Thanks to Miss Helstone's promptitude, they arrived in good time. While yet trees hid the church, they heard the bell tolling a measured but urgent summons for all to assemble. The trooping in of numbers, the trampling of many steps and murmuring of many voices, were likewise audible. From a rising ground, they presently saw, on the Whinbury road, the Whinbury school approaching. It numbered five hundred souls. The rector and curate, Boultby and Donne, headed it—the former looming large in full canonicals, walking as became a beneficed priest, under the canopy of a shovel-hat, with the dignity of an ample corporation, the embellishment of the squarest and vastest of black coats, and the support of the stoutest of gold-headed canes. As the doctor walked, he now and then slightly flourished his cane, and inclined his shovel-hat with a dogmatical wag towards his aide-de-camp. That aide-de-camp—Donne, to wit—narrow as the line of his shape was, compared to the broad bulk of his principal, contrived, notwithstanding, to look every inch a curate. All about him was pragmatical and self-complacent, from his turned-up nose and elevated chin to his clerical black gaiters, his somewhat short, strapless trousers, and his square-toed shoes.
Walk on, Mr. Donne! You have undergone scrutiny. You think you look well. Whether the white and purple figures watching you from yonder hill think so is another question.
These figures come running down when the regiment has marched by. The churchyard is full of children and teachers, all in their very best holiday attire; and, distressed as is the district, bad as are the times, it is wonderful to see how respectably, how handsomely even, they have contrived to clothe themselves. That British love of decency will work miracles. The poverty which reduces an Irish girl to rags is impotent to rob the English girl of the neat wardrobe she knows necessary to her self-respect. Besides, the lady of the manor—that Shirley, now gazing with pleasure on this well-dressed and happy-looking crowd—has really done them good. Her seasonable bounty consoled many a poor family against the coming holiday, and supplied many a child with a new frock or bonnet for the occasion. She knows it, and is elate with the consciousness—glad that her money, example, and influence have really, substantially, benefited those around her. She cannot be charitable like Miss Ainley: it is not in her nature. It relieves her to feel that there is another way of being charitable, practicable for other characters, and under other circumstances.
Caroline, too, is pleased, for she also has done good in her small way—robbed herself of more than one dress, ribbon, or collar she could ill spare, to aid in fitting out the scholars of her class; and as she could not give money, she has followed Miss Ainley's example in giving her time and her industry to sew for the children.
Not only is the churchyard full, but the rectory garden is also thronged. Pairs and parties of ladies and gentlemen are seen walking amongst the waving lilacs and laburnums. The house also is occupied: at the wide-open parlour windows gay groups are standing. These are the patrons and teachers, who are to swell the procession. In the parson's croft, behind the rectory, are the musicians of the three parish bands, with their instruments. Fanny and Eliza, in the smartest of caps and gowns, and the whitest of aprons, move amongst them, serving out quarts of ale, whereof a stock was brewed very sound and strong some weeks since by the rector's orders, and under his special superintendence. Whatever he had a hand in must be managed handsomely. "Shabby doings" of any description were not endured under his sanction. From the erection of a public building, a church, school, or court-house, to the cooking of a dinner, he still advocated the lordly, liberal, and effective. Miss Keeldar was like him in this respect, and they mutually approved each other's arrangements.
Caroline and Shirley were soon in the midst of the company. The former met them very easily for her. Instead of sitting down in a retired corner, or stealing away to her own room till the procession should be marshalled, according to her wont, she moved through the three parlours, conversed and smiled, absolutely spoke once or twice ere she was spoken to, and, in short, seemed a new creature. It was Shirley's presence which thus transformed her; the view of Miss Keeldar's air and manner did her a world of good. Shirley had no fear of her kind, no tendency to shrink from, to avoid it. All human beings—men, women, or children—whom low breeding or coarse presumption did not render positively offensive, were welcome enough to her—some much more so than others, of course; but, generally speaking, till a man had indisputably proved himself bad and a nuisance, Shirley was willing to think him good and an acquisition, and to treat him accordingly. This disposition made her a general favourite, for it robbed her very raillery of its sting, and gave her serious or smiling conversation a happy charm; nor did it diminish the value of her intimate friendship, which was a distinct thing from this social benevolence—depending, indeed, on quite a different part of her character. Miss Helstone was the choice of her affection and intellect; the Misses Pearson, Sykes, Wynne, etc., etc., only the profiteers by her good-nature and vivacity.
Donne happened to come into the drawing-room while Shirley, sitting on the sofa, formed the centre of a tolerably wide circle. She had already forgotten her exasperation against him, and she bowed and smiled good-humouredly. The disposition of the man was then seen. He knew neither how to decline the advance with dignity, as one whose just pride has been wounded, nor how to meet it with frankness, as one who is glad to forget and forgive. His punishment had impressed him with no sense of shame, and he did not experience that feeling on encountering his chastiser. He was not vigorous enough in evil to be actively malignant—he merely passed by sheepishly with a rated, scowling look. Nothing could ever again reconcile him to his enemy; while no passion of resentment, for even sharper and more ignominious inflictions, could his lymphatic nature know.
"He was not worth a scene!" said Shirley to Caroline. "What a fool I was! To revenge on poor Donne his silly spite at Yorkshire is something like crushing a gnat for attacking the hide of a rhinoceros. Had I been a gentleman, I believe I should have helped him off the premises by dint of physical force. I am glad now I only employed the moral weapon. But he must come near me no more. I don't like him. He irritates me. There is not even amusement to be had out of him. Malone is better sport."
It seemed as if Malone wished to justify the preference, for the words were scarcely out of the speaker's mouth when Peter Augustus came up, all in grande tenue, gloved and scented, with his hair oiled and brushed to perfection, and bearing in one hand a huge bunch of cabbage-roses, five or six in full blow. These he presented to the heiress with a grace to which the most cunning pencil could do but defective justice. And who, after this, could dare to say that Peter was not a lady's man? He had gathered and he had given flowers; he had offered a sentimental, a poetic tribute at the shrine of Love or Mammon. Hercules holding the distaff was but a faint type of Peter bearing the roses. He must have thought this himself, for he seemed amazed at what he had done. He backed without a word; he was going away with a husky chuckle of self-satisfaction; then he bethought himself to stop and turn, to ascertain by ocular testimony that he really had presented a bouquet. Yes, there were the six red cabbages on the purple satin lap, a very white hand, with some gold rings on the fingers, slightly holding them together, and streaming ringlets, half hiding a laughing face, drooped over them. Only half hiding! Peter saw the laugh; it was unmistakable. He was made a joke of; his gallantry, his chivalry, were the subject of a jest for a petticoat—for two petticoats: Miss Helstone too was smiling. Moreover, he felt he was seen through, and Peter grew black as a thunder-cloud. When Shirley looked up, a fell eye was fastened on her. Malone, at least, had energy enough in hate. She saw it in his glance.
"Peter is worth a scene, and shall have it, if he likes, one day," she whispered to her friend.
And now—solemn and sombre as to their colour, though bland enough as to their faces—appeared at the dining-room door the three rectors. They had hitherto been busy in the church, and were now coming to take some little refreshment for the body, ere the march commenced. The large morocco-covered easy-chair had been left vacant for Dr. Boultby. He was put into it, and Caroline, obeying the instigations of Shirley, who told her now was the time to play the hostess, hastened to hand to her uncle's vast, revered, and, on the whole, worthy friend, a glass of wine and a plate of macaroons. Boultby's churchwardens, patrons of the Sunday school both, as he insisted on their being, were already beside him; Mrs. Sykes and the other ladies of his congregation were on his right hand and on his left, expressing their hopes that he was not fatigued, their fears that the day would be too warm for him. Mrs. Boultby, who held an opinion that when her lord dropped asleep after a good dinner his face became as the face of an angel, was bending over him, tenderly wiping some perspiration, real or imaginary, from his brow. Boultby, in short, was in his glory, and in a round, sound voix de poitrine he rumbled out thanks for attentions and assurances of his tolerable health. Of Caroline he took no manner of notice as she came near, save to accept what she offered. He did not see her—he never did see her; he hardly knew that such a person existed. He saw the macaroons, however, and being fond of sweets, possessed himself of a small handful thereof. The wine Mrs. Boultby insisted on mingling with hot water, and qualifying with sugar and nutmeg.
Mr. Hall stood near an open window, breathing the fresh air and scent of flowers, and talking like a brother to Miss Ainley. To him Caroline turned her attention with pleasure. "What should she bring him? He must not help himself—he must be served by her." And she provided herself with a little salver, that she might offer him variety. Margaret Hall joined them; so did Miss Keeldar. The four ladies stood round their favourite pastor. They also had an idea that they looked on the face of an earthly angel. Cyril Hall was their pope, infallible to them as Dr. Thomas Boultby to his admirers. A throng, too, enclosed the rector of Briarfield—twenty or more pressed round him; and no parson was ever more potent in a circle than old Helstone. The curates, herding together after their manner, made a constellation of three lesser planets. Divers young ladies watched them afar off, but ventured not nigh.
Mr. Helstone produced his watch. "Ten minutes to two," he announced aloud. "Time for all to fall into line. Come." He seized his shovel-hat and marched away. All rose and followed en masse.
The twelve hundred children were drawn up in three bodies of four hundred souls each; in the rear of each regiment was stationed a band; between every twenty there was an interval, wherein Helstone posted the teachers in pairs. To the van of the armies he summoned,—
"Grace Boultby and Mary Sykes lead out Whinbury.
"Margaret Hall and Mary Ann Ainley conduct Nunnely.
"Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar head Briarfield."
Then again he gave command,—
"Mr. Donne to Whinbury; Mr. Sweeting to Nunnely; Mr. Malone to Briarfield."
And these gentlemen stepped up before the lady-generals.
The rectors passed to the full front; the parish clerks fell to the extreme rear. Helstone lifted his shovel-hat. In an instant out clashed the eight bells in the tower, loud swelled the sounding bands, flute spoke and clarion answered, deep rolled the drums, and away they marched.
The broad white road unrolled before the long procession, the sun and sky surveyed it cloudless, the wind tossed the tree boughs above it, and the twelve hundred children and one hundred and forty adults of which it was composed trod on in time and tune, with gay faces and glad hearts. It was a joyous scene, and a scene to do good. It was a day of happiness for rich and poor—the work, first of God, and then of the clergy. Let England's priests have their due. They are a faulty set in some respects, being only of common flesh and blood like us all; but the land would be badly off without them. Britain would miss her church, if that church fell. God save it! God also reform it!
THE SCHOOL FEAST.
Not on combat bent, nor of foemen in search, was this priest-led and woman-officered company; yet their music played martial tunes, and, to judge by the eyes and carriage of some—Miss Keeldar, for instance—these sounds awoke, if not a martial, yet a longing spirit. Old Helstone, turning by chance, looked into her face; and he laughed, and she laughed at him.
"There is no battle in prospect," he said; "our country does not want us to fight for it. No foe or tyrant is questioning or threatening our liberty. There is nothing to be done. We are only taking a walk. Keep your hand on the reins, captain, and slack the fire of that spirit. It is not wanted, the more's the pity."
"Take your own advice, doctor," was Shirley's response. To Caroline she murmured, "I'll borrow of imagination what reality will not give me. We are not soldiers—bloodshed is not my desire—or if we are, we are soldiers of the Cross. Time has rolled back some hundreds of years, and we are bound on a pilgrimage to Palestine. But no; that is too visionary. I need a sterner dream. We are Lowlanders of Scotland, following a Covenanting captain up into the hills to hold a meeting out of the reach of persecuting troopers. We know that battle may follow prayer; and as we believe that in the worst issue of battle heaven must be our reward, we are ready and willing to redden the peat-moss with our blood. That music stirs my soul; it wakens all my life; it makes my heart beat—not with its temperate daily pulse, but with a new, thrilling vigour. I almost long for danger—for a faith, a land, or at least a lover to defend."
"Look, Shirley!" interrupted Caroline. "What is that red speck above Stilbro' Brow? You have keener sight than I. Just turn your eagle eye to it."
Miss Keeldar looked. "I see," she said; then added presently, "there is a line of red. They are soldiers—cavalry soldiers," she subjoined quickly. "They ride fast. There are six of them. They will pass us. No; they have turned off to the right. They saw our procession, and avoid it by making a circuit. Where are they going?"
"Perhaps they are only exercising their horses."
"Perhaps so. We see them no more now."
Mr. Helstone here spoke.
"We shall pass through Royd Lane, to reach Nunnely Common by a short cut," said he.
And into the straits of Royd Lane they accordingly defiled. It was very narrow—so narrow that only two could walk abreast without falling into the ditch which ran along each side. They had gained the middle of it, when excitement became obvious in the clerical commanders. Boultby's spectacles and Helstone's Rehoboam were agitated; the curates nudged each other; Mr. Hall turned to the ladies and smiled.
"What is the matter?" was the demand.
He pointed with his staff to the end of the lane before them. Lo and behold! another, an opposition, procession was there entering, headed also by men in black, and followed also, as they could now hear, by music.
"Is it our double?" asked Shirley, "our manifold wraith? Here is a card turned up."
"If you wanted a battle, you are likely to get one—at least of looks," whispered Caroline, laughing.
"They shall not pass us!" cried the curates unanimously; "we'll not give way!"
"Give way!" retorted Helstone sternly, turning round; "who talks of giving way? You, boys, mind what you are about. The ladies, I know, will be firm. I can trust them. There is not a churchwoman here but will stand her ground against these folks, for the honour of the Establishment.—What does Miss Keeldar say?"
"She asks what is it."
"The Dissenting and Methodist schools, the Baptists, Independents, and Wesleyans, joined in unholy alliance, and turning purposely into this lane with the intention of obstructing our march and driving us back."
"Bad manners!" said Shirley, "and I hate bad manners. Of course, they must have a lesson."
"A lesson in politeness," suggested Mr. Hall, who was ever for peace; "not an example of rudeness."
Old Helstone moved on. Quickening his step, he marched some yards in advance of his company. He had nearly reached the other sable leaders, when he who appeared to act as the hostile commander-in-chief—a large, greasy man, with black hair combed flat on his forehead—called a halt. The procession paused. He drew forth a hymn book, gave out a verse, set a tune, and they all struck up the most dolorous of canticles.
Helstone signed to his bands. They clashed out with all the power of brass. He desired them to play "Rule, Britannia!" and ordered the children to join in vocally, which they did with enthusiastic spirit. The enemy was sung and stormed down, his psalm quelled. As far as noise went, he was conquered.
"Now, follow me!" exclaimed Helstone; "not at a run, but at a firm, smart pace. Be steady, every child and woman of you. Keep together. Hold on by each other's skirts, if necessary."
And he strode on with such a determined and deliberate gait, and was, besides, so well seconded by his scholars and teachers, who did exactly as he told them, neither running nor faltering, but marching with cool, solid impetus—the curates, too, being compelled to do the same, as they were between two fires, Helstone and Miss Keeldar, both of whom watched any deviation with lynx-eyed vigilance, and were ready, the one with his cane, the other with her parasol, to rebuke the slightest breach of orders, the least independent or irregular demonstration—that the body of Dissenters were first amazed, then alarmed, then borne down and pressed back, and at last forced to turn tail and leave the outlet from Royd Lane free. Boultby suffered in the onslaught, but Helstone and Malone, between them, held him up, and brought him through the business, whole in limb, though sorely tried in wind.
The fat Dissenter who had given out the hymn was left sitting in the ditch. He was a spirit merchant by trade, a leader of the Nonconformists, and, it was said, drank more water in that one afternoon than he had swallowed for a twelvemonth before. Mr. Hall had taken care of Caroline, and Caroline of him. He and Miss Ainley made their own quiet comments to each other afterwards on the incident. Miss Keeldar and Mr. Helstone shook hands heartily when they had fairly got the whole party through the lane. The curates began to exult, but Mr. Helstone presently put the curb on their innocent spirits. He remarked that they never had sense to know what to say, and had better hold their tongues; and he reminded them that the business was none of their managing.
About half-past three the procession turned back, and at four once more regained the starting-place. Long lines of benches were arranged in the close-shorn fields round the school. There the children were seated, and huge baskets, covered up with white cloths, and great smoking tin vessels were brought out. Ere the distribution of good things commenced, a brief grace was pronounced by Mr. Hall and sung by the children. Their young voices sounded melodious, even touching, in the open air. Large currant buns and hot, well-sweetened tea were then administered in the proper spirit of liberality. No stinting was permitted on this day, at least; the rule for each child's allowance being that it was to have about twice as much as it could possibly eat, thus leaving a reserve to be carried home for such as age, sickness, or other impediment prevented from coming to the feast. Buns and beer circulated, meantime, amongst the musicians and church-singers; afterwards the benches were removed, and they were left to unbend their spirits in licensed play.
A bell summoned the teachers, patrons, and patronesses to the schoolroom. Miss Keeldar, Miss Helstone, and many other ladies were already there, glancing over the arrangement of their separate trays and tables. Most of the female servants of the neighbourhood, together with the clerks', the singers', and the musicians' wives, had been pressed into the service of the day as waiters. Each vied with the other in smartness and daintiness of dress, and many handsome forms were seen amongst the younger ones. About half a score were cutting bread and butter, another half-score supplying hot water, brought from the coppers of the rector's kitchen. The profusion of flowers and evergreens decorating the white walls, the show of silver teapots and bright porcelain on the tables, the active figures, blithe faces, gay dresses flitting about everywhere, formed altogether a refreshing and lively spectacle. Everybody talked, not very loudly, but merrily, and the canary birds sang shrill in their high-hung cages.
Caroline, as the rector's niece, took her place at one of the three first tables; Mrs. Boultby and Margaret Hall officiated at the others. At these tables the elite of the company were to be entertained, strict rules of equality not being more in fashion at Briarfield than elsewhere. Miss Helstone removed her bonnet and scarf, that she might be less oppressed with the heat. Her long curls, falling on her neck, served almost in place of a veil; and for the rest, her muslin dress was fashioned modestly as a nun's robe, enabling her thus to dispense with the encumbrance of a shawl.
The room was filling. Mr. Hall had taken his post beside Caroline, who now, as she rearranged the cups and spoons before her, whispered to him in a low voice remarks on the events of the day. He looked a little grave about what had taken place in Royd Lane, and she tried to smile him out of his seriousness. Miss Keeldar sat near—for a wonder, neither laughing nor talking; on the contrary, very still, and gazing round her vigilantly. She seemed afraid lest some intruder should take a seat she apparently wished to reserve next her own. Ever and anon she spread her satin dress over an undue portion of the bench, or laid her gloves or her embroidered handkerchief upon it. Caroline noticed this manege at last, and asked her what friend she expected. Shirley bent towards her, almost touched her ear with her rosy lips, and whispered with a musical softness that often characterized her tones when what she said tended even remotely to stir some sweet secret source of feeling in her heart, "I expect Mr. Moore. I saw him last night, and I made him promise to come with his sister, and to sit at our table. He won't fail me, I feel certain; but I apprehend his coming too late, and being separated from us. Here is a fresh batch arriving; every place will be taken. Provoking!"
In fact, Mr. Wynne the magistrate, his wife, his son, and his two daughters now entered in high state. They were Briarfield gentry. Of course their place was at the first table, and being conducted thither, they filled up the whole remaining space. For Miss Keeldar's comfort, Mr. Sam Wynne inducted himself into the very vacancy she had kept for Moore, planting himself solidly on her gown, her gloves, and her handkerchief. Mr. Sam was one of the objects of her aversion, and the more so because he showed serious symptoms of an aim at her hand. The old gentleman, too, had publicly declared that the Fieldhead estate and the De Walden estate were delightfully contagious—a malapropism which rumour had not failed to repeat to Shirley.
Caroline's ears yet rung with that thrilling whisper, "I expect Mr. Moore," her heart yet beat and her cheek yet glowed with it, when a note from the organ pealed above the confused hum of the place. Dr. Boultby, Mr. Helstone, and Mr. Hall rose, so did all present, and grace was sung to the accompaniment of the music; and then tea began. She was kept too busy with her office for a while to have leisure for looking round, but the last cup being filled, she threw a restless glance over the room. There were some ladies and several gentlemen standing about yet unaccommodated with seats. Amidst a group she recognized her spinster friend, Miss Mann, whom the fine weather had tempted, or some urgent friend had persuaded, to leave her drear solitude for one hour of social enjoyment. Miss Mann looked tired of standing; a lady in a yellow bonnet brought her a chair. Caroline knew well that chapeau en satin jaune; she knew the black hair, and the kindly though rather opinionated and froward-looking face under it; she knew that robe de soie noire, she knew even that schall gris de lin; she knew, in short, Hortense Moore, and she wanted to jump up and run to her and kiss her—to give her one embrace for her own sake and two for her brother's. She half rose, indeed, with a smothered exclamation, and perhaps—for the impulse was very strong—she would have run across the room and actually saluted her; but a hand replaced her in her seat, and a voice behind her whispered, "Wait till after tea, Lina, and then I'll bring her to you."
And when she could look up she did, and there was Robert himself close behind, smiling at her eagerness, looking better than she had ever seen him look—looking, indeed, to her partial eyes, so very handsome that she dared not trust herself to hazard a second glance; for his image struck on her vision with painful brightness, and pictured itself on her memory as vividly as if there daguerreotyped by a pencil of keen lightning.
He moved on, and spoke to Miss Keeldar. Shirley, irritated by some unwelcome attentions from Sam Wynne, and by the fact of that gentleman being still seated on her gloves and handkerchief—and probably, also, by Moore's want of punctuality—was by no means in good humour. She first shrugged her shoulders at him, and then she said a bitter word or two about his "insupportable tardiness." Moore neither apologized nor retorted. He stood near her quietly, as if waiting to see whether she would recover her temper; which she did in little more than three minutes, indicating the change by offering him her hand. Moore took it with a smile, half-corrective, half-grateful. The slightest possible shake of the head delicately marked the former quality; it is probable a gentle pressure indicated the latter.
"You may sit where you can now, Mr. Moore," said Shirley, also smiling. "You see there is not an inch of room for you here; but I discern plenty of space at Mrs. Boultby's table, between Miss Armitage and Miss Birtwhistle. Go! John Sykes will be your vis-a-vis, and you will sit with your back towards us."
Moore, however, preferred lingering about where he was. He now and then took a turn down the long room, pausing in his walk to interchange greetings with other gentlemen in his own placeless predicament; but still he came back to the magnet, Shirley, bringing with him, each time he returned, observations it was necessary to whisper in her ear.
Meantime poor Sam Wynne looked far from comfortable. His fair neighbour, judging from her movements, appeared in a mood the most unquiet and unaccommodating. She would not sit still two seconds. She was hot; she fanned herself; complained of want of air and space. She remarked that, in her opinion, when people had finished their tea they ought to leave the tables, and announced distinctly that she expected to faint if the present state of things continued. Mr. Sam offered to accompany her into the open air; just the way to give her her death of cold, she alleged. In short, his post became untenable; and having swallowed his quantum of tea, he judged it expedient to evacuate.
Moore should have been at hand, whereas he was quite at the other extremity of the room, deep in conference with Christopher Sykes. A large corn-factor, Timothy Ramsden, Esq., happened to be nearer; and feeling himself tired of standing, he advanced to fill the vacant seat. Shirley's expedients did not fail her. A sweep of her scarf upset her teacup: its contents were shared between the bench and her own satin dress. Of course, it became necessary to call a waiter to remedy the mischief. Mr. Ramsden, a stout, puffy gentleman, as large in person as he was in property, held aloof from the consequent commotion. Shirley, usually almost culpably indifferent to slight accidents affecting dress, etc., now made a commotion that might have become the most delicate and nervous of her sex. Mr. Ramsden opened his mouth, withdrew slowly, and, as Miss Keeldar again intimated her intention to "give way" and swoon on the spot, he turned on his heel, and beat a heavy retreat.
Moore at last returned. Calmly surveying the bustle, and somewhat quizzically scanning Shirley's enigmatical-looking countenance, he remarked that in truth this was the hottest end of the room, that he found a climate there calculated to agree with none but cool temperaments like his own; and putting the waiters, the napkins, the satin robe—the whole turmoil, in short—to one side, he installed himself where destiny evidently decreed he should sit. Shirley subsided; her features altered their lines; the raised knit brow and inexplicable curve of the mouth became straight again; wilfulness and roguery gave place to other expressions; and all the angular movements with which she had vexed the soul of Sam Wynne were conjured to rest as by a charm. Still no gracious glance was cast on Moore. On the contrary, he was accused of giving her a world of trouble, and roundly charged with being the cause of depriving her of the esteem of Mr. Ramsden and the invaluable friendship of Mr. Samuel Wynne.
"Wouldn't have offended either gentleman for the world," she averred. "I have always been accustomed to treat both with the most respectful consideration, and there, owing to you, how they have been used! I shall not be happy till I have made it up. I never am happy till I am friends with my neighbours. So to-morrow I must make a pilgrimage to Royd corn-mill, soothe the miller, and praise the grain; and next day I must call at De Walden—where I hate to go—and carry in my reticule half an oatcake to give to Mr. Sam's favourite pointers."
"You know the surest path to the heart of each swain, I doubt not," said Moore quietly. He looked very content to have at last secured his present place; but he made no fine speech expressive of gratification, and offered no apology for the trouble he had given. His phlegm became him wonderfully. It made him look handsomer, he was so composed; it made his vicinage pleasant, it was so peace-restoring. You would not have thought, to look at him, that he was a poor, struggling man seated beside a rich woman; the calm of equality stilled his aspect; perhaps that calm, too, reigned in his soul. Now and then, from the way in which he looked down on Miss Keeldar as he addressed her, you would have fancied his station towered above hers as much as his stature did. Almost stern lights sometimes crossed his brow and gleamed in his eyes. Their conversation had become animated, though it was confined to a low key; she was urging him with questions—evidently he refused to her curiosity all the gratification it demanded. She sought his eye once with hers. You read, in its soft yet eager expression, that it solicited clearer replies. Moore smiled pleasantly, but his lips continued sealed. Then she was piqued, and turned away; but he recalled her attention in two minutes. He seemed making promises, which he soothed her into accepting in lieu of information.
It appeared that the heat of the room did not suit Miss Helstone. She grew paler and paler as the process of tea-making was protracted. The moment thanks were returned she quitted the table, and hastened to follow her cousin Hortense, who, with Miss Mann, had already sought the open air. Robert Moore had risen when she did—perhaps he meant to speak to her; but there was yet a parting word to exchange with Miss Keeldar, and while it was being uttered Caroline had vanished.
Hortense received her former pupil with a demeanour of more dignity than warmth. She had been seriously offended by Mr. Helstone's proceedings, and had all along considered Caroline to blame in obeying her uncle too literally.
"You are a very great stranger," she said austerely, as her pupil held and pressed her hand. The pupil knew her too well to remonstrate or complain of coldness. She let the punctilious whim pass, sure that her natural bonte (I use this French word because it expresses just what I mean—neither goodness nor good-nature, but something between the two) would presently get the upper hand. It did. Hortense had no sooner examined her face well, and observed the change its somewhat wasted features betrayed, than her mien softened. Kissing her on both cheeks, she asked anxiously after her health. Caroline answered gaily. It would, however, have been her lot to undergo a long cross-examination, followed by an endless lecture on this head, had not Miss Mann called off the attention of the questioner by requesting to be conducted home. The poor invalid was already fatigued. Her weariness made her cross—too cross almost to speak to Caroline; and besides, that young person's white dress and lively look were displeasing in the eyes of Miss Mann. The everyday garb of brown stuff or gray gingham, and the everyday air of melancholy, suited the solitary spinster better; she would hardly know her young friend to-night, and quitted her with a cool nod. Hortense having promised to accompany her home, they departed together.
Caroline now looked round for Shirley. She saw the rainbow scarf and purple dress in the centre of a throng of ladies, all well known to herself, but all of the order whom she systematically avoided whenever avoidance was possible. Shyer at some moments than at others, she felt just now no courage at all to join this company. She could not, however, stand alone where all others went in pairs or parties; so she approached a group of her own scholars, great girls, or rather young women, who were standing watching some hundreds of the younger children playing at blind-man's buff.
Miss Helstone knew these girls liked her, yet she was shy even with them out of school. They were not more in awe of her than she of them. She drew near them now, rather to find protection in their company than to patronize them with her presence. By some instinct they knew her weakness, and with natural politeness they respected it. Her knowledge commanded their esteem when she taught them; her gentleness attracted their regard; and because she was what they considered wise and good when on duty, they kindly overlooked her evident timidity when off. They did not take advantage of it. Peasant girls as they were, they had too much of our own English sensibility to be guilty of the coarse error. They stood round her still, civil, friendly, receiving her slight smiles and rather hurried efforts to converse with a good feeling and good breeding—the last quality being the result of the first—which soon set her at her ease.
Mr. Sam Wynne coming up with great haste, to insist on the elder girls joining in the game as well as the younger ones, Caroline was again left alone. She was meditating a quiet retreat to the house, when Shirley, perceiving from afar her isolation, hastened to her side.
"Let us go to the top of the fields," she said. "I know you don't like crowds, Caroline."
"But it will be depriving you of a pleasure, Shirley, to take you from all these fine people, who court your society so assiduously, and to whom you can, without art or effort, make yourself so pleasant."
"Not quite without effort; I am already tired of the exertion. It is but insipid, barren work, talking and laughing with the good gentlefolks of Briarfield. I have been looking out for your white dress for the last ten minutes. I like to watch those I love in a crowd, and to compare them with others. I have thus compared you. You resemble none of the rest, Lina. There are some prettier faces than yours here. You are not a model beauty like Harriet Sykes, for instance—beside her your person appears almost insignificant—but you look agreeable, you look reflective, you look what I call interesting."
"Hush, Shirley! you flatter me."
"I don't wonder that your scholars like you."
"Nonsense, Shirley! Talk of something else."
"We will talk of Moore, then, and we will watch him. I see him even now."
"Where?" And as Caroline asked the question she looked not over the fields, but into Miss Keeldar's eyes, as was her wont whenever Shirley mentioned any object she descried afar. Her friend had quicker vision than herself, and Caroline seemed to think that the secret of her eagle acuteness might be read in her dark gray irides, or rather, perhaps, she only sought guidance by the direction of those discriminating and brilliant spheres.
"There is Moore," said Shirley, pointing right across the wide field where a thousand children were playing, and now nearly a thousand adult spectators walking about. "There—can you miss the tall stature and straight port? He looks amidst the set that surround him like Eliab amongst humbler shepherds—like Saul in a war-council; and a war-council it is, if I am not mistaken."
"Why so, Shirley?" asked Caroline, whose eye had at last caught the object it sought. "Robert is just now speaking to my uncle, and they are shaking hands. They are then reconciled."
"Reconciled not without good reason, depend on it—making common cause against some common foe. And why, think you, are Messrs. Wynne and Sykes, and Armitage and Ramsden, gathered in such a close circle round them? And why is Malone beckoned to join them? Where he is summoned, be sure a strong arm is needed."
Shirley, as she watched, grew restless; her eyes flashed.
"They won't trust me," she said. "That is always the way when it comes to the point."
"Cannot you feel? There is some mystery afloat; some event is expected; some preparation is to be made, I am certain. I saw it all in Mr. Moore's manner this evening. He was excited, yet hard."
"Hard to you, Shirley?"
"Yes, to me. He often is hard to me. We seldom converse tete-a-tete but I am made to feel that the basis of his character is not of eider down."
"Yet he seemed to talk to you softly."
"Did he not? Very gentle tones and quiet manner. Yet the man is peremptory and secret: his secrecy vexes me."
"Yes, Robert is secret."
"Which he has scarcely a right to be with me, especially as he commenced by giving me his confidence. Having done nothing to forfeit that confidence, it ought not to be withdrawn; but I suppose I am not considered iron-souled enough to be trusted in a crisis."
"He fears, probably, to occasion you uneasiness."
"An unnecessary precaution. I am of elastic materials, not soon crushed. He ought to know that. But the man is proud. He has his faults, say what you will, Lina. Observe how engaged that group appear. They do not know we are watching them."
"If we keep on the alert, Shirley, we shall perhaps find the clue to their secret."
"There will be some unusual movements ere long—perhaps to-morrow, possibly to-night. But my eyes and ears are wide open. Mr. Moore, you shall be under surveillance. Be you vigilant also, Lina."
"I will. Robert is going; I saw him turn. I believe he noticed us. They are shaking hands."
"Shaking hands, with emphasis," added Shirley, "as if they were ratifying some solemn league and covenant."
They saw Robert quit the group, pass through a gate, and disappear.
"And he has not bid us good-bye," murmured Caroline.
Scarcely had the words escaped her lips when she tried by a smile to deny the confession of disappointment they seemed to imply. An unbidden suffusion for one moment both softened and brightened her eyes.
"Oh, that is soon remedied!" exclaimed Shirley: "we'll make him bid us good-bye."
"Make him! That is not the same thing," was the answer.
"It shall be the same thing."
"But he is gone; you can't overtake him."
"I know a shorter way than that he has taken. We will intercept him."
"But, Shirley, I would rather not go."
Caroline said this as Miss Keeldar seized her arm and hurried her down the fields. It was vain to contend. Nothing was so wilful as Shirley when she took a whim into her head. Caroline found herself out of sight of the crowd almost before she was aware, and ushered into a narrow shady spot, embowered above with hawthorns, and enamelled under foot with daisies. She took no notice of the evening sun chequering the turf, nor was she sensible of the pure incense exhaling at this hour from tree and plant; she only heard the wicket opening at one end, and knew Robert was approaching. The long sprays of the hawthorns, shooting out before them, served as a screen. They saw him before he observed them. At a glance Caroline perceived that his social hilarity was gone; he had left it behind him in the joy-echoing fields round the school. What remained now was his dark, quiet, business countenance. As Shirley had said, a certain hardness characterized his air, while his eye was excited, but austere. So much the worse timed was the present freak of Shirley's. If he had looked disposed for holiday mirth, it would not have mattered much; but now——
"I told you not to come," said Caroline, somewhat bitterly, to her friend. She seemed truly perturbed. To be intruded on Robert thus, against her will and his expectation, and when he evidently would rather not be delayed, keenly annoyed her. It did not annoy Miss Keeldar in the least. She stepped forward and faced her tenant, barring his way. "You omitted to bid us good-bye," she said.
"Omitted to bid you good-bye! Where did you come from? Are you fairies? I left two like you, one in purple and one in white, standing at the top of a bank, four fields off, but a minute ago."
"You left us there and find us here. We have been watching you, and shall watch you still. You must be questioned one day, but not now. At present all you have to do is to say good-night, and then pass."
Moore glanced from one to the other without unbending his aspect. "Days of fete have their privileges, and so have days of hazard," observed he gravely.
"Come, don't moralize. Say good-night, and pass," urged Shirley.
"Must I say good-night to you, Miss Keeldar?"
"Yes, and to Caroline likewise. It is nothing new, I hope. You have bid us both good-night before."
He took her hand, held it in one of his, and covered it with the other. He looked down at her gravely, kindly, yet commandingly. The heiress could not make this man her subject. In his gaze on her bright face there was no servility, hardly homage; but there were interest and affection, heightened by another feeling. Something in his tone when he spoke, as well as in his words, marked that last sentiment to be gratitude.
"Your debtor bids you good-night! May you rest safely and serenely till morning."
"And you, Mr. Moore—what are you going to do? What have you been saying to Mr. Helstone, with whom I saw you shake hands? Why did all those gentlemen gather round you? Put away reserve for once. Be frank with me."
"Who can resist you? I will be frank. To-morrow, if there is anything to relate, you shall hear it."
"Just now," pleaded Shirley; "don't procrastinate."
"But I could only tell half a tale. And my time is limited; I have not a moment to spare. Hereafter I will make amends for delay by candour."
"But are you going home?"
"Not to leave it any more to-night?"
"Certainly not. At present, farewell to both of you."
He would have taken Caroline's hand and joined it in the same clasp in which he held Shirley's, but somehow it was not ready for him. She had withdrawn a few steps apart. Her answer to Moore's adieu was only a slight bend of the head and a gentle, serious smile. He sought no more cordial token. Again he said "Farewell," and quitted them both.
"There! it is over," said Shirley when he was gone. "We have made him bid us good-night, and yet not lost ground in his esteem, I think, Cary."
"I hope not," was the brief reply.
"I consider you very timid and undemonstrative," remarked Miss Keeldar. "Why did you not give Moore your hand when he offered you his? He is your cousin; you like him. Are you ashamed to let him perceive your affection?"
"He perceives all of it that interests him. No need to make a display of feeling."
"You are laconic; you would be stoical if you could. Is love, in your eyes, a crime, Caroline?"
"Love a crime! No, Shirley; love is a divine virtue. But why drag that word into the conversation? It is singularly irrelevant."
"Good!" pronounced Shirley.
The two girls paced the green lane in silence. Caroline first resumed.
"Obtrusiveness is a crime, forwardness is a crime, and both disgust; but love! no purest angel need blush to love. And when I see or hear either man or woman couple shame with love, I know their minds are coarse, their associations debased. Many who think themselves refined ladies and gentlemen, and on whose lips the word 'vulgarity' is for ever hovering, cannot mention 'love' without betraying their own innate and imbecile degradation. It is a low feeling in their estimation, connected only with low ideas for them."
"You describe three-fourths of the world, Caroline."
"They are cold—they are cowardly—they are stupid on the subject, Shirley! They never loved—they never were loved!"
"Thou art right, Lina. And in their dense ignorance they blaspheme living fire, seraph-brought from a divine altar."
"They confound it with sparks mounting from Tophet."
The sudden and joyous clash of bells here stopped the dialogue by summoning all to the church.
WHICH THE GENTEEL READER IS RECOMMENDED TO SKIP, LOW PERSONS BEING HERE INTRODUCED.
The evening was still and warm; close and sultry it even promised to become. Round the descending sun the clouds glowed purple; summer tints, rather Indian than English, suffused the horizon, and cast rosy reflections on hillside, house-front, tree-bole, on winding road and undulating pasture-ground. The two girls came down from the fields slowly. By the time they reached the churchyard the bells were hushed; the multitudes were gathered into the church. The whole scene was solitary.
"How pleasant and calm it is!" said Caroline.
"And how hot it will be in the church!" responded Shirley. "And what a dreary long speech Dr. Boultby will make! And how the curates will hammer over their prepared orations! For my part, I would rather not enter."
"But my uncle will be angry if he observes our absence."
"I will bear the brunt of his wrath; he will not devour me. I shall be sorry to miss his pungent speech. I know it will be all sense for the church, and all causticity for schism. He'll not forget the battle of Royd Lane. I shall be sorry also to deprive you of Mr. Hall's sincere friendly homily, with all its racy Yorkshireisms; but here I must stay. The gray church and grayer tombs look divine with this crimson gleam on them. Nature is now at her evening prayers; she is kneeling before those red hills. I see her prostrate on the great steps of her altar, praying for a fair night for mariners at sea, for travellers in deserts, for lambs on moors, and unfledged birds in woods. Caroline, I see her, and I will tell you what she is like. She is like what Eve was when she and Adam stood alone on earth."
"And that is not Milton's Eve, Shirley."
"Milton's Eve! Milton's Eve! I repeat. No, by the pure Mother of God, she is not! Cary, we are alone; we may speak what we think. Milton was great; but was he good? His brain was right; how was his heart? He saw heaven; he looked down on hell. He saw Satan, and Sin his daughter, and Death their horrible offspring. Angels serried before him their battalions; the long lines of adamantine shields flashed back on his blind eyeballs the unutterable splendour of heaven. Devils gathered their legions in his sight; their dim, discrowned, and tarnished armies passed rank and file before him. Milton tried to see the first woman; but, Cary, he saw her not."
"You are bold to say so, Shirley."
"Not more bold than faithful. It was his cook that he saw; or it was Mrs. Gill, as I have seen her, making custards, in the heat of summer, in the cool dairy, with rose-trees and nasturtiums about the latticed window, preparing a cold collation for the rectors—preserves and 'dulcet creams;' puzzled 'what choice to choose for delicacy best; what order so contrived as not to mix tastes, not well-joined, inelegant, but bring taste after taste, upheld with kindliest change.'"
"All very well too, Shirley."
"I would beg to remind him that the first men of the earth were Titans, and that Eve was their mother; from her sprang Saturn, Hyperion, Oceanus; she bore Prometheus——"
"Pagan that you are! what does that signify?"
"I say, there were giants on the earth in those days—giants that strove to scale heaven. The first woman's breast that heaved with life on this world yielded the daring which could contend with Omnipotence, the strength which could bear a thousand years of bondage, the vitality which could feed that vulture death through uncounted ages, the unexhausted life and uncorrupted excellence, sisters to immortality, which, after millenniums of crimes, struggles, and woes, could conceive and bring forth a Messiah. The first woman was heaven-born. Vast was the heart whence gushed the well-spring of the blood of nations, and grand the undegenerate head where rested the consort-crown of creation."
"She coveted an apple, and was cheated by a snake; but you have got such a hash of Scripture and mythology into your head that there is no making any sense of you. You have not yet told me what you saw kneeling on those hills."
"I saw—I now see—a woman-Titan. Her robe of blue air spreads to the outskirts of the heath, where yonder flock is grazing; a veil white as an avalanche sweeps from her head to her feet, and arabesques of lightning flame on its borders. Under her breast I see her zone, purple like that horizon; through its blush shines the star of evening. Her steady eyes I cannot picture. They are clear, they are deep as lakes, they are lifted and full of worship, they tremble with the softness of love and the lustre of prayer. Her forehead has the expanse of a cloud, and is paler than the early moon, risen long before dark gathers. She reclines her bosom on the ridge of Stilbro' Moor; her mighty hands are joined beneath it. So kneeling, face to face she speaks with God. That Eve is Jehovah's daughter, as Adam was His son."
"She is very vague and visionary. Come, Shirley, we ought to go into church."
"Caroline, I will not; I will stay out here with my mother Eve, in these days called Nature. I love her—undying, mighty being! Heaven may have faded from her brow when she fell in paradise, but all that is glorious on earth shines there still. She is taking me to her bosom, and showing me her heart. Hush, Caroline! You will see her and feel as I do, if we are both silent."
"I will humour your whim; but you will begin talking again ere ten minutes are over."
Miss Keeldar, on whom the soft excitement of the warm summer evening seemed working with unwonted power, leaned against an upright headstone; she fixed her eyes on the deep-burning west, and sank into a pleasurable trance. Caroline, going a little apart, paced to and fro beneath the rectory garden wall, dreaming too in her way. Shirley had mentioned the word "mother." That word suggested to Caroline's imagination not the mighty and mystical parent of Shirley's visions, but a gentle human form—the form she ascribed to her own mother, unknown, unloved, but not unlonged for.
"Oh that the day would come when she would remember her child! Oh that I might know her, and knowing, love her!"
Such was her aspiration.
The longing of her childhood filled her soul again. The desire which many a night had kept her awake in her crib, and which fear of its fallacy had of late years almost extinguished, relit suddenly, and glowed warm in her heart, that her mother might come some happy day, and send for her to her presence, look upon her fondly with loving eyes, and say to her tenderly, in a sweet voice, "Caroline, my child, I have a home for you; you shall live with me. All the love you have needed, and not tasted, from infancy, I have saved for you carefully. Come; it shall cherish you now."
A noise on the road roused Caroline from her filial hopes, and Shirley from her Titan visions. They listened, and heard the tramp of horses. They looked, and saw a glitter through the trees. They caught through the foliage glimpses of martial scarlet; helm shone, plume waved. Silent and orderly, six soldiers rode softly by.
"The same we saw this afternoon," whispered Shirley. "They have been halting somewhere till now. They wish to be as little noticed as possible, and are seeking their rendezvous at this quiet hour, while the people are at church. Did I not say we should see unusual things ere long?"
Scarcely were sight and sound of the soldiers lost, when another and somewhat different disturbance broke the night-hush—a child's impatient scream. They looked. A man issued from the church, carrying in his arms an infant—a robust, ruddy little boy of some two years old—roaring with all the power of his lungs. He had probably just awaked from a church-sleep. Two little girls, of nine and ten, followed. The influence of the fresh air, and the attraction of some flowers gathered from a grave, soon quieted the child. The man sat down with him, dandling him on his knee as tenderly as any woman; the two little girls took their places one on each side.
"Good-evening, William," said Shirley, after due scrutiny of the man. He had seen her before, and apparently was waiting to be recognized. He now took off his hat, and grinned a smile of pleasure. He was a rough-headed, hard-featured personage, not old, but very weather-beaten. His attire was decent and clean; that of his children singularly neat. It was our old friend Farren. The young ladies approached him.
"You are not going into the church?" he inquired, gazing at them complacently, yet with a mixture of bashfulness in his look—a sentiment not by any means the result of awe of their station, but only of appreciation of their elegance and youth. Before gentlemen—such as Moore or Helstone, for instance—William was often a little dogged; with proud or insolent ladies, too, he was quite unmanageable, sometimes very resentful; but he was most sensible of, most tractable to, good-humour and civility. His nature—a stubborn one—was repelled by inflexibility in other natures; for which reason he had never been able to like his former master, Moore; and unconscious of that gentleman's good opinion of himself, and of the service he had secretly rendered him in recommending him as gardener to Mr. Yorke, and by this means to other families in the neighbourhood, he continued to harbour a grudge against his austerity. Latterly he had often worked at Fieldhead. Miss Keeldar's frank, hospitable manners were perfectly charming to him. Caroline he had known from her childhood; unconsciously she was his ideal of a lady. Her gentle mien, step, gestures, her grace of person and attire, moved some artist-fibres about his peasant heart. He had a pleasure in looking at her, as he had in examining rare flowers or in seeing pleasant landscapes. Both the ladies liked William; it was their delight to lend him books, to give him plants; and they preferred his conversation far before that of many coarse, hard, pretentious people immeasurably higher in station.
"Who was speaking, William, when you came out?" asked Shirley.
"A gentleman ye set a deal of store on, Miss Shirley—Mr. Donne."
"You look knowing, William. How did you find out my regard for Mr. Donne?"
"Ay, Miss Shirley, there's a gleg light i' your een sometimes which betrays you. You look raight down scornful sometimes when Mr. Donne is by."
"Do you like him yourself, William?"
"Me? I'm stalled o' t' curates, and so is t' wife. They've no manners. They talk to poor folk fair as if they thought they were beneath them. They're allus magnifying their office. It is a pity but their office could magnify them; but it does nought o' t' soart. I fair hate pride."
"But you are proud in your own way yourself," interposed Caroline. "You are what you call house-proud: you like to have everything handsome about you. Sometimes you look as if you were almost too proud to take your wages. When you were out of work, you were too proud to get anything on credit. But for your children, I believe you would rather have starved than gone to the shops without money; and when I wanted to give you something, what a difficulty I had in making you take it!"
"It is partly true, Miss Caroline. Ony day I'd rather give than take, especially from sich as ye. Look at t' difference between us. Ye're a little, young, slender lass, and I'm a great strong man; I'm rather more nor twice your age. It is not my part, then, I think, to tak fro' ye—to be under obligations (as they say) to ye. And that day ye came to our house, and called me to t' door, and offered me five shillings, which I doubt ye could ill spare—for ye've no fortin', I know—that day I war fair a rebel, a radical, an insurrectionist; and ye made me so. I thought it shameful that, willing and able as I was to work, I suld be i' such a condition that a young cratur about the age o' my own eldest lass suld think it needful to come and offer me her bit o' brass."
"I suppose you were angry with me, William?"
"I almost was, in a way. But I forgave ye varry soon. Ye meant well. Ay, I am proud, and so are ye; but your pride and mine is t' raight mak—what we call i' Yorkshire clean pride—such as Mr. Malone and Mr. Donne knows nought about. Theirs is mucky pride. Now, I shall teach my lasses to be as proud as Miss Shirley there, and my lads to be as proud as myseln; but I dare ony o' 'em to be like t' curates. I'd lick little Michael if I seed him show any signs o' that feeling."
"What is the difference, William?"
"Ye know t' difference weel enow, but ye want me to get a gate o' talking. Mr. Malone and Mr. Donne is almost too proud to do aught for theirseln; we are almost too proud to let anybody do aught for us. T' curates can hardly bide to speak a civil word to them they think beneath them; we can hardly bide to tak an uncivil word fro' them that thinks themseln aboon us."
"Now, William, be humble enough to tell me truly how you are getting on in the world. Are you well off?"
"Miss Shirley, I am varry well off. Since I got into t' gardening line, wi' Mr. Yorke's help, and since Mr. Hall (another o' t' raight sort) helped my wife to set up a bit of a shop, I've nought to complain of. My family has plenty to eat and plenty to wear. My pride makes me find means to have an odd pound now and then against rainy days; for I think I'd die afore I'd come to t' parish; and me and mine is content. But t' neighbours is poor yet. I see a great deal of distress."
"And, consequently, there is still discontent, I suppose?" inquired Miss Keeldar.
"Consequently—ye say right—consequently. In course, starving folk cannot be satisfied or settled folk. The country's not in a safe condition—I'll say so mich!"
"But what can be done? What more can I do, for instance?"
"Do? Ye can do not mich, poor young lass! Ye've gi'en your brass; ye've done well. If ye could transport your tenant, Mr. Moore, to Botany Bay, ye'd happen do better. Folks hate him."
"William, for shame!" exclaimed Caroline warmly. "If folks do hate him, it is to their disgrace, not his. Mr. Moore himself hates nobody. He only wants to do his duty, and maintain his rights. You are wrong to talk so."
"I talk as I think. He has a cold, unfeeling heart, yond' Moore."
"But," interposed Shirley, "supposing Moore was driven from the country, and his mill razed to the ground, would people have more work?"
"They'd have less. I know that, and they know that; and there is many an honest lad driven desperate by the certainty that whichever way he turns he cannot better himself; and there is dishonest men plenty to guide them to the devil, scoundrels that reckons to be the 'people's friends,' and that knows nought about the people, and is as insincere as Lucifer. I've lived aboon forty year in the world, and I believe that 'the people' will never have any true friends but theirseln and them two or three good folk i' different stations that is friends to all the world. Human natur', taking it i' th' lump, is nought but selfishness. It is but excessive few, it is but just an exception here and there, now and then, sich as ye two young uns and me, that, being in a different sphere, can understand t' one t' other, and be friends wi'out slavishness o' one hand or pride o' t' other. Them that reckons to be friends to a lower class than their own fro' political motives is never to be trusted; they always try to make their inferiors tools. For my own part, I will neither be patronized nor misled for no man's pleasure. I've had overtures made to me lately that I saw were treacherous, and I flung 'em back i' the faces o' them that offered 'em."
"You won't tell us what overtures?"
"I will not. It would do no good. It would mak no difference. Them they concerned can look after theirseln."
"Ay, we'se look after werseln," said another voice. Joe Scott had sauntered forth from the church to get a breath of fresh air, and there he stood.
"I'll warrant ye, Joe," observed William, smiling.
"And I'll warrant my maister," was the answer.—"Young ladies," continued Joe, assuming a lordly air, "ye'd better go into th' house."
"I wonder what for?" inquired Shirley, to whom the overlooker's somewhat pragmatical manners were familiar, and who was often at war with him; for Joe, holding supercilious theories about women in general, resented greatly, in his secret soul, the fact of his master and his master's mill being, in a manner, under petticoat government, and had felt as wormwood and gall certain business visits of the heiress to the Hollow's counting-house.
"Because there is nought agate that fits women to be consarned in."
"Indeed! There is prayer and preaching agate in that church. Are we not concerned in that?"
"Ye have been present neither at the prayer nor preaching, ma'am, if I have observed aright. What I alluded to was politics. William Farren here was touching on that subject, if I'm not mista'en."
"Well, what then? Politics are our habitual study, Joe. Do you know I see a newspaper every day, and two of a Sunday?"
"I should think you'll read the marriages, probably, miss, and the murders, and the accidents, and sich like?"
"I read the leading articles, Joe, and the foreign intelligence, and I look over the market prices. In short, I read just what gentlemen read."
Joe looked as if he thought this talk was like the chattering of a pie. He replied to it by a disdainful silence.
"Joe," continued Miss Keeldar, "I never yet could ascertain properly whether you are a Whig or a Tory. Pray, which party has the honour of your alliance?"
"It is rayther difficult to explain where you are sure not to be understood," was Joe's haughty response; "but as to being a Tory, I'd as soon be an old woman, or a young one, which is a more flimsier article still. It is the Tories that carries on the war and ruins trade; and if I be of any party—though political parties is all nonsense—I'm of that which is most favourable to peace, and, by consequence, to the mercantile interests of this here land."
"So am I, Joe," replied Shirley, who had rather a pleasure in teasing the overlooker, by persisting in talking on subjects with which he opined she, as a woman, had no right to meddle—"partly, at least. I have rather a leaning to the agricultural interest, too; as good reason is, seeing that I don't desire England to be under the feet of France, and that if a share of my income comes from Hollow's Mill, a larger share comes from the landed estate around it. It would not do to take any measures injurious to the farmers, Joe, I think?"
"The dews at this hour is unwholesome for females," observed Joe.
"If you make that remark out of interest in me, I have merely to assure you that I am impervious to cold. I should not mind taking my turn to watch the mill one of these summer nights, armed with your musket, Joe."
Joe Scott's chin was always rather prominent. He poked it out, at this speech, some inches farther than usual.
"But—to go back to my sheep," she proceeded—"clothier and mill-owner as I am, besides farmer, I cannot get out of my head a certain idea that we manufacturers and persons of business are sometimes a little—a very little—selfish and short-sighted in our views, and rather too regardless of human suffering, rather heartless in our pursuit of gain. Don't you agree with me, Joe?"
"I cannot argue where I cannot be comprehended," was again the answer.
"Man of mystery! Your master will argue with me sometimes, Joe. He is not so stiff as you are."
"Maybe not. We've all our own ways."
"Joe, do you seriously think all the wisdom in the world is lodged in male skulls?"
"I think that women are a kittle and a froward generation; and I've a great respect for the doctrines delivered in the second chapter of St. Paul's first Epistle to Timothy."
"What doctrines, Joe?"
"'Let the woman learn in silence, with all subjection. I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.'"
"What has that to do with the business?" interjected Shirley. "That smacks of rights of primogeniture. I'll bring it up to Mr. Yorke the first time he inveighs against those rights."
"And," continued Joe Scott, "Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression."
"More shame to Adam to sin with his eyes open!" cried Miss Keeldar. "To confess the honest truth, Joe, I never was easy in my mind concerning that chapter. It puzzles me."
"It is very plain, miss. He that runs may read."
"He may read it in his own fashion," remarked Caroline, now joining in the dialogue for the first time. "You allow the right of private judgment, I suppose, Joe?"
"My certy, that I do! I allow and claim it for every line of the holy Book."
"Women may exercise it as well as men?"
"Nay. Women is to take their husbands' opinion, both in politics and religion. It's wholesomest for them."
"Oh! oh!" exclaimed both Shirley and Caroline.
"To be sure; no doubt on't," persisted the stubborn overlooker.
"Consider yourself groaned down, and cried shame over, for such a stupid observation," said Miss Keeldar. "You might as well say men are to take the opinions of their priests without examination. Of what value would a religion so adopted be? It would be mere blind, besotted superstition."
"And what is your reading, Miss Helstone, o' these words o' St. Paul's?"
"Hem! I—I account for them in this way. He wrote that chapter for a particular congregation of Christians, under peculiar circumstances; and besides, I dare say, if I could read the original Greek, I should find that many of the words have been wrongly translated, perhaps misapprehended altogether. It would be possible, I doubt not, with a little ingenuity, to give the passage quite a contrary turn—to make it say, 'Let the woman speak out whenever she sees fit to make an objection.' 'It is permitted to a woman to teach and to exercise authority as much as may be. Man, meantime, cannot do better than hold his peace;' and so on."
"That willn't wash, miss."
"I dare say it will. My notions are dyed in faster colours than yours, Joe. Mr. Scott, you are a thoroughly dogmatical person, and always were. I like William better than you."
"Joe is well enough in his own house," said Shirley. "I have seen him as quiet as a lamb at home. There is not a better nor a kinder husband in Briarfield. He does not dogmatize to his wife."
"My wife is a hard-working, plain woman; time and trouble has ta'en all the conceit out of her. But that is not the case with you, young misses. And then you reckon to have so much knowledge; and i' my thoughts it's only superficial sort o' vanities you're acquainted with. I can tell—happen a year sin'—one day Miss Caroline coming into our counting-house when I war packing up summat behind t' great desk, and she didn't see me, and she brought a slate wi' a sum on it to t' maister. It war only a bit of a sum in practice, that our Harry would have settled i' two minutes. She couldn't do it. Mr. Moore had to show her how. And when he did show her, she couldn't understand him."
"Nay, it's no nonsense. And Miss Shirley there reckons to hearken to t' maister when he's talking ower trade, so attentive like, as if she followed him word for word, and all war as clear as a lady's looking-glass to her een; and all t' while she's peeping and peeping out o' t' window to see if t' mare stands quiet; and then looking at a bit of a splash on her riding-skirt; and then glancing glegly round at wer counting-house cobwebs and dust, and thinking what mucky folk we are, and what a grand ride she'll have just i' now ower Nunnely Common. She hears no more o' Mr. Moore's talk nor if he spake Hebrew."
"Joe, you are a real slanderer. I would give you your answer, only the people are coming out of church. We must leave you. Man of prejudice, good-bye.—William, good-bye.—Children, come up to Fieldhead to-morrow, and you shall choose what you like best out of Mrs. Gill's store-room."
A SUMMER NIGHT.
The hour was now that of dusk. A clear air favoured the kindling of the stars.
"There will be just light enough to show me the way home," said Miss Keeldar, as she prepared to take leave of Caroline at the rectory garden door.
"You must not go alone, Shirley; Fanny shall accompany you."
"That she shall not. Of what need I be afraid in my own parish? I would walk from Fieldhead to the church any fine midsummer night, three hours later than this, for the mere pleasure of seeing the stars and the chance of meeting a fairy."
"But just wait till the crowd is cleared away."
"Agreed. There are the five Misses Armitage streaming by. Here comes Mrs. Sykes's phaeton, Mr. Wynne's close carriage, Mrs. Birtwhistle's car. I don't wish to go through the ceremony of bidding them all good-bye, so we will step into the garden and take shelter amongst the laburnums for an instant."
The rectors, their curates, and their churchwardens now issued from the church porch. There was a great confabulation, shaking of hands, congratulation on speeches, recommendation to be careful of the night air, etc. By degrees the throng dispersed, the carriages drove off. Miss Keeldar was just emerging from her flowery refuge when Mr. Helstone entered the garden and met her.
"Oh, I want you!" he said. "I was afraid you were already gone.—Caroline, come here."
Caroline came, expecting, as Shirley did, a lecture on not having been visible at church. Other subjects, however, occupied the rector's mind.
"I shall not sleep at home to-night," he continued. "I have just met with an old friend, and promised to accompany him. I shall return probably about noon to-morrow. Thomas, the clerk, is engaged, and I cannot get him to sleep in the house, as I usually do when I am absent for a night. Now——"
"Now," interrupted Shirley, "you want me as a gentleman—the first gentleman in Briarfield, in short—to supply your place, be master of the rectory and guardian of your niece and maids while you are away?"
"Exactly, captain. I thought the post would suit you. Will you favour Caroline so far as to be her guest for one night? Will you stay here instead of going back to Fieldhead?"
"And what will Mrs. Pryor do? she expects me home."
"I will send her word. Come, make up your mind to stay. It grows late; the dew falls heavily. You and Caroline will enjoy each other's society, I doubt not."
"I promise you, then, to stay with Caroline," replied Shirley. "As you say, we shall enjoy each other's society. We will not be separated to-night. Now, rejoin your old friend, and fear nothing for us."
"If there should chance to be any disturbance in the night, captain; if you should hear the picking of a lock, the cutting out of a pane of glass, a stealthy tread of steps about the house (and I need not fear to tell you, who bear a well-tempered, mettlesome heart under your girl's ribbon sash, that such little incidents are very possible in the present time), what would you do?"
"Don't know; faint, perhaps—fall down, and have to be picked up again. But, doctor, if you assign me the post of honour, you must give me arms. What weapons are there in your stronghold?"
"You could not wield a sword?"
"No; I could manage the carving-knife better."
"You will find a good one in the dining-room sideboard—a lady's knife, light to handle, and as sharp-pointed as a poniard."
"It will suit Caroline. But you must give me a brace of pistols. I know you have pistols."
"I have two pairs. One pair I can place at your disposal. You will find them suspended over the mantelpiece of my study in cloth cases."
"Yes, but not on the cock. Cock them before you go to bed. It is paying you a great compliment, captain, to lend you these. Were you one of the awkward squad you should not have them."
"I will take care. You need delay no longer, Mr. Helstone. You may go now.—He is gracious to me to lend me his pistols," she remarked, as the rector passed out at the garden gate. "But come, Lina," she continued, "let us go in and have some supper. I was too much vexed at tea with the vicinage of Mr. Sam Wynne to be able to eat, and now I am really hungry."
Entering the house, they repaired to the darkened dining-room, through the open windows of which apartment stole the evening air, bearing the perfume of flowers from the garden, the very distant sound of far-retreating steps from the road, and a soft, vague murmur whose origin Caroline explained by the remark, uttered as she stood listening at the casement, "Shirley, I hear the beck in the Hollow."
Then she rang the bell, asked for a candle and some bread and milk—Miss Keeldar's usual supper and her own. Fanny, when she brought in the tray, would have closed the windows and the shutters, but was requested to desist for the present. The twilight was too calm, its breath too balmy to be yet excluded. They took their meal in silence. Caroline rose once to remove to the window-sill a glass of flowers which stood on the sideboard, the exhalation from the blossoms being somewhat too powerful for the sultry room. In returning she half opened a drawer, and took from it something that glittered clear and keen in her hand.
"You assigned this to me, then, Shirley, did you? It is bright, keen-edged, finely tapered; it is dangerous-looking. I never yet felt the impulse which could move me to direct this against a fellow-creature. It is difficult to fancy that circumstances could nerve my arm to strike home with this long knife."
"I should hate to do it," replied Shirley, "but I think I could do it, if goaded by certain exigencies which I can imagine." And Miss Keeldar quietly sipped her glass of new milk, looking somewhat thoughtful and a little pale; though, indeed, when did she not look pale? She was never florid.
The milk sipped and the bread eaten, Fanny was again summoned. She and Eliza were recommended to go to bed, which they were quite willing to do, being weary of the day's exertions, of much cutting of currant-buns, and filling of urns and teapots, and running backwards and forwards with trays. Ere long the maids' chamber door was heard to close. Caroline took a candle and went quietly all over the house, seeing that every window was fast and every door barred. She did not even evade the haunted back kitchen nor the vault-like cellars. These visited, she returned.
"There is neither spirit nor flesh in the house at present," she said, "which should not be there. It is now near eleven o'clock, fully bedtime; yet I would rather sit up a little longer, if you do not object, Shirley. Here," she continued, "I have brought the brace of pistols from my uncle's study. You may examine them at your leisure."
She placed them on the table before her friend.
"Why would you rather sit up longer?" asked Miss Keeldar, taking up the firearms, examining them, and again laying them down.
"Because I have a strange, excited feeling in my heart."
"So have I."
"Is this state of sleeplessness and restlessness caused by something electrical in the air, I wonder?"
"No; the sky is clear, the stars numberless. It is a fine night."
"But very still. I hear the water fret over its stony bed in Hollow's Copse as distinctly as if it ran below the churchyard wall."
"I am glad it is so still a night. A moaning wind or rushing rain would vex me to fever just now."
"Because it would baffle my efforts to listen."
"Do you listen towards the Hollow?"
"Yes; it is the only quarter whence we can hear a sound just now."
"The only one, Shirley."
They both sat near the window, and both leaned their arms on the sill, and both inclined their heads towards the open lattice. They saw each other's young faces by the starlight and that dim June twilight which does not wholly fade from the west till dawn begins to break in the east.
"Mr. Helstone thinks we have no idea which way he is gone," murmured Miss Keeldar, "nor on what errand, nor with what expectations, nor how prepared. But I guess much; do not you?"
"I guess something."
"All those gentlemen—your cousin Moore included—think that you and I are now asleep in our beds, unconscious."
"Caring nothing about them—hoping and fearing nothing for them," added Caroline.
Both kept silent for full half an hour. The night was silent too; only the church clock measured its course by quarters. Some words were interchanged about the chill of the air. They wrapped their scarves closer round them, resumed their bonnets, which they had removed, and again watched.
Towards midnight the teasing, monotonous bark of the house-dog disturbed the quietude of their vigil. Caroline rose, and made her way noiselessly through the dark passages to the kitchen, intending to appease him with a piece of bread. She succeeded. On returning to the dining-room she found it all dark, Miss Keeldar having extinguished the candle. The outline of her shape was visible near the still open window, leaning out. Miss Helstone asked no questions; she stole to her side. The dog recommenced barking furiously. Suddenly he stopped, and seemed to listen. The occupants of the dining-room listened too, and not merely now to the flow of the mill-stream. There was a nearer, though a muffled, sound on the road below the churchyard—a measured, beating, approaching sound—a dull tramp of marching feet.
It drew near. Those who listened by degrees comprehended its extent. It was not the tread of two, nor of a dozen, nor of a score of men; it was the tread of hundreds. They could see nothing; the high shrubs of the garden formed a leafy screen between them and the road. To hear, however, was not enough, and this they felt as the troop trod forwards, and seemed actually passing the rectory. They felt it more when a human voice—though that voice spoke but one word—broke the hush of the night.
A halt followed. The march was arrested. Then came a low conference, of which no word was distinguishable from the dining-room.
"We must hear this," said Shirley.
She turned, took her pistols from the table, silently passed out through the middle window of the dining-room, which was, in fact, a glass door, stole down the walk to the garden wall, and stood listening under the lilacs. Caroline would not have quitted the house had she been alone, but where Shirley went she would go. She glanced at the weapon on the sideboard, but left it behind her, and presently stood at her friend's side. They dared not look over the wall, for fear of being seen; they were obliged to crouch behind it. They heard these words,—
"It looks a rambling old building. Who lives in it besides the damned parson?"
"Only three women—his niece and two servants."
"Do you know where they sleep?"
"The lasses behind; the niece in a front room."
"Yonder is his chamber. He was burning a light, but I see none now."
"Where would you get in?"
"If I were ordered to do his job—and he desarves it—I'd try yond' long window; it opens to the dining-room. I could grope my way upstairs, and I know his chamber."
"How would you manage about the women folk?"
"Let 'em alone except they shrieked, and then I'd soon quieten 'em. I could wish to find the old chap asleep. If he waked, he'd be dangerous."
"Has he arms?"
"Firearms, allus—and allus loadened."
"Then you're a fool to stop us here. A shot would give the alarm. Moore would be on us before we could turn round. We should miss our main object."
"You might go on, I tell you. I'd engage Helstone alone."
A pause. One of the party dropped some weapon, which rang on the stone causeway. At this sound the rectory dog barked again furiously—fiercely.