Meanwhile her uncle urged her to visit, to comply with the frequent invitations of their acquaintance. This she evaded doing. She could not be cheerful in company; she felt she was observed there with more curiosity than sympathy. Old ladies were always offering her their advice, recommending this or that nostrum; young ladies looked at her in a way she understood, and from which she shrank. Their eyes said they knew she had been "disappointed," as custom phrases it; by whom, they were not certain.
Commonplace young ladies can be quite as hard as commonplace young gentlemen—quite as worldly and selfish. Those who suffer should always avoid them. Grief and calamity they despise; they seem to regard them as the judgments of God on the lowly. With them, to "love" is merely to contrive a scheme for achieving a good match; to be "disappointed" is to have their scheme seen through and frustrated. They think the feelings and projects of others on the subject of love similar to their own, and judge them accordingly.
All this Caroline knew, partly by instinct, partly by observation. She regulated her conduct by her knowledge, keeping her pale face and wasted figure as much out of sight as she could. Living thus in complete seclusion, she ceased to receive intelligence of the little transactions of the neighbourhood.
One morning her uncle came into the parlour, where she sat endeavouring to find some pleasure in painting a little group of wild flowers, gathered under a hedge at the top of the Hollow fields, and said to her in his abrupt manner, "Come, child, you are always stooping over palette, or book, or sampler; leave that tinting work. By-the-bye, do you put your pencil to your lips when you paint?"
"Sometimes, uncle, when I forget."
"Then it is that which is poisoning you. The paints are deleterious, child. There is white lead and red lead, and verdigris, and gamboge, and twenty other poisons in those colour cakes. Lock them up! lock them up! Get your bonnet on. I want you to make a call with me."
"With you, uncle?"
This question was asked in a tone of surprise. She was not accustomed to make calls with her uncle. She never rode or walked out with him on any occasion.
"Quick! quick! I am always busy, you know. I have no time to lose."
She hurriedly gathered up her materials, asking, meantime, where they were going.
"Fieldhead! What! to see old James Booth, the gardener? Is he ill?"
"We are going to see Miss Shirley Keeldar."
"Miss Keeldar! Is she coming to Yorkshire? Is she at Fieldhead?"
"She is. She has been there a week. I met her at a party last night—that party to which you would not go. I was pleased with her. I choose that you shall make her acquaintance. It will do you good."
"She is now come of age, I suppose?"
"She is come of age, and will reside for a time on her property. I lectured her on the subject; I showed her her duty. She is not intractable. She is rather a fine girl; she will teach you what it is to have a sprightly spirit. Nothing lackadaisical about her."
"I don't think she will want to see me, or to have me introduced to her. What good can I do her? How can I amuse her?"
"Pshaw! Put your bonnet on."
"Is she proud, uncle?"
"Don't know. You hardly imagine she would show her pride to me, I suppose? A chit like that would scarcely presume to give herself airs with the rector of her parish, however rich she might be."
"No. But how did she behave to other people?"
"Didn't observe. She holds her head high, and probably can be saucy enough where she dare. She wouldn't be a woman otherwise. There! Away now for your bonnet at once!"
Not naturally very confident, a failure of physical strength and a depression of spirits had not tended to increase Caroline's presence of mind and ease of manner, or to give her additional courage to face strangers, and she quailed, in spite of self-remonstrance, as she and her uncle walked up the broad, paved approach leading from the gateway of Fieldhead to its porch. She followed Mr. Helstone reluctantly through that porch into the sombre old vestibule beyond.
Very sombre it was—long, vast, and dark; one latticed window lit it but dimly. The wide old chimney contained now no fire, for the present warm weather needed it not; it was filled instead with willow-boughs. The gallery on high, opposite the entrance, was seen but in outline, so shadowy became this hall towards its ceiling. Carved stags' heads, with real antlers, looked down grotesquely from the walls. This was neither a grand nor a comfortable house; within as without it was antique, rambling, and incommodious. A property of a thousand a year belonged to it, which property had descended, for lack of male heirs, on a female. There were mercantile families in the district boasting twice the income, but the Keeldars, by virtue of their antiquity, and their distinction of lords of the manor, took the precedence of all.
Mr. and Miss Helstone were ushered into a parlour. Of course, as was to be expected in such a Gothic old barrack, this parlour was lined with oak: fine, dark, glossy panels compassed the walls gloomily and grandly. Very handsome, reader, these shining brown panels are, very mellow in colouring and tasteful in effect, but—if you know what a "spring clean" is—very execrable and inhuman. Whoever, having the bowels of humanity, has seen servants scrubbing at these polished wooden walls with beeswaxed cloths on a warm May day must allow that they are "intolerable and not to be endured;" and I cannot but secretly applaud the benevolent barbarian who had painted another and larger apartment of Fieldhead—the drawing-room, to wit, formerly also an oak-room—of a delicate pinky white, thereby earning for himself the character of a Hun, but mightily enhancing the cheerfulness of that portion of his abode, and saving future housemaids a world of toil.
The brown-panelled parlour was furnished all in old style, and with real old furniture. On each side of the high mantelpiece stood two antique chairs of oak, solid as silvan thrones, and in one of these sat a lady. But if this were Miss Keeldar, she must have come of age at least some twenty years ago. She was of matronly form, and though she wore no cap, and possessed hair of quite an undimmed auburn, shading small and naturally young-looking features, she had no youthful aspect, nor apparently the wish to assume it. You could have wished her attire of a newer fashion. In a well-cut, well-made gown hers would have been no uncomely presence. It puzzled you to guess why a garment of handsome materials should be arranged in such scanty folds, and devised after such an obsolete mode. You felt disposed to set down the wearer as somewhat eccentric at once.
This lady received the visitors with a mixture of ceremony and diffidence quite English. No middle-aged matron who was not an Englishwoman could evince precisely the same manner—a manner so uncertain of herself, of her own merits, of her power to please, and yet so anxious to be proper, and, if possible, rather agreeable than otherwise. In the present instance, however, more embarrassment was shown than is usual even with diffident Englishwomen. Miss Helstone felt this, sympathized with the stranger, and knowing by experience what was good for the timid, took a seat quietly near her, and began to talk to her with a gentle ease, communicated for the moment by the presence of one less self-possessed than herself.
She and this lady would, if alone, have at once got on extremely well together. The lady had the clearest voice imaginable—infinitely softer and more tuneful than could have been reasonably expected from forty years—and a form decidedly inclined to embonpoint. This voice Caroline liked; it atoned for the formal, if correct, accent and language. The lady would soon have discovered she liked it and her, and in ten minutes they would have been friends. But Mr. Helstone stood on the rug looking at them both, looking especially at the strange lady with his sarcastic, keen eye, that clearly expressed impatience of her chilly ceremony, and annoyance at her want of aplomb. His hard gaze and rasping voice discomfited the lady more and more. She tried, however, to get up little speeches about the weather, the aspect of the country, etc.; but the impracticable Mr. Helstone presently found himself somewhat deaf. Whatever she said he affected not to hear distinctly, and she was obliged to go over each elaborately-constructed nothing twice. The effort soon became too much for her. She was just rising in a perplexed flutter, nervously murmuring that she knew not what detained Miss Keeldar, that she would go and look for her, when Miss Keeldar saved her the trouble by appearing. It was to be presumed at least that she who now came in through a glass door from the garden owned that name.
There is real grace in ease of manner, and so old Helstone felt when an erect, slight girl walked up to him, retaining with her left hand her little silk apron full of flowers, and, giving him her right hand, said pleasantly, "I knew you would come to see me, though you do think Mr. Yorke has made me a Jacobin. Good-morning."
"But we'll not have you a Jacobin," returned he. "No, Miss Shirley; they shall not steal the flower of my parish from me. Now that you are amongst us, you shall be my pupil in politics and religion; I'll teach you sound doctrine on both points."
"Mrs. Pryor has anticipated you," she replied, turning to the elder lady. "Mrs. Pryor, you know, was my governess, and is still my friend; and of all the high and rigid Tories she is queen; of all the stanch churchwomen she is chief. I have been well drilled both in theology and history, I assure you, Mr. Helstone."
The rector immediately bowed very low to Mrs. Pryor, and expressed himself obliged to her.
The ex-governess disclaimed skill either in political or religious controversy, explained that she thought such matters little adapted for female minds, but avowed herself in general terms the advocate of order and loyalty, and, of course, truly attached to the Establishment. She added she was ever averse to change under any circumstances, and something scarcely audible about the extreme danger of being too ready to take up new ideas closed her sentence.
"Miss Keeldar thinks as you think, I hope, madam."
"Difference of age and difference of temperament occasion difference of sentiment," was the reply. "It can scarcely be expected that the eager and young should hold the opinions of the cool and middle-aged."
"Oh! oh! we are independent; we think for ourselves!" cried Mr. Helstone. "We are a little Jacobin, for anything I know—a little freethinker, in good earnest. Let us have a confession of faith on the spot."
And he took the heiress's two hands—causing her to let fall her whole cargo of flowers—and seated her by him on the sofa.
"Say your creed," he ordered.
"The Apostles' Creed?"
She said it like a child.
"Now for St. Athanasius's. That's the test!"
"Let me gather up my flowers. Here is Tartar coming; he will tread upon them."
Tartar was a rather large, strong, and fierce-looking dog, very ugly, being of a breed between mastiff and bulldog, who at this moment entered through the glass door, and posting directly to the rug, snuffed the fresh flowers scattered there. He seemed to scorn them as food; but probably thinking their velvety petals might be convenient as litter, he was turning round preparatory to depositing his tawny bulk upon them, when Miss Helstone and Miss Keeldar simultaneously stooped to the rescue.
"Thank you," said the heiress, as she again held out her little apron for Caroline to heap the blossoms into it. "Is this your daughter, Mr. Helstone?" she asked.
"My niece Caroline."
Miss Keeldar shook hands with her, and then looked at her. Caroline also looked at her hostess.
Shirley Keeldar (she had no Christian name but Shirley: her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy, if with a boy they had been blessed)—Shirley Keeldar was no ugly heiress. She was agreeable to the eye. Her height and shape were not unlike Miss Helstone's; perhaps in stature she might have the advantage by an inch or two. She was gracefully made, and her face, too, possessed a charm as well described by the word grace as any other. It was pale naturally, but intelligent, and of varied expression. She was not a blonde, like Caroline. Clear and dark were the characteristics of her aspect as to colour. Her face and brow were clear, her eyes of the darkest gray (no green lights in them—transparent, pure, neutral gray), and her hair of the darkest brown. Her features were distinguished—by which I do not mean that they were high, bony, and Roman, being indeed rather small and slightly marked than otherwise, but only that they were, to use a few French words, "fins, gracieux, spirituels"—mobile they were and speaking; but their changes were not to be understood nor their language interpreted all at once. She examined Caroline seriously, inclining her head a little to one side, with a thoughtful air.
"You see she is only a feeble chick," observed Mr. Helstone.
"She looks young—younger than I.—How old are you?" she inquired in a manner that would have been patronizing if it had not been extremely solemn and simple.
"Eighteen years and six months."
"And I am twenty-one."
She said no more. She had now placed her flowers on the table, and was busied in arranging them.
"And St. Athanasius's Creed?" urged the rector. "You believe it all, don't you?"
"I can't remember it quite all. I will give you a nosegay, Mr. Helstone, when I have given your niece one."
She had selected a little bouquet of one brilliant and two or three delicate flowers, relieved by a spray of dark verdure. She tied it with silk from her work-box, and placed it on Caroline's lap; and then she put her hands behind her, and stood bending slightly towards her guest, still regarding her, in the attitude and with something of the aspect of a grave but gallant little cavalier. This temporary expression of face was aided by the style in which she wore her hair, parted on one temple, and brushed in a glossy sweep above the forehead, whence it fell in curls that looked natural, so free were their wavy undulations.
"Are you tired with your walk?" she inquired.
"No—not in the least. It is but a short distance—but a mile."
"You look pale.—Is she always so pale?" she asked, turning to the rector.
"She used to be as rosy as the reddest of your flowers."
"Why is she altered? What has made her pale? Has she been ill?"
"She tells me she wants a change."
"She ought to have one. You ought to give her one. You should send her to the sea-coast."
"I will, ere summer is over. Meantime, I intend her to make acquaintance with you, if you have no objection."
"I am sure Miss Keeldar will have no objection," here observed Mrs. Pryor. "I think I may take it upon me to say that Miss Helstone's frequent presence at Fieldhead will be esteemed a favour."
"You speak my sentiments precisely, ma'am," said Shirley, "and I thank you for anticipating me.—Let me tell you," she continued, turning again to Caroline, "that you also ought to thank my governess. It is not every one she would welcome as she has welcomed you. You are distinguished more than you think. This morning, as soon as you are gone, I shall ask Mrs. Pryor's opinion of you. I am apt to rely on her judgment of character, for hitherto I have found it wondrous accurate. Already I foresee a favourable answer to my inquiries.—Do I not guess rightly, Mrs. Pryor?"
"My dear, you said but now you would ask my opinion when Miss Helstone was gone. I am scarcely likely to give it in her presence."
"No; and perhaps it will be long enough before I obtain it.—I am sometimes sadly tantalized, Mr. Helstone, by Mrs. Pryor's extreme caution. Her judgments ought to be correct when they come, for they are often as tardy of delivery as a Lord Chancellor's. On some people's characters I cannot get her to pronounce a sentence, entreat as I may."
Mrs. Pryor here smiled.
"Yes," said her pupil, "I know what that smile means. You are thinking of my gentleman-tenant.—Do you know Mr. Moore of the Hollow?" she asked Mr. Helstone.
"Ay! ay! Your tenant—so he is. You have seen a good deal of him, no doubt, since you came?"
"I have been obliged to see him. There was business to transact. Business! Really the word makes me conscious I am indeed no longer a girl, but quite a woman and something more. I am an esquire! Shirley Keeldar, Esquire, ought to be my style and title. They gave me a man's name; I hold a man's position. It is enough to inspire me with a touch of manhood; and when I see such people as that stately Anglo-Belgian—that Gerard Moore—before me, gravely talking to me of business, really I feel quite gentlemanlike. You must choose me for your churchwarden, Mr. Helstone, the next time you elect new ones. They ought to make me a magistrate and a captain of yeomanry. Tony Lumpkin's mother was a colonel, and his aunt a justice of the peace. Why shouldn't I be?"
"With all my heart. If you choose to get up a requisition on the subject, I promise to head the list of signatures with my name. But you were speaking of Moore?"
"Ah! yes. I find it a little difficult to understand Mr. Moore, to know what to think of him, whether to like him or not. He seems a tenant of whom any proprietor might be proud—and proud of him I am, in that sense; but as a neighbour, what is he? Again and again I have entreated Mrs. Pryor to say what she thinks of him, but she still evades returning a direct answer. I hope you will be less oracular, Mr. Helstone, and pronounce at once. Do you like him?"
"Not at all, just now. His name is entirely blotted from my good books."
"What is the matter? What has he done?"
"My uncle and he disagree on politics," interposed the low voice of Caroline. She had better not have spoken just then. Having scarcely joined in the conversation before, it was not apropos to do it now. She felt this with nervous acuteness as soon as she had spoken, and coloured to the eyes.
"What are Moore's politics?" inquired Shirley.
"Those of a tradesman," returned the rector—"narrow, selfish, and unpatriotic. The man is eternally writing and speaking against the continuance of the war. I have no patience with him."
"The war hurts his trade. I remember he remarked that only yesterday. But what other objection have you to him?"
"That is enough."
"He looks the gentleman, in my sense of the term," pursued Shirley, "and it pleases me to think he is such."
Caroline rent the Tyrian petals of the one brilliant flower in her bouquet, and answered in distinct tones, "Decidedly he is." Shirley, hearing this courageous affirmation, flashed an arch, searching glance at the speaker from her deep, expressive eyes.
"You are his friend, at any rate," she said. "You defend him in his absence."
"I am both his friend and his relative," was the prompt reply. "Robert Moore is my cousin."
"Oh, then, you can tell me all about him. Just give me a sketch of his character."
Insuperable embarrassment seized Caroline when this demand was made. She could not, and did not, attempt to comply with it. Her silence was immediately covered by Mrs. Pryor, who proceeded to address sundry questions to Mr. Helstone regarding a family or two in the neighbourhood, with whose connections in the south she said she was acquainted. Shirley soon withdrew her gaze from Miss Helstone's face. She did not renew her interrogations, but returning to her flowers, proceeded to choose a nosegay for the rector. She presented it to him as he took leave, and received the homage of a salute on the hand in return.
"Be sure you wear it for my sake," said she.
"Next my heart, of course," responded Helstone.—"Mrs. Pryor, take care of this future magistrate, this churchwarden in perspective, this captain of yeomanry, this young squire of Briarfield, in a word. Don't let him exert himself too much; don't let him break his neck in hunting; especially, let him mind how he rides down that dangerous hill near the Hollow."
"I like a descent," said Shirley; "I like to clear it rapidly; and especially I like that romantic Hollow with all my heart."
"Romantic, with a mill in it?"
"Romantic with a mill in it. The old mill and the white cottage are each admirable in its way."
"And the counting-house, Mr. Keeldar?"
"The counting-house is better than my bloom-coloured drawing-room. I adore the counting-house."
"And the trade? The cloth, the greasy wool, the polluting dyeing-vats?"
"The trade is to be thoroughly respected."
"And the tradesman is a hero? Good!"
"I am glad to hear you say so. I thought the tradesman looked heroic."
Mischief, spirit, and glee sparkled all over her face as she thus bandied words with the old Cossack, who almost equally enjoyed the tilt.
"Captain Keeldar, you have no mercantile blood in your veins. Why are you so fond of trade?"
"Because I am a mill-owner, of course. Half my income comes from the works in that Hollow."
"Don't enter into partnership—that's all."
"You've put it into my head! you've put it into my head!" she exclaimed, with a joyous laugh. "It will never get out. Thank you." And waving her hand, white as a lily and fine as a fairy's, she vanished within the porch, while the rector and his niece passed out through the arched gateway.
SHIRLEY AND CAROLINE.
Shirley showed she had been sincere in saying she should be glad of Caroline's society, by frequently seeking it; and, indeed, if she had not sought it, she would not have had it, for Miss Helstone was slow to make fresh acquaintance. She was always held back by the idea that people could not want her, that she could not amuse them; and a brilliant, happy, youthful creature like the heiress of Fieldhead seemed to her too completely independent of society so uninteresting as hers ever to find it really welcome.
Shirley might be brilliant, and probably happy likewise, but no one is independent of genial society; and though in about a month she had made the acquaintance of most of the families round, and was on quite free and easy terms with all the Misses Sykes, and all the Misses Pearson, and the two superlative Misses Wynne of Walden Hall, yet, it appeared, she found none amongst them very genial: she fraternized with none of them, to use her own words. If she had had the bliss to be really Shirley Keeldar, Esq., lord of the manor of Briarfield, there was not a single fair one in this and the two neighbouring parishes whom she should have felt disposed to request to become Mrs. Keeldar, lady of the manor. This declaration she made to Mrs. Pryor, who received it very quietly, as she did most of her pupil's off-hand speeches, responding, "My dear, do not allow that habit of alluding to yourself as a gentleman to be confirmed. It is a strange one. Those who do not know you, hearing you speak thus, would think you affected masculine manners."
Shirley never laughed at her former governess; even the little formalities and harmless peculiarities of that lady were respectable in her eyes. Had it been otherwise, she would have proved herself a weak character at once; for it is only the weak who make a butt of quiet worth. Therefore she took her remonstrance in silence. She stood quietly near the window, looking at the grand cedar on her lawn watching a bird on one of its lower boughs. Presently she began to chirrup to the bird; soon her chirrup grew clearer; ere long she was whistling; the whistle struck into a tune, and very sweetly and deftly it was executed.
"My dear!" expostulated Mrs. Pryor.
"Was I whistling?" said Shirley. "I forgot. I beg your pardon, ma'am. I had resolved to take care not to whistle before you."
"But, Miss Keeldar, where did you learn to whistle? You must have got the habit since you came down into Yorkshire. I never knew you guilty of it before."
"Oh! I learned to whistle a long while ago."
"Who taught you?"
"No one. I took it up by listening, and I had laid it down again. But lately, yesterday evening, as I was coming up our lane, I heard a gentleman whistling that very tune in the field on the other side of the hedge, and that reminded me."
"What gentleman was it?"
"We have only one gentleman in this region, ma'am, and that is Mr. Moore—at least he is the only gentleman who is not gray-haired. My two venerable favourites, Mr. Helstone and Mr. Yorke, it is true, are fine old beaus, infinitely better than any of the stupid young ones."
Mrs. Pryor was silent.
"You do not like Mr. Helstone, ma'am?"
"My dear, Mr. Helstone's office secures him from criticism."
"You generally contrive to leave the room when he is announced."
"Do you walk out this morning, my dear?"
"Yes, I shall go to the rectory, and seek and find Caroline Helstone, and make her take some exercise. She shall have a breezy walk over Nunnely Common."
"If you go in that direction, my dear, have the goodness to remind Miss Helstone to wrap up well, as there is a fresh wind, and she appears to me to require care."
"You shall be minutely obeyed, Mrs. Pryor. Meantime, will you not accompany us yourself?"
"No, my love; I should be a restraint upon you. I am stout, and cannot walk so quickly as you would wish to do."
Shirley easily persuaded Caroline to go with her, and when they were fairly out on the quiet road, traversing the extensive and solitary sweep of Nunnely Common, she as easily drew her into conversation. The first feelings of diffidence overcome, Caroline soon felt glad to talk with Miss Keeldar. The very first interchange of slight observations sufficed to give each an idea of what the other was. Shirley said she liked the green sweep of the common turf, and, better still, the heath on its ridges, for the heath reminded her of moors. She had seen moors when she was travelling on the borders near Scotland. She remembered particularly a district traversed one long afternoon, on a sultry but sunless day in summer. They journeyed from noon till sunset, over what seemed a boundless waste of deep heath, and nothing had they seen but wild sheep, nothing heard but the cries of wild birds.
"I know how the heath would look on such a day," said Caroline; "purple-black—a deeper shade of the sky-tint, and that would be livid."
"Yes, quite livid, with brassy edges to the clouds, and here and there a white gleam, more ghastly than the lurid tinge, which, as you looked at it, you momentarily expected would kindle into blinding lightning."
"Did it thunder?"
"It muttered distant peals, but the storm did not break till evening, after we had reached our inn—that inn being an isolated house at the foot of a range of mountains."
"Did you watch the clouds come down over the mountains?"
"I did. I stood at the window an hour watching them. The hills seemed rolled in a sullen mist, and when the rain fell in whitening sheets, suddenly they were blotted from the prospect; they were washed from the world."
"I have seen such storms in hilly districts in Yorkshire; and at their riotous climax, while the sky was all cataract, the earth all flood, I have remembered the Deluge."
"It is singularly reviving after such hurricanes to feel calm return, and from the opening clouds to receive a consolatory gleam, softly testifying that the sun is not quenched."
"Miss Keeldar, just stand still now, and look down at Nunnely dale and wood."
They both halted on the green brow of the common. They looked down on the deep valley robed in May raiment; on varied meads, some pearled with daisies, and some golden with king-cups. To-day all this young verdure smiled clear in sunlight; transparent emerald and amber gleams played over it. On Nunnwood—the sole remnant of antique British forest in a region whose lowlands were once all silvan chase, as its highlands were breast-deep heather—slept the shadow of a cloud; the distant hills were dappled, the horizon was shaded and tinted like mother-of-pearl; silvery blues, soft purples, evanescent greens and rose-shades, all melting into fleeces of white cloud, pure as azury snow, allured the eye as with a remote glimpse of heaven's foundations. The air blowing on the brow was fresh, and sweet, and bracing.
"Our England is a bonny island," said Shirley, "and Yorkshire is one of her bonniest nooks."
"You are a Yorkshire girl too?"
"I am—Yorkshire in blood and birth. Five generations of my race sleep under the aisles of Briarfield Church. I drew my first breath in the old black hall behind us."
Hereupon Caroline presented her hand, which was accordingly taken and shaken. "We are compatriots," said she.
"Yes," agreed Shirley, with a grave nod.
"And that," asked Miss Keeldar, pointing to the forest—"that is Nunnwood?"
"Were you ever there?"
"Many a time."
"In the heart of it?"
"What is it like?"
"It is like an encampment of forest sons of Anak. The trees are huge and old. When you stand at their roots, the summits seem in another region. The trunks remain still and firm as pillars, while the boughs sway to every breeze. In the deepest calm their leaves are never quite hushed, and in high wind a flood rushes, a sea thunders above you."
"Was it not one of Robin Hood's haunts?"
"Yes, and there are mementos of him still existing. To penetrate into Nunnwood, Miss Keeldar, is to go far back into the dim days of old. Can you see a break in the forest, about the centre?"
"That break is a dell—a deep, hollow cup, lined with turf as green and short as the sod of this common. The very oldest of the trees, gnarled mighty oaks, crowd about the brink of this dell. In the bottom lie the ruins of a nunnery."
"We will go—you and I alone, Caroline—to that wood, early some fine summer morning, and spend a long day there. We can take pencils and sketch-books, and any interesting reading book we like; and of course we shall take something to eat. I have two little baskets, in which Mrs. Gill, my housekeeper, might pack our provisions, and we could each carry our own. It would not tire you too much to walk so far?"
"Oh no; especially if we rested the whole day in the wood. And I know all the pleasantest spots. I know where we could get nuts in nutting time; I know where wild strawberries abound; I know certain lonely, quite untrodden glades, carpeted with strange mosses, some yellow as if gilded, some a sober gray, some gem-green. I know groups of trees that ravish the eye with their perfect, picture-like effects—rude oak, delicate birch, glossy beech, clustered in contrast; and ash trees stately as Saul, standing isolated; and superannuated wood-giants clad in bright shrouds of ivy. Miss Keeldar, I could guide you."
"You would be dull with me alone?"
"I should not. I think we should suit; and what third person is there whose presence would not spoil our pleasure?"
"Indeed, I know of none about our own ages—no lady at least; and as to gentlemen——"
"An excursion becomes quite a different thing when there are gentlemen of the party," interrupted Caroline.
"I agree with you—quite a different thing to what we were proposing."
"We were going simply to see the old trees, the old ruins; to pass a day in old times, surrounded by olden silence, and above all by quietude."
"You are right; and the presence of gentlemen dispels the last charm, I think. If they are of the wrong sort, like your Malones, and your young Sykes, and Wynnes, irritation takes the place of serenity. If they are of the right sort, there is still a change; I can hardly tell what change—one easy to feel, difficult to describe."
"We forget Nature, imprimis."
"And then Nature forgets us, covers her vast calm brow with a dim veil, conceals her face, and withdraws the peaceful joy with which, if we had been content to worship her only, she would have filled our hearts."
"What does she give us instead?"
"More elation and more anxiety; an excitement that steals the hours away fast, and a trouble that ruffles their course."
"Our power of being happy lies a good deal in ourselves, I believe," remarked Caroline sagely. "I have gone to Nunnwood with a large party—all the curates and some other gentry of these parts, together with sundry ladies—and I found the affair insufferably tedious and absurd; and I have gone quite alone, or accompanied but by Fanny, who sat in the woodman's hut and sewed, or talked to the goodwife, while I roamed about and made sketches, or read; and I have enjoyed much happiness of a quiet kind all day long. But that was when I was young—two years ago."
"Did you ever go with your cousin, Robert Moore?"
"What sort of a companion is he on these occasions?"
"A cousin, you know, is different to a stranger."
"I am aware of that; but cousins, if they are stupid, are still more insupportable than strangers, because you cannot so easily keep them at a distance. But your cousin is not stupid?"
"If the company of fools irritates, as you say, the society of clever men leaves its own peculiar pain also. Where the goodness or talent of your friend is beyond and above all doubt, your own worthiness to be his associate often becomes a matter of question."
"Oh! there I cannot follow you. That crotchet is not one I should choose to entertain for an instant. I consider myself not unworthy to be the associate of the best of them—of gentlemen, I mean—though that is saying a great deal. Where they are good, they are very good, I believe. Your uncle, by-the-bye, is not a bad specimen of the elderly gentleman. I am always glad to see his brown, keen, sensible old face, either in my own house or any other. Are you fond of him? Is he kind to you? Now, speak the truth."
"He has brought me up from childhood, I doubt not, precisely as he would have brought up his own daughter, if he had had one; and that is kindness. But I am not fond of him. I would rather be out of his presence than in it."
"Strange, when he has the art of making himself so agreeable."
"Yes, in company; but he is stern and silent at home. As he puts away his cane and shovel-hat in the rectory hall, so he locks his liveliness in his book-case and study-desk: the knitted brow and brief word for the fireside; the smile, the jest, the witty sally for society."
"Is he tyrannical?"
"Not in the least. He is neither tyrannical nor hypocritical. He is simply a man who is rather liberal than good-natured, rather brilliant than genial, rather scrupulously equitable than truly just—if you can understand such superfine distinctions."
"Oh yes! Good-nature implies indulgence, which he has not; geniality, warmth of heart, which he does not own; and genuine justice is the offspring of sympathy and considerateness, of which, I can well conceive, my bronzed old friend is quite innocent."
"I often wonder, Shirley, whether most men resemble my uncle in their domestic relations; whether it is necessary to be new and unfamiliar to them in order to seem agreeable or estimable in their eyes; and whether it is impossible to their natures to retain a constant interest and affection for those they see every day."
"I don't know. I can't clear up your doubts. I ponder over similar ones myself sometimes. But, to tell you a secret, if I were convinced that they are necessarily and universally different from us—fickle, soon petrifying, unsympathizing—I would never marry. I should not like to find out that what I loved did not love me, that it was weary of me, and that whatever effort I might make to please would hereafter be worse than useless, since it was inevitably in its nature to change and become indifferent. That discovery once made, what should I long for? To go away, to remove from a presence where my society gave no pleasure."
"But you could not if you were married."
"No, I could not. There it is. I could never be my own mistress more. A terrible thought! It suffocates me! Nothing irks me like the idea of being a burden and a bore—an inevitable burden, a ceaseless bore! Now, when I feel my company superfluous, I can comfortably fold my independence round me like a mantle, and drop my pride like a veil, and withdraw to solitude. If married, that could not be."
"I wonder we don't all make up our minds to remain single," said Caroline. "We should if we listened to the wisdom of experience. My uncle always speaks of marriage as a burden; and I believe whenever he hears of a man being married he invariably regards him as a fool, or, at any rate, as doing a foolish thing."
"But, Caroline, men are not all like your uncle. Surely not. I hope not."
She paused and mused.
"I suppose we each find an exception in the one we love, till we are married," suggested Caroline.
"I suppose so. And this exception we believe to be of sterling materials. We fancy it like ourselves; we imagine a sense of harmony. We think his voice gives the softest, truest promise of a heart that will never harden against us; we read in his eyes that faithful feeling—affection. I don't think we should trust to what they call passion at all, Caroline. I believe it is a mere fire of dry sticks, blazing up and vanishing. But we watch him, and see him kind to animals, to little children, to poor people. He is kind to us likewise, good, considerate. He does not flatter women, but he is patient with them, and he seems to be easy in their presence, and to find their company genial. He likes them not only for vain and selfish reasons, but as we like him—because we like him. Then we observe that he is just, that he always speaks the truth, that he is conscientious. We feel joy and peace when he comes into a room; we feel sadness and trouble when he leaves it. We know that this man has been a kind son, that he is a kind brother. Will any one dare to tell me that he will not be a kind husband?"
"My uncle would affirm it unhesitatingly. 'He will be sick of you in a month,' he would say."
"Mrs. Pryor would seriously intimate the same."
"Mrs. Yorke and Miss Mann would darkly suggest ditto."
"If they are true oracles, it is good never to fall in love."
"Very good, if you can avoid it."
"I choose to doubt their truth."
"I am afraid that proves you are already caught."
"Not I. But if I were, do you know what soothsayers I would consult?"
"Let me hear."
"Neither man nor woman, elderly nor young: the little Irish beggar that comes barefoot to my door; the mouse that steals out of the cranny in the wainscot; the bird that in frost and snow pecks at my window for a crumb; the dog that licks my hand and sits beside my knee."
"Did you ever see any one who was kind to such things?"
"Did you ever see any one whom such things seemed instinctively to follow, like, rely on?"
"We have a black cat and an old dog at the rectory. I know somebody to whose knee that black cat loves to climb, against whose shoulder and cheek it likes to purr. The old dog always comes out of his kennel and wags his tail, and whines affectionately when somebody passes."
"And what does that somebody do?"
"He quietly strokes the cat, and lets her sit while he conveniently can; and when he must disturb her by rising, he puts her softly down, and never flings her from him roughly. He always whistles to the dog and gives him a caress."
"Does he? It is not Robert?"
"But it is Robert."
"Handsome fellow!" said Shirley, with enthusiasm. Her eyes sparkled.
"Is he not handsome? Has he not fine eyes and well-cut features, and a clear, princely forehead?"
"He has all that, Caroline. Bless him! he is both graceful and good."
"I was sure you would see that he was. When I first looked at your face I knew you would."
"I was well inclined to him before I saw him. I liked him when I did see him. I admire him now. There is charm in beauty for itself, Caroline; when it is blent with goodness, there is a powerful charm."
"When mind is added, Shirley?"
"Who can resist it?"
"Remember my uncle, Mesdames Pryor, Yorke, and Mann."
"Remember the croaking of the frogs of Egypt. He is a noble being. I tell you when they are good they are the lords of the creation—they are the sons of God. Moulded in their Maker's image, the minutest spark of His spirit lifts them almost above mortality. Indisputably, a great, good, handsome man is the first of created things."
"I would scorn to contend for empire with him—I would scorn it. Shall my left hand dispute for precedence with my right? Shall my heart quarrel with my pulse? Shall my veins be jealous of the blood which fills them?"
"Men and women, husbands and wives, quarrel horribly, Shirley."
"Poor things! Poor, fallen, degenerate things! God made them for another lot, for other feelings."
"But are we men's equals, or are we not?"
"Nothing ever charms me more than when I meet my superior—one who makes me sincerely feel that he is my superior."
"Did you ever meet him?"
"I should be glad to see him any day. The higher above me, so much the better. It degrades to stoop; it is glorious to look up. What frets me is, that when I try to esteem, I am baffled; when religiously inclined, there are but false gods to adore. I disdain to be a pagan."
"Miss Keeldar, will you come in? We are here at the rectory gates."
"Not to-day, but to-morrow I shall fetch you to spend the evening with me. Caroline Helstone, if you really are what at present to me you seem, you and I will suit. I have never in my whole life been able to talk to a young lady as I have talked to you this morning. Kiss me—and good-bye."
* * * * *
Mrs. Pryor seemed as well disposed to cultivate Caroline's acquaintance as Shirley. She, who went nowhere else, called on an early day at the rectory. She came in the afternoon, when the rector happened to be out. It was rather a close day; the heat of the weather had flushed her, and she seemed fluttered too by the circumstance of entering a strange house, for it appeared her habits were most retiring and secluded. When Miss Helstone went to her in the dining-room she found her seated on the sofa, trembling, fanning herself with her handkerchief, and seeming to contend with a nervous discomposure that threatened to become hysterical.
Caroline marvelled somewhat at this unusual want of self-command in a lady of her years, and also at the lack of real strength in one who appeared almost robust—for Mrs. Pryor hastened to allege the fatigue of her walk, the heat of the sun, etc., as reasons for her temporary indisposition; and still as, with more hurry than coherence, she again and again enumerated these causes of exhaustion, Caroline gently sought to relieve her by opening her shawl and removing her bonnet. Attentions of this sort Mrs. Pryor would not have accepted from every one. In general she recoiled from touch or close approach with a mixture of embarrassment and coldness far from flattering to those who offered her aid. To Miss Helstone's little light hand, however, she yielded tractably, and seemed soothed by its contact. In a few minutes she ceased to tremble, and grew quiet and tranquil.
Her usual manner being resumed, she proceeded to talk of ordinary topics. In a miscellaneous company Mrs. Pryor rarely opened her lips, or, if obliged to speak, she spoke under restraint, and consequently not well; in dialogue she was a good converser. Her language, always a little formal, was well chosen; her sentiments were just; her information was varied and correct. Caroline felt it pleasant to listen to her, more pleasant than she could have anticipated.
On the wall opposite the sofa where they sat hung three pictures—the centre one, above the mantelpiece, that of a lady; the two others, male portraits.
"That is a beautiful face," said Mrs. Pryor, interrupting a brief pause which had followed half an hour's animated conversation. "The features may be termed perfect; no statuary's chisel could improve them. It is a portrait from the life, I presume?"
"It is a portrait of Mrs. Helstone."
"Of Mrs. Matthewson Helstone? Of your uncle's wife?"
"It is, and is said to be a good likeness. Before her marriage she was accounted the beauty of the district."
"I should say she merited the distinction. What accuracy in all the lineaments! It is, however, a passive face. The original could not have been what is generally termed 'a woman of spirit.'"
"I believe she was a remarkably still, silent person."
"One would scarcely have expected, my dear, that your uncle's choice should have fallen on a partner of that description. Is he not fond of being amused by lively chat?"
"In company he is. But he always says he could never do with a talking wife. He must have quiet at home. You go out to gossip, he affirms; you come home to read and reflect."
"Mrs. Matthewson lived but a few years after her marriage, I think I have heard?"
"About five years."
"Well, my dear," pursued Mrs. Pryor, rising to go, "I trust it is understood that you will frequently come to Fieldhead. I hope you will. You must feel lonely here, having no female relative in the house; you must necessarily pass much of your time in solitude."
"I am inured to it. I have grown up by myself. May I arrange your shawl for you?"
Mrs. Pryor submitted to be assisted.
"Should you chance to require help in your studies," she said, "you may command me."
Caroline expressed her sense of such kindness.
"I hope to have frequent conversations with you. I should wish to be of use to you."
Again Miss Helstone returned thanks. She thought what a kind heart was hidden under her visitor's seeming chilliness. Observing that Mrs. Pryor again glanced with an air of interest towards the portraits, as she walked down the room, Caroline casually explained: "The likeness that hangs near the window, you will see, is my uncle, taken twenty years ago; the other, to the left of the mantelpiece, is his brother James, my father."
"They resemble each other in some measure," said Mrs. Pryor; "yet a difference of character may be traced in the different mould of the brow and mouth."
"What difference?" inquired Caroline, accompanying her to the door. "James Helstone—that is, my father—is generally considered the best-looking of the two. Strangers, I remark, always exclaim, 'What a handsome man!' Do you think his picture handsome, Mrs. Pryor?"
"It is much softer or finer featured than that of your uncle."
"But where or what is the difference of character to which you alluded? Tell me. I wish to see if you guess right."
"My dear, your uncle is a man of principle. His forehead and his lips are firm, and his eye is steady."
"Well, and the other? Do not be afraid of offending me. I always like the truth."
"Do you like the truth? It is well for you. Adhere to that preference—never swerve thence. The other, my dear, if he had been living now, would probably have furnished little support to his daughter. It is, however, a graceful head—taken in youth, I should think. My dear" (turning abruptly), "you acknowledge an inestimable value in principle?"
"I am sure no character can have true worth without it."
"You feel what you say? You have considered the subject?"
"Often. Circumstances early forced it upon my attention."
"The lesson was not lost, then, though it came so prematurely. I suppose the soil is not light nor stony, otherwise seed falling in that season never would have borne fruit. My dear, do not stand in the air of the door; you will take cold. Good-afternoon."
Miss Helstone's new acquaintance soon became of value to her: their society was acknowledged a privilege. She found she would have been in error indeed to have let slip this chance of relief, to have neglected to avail herself of this happy change. A turn was thereby given to her thoughts; a new channel was opened for them, which, diverting a few of them at least from the one direction in which all had hitherto tended, abated the impetuosity of their rush, and lessened the force of their pressure on one worn-down point.
Soon she was content to spend whole days at Fieldhead, doing by turns whatever Shirley or Mrs. Pryor wished her to do; and now one would claim her, now the other. Nothing could be less demonstrative than the friendship of the elder lady, but also nothing could be more vigilant, assiduous, untiring. I have intimated that she was a peculiar personage, and in nothing was her peculiarity more shown than in the nature of the interest she evinced for Caroline. She watched all her movements; she seemed as if she would have guarded all her steps. It gave her pleasure to be applied to by Miss Helstone for advice and assistance. She yielded her aid, when asked, with such quiet yet obvious enjoyment that Caroline ere long took delight in depending on her.
Shirley Keeldar's complete docility with Mrs. Pryor had at first surprised Miss Helstone, and not less the fact of the reserved ex-governess being so much at home and at ease in the residence of her young pupil, where she filled with such quiet independency a very dependent post; but she soon found that it needed but to know both ladies to comprehend fully the enigma. Every one, it seemed to her, must like, must love, must prize Mrs. Pryor when they knew her. No matter that she perseveringly wore old-fashioned gowns; that her speech was formal and her manner cool; that she had twenty little ways such as nobody else had: she was still such a stay, such a counsellor, so truthful, so kind in her way, that, in Caroline's idea, none once accustomed to her presence could easily afford to dispense with it.
As to dependency or humiliation, Caroline did not feel it in her intercourse with Shirley, and why should Mrs. Pryor? The heiress was rich—very rich—compared with her new friend: one possessed a clear thousand a year, the other not a penny; and yet there was a safe sense of equality experienced in her society, never known in that of the ordinary Briarfield and Whinbury gentry.
The reason was, Shirley's head ran on other things than money and position. She was glad to be independent as to property; by fits she was even elated at the notion of being lady of the manor, and having tenants and an estate. She was especially tickled with an agreeable complacency when reminded of "all that property" down in the Hollow, "comprising an excellent cloth-mill, dyehouse, warehouse, together with the messuage, gardens, and outbuildings, termed Hollow's Cottage;" but her exultation being quite undisguised was singularly inoffensive; and, for her serious thoughts, they tended elsewhere. To admire the great, reverence the good, and be joyous with the genial, was very much the bent of Shirley's soul: she mused, therefore, on the means of following this bent far oftener than she pondered on her social superiority.
In Caroline Miss Keeldar had first taken an interest because she was quiet, retiring, looked delicate, and seemed as if she needed some one to take care of her. Her predilection increased greatly when she discovered that her own way of thinking and talking was understood and responded to by this new acquaintance. She had hardly expected it. Miss Helstone, she fancied, had too pretty a face, manners and voice too soft, to be anything out of the common way in mind and attainments; and she very much wondered to see the gentle features light up archly to the reveille of a dry sally or two risked by herself; and more did she wonder to discover the self-won knowledge treasured, and the untaught speculations working in that girlish, curl-veiled head. Caroline's instinct of taste, too, was like her own. Such books as Miss Keeldar had read with the most pleasure were Miss Helstone's delight also. They held many aversions too in common, and could have the comfort of laughing together over works of false sentimentality and pompous pretension.
Few, Shirley conceived, men or women have the right taste in poetry, the right sense for discriminating between what is real and what is false. She had again and again heard very clever people pronounce this or that passage, in this or that versifier, altogether admirable, which, when she read, her soul refused to acknowledge as anything but cant, flourish, and tinsel, or at the best elaborate wordiness, curious, clever, learned, perhaps, haply even tinged with the fascinating hues of fancy, but, God knows, as different from real poetry as the gorgeous and massy vase of mosaic is from the little cup of pure metal; or, to give the reader a choice of similes, as the milliner's artificial wreath is from the fresh-gathered lily of the field.
Caroline, she found, felt the value of the true ore, and knew the deception of the flashy dross. The minds of the two girls being toned in harmony often chimed very sweetly together.
One evening they chanced to be alone in the oak-parlour. They had passed a long wet day together without ennui. It was now on the edge of dark; candles were not yet brought in; both, as twilight deepened, grew meditative and silent. A western wind roared high round the hall, driving wild clouds and stormy rain up from the far-remote ocean; all was tempest outside the antique lattices, all deep peace within. Shirley sat at the window, watching the rack in heaven, the mist on earth, listening to certain notes of the gale that plained like restless spirits—notes which, had she not been so young, gay, and healthy, would have swept her trembling nerves like some omen, some anticipatory dirge. In this her prime of existence and bloom of beauty they but subdued vivacity to pensiveness. Snatches of sweet ballads haunted her ear; now and then she sang a stanza. Her accents obeyed the fitful impulse of the wind; they swelled as its gusts rushed on, and died as they wandered away. Caroline, withdrawn to the farthest and darkest end of the room, her figure just discernible by the ruby shine of the flameless fire, was pacing to and fro, muttering to herself fragments of well-remembered poetry. She spoke very low, but Shirley heard her; and while singing softly, she listened. This was the strain:—
"Obscurest night involved the sky, The Atlantic billows roared, When such a destined wretch as I, Washed headlong from on board, Of friends, of hope, of all bereft, His floating home for ever left."
Here the fragment stopped, because Shirley's song, erewhile somewhat full and thrilling, had become delicately faint.
"Go on," said she.
"Then you go on too. I was only repeating 'The Castaway.'"
"I know. If you can remember it all, say it all."
And as it was nearly dark, and, after all, Miss Keeldar was no formidable auditor, Caroline went through it. She went through it as she should have gone through it. The wild sea, the drowning mariner, the reluctant ship swept on in the storm, you heard were realized by her; and more vividly was realized the heart of the poet, who did not weep for "The Castaway," but who, in an hour of tearless anguish, traced a semblance to his own God-abandoned misery in the fate of that man-forsaken sailor, and cried from the depths where he struggled,—
"No voice divine the storm allayed, No light propitious shone, When, snatched from all effectual aid, We perished—each alone! But I beneath a rougher sea, And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he."
"I hope William Cowper is safe and calm in heaven now," said Caroline.
"Do you pity what he suffered on earth?" asked Miss Keeldar.
"Pity him, Shirley? What can I do else? He was nearly broken-hearted when he wrote that poem, and it almost breaks one's heart to read it. But he found relief in writing it—I know he did; and that gift of poetry—the most divine bestowed on man—was, I believe, granted to allay emotions when their strength threatens harm. It seems to me, Shirley, that nobody should write poetry to exhibit intellect or attainment. Who cares for that sort of poetry? Who cares for learning—who cares for fine words in poetry? And who does not care for feeling—real feeling—however simply, even rudely expressed?"
"It seems you care for it, at all events; and certainly, in hearing that poem, one discovers that Cowper was under an impulse strong as that of the wind which drove the ship—an impulse which, while it would not suffer him to stop to add ornament to a single stanza, filled him with force to achieve the whole with consummate perfection. You managed to recite it with a steady voice, Caroline. I wonder thereat."
"Cowper's hand did not tremble in writing the lines. Why should my voice falter in repeating them? Depend on it, Shirley, no tear blistered the manuscript of 'The Castaway.' I hear in it no sob of sorrow, only the cry of despair; but, that cry uttered, I believe the deadly spasm passed from his heart, that he wept abundantly, and was comforted."
Shirley resumed her ballad minstrelsy. Stopping short, she remarked ere long, "One could have loved Cowper, if it were only for the sake of having the privilege of comforting him."
"You never would have loved Cowper," rejoined Caroline promptly. "He was not made to be loved by woman."
"What do you mean?"
"What I say. I know there is a kind of natures in the world—and very noble, elevated natures too—whom love never comes near. You might have sought Cowper with the intention of loving him, and you would have looked at him, pitied him, and left him, forced away by a sense of the impossible, the incongruous, as the crew were borne from their drowning comrade by 'the furious blast.'"
"You may be right. Who told you this?"
"And what I say of Cowper, I should say of Rousseau. Was Rousseau ever loved? He loved passionately; but was his passion ever returned? I am certain, never. And if there were any female Cowpers and Rousseaus, I should assert the same of them."
"Who told you this, I ask? Did Moore?"
"Why should anybody have told me? Have I not an instinct? Can I not divine by analogy? Moore never talked to me either about Cowper, or Rousseau, or love. The voice we hear in solitude told me all I know on these subjects."
"Do you like characters of the Rousseau order, Caroline?"
"Not at all, as a whole. I sympathize intensely with certain qualities they possess. Certain divine sparks in their nature dazzle my eyes, and make my soul glow. Then, again, I scorn them. They are made of clay and gold. The refuse and the ore make a mass of weakness: taken altogether, I feel them unnatural, unhealthy, repulsive."
"I dare say I should be more tolerant of a Rousseau than you would, Cary. Submissive and contemplative yourself, you like the stern and the practical. By the way, you must miss that Cousin Robert of yours very much, now that you and he never meet."
"And he must miss you?"
"That he does not."
"I cannot imagine," pursued Shirley, who had lately got a habit of introducing Moore's name into the conversation, even when it seemed to have no business there—"I cannot imagine but that he was fond of you, since he took so much notice of you, talked to you, and taught you so much."
"He never was fond of me; he never professed to be fond of me. He took pains to prove that he only just tolerated me."
Caroline, determined not to err on the flattering side in estimating her cousin's regard for her, always now habitually thought of it and mentioned it in the most scanty measure. She had her own reasons for being less sanguine than ever in hopeful views of the future, less indulgent to pleasurable retrospections of the past.
"Of course, then," observed Miss Keeldar, "you only just tolerated him in return?"
"Shirley, men and women are so different; they are in such a different position. Women have so few things to think about, men so many. You may have a friendship for a man, while he is almost indifferent to you. Much of what cheers your life may be dependent on him, while not a feeling or interest of moment in his eyes may have reference to you. Robert used to be in the habit of going to London, sometimes for a week or a fortnight together. Well, while he was away, I found his absence a void. There was something wanting; Briarfield was duller. Of course, I had my usual occupations; still I missed him. As I sat by myself in the evenings, I used to feel a strange certainty of conviction I cannot describe, that if a magician or a genius had, at that moment, offered me Prince Ali's tube (you remember it in the 'Arabian Nights'?), and if, with its aid, I had been enabled to take a view of Robert—to see where he was, how occupied—I should have learned, in a startling manner, the width of the chasm which gaped between such as he and such as I. I knew that, however my thoughts might adhere to him, his were effectually sundered from me."
"Caroline," demanded Miss Keeldar abruptly, "don't you wish you had a profession—a trade?"
"I wish it fifty times a day. As it is, I often wonder what I came into the world for. I long to have something absorbing and compulsory to fill my head and hands and to occupy my thoughts."
"Can labour alone make a human being happy?"
"No; but it can give varieties of pain, and prevent us from breaking our hearts with a single tyrant master-torture. Besides, successful labour has its recompense; a vacant, weary, lonely, hopeless life has none."
"But hard labour and learned professions, they say, make women masculine, coarse, unwomanly."
"And what does it signify whether unmarried and never-to-be-married women are unattractive and inelegant or not? Provided only they are decent, decorous, and neat, it is enough. The utmost which ought to be required of old maids, in the way of appearance, is that they should not absolutely offend men's eyes as they pass them in the street; for the rest, they should be allowed, without too much scorn, to be as absorbed, grave, plain-looking, and plain-dressed as they please."
"You might be an old maid yourself, Caroline, you speak so earnestly."
"I shall be one. It is my destiny. I will never marry a Malone or a Sykes; and no one else will ever marry me."
Here fell a long pause. Shirley broke it. Again the name by which she seemed bewitched was almost the first on her lips.
"Lina—did not Moore call you Lina sometimes?"
"Yes. It is sometimes used as the abbreviation of Caroline in his native country."
"Well, Lina, do you remember my one day noticing an inequality in your hair—a curl wanting on that right side—and your telling me that it was Robert's fault, as he had once cut therefrom a long lock?"
"If he is, and always was, as indifferent to you as you say, why did he steal your hair?"
"I don't know—yes, I do. It was my doing, not his. Everything of that sort always was my doing. He was going from home—to London, as usual; and the night before he went, I had found in his sister's workbox a lock of black hair—a short, round curl. Hortense told me it was her brother's, and a keepsake. He was sitting near the table. I looked at his head. He has plenty of hair; on the temples were many such round curls. I thought he could spare me one. I knew I should like to have it, and I asked for it. He said, on condition that he might have his choice of a tress from my head. So he got one of my long locks of hair, and I got one of his short ones. I keep his, but I dare say he has lost mine. It was my doing, and one of those silly deeds it distresses the heart and sets the face on fire to think of; one of those small but sharp recollections that return, lacerating your self-respect like tiny penknives, and forcing from your lips, as you sit alone, sudden, insane-sounding interjections."
"I do think myself a fool, Shirley, in some respects; I do despise myself. But I said I would not make you my confessor, for you cannot reciprocate foible for foible; you are not weak. How steadily you watch me now! Turn aside your clear, strong, she-eagle eye; it is an insult to fix it on me thus."
"What a study of character you are—weak, certainly, but not in the sense you think!—Come in!"
This was said in answer to a tap at the door. Miss Keeldar happened to be near it at the moment, Caroline at the other end of the room. She saw a note put into Shirley's hands, and heard the words, "From Mr. Moore, ma'am."
"Bring candles," said Miss Keeldar.
Caroline sat expectant.
"A communication on business," said the heiress; but when candles were brought, she neither opened nor read it. The rector's Fanny was presently announced, and the rector's niece went home.
FURTHER COMMUNICATIONS ON BUSINESS.
In Shirley's nature prevailed at times an easy indolence. There were periods when she took delight in perfect vacancy of hand and eye—moments when her thoughts, her simple existence, the fact of the world being around and heaven above her, seemed to yield her such fullness of happiness that she did not need to lift a finger to increase the joy. Often, after an active morning, she would spend a sunny afternoon in lying stirless on the turf, at the foot of some tree of friendly umbrage. No society did she need but that of Caroline, and it sufficed if she were within call; no spectacle did she ask but that of the deep blue sky, and such cloudlets as sailed afar and aloft across its span; no sound but that of the bee's hum, the leaf's whisper. Her sole book in such hours was the dim chronicle of memory or the sibyl page of anticipation. From her young eyes fell on each volume a glorious light to read by; round her lips at moments played a smile which revealed glimpses of the tale or prophecy. It was not sad, not dark. Fate had been benign to the blissful dreamer, and promised to favour her yet again. In her past were sweet passages, in her future rosy hopes.
Yet one day when Caroline drew near to rouse her, thinking she had lain long enough, behold, as she looked down, Shirley's cheek was wet as if with dew; those fine eyes of hers shone humid and brimming.
"Shirley, why do you cry?" asked Caroline, involuntarily laying stress on you.
Miss Keeldar smiled, and turned her picturesque head towards the questioner. "Because it pleases me mightily to cry," she said. "My heart is both sad and glad. But why, you good, patient child—why do you not bear me company? I only weep tears, delightful and soon wiped away; you might weep gall, if you choose."
"Why should I weep gall?"
"Mateless, solitary bird!" was the only answer.
"And are not you too mateless, Shirley?"
"Oh! who nestles there, Shirley?"
But Shirley only laughed gaily at this question, and alertly started up.
"I have dreamed," she said, "a mere day-dream—certainly bright, probably baseless!"
* * * * *
Miss Helstone was by this time free enough from illusions: she took a sufficiently grave view of the future, and fancied she knew pretty well how her own destiny and that of some others were tending. Yet old associations retained their influence over her, and it was these and the power of habit which still frequently drew her of an evening to the field-style and the old thorn overlooking the Hollow.
One night, the night after the incident of the note, she had been at her usual post, watching for her beacon—watching vainly: that evening no lamp was lit. She waited till the rising of certain constellations warned her of lateness and signed her away. In passing Fieldhead, on her return, its moonlight beauty attracted her glance, and stayed her step an instant. Tree and hall rose peaceful under the night sky and clear full orb; pearly paleness gilded the building; mellow brown gloom bosomed it round; shadows of deep green brooded above its oak-wreathed roof. The broad pavement in front shone pale also; it gleamed as if some spell had transformed the dark granite to glistering Parian. On the silvery space slept two sable shadows, thrown sharply defined from two human figures. These figures when first seen were motionless and mute; presently they moved in harmonious step, and spoke low in harmonious key. Earnest was the gaze that scrutinized them as they emerged from behind the trunk of the cedar. "Is it Mrs. Pryor and Shirley?"
Certainly it is Shirley. Who else has a shape so lithe, and proud, and graceful? And her face, too, is visible—her countenance careless and pensive, and musing and mirthful, and mocking and tender. Not fearing the dew, she has not covered her head; her curls are free—they veil her neck and caress her shoulder with their tendril rings. An ornament of gold gleams through the half-closed folds of the scarf she has wrapped across her bust, and a large bright gem glitters on the white hand which confines it. Yes, that is Shirley.
Her companion then is, of course, Mrs. Pryor?
Yes, if Mrs. Pryor owns six feet of stature, and if she has changed her decent widow's weeds for masculine disguise. The figure walking at Miss Keeldar's side is a man—a tall, young, stately man; it is her tenant, Robert Moore.
The pair speak softly; their words are not distinguishable. To remain a moment to gaze is not to be an eavesdropper; and as the moon shines so clearly and their countenances are so distinctly apparent, who can resist the attraction of such interest? Caroline, it seems, cannot, for she lingers.
There was a time when, on summer nights, Moore had been wont to walk with his cousin, as he was now walking with the heiress. Often had she gone up the Hollow with him after sunset, to scent the freshness of the earth, where a growth of fragrant herbage carpeted a certain narrow terrace, edging a deep ravine, from whose rifted gloom was heard a sound like the spirit of the lonely watercourse, moaning amongst its wet stones, and between its weedy banks, and under its dark bower of alders.
"But I used to be closer to him," thought Caroline. "He felt no obligation to treat me with homage; I needed only kindness. He used to hold my hand; he does not touch hers. And yet Shirley is not proud where she loves. There is no haughtiness in her aspect now, only a little in her port—what is natural to and inseparable from her, what she retains in her most careless as in her most guarded moments. Robert must think, as I think, that he is at this instant looking down on a fine face; and he must think it with a man's brain, not with mine. She has such generous yet soft fire in her eyes. She smiles—what makes her smile so sweet? I saw that Robert felt its beauty, and he must have felt it with his man's heart, not with my dim woman's perceptions. They look to me like two great happy spirits. Yonder silvered pavement reminds me of that white shore we believe to be beyond the death-flood. They have reached it; they walk there united. And what am I, standing here in shadow, shrinking into concealment, my mind darker than my hiding-place? I am one of this world, no spirit—a poor doomed mortal, who asks, in ignorance and hopelessness, wherefore she was born, to what end she lives; whose mind for ever runs on the question, how she shall at last encounter, and by whom be sustained through death.
"This is the worst passage I have come to yet; still I was quite prepared for it. I gave Robert up, and gave him up to Shirley, the first day I heard she was come, the first moment I saw her—rich, youthful, and lovely. She has him now. He is her lover. She is his darling. She will be far more his darling yet when they are married. The more Robert knows of Shirley the more his soul will cleave to her. They will both be happy, and I do not grudge them their bliss; but I groan under my own misery. Some of my suffering is very acute. Truly I ought not to have been born; they should have smothered me at the first cry."
Here, Shirley stepping aside to gather a dewy flower, she and her companion turned into a path that lay nearer the gate. Some of their conversation became audible. Caroline would not stay to listen. She passed away noiselessly, and the moonlight kissed the wall which her shadow had dimmed. The reader is privileged to remain, and try what he can make of the discourse.
"I cannot conceive why nature did not give you a bulldog's head, for you have all a bulldog's tenacity," said Shirley.
"Not a flattering idea. Am I so ignoble?"
"And something also you have of the same animal's silent ways of going about its work. You give no warning; you come noiselessly behind, seize fast, and hold on."
"This is guess-work. You have witnessed no such feat on my part. In your presence I have been no bulldog."
"Your very silence indicates your race. How little you talk in general, yet how deeply you scheme! You are far-seeing; you are calculating."
"I know the ways of these people. I have gathered information of their intentions. My note last night informed you that Barraclough's trial had ended in his conviction and sentence to transportation. His associates will plot vengeance. I shall lay my plans so as to counteract or at least be prepared for theirs—that is all. Having now given you as clear an explanation as I can, am I to understand that for what I propose doing I have your approbation?"
"I shall stand by you so long as you remain on the defensive. Yes."
"Good! Without any aid—even opposed or disapproved by you—I believe I should have acted precisely as I now intend to act, but in another spirit. I now feel satisfied. On the whole, I relish the position."
"I dare say you do. That is evident. You relish the work which lies before you still better than you would relish the execution of a government order for army-cloth."
"I certainly feel it congenial."
"So would old Helstone. It is true there is a shade of difference in your motives—many shades, perhaps. Shall I speak to Mr. Helstone? I will, if you like."
"Act as you please. Your judgment, Miss Keeldar, will guide you accurately. I could rely on it myself in a more difficult crisis. But I should inform you Mr. Helstone is somewhat prejudiced against me at present."
"I am aware—I have heard all about your differences. Depend upon it, they will melt away. He cannot resist the temptation of an alliance under present circumstances."
"I should be glad to have him; he is of true metal."
"I think so also."
"An old blade, and rusty somewhat, but the edge and temper still excellent."
"Well, you shall have him, Mr. Moore—that is, if I can win him."
"Whom can you not win?"
"Perhaps not the rector; but I will make the effort."
"Effort! He will yield for a word—a smile."
"By no means. It will cost me several cups of tea, some toast and cake, and an ample measure of remonstrances, expostulations, and persuasions. It grows rather chill."
"I perceive you shiver. Am I acting wrongly to detain you here? Yet it is so calm—I even feel it warm—and society such as yours is a pleasure to me so rare. If you were wrapped in a thicker shawl——"
"I might stay longer, and forget how late it is, which would chagrin Mrs. Pryor. We keep early and regular hours at Fieldhead, Mr. Moore; and so, I am sure, does your sister at the cottage."
"Yes; but Hortense and I have an understanding the most convenient in the world, that we shall each do as we please."
"How do you please to do?"
"Three nights in the week I sleep in the mill—but I require little rest—and when it is moonlight and mild I often haunt the Hollow till daybreak."
"When I was a very little girl, Mr. Moore, my nurse used to tell me tales of fairies being seen in that Hollow. That was before my father built the mill, when it was a perfectly solitary ravine. You will be falling under enchantment."
"I fear it is done," said Moore, in a low voice.
"But there are worse things than fairies to be guarded against," pursued Miss Keeldar.
"Things more perilous," he subjoined.
"Far more so. For instance, how would you like to meet Michael Hartley, that mad Calvinist and Jacobin weaver? They say he is addicted to poaching, and often goes abroad at night with his gun."
"I have already had the luck to meet him. We held a long argument together one night. A strange little incident it was; I liked it."
"Liked it? I admire your taste! Michael is not sane. Where did you meet him?"
"In the deepest, shadiest spot in the glen, where the water runs low, under brushwood. We sat down near that plank bridge. It was moonlight, but clouded, and very windy. We had a talk."
"And religion. I think the moon was at the full, and Michael was as near crazed as possible. He uttered strange blasphemy in his Antinomian fashion."
"Excuse me, but I think you must have been nearly as mad as he, to sit listening to him."
"There is a wild interest in his ravings. The man would be half a poet, if he were not wholly a maniac; and perhaps a prophet, if he were not a profligate. He solemnly informed me that hell was foreordained my inevitable portion; that he read the mark of the beast on my brow; that I had been an outcast from the beginning. God's vengeance, he said, was preparing for me, and affirmed that in a vision of the night he had beheld the manner and the instrument of my doom. I wanted to know further, but he left me with these words, 'The end is not yet.'"
"Have you ever seen him since?"
"About a month afterwards, in returning from market, I encountered him and Moses Barraclough, both in an advanced stage of inebriation. They were praying in frantic sort at the roadside. They accosted me as Satan, bid me avaunt, and clamoured to be delivered from temptation. Again, but a few days ago, Michael took the trouble of appearing at the counting-house door, hatless, in his shirt-sleeves—his coat and castor having been detained at the public-house in pledge. He delivered himself of the comfortable message that he could wish Mr. Moore to set his house in order, as his soul was likely shortly to be required of him."
"Do you make light of these things?"
"The poor man had been drinking for weeks, and was in a state bordering on delirium tremens."
"What then? He is the more likely to attempt the fulfilment of his own prophecies."
"It would not do to permit incidents of this sort to affect one's nerves."
"Mr. Moore, go home!"
"Pass straight down the fields, not round by the lade and plantations."
"It is early yet."
"It is late. For my part, I am going in. Will you promise me not to wander in the Hollow to-night?"
"If you wish it."
"I do wish it. May I ask whether you consider life valueless?"
"By no means. On the contrary, of late I regard my life as invaluable."
"Existence is neither aimless nor hopeless to me now, and it was both three months ago. I was then drowning, and rather wished the operation over. All at once a hand was stretched to me—such a delicate hand I scarcely dared trust it; its strength, however, has rescued me from ruin."
"Are you really rescued?"
"For the time. Your assistance has given me another chance."
"Live to make the best of it. Don't offer yourself as a target to Michael Hartley; and good-night!"
* * * * *
Miss Helstone was under a promise to spend the evening of the next day at Fieldhead. She kept her promise. Some gloomy hours had she spent in the interval. Most of the time had been passed shut up in her own apartment, only issuing from it, indeed, to join her uncle at meals, and anticipating inquiries from Fanny by telling her that she was busy altering a dress, and preferred sewing upstairs, to avoid interruption.
She did sew. She plied her needle continuously, ceaselessly, but her brain worked faster than her fingers. Again, and more intensely than ever, she desired a fixed occupation, no matter how onerous, how irksome. Her uncle must be once more entreated, but first she would consult Mrs. Pryor. Her head laboured to frame projects as diligently as her hands to plait and stitch the thin texture of the muslin summer dress spread on the little white couch at the foot of which she sat. Now and then, while thus doubly occupied, a tear would fill her eyes and fall on her busy hands; but this sign of emotion was rare and quickly effaced. The sharp pang passed; the dimness cleared from her vision. She would re-thread her needle, rearrange tuck and trimming, and work on.
Late in the afternoon she dressed herself. She reached Fieldhead, and appeared in the oak parlour just as tea was brought in. Shirley asked her why she came so late.
"Because I have been making my dress," said she. "These fine sunny days began to make me ashamed of my winter merino, so I have furbished up a lighter garment."
"In which you look as I like to see you," said Shirley. "You are a lady-like little person, Caroline.—Is she not, Mrs. Pryor?"
Mrs. Pryor never paid compliments, and seldom indulged in remarks, favourable or otherwise, on personal appearance. On the present occasion she only swept Caroline's curls from her cheek as she took a seat near her, caressed the oval outline, and observed, "You get somewhat thin, my love, and somewhat pale. Do you sleep well? your eyes have a languid look." And she gazed at her anxiously.
"I sometimes dream melancholy dreams," answered Caroline; "and if I lie awake for an hour or two in the night, I am continually thinking of the rectory as a dreary old place. You know it is very near the churchyard. The back part of the house is extremely ancient, and it is said that the out-kitchens there were once enclosed in the churchyard, and that there are graves under them. I rather long to leave the rectory."
"My dear, you are surely not superstitious?"
"No, Mrs. Pryor; but I think I grow what is called nervous. I see things under a darker aspect than I used to do. I have fears I never used to have—not of ghosts, but of omens and disastrous events; and I have an inexpressible weight on my mind which I would give the world to shake off, and I cannot do it."
"Strange!" cried Shirley. "I never feel so." Mrs. Pryor said nothing.
"Fine weather, pleasant days, pleasant scenes, are powerless to give me pleasure," continued Caroline. "Calm evenings are not calm to me. Moonlight, which I used to think mild, now only looks mournful. Is this weakness of mind, Mrs. Pryor, or what is it? I cannot help it. I often struggle against it. I reason; but reason and effort make no difference."
"You should take more exercise," said Mrs. Pryor.
"Exercise! I exercise sufficiently. I exercise till I am ready to drop."
"My dear, you should go from home."
"Mrs. Pryor, I should like to go from home, but not on any purposeless excursion or visit. I wish to be a governess, as you have been. It would oblige me greatly if you would speak to my uncle on the subject."
"Nonsense!" broke in Shirley. "What an idea! Be a governess! Better be a slave at once. Where is the necessity of it? Why should you dream of such a painful step?"
"My dear," said Mrs. Pryor, "you are very young to be a governess, and not sufficiently robust. The duties a governess undertakes are often severe."
"And I believe I want severe duties to occupy me."
"Occupy you!" cried Shirley. "When are you idle? I never saw a more industrious girl than you. You are always at work. Come," she continued—"come and sit by my side, and take some tea to refresh you. You don't care much for my friendship, then, that you wish to leave me?"
"Indeed I do, Shirley; and I don't wish to leave you. I shall never find another friend so dear."
At which words Miss Keeldar put her hand into Caroline's with an impulsively affectionate movement, which was well seconded by the expression of her face.
"If you think so, you had better make much of me," she said, "and not run away from me. I hate to part with those to whom I am become attached. Mrs. Pryor there sometimes talks of leaving me, and says I might make a more advantageous connection than herself. I should as soon think of exchanging an old-fashioned mother for something modish and stylish. As for you—why, I began to flatter myself we were thoroughly friends; that you liked Shirley almost as well as Shirley likes you, and she does not stint her regard."
"I do like Shirley. I like her more and more every day. But that does not make me strong or happy."
"And would it make you strong or happy to go and live as a dependent amongst utter strangers? It would not. And the experiment must not be tried; I tell you it would fail. It is not in your nature to bear the desolate life governesses generally lead; you would fall ill. I won't hear of it."
And Miss Keeldar paused, having uttered this prohibition very decidedly. Soon she recommenced, still looking somewhat courroucee, "Why, it is my daily pleasure now to look out for the little cottage bonnet and the silk scarf glancing through the trees in the lane, and to know that my quiet, shrewd, thoughtful companion and monitress is coming back to me; that I shall have her sitting in the room to look at, to talk to or to let alone, as she and I please. This may be a selfish sort of language—I know it is—but it is the language which naturally rises to my lips, therefore I utter it."
"I would write to you, Shirley."
"And what are letters? Only a sort of pis aller. Drink some tea, Caroline. Eat something—you eat nothing. Laugh and be cheerful, and stay at home."
Miss Helstone shook her head and sighed. She felt what difficulty she would have to persuade any one to assist or sanction her in making that change in her life which she believed desirable. Might she only follow her own judgment, she thought she should be able to find perhaps a harsh but an effectual cure for her sufferings. But this judgment, founded on circumstances she could fully explain to none, least of all to Shirley, seemed, in all eyes but her own, incomprehensible and fantastic, and was opposed accordingly.
There really was no present pecuniary need for her to leave a comfortable home and "take a situation;" and there was every probability that her uncle might, in some way, permanently provide for her. So her friends thought, and, as far as their lights enabled them to see, they reasoned correctly; but of Caroline's strange sufferings, which she desired so eagerly to overcome or escape, they had no idea, of her racked nights and dismal days no suspicion. It was at once impossible and hopeless to explain; to wait and endure was her only plan. Many that want food and clothing have cheerier lives and brighter prospects than she had; many, harassed by poverty, are in a strait less afflictive.
"Now, is your mind quieted?" inquired Shirley. "Will you consent to stay at home?"
"I shall not leave it against the approbation of my friends," was the reply; "but I think in time they will be obliged to think as I do."
During this conversation Mrs. Pryor looked far from easy. Her extreme habitual reserve would rarely permit her to talk freely or to interrogate others closely. She could think a multitude of questions she never ventured to put, give advice in her mind which her tongue never delivered. Had she been alone with Caroline, she might possibly have said something to the point: Miss Keeldar's presence, accustomed as she was to it, sealed her lips. Now, as on a thousand other occasions, inexplicable nervous scruples kept her back from interfering. She merely showed her concern for Miss Helstone in an indirect way, by asking her if the fire made her too warm, placing a screen between her chair and the hearth, closing a window whence she imagined a draught proceeded, and often and restlessly glancing at her. Shirley resumed: "Having destroyed your plan," she said, "which I hope I have done, I shall construct a new one of my own. Every summer I make an excursion. This season I propose spending two months either at the Scotch lochs or the English lakes—that is, I shall go there provided you consent to accompany me. If you refuse, I shall not stir a foot."
"You are very good, Shirley."
"I would be very good if you would let me. I have every disposition to be good. It is my misfortune and habit, I know, to think of myself paramount to anybody else; but who is not like me in that respect? However, when Captain Keeldar is made comfortable, accommodated with all he wants, including a sensible, genial comrade, it gives him a thorough pleasure to devote his spare efforts to making that comrade happy. And should we not be happy, Caroline, in the Highlands? We will go to the Highlands. We will, if you can bear a sea-voyage, go to the Isles—the Hebrides, the Shetland, the Orkney Islands. Would you not like that? I see you would.—Mrs. Pryor, I call you to witness. Her face is all sunshine at the bare mention of it."
"I should like it much," returned Caroline, to whom, indeed, the notion of such a tour was not only pleasant, but gloriously reviving. Shirley rubbed her hands.
"Come; I can bestow a benefit," she exclaimed. "I can do a good deed with my cash. My thousand a year is not merely a matter of dirty bank-notes and jaundiced guineas (let me speak respectfully of both, though, for I adore them), but, it may be, health to the drooping, strength to the weak, consolation to the sad. I was determined to make something of it better than a fine old house to live in, than satin gowns to wear, better than deference from acquaintance and homage from the poor. Here is to begin. This summer, Caroline, Mrs. Pryor and I go out into the North Atlantic, beyond the Shetland, perhaps to the Faroe Isles. We will see seals in Suderoe, and, doubtless, mermaids in Stromoe.—Caroline is laughing, Mrs. Pryor. I made her laugh; I have done her good."
"I shall like to go, Shirley," again said Miss Helstone. "I long to hear the sound of waves—ocean-waves—and to see them as I have imagined them in dreams, like tossing banks of green light, strewed with vanishing and reappearing wreaths of foam, whiter than lilies. I shall delight to pass the shores of those lone rock-islets where the sea-birds live and breed unmolested. We shall be on the track of the old Scandinavians—of the Norsemen. We shall almost see the shores of Norway. This is a very vague delight that I feel, communicated by your proposal, but it is a delight."
"Will you think of Fitful Head now when you lie awake at night, of gulls shrieking round it, and waves tumbling in upon it, rather than of the graves under the rectory back-kitchen?"
"I will try; and instead of musing about remnants of shrouds, and fragments of coffins, and human bones and mould, I will fancy seals lying in the sunshine on solitary shores, where neither fisherman nor hunter ever come; of rock crevices full of pearly eggs bedded in seaweed; of unscared birds covering white sands in happy flocks."
"And what will become of that inexpressible weight you said you had on your mind?"
"I will try to forget it in speculation on the sway of the whole great deep above a herd of whales rushing through the livid and liquid thunder down from the frozen zone—a hundred of them, perhaps, wallowing, flashing, rolling in the wake of a patriarch bull, huge enough to have been spawned before the Flood, such a creature as poor Smart had in his mind when he said,—
'Strong against tides, the enormous whale Emerges as he goes.'"
"I hope our bark will meet with no such shoal, or herd as you term it, Caroline. (I suppose you fancy the sea-mammoths pasturing about the bases of the 'everlasting hills,' devouring strange provender in the vast valleys through and above which sea-billows roll.) I should not like to be capsized by the patriarch bull."
"I suppose you expect to see mermaids, Shirley?"
"One of them, at any rate—I do not bargain for less—and she is to appear in some such fashion as this. I am to be walking by myself on deck, rather late of an August evening, watching and being watched by a full harvest moon. Something is to rise white on the surface of the sea, over which that moon mounts silent and hangs glorious. The object glitters and sinks. It rises again. I think I hear it cry with an articulate voice; I call you up from the cabin; I show you an image, fair as alabaster, emerging from the dim wave. We both see the long hair, the lifted and foam-white arm, the oval mirror brilliant as a star. It glides nearer; a human face is plainly visible—a face in the style of yours—whose straight, pure (excuse the word, it is appropriate)—whose straight, pure lineaments paleness does not disfigure. It looks at us, but not with your eyes. I see a preternatural lure in its wily glance. It beckons. Were we men, we should spring at the sign—the cold billow would be dared for the sake of the colder enchantress; being women, we stand safe, though not dreadless. She comprehends our unmoved gaze; she feels herself powerless; anger crosses her front; she cannot charm, but she will appal us; she rises high, and glides all revealed on the dark wave-ridge. Temptress-terror! monstrous likeness of ourselves! Are you not glad, Caroline, when at last, and with a wild shriek, she dives?"