Was it all pain she had to bear? Phoebe gave thanks that night.
Ten years had passed since Madam Furnival's death, and over White-Ladies was a cloudless summer day. In the park, under the care of a governess and nurse, half a dozen children were playing; and under a spreading tree on the lawn, with a book in her hand, sat a lady, whose likeness to the children indicated her as their mother. In two of the cottages of the Maidens' Lodge that evening, tea-parties were the order of the day. In Number Four, Mrs Eleanor Darcy was entertaining Mrs Marcella Talbot and Mrs Clarissa Vane.
Mrs Marcella's health had somewhat improved of late, but her disposition had not sustained a corresponding change. She was holding forth now to her two listeners on matters public and private, to the great satisfaction of Mrs Clarissa, but not altogether to that of Mrs Eleanor.
"Well, so far as such a poor creature as I am can take any pleasure in any thing, I am glad to see Mrs Derwent back at White-Ladies. Mrs Phoebe would never have kept up the place properly. She hasn't her poor mother's spirit and working power—not a bit. The place would just have gone to wreck if she had remained mistress there; and I cannot but think she was sensible of it."
"Well, for my part," put in Mrs Clarissa, "I feel absolutely certain something must have come to light about Madam's will, you know—which positively obliged Mrs Phoebe to give up everything to Madam Derwent. 'Tis monstrous to suppose that she would have done any such thing without being obliged. I feel as sure as if I had seen it."
"O my dear!" came in a gently deprecating tone from Mrs Eleanor.
"Oh, I am positive!" repeated Mrs Clarissa, whose mind possessed the odd power of forcing conviction on itself by simple familiarity with an idea. "Everything discovers so many symptoms of it. I cannot but be infinitely certain. Down, Pug, down!" as Cupid's successor, which was not a dog, but a very small monkey, endeavoured to jump into her lap.
"Well, till I know the truth is otherwise, I shall give Mrs Phoebe credit for all," observed Mrs Eleanor.
"Indeed, I apprehend Clarissa has guessed rightly," said Mrs Marcella, fanning herself. "'Tis so unlikely, you know, for any one to do such a thing as this, without it were either an obligation or a trick to win praise. And I can't think that,—'tis too much."
"Nay, but surely there is some love and generosity left in the world," urged Mrs Eleanor.
"Oh, if you had had my experience, my dear," returned Mrs Marcella, working her fan more vigorously, "you would know there were no such things to be looked for in this world. I've looked for gratitude, I can assure you, till I am tired."
"Gratitude for what?" inquired Mrs Darcy, rather pertinently.
"Oh, for all the things one does for people, you know. They are never thankful for them—not one bit."
Mrs Darcy felt and looked rather puzzled. During the fifty years of their acquaintance, she never could remember to have seen Marcella Talbot do one disinterested kindness to any mortal being.
"They take all you give them," pursued the last-named lady, "and then they just go and slander you behind your back. Oh, 'tis a miserable world, this!—full of malice, envy, hatred, and all uncharitableness, as the Prayer-Book says."
"The Prayer-Book does not exactly say that, I think," suggested Mrs Eleanor; "it asks that we ourselves may be preserved from such evil passions."
"I am sure I wish people were preserved from them!" ejaculated Mrs Clarissa. "The uncharitableness, and misunderstanding, and unkind words that people will allow themselves to use! 'Tis perfectly heartrending to hear."
"Especially when one hears it of one's self," responded Mrs Eleanor a little drily; adding, for she wished to give a turn to the conversation, "Did you hear the news Dr Saunders was telling yesterday? The Czar of Muscovy offers to treat with King George, but as Elector of Hanover only."
"What, he has come thus far, has he?" replied Mrs Marcella. "Why, 'tis but five or six years since he was ready to marry his daughter to the Pretender, could they but have come to terms. Sure, King George will never accept of such a thing as that?"
"I should think not, indeed!" added Mrs Clarissa. "Well, did he want a bit of sugar, then?"
Pug held out his paw, and very decidedly intimated that he did.
"Mrs Leighton wants Pug; I shall give him to her," observed his mistress. "'Tis not quite so modish to keep monkeys as it was: I shall have a squirrel."
"A bit more sugar?" asked Mrs Eleanor, addressing the monkey. "Poor Pug!"
Next door but one, in the cottage formerly occupied by Lady Betty Morehurst, were also seated three ladies at tea. Presiding at the table, in mourning dress, sat our old friend Phoebe. There was an expression of placid content upon her lips, and a peaceful light in her eyes, which showed that whatever else she might be, she was not unhappy. On her left sat Mrs Jane Talbot, a little older looking, a little more sharp and angular; and on the right, apparently unchanged beyond a slight increase of infirmity, little Mrs Dorothy Jennings.
"What a pure snug [nice] room have you here!" said Mrs Jane, looking round.
"'Tis very pleasant," said Phoebe, "and just what I like."
"Now, my dear, do you really mean to say you like this—better than White-Ladies?"
"Indeed I do, Mrs Jane. It may seem a strange thing to you, but I could never feel at home at the Abbey. It all seemed too big and grand for a little thing like me."
"Well! I don't know," responded Mrs Jane, in that tone which people use when they make that assertion as the prelude to the declaration of a very decisive opinion,—"I don't know, but I reckon there's a pretty deal about you that's big and grand, my dear; and I'm mightily mistaken if Mr Derwent and Mrs Rhoda don't think the same."
"My dear Jane!" said Mrs Dorothy, with a twinkle of fun in her eyes. "Mr and Madam Derwent Furnival, if you please."
"Oh, deary me!" ejaculated Mrs Jane. "Leave that stuff to you. She can call herself Madam Peveril-Plantagenet, if she likes. Make no difference to me. Mrs Rhoda she was, and Mrs Rhoda I shall call her to the end of the chapter. Don't mean any disrespect, you know—quite the contrary. Well, I'm sure I'm very glad to see her at White-Ladies; but, Mrs Phoebe, if it could have been managed, I should have liked you too."
"Thank you, Mrs Jane, but you see it couldn't."
"Well, I don't know. There was no need for you to come down to the Maidens' Lodge, without you liked. Couldn't you have kept rooms in the Abbey for yourself, and still have given all to your cousin?"
"I'd rather have this," said Phoebe, with a smile. "I am more independent, you see; and I have kept what my grandmother meant me to have, so that, please God, I trust I shall never want, and can still help my friends when they need it. I can walk in the park, and enjoy the gardens, just as well as ever; and Rhoda will be glad to see me, I know, any time when I want a chat with her."
"I should think so, indeed!" cried Mrs Jane. "Most thankless woman in the world if she wasn't."
"Oh, don't say that! You know I could not have done anything else, knowing what Madam intended, when things came to me."
"You did the right thing, dear child," said Mrs Dorothy, quietly, "as God's children should. He knew when to put the power in your hands. If Madam Derwent had come to White-Ladies ten years ago, she wouldn't have made as good use of it as she will now. She was not ready for it. And I'm mistaken if you are not happier, Phoebe, in the Maidens' Lodge, than you ever would have been if you had kept White-Ladies."
"I am sure of that," said Phoebe. "Well, but she didn't need have come down thus far!" reiterated Mrs Jane.
"She is the servant of One who came down very far, dear Jane," gently answered Mrs Dorothy, "that we through His poverty might be rich."
"Well, it looks like it," replied Mrs Jane, with a little tell-tale huskiness in her voice. "Mrs Phoebe, my dear, do you remember my saying, when Madam died, to you and Mrs Rhoda, that I'd tell you ten years after, which I was sorry for?" Phoebe smiled an affirmative. "Well, I'm not over sorry for either of you; but, at any rate, not for you."
"The light has come back to thine eyes; dear child, and the peace," said old Mrs Dorothy. "Ah, folks don't always know what is the hardest to give up."
And Phoebe, looking up with startled eyes, saw that Mrs Dorothy had guessed her secret. She went to the fire for fresh water from the kettle. Her face was as calm as usual when she returned. Softly she said,—
"'Mon sort n'est pas a plaindre, Il est a desirer; Je n'ai plus rien a craindre, Car Dieu est mon Berger.'"