke did treat us strangely. We asked to see you. 'No,' said she, 'not in my house. I am at present responsible for his life; it shall not be forfeited for half an hour's idle gossip.' But I must not tell you all she said; it was very disagreeable. However, we came yet again—mamma, Miss Keeldar, and I. This time we thought we should conquer, as we were three against one, and Shirley was on our side. But Mrs. Yorke opened such a battery."
Moore smiled. "What did she say?"
"Things that astonished us. Shirley laughed at last; I cried; mamma was seriously annoyed. We were all three driven from the field. Since that time I have only walked once a day past the house, just for the satisfaction of looking up at your window, which I could distinguish by the drawn curtains. I really dared not come in."
"I have wished for you, Caroline."
"I did not know that; I never dreamt one instant that you thought of me. If I had but most distantly imagined such a possibility——"
"Mrs. Yorke would still have beaten you."
"She would not. Stratagem should have been tried, if persuasion failed. I would have come to the kitchen door; the servants should have let me in, and I would have walked straight upstairs. In fact, it was far more the fear of intrusion—the fear of yourself—that baffled me than the fear of Mrs. Yorke."
"Only last night I despaired of ever seeing you again. Weakness has wrought terrible depression in me—terrible depression."
"And you sit alone?"
"Worse than alone."
"But you must be getting better, since you can leave your bed?"
"I doubt whether I shall live. I see nothing for it, after such exhaustion, but decline."
"You—you shall go home to the Hollow."
"Dreariness would accompany, nothing cheerful come near me."
"I will alter this. This shall be altered, were there ten Mrs. Yorkes to do battle with."
"Cary, you make me smile."
"Do smile; smile again. Shall I tell you what I should like?"
"Tell me anything—only keep talking. I am Saul; but for music I should perish."
"I should like you to be brought to the rectory, and given to me and mamma."
"A precious gift! I have not laughed since they shot me till now."
"Do you suffer pain, Robert?"
"Not so much pain now; but I am hopelessly weak, and the state of my mind is inexpressible—dark, barren, impotent. Do you not read it all in my face? I look a mere ghost."
"Altered; yet I should have known you anywhere. But I understand your feelings; I experienced something like it. Since we met, I too have been very ill."
"I thought I should die. The tale of my life seemed told. Every night, just at midnight, I used to wake from awful dreams; and the book lay open before me at the last page, where was written 'Finis.' I had strange feelings."
"You speak my experience."
"I believed I should never see you again; and I grew so thin—as thin as you are now. I could do nothing for myself—neither rise nor lie down; and I could not eat. Yet you see I am better."
"Comforter—sad as sweet. I am too feeble to say what I feel; but while you speak I do feel."
"Here I am at your side, where I thought never more to be. Here I speak to you. I see you listen to me willingly—look at me kindly. Did I count on that? I despaired."
Moore sighed—a sigh so deep it was nearly a groan. He covered his eyes with his hand.
"May I be spared to make some atonement."
Such was his prayer.
"And for what?"
"We will not touch on it now, Cary; unmanned as I am, I have not the power to cope with such a topic. Was Mrs. Pryor with you during your illness?"
"Yes"—Caroline smiled brightly—"you know she is mamma?"
"I have heard—Hortense told me; but that tale too I will receive from yourself. Does she add to your happiness?"
"What! mamma? She is dear to me; how dear I cannot say. I was altogether weary, and she held me up."
"I deserve to hear that in a moment when I can scarce lift my hand to my head. I deserve it."
"It is no reproach against you."
"It is a coal of fire heaped on my head; and so is every word you address to me, and every look that lights your sweet face. Come still nearer, Lina; and give me your hand—if my thin fingers do not scare you."
She took those thin fingers between her two little hands; she bent her head et les effleura de ses levres. (I put that in French because the word effleurer is an exquisite word.) Moore was much moved. A large tear or two coursed down his hollow cheek.
"I'll keep these things in my heart, Cary; that kiss I will put by, and you shall hear of it again one day."
"Come out!" cried Martin, opening the door—"come away; you have had twenty minutes instead of a quarter of an hour."
"She will not stir yet, you hempseed."
"I dare not stay longer, Robert."
"Can you promise to return?"
"No, she can't," responded Martin. "The thing mustn't become customary. I can't be troubled. It's very well for once; I'll not have it repeated."
"You'll not have it repeated."
"Hush! don't vex him; we could not have met to-day but for him. But I will come again, if it is your wish that I should come."
"It is my wish—my one wish—almost the only wish I can feel."
"Come this minute. My mother has coughed, got up, set her feet on the floor. Let her only catch you on the stairs, Miss Caroline. You're not to bid him good-bye"—stepping between her and Moore—"you are to march."
"My shawl, Martin."
"I have it. I'll put it on for you when you are in the hall."
He made them part. He would suffer no farewell but what could be expressed in looks. He half carried Caroline down the stairs. In the hall he wrapped her shawl round her, and, but that his mother's tread then creaked in the gallery, and but that a sentiment of diffidence—the proper, natural, therefore the noble impulse of his boy's heart—held him back, he would have claimed his reward; he would have said, "Now, Miss Caroline, for all this give me one kiss." But ere the words had passed his lips she was across the snowy road, rather skimming than wading the drifts.
"She is my debtor, and I will be paid."
He flattered himself that it was opportunity, not audacity, which had failed him. He misjudged the quality of his own nature, and held it for something lower than it was.
CASE OF DOMESTIC PERSECUTION—REMARKABLE INSTANCE OF PIOUS PERSEVERANCE IN THE DISCHARGE OF RELIGIOUS DUTIES.
Martin, having known the taste of excitement, wanted a second draught; having felt the dignity of power, he loathed to relinquish it. Miss Helstone—that girl he had always called ugly, and whose face was now perpetually before his eyes, by day and by night, in dark and in sunshine—had once come within his sphere. It fretted him to think the visit might never be repeated.
Though a schoolboy he was no ordinary schoolboy; he was destined to grow up an original. At a few years' later date he took great pains to pare and polish himself down to the pattern of the rest of the world, but he never succeeded; an unique stamp marked him always. He now sat idle at his desk in the grammar school, casting about in his mind for the means of adding another chapter to his commenced romance. He did not yet know how many commenced life-romances are doomed never to get beyond the first, or at most the second chapter. His Saturday half-holiday he spent in the wood with his book of fairy legends, and that other unwritten book of his imagination.
Martin harboured an irreligious reluctance to see the approach of Sunday. His father and mother, while disclaiming community with the Establishment, failed not duly, once on the sacred day, to fill their large pew in Briarfield Church with the whole of their blooming family. Theoretically, Mr. Yorke placed all sects and churches on a level. Mrs. Yorke awarded the palm to Moravians and Quakers, on account of that crown of humility by these worthies worn. Neither of them were ever known, however, to set foot in a conventicle.
Martin, I say, disliked Sunday, because the morning service was long, and the sermon usually little to his taste. This Saturday afternoon, however, his woodland musings disclosed to him a new-found charm in the coming day.
It proved a day of deep snow—so deep that Mrs. Yorke during breakfast announced her conviction that the children, both boys and girls, would be better at home; and her decision that, instead of going to church, they should sit silent for two hours in the back parlour, while Rose and Martin alternately read a succession of sermons—John Wesley's "Sermons." John Wesley, being a reformer and an agitator, had a place both in her own and her husband's favour.
"Rose will do as she pleases," said Martin, not looking up from the book which, according to his custom then and in after-life, he was studying over his bread and milk.
"Rose will do as she is told, and Martin too," observed the mother.
"I am going to church."
So her son replied, with the ineffable quietude of a true Yorke, who knows his will and means to have it, and who, if pushed to the wall, will let himself be crushed to death, provided no way of escape can be found, but will never capitulate.
"It is not fit weather," said the father.
No answer. The youth read studiously; he slowly broke his bread and sipped his milk.
"Martin hates to go to church, but he hates still more to obey," said Mrs. Yorke.
"I suppose I am influenced by pure perverseness?"
"Yes, you are."
"Mother, I am not."
"By what, then, are you influenced?"
"By a complication of motives, the intricacies of which I should as soon think of explaining to you as I should of turning myself inside out to exhibit the internal machinery of my frame."
"Hear Martin! hear him!" cried Mr. Yorke. "I must see and have this lad of mine brought up to the bar. Nature meant him to live by his tongue. Hesther, your third son must certainly be a lawyer; he has the stock-in-trade—brass, self-conceit, and words—words—words."
"Some bread, Rose, if you please," requested Martin, with intense gravity, serenity, phlegm. The boy had naturally a low, plaintive voice, which in his "dour moods" rose scarcely above a lady's whisper. The more inflexibly stubborn the humour, the softer, the sadder the tone. He rang the bell, and gently asked for his walking-shoes.
"But, Martin," urged his sire, "there is drift all the way; a man could hardly wade through it. However, lad," he continued, seeing that the boy rose as the church bell began to toll, "this is a case wherein I would by no means balk the obdurate chap of his will. Go to church by all means. There is a pitiless wind, and a sharp, frozen sleet, besides the depth under foot. Go out into it, since thou prefers it to a warm fireside."
Martin quietly assumed his cloak, comforter, and cap, and deliberately went out.
"My father has more sense than my mother," he pronounced. "How women miss it! They drive the nail into the flesh, thinking they are hammering away at insensate stone."
He reached church early.
"Now, if the weather frightens her (and it is a real December tempest), or if that Mrs. Pryor objects to her going out, and I should miss her after all, it will vex me; but, tempest or tornado, hail or ice, she ought to come, and if she has a mind worthy of her eyes and features she will come. She will be here for the chance of seeing me, as I am here for the chance of seeing her. She will want to get a word respecting her confounded sweetheart, as I want to get another flavour of what I think the essence of life—a taste of existence, with the spirit preserved in it, and not evaporated. Adventure is to stagnation what champagne is to flat porter."
He looked round. The church was cold, silent, empty, but for one old woman. As the chimes subsided and the single bell tolled slowly, another and another elderly parishioner came dropping in, and took a humble station in the free sittings. It is always the frailest, the oldest, and the poorest that brave the worst weather, to prove and maintain their constancy to dear old mother church. This wild morning not one affluent family attended, not one carriage party appeared—all the lined and cushioned pews were empty; only on the bare oaken seats sat ranged the gray-haired elders and feeble paupers.
"I'll scorn her if she doesn't come," muttered Martin, shortly and savagely, to himself. The rector's shovel-hat had passed the porch. Mr. Helstone and his clerk were in the vestry.
The bells ceased—the reading-desk was filled—the doors were closed—the service commenced. Void stood the rectory pew—she was not there. Martin scorned her.
"Worthless thing! vapid thing! commonplace humbug! Like all other girls—weakly, selfish, shallow!"
Such was Martin's liturgy.
"She is not like our picture. Her eyes are not large and expressive; her nose is not straight, delicate, Hellenic; her mouth has not that charm I thought it had, which I imagined could beguile me of sullenness in my worst moods. What is she? A thread-paper, a doll, a toy, a girl, in short."
So absorbed was the young cynic he forgot to rise from his knees at the proper place, and was still in an exemplary attitude of devotion when, the litany over, the first hymn was given out. To be so caught did not contribute to soothe him. He started up red (for he was as sensitive to ridicule as any girl). To make the matter worse, the church door had reopened, and the aisles were filling: patter, patter, patter, a hundred little feet trotted in. It was the Sunday scholars. According to Briarfield winter custom, these children had till now been kept where there was a warm stove, and only led into church just before the communion and sermon.
The little ones were settled first, and at last, when the boys and the younger girls were all arranged—when the organ was swelling high, and the choir and congregation were rising to uplift a spiritual song—a tall class of young women came quietly in, closing the procession. Their teacher, having seen them seated, passed into the rectory pew. The French-gray cloak and small beaver bonnet were known to Martin; it was the very costume his eyes had ached to catch. Miss Helstone had not suffered the storm to prove an impediment. After all, she was come to church. Martin probably whispered his satisfaction to his hymn book; at any rate, he therewith hid his face two minutes.
Satisfied or not, he had time to get very angry with her again before the sermon was over. She had never once looked his way; at least he had not been so lucky as to encounter a glance.
"If," he said—"if she takes no notice of me, if she shows I am not in her thoughts, I shall have a worse, a meaner opinion of her than ever. Most despicable would it be to come for the sake of those sheep-faced Sunday scholars, and not for my sake or that long skeleton Moore's."
The sermon found an end; the benediction was pronounced; the congregation dispersed. She had not been near him.
Now, indeed, as Martin set his face homeward, he felt that the sleet was sharp and the east wind cold.
His nearest way lay through some fields. It was a dangerous, because an untrodden way. He did not care; he would take it. Near the second stile rose a clump of trees. Was that an umbrella waiting there? Yes, an umbrella, held with evident difficulty against the blast; behind it fluttered a French-gray cloak. Martin grinned as he toiled up the steep, encumbered field, difficult to the foot as a slope in the upper realms of Etna. There was an inimitable look in his face when, having gained the stile, he seated himself coolly thereupon, and thus opened a conference which, for his own part, he was willing to prolong indefinitely.
"I think you had better strike a bargain. Exchange me for Mrs. Pryor."
"I was not sure whether you would come this way, Martin, but I thought I would run the chance. There is no such thing as getting a quiet word spoken in the church or churchyard."
"Will you agree?—make over Mrs. Pryor to my mother, and put me in her skirts?"
"As if I could understand you! What puts Mrs. Pryor into your head?"
"You call her 'mamma,' don't you?"
"She is my mamma."
"Not possible—or so inefficient, so careless a mamma; I should make a five times better one. You may laugh. I have no objection to see you laugh. Your teeth—I hate ugly teeth; but yours are as pretty as a pearl necklace, and a necklace of which the pearls are very fair, even, and well matched too."
"Martin, what now? I thought the Yorkes never paid compliments?"
"They have not done till this generation; but I feel as if it were my vocation to turn out a new variety of the Yorke species. I am rather tired of my own ancestors. We have traditions going back for four ages—tales of Hiram, which was the son of Hiram, which was the son of Samuel, which was the son of John, which was the son of Zerubbabel Yorke. All, from Zerubbabel down to the last Hiram, were such as you see my father. Before that there was a Godfrey. We have his picture; it hangs in Moore's bedroom; it is like me. Of his character we know nothing; but I am sure it was different to his descendants. He has long, curling dark hair; he is carefully and cavalierly dressed. Having said that he is like me, I need not add that he is handsome."
"You are not handsome, Martin."
"No; but wait awhile—just let me take my time. I mean to begin from this day to cultivate, to polish, and we shall see."
"You are a very strange, a very unaccountable boy, Martin. But don't imagine you ever will be handsome; you cannot."
"I mean to try. But we were talking about Mrs. Pryor. She must be the most unnatural mamma in existence, coolly to let her daughter come out in this weather. Mine was in such a rage because I would go to church; she was fit to fling the kitchen brush after me."
"Mamma was very much concerned about me; but I am afraid I was obstinate. I would go."
"To see me?"
"Exactly; I thought of nothing else. I greatly feared the snow would hinder you from coming. You don't know how pleased I was to see you all by yourself in the pew."
"I came to fulfil my duty, and set the parish a good example. And so you were obstinate, were you? I should like to see you obstinate, I should. Wouldn't I have you in good discipline if I owned you? Let me take the umbrella."
"I can't stay two minutes; our dinner will be ready."
"And so will ours; and we have always a hot dinner on Sundays. Roast goose to-day, with apple-pie and rice-pudding. I always contrive to know the bill of fare. Well, I like these things uncommonly; but I'll make the sacrifice, if you will."
"We have a cold dinner. My uncle will allow no unnecessary cooking on the Sabbath. But I must return; the house would be in commotion if I failed to appear."
"So will Briarmains, bless you! I think I hear my father sending out the overlooker and five of the dyers, to look in six directions for the body of his prodigal son in the snow; and my mother repenting her of her many misdeeds towards me, now I am gone."
"Martin, how is Mr. Moore?"
"That is what you came for, just to say that word."
"Come, tell me quickly."
"Hang him! he is no worse; but as ill-used as ever—mewed up, kept in solitary confinement. They mean to make either an idiot or a maniac of him, and take out a commission of lunacy. Horsfall starves him; you saw how thin he was."
"You were very good the other day, Martin."
"What day? I am always good—a model."
"When will you be so good again?"
"I see what you are after; but you'll not wheedle me—I am no cat's-paw."
"But it must be done. It is quite a right thing, and a necessary thing."
"How you encroach! Remember, I managed the matter of my own free will before."
"And you will again."
"I won't. The business gave me far too much trouble. I like my ease."
"Mr. Moore wishes to see me, Martin, and I wish to see him."
"I dare say" (coolly).
"It is too bad of your mother to exclude his friends."
"Tell her so."
"His own relations."
"Come and blow her up."
"You know that would advance nothing. Well, I shall stick to my point. See him I will. If you won't help me, I'll manage without help."
"Do; there is nothing like self-reliance, self-dependence."
"I have no time to reason with you now; but I consider you provoking. Good-morning."
Away she went, the umbrella shut, for she could not carry it against the wind.
"She is not vapid; she is not shallow," said Martin. "I shall like to watch, and mark how she will work her way without help. If the storm were not of snow, but of fire—such as came refreshingly down on the cities of the plain—she would go through it to procure five minutes' speech of that Moore. Now, I consider I have had a pleasant morning. The disappointments got time on; the fears and fits of anger only made that short discourse pleasanter, when it came at last. She expected to coax me at once. She'll not manage that in one effort. She shall come again, again, and yet again. It would please me to put her in a passion—to make her cry. I want to discover how far she will go—what she will do and dare—to get her will. It seems strange and new to find one human being thinking so much about another as she thinks about Moore. But it is time to go home; my appetite tells me the hour. Won't I walk into that goose? and we'll try whether Matthew or I shall get the largest cut of the apple-pie to-day."
WHEREIN MATTERS MAKE SOME PROGRESS, BUT NOT MUCH.
Martin had planned well. He had laid out a dexterously concerted scheme for his private amusement. But older and wiser schemers than he are often doomed to see their finest-spun projects swept to annihilation by the sudden broom of Fate, that fell housewife whose red arm none can control. In the present instance this broom was manufactured out of the tough fibres of Moore's own stubborn purpose, bound tight with his will. He was now resuming his strength, and making strange head against Mrs. Horsfall. Each morning he amazed that matron with a fresh astonishment. First he discharged her from her valet duties; he would dress himself. Then he refused the coffee she brought him; he would breakfast with the family. Lastly, he forbade her his chamber. On the same day, amidst the outcries of all the women in the place, he put his head out of doors. The morning after, he followed Mr. Yorke to his counting-house, and requested an envoy to fetch a chaise from the Red House Inn. He was resolved, he said, to return home to the Hollow that very afternoon. Mr. Yorke, instead of opposing, aided and abetted him. The chaise was sent for, though Mrs. Yorke declared the step would be his death. It came. Moore, little disposed to speak, made his purse do duty for his tongue. He expressed his gratitude to the servants and to Mrs. Horsfall by the chink of his coin. The latter personage approved and understood this language perfectly; it made amends for all previous contumacy. She and her patient parted the best friends in the world.
The kitchen visited and soothed, Moore betook himself to the parlour. He had Mrs. Yorke to appease; not quite so easy a task as the pacification of her housemaids. There she sat plunged in sullen dudgeon, the gloomiest speculations on the depths of man's ingratitude absorbing her thoughts. He drew near and bent over her; she was obliged to look up, if it were only to bid him "avaunt." There was beauty still in his pale, wasted features; there was earnestness and a sort of sweetness—for he was smiling—in his hollow eyes.
"Good-bye!" he said, and as he spoke the smile glittered and melted. He had no iron mastery of his sensations now; a trifling emotion made itself apparent in his present weak state.
"And what are you going to leave us for?" she asked. "We will keep you, and do anything in the world for you, if you will only stay till you are stronger."
"Good-bye!" he again said; and added, "You have been a mother to me; give your wilful son one embrace."
Like a foreigner, as he was, he offered her first one cheek, then the other. She kissed him.
"What a trouble—what a burden I have been to you!" he muttered.
"You are the worst trouble now, headstrong youth!" was the answer. "I wonder who is to nurse you at Hollow's Cottage? Your sister Hortense knows no more about such matters than a child."
"Thank God! for I have had nursing enough to last me my life."
Here the little girls came in—Jessie crying, Rose quiet but grave. Moore took them out into the hall to soothe, pet, and kiss them. He knew it was not in their mother's nature to bear to see any living thing caressed but herself. She would have felt annoyed had he fondled a kitten in her presence.
The boys were standing about the chaise as Moore entered it; but for them he had no farewell. To Mr. Yorke he only said, "You have a good riddance of me. That was an unlucky shot for you, Yorke; it turned Briarmains into an hospital. Come and see me at the cottage soon."
He drew up the glass; the chaise rolled away. In half an hour he alighted at his own garden wicket. Having paid the driver and dismissed the vehicle, he leaned on that wicket an instant, at once to rest and to muse.
"Six months ago I passed out at this gate," said he, "a proud, angry, disappointed man. I come back sadder and wiser; weakly enough, but not worried. A cold, gray, yet quiet world lies round—a world where, if I hope little, I fear nothing. All slavish terrors of embarrassment have left me. Let the worst come, I can work, as Joe Scott does, for an honourable living; in such doom I yet see some hardship but no degradation. Formerly, pecuniary ruin was equivalent in my eyes to personal dishonour. It is not so now; I know the difference. Ruin is an evil, but one for which I am prepared; the day of whose coming I know, for I have calculated. I can yet put it off six months—not an hour longer. If things by that time alter, which is not probable; if fetters, which now seem indissoluble, should be loosened from our trade (of all things the most unlikely to happen), I might conquer in this long struggle yet—I might—good God! what might I not do? But the thought is a brief madness; let me see things with sane eyes. Ruin will come, lay her axe to my fortune's roots, and hew them down. I shall snatch a sapling, I shall cross the sea, and plant it in American woods. Louis will go with me. Will none but Louis go? I cannot tell—I have no right to ask."