But he had been carried off from school, before he had done more than prove his unusual capacity. All his connexions were Indian, and his father, who had not seen him since his earliest childhood, offered him no choice but an appointment in the civil service. He had one stimulus; he had seen Lucy Meadows in the radiant glory of girlish beauty, and had fastened on her all a poet's dreams, deepening and becoming more fervid in the recesses of a reserved heart, which did not easily admit new sensations. That stimulus carried him out cheerfully to India, and quickened his abilities, so that he exerted himself sufficiently to obtain a lucrative situation early in life. He married, and his household must have been on the German system, all the learning on one side, all the domestic cares on the other. The understanding and refinement wanting in his wife, he believed to be wanting in all women. As resident at a small remote native court in India, he saw no female society such as could undeceive him; and subsequently his Bayford life had not raised his standard of womankind. A perfect gentleman, his superiority was his own work, rather than that of station or education, and so he had never missed intercourse with really ladylike or cultivated, female minds, expected little from wife, or daughters, or neighbours; had a few learned friends, but lived within himself. He had acquired a competence too soon, and had the great misfortune of property without duties to present themselves obviously. He had nothing to do but to indulge his naturally indolent scholarly tastes, which, directed as they had been to Eastern languages, had even less chance of sympathy among his neighbours than if they had been classical. Always reserved, and seldom or never meeting with persons who could converse with him, he had lapsed into secluded habits, and learnt to shut himself up in his study and exclude every one, that he might have at least a refuge from the gossip and petty cares that reigned everywhere else. So seldom was anything said worth his attention, that he never listened to what was passing, and had learnt to say 'very well'—'I'll see about it,' without even knowing what was said to him.
But though his wife had been no companion, the illusion had never died away, he had always loved her devotedly, and her loss had shattered all his present rest and comfort; as entirely as the death of his son had taken from him hope and companionship.
What a home it must have been, with Lucy reigning over it in her pert self-sufficiency, Gilbert and Sophy running riot and squabbling, and Maria Meadows coming in on them with her well-meant worries and persecutions!
When taken away from the scene of his troubles, his spirits revived; afraid to encounter his own household alone, he had thought Albinia the cure for everything. But at home, habit and association had proved too strong for her presence—the grief, which he had tried to leave behind, had waited ready to meet him on the threshold, and the very sense that it was a melancholy welcome added to his depression, and made him less able to exert himself. The old sorrows haunted the walls of the house, and above all the study, and tarried not in seizing on their unresisting victim. Melancholy was in his nature, his indolence gave it force, and his habits were almost ineffaceable, and they were habits of quiet selfishness, formed by a resolute, though inert will, and fostered by an adoring wife. A youth spent in India had not given him ideas of responsibilities beyond his own family, and his principles, though sound, had not expanded the views of duty with which he had started in life.
It was a positive pleasure to Albinia to discover that there had been an inefficient clergyman at Bayford before Mr. Dusautoy, and to know that during half the time that the present vicar had held the living, Mr. Kendal had been absent, so that his influence had had no time to work. She began to understand her line of action. It must be her effort, in all loving patience and gentleness, to raise her husband's spirits and rouse his faculties; to make his powers available for the good of his fellow-creatures, to make him an active and happy man, and to draw him and his children together. This was truly a task to make her heart throb high with hope and energy. Strong and brave was that young heart, and not self-confident—the difficulty made her only the more hopeful, because she saw it was her duty. She was secure of her influence with him. If he did exclude her from his study, he left her supreme elsewhere, and though she would have given the world that their sovereignty might be a joint one everywhere, still she allowed much for the morbid inveterate habit of dreading disturbance. When he began by silence and not listening, she could always rouse him, and give him animation, and he was so much surprised and pleased whenever she entered into any of his pursuits, that she had full hope of drawing him out.
One day when the fog, instead of clearing off had turned to violent rain, Albinia had been out on parish work, and afterwards enlivening old Mrs. Meadows by dutifully spending an hour with her, while Maria was nursing a nervous headache—she had been subject to headaches ever since...an ominous sigh supplied the rest.
But all the effect of Albinia's bright kindness was undone, when the grandmother learnt that Gilbert was gone to his tutor, and would have to come home in the rain, and she gave such an account of his exceeding delicacy, that Albinia became alarmed, and set off at once that she might consult his father about sending for him.
Her opening of the hall door was answered by Mr. Kendal emerging from his study. He was looking restless and anxious, came to meet her, and uncloaked her, while he affectionately scolded her for being so venturesome. She told him where she had been, and he smiled, saying, 'You are a busy spirit! But you must not be too imprudent.'
'Oh, nothing hurts me. It is poor Gilbert that I am anxious about.'
'So am I. Gilbert has not a constitution fit for exposure. I wish he were come home.'
'Could we not send for him? Suppose we sent a fly.'
He was consenting with a pleased smile, when the door opened, and there stood the dripping Gilbert, completely wet through, pale and chilled, with his hair plastered down, and his coat stuck all over with the horse's short hair.
'You must go to bed at once, Gilbert,' said his father. 'Are you cold?'
'Very. It was such a horrid driving wind, and I rode so fast,' said Gilbert; violently shivering, as they helped to pull him out of his great coat; he put his hand to his mouth, and said that his face ached. Mr. Kendal was very anxious, and Albinia hurried the boy up to bed, and meantime ordered quickly a basin of the soup preparing for dinner, warmed some worsted socks at the fire, and ran upstairs with them.
He seemed to have no substance in him; he had hardly had energy to undress himself, and she found him with his face hidden on the pillow, shivering audibly, and actually crying. She was aghast.
The boys with whom she had been brought up, would never have given way so entirely without resistance; but between laughing, cheering, scolding, covering him up close, and rubbing his hands with her own, she comforted him, so that he could be grateful and cheerful when his father himself came up with the soup. Albinia noticed a sort of shudder pass over Mr. Kendal as he entered, and he stood close by Gilbert, turning his back on everything else, while he watched the boy eat the soup, as if restored by every spoonful. 'That was a good thought,' was his comment to his wife, and the look of gratitude brought a flush of pleasure into her cheek.
Of all the dinners, this was the most pleasant; he was more gentle and affectionate, and she made him tell her about the Persian poets, and promise to show her some specimens of the Rose Garden of Saadi—she had never before been so near having his pursuits opened to her.
'What a favourite Gilbert is!' Lucy said to Sophia, as Albinia lighted a candle and went up to his room.
'He makes such a fuss,' said Sophy. 'What is there in being wet through to cry about?'
Albinia heard a little shuffle as she opened the door, and Gilbert pushed a book under his pillow. She asked him what he had been reading. 'Oh,' he said, 'he had not been doing it long, for the flickering of the candle hurt his eyes.'
'Yes, you had better not,' said Albinia, moving the flaring light to a less draughty part of the dingy whitewashed attic. 'Or shall I read to you?'
'Are you come to stay with me?' cried the boy, raising himself up to look after her, as she moved about the room and stood looking from the window over the trees at the water meadows, now flooded into a lake, and lighted by the beams of a young moon.
'I can stay till your father is ready for tea,' said Albinia, coming nearer. 'Let me see whether your hands are hot.'
She found her own hand suddenly clasped, and pressed to his lips, and then, as if ashamed, he turned his face away; nor would she betray her pleasure in it, but merely said, 'Shall I go on with your book!'
'No,' said he, wearily turning his reddened cheek to the other side. 'I only took it because it is so horrid lying here thinking.'
'I am very sorry to hear it. Do you know, Gibbie, that it is said there is nothing more lamentable than for a man not to like to have his own thoughts for his company,' said she, gaily.
'Ah! but—!' said Gilbert. 'If I lie here alone, I'm always looking out there,' and he pointed to the opposite recess. She looked, but saw nothing. 'Don't you know?' he said.
'Edmund?' she asked.
He grasped her hands in both his own. 'Aye! Ned used to sleep there. I always look for him there.'
'Do you mean that you would rather have another room? I would manage it directly.'
'O no, thank you, I like it for some things. Take the candle—look by the shutter—cut out in the wood.'
The boys' scoring of 'E. & G. K.,' was visible there.
'Papa has taken all be could of Edmund's,' said Gilbert, 'but he could not take that! No, I would not have any other room if you were to give me the best in the house.'
'I am sure not! But, my dear, considering what Edmund was, surely they should be gentle, happy thoughts that the room should give you.'
He shuddered, and presently said, 'Do you know what?' and paused; then continued, with an effort, getting tight hold of her hand, 'Just before Edmund died—he lay out there—I lay here—he sat up all white in bed, and he called out, clear and loud, "Mamma, Gilbert"—I saw him—and then—he was dead! And you know mamma did die—and I'm sure I shall!' He had worked himself into a trembling fit, hid his face and sobbed.
'But you have not died of the fever.'
'Yes—but I know it means that I shall die young! I am sure it does! It was a call! I heard Nurse say it was a call!'
What was to be done with such a superstition? Albinia did not think it would be right to argue it away. It might be in truth a warning to him to guard his ways—a voice from the twin-brother, to be with him through life. She knelt down by him, and kissed his forehead.
'Dear Gilbert,' she said, 'we all shall die.'
'Yes, but I shall die young.'
'And if you should. Those are happy who die young. How much pain your baby-brother and sisters have missed! How happy Edmund is now!'
'Then you really think it meant that I shall'' he cried, tremblingly. 'O don't! I can't die!'
'Your brother called on what he loved best,' said Albinia. 'It may mean nothing. Or rather, it may mean that your dear twin-brother is watching for you, I am sure he is, to have you with him, for what makes your mortal life, however long, seem as nothing. It was a call to you to be as pure on earth as he is in heaven. O Gilbert, how good you should be!'
Gilbert did not know whether it frightened him or soothed him to see his superstition treated with respect—neither denied, nor reasoned away. But the ghastliness was not in the mere fear that death might not be far off.
The pillow had turned a little on one side—Albinia tried to smooth it—the corner of a book peeped out. It was a translation of The Three Musqueteers, one of the worst and most fascinating of Dumas' romances.
'You wont tell papa!' cried Gilbert, raising himself, in far more real and present terror than he had previously shown.
'How did you get it? Whose is it?'
'It is my own. I bought it at Richardson's. It is very funny. But you wont tell papa? I never was told not; indeed I was not.'
'Now, Gilbert dear, will you tell me a few things? I do only wish what is good for you. Why don't you wish that papa should hear of this book?'
Gilbert writhed himself.
'You know he would not like it?'
'Then why did you take to reading it?'
'Oh!' cried the boy, 'if you only did know how stupid and how miserable it has been! More than half myself gone, and Sophy always glum, and Lucy always plaguing, and Aunt Maria always being a torment, you would not wonder at one's doing anything to forget it!'
'Yes, but why do what you knew to be wrong?'
'Nobody told me not.'
'Disobedience to the spirit, then, if not to the letter. It was not the way to be happier, my poor boy, nor nearer to your brother and mother.'
'Things didn't use to be stupid when Ned was there!' sobbed Gilbert, bursting into a fresh flood of tears.
'Ah! Gilbert, I grieved most of all for you when first I heard your story, before I thought I should ever have anything to do with you,' said Albinia, hanging over him fondly. 'I always thought it must be so forlorn to be a twin left solitary. But it is sadder still than I knew, if grief has made you put yourself farther from him instead of nearer.'
'I shall be good again now that I have you,' said Gilbert, as he looked up into that sweet face.
'And you will begin by making a free confession to your father, and giving up the book.'
'I don't see what I have to confess. He would be so angry, and he never told me not. Oh! I cannot tell him.'
She felt that this was not the right way to begin a reformation, and yet she feared to press the point, knowing that the one was thought severe, the other timid.
'At least you will give up the book,' she said.
'O dear! if you would let me see whether d'Artagnan got to England. I must know that! I'm sure there can't be any harm in that. Do you know what it is about?'
'Yes, I do. My brother got it by some mistake among some French books. He read some of the droll unobjectionable parts to my sister and me, but the rest was so bad, that he threw it into the fire.'
'Then you think it funny?'
'To be sure I do.'
'Do you remember the three duels all at once, and the three valets? Oh! what fun it is. But do let me see if d'Artagnan got the diamonds.'
'Yes, he did. But will this satisfy you, Gilbert? You know there are some exciting pleasures that we must turn our backs on resolutely. I think this book is one of them. Now you will let me take it? I will tell your father about it in private, and he cannot blame you. Then, if he will give his consent, whenever you can come home early, come to my dressing-room, out of your sisters' way, and I will read to you the innocent part, so as to get the story out of your brain.'
'Very well,' said Gilbert, slowly. 'Yes, if you will not let papa be angry with me. And, oh dear! must you go?'
'I think you had better dress yourself and come down to tea. There is nothing the matter with you now, is there?'
He was delighted with the suggestion, and promised to come directly; and Albinia carried off her prize, exceedingly hopeful and puzzled, and wondering whether her compromise had been a right one, or a mere tampering with temptation—delighted with the confidence and affection bestowed on her so freely, but awe-struck by the impression which the boy had avowed, and marvelling how it should be treated, so as to render it a blessed and salutary restraint, rather than the dim superstitious terror that it was at present. At least there was hope of influencing him, his heart was affectionate, his will on the side of right, and in consideration of feeble health and timid character, she would overlook the fact that he had not made one voluntary open confession, and that the partial renunciation had been wrung from him as a choice of evils. She could only feel how much he was to be pitied, and how he responded to her affection.
She was crossing the hall next day, when she heard a confusion of tongues through the open door of the dining-room, and above all, Gilbert's. 'Well, I say there are but two ladies in Bayford. One is Mrs. Kendal, and the other is Genevieve Durant!'
'A dancing-master's daughter!' Lucy's scornful tone was unmistakeable, and so was the ensuing high-pitched querulous voice, 'Well, to be sure, Gilbert might be a little more—a little more civil. Not that I've a word to say against—against your—your mamma. Oh, no!—glad to see—but Gilbert might be more civil.'
'I think so indeed,' said Albinia. 'Good morning, Miss Meadows. You see Gilbert has come home quite alive enough for mischief.'
'Ah! I thought I might be excused. Mamma was so uneasy—though I know you don't admit visitors—my just coming to see—We've been always so anxious about Gilbert. Gibbie dear, where is that flannel I gave you for your throat?'
She advanced to put her finger within his neck-tie and feel for it. Gilbert stuck his chin down, and snapped with his teeth like a gin. Lucy exclaimed, 'Now, Gilbert, I know mamma will say that is wrong.'
'Ah! we are used to Gilbert's tricks. Always bear with a boy's antics,' said Miss Meadows, preventing whatever she thought was coming out of Mrs. Kendal's month. Albinia took the unwise step of laughing, for her sympathies were decidedly with resistance both to flannels and to the insertion of that hooked finger.
'Mr. Bowles has always said it was a case for great care. Flannel next the skin—no exposure,' continued Miss Meadows, tartly. 'I am sure—I know I am the last person to wish to interfere—but so delicate—You'll excuse—but my mother was uneasy; and people who go out in all weathers—'
'I hope Mrs. Meadows had my note this morning.'
'O yes! I am perfectly aware. Thank you. Yes, I know the rule, but you'll excuse—My mother was still anxious—I know you exclude visitors in lesson-time. I'm going. Only grandmamma would be glad— not that she wishes to interfere—but if Gilbert had on his piece of flannel—'
'Have you, Gilbert?' said Albinia, becoming tormented.
'I have been flannel all over all my life,' said Gilbert, sulkily, 'one bit more or less can make no odds.'
'Then you have not that piece? said Albinia.
'Oh, my dear! Think of that! New Saxony! I begged it of Mr. Holland. A new remnant—pink list, and all! I said it was just what I wanted for Master Gilbert. Mr. Holland is always a civil, feeling man. New Saxony—three shillings the yard—and trimmed with blue sarsenet! Where is it, Gilbert?'
'In a soup dish, with a crop of mustard and cress on it,' said Gilbert, with a wicked wink at Albinia, who was unable to resist joining in the girls' shout of laughing, but she became alarmed when she found that poor Miss Meadows was very near crying, and that her incoherency became so lachrymose as to be utterly incomprehensible.
Lucy, ashamed of her laughter, solemnly declared that it was very wrong of Gilbert, and she hoped he would not suffer from it, and Albinia, trying to become grave, judicial, and conciliatory, contrived to pronounce that it was very silly to leave anything off in an east wind, and hoping to put an end to the matter, asked Aunt Maria to sit down, and judge how they went on with their lessons.
O no, she could not interrupt. Her mother would want her. She knew Mrs. Kendal never admitted visitors. She had no doubt she was quite right. She hoped it would be understood. She would not intrude. In fact, she could neither go nor stay. She would not resume her seat, nor let anything go on, and it was full twenty minutes before a series of little vibrating motions and fragmentary phrases had borne her out of the house.
'Well!' cried Gilbert, 'I hoped Aunt Maria had left off coming down upon us.'
'O, mamma!' exclaimed Lucy, 'you never sent your love to grandmamma.'
'Depend upon it she was waiting for that,' said Gilbert.
I'm sure I wish I had known it,' said Albinia, not in the most judicious manner. 'Half-past eleven!'
'Aunt Maria says she can't think how you can find time for church when you can't see visitors in the morning,' said Lucy. 'And oh! dear mamma, grandmamma says gravy soup was enough to throw Gilbert into a fever.'
'At any rate, it did not,' said Albinia.
'Oh! and, dear mamma, Mrs. Osborn is so hurt that you called on Mrs. Dusautoy before returning her visit; and Aunt Maria says if you don't call to-day you will never get over it, and she says that—'
'What business has Mrs. Osborn to ask whom I called on?' exclaimed Albinia, impatiently.
'Because Mrs. Osborn is the leading lady in the town,' said Lucy. 'She told Miss Goldsmith that she had no notion of not being respected.'
'And she can't bear the Dusautoys. She left off subscribing to anything when they came; and he behaved very ill to the Admiral and everybody at a vestry-meeting.'
'I shall ask your papa before I am in any hurry to call on the Osborns!' cried Albinia. 'I have no desire to be intimate with people who treat their clergyman in that way.'
'But Mrs. Osborn is quite the leader!' exclaimed Lucy. They keep the best society here. So many families in the county come and call on them.'
'Ah! Mrs. Osborn told Aunt Maria that as the Nugents called on you, and you had such connexions, she supposed you would be high. But you wont make me separate from Lizzie, will you? I suppose Miss Nugent is a fashionable young lady.'
'Miss Nugent is five years old. Don't let us have any more of this nonsense.'
'But you wont part me from Lizzie Osborn,' said Lucy, hanging her head pathetically on one side.
'I shall talk to your father. He said, the other day, he did not wish you to be so much with her.'
Lucy melted into tears, and Albinia was conscious of having been first indiscreet and then sharp, hurt at the comments, feeling injured by Lucy's evident habit of reporting whatever she said, and at the failure of the attempt to please Mrs. Meadows. She was so uneasy about the Osborn question, that she waylaid Mr. Kendal on his return from riding, and laid it before him.
'My dear Albinia,' he said, as if he would fain have avoided the appeal, 'you must manage your own visiting affairs your own way. I do not wish to offend my neighbours, nor would I desire to be very intimate with any one. I suppose you must pay them ordinary civility, and you know what that amounts to. As to the leadership in society here, she is a noisy woman, full of pretension, and thus always arrogates the distinction to herself. Your claims will establish themselves.'
'Oh, you don't imagine me thinking of that!' cried Albinia, laughing. 'I meant their behaving ill to Mr. Dusautoy.'
'I know nothing about that. Mr. Dusautoy once called to ask for my support for a vestry meeting, but I make it a rule never to meddle with parish skirmishes. I believe there was a very unbecoming scene, and that Mr. Dusautoy was in the minority.'
'Ah, Edmund, next time you'll see if a parson's sister can sit quietly by to see the parson beaten!'
He smiled, and moved towards his study.
'Then I am to be civil?'
'But is it necessary to call to-day?'
'I should suppose not;' and there he was, shut up in his den. Albinia went back, between laughing and vexation, and Lucy looked up from her exercise to say, 'Does papa say you must call on the Osborns?'
It was undignified! She bit her lip, and felt her false position, as with a quiver of the voice she replied, 'We shall make nothing but mischief if we talk now. Go on with your business.'
The sharp, curious eyes did not take themselves off her face. She leant over Sophy, who was copying a house, told her the lines were slanting, took the pencil from her hand, and tried to correct them, but found herself making them over-black, and shaky. She had not seen such a line since the days of her childhood's ill-temper. She walked to the fireplace and said, 'I am going to call on Mrs. Osborn to-day. Not that your father desires it, but because I have been indulging in a wrong feeling.'
'I'm sure you needn't,' cried Gilbert. 'It is very impertinent of Mrs. Osborn. Why, if he is an admiral, she was the daughter of an old lieutenant of the Marines, and you are General Sir Maurice Ferrars' first cousin.'
'Hush, hush, Gilbert!' said Albinia, blushing and distressed. 'Mrs. Osborn's standing in the place entitles her to all attention. I was thinking of nothing of the kind. It was because I gave way to a wrong feeling that I mean to go this afternoon.'
On the Sunday, when Mr. and Mrs. Kendal went to pay their weekly visit to Mrs. Meadows, they found the old lady taking a turn in the garden. And as they were passing by the screen of laurels, Gilbert's voice was heard very loud, 'That's too bad, Lucy! Grandmamma, don't believe one word of it!'
'Gilbert, you—you are, I'm sure, very rude to your sister.'
'I'll not stand to hear false stories of Mrs. Kendal!'
'What is all this?' said Mr. Kendal, suddenly appearing, and discovering Gilbert pirouetting with indignation before Lucy.
Miss Meadows burst out with a shower of half sentences, grandmamma begged that no notice might be taken of the children's nonsense, Lucy put on an air of injured innocence, and Gilbert was beginning to speak, but his father put him aside, saying, 'Tell me what has happened, Sophia. From you I am certain of hearing the exact truth.'
'Only,' growled Sophy, in her hoarse boy's voice, 'Lucy said mamma said she would not call on Mrs. Osborn unless you ordered her, and when you did, she cried and flew into a tremendous passion.'
'Sophy, what a story,' exclaimed Lucy, but Gilbert was ready to corroborate his younger sister's report.
'You know Lucy too well to attach any importance to her misrepresentations,' said Mr. Kendal, turning to Mrs. Meadows, 'but I know not what amends she can make for this most unprovoked slander. Speak, Lucy, have you no apology to make?'
For Lucy, in self-defence, had begun to cry, and her grandmother seemed much disposed to do the same. Miss Meadows had tears in her eyes, and incoherencies on her lips. The distress drove away all Albinia's inclination to laugh, and clasping her two hands over her husband's arm, she said, 'Don't, Edmund, it is only a misunderstanding of what really happened. I did have a silly fit, you know, so it is my fault.'
'I cannot forgive for you as you do for yourself,' said Mr. Kendal, with a look that was precious to her, though it might have given a pang to the Meadowses. 'I did not imagine that my daughter could be so lost to the sense of your kindness and forbearance. Have you nothing to say, Lucy?'
'Poor child! she cannot speak,' said her grandmother. 'You see she is very sorry, and Mrs. Kendal is too kind to wish to say any more about it.'
'Go home at once, Lucy,' said her father. 'Perhaps solitude may bring you to a better state of feeling. Go!'
Direct resistance to Mr. Kendal was never thought of, and Lucy turned to go. Her aunt chose to accompany her, and though this was a decided relief to the company she left, it was not likely to be the best thing for the young lady herself.
Mr. Kendal gave his arm to Mrs. Meadows, saying gravely that Lucy must not be encouraged in her habit of gossiping and inaccuracy. Mrs. Meadows quite agreed with him, it was a very bad habit for a girl, she was very sorry for it, she wished she could have attended to the dear children better, but she was sure dear Mrs. Kendal would make them everything desirable. She only hoped that she would remember their disadvantages, have patience, and not recollect this against poor Lucy.
The warm indignation and championship of her husband and his son were what Albinia chiefly wished to recollect; but it was impossible to free herself from a sense of pain and injury in the knowledge that she lived with a spy who would exaggerate and colour every careless word.
Mr. Kendal returned to the subject as they walked home.
'I hope you will talk seriously to Lucy about her intolerable gossiping,' he said. 'There is no safety in mentioning any subject before her; and Maria Meadows makes her worse. Some stop must be put to it.'
'I should like to wait till next time,' said Albinia.
'What do you mean?'
'Because this is too personal to myself.'
'Nay, your own candour is an example to which Lucy can hardly be insensible. Besides, it is a nuisance which must be abated.'
Albinia could not help thinking that he suffered from it as little as most people, and wondering whether it were this which had taught him silence.
They met Miss Meadows at their own gate, and she told them that dear Lucy was very sorry, and she hoped they would take no more notice of a little nonsense that could do no one any harm; she would be more on her guard next time.
Mr. Kendal made no answer. Albinia ventured to ask him whether it would not be better to leave it, since her aunt had talked to her.
'No,' he said; 'Maria has no influence whatever with the children. She frets them by using too many words about everything. One quiet remonstrance from you would have far more effect.'
Albinia called the culprit and tried to reason with her. Lucy tried at first to battle it off by saying that she had made a mistake, and Aunt Maria had said that she should hear no more about it. 'But, my dear, I am afraid you must hear more. It is not that I am hurt, but your papa has desired me to talk to you. You would be frightened to hear what he says.'
Lucy chose to hear, and seemed somewhat struck, but she was sure that she meant no harm; and she had a great deal to say for herself, so voluble and so inconsequent, that argument was breath spent in vain; and Albinia was obliged to wind up, as an ultimatum, with warning her, that till she should prove herself trustworthy, nothing interesting would be talked of before her.
The atmosphere of gossip certainly had done its part in cultivating Mr. Kendal's talent for silence. When Albinia had him all to herself, he was like another person, and the long drives to return visits in the country were thoroughly enjoyable. So, too, were the walks home from the dinner parties in the town, when the husband and wife lingered in the starlight or moonlight, and felt that the weary gaiety of the constrained evening was made up for.
Great was the offence they gave by not taking out the carriage!
It was disrespect to Bayford, and one of the airs of which Mrs. Kendal was accused. As granddaughter of a Baron, daughter of one General Officer and sister of another, and presented at Court, the Bayford ladies were prepared to consider her a fine lady, and when they found her peculiarly simple, were the more aggrieved, as if her contempt were ironically veiled. Her walks, her dress, her intercourse with the clergy, were all airs, and Lucy spared her none of the remarks. Albinia might say, 'Don't tell me all Aunt Maria says,' but it was impossible not to listen; and whether in mirth or vexation, she was sure to be harmed by what she heard.
And yet, except for the tale-bearing, Lucy was really giving less trouble than her sister, she was quick, observant, and obliging, and under Albinia's example, the more salient vulgarities of speech and manner were falling off. There had seldom been any collision, since it had become evident that Mrs. Kendal could and would hold her own; and that her address and air, even while criticised, were regarded as something superior, so that it was a distinction to belong to her. How many of poor Albinia'a so-called airs should justly have been laid to Lucy's account?
On the other hand, Sophy would attend to a word from her father, where she had obstinately opposed her step-mother's wishes, making her obedience marked, as if for the very purpose of enforcing the contrast. It was a character that Albinia could not as yet fathom. In all occupations and amusements, Sophy followed the lead of her elder sister, and in her lessons, her sole object seemed to be to get things done with as little trouble as possible, and especially without setting her mind to work, and yet in the very effort to escape diligence or exertion, she sometimes showed signs of so much ability as to excite a longing desire to know of what she would be capable when once aroused and interested; but the surly, ungracious temper rendered this apparently impossible, and whatever Albinia attempted, was sure, as if for the very reason that it came from her, to be answered with a redoubling of the growl of that odd hoarse voice.
On Lucy's birthday, there was an afternoon party of her young friends, including Miss Durant. Albinia, who, among the girlhood of Fairmead and its neighbourhood, had been so acceptable a playmate, that her marriage had caused the outcry that 'there would never be any fun again without Miss Ferrars,' came out on the lawn with the girls, in hopes of setting them to enjoy themselves. But they looked at her almost suspiciously, retained their cold, stiff, company manners, and drew apart into giggling knots. She relieved them of her presence, and sitting by the window, watched Genevieve walking up and down alone, as if no one cared to join her. Presently Lucy and Lizzie Osborn spoke to her, and she went in. Albinia went to meet her in the hall; she coloured and said, 'She was only come to fetch Miss Osborn's cloak.'
Albinia saw her disposing it over Lizzie's shoulders, and then running in again. This time it was for Miss Louisa's cloak, and a third time for Miss Drury's shawl, which Albinia chose to take out herself, and encountering Sophia, said, 'Next time, you had better run on errands yourself instead of sending your guests.'
Sophy gave a black look, and she retreated, but presently the groups coalesced, and Maria Drury and Sophy ran out to call Genevieve into the midst. Albinia hoped they were going to play, but soon she beheld Genevieve trying to draw back, but evidently imprisoned, there was an echo of a laugh that she did not like; the younger girls were skipping up in the victim's face in a rude way; she hastily turned round as in indignation, one hand raised to her eyes, but it was instantly snatched down by Maria Drury, and the pitiless ring closed in. Albinia sprang to her feet, exclaiming aloud, 'They are teasing her!' and rushed into the garden, hearing on her way, 'No, we wont let you go!—you shall tell us—you shall promise to show us—my papa is a magistrate, you know—he'll come and search—Jenny, you shall tell!'
Come with me, Genevieve,' said Albinia, standing in the midst of the tormentors, and launching a look of wrath around her, as she saw tears in the young girl's eyes, and taking her hand, found it trembling with agitation. Fondling it with both her own, she led Genevieve away, turning her back upon Lucy and her, 'We were only—'
The poor girl shook more and more, and when they reached the shelter of the house, gave way to a tightened, oppressed sob, and at the first kind words a shower of tears followed, and she took Albinia's hand, and clasped it to her breast in a manner embarrassing to English feelings, though perfectly natural and sincere in her. 'Ah! si bonne! si bonne! pardonnes-moi, Madame!' she exclaimed, sobbing, and probably not knowing that she was speaking French; 'but, oh, Madame, you will tell me! Is it true—can he?'
'Can who? What do you mean, my dear?'
'The Admiral,' said Genevieve, looking about frightened, and sinking her voice to a whisper. 'Miss Louisa said so, that he could send and search—'
'Search for what, my dear?'
'For my poor little secret. Ah, Madame, assuredly I may tell you. It is but a French Bible, it belonged to my martyred ancestor, Francois Durant, who perished at the St. Barthelemi—it is stained with his blood—it has been handed on, from one to the other—it was all that Jacques Durant rescued when he fled from the Dragonnades—it was given to me by my own dear father on his death-bed, with a charge to keep it from my grandmother, and not to speak of it—but to guard it as my greatest treasure. And now—Oh, I am not disobeying him,' cried Genevieve, with a fresh burst of tears. 'You can feel for me, Madame, you can counsel me. Can the magistrates come and search, unless I confess to those young ladies?'
'Most decidedly not,' said Albinia. 'Set your mind at rest, my poor child; whoever threatened you played you a most base, cruel trick.'
'Ah, do not be angry with them, Madame; no doubt they were in sport. They could not know how precious that treasure was to me, and they will say much in their gaiety of heart.'
'I do not like such gaiety,' said Albinia. 'What, they wished to make you confess your secret?'
'Yes. They had learnt by some means that I keep one of my drawers locked, and they had figured to themselves that in it was some relic of my Huguenot ancestors. They thought it was some instrument of death, and they said that unless I would tell them the whole, the Admiral had the right of search, and, oh! it was foolish of me to believe them for a moment, but I only thought that the fright would, kill my grandmother. Oh, you were so good, Madame, I shall never forget; no, not to the end of my life, how you rescued me!'
'We did not bring you here to be teased,' said Albinia, caressing her. 'I should like to ask your pardon for what they have made you undergo.'
'Ah, Madame!' said Genevieve, smiling, 'it is nothing. I am well used to the like, and I heed it little, except when it falls on such subjects as these.'
She was easily drawn into telling the full history of her treasure, as she had learnt from her father's lips, the Huguenot shot down by the persecutors, and the son who had fled into the mountains and returned to bury the corpse, and take the prized, blood-stained Bible from the breast; the escapes and dangers of the two next generations; the few succeeding days of peace; and, finally, the Dragonnade, when the children had been snatched from the Durant family, and the father and mother had been driven at length to fly in utter destitution, and had made their way to England in a wretched, unprovisioned open boat. The child for whose sake they fled, was the only one rescued from the hands of these enemies, and the tradition of their sufferings had been handed on with the faithfully preserved relic, down to the slender girl, their sole descendant, and who in early childhood had drunk in the tale from the lips of her father. The child of the persecutors and of the persecuted, Genevieve Durant did indeed represent strangely the history of her ancestral country; and as Albinia said to her, surely it might be hoped that the faith in which she had been bred up, united what was true and sound in the religion of both Reformed and Romanist.
The words made the brown cheek glow. 'Ah, Madame, did I not say I could talk with you? You, who do not think me a heretic, as my dear grandmother's friends do, and who yet can respect my grandmother's Church.'
Assuredly little Genevieve was one of the most interesting and engaging persons that Albinia had ever met, and she listened earnestly to her artless history, and pretty enthusiasms, and the story which she could not tell without tears, of her father's care, when the reward of her good behaviour had been the reading one verse in the quaint black letter of the old French Bible.
The conversation lasted till Gilbert made his appearance, and Albinia was glad to find that his greeting to Genevieve was cordial and affectionate, and free from all that was unpleasant in his sisters' manner, and he joined himself to their company when Albinia proposed a walk along the broad causeway through the meadows. It was one of the pleasantest walks that she had taken at Bayford, with both her companions so bright and merry, and the scene around in all the beauty of spring. Gilbert, with the courtesy that Albinia's very presence had infused into him, gathered a pretty wild bouquet for each, and Albinia talked of cowslip-balls, and found that neither Gilbert nor Genevieve had ever seen one; then she pitied them, and owned that she did not know how to get through a spring without one; and Gilbert having of course a pocketful of string, a delicious ball was constructed, over which Genevieve went into an inexpressible ecstasy.
All the evening, Gilbert devoted himself to Genevieve, though more than one of the others tried to attract him, playing off the follies of more advanced girlhood, to the vexation of Albinia, who could not bear to see him the centre of attention to silly girls, when he ought to have been finding his level among boys.
'Gilbert makes himself so ridiculous about Jenny Durant,' said his sisters, when he insisted on escorting her home, and thus they brought on themselves Albinia's pent-up indignation at their usage of their guest. Lucy argued in unsatisfactory self-defence, but Sophy, when shown how ungenerous her conduct had been, crimsoned deeply, and though uttering no word of apology, wore a look that gave her step-mother for the first time a hope that her sullenness might not be so much from want of compunction, as from want of power to express it.
Oh! for a consultation with her brother. But he and his wife were taking a holiday among their kindred in Ireland, and for once Albinia could have echoed the aunts' lamentation that Winifred had so many relations!
Albinia needed patience to keep alive hope and energy, for a sore disappointment awaited her. Whatever had been her annoyances with the girls, she had always been on happy and comfortable terms with Gilbert, he had responded to her advances, accommodated himself to her wishes, adopted her tastes, and returned her affection. She had early perceived that his father and sisters looked on him as the naughty one of the family, but when she saw Lucy's fretting interference, and, Sophia's wrangling contempt, she did not wonder that an unjust degree of blame had often fallen to his share; and under her management, he scarcely ever gave cause for complaint. That he was evidently happier and better for her presence, was compensation for many a vexation; she loved him with all her heart, made fun with him, told legends of the freaks of her brother Maurice and cousin Fred, and grudged no trouble for his pleasure.
As long as The Three Musqueteers lasted, he had come constantly to her dressing-room, and afterwards she promised to find other pleasant reading; but after such excitement, it was not easy to find anything that did not appear dry. As the daughter of a Peninsular man, she thought nothing so charming as the Subaltern, and Gilbert seemed to enjoy it; but by the time he had heard all her oral traditions of the war by way of notes, his attendance began to slacken; he stayed out later, and always brought excuses—Mr. Salsted had kept him, he had been with a fellow, or his pony had lost a shoe. Albinia did not care to question, the evenings were light and warm, and the one thing she desired for him was manly exercise: she thought it much better for him to be at play with his fellow-pupils, and she could not regret the gain of another hour to her hurried day.
One morning, however, Mr. Kendal called her, and his look was so grave and perturbed, that she hardly waited till the door was shut to ask in terror, what could be the matter.
'Nothing to alarm you,' he said. 'It is only that I am vexed about Gilbert. I have reason to fear that he is deceiving us again; and I want you to help us to recollect on which days he should have been at Tremblam. My dear, do not look so pale!'
For Albinia had turned quite white at hearing that the boy, on whom she had fixed her warm affection, had been carrying on a course of falsehood; but a moment's hope restored her. 'I did keep him at home on Tuesday,' she said, 'it was so very hot, and he had a headache. I thought I might. You told me not to send him on doubtful days.'
'I hope you may be able to make out that it is right,' said Mr. Kendal, 'but I am afraid that Mr. Salsted has too much cause of complaint. It is the old story!'
And so indeed it proved, when Albinia heard what the tutor had come to say. The boy was seldom in time, often altogether missing, excusing himself by saying he was kept at home by fears of the weather; but Mr. Salsted was certain that his father could not know how he disposed of his time, namely, in a low style of sporting with young Tritton, the son of a rich farmer or half-gentleman, who was the pest of Mr. Salsted's parish. Ill-learnt, slurred-over lessons, with lame excuses, were nothing as compared with this, and the amount of petty deceit, subterfuge, and falsehood, was frightful, especially when Albinia recollected the tone of thought which the boy had seemed to be catching from her. Unused to duplicity, except from mere ignorant, unmanageable school-children, she was excessively shocked, and felt as if he must be utterly lost to all good, and had been acting a lie from first to last. After the conviction had broken on her, she hardly spoke, while Mr. Kendal was promising to talk to his son, threaten him with severe punishment, and keep a strict account of his comings and goings, to be compared weekly with Mr. Salsted's notes of his arrival. This settled, the tutor departed, and no sooner was he gone, than Albinia, hiding her face in her hands, shed tears of bitter grief and disappointment. 'My dearest,' said her husband, fondly, 'you must not let my boy's doings grieve you in this manner. You have been doing your utmost for him, if any one could do him good, it would be you.'
'O no, surely I must have made some dreadful mistake, to have promoted such faults.'
'No, I have long known him not to be trustworthy. It is an evil of long standing.'
'Was it always so?'
'I cannot tell,' said he, sitting down beside her, and shading his brow with one hand; 'I have only been aware of it since he has been left alone. When the twins were together, they were led by one soul of truth and generosity. What this poor fellow was separately no one could know, while he had his brother to guide and shield him. The first time I noticed the evil was when we were recovering. Gilbert and Sophia were left together, and in one of their quarrels injured some papers of mine. I was very weak, and had little power of self-control; I believe I terrified him too much. There was absolute falsehood, and the truth was only known by Sophia's coming forward and confessing the whole. It was ill managed. I was not equal to dealing with him, and whether the mischief began then or earlier, it has gone on ever since, breaking out every now and then. I had hoped that with your care—But oh! how different it would have been with his brother! Albinia, what would I not give that you had but seen him! Not a fault was there; not a moment's grief did he give us, till—O what an overthrow of hope!' And he gave way to an excess of grief that quite appalled her, and made her feel herself powerless to comfort. She only ventured a few words of peace and hope; but the contrast between the brothers, was just then keen agony, and he could not help exclaiming how strange it was, that Edmund should be the one to be taken.
'Nay,' he said, 'was not he ripe for better things? May not poor Gilbert have been spared that longer life may train him to be like his brother?'
'He never will be like him,' cried Mr. Kendal. 'No! no! The difference is evident in the very countenance and features.'
'Was he like you?'
'They said so, but you could not gather an idea of him from me,' said Mr. Kendal, smiling mournfully, as he met her gaze. 'It was the most beautiful countenance I ever saw, full of life and joy; and there were wonderful expressions in the eyes when he was thinking or listening. He used to read the Greek Testament with me every morning, and his questions and remarks rise up before me again. That text—You have seen it in church.'
'Because I live, ye shall live also,' Albinia repeated.
'Yes. A little before his illness we came to that. He rested on it, as he used to do on anything that struck him, and asked me, "whether it meant the life hereafter, or the life that is hidden here?" We went over it with such comments as I could find, but his mind was not satisfied; and it must have gone on working on it, for one night, when I had been thinking him delirious, he called me, and the light shone out of those bright dark eyes of his as he said, joyfully, "It is both, papa! It is hidden here, but it will shine out there," and as I did not catch his meaning, he repeated the Greek words.'
'Dear boy! Some day we shall be glad that the full life and glory came so soon.'
He shook his head, the parting was still too recent, and it was the first time he had been able to speak of his son. It was a great satisfaction to her that the reserve had once been broken; it seemed like compensation for the present trouble, though that was acutely felt, and not softened by the curious eyes and leading questions of the sisters, when she returned to give what attention she could to their interrupted lessons.
Gilbert returned, unsuspicious of the storm, till his father's stern gravity, and her depressed, pre-occupied manner, excited his attention, and he asked her anxiously whether anything were the matter. A sad gesture replied, and perhaps revealed the state of the case, for he became absolutely silent. Albinia left them together. She watched anxiously, and hurried after Mr. Kendal into the study, where his manner showed her not to be unwelcome as the sharer of his trouble. 'I do not know what to do,' he said, dejectedly. 'I can make nothing of him. It is all prevarication and sulkiness! I do not think he felt one word that I said.'
'People often feel more than they show.'
'Will you go to him?' he presently added. 'Perhaps I grew too angry at last, and I believe he loves you. At least, if he does not, he must be more unfeeling than I can think him. You do not dislike it, dearest.'
'O no, no! If I only knew what would be best for him!'
'He may be more unreserved with you,' said Mr. Kendal; and as he was anxious for her to make the attempt, she moved away, though in perplexity, and in the revulsion of feeling, with a sort of disgust towards the boy who had deceived her so long.
She found him seated on a wheelbarrow by the pond, chucking pebbles into the still black water, and disturbing the duckweed on the surface. His colour was gone, and his face was dark and moody, and strove not to relax, as she said, 'O Gilbert, how could you?'
He turned sharply away, muttering, 'She is coming to bother, now!'
It cut her to the heart. 'Gilbert!' was all she could exclaim, but the tone of pain made him look at her, as if in spite of himself, and as he saw the tears he exclaimed in an impatient voice of rude consolation, 'There's nothing to take so much to heart. No one thinks anything of it!'
'What would Edmund have thought?' said Albinia; but the appeal came too soon, he made an angry gesture and said, 'He was nearly three years younger than I am now! He would not have been kept in these abominable leading-strings.'
She was too much shocked to find an answer, and Gilbert went on, 'Watched and examined wherever I go—not a minute to myself—nothing but lessons at Tremblam, and bother at home; driven about hither and thither, and not allowed a friend of my own, nor to do one single thing! There's no standing it, and I won't!'
'I am very sorry,' said Albinia, struggling with choking tears. 'It has been my great wish to make things pleasant to you. I hope I have not teased or driven you to—'
'Nonsense!' exclaimed Gilbert, disrespectfully indeed, but from the bottom of his heart, and breaking at once into a flood of tears. 'You are the only creature that has been kind to me since I lost my mother and Ned, and now they have been and turned you against me too;' and he sobbed violently.
'I don't know what you mean, Gilbert. If I stand in your mother's place, I can't be turned against you, any more than she could,' and she stroked his brow, which she found so throbbing as to account for his paleness. 'You can grieve and hurt me, but you can't prevent me from feeling for you, nor for your dear father's grief.'
He declared that people at home knew nothing about boys, and made an uproar about nothing.
'Do you call falsehood nothing?'
'Falsehood! A mere trifle now and then, when I am driven to it by being kept so strictly.'
'I don't know how to talk to you, Gilbert,' said Albinia, rising; 'your conscience knows better than your tongue.'
'Don't go;' and he went off into another paroxysm of crying, as he caught hold of her dress; and when he spoke again his mood was changed; he was very miserable, nobody cared for him, he did not know what to do; he wanted to do right, and to please her, but Archie Tritton would not let him alone; he wished he had never seen Archie Tritton. At last, walking up and down with him, she drew from him a full confidence, and began to understand how, when health and strength had come back to him in greater measure than he had ever before enjoyed, the craving for boyish sports had awakened, just after he had been deprived of his brother, and was debarred from almost every wholesome manner of gratifying it. To fall in with young Tritton was as great a misfortune as could well have befallen a boy, with a dreary home, melancholy, reserved father, and wearisome aunt. Tritton was a youth of seventeen, who had newly finished his education at an inferior commercial school, and lived on his father's farm, giving himself the airs of a sporting character, and fast hurrying into dissipation.
He was really good-natured, and Gilbert dwelt on his kindness with warmth and gratitude, and on his prowess in all sporting accomplishments with a perfect effervescence of admiration. He evidently patronized Gilbert, partly from good-natured pity, and partly as flattered by the adherence of a boy of a grade above him; and Gilbert was proud of the notice of one who seemed to him a man, and an adept in all athletic games. It was a dangerous intimacy, and her heart sank as she found that the pleasures to which he had been introducing Gilbert, were not merely the free exercise, the rabbit-shooting and rat-hunting of the farm, nor even the village cricket-match, all of which, in other company, would have had her full sympathy. But there had been such low and cruel sports that she turned her head away sickened at the notion of any one dear to her having been engaged in such amusements, and when Gilbert in excuse said that every one did it, she answered indignantly, 'My brothers never!'
'It is no use talking about what swells do that hunt and shoot and go to school,' answered Gilbert.
'Do you wish you went to school?' asked Albinia.
'I wish I was out of it all!'
He was in a very different frame. He owned that he knew how wrong it had been to deceive, but he seemed to look upon it as a sort of fate; he wished he could help it, but could not, he was so much afraid of his father that he did not know what he said; Archie Tritton said no one could get on without.—There was an utter bewilderment in his notions, here and there showing a better tone, but obscured by the fancies imbibed from his companion, that the knowledge and practice of evil were manly. At one moment he cried bitterly, and declared that he was wretched; at another he defended each particular case with all his might, changing and slipping away so that she did not know where to take him. However, the conclusion was far more in pity than anger, and after receiving many promises that if she would shield him from his father and bear with him, he would abstain from all she disapproved, she caressed and soothed the aching head, and returned to his father hopeful and encouraged, certain that the evil had been chiefly caused by weakness and neglect and believing that here was a beginning of repentance. Since there was sorrow and confession, there surely must be reformation.
For a week Gilbert went on steadily, but at the end of that time his arrivals at home became irregular, and one day there was another great aberration. On a doubtful day, when it had been decided that he might go safely between the showers, he never came to Tremblam at all, and Mr. Salsted sent a note to Mr. Kendal to let him know that his son had been at the races—village races, managed by the sporting farmers of the neighbourhood. There was a sense of despair, and again a talk, bringing at once those ever-ready tears and protestations, sorrow genuine, but fruitless. 'It was all Archie's fault, he had overtaken him, persuaded him that Mr. Salsted would not expect him, promised him that he should see the celebrated 'Blunderbuss,' Sam Shepherd's horse, that won the race last year. Gilbert had gone 'because he could not help it.'
'Not help it!' cried Albinia, looking at him with her clear indignant eyes. 'How can you be such a poor creature, Gilbert?'
'It is very hard!' exclaimed Gilbert; 'I must go past Robble's Leigh twice every day of my life, and Archie will come out and be at me.'
'That is the very temptation you have to resist,' said Albinia. 'Fight against it, pray against it, resolve against it; ride fast, and don't linger and look after him.'
He looked desponding and miserable. If she could only have put a spirit into him!
'Shall I walk and meet you sometimes before you get to Robbie's Leigh!'
His face cleared up, but the cloud returned in a moment.
'What is it?' she asked. 'Only tell me. You know I wish for nothing so much as to help you.'
He did confess that there was nothing he should like better, if Archie would not be all the worse another time, whenever he should catch him alone.
'But surely, Gilbert, he is not always lying in ambush for you, like a cat for a mouse. You can't be his sole game.'
'No, but he is coming or going, or out with his gun, and he will often come part of the way with me, and he is such a droll fellow!'
Albinia thought that there was but one cure. To leave Gilbert daily exposed to the temptation must be wrong, and she laid the case before Mr. Kendal with so much earnestness, that he allowed that it would be better to send the boy from home; and in the meantime, Albinia obtained that Mr. Kendal should ride some way on the Tremblam road with his son in the morning, so as to convoy him out of reach of the tempter; whilst she tried to meet him in the afternoon, and managed so that he should be seldom without the hope of meeting her.
Albinia's likings had taken a current absolutely contrary to all her preconceived notions; Sophia, with her sullen truth, was respected, but it was not easy to like her even as well as Lucy, who, though pert and empty, had much good-nature and good-temper, and was not indocile; while Gilbert, in spite of a weak, shallow character, habits of deception, and low ungentlemanly tastes, had won her affection, and occupied the chief of her time and thoughts; and she dreaded the moment of parting with him, as removing the most available and agreeable of her young companions.
That moment of parting, though acknowledged to be expedient, did not approach. Gilbert, could not be sent to a public school without risk and anxiety which his father did not like, and which would have been horror to his grandmother; and Albinia herself did not feel certain that he was fit for it, nor that it was her part to enforce it. She wrote to her brother, and found that he likewise thought a tutor would be a safe alternative; but then he must be a perfect man in a perfect climate, and Mr. Kendal was not the man to make researches. Mr. Dusautoy mentioned one clergyman who took pupils, Maurice Ferrars another, but there was something against each. Mr. Kendal wrote four letters, and was undecided—a third was heard of, but the locality was doubtful, and the plan went off, because Mr. Kendal could not make up his mind to go thirty miles to see the place, and talk to a stranger.
Albinia found that her power did not extend beyond driving him from 'I'll see about it,' to 'Yes, by all means.' Action was a length to which he could not be brought. Mr. Nugent was very anxious that he should qualify as a magistrate since a sensible, highly-principled man was much wanted counterbalance Admiral Osborn's misdirected, restless activity and the lower parts of the town were in a dreadful state. Mrs. Nugent talked to Albinia, and she urged it in vain. To come out of his study, examine felons, contend with the Admiral, and to meet all the world at the quarter sessions, was abhorrent to him, and he silenced her almost with sternness.
She was really hurt and vexed, and scarcely less so by a discovery that she made shortly after. The hot weather had made the houses beneath the hill more close and unwholesome than ever, Simkins's wife had fallen into a lingering illness, and Albinia, visiting her constantly, was painfully sensible of the dreadful atmosphere in which she lived, under the roof, with a window that would not open. She offered to have the house improved at her own expense, but was told that Mr. Pettilove would raise the rent if anything were laid out on it. She went about talking indignantly of Mr. Pettilove's cruelty and rapacity, and when Mr. Dusautoy hinted that Pettilove was only agent, she exclaimed that the owner was worse, since ignorance alone could be excused. Who was the wretch? Some one, no doubt, who never came near the place, and only thought of it as money.
'Fanny,' said Mr. Dusautoy, 'I really think we ought to tell her.'
'Yes,' said Mrs. Dusautoy, 'I think it would be better. The houses belonged to old Mr. Meadows.'
'Oh, if they are Mrs. Meadows's, I don't wonder at anything.'
'I believe they are Gilbert Kendal's.'
They were very kind; Mr. Dusautoy strode out at the window, and his wife would not look at Albinia during the minute's struggle to regain her composure, under the mortification that her husband should have let her rave so much and so long about what must be in his own power. Her only comfort was the hope that he had never heard what she said, and she knew that he so extremely disliked a conference with Pettilove, that he would consent to anything rather than have a discussion.
She was, for the first time in her life, out of spirits. Gilbert was always upon her mind; and the daily walk to meet him was a burthen, consuming a great deal of time, and becoming trying on hot summer afternoons, the more so as she seldom ventured to rest after it, lest dulness should drive Gilbert into mischief, or, if nothing worse, into quarrelling with Sophia. If she could not send him safely out fishing, she must be at hand to invent pleasures and occupations for him; and the worst of it was, that the girls grudged her attention to their brother, and were becoming jealous. They hated the walk to Robble's Leigh, and she knew that it was hard on them that their pleasure should be sacrificed, but it was all-important to preserve him from evil. She had wished to keep the tutor-negotiations a secret, but they had oozed out, and she found that Mrs. and Miss Meadows had been declaring that they had known how it would be— whatever people said beforehand, it always came to the, same thing in the end, and as to its being necessary, poor dear Gibbie was very different before the change at home.
Albinia could not help shedding a few bitter tears. Why was she to be always misjudged, even when she meant the best? And, oh! how hard, well-nigh impossible, to forgive and candidly to believe that, in the old lady, at least, it was partiality, and not spite.
In September, Mr. and Mrs. Ferrars returned from their journey. Albinia was anxious to see them, for if there was a sense that she had fallen short of her confident hopes of doing prosperously, there was also a great desire for their sympathy and advice. But Maurice had been too long away from his parish to be able to spare another day, and begged that the Kendals would come to Fairmead. Seeing that Albinia's heart was set on it, Mr. Kendal allowed himself to be stirred up to appoint a time for driving her over to spend a long day at Fairmead.
For her own pleasure and ease of mind, Albinia made a point of taking Gilbert, and the girls were to spend the day with their grandmother.
'Pretty old Fairmead!' she cried, as the beech-trees rose before her; and she was turning round every minute to point out to Gilbert some of the spots of which she had told him, and nodding to the few scattered children who were not at school, and who looked up with mouths from ear to ear, and flushed cheeks, as they curtsied to 'Miss Ferrars.' The 'Miss Ferrars' life seemed long ago.
They came to the little green gate that led to what had been 'home' for the happiest years of Albinia's life, and from the ivy porch there was a rush of little Willie and Mary, and close at hand their mamma, and Maurice emerging from the school. It was very joyous and natural. But there were two more figures, not youthful, but of decided style and air, and quiet but fashionable dress, and Albinia had only time to say quickly to her husband, 'my aunts,' before she was fondly embraced.
It was not at all what she had intended. Mrs. Annesley and Miss Ferrars were very kind aunts, and she had much affection for them; but there was an end of the hope of the unreserve and confidence that she wanted. She could get plenty of compassion and plenty of advice, but her whole object would be to avoid these; and, besides, Mr. Kendal had not bargained for strangers. What would become of his opportunity of getting better acquainted with Maurice and Winifred, and of all the pleasures that she had promised Gilbert?
At least, however, she was proud that her aunts should see what a fine-looking man her husband was, and they were evidently struck with his appearance and manner. Gilbert, too was in very good looks, and was altogether a bright, gentlemanly boy, well made, though with the air of growing too fast, and with something of uncertainty about his expression.
It was quickly explained that the aunts had only decided, two days before, on coming to Fairmead at once, some other engagement having failed them, and they were delighted to find that they should meet their dear Albinia, and be introduced to Mr. Kendal. Setting off before the post came in, Albinia had missed Winifred's note to tell her of their arrival.
'And,' said Winifred, as she took Albinia upstairs, 'if I did suspect that would be the case, I wont say I regretted it. I did not wish to afford Mr. Kendal the pleasures of anticipation.'
'Perhaps it was better,' said Albinia, smiling, 'especially as I suppose they will stay for the next six weeks, so that the days will be short before you will be free.'
'And now let me see you, my pretty one,' said Winifred, fondly. 'Are you well, are you strong? No, don't wriggle your head away, I shall believe nothing but what I read for myself.'
'Don't believe anything you read without the notes,' said Albinia. 'I have a great deal to say to you, but I don't expect much opportunity thereof.'
Certainly not, for Miss Ferrars was knocking at the door. She had never been able to suppose that the sisters-in-law could be more to each other than she was to her own niece.
So it became a regular specimen of a 'long day' spent together by relations, who, intending to be very happy, make themselves very weary of each other, by discarding ordinary occupations, and reducing themselves to needlework and small talk. Albinia was bent on liveliness, and excelled herself in her droll observations; but to Winifred, who knew her so well, this brilliancy did not seem like perfect ease; it was more like effort than natural spirits. This was no wonder, for not only had the sight of new people thrown Mr. Kendal into a severe access of shyness and silence, but he was revolving in fear and dread the expediency of asking them to Willow Lawn, and considering whether Albinia and propriety could make the effort bearable. Silent he sat, while the aunts talked of their wishes that one nephew would marry, and that the other would not, and no one presumed to address him, except little Mary, who would keep trotting up to him, to make him drink out of her doll's tea-cups.
Mr. Ferrars took pity on him, and took him and Gilbert out to call upon Colonel Bury; but this did not lessen his wife's difficulties, for there was a general expectation that she would proceed to confidences; whereas she would do nothing but praise the Dusautoys, ask after all the parishioners of Fairmead one by one, and consult about French reading-books and Italian grammars. Mrs. Annesley began a gentle warning against overtaxing her strength, and Miss Ferrars enforced it with such vehemence, that Winifred, who had been rather on that side, began to take Albinia's part, but perceived, with some anxiety, that her sister's attempts to laugh off the admonition almost amounted to an admission that she was working very hard. As to the step-daughters, no intelligence was attainable, except that Lucy would be pleased with a new crochet pattern, and that Sophy was like her father, but not so handsome.
The next division of time passed better. Albinia walked out at the window to meet the gentlemen when they came home, and materially relieved Mr. Kendal's mind by saying to him, 'The aunts are settled in here till they go to Knutsford. I hope you don't think—there is not the least occasion for asking them to stay with us.'
'Are you sure you do not wish it?' said Mr. Kendal, with great kindness, but an evident weight removed.
'Most certain!' she exclaimed, with full sincerity; 'I am not at all ready for them. What should I do with them to entertain?'
'Very well,' said Mr. Kendal, 'you must be the judge. If there be no necessity, I shall be glad to avoid unsettling our habits, and probably Bayford would hardly afford much enjoyment to your aunts.'
Albinia glanced in his face, and in that of her brother, with her own arch fun. It was the first time that day that Maurice had seen that peculiarly merry look, and he rejoiced, but he was not without fear that she was fostering Mr. Kendal's retiring habits more than was good for him. But it was not only on his account that she avoided the invitation, she by no means wished to show Bayford to her fastidious aunts, and felt as if to keep them satisfied and comfortable would be beyond her power.
Set free from this dread, and his familiarity with his brother-in-law renewed, Mr. Kendal came out to great advantage at the early dinner. Miss Ferrars was well read and used to literary society, and she started subjects on which he was at home, and they discussed new books and criticised critics, so that his deep reading showed itself, and even a grave, quiet tone of satire, such as was seldom developed, except under the most favourable circumstances. He and Aunt Gertrude were evidently so well pleased with each other, that Albinia almost thought she had been precipitate in letting him off the visit.
Gilbert had, fortunately, a turn for small children, and submitted to be led about the garden by little Willie; and as far as moderate enjoyment went, the visit was not unsuccessful; but as for what Albinia came for, it was unattainable, except for one little space alone with her brother.
'I meant to have asked a great deal,' she said, sighing.
'If you, want me, I would contrive to ride over,' said Maurice.
'No, it is not worth that. But, Maurice, what is to be done when one sees one's duty, and yet fails for ever for want of tact and temper! Ah, I know what you will say, and I often say it to myself, but whatever I propose, I always do either the wrong thing or in the wrong way!'
'You fall a hundred times a day, but are raised up again,' said Maurice.
'Maurice, tell me one thing. Is it wrong to do, not the best, but only the best one can?'
'It is the wrong common to us all,' said Maurice.
'I used to believe in "whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well." Now, I do everything ill, rather than do nothing at all.'
'There are only two ways of avoiding that.'
'And they are—?'
'Either doing nothing, or admiring all your own doings.'
'Which do you recommend?' said Albinia, smiling, but not far from tears.
'My dear,' said Maurice, 'all I can dare to recommend, is patience and self-control. Don't fret and agitate yourself about what you can't do, but do your best to do calmly what you can. It will be made up, depend upon it.'
There was no time for more, but the sound counsel, the sympathy, and playfulness had done Albinia wonderful good, and she was almost glad there had been no more privacy, or her friends might have guessed that she had not quite found a counsellor at home.
The Christmas holidays did indeed put an end to the walks to meet Gilbert, but only so as to make Albinia feel responsible for him all day long, and uneasy whenever he was not accounted for. She played chess with him, found books, and racked her brains to seek amusements for him; but knowing all the time that it was hopeless to expect a boy of fourteen to be satisfied with them. One or two boys of his age had come home for the holidays, and she tried to be relieved by being told that he was going out with Dick Wolfe or Harry Osborn, but it was not quite satisfactory, and she began to look fagged and unwell, and had lost so much of her playfulness, that even Mr. Kendal was alarmed.
Sophia's birthday fell in the last week before Christmas, and it had always been the family custom to drink tea with Mrs. Meadows. Albinia made the engagement with a sense of virtuous resignation, though not feeling well enough for the infliction, but Mr. Kendal put a stop to all notion of her going. She expected to enjoy her quiet solitary evening, but the result was beyond her hopes, for as she was wishing Gilbert good-bye, she heard the click of the study lock, and in came Mr. Kendal.
'I thought you were gone,' she said.
'No. I did not like to leave you alone for a whole evening.'
If it were only an excuse to himself for avoiding the Meadows' party, it was too prettily done for the notion to occur to his wife, and never had she spent a happier evening. He was so unusually tender and unreserved, so desirous to make her comfortable, and, what was far more to her, growing into so much confidence, that it was even better than what she used last year to picture to herself as her future life with him. It even came to what he had probably never done for any one. She spoke of a beautiful old Latin hymn, which she had once read with her brother, and had never seen adequately translated, and he fetched a manuscript book, where, written out with unrivalled neatness, stood a translation of his own, made many years ago, full of scholarly polish. She ventured to ask leave to copy it. 'I will copy it for you,' he said, 'but it must be for yourself alone.'
She was grateful for the concession, and happy in the promise. She begged to turn the page, and it was granted. There were other translations, chiefly from curious oriental sources, and there were about twenty original poems, elaborated in the same exquisite manner, and with a deep melancholy strain of thought, and power of beautiful description, that she thought finer and more touching than almost anything she had read.
'And these are all locked up for ever. No one has seen them.'
'So. When I was a young lad, my poor father put some lines of mine into a newspaper. That sufficed me,' and he shut the clasped book as if repenting of having revealed the contents.
'No, I was not thinking of anything you would dislike with regard to those verses. I don't like to let in the world on things precious, but (how could she venture so far!) I was thinking how many powers and talents are shut up in that study! and whether they might not have been meant for more. I beg your pardon if I ought not to say so.'
'The time is past,' he replied, without displeasure; 'my youth is gone, and with it the enterprise and hopefulness that can press forward, insensible to annoyance. You should have married a man with freshness and energy more responsive to your own.'
'Oh, Edmund, that is a severe reproach for my impertinent speech.'
'You must not expect too much from me,' he continued. 'I told you that I was a broken, grief-stricken man, and you were content to be my comforter.'
'Would that I could be so!' exclaimed Albinia, 'but to try faithfully, I must say what is on my mind. Dear Edmund, if you would only look out of your books, and see how much good you could do, here in your own sphere, how much the right wants strengthening, how much evil cries out to be repressed, how sadly your own poor suffer—oh! if you once began, you would be so much happier!'
She trembled with earnestness, and with fear of her own audacity, but a resounding knock at the door prevented her from even discovering whether he were offended. He started away to secure his book, and the two girls came in. Albinia could hardly believe it late enough for their return, but they accounted for having come rather earlier by saying that Gilbert had been making himself so ridiculous when he had come at last, that grandmamma had sent him home.
'At last!' said Albinia. 'He set off only ten minutes after you, as soon as he found that papa was not coming.'
'All I know,' said Lucy, 'is, that he did not come till half-past nine, and said he had come from home.'
'And where can he be now?'
'Gone to bed,' growled Sophy.
'I don't know what he has been doing,' said Lucy, who since the suspicion of favouritism, had seemed to find especial pleasure in bringing forward her brother's faults; 'but he came in laughing like a plough-boy, and talking perfect nonsense. And when Aunt Maria spoke to him, he answered quite rudely, that he wasn't going to be questioned and called to order, he had enough of petticoat government at home.'
'No,' said Sophy, breaking in with ungracious reluctance, as if against her will conveying some comfort to her step-mother for the sake of truth, 'what he said was, that if he bore with petticoat government at home, it was because Mrs. Kendal was pretty and kind, and didn't torment him out of his life for nothing, and what he stood from her, he would not stand from any other woman.'
'But, Sophy, I am sure he did say Mrs. Kendal knew what she was going to say, and said it, and it was worth hearing, and he laughed in Aunt Maria's face, and told her not to make so many bites at a cherry.'
'He must have been beside himself,' said Albinia, in a bewilderment of consternation, but Mr. Kendal's return put a stop to all, for the sisters never told tales before him, and she would not bring the subject under his notice until she should be better informed. His suffering was too great, his wrath too stern, to be excited without serious cause; but she spent a wakeful, anxious night, revolving all imaginable evils into which the boy could have fallen, and perplexing herself what measures to take, feeling all the more grieved and bound to him by the preference that, even in this dreadful mood, he had expressed for her. She fell into a restless sleep in the morning, from which she wakened so late as to have no time to question Gilbert before breakfast. On coming down, she found that he had not made his appearance, and had sent word that he had a bad headache, and wanted no breakfast. His father, who had made a visit of inspection, said he thought it was passing off, smiling as he observed upon Mrs. Meadows's mince-pie suppers and home-made wine.
Lucy said nothing, but glanced knowingly at her sister and at Albinia, from neither of whom did she get any response.
Albinia did not dare to take any measures till Mr. Kendal had ridden out, and then she went up and knocked at Gilbert's door. He was better, he said, and was getting up, he would be down-stairs presently. She watched for him as he came down, looking still very pale and unwell. She took him into her room, made him sit by the fire, and get a little life and warmth into his chilled hands before she spoke. 'Yes, Gilbert, I don't wonder you cannot lift up your head while so much is on your mind.'
Gilbert started and hid his face.
'Did you think I did not know, and was not grieved?'
'Well,' he cried, peevishly, 'I'm sure I have the most ill-natured pair of sisters in the world.'
'Then you meant to deceive us again, Gilbert.'
He had relapsed into the old habit—as usual, a burst of tears and a declaration that no one was ever so badly off, and he did not know what to do.
'You do know perfectly well what to do, Gilbert. There is nothing for it but to tell me the whole meaning of this terrible affair, and I will see whether I can help you.'
It was always the same round, a few words would always bring the confession, and that pitiful kind of helpless repentance, which had only too often given her hope.
Gilbert assured her that he had fully purposed following his sisters, but that on the way he had unluckily fallen in with Archie Tritton and a friend, who had driven in to hear a man from London singing comic songs at the King's Head, and they had persuaded him to come in. He had been uneasy and tried to get away, but the dread of being laughed at about his grandmother's tea had prevailed, and he had been supping on oysters and porter, and trying to believe himself a fast man, till Archie, who had assured him that he was himself going home in 'no time,' had found it expedient to set off, and it had been agreed that he should put a bold face on it, and profess that he had never intended to do more than come and fetch his sisters home.
That the porter had anything to do with his extraordinary manner to his grandmother and aunt, was so shocking a notion, and the very hint made him cry so bitterly, and protest so earnestly that he had only had one pint, which he did not like, and only drank because he was afraid of being teased, that Albinia was ready to believe that he had been so elevated by excitement as to forget himself, and continue the style of the company he had left. It was bad enough, and she felt almost overpowered by the contemplation of the lamentable weakness of the poor boy, of the consequences, and of what was incumbent on her.
She leant back and considered a little while, then sighed heavily, and said, 'Gilbert, two things must be done. You must make an apology to your grandmother and aunt, and you must confess the whole to your father.'
He gave a sort of howl, as if she were misusing his confidence.
'It must be,' she said. 'If you are really sorry, you will not shrink. I do not believe that it could fail to come to your father's knowledge, even if I did not know it was my duty to tell him, and how much better to confess it yourself.'
For this, however, Gilbert seemed to have no force; he cried piteously, bewailed himself, vowed incoherently that he would never do so again, and if she had not pitied him so much, would have made her think him contemptible.
She was inexorable as to having the whole told, though dreading the confession scarcely less than he did; and he finally made a virtue of necessity, and promised to tell, if only she would not desert him, declaring, with a fresh flood of tears, that he should never do wrong when she was by. Then came the apology. It was most necessary, and he owned that it would be much better to be able to tell his father that his grandmother had forgiven him; but he really had not nerve to set out alone, and Albinia, who had begun to dread having him out of sight, consented to go and protect him.
He shrank behind her, and she had to bear the flood of Maria's surprises and regrets, before she could succeed in saying that he was very sorry for yesterday's improper behaviour, and had come to ask pardon.
Grandmamma was placable; Gilbert's white face and red eyes were pleading enough, and she was distressed at Mrs. Kendal having come out, looking pale and tired. If she had been alone, the only danger would have been that the offence would be lost in petting; but Maria had been personally wounded, and the jealousy she already felt of the step-mother, had been excited to the utmost by Gilbert's foolish words. She was excessively grieved, and a great deal more angry with Mrs. Kendal than with Gilbert; and the want of justification for this feeling, together with her great excitement, distress, and embarrassment, made her attempts to be dry and dignified ludicrously abortive. She really seemed to have lost the power of knowing what she said. She was glad Mrs. Kendal could walk up this morning, since she could not come at night.
'It was not my fault,' said Albinia, earnestly; 'Mr. Kendal forbade me. I am sure I wish we had come.'
The old lady would have said something kind about not reproaching herself, but Miss Meadows interposed with, 'It was very unlucky, to be sure—Mr. Kendal never failed them before, not that she would wish—but she had always understood that to let young people run about late in the evening by themselves—not that she meant anything, but it was very unfortunate—if she had only been aware—Betty should have come down to walk up with them.'
Gilbert could not forbear an ashamed smile of intense affront at this reproach to his manliness.
'It was exceedingly unfortunate,' said Albinia, trying to repress her vexation; 'but Gilbert must learn to have resolution to guard himself. And now that he is come to ask your forgiveness, will you not grant it to him?'
'Oh, yes, yes, certainly, I forgive him from my heart. Yes, Gilbert, I do, only you must mind and beware—it is a very shocking thing—low company and all that—you've made yourself look as ill—and if you knew what a cake Betty had made—almond and citron both—"but it's for Master Gilbert," she said, "and I don't grudge"—and then to think—oh, dear!'
Albinia tried to express for him some becoming sorrow at having disappointed so much kindness, but she brought Miss Meadows down on her again.
'Oh, yes—she grudged nothing—but she never expected to meet with gratitude—she was quite prepared—' and she swallowed and almost sobbed, 'there had been changes. She was ready to make every excuse- -she was sure she had done her best—but she understood—she didn't want to be assured. It always happened so—she knew her homely ways were not what Mrs. Kendal had been used to—and she didn't wonder— she only hoped the dear children—' and she was absolutely crying.
'My dear Maria,' said her mother, soothingly, 'you have worked yourself into such a state, that you don't know what you are saying. You must not let Mrs. Kendal think that we don't know that she is leading the dear children to all that is right and kind towards as.'
'Oh, no, I don't accuse any one. Only if they like to put me down under their feet and trample on me, they are welcome. That's all I have to say.'
Albinia was too much annoyed to be amused, and said, as she rose to take leave, 'I think it would be better for Gilbert, as well as for ourselves, if we were to say no more till some more cool and reasonable moment.'