'I am as cool as possible,' said Miss Meadows, convulsively clutching her hand; 'I'm not excited. Don't excite yourself, Mrs. Kendal—it is very bad for you. Tell her not, Mamma—oh! no, don't be excited— I mean nothing—I forgive poor dear Gibbie whatever little matters—I know there was excuse—boys with unsettled homes—but pray don't go and excite yourself—you see how cool I am—'
And she pursued Albinia to the garden-gate, recommending her at every step not to be excited, for she was as cool as possible, trembling and stammering all the time, with flushed cheeks, and tears in her eyes.
'I wonder who she thinks is excited?' exclaimed Albinia, as they finally turned their backs on her.
It was hardly in human nature to help making the observation, but it was not prudent. Gilbert took licence to laugh, and say, 'Aunt Maria is beside herself.'
'I never heard anything so absurd or unjust!' cried Albinia, too much irritated to remember anything but the sympathy of her auditor. 'If I am to be treated in this manner, I have done striving to please them. Due respect shall be shown, but as to intimacy and confidence—'
'I'm glad you see it so at last!' cried Gilbert. 'Aunt Maria has been the plague of my life, and I'm glad I told her a bit of my mind!'
What was Albinia's consternation! Her moment's petulance had undone her morning's work.
'Gilbert,' she said, 'we are both speaking very wrongly. I especially, who ought to have helped you.'
Spite of all succeeding humility the outburst had been fatal, and argue and plead as she might, she could not restore the boy to anything like the half satisfactory state of penitence in which she had led him from home. The giving way to her worse nature had awakened his, and though he still allowed that she should prepare the way for his confession to his father, all real sense of his outrageous conduct towards his aunt was gone.
Disheartened and worn out, Albinia did not feel equal even to going to take off her walking things, but sat down in the drawing-room on the sofa, and tried to silence the girls' questions and chatter, by desiring Lucy to read aloud.
By-and-by Mr. Kendal was heard returning, and she rose to arrest him in the hall. Her looks began the story, for he exclaimed, 'My dear Albinia, what is the matter?'
'Oh, Edmund, I have such things to tell you! I have been doing so wrong.'
She was almost sobbing, and he spoke fondly. 'No, Albinia, I can hardly believe that. Something has vexed you, and you must take time to compose yourself.'
He led her up to her own room, tried to soothe her, and would not listen to a word till she should be calm. After lying still for a little while, she thought she had recovered, but the very word 'Gilbert' brought such an expression of anxiety and sternness over his brow as overcame her again, and she could not speak without so much emotion that he silenced her; and finding that she could neither leave the subject, nor mention it without violent agitation, he said he would leave her for a little while, and perhaps she might sleep, and then be better able to speak to him. Still she held him, and begged that he would say nothing to Gilbert till he had heard her, and to pacify her he yielded, passed his promise, and quitted her with a kiss.
There was a messenger at Fairmead Parsonage by sunrise the next morning, and by twelve o'clock Mr. and Mrs. Ferrars were at Willow Lawn.
Mr. Kendal's grave brow and depressed manner did not reassure Winifred as he met her in the hall, although his words were, 'I hope she is doing well.'
He said no more, for the drawing-room door was moving to and fro, as if uneasy on the hinges, and as he made a step towards it, it disclosed a lady with black eyes and pinched features, whom he presented as 'Miss Meadows.'
'Well, now—I think—since more efficient—since I leave Mrs. Kendal to better—only pray tell her—my love and my mother's—if I could have been of any use—or shall I remain?—could I be of any service, Edmund?—I would not intrude when—but in the house—if I could be of any further use.'
'Of none, thank you,' said Mr. Kendal, 'unless you would be kind enough to take home the girls.'
'Oh, papa!' cried Lucy, I've got the keys. You wont be able to get on at all without me. Sophy may go, but I could not be spared.'
'Let it be as you will,' said Mr. Kendal; 'I only desire quiet, and that you should not inconvenience Mrs. Ferrars.'
'You will help me, will you not!' said Winifred, smiling, though she did not augur well from this opening scene. 'May I go soon to Albinia?'
'Presently, I hope,' said Mr. Kendal, with an uneasy glance towards Miss Meadows, 'she has seen no one as yet, and she is so determined that you cannot come till after Christmas, that she does not expect you.'
Miss Meadows began one of her tangled skeins of words, the most tangible of which was excitement; and Mr. Kendal, knowing by long experience that the only chance of a conclusion was to let her run herself down, held his tongue, and she finally departed.
Then he breathed more freely, and said he would go and prepare Albinia to see her sister, desiring Lucy to show Mrs. Ferrars to her room, and to take care not to talk upon the stairs.
This, Lucy, who was in high glory, obeyed by walking upon creaking tip-toe, apparently borrowed from her aunt, and whispering at a wonderful rate about her eagerness to see dear, dear mamma, and the darling little brother.
The spare room did not look expectant of guests, and felt still less so. It struck Winifred as very like the mouth of a well, and the paper showed patches of ancient damp. One maid was hastily laying the fire, the other shaking out the curtains, in the endeavour to render it habitable, and Lucy began saying, 'I must apologize. If papa had only given us notice that we were to have the pleasure of seeing you,' and then she dashed at the maid in all the pleasure of authority. 'Eweretta, go and bring up Mrs. Ferrars's trunks directly, and some water, and some towels.'
Winifred thought the greatest mercy to the hunted maid would be to withdraw as soon as she had hastily thrown off bonnet and cloak, and Lucy followed her into the passage, repeating that papa was so absent and forgetful, that it was very inconvenient in making arrangements. Whatever was ordinarily repressed in her, was repaying itself with interest in the pleasure of acting as mistress of the house.
Mrs. Ferrars beheld Gilbert sitting listlessly on the deep window-seat at the end of the passage, resting his head on his hand.
'Well!' exclaimed Lucy, 'if he is not there still! He has hardly stirred since breakfast! Come and speak to Mrs. Ferrars, Gilbert. Or,' and she simpered, 'shall it be Aunt Winifred?'
'As you please,' said Mrs. Ferrars, advancing towards her old acquaintance, whom she would hardly have recognised, so different was the pale, downcast, slouching figure, from the bright, handsome lad she remembered.
'How cold your hand is!' she exclaimed; 'you should not sit in this cold passage.'
'As I have been telling him all this morning,' said Lucy.
'How is she?' whispered the boy, rousing himself to look imploringly in Winifred's face.
'Your father seems satisfied about her.'
At that moment a door at some distance was opened, and Gilbert seemed to thrill all over as for the moment ere it closed a baby's cry was heard. He turned his face away, and rested it on the window. 'My brother! my brother!' he murmured, but at that moment his father turned the corner of the passage, saying that Albinia had heard their arrival, and was very eager to see her sister.
Still Winifred could not leave the boy without saying, 'You can make Gilbert happy about her, can you not? He is waiting here, watching anxiously for news of her.'
'Gilbert himself best knows whether he has a right to be made happy,' said Mr. Kendal, gravely. 'I promised to ask no questions till she is able to explain, but I much fear that he has been causing her great grief and distress.'
He fixed his eyes on his son, and Winifred, in the belief that she was better out of their way, hurried to Albinia's room, and was seen very little all the rest of the day.
She was spared, however, to walk to church the next morning with her husband, Lucy showing them the way, and being quiet and agreeable when repressed by Mr. Ferrars's presence. After church, Mr. Dusautoy overtook them to inquire after Mrs. Kendal, and to make a kind proposal of exchanging Sunday duty. He undertook to drive the ponies home on the morrow, begged for credentials for the clerk, and messages for Willie and Mary, and seemed highly pleased with the prospect of the holiday, as he called it, only entreating that Mrs. Ferrars would be so kind as to look in on 'Fanny,' if Mrs. Kendal could spare her.
'I thought,' said Winifred to her husband, 'that you would rather have exchanged a Sunday when Albinia is better able to enjoy you?'
'That may yet be, but poor Kendal is so much depressed, that I do not like to leave him.'
'I have no patience with him!' cried Winifred; 'he does not seem to take the slightest pleasure in his baby, and he will hardly let poor Albinia do so either! Do you know, Maurice, it is as bad as I ever feared it would be. No, don't stop me, I must have it out. I always said he had no business to victimize her, and I am sure of it now! I believe this gloom of his has broken down her own dear sunny spirits! There she is—so unlike herself—so anxious and fidgety about her baby—will hardly take any one's word for his being as healthy and stout a child as I ever saw! And then, every other moment, she is restless about that boy—always asking where he is, or what he is doing. I don't see how she is ever to get well, while it goes on in this way! Mr. Kendal told me that Gilbert had been worrying and distressing her; and as to those girls, the eldest of them is intolerable with her airs, and the youngest—I asked her if she liked babies, and she growled, "No." Lucy said Gilbert was waiting in the passage for news of mamma, and she grunted, "All sham!" and that's the whole I have heard of her! He is bad enough in himself, but with such a train! My poor Albinia! If they are not the death of her, it will be lucky!'
'Well done, Winifred!'
'But, Maurice,' said his impetuous wife, in a curiously altered tone, 'are not you very unhappy about Albinia?'
'I shall leave you to find that out for me.'
'Then you are not?'
'I think Kendal thoroughly values and appreciates her, and is very uncomfortable without her.'
'I suppose so. People do miss a maid-of-all-work. I should not so much mind it, if she had been only his slave, but to be so to all those disagreeable children of his too! And with so little effect. Why can't he send them all to school?'
'Propose that to Albinia.'
'She did want the boy to go somewhere. I should not care where, so it were out of her way. What creatures they must be for her to have produced no more effect on them!'
'Poor Albinia! I am afraid it is a hard task: but these are still early days, and we see things at a disadvantage. We shall be able to judge whether there be really too great a strain on her spirits, and if so, I would talk to Kendal.'
'And I wonder what is to come of that. It seems to me like what John Smith calls singing psalms to a dead horse.'
'John Smith! I am glad you mentioned him; I shall desire Dusautoy to bring him here on Monday.'
'What! as poor Albinia would say, you can't exist a week without John Smith.'
'Even so. I want him to lay out a plan for draining the garden. That pond is intolerable. I suspect that all, yourself included, will become far more good-tempered in consequence.'
'A capital measure, but do you mean that Edmund Kendal is going to let you and John Smith drain his pond under his very nose, and never find it out? I did not imagine him quite come to that.'
'Not quite,' said Maurice; 'it is with his free consent, and I believe he will be very glad to have it done without any trouble to himself. He said that Albinia thought it damp, and when I put a few sanatory facts before him, thanked me heartily, and seemed quite relieved. If they had only been in Sanscrit, they would have made the greater impression.'
'One comfort is, Maurice, that however provoking you are at first, you generally prove yourself reasonable at last, I am glad you are not Mr. Kendal.'
'Ah! it will have a fine effect on you to spend your Christmas-day tete-a-tete with him.'
Mrs. Ferrars's views underwent various modifications, like all hasty yet candid judgments. She took Mr. Kendal into favour when she found him placidly submitting to Miss Meadows's showers of words, in order to prevent her gaining access to his wife.
'Maria Meadows is a very well-meaning person,' he said afterwards; 'but I know of no worse infliction in a sick-room.'
'I wonder,' thought Winifred, 'whether he married to get rid of her. I should have thought it justifiable had it been any one but Albinia!'
The call on Mrs. Dusautoy was consoling. It was delightful to find how Albinia was loved and valued at the vicarage. Mrs. Dusautoy began by sending her as a message, John's first exclamation on hearing of the event. 'Then she will never be of any more use.' In fact, she said, it was much to him like having a curate disabled, and she believed he could only be consoled by the hopes of a pattern christening, and of a nursery for his school-girls; but there Winifred shook her head, Fairmead had a prior claim, and Albinia had long had her eye upon a scholar of her own.
'I told John that she would! and he must bear it as he can,' laughed Mrs. Dusautoy; and she went on more seriously to say that her gratitude was beyond expression, not merely for the actual help, though that was much, but for the sympathy, the first encouragement they had met among their richer parishioners, and she spoke of the refreshment of the mirthfulness and playful manner, so as to convince Winifred that they had neither died away nor been everywhere wasted.
Winifred had no amenable patient. Weak and depressed as Albinia was, her restlessness and air of anxiety could not be appeased. There was a look of being constantly on the watch, and once, when her door was ajar, before Winifred was aware she exerted her voice to call Gilbert!
Pushing the door just wide enough to enter, and treading almost noiselessly, he came forward, looking from side to side as with a sense of guilt. She stretched out her hand and smiled, and he obeyed the movement that asked him to bend and kiss her, but still durst not speak.
'Let me have the baby,' she said.
Mrs. Ferrars laid it beside her, and held aloof. Gilbert's eyes were fixed intently on it.
'Yes, Gilbert,' Albinia said, 'I know what you will feel for him. He can't be what you once had—but oh, Gilbert, you will do all that an elder brother can to make him like Edmund!'
Gilbert wrung her fingers, and ventured to stoop down to kiss the little red forehead. The tears were running down his cheeks, and he could not speak.
'If your father might only say the same of him! that he never grieved him!' said Albinia; 'but oh, Gilbert—example,' and then, pausing and gazing searchingly in his face, 'You have not told papa.'
'No,' whispered Gilbert.
'Winifred,' said Albinia, 'would you be so kind as to ask papa to come?'
Winifred was forced to obey, though feeling much to blame as Mr. Kendal rose with a sigh of uneasiness. Gilbert still stood with his hand clasped in Albinia's, and she held it while her weak voice made the full confession for him, and assured his father of his shame and sorrow. There needed no such assurance, his whole demeanour had been sorrow all these dreary days, and Mr. Kendal could not but forgive, though his eye spoke deep grief.
'I could not refuse pardon thus asked,' he said. 'Oh, Gilbert, that I could hope this were the beginning of a new course!'
Albinia looked from Gilbert to his little brother, and back again to Gilbert.
'It shall be,' she said, and Gilbert's resolution was perhaps the more sincere that he spoke no word.
'Poor boy,' said Albinia, half to herself and half aloud, 'I think I feel more strong to love and to help him!'
That interview was a dangerous experiment, and she suffered for it. As her brother said, instead of having too little life, she had too much, and could not let herself rest; she had never cultivated the art of being still, and when she was weak, she could not be calm.
Still the strength of her constitution staved off the nervous fever of her spirits, and though she was not at all a comfortable patient, she made a certain degree of progress, so that though it was not easy to call her better, she was not quite so ill, and grew less irrational in her solicitude, and more open to other ideas. 'Do you know, Winifred,' she said one day, 'I have been thinking myself at Fairmead till I almost believed I heard John Smith's voice under the window.'
Winifred was obliged to look out at the window to hide her smile. Maurice, who was standing on the lawn with the very John Smith, beckoned to her, and she went down to hear his plans. He was wanted at home the next day, and asked whether she thought he had better take Gilbert with him. 'It is the wisest thing that has been said yet!' exclaimed she. 'Now I shall have a chance for Albinia!' and accordingly, Mr. Kendal having given a gracious and grateful consent, Albinia was informed; but Winifred thought her almost perverse when a perturbed look came over her, and she said, 'It is very kind in Maurice, but I must speak to him.'
He was struck by the worn, restless expression of her features, so unlike the calm contented repose of a young mother, and when she spoke to him, her first word was of Gilbert. 'Maurice, it is so kind, I know you will make him happy—but oh! take care—he is so delicate—indeed, he is—don't let him get wet through.'
Maurice promised, but Albinia resumed with minutiae of directions, ending with, 'Oh! if he should get hurt or into any mischief, what should we do? Pray, take care, Maurice, you are not used to such delicate boys.'
'My dear, I think you may rely on me.'
'Yes, but you will not be too strict with him—' and more was following, when her brother said, 'I promise you to make him my special charge. I like the boy very much. I think you may be reasonable, and trust him with me, without so much agitation. You have not let me see my own nephew yet.'
Albinia looked with her wistful piteous face at her brother as he took in his arms her noble-looking fair infant.
'You are a great fellow indeed, sir,' said his uncle. 'Now if I were your mamma, I would be proud of you, rather than—'
'I am afraid!' said Albinia, in a sudden low whisper.
He looked at her anxiously.
'Let me have him,' she said; then as Maurice bent over her, and she hastily gathered the babe into her arms, she whispered in quick, low, faint accents, 'Do you know how many children have been born in this house?'
Mr. Ferrars understood her, he too had seen the catalogue in the church, and guessed that the phantoms of her boy's dead brethren dwelt on her imagination, forbidding her to rejoice in him hopefully. He tried to say something encouraging of the child's appearance, but she would not let him go on. 'I know,' she said, 'he is so now— but—' then catching her breath again and speaking very low, 'his father does not dare look at him—I see that he is sorry for me— Oh, Maurice, it will come, and I shall be able to do nothing!'
Maurice felt his lip quivering as his sister's voice became choked—the sister to whom he had once been the whole world, and who still could pour out her inmost heart more freely to him than to any other. But it was a time for grave authority, and though he spoke gently, it was almost sternly.
'Albinia, this is not right. It is not thankful or trustful. No, do not cry, but listen to me. Your child is as likely to do well as any child in the world, but nothing is so likely to do him harm as your want of composure.'
'I tell myself so,' said Albinia, 'but there is no helping it.'
'Yes, there is. Make it your duty to keep yourself still, and not be troubled about what may or may not happen, but be glad of the present pleasure.'
'Don't you think I am?' said Albinia, half smiling; 'so glad, that I grow frightened at myself, and—' As if fain to leave the subject, she added, 'And it is what you don't understand, Maurice, but he can't be the first to Edmund as he is to me—never—and when I get almost jealous for him, I think of Gilbert and the girls—and oh! there is so much to do for them—they want a mother so much—and Winifred wont let me see them, or tell me about them!'
She had grown piteous and incoherent, and a glance from Winifred told him, 'this is always the way.'
'My dear,' he said, 'you will never be fit to attend to them if you do not use this present time rightly. You may hurt your health, and still more certainly, you will go to work fretfully and impetuously. If you have a busy life, the more reason to learn to be tranquil. Calm is forced on you now, and if you give way to useless nervous brooding over the work you are obliged to lay aside for a time, you have no right to hope that you will either have judgment or temper for your tasks.'
'But how am I to keep from thinking, Maurice? The weaker I am, the more I think.'
'Are you dutiful as to what Winifred there thinks wisest? Ah! Albinia, you want to learn, as poor Queen Anne of Austria did, that docility in illness may be self-resignation into higher Hands. Perhaps you despise it, but it is no mean exercise of strength and resolution to be still.'
Albinia looked at him as if receiving a new idea.
'And,' he added, bending nearer her face, and speaking lower, 'when you pray, let them be hearty faithful prayers that God's hand may be over your child—your children, not half-hearted faithless ones, that He may work out your will in them.'
'Oh, Maurice, how did you know? But you are not going? I have so much to talk over with you.'
'Yes, I must go; and you must be still. Indeed I will watch over Gilbert as though he were mine. Yes, even more. Don't speak again, Albinia, I desire you will not. Good-bye.'
That lecture had been the most wholesome treatment she had yet received; she ceased to give way without effort to restless thoughts and cares, and was much less refractory.
When at last Lucy and Sophia were admitted, Winifred found perils that she had not anticipated. Lucy was indeed supremely and girlishly happy: but it was Sophy whose eye Albinia sought with anxiety, and that eye was averted. Her cheek was cold like that of a doll when Albinia touched it eagerly with her lips; and when Lucy admonished her to kiss the dear little brother, she fairly turned and ran out of the room.
'Poor Sophy!' said Lucy. 'Never mind her, mamma, but she is odder than ever, since baby has been born. When Eweretta came up and told us, she hid her face and cried; and when grandmamma wanted to make us promise to love him with all our hearts, and not make any difference, she would only say, "I wont!"'
'We will leave him to take care of that, Lucy,' said Albinia. But though she spoke cheerfully, Winifred was not surprised, after a little interval, to hear sounds like stifled weeping.
Almost every home subject was so dangerous, that whenever Mrs. Ferrars wanted to make cheerful, innocent conversation, she began to talk of her visit to Ireland and the beautiful Galway coast, and the O'Mores of Ballymakilty, till Albinia grew quite sick of the names of the whole clan of thirty-six cousins, and thought, with her aunts, that Winifred was too Irish. Yet, at any other time, the histories would have made her sometimes laugh, and sometimes cry, but the world was sadly out of joint with her.
There was a sudden change when, for the first time her eye rested on the lawn, and she beheld the work of drainage. The light glanced in her eye, the colour rose on her cheek, and she exclaimed, 'How kind of Edmund!'
Winifred must needs give her husband his share. 'Ah! you would never have had it done without Maurice.'
'Yes,' said Albinia, 'Edmund has been out of the way of such things, but he consented, you know.' Then as her eyes grew liquid, 'A duck pond is a funny subject for sentiment, but oh! if you knew what that place has been to my imagination from the first, and how the wreaths of mist have wound themselves into spectres in my dreams, and stretched out white shrouds now for one, now for the other!' and she shuddered.
'And you have gone through all this and never spoken. No wonder your nerves and spirits were tried.'
'I did speak at first,' said Albinia; 'but I thought Edmund did not hear, or thought it nonsense, and so did I at times. But you see he did attend; he always does, you see, at the right time. It was only my impatience.'
'I suspect Maurice and John Smith had more to do with it,' said Winifred.
'Well, we wont quarrel about that,' said Albinia. 'I only know that whoever brought it about has taken the heaviest weight off my mind that has been there yet.'
In truth, the terror, half real, half imaginary, had been a sorer burthen than all the positive cares for those unruly children, or their silent, melancholy father; and the relief told in all ways— above all, in the peace with which she began to regard her child. Still she would provoke Winifred by bestowing all her gratitude on Mr. Kendal, who began to be persuaded that he had made an heroic exertion.
Winifred had been somewhat scandalized by discovering Albinia's deficiencies in the furniture development. She was too active and stirring, and too fond of out-of-door occupation, to regard interior decoration as one of the domestic graces, 'her nest was rather that of the ostrich than the chaffinch,' as Winifred told her on the discovery that her morning-room had been used for no other purpose than as a deposit for all the books, wedding presents, lumber, etc., which she had never had leisure to arrange.
'You might be more civil,' answered Albinia. 'Remember that the ringdove never made half such a fuss about her nest as the magpie.'
'Well, I am glad you have found some likeness in yourself to a dove,' rejoined Winifred.
Mrs. Ferrars set vigorously to work with Lucy, and rendered the room so pretty and pleasant, that Lucy pronounced that it must be called nothing but the boudoir, for it was a perfect little bijou.
Albinia was laid on the sofa by the sparkling fire, by her side the little cot, and in her hand a most happy affectionate letter from Gilbert, detailing the Fairmead Christmas festivities. She felt the invigoration of change of room, admired and was grateful for Winifred's work, and looked so fair and bright, so tranquil and so contented, that her sister and husband could not help pausing to contemplate her as an absolutely new creature in a state of quiescence.
It did not last long, and Mrs. Ferrars felt herself the unwilling culprit. Attracted by sounds in the hall, she found the two girls receiving from the hands of Genevieve Durant a pretty basket choicely adorned with sprays of myrtle, saying mamma would be much obliged, and they would take it up at once; Genevieve should take home her basket, and down plunged their hands regardless of the garniture.
Genevieve's disappointed look caught Winifred's attention, and springing forward she exclaimed, 'You shall come to Mrs. Kendal yourself, my dear. She must see your pretty basket,' and yourself, she could have added, as she met the grateful glitter of the dark eyes.
Lucy remonstrated that mamma had seen no one yet, not even Aunt Maria, but Mrs. Ferrars would not listen, and treading airily, yet with reverence that would have befitted a royal palace, Genevieve was ushered upstairs, and with heartfelt sweetness, and timid grace, presented her etrennes.
Under the fragrant sprays lay a small white-paper parcel, tied with narrow blue satin bows, such as no English fingers could accomplish, and within was a little frock-body, exquisitely embroidered, with a breastplate of actual point lace in a pattern like frostwork on the windows. It was such work as Madame Belmarche had learnt in a convent in times of history, and poor little Genevieve had almost worn out her black eyes on this piece of homage to her dear Mrs. Kendal, grieving only that she had not been able to add the length of robe needed to complete her gift.
Albinia's kiss was recompense beyond her dreams, and she fairly cried for joy when she was told that she should come and help to dress the babe in it for his christening. Mrs. Ferrars would walk out with her at once to buy a sufficiency of cambric for the mighty skirts.
That visit was indeed nothing but pleasure, but Mrs. Ferrars had not calculated on contingencies and family punctilios. She forgot that it would be a mortal offence to let in any one rather than Miss Meadows; but the rest of the family were so well aware of it, that when she returned she heard a perfect sparrow's-nest of voices—Lucy's pert and eager, Miss Meadows's injured and shrill, and Albinia's, alas! thin and loud, half sarcasm, half fret.
There sat Aunt Maria fidgeting in the arm-chair; Lucy stood by the fire; Albinia's countenance sadly different from what it had been in the morning—weary, impatient, and excited, all that it ought not to be!
Winifred would have cleared the room at once, but this was not easy, and poor Albinia was so far gone as to be determined on finishing that endless thing, an altercation, so all three began explaining and appealing at once.
It seemed that Mrs. Osborn was requiting Mrs. Kendal's neglect in not having inquired after her when the Admiral's sister's husband died, by the omission of inquiries at present; whereat Albinia laughed a feeble, overdone giggle, and observed that she believed Mrs. Osborn knew all that passed in Willow Lawn better than the inmates; and Lucy deposed that Sophy and Loo were together every day, though Sophy knew mamma did not like it. Miss Meadows said if reparation were not made, the Osborns had expressed their intention of omitting Lucy and Sophy from their Twelfth-day party.
To this Albinia pettishly replied that the girls were to go to no Christmas parties without her; Miss Meadows had taken it very much to heart, and Lucy was declaiming against mamma making any condescension to Mrs. Osborn, or herself being supposed to care for 'the Osborn's parties,' where the boys were so rude and vulgar, the girls so boisterous, and the dancing a mere romp. Sophy might like it, but she never did!
Miss Meadows was hurt by her niece's defection, and had come to 'Oh, very well,' and 'things were altered,' and 'people used to be grateful to old friends, but there were changes.' And thereby Lucy grew personal as to the manners of the Osborns, while Albinia defended herself against the being grand or exclusive, but it was her duty to do what she thought right for the children! Yes, Miss Meadows was quite aware—only grandmamma was so nervous about poor dear Gibbie missing his Christmas dinner for the first time—being absent—Mrs. Ferrars would take great care, but damp stockings and all—
Winifred endeavoured to stem the tide of words, but in vain, between the meandering incoherency of the one, and the nervous rapidity of the other, and they had both set off again on this fresh score, when in despair she ran downstairs, rapped at the study door, and cried, 'Mr. Kendal, Mr. Kendal, will you not come! I can't get Miss Meadows out of Albinia's room.'
Forth came Mr. Kendal, walked straight upstairs, and stood in full majesty on the threshold. Holding out his hand to Maria with grave courtesy, he thanked her for coming to see his wife, but at the same time handed her down, saw her out safely at the hall door, and Lucy into the drawing-room.
It was a pity that he had not returned to Albinia's room, for she was too much excited to be composed without authority. First, she scolded Winifred; 'it was the thing she most wished to avoid, that he should fancy her teased by anything the Meadowses could say,' and she laughed, and protested she never was vexed, such absurdity did not hurt her in the least.
'It has tired you, though,' said Winifred. 'Lie quite down and sleep.'
Of course, however, Albinia would not believe that she was tired, and began to talk of the Osborns and their party—she was annoyed at the being thought too fine. 'If it were not such a penance, and if you would not be gone home, I really would ask you to take the girls, Winifred.'
'I shall not be gone home.'
'Yes, you will. I am well, and every one wants you.'
'Did you not hear Willie's complimentary message, that he is never naughty now, because Gilbert makes him so happy?'
'But, Winifred, the penny club! The people must have their things.'
'They can wait, or—'
'It is very well for us to talk of waiting,' cried Albinia, 'but how should we like a frosty night without cloaks, or blankets, or fire? I did not think it of you, Winifred. It is the first winter I have been away from my poor old dames, and I did think you would have cared for them.'
And thereupon her overwrought spirits gave way in a flood of tears, as she angrily averted her face from her sister, who could have cried too, not at the injustice, but with compassion and perplexity lest there should be an equally violent reaction either of remorse or of mirth.
It must be confessed that Albinia was very much the creature of health. Never having been ill before, the depression had been so new that it broke her completely down; convalescence made her fractious.
Recovery, however, filled her with such an ecstasy of animal spirits that her time seemed to be entirely passed in happiness or in sleep, and cares appeared to have lost all power. It was so sudden a change that Winifred was startled, though it was a very pleasant one, and she did not reflect that this was as far from the calm, self-restrained, meditative tranquillity enjoined by Maurice, as had been the previous restless, querulous state. Both were body more than mind, but Mrs. Ferrars was much more ready to be merry with Albinia than to moralize about her. And it was droll that the penny club was one of the first stages in her revival.
'Oh, mamma,' cried Lucy, flying in, 'Mr. Dusautoy is at the door. There is such a to do. All the women have been getting gin with their penny club tickets, and Mrs. Brock has been stealing the money, and Mr. Dusautoy wants to know if you paid up three-and-fourpence for the Hancock children.'
Albinia instantly invited Mr. Dusautoy to explain in person, and he entered, hearty and pleasant as ever, but in great haste, for he had left his Fanny keeping the peace between five angry women, while he came out to collect evidence.
The Bayford clothing-club payments were collected by Mrs. Brock, the sexton's wife, and distributed by tickets to be produced at the various shops in the town. Mrs. Brock had detected some women exchanging their tickets for gin, and the offending parties retaliated by accusing her of embezzling the subscriptions, both parties launching into the usual amount of personalities and exaggerations.
Albinia's testimony cleared Mrs. Brock as to the three-and-fourpence, but she 'snuffed the battle from afar,' and rushed into a scheme of taking the clothing-club into her own hands, collecting the pence, having the goods from London, and selling them herself—she would propose it on the very first opportunity to the Dusautoys. Winifred asked if she had not a good deal on her hands already.
'My dear, I have the work in me of a young giant.'
'And will Mr. Kendal like it?'
'He would never find it out unless I told him, and very possibly not then. Six months hence, perhaps, he may tell me he is glad that Lucy is inclined to useful pursuits, and that is approval, Winifred, much more than if I went and worried him about every little petty woman's matter.'
'Every one to her taste,' thought Winifred, who had begun to regard Mr. and Mrs. Kendal in the same relation as the king and queen at chess.
The day before the christening, Mr. Ferrars brought back Gilbert and his own little Willie.
Through all the interchange of greetings, Gilbert would hardly let go Albinia's hand, and the moment her attention was free, he earnestly whispered, 'May I see my brother?'
She took him upstairs at once. 'Let me look a little while,' he said, hanging over the child with a sort of hungry fondness and curiosity. 'My brother! my brother!' he repeated. 'It has rung in my ears every morning that I can say my brother once more, till I have feared it was a dream.'
It was the sympathy Albinia cared for, come back again! 'I hope he will be a good brother to you,' she said.
'He must be good! he can't help it! He has you!' said Gilbert. 'See, he is opening his eyes—oh! how blue! May I touch him?'
'To be sure you may. He is not sugar,' said Albinia, laughing. 'There—make an arm; you may have him if you like. Your left arm, you awkward man. Yes, that is right. You will do quite as well as I, who never touched a baby till Willie was born. There, sir, how do you like your brother Gilbert?'
Gilbert held him reverently, and gave him back with a sigh when he seemed to have satiated his gaze and touch, and convinced himself that his new possession was substantial. 'I say,' he added wistfully, 'did you think that name would bring ill-luck?
She knew the name he meant, and answered, 'No, but your father could not have borne it. Besides, Gibbie, we would not think him instead of Edmund. No, he shall learn, to look up to his other brother as you do, and look to meeting and knowing him some day.'
Gilbert shivered at this, and made no opposition to her carrying him downstairs to his uncle, and then Gilbert hurried off for the basket of snowdrops that he had gathered early, from a favourite spot at Fairmead. That short absence seemed to have added double force to his affection; he could hardly bear to be away from her, and every moment when he could gain her ear, poured histories of the delights of Fairmead, where Mr. Ferrars had devoted himself to his amusement, and had made him happier than perhaps he had ever been in his life— he had had a taste of shooting, of skating, of snowballing—he had been useful and important in the village feasts, had dined twice at Colonel Bury's, and felt himself many degrees nearer manhood.
To hear of her old haunts and friends from such enthusiastic lips, delighted Albinia, and her felicity with her baby, with Mr. Kendal, with her brother and his little son, was one of the brightest things in all the world—the fresh young loving bloom of her matronhood was even sweeter and more beautiful than her girlish days.
Poor little frail, blighted Mrs. Dusautoy! Winifred could not help wondering if the contrast pained her, when in all the glory of her motherly thankfulness, Albinia carried her beautiful newly-christened Maurice Ferrars Kendal to the vicarage to show him off, lying so open-chested and dignified, in Genevieve's pretty work, with a sort of manly serenity already dawning on his baby brow.
Winifred need not have pitied the little lady. She would not have changed with Mrs. Kendal—no, not for that perfect health, usefulness, value—nor even for such a baby as that. No, indeed! She loved—she rejoiced in all her friend's sweet and precious gifts—but Mrs. Dusautoy had one gift that she prized above all.
Even grandmamma and Aunt Maria did justice to Master Maurice's attractions, at least in public, though it came round that Miss Meadows did not admire fat children, and when he had once been seen in Lucy's arms, an alarm arose that Mrs. Kendal would allow the girls to carry him about, till his weight made them crooked, but Albinia was too joyous to take their displeasure to heart, and it only served her for something to laugh at.
They had a very happy christening party, chiefly juvenile, in honour of little Willie and of Francis and Emily Nugent. Albinia was so radiantly lively and good-natured, and her assistants, Winifred, Maurice, and Mr. Dusautoy, so kind, so droll, so inventive, that even Aunt Maria forgot herself in enjoyment and novelty, and was like a different person. Mr. Kendal looked at her with a pleased sad wonder, and told his wife it reminded him of what she had been when she was nearly the prettiest girl at Bayford. Gilbert devoted himself as usual to making Genevieve feel welcome; and she had likewise Willie Ferrars and Francis Nugent at her feet. Neither urchin would sit two inches away from her all the evening, and in all games she was obliged to obviate jealousies by being partner to both at once. Where there was no one to oppress her, she came out with all her natural grace and vivacity, and people of a larger growth than her little admirers were charmed with her.
Lucy was obliging, ready, and useful, and looked very pretty, the only blot was the heavy dulness of poor Sophy, who seemed resolved to take pleasure in nothing. Winifred varied in opinion whether her moodiness arose from ill-health, or from jealousy of her little brother. This latter Albinia would not believe, especially as she saw that little Maurice's blue eyes were magnets that held the silent Sophy fast, but surly denials silenced her interrogations as to illness, and made her content to acquiesce in Lucy's explanation that Sophy was only cross because the Osborns and Drurys were not asked.
Albinia did her duty handsomely by the two families a day or two after, for whatever reports might come round, they were always ready to receive her advances, and she only took notice of what she saw, instead of what she heard. Her brother helped Mr. Kendal through the party, and Winifred made a discovery that excited her more than Albinia thought warranted by any fact relating to the horde of Irish cousins.
'Only think, Albinia, I have found out that poor Ellen O'More is Mr. Goldsmith's sister!'
'Indeed! But I am afraid I don't remember which Ellen O'More is. You know I never undertake to recollect any but your real cousins out of the thirty-six.'
'For shame, Albinia, I have so often told you about Ellen. I'm sure you can't forget. Her husband is my sister's brother-in-law's cousin.'
'Oh, Winifred, Winifred!'
'But I tell you, her husband is the third son of old Mr. O'More of Ballymakilty, and was in the army.'
'Oh! the half-pay officer with the twelve children in the cottage on the estate.'
'There now, I did think you would care when I told you of a soldier, a Waterloo man too, and you only call him a half-pay officer!'
'I do remember,' said Albinia, taking a little pity, 'that you used to be sorry for his good little English wife.'
'Of course. I knew she had married him very imprudently, but she has struggled gallantly with ill-health, and poverty, and Irish recklessness. I quite venerate her, and it seems these Goldsmiths had so far cast her off that they had no notion of the extent of her troubles.'
'Just like them,' said Albinia. 'Is that the reason you wish me to make the most of the connexion? Let me see, my sister-in-law's sister's wife—no, husband's brother's uncle, eh?'
'I don't want you to do anything,' said Winifred, a little hurt, 'only if you had seen Ellen's patient face you would be interested in her.'
'Well, I am interested, you know I am, Winifred. I hope you interested our respected banker, which would be more to the purpose.'
'I think I did,' said Winifred; 'at least he said "poor Ellen" once or twice. I don't want him to do anything for the captain, you might give him a thousand pounds and he would never be the better for it: but that fourth, boy, Ulick, is without exception the nicest fellow I ever saw in my life—so devoted to his mother, so much more considerate and self-denying than any of the others, and very clever. Maurice examined him and was quite astonished. We did get him sent to St. Columba for the present, but whether they will keep him there no one can guess, and it is the greatest pity he should run to waste. I told Mr. Goldsmith all this, and I really think he seemed to attend. I wonder if it will work.'
Albinia was by this time anxious that it should take effect, and they agreed that an old bachelor banker and his sister, both past sixty, were the very people to adopt a promising nephew.
What had become of the multitude of things which Albinia had to discuss with her brother? The floodtide of bliss had floated her over all the stumbling-blocks and shoals that the ebb had disclosed, and she had absolutely forgotten all the perplexities that had seemed so trying. Even when she sought a private interview to talk to him about Gilbert, it was in full security of hearing the praises of her darling.
'A nice boy, a very nice boy,' returned Maurice; 'most amiable and intelligent, and particularly engaging, from his feeling being so much on the surface.'
'Nothing can be more sincere and genuine,' she cried, as if this fell a little flat.
'Certainly not, at the time.'
'Always!' exclaimed Albinia. 'You must not distrust him because he is not like you or Fred, and has never been hardened and taught reserve by rude boys. Nothing was ever more real than his affection, poor dear boy,' and the tears thrilled to her eyes.
'No, and it is much to his credit. His love and gratitude to you are quite touching, poor fellow; but the worst of it is that I am afraid he is very timid, both physically and morally.'
Often as she had experienced this truth, the soldier's daughter could not bear to avow it, and she answered hastily, 'He has never been braced or trained; he was always ill till within the last few years— coddling at first, neglect afterwards, he has it all to learn, and it is too late for school.'
'Yes, he is too old to be laughed at or bullied out of cowardice. Indeed, I doubt whether there ever would have been substance enough for much wear and tear.'
'I know you have a turn for riotous, obstinate boys! You want Willie to be another Fred,' said Albinia, like an old hen, ruffling up her feathers. 'You think a boy can't be good for anything unless he is a universal plague!'
'I wonder what you will do with your own son,' said Maurice, amused, 'since you take Gilbert's part so fiercely.'
'I trust my boy will never be as much to be pitied as his brother,' said Albinia, with tenderness that accused her petulance. 'At least he can never be a lonely twin with that sore spot in his heart. Oh, Maurice, how can any one help dealing gently with my poor Gibbie?'
'Gentle dealing is the very thing he wants,' said Mr. Ferrars; 'and I am thinking how to find it for him. How did his going to Traversham fail?'
'I don't know; Edmund did not like to send him without having seen Traversham, and I could not go. But I don't think there is any need for his going away. His father has been quite enough tormented about it, and I can manage him very well now. He is always good and happy with me. I mean to try to ride with him, and I have promised to teach him music, and we shall garden. Never fear, I will employ him and keep him out of mischief—it is all pleasure to me.'
'And pray what are your daughters and baby to do, while you are galloping after Gilbert?'
'Oh! I'll manage. We can all do things together. Come, Maurice, I wont have Edmund teased, and I can't bear parting with any of them, or think that any strange man can treat Gibbie as I should.'
Maurice was edified by his sister's warm-hearted weakness, but not at all inclined to let 'Edmund' escape a 'teasing.'
Mr. Kendal's first impulse always was to find a sufficient plea for doing nothing. If Gilbert was to go to India, it was not worth while to give him a classical education.
'Is he to go to India? Albinia had not told me so.'
'I thought she was aware of it; but possibly I may not have mentioned it. It has been an understood thing ever since I came home. He will have a good deal of the property in this place, but he had better have seen something of the world. Bayford is no place for a man to settle down in too young.'
'Certainly,' said Mr. Ferrars, repressing a smile. 'Then are you thinking of sending him to Haileybury?'
He was pronounced too young, besides, it was explained that his destination in India was unfixed. On going home it had been a kind of promise that one of the twin brothers should have an appointment in the civil service, the other should enter the bank of Kendal and Kendal, and the survivor was unconsciously suspended between these alternatives, while the doubt served as a convenient protection to his father from making up his mind to prepare him for either of these or for anything else.
The prompt Ferrars temper could bear it no longer, and Maurice spoke out. 'I'll tell you what, Kendal, it is time to attend to your own concerns. If you choose to let your son run to ruin, because you will not exert yourself to remove him from temptation, I shall not stand by to see my sister worn out with making efforts to save him. She is willing and devoted, she fancies she could work day and night to preserve him, and she does it with all her heart; but it is not woman's work, she cannot do it, and it is not fit to leave it to her. When Gilbert has broken her heart as well as yours, and left an evil example to his brother, then you will feel what it is to have kept a lad whom you know to be well disposed, but weak as water, in the very midst of contamination, and to have left your young, inexperienced wife to struggle alone to save him. If you are unwarned by the experience of last autumn and winter, I could not pity you, whatever might happen.'
Maurice, who had run on the longer because Mr. Kendal did not answer immediately, was shocked at his own impetuosity; but a rattling peal of thunder was not more than was requisite.
'I believe you are right,' Mr. Kendal said. 'I was to blame for leaving him so entirely to Albinia; but she is very fond of him, and is one who will never be induced to spare herself, and there were considerations. However, she shall be relieved at once. What do you recommend?'
Mr. Ferrars actually made Mr. Kendal promise to set out for Traversham with him next morning, thirty miles by the railway, to inspect Mr. Downton and his pupils.
Albinia had just sense enough not to object, though the discovery of the Indian plans was such a blow to her that she could not be consoled by all her husband's representations of the advantages Gilbert would derive there, and of his belief that the Kendal constitution always derived strength from a hot climate, and that to himself going to India seemed going home. She took refuge in the hope that between the two Indian stools Gilbert might fall upon one of the professions which she thought alone worthy of man's attention, the clerical or the military.
Under Maurice's escort, Mr. Kendal greatly enjoyed his expedition; liked Traversham, was satisfied with the looks of the pupils, and very much pleased with the tutor, whom he even begged to come to Bayford for a conference with Mrs. Kendal, and this was received by her as no small kindness. She was delighted with Mr. Downton, and felt as if Gilbert could be safely trusted in his charge; nor was Gilbert himself reluctant. He was glad to escape from his tempter, and to begin a new life, and though he hung about Mrs. Kendal, and implored her to write often, and always tell him about his little brother—nay, though he cried like a child at the last, yet still he was happy and satisfied to go, and to break the painful fetters which had held him so long.
And though Albinia likewise shed some parting tears, she could not but own that she was glad to have him in trustworthy hands; and as to the additional time thus gained, it was disposed of in a million of bright plans for every one's service—daughters, baby, parish, school, classes, clubs, neighbours. It almost made Winifred giddy to hear how much she had undertaken, and yet with what zest she talked and acted.
'There's your victim, Winifred,' said Maurice, as they drove away, and looked back at Albinia, scandalizing Bayford by standing in the open gateway, her face all smiles of cheerful parting, the sun and wind making merry with her chestnut curls, her baby in one arm, the other held up to wave her farewell.
'That child will catch cold,' began Winifred, turning to sign her to go in. 'Well,' she continued, 'after all, I believe some people like an idol that sits quiet to be worshipped! To be sure she must want to beat him sometimes, as the Africans do their gods. But, on the whole, her sentiment of reverence is satisfied, and she likes the acting for herself, and reigning absolute. Yes, she is quite happy—why do you look doubtful? Don't you admire her?'
'From my heart.'
'Then why do you doubt? Do you expect her to do anything?'
'A little too much of everything.'
Yes! Albinia was excessively happy. Her naturally high spirits were enhanced by the enjoyment of recovery, and reaction, from her former depression. Since the great stroke of the drainage, every one looked better, and her pride in her babe was without a drawback. He seemed to have inherited her vigour and superabundance of life, and 'that first wondrous spring to all but babes unknown,' was in him unusually rapid, so that he was a marvel of fair stateliness, size, strength, and intelligence, so unlike the little blighted buds which had been wont to fade at Willow Lawn, that his father watched him with silent, wondering affection, and his eldest sister was unmerciful in her descriptions of his progress; while even Sophia had not been proof against his smiles, and was proud to be allowed to carry him about and fondle him.
Neither was Mr. Kendal's reserve the trial that it had once been. After having become habituated to it as a necessary idiosyncrasy, she had become rather proud of his lofty inaccessibility. Besides, her brother's visit, her recovery, and the renewed hope and joy in this promising child, had not been without effect in rousing him from his apathy. He was less inclined to shun his fellow-creatures, had become friendly with the Vicar, and had even let Albinia take him into Mrs. Dusautoy's drawing-room, where he had been fairly happy. Having once begun taking his wife out in the carriage, he found this much more agreeable than his solitary ride, and was in the condition to which Albinia had once imagined it possible to bring him, in which gentle means and wholesome influence might lead him imperceptibly out of his morbid habits of self-absorption.
Unfortunately, in the flush of blitheness and whirl of activity, Albinia failed to perceive the relative importance of objects, and he had taught her to believe herself so little necessary to him that she had not learnt to make her pursuits and occupations subservient to his convenience. As long as the drive took place regularly, all was well, but he caught a severe cold, which lasted even to the setting in of the east winds, the yearly misery of a man who hardly granted that India was over-hot. Though Albinia had removed much listing, and opened various doors and windows, he made no complaints, but did his best to keep the obnoxious fresh air out of his study, and seldom crossed the threshold thereof but with a shiver.
His favourite atmosphere was quite enough to account for a return of the old mood, but Albinia had no time to perceive that it might have been prevented, or at least mitigated.
Few even of the wisest women are fit for authority and liberty so little restrained, and happily it seldom falls to the lot of such as have not previously been chastened by a life-long affliction. But Mrs. Kendal, at twenty-four, with the consequence conferred by marriage, and by her superiority of manners and birth, was left as unchecked and almost as irresponsible as if she had been single or a widow, and was solely guided by the impulses of her own character, noble and highly principled, but like most zealous dispositions, without balance and without repose.
Ballast had been given at first by bashfulness, disappointment, and anxiety, but she had been freed from her troubles with Gilbert, had gained confidence in herself, and had taken her position at Bayford. She was beloved, esteemed, and trusted in her own set, and though elsewhere she might not be liked, yet she was deferred to, could not easily be quarrelled with, so that she met with little opposition, and did not care for such as she did meet. In fact, very few persons had so much of their own way as Mrs. Kendal.
She was generally in her nursery at a much earlier hour than an old-established nurse would have tolerated, but the little Susan, promoted from Fairmead school and nursery, was trained in energetic habits. In passing the doors of the young ladies' rooms, Albinia gave a call which she had taught them not to resist, for, like all strong persons, she thought 'early to rise' the only way to health, wealth, or wisdom. Much work had been despatched before breakfast, after which, on two days in the week, Albinia and Lucy went to church. Sophy never volunteered to accompany them, and Albinia was the less inclined to press her, because her attitudes and attention on Sunday were far from satisfactory. On Tuesday and Thursday Albinia had a class at school, and so, likewise, had Lucy, who kept a jealous watch over every stray necklace and curl, and had begun thoroughly to enjoy the importance and bustle of charity. She was a useful assistant in the penny club and lending library, which occupied Albinia on other mornings in the week, until the hour when she came in for the girls' studies. After luncheon, she enjoyed the company of little Maurice, who indeed pervaded all her home doings and thoughts, for she had a great gift of doing everything at once.
A sharp constitutional walk was taken in the afternoon. She thought no one could look drooping or dejected but from the air of the valley, and that no cure was equal to rushing straight up one hill and on to the next, always walking rapidly, with a springy buoyant step, and surprised at any one who lagged behind. Parochial cares, visits, singing classes, lessons to Sunday-school teachers, &c., filled up the rest of the day. She had an endless number of 'excellent plans,' on which she always acted instantly, and which kept her in a state of perpetual haste. Poor Mrs. Dusautoy had almost learnt to dread her flashing into the room, full of some parish matter, and flashing out again before the invalid felt as if the subject had been fairly entered on, or her sitting down to impress some project with overpowering eagerness that generally carried away the Vicar into grateful consent and admiring approval, while his wife was feeling doubtful, suspecting her hesitation of being ungracious, or blaming herself for not liking the little she could do to be taken out of her hands.
There was nothing more hateful to Albinia than dawdling. She left the girls' choice of employments, but insisted on their being veritably occupied, and many a time did she encounter a killing glance from Sophia for attacking her listless, moody position in her chair, or saying, in clear, alert tones, 'My dear, when you read, read, when you work, work. When you fix your eye in that way, you are doing neither.'
Lucy's brisk, active disposition, and great good-humour, had responded to this treatment; she had been obliging, instead of officious; repeated checks had improved her taste; her love of petty bustle was directed to better objects, and though nothing could make her intellectual or deep, she was a really pleasant assistant and companion, and no one, except grandmamma, who thought her perfect before, could fail to perceive how much more lady-like her tones, manners, and appearance had become.
The results with Sophy had been directly the reverse. At first she had followed her sister's lead, except that she was always sincere, and often sulky; but the more Lucy had yielded to Albinia's moulding, the more had Sophy diverged from her, as if out of the very spirit of contradiction. Her intervals of childish nonsense had well nigh disappeared; her indifference to lessons was greater than ever, though she devoured every book that came in her way in a silent, but absorbed manner, a good deal like her father. Tales and stories were not often within her reach, but her appetite seemed to be universal, and Albinia saw her reading old-fashioned standard poetry—such as she had never herself assailed—and books of history, travels, or metaphysics. She wondered whether the girl derived any pleasure from them, or whether they were only a shield for doing nothing; but no inquiry produced an answer, and if Sophy remembered anything of them, it was not with the memory used in lesson-time. The attachment to Louisa Osborn was pertinacious and unaccountable in a person who could have so little in common with that young lady, and there was nothing comfortable about her except her fondness for her little brother, and that really seemed to be against her will. Her voice was less hoarse and gruff since the pond had been no more, and she had acquired an expression, so suffering, so concentrated, so thoughtful, that, together with her heavy black eyebrows, large face, profuse black hair, and unlustrous eyes, it gave her almost a dwarfish air, increased by her awkward deportment, which concealed that she was in reality tall, and on a large scale. She looked to so little advantage in bright delicate colours, that Albinia was often incurring her displeasure, and risking that of Lucy, by the deep blues and sober browns which alone looked fit to be seen with those beetle brows and sallow features. Her face looked many years older than that of her fair, fresh, rosy stepmother; nay, her father's clear olive complexion and handsome countenance had hardly so aged an aspect; and Gilbert, when he came home at Midsummer, declared that Sophy had grown as old as grandmamma.
The compliment could not be returned; Gilbert was much more boy-like in a good sense. He had brought home an excellent character, and showed it in every look and gesture. His father was pleased to have him again, took the trouble to talk to him, and received such sensible answers, that the habit of conversing was actually established, and the dinners were enlivened, instead of oppressed, by his presence. Towards his sisters he had become courteous, he was fairly amiable to Aunt Maria, very attentive to grandmamma, overflowing with affection to Mrs. Kendal, and as to little Maurice, he almost adored him, and awakened a reciprocity which was the delight of his heart.
At Midsummer came the grand penny-club distribution, the triumph for which Albinia had so long been preparing. One of Mrs. Dusautoy's hints as to Bayford tradesmen had been overruled, and goods had been ordered from a house in London, after Albinia and Lucy had made an incredible agitation over their patterns of calico and flannel. Mr. Kendal was just aware that there was a prodigious commotion, but he knew that all ladies were subject to linen-drapery epidemics, and Albinia's took a more endurable form than a pull on his purse for the sweetest silk in the world, and above all, it neither came into his study nor even into his house.
It was a grand spectacle, when Mr. Dusautoy looked in on Mrs. Kendal and her staff, armed with their yard-wands.
A pile of calico was heaped in wild masses like avalanches in one corner, rapidly diminishing under the measurements of Gilbert, who looked as if he took thorough good-natured delight in the frolic. Brown, inodorous materials for petticoats, blouses, and trowsers were dealt out by the dextrous hands of Genevieve, a mountain of lilac print was folded off by Clarissa Richardson, Lucy was presiding joyously over the various blue, buff, brown, and pink Sunday frocks, the schoolmistress helping with the other goods, the customers—some pleased with novelty, or hoping to get more for their money, others suspicious of the gentry, and secretly resentful for favourite dealers, but, except the desperate grumblers, satisfied with the quality and quantity of the wares—and extremely taken with the sellers, especially with Gilbert's wit, and with Miss Durant's ready, lively persuasions, varied to each one's taste, and extracting a smile and 'thank you, Miss,' from the surliest. And the presiding figure, with the light on her sunny hair, and good-natured, unfailing interest in her countenance, was at her central table, calculating, giving advice, considering of complaints, measuring, folding—here, there, and everywhere—always bright, lively, forbearing, however complaining or unreasonable her clients might be.
Mr. Dusautoy went home to tell his Fanny that Mrs. Kendal was worth her weight in gold; and the workers toiled till luncheon, when Albinia took them home for food and wine, to restore them for the labours of the afternoon.
'What have you been about all the morning, Sophy? Yes, I see your translation—very well—I wish you would come up and help this afternoon, Miss Richardson is looking so pale and tired that I want to relieve her.'
'I can't,' said Sophy,
'I don't order you, but you are losing a great deal of fun. Suppose you came to look on, at least.'
'I hate poor people.'
'I hope you will change your mind some day, but yon must do something this afternoon. You had better take a walk with Susan and baby; I told her to go by the meadows to Horton.'
'I don't want to walk.'
'Have you anything to do instead? No, I thought not, and it is not at all hot to signify.—It will do you much more good. Yes, you must go.'
In the course of the summer an old Indian friend was staying at Fairmead Park, and Colonel Bury wrote to beg for a week's visit from the whole Kendal family. Even Sophy vouchsafed to be pleased, and Lucy threw all her ardour into the completion of a blue braided cape, which was to add immensely to little Maurice's charms; she declared that she should work at it the whole of the last evening, while Mr. and Mrs. Kendal were at the dinner that old Mr. and Mrs. Bowles annually inflicted on themselves and their neighbours, a dinner which it would have been as cruel to refuse as it was irksome to accept.
There was a great similarity in those Bayford parties, inasmuch as the same cook dressed them all, and the same waiters waited at them, and the same guests met each other, and the principal variety on this occasion was, that the Osborns did not come, because the Admiral was in London.
The ladies had left the dining-room, when Albinia's ear caught a sound of hurried opening of doors, and sound of steps, and saw Mrs. and Miss Bowles look as if they heard something unexpected. She paused, and forgot the end of what she was saying. The room door was pushed a little way open, but then seemed to hesitate. Miss Bowles hastened forward, and opening it, admitted a voice that made Albinia hurry breathlessly from the other side of the room, and push so that the door yielded, and she saw it had been Mr. Dusautoy who had been holding it while there was some kind of consultation round Gilbert. The instant he saw her, he exclaimed, 'Come to the baby, Sophy has fallen down with him.'
People pressed about her, trying to speak cheeringly, but she understood nothing but that her husband and Mr. Bowles were gone on, and she had a sense that there had been hardness and cruelty in hesitating to summon her. Without knowing that a shawl was thrown round her, or seeing Mr. Dusautoy's offered arm, she clutched Gilbert's wrist in her hand, and flew down the street.
The gates and front door were open, and there was a throng of people in the hall. Lucy caught hold of her with a sobbing, 'Oh, Mamma!' but she only framed the words with her lips—'where?'
They pointed to the study. The door was shut, but Albinia broke from Lucy, and pushed through it, in too much haste to dwell on the sickening doubt what it might conceal.
Two figures stood under the window. Mr. Kendal, who was holding the little inanimate form in his arms for the doctor to examine, looking up as she entered, cast on her a look of mute, pleading, despairing agony, that was as the bitterness of death. She sprang forward herself to clasp her child, and her husband yielded him in broken-hearted pity, but at that moment the little limbs moved, the features worked, the eyes unclosed, and clinging tightly to her, as she strained him to her bosom, the little fellow proclaimed himself alive by lusty roars, more welcome than any music. Partly stunned, and far more terrified, he had been in a sort of swoon, without breath to cry, till recalled to himself by feeling his mother's arms around him. Every attempt of Mr. Bowles to ascertain whether he were uninjured produced such a fresh panic and renewal of screams, that she begged that he might be left to her. Mr. Kendal took the doctor away, and gradually the terror subsided, though the long convulsive sobs still quivered up through the little frame, and as the twilight darkened on her, she had time to realize the past alarm, and rejoice in trembling over the treasure still her own.
The opening of the door and the gleaming of a light had nearly brought on a fresh access of crying, but it was his father who entered, and Maurice knew the low deep sweetness of his voice, and was hushed. 'I believe there is no harm done,' Albinia said; and the smile that she fain would have made reassuring gave way as her eyes filled with tears, on feeling the trembling of the strong arm that was put round her, when Mr. Kendal bent to look into the child's eyes.
'I thought my blight had fallen on you,' was all he said.
'Oh! the thankfulness—' she said; but she could not go on, she must stifle all that swelled within her, for the babe felt each throb of her beating heart; and she could barely keep from bursting into tears as his father kissed him; then, as he marked the still sobbing breath, said, 'Bowles must see him again.'
'I don't know how to make him cry again! I suppose he must be looked at, but indeed I think him safe.—See, this little bruise on his forehead is the only mark I can find. What was it? How did it happen?'
'Sophia thought proper to take him herself from the nursery to show him to Mrs. Osborn. In crossing the street, she was frightened by a party of men coming out of a public-house in Tibbs's Alley, and in avoiding them, slipped down and struck the child's head against a gate-post. He was perfectly insensible when I took him—I thought him gone. Albinia, you must let Bowles see him again!'
'Is any one there?' she said.
'Every one, I think,' he replied, looking oppressed—'Maria, and Mrs. Osborn, and Dusautoy—but I will call Bowles.'
Apparently the little boy had escaped entirely unhurt, but the surgeon still spoke of the morrow, and he was so startled and restless, that Albinia feared to move, and felt the dark study a refuge from the voices and sounds that she feared to encounter, lest they should again occasion the dreadful screaming. 'Oh, if they would only go home!' she said.
'I will send them,' said Mr. Kendal; and presently she heard sounds of leave-taking, and he came back, as if he had been dispersing a riot, announcing that the house was clear.
Gilbert and Lucy were watching at the foot of the stairs, the one pale, and casting anxious, imploring looks at her; the other with eyes red and swollen with crying, neither venturing near till she spoke to them, when they advanced noiselessly to look at their little brother, and it was not till they had caught his eye and made him smile, that Lucy bethought herself of saying she had known nothing of his adventure, and Albinia, thus recalled to the thought of the culprit, asked where Sophy was.
'In her own room,' said Mr. Kendal. 'I could not bear the sight of her obduracy. Even her aunt was shocked at her want of feeling.'
Low as he spoke, the sternness of his voice frightened the baby, and she was obliged to run away to the nursery, where she listened to the contrition of the little nursemaid, who had never suspected Miss Sophy's intention of taking him out of the house.
'And indeed, ma'am,' she said, 'there is not one of us servants who dares cross Miss Sophy.'
It was long before Albinia ventured to lay him in his cot, and longer still before she could feel any security that if she ceased her low, monotonous lullaby, the little fellow would not wake again in terror, but the thankfulness and prayer, that, as she grew more calm, gained fuller possession of her heart, made her recur the more to pity and forgiveness for the poor girl who had caused the alarm. Yet there was strong indignation likewise, and she could not easily resolve on meeting the hard defiance and sullen indifference which would wound her more than ever. She was much inclined to leave Sophy to herself till morning, but suspecting that this would be vindictive, she unclasped the arm that Lucy had wound round her waist, whispered to her to go on singing, and moved to Sophy's door. It was fastened, but before she could call, it was thrown violently back, and Sophy stood straight up before her, striving for her usual rigidity, but shaking from head to foot; and though there were no signs of tears, she looked with wistful terror at her step-mother's face, and her lips moved as if she wished to speak.
'Baby is gone quietly to sleep,' began Albinia in a low voice, beginning in displeasure; but as she spoke, the harshness of Sophy's face gave way, she sank down on the floor, and fell into the most overpowering fit of weeping that Albinia had ever witnessed. Kneeling beside her, she would have drawn the girl close to her, but a sharp cry of pain startled her, and she found the right arm, from elbow to wrist, all one purple bruise, the skin grazed, and the blood starting.
'My poor child! how you have hurt yourself!'
Sophy turned away pettishly.
'Let me look! I am sure it must be very bad. Have you done anything to it?'
'No, never mind. Go back to baby.'
'Baby does not want me. You shall come and see how comfortably he is asleep, if you will leave off crying, and let me see that poor arm. Did you hurt it in the fall?'
'The corner of the wall,' said Sophy. 'Oh! did it not hurt him?' but then, just as it seemed that she was sinking on that kind breast in exhaustion, she collected herself, and pushing Albinia off, exclaimed, 'I did it, I took him out, I fell down with him, I hurt his head, I've killed him, or made him an idiot for life. I did.'
'Who said so?' cried Albinia, transfixed.
'Aunt Maria said so. She said I did not feel. Oh, if I could only die before he grows up to let one see it. Why wont you begin to hate me?'
'My dear,' said Albinia, consoled on hearing the authority, 'people often say angry things when they are shocked. Your aunt had not seen Mr. Bowles, and we all think he was not in the least hurt, only terribly frightened. Dear, dear child, I am more distressed for you than for him!'
Sophy could hold out no longer, she let her head drop on the kind shoulder, and seemed to collapse, with burning brow, throbbing pulses, and sobs as deep and convulsive as had been those of her little brother. Hastily calling Lucy, who was frightened, subdued, and helpful, Albinia undressed the poor child, put her to bed, and applied lily leaves and spirits to her arm. The smart seemed to refresh her, but there had been a violent strain, as well as bruise, and each touch visibly gave severe pain, though she never complained. Lucy insisted on hearing exactly how the accident had happened, and pressed her with questions, which Albinia would have shunned in her present condition, and it was thus elicited that she had taken Maurice across the street to how him to Mrs. Osborn. He had resented the strange place, and strange people, and had cried so much that she was obliged to run home with him at once. A knot of bawling men came reeling out of one of the many beer shops in Tibbs's Alley, and in her haste to avoid them, she tripped, close to the gate-post of Willow Lawn, and fell, with only time to interpose her arm between Maurice's head and the sharp corner. She was lifted up at once, in the horror of seeing him neither cry nor move, for, in fact, he had been almost stifled under her weight, and all had since been to her a frightful phantom dream. Albinia was infinitely relieved by this history, showing that Maurice could hardly have received any real injury, and in her declarations that Sophy's presence of mind had saved him, was forgetting to whom the accident was owing. Lucy wanted to know why her sister could have taken him out of the house at all, but Albinia could not bear to have this pressed at such a moment, and sent the inquirer down to order some tea, which she shared with Sophy, and then was forced to bid her good-night, without drawing out any further confessions. But when the girl raised herself to receive her kiss, it was the first real embrace that had passed between them.
In the very early morning, Albinia was in the nursery, and found her little boy bright and healthy. As she left him in glad hope and gratitude, Sophy's door was pushed ajar, and her wan face peeped out. 'My dear child, you have not been asleep all night!' exclaimed Albinia, after having satisfied her about the baby.
'Does your arm hurt you?'
'Does your head ache?'
But they were not the old sulky answers, and she seemed glad to have her arm freely bathed, her brow cooled, her tossed bed composed, and her window opened, so that she might make a fresh attempt at closing her weary eyes.
She was evidently far too much shaken to be fit for the intended expedition, even if her father had not decreed that she should be deprived of it. Albinia had never seen him so much incensed, for nothing makes a man so angry as to have been alarmed; and he was doubly annoyed when he found that she thought Sophy too unwell to be left, as he intended, to solitary confinement.
He would gladly have given up the visit, for his repugnance to society was in full force on the eve of a party; but Albinia, by representing that it would be wrong to disappoint Colonel Bury, and very hard on the unoffending Gilbert and Lucy, succeeded in prevailing on him to accept his melancholy destiny, and to allow her to remain at home with Sophy and the baby—one of the greatest sacrifices he or she had yet made. He was exceedingly vexed, and therefore the less disposed to be lenient. The more Albinia told him of Sophy's unhappiness, the more he hoped it would do her good, and he could not be induced to see her, nor to send her any message of forgiveness, for in truth it was less the baby's accident that he resented, than the eighteen months of surly resistance to the baby's mother, and at present he was more unrelenting than the generous, forgiving spirit of his wife could understand, though she tried to believe it manly severity and firmness.
'It would be time to pardon,' he said, 'when pardon was asked.'
And Albinia could not say that it had been asked, except by misery.
'She has the best advocate in you,' said Mr. Kendal, affectionately, 'and if there be any feeling in her, such forbearance cannot fail to bring it out. I am more grieved than I can tell you at your present disappointment, but it shall not happen again. If you can bring her to a better mind, I shall be the more satisfied in sending her from home.'
'Edmund! you do not think of it!'
'My mind is made up. Do you think I have not watched your patient care, and the manner in which it has been repaid? You have sufficient occupation without being the slave of those children's misconduct.'
'Sophy would be miserable. Oh! you must not! She is the last girl in the world fit to be sent to school.'
'I will not have you made miserable at home. This has been a long trial, and nothing has softened her.'
'Suppose this was the very thing.'
'If it were, what is past should not go unrequited, and the change will teach her what she has rejected. Hush, dearest, it is not that I do not think that you have done all for her that tenderness or good sense could devise, but your time is too much occupied, and I cannot see you overtasked by this poor child's headstrong temper. It is decided, Albinia; say no more.'
'I have failed,' thought Albinia, as he left the room. 'He decides that I have failed in bringing up his children. What have I done? Have I been mistaken? have I been careless? have I not prayed enough? Oh! my poor, poor Sophy! What will she do among strange girls? Oh! how wretched, how harsh, how misunderstood she will be! She will grow worse and worse, and just when I do think I might have begun to get at her! And it is for my sake! For me that her father is set against her, and is driving her out from her home! Oh! what shall I do? Winifred will promote it, because they all think I am doing too much! I wonder what put that in Edmund's head? But when he speaks in that way, I have no hope!'
Mr. Kendal's anger took a direction with which she better sympathized when he walked down Tibbs's Alley, and counted the nine beer shops, which had never dawned on his imagination, and which so greatly shocked it, that he went straight to the astonished Pettilove, and gave him a severe reprimand for allowing the houses to be made dens of iniquity and disorder.
He was at home in time to meet the doctor, and hear that Maurice had suffered not the smallest damage; and then to make another ineffectual attempt to persuade Albinia to consign Sophy to imprisonment with Aunt Maria; after which he drove off very much against his will with Lucy and Gilbert, both declaring that they did not care a rush to go to Fairmead under the present circumstances.
Albinia had a sad, sore sense of failure, and almost of guilt, as she lingered on the door-step after seeing them set off. The education of 'Edmund's children' had been a cherished vision, and it had resulted so differently from her expectations, that her heart sank. With Gilbert there was indeed no lack of love and confidence, but there was a sad lurking sense of his want of force of character, and she had avowedly been insufficient to preserve him from temptation; Lucy, whom externally she had the most altered, was not of a nature accordant enough with her own for her to believe the effects deep or permanent; and Sophia—poor Sophia! Had what was kindly called forbearance been really neglect and want of moral courage? Would a gentler, less eager person have won instead of repelling confidence? Had her multiplicity of occupations made her give but divided attention to the more important home duty. Alas! alas! she only knew that her husband thought his daughter beyond her management, and for that very reason she would have given worlds to retain the uncouth, perverse girl under her charge.
She stood loitering, for the sound of the river and the shade of the willows were pleasant on the glowing July day, and having made all her arrangements for going from home, she had no pressing employment, and thus she waited, musing as she seldom allowed herself time to do, and thinking over each phase of her conduct towards Sophy, in the endeavour to detect the mistake; and throughout came, not exactly answering her query, but throwing a light upon it, her brother's warning, that if she did not resign herself to rest quietly when rest was forced upon her, she would work amiss when she did work.
Just then came a swinging of the gate, a step on the walk, and Miss Meadows made her appearance. A message had been sent up in the morning, but grandmamma was so nervous, that Maria had trotted down in the heat so satisfy her.
Albinia was surprised to find that womanhood had thrown all their instincts on the baby's side, and was gratified by the first truly kind fellow-feeling they had shown her. She took Maria into the morning room, where she had left Sophy lying on the sofa, and ran up to fetch Maurice from the nursery.
When she came down, having left the nurse adorning him, she found that she had acted cruelly. Sophy was standing up with her hardest face on, listening to her aunt's well-meant rebukes on her want of feeling, and hopes that she did regret the having endangered her brother, and deprived 'her dear mamma of the party of pleasure at Fairmead; but Aunt Maria knew it was of no use to talk to Sophy, none—!'
'Pray don't, Aunt Maria,' said Albinia, gently drawing Sophy down on the sofa again; 'this poor child is in no state to be scolded.'
'You are a great deal too good to her, Mrs. Kendal—after such wilfulness as last night—carrying the dear baby out in the street—I never heard of such a thing—But what made you do it, Sophy, wont you tell me that? No, I know you won't; no one ever can get a word from her. Ah! that sulky disposition—it is a very nasty temper—can't you break through it, Sophy, and confess it all to your dear mamma? You would be so much better. But I know it is of no use, poor child, it is just like her father.'
Albinia was growing very angry, and it was well that Maurice's merry crowings were heard approaching. Miss Meadows was delighted to see him, but as he had a great aversion to her, the interview was not prolonged, since he could not be persuaded to keep the peace by being held up to watch a buzzing fly, as much out of sight of her as possible, wrinkling up his nose, and preparing to cry whenever he caught sight of her white bonnet and pink roses.
Miss Meadows bethought her that grandmamma was anxious, so she only waited to give an invitation to tea, but merely to Mrs. Kendal; she would say nothing about Sophy since disgrace—well-merited—if they could only see some feeling.
'Thank you,' said Albinia, 'some evening perhaps I may come, since yon are so kind, but I don't think I can leave this poor twisted arm to itself.'
Miss Meadows evaporated in hopes that Sophy would be sensible of—and assurances that Mrs. Kendal was a great deal too—with finally, 'Good-bye, Sophy, I wish I could have told grandmamma that you had shown some feeling.'
'I believe,' said Albinia, 'that you would only be too glad if you knew how.'
Albinia could not help feeling indignant at the misjudged persecution; and yet it seemed to render the poor child more entirely her own, since all the world besides had turned against her. 'Kiss her, Maurice,' she said, holding the little fellow towards her. That scratched arm of hers has spared your small brains from more than you guess.'
Sophy's first impulse was to hide her face, but he thought it was bo-peep, caught hold of her fingers, and laughed; then came to a sudden surprised stop, and looked up to his mother, when the countenance behind the screen proved sad instead of laughing.
'Ah! baby, you had better have done with me,' Sophy said, bitterly; 'you are the only one that does not hate me yet, and you don't know what I have done to you.'
'I know some one else that cares for you, my poor Sophy,' said Albinia, 'and who would do anything to make you feel it without distressing you. If you knew how I wish I knew what to do for you!'
'It is no use,' said Sophy, moodily; 'I was born to be a misery to myself and every one else.'
'What has put such a fancy in your head, my dear?' said Albinia, nearly smiling.
'Grandmamma's Betty said so, she used to call me Peter Grievous, and I know it is so. It is of no good to bother yourself about me. It can't be helped, and there's an end of it.'
'There is not an end of it, indeed!' cried Albinia. 'Why, Sophy, do you suppose I could bear to leave you so?'
'I'm sure I don't see why not.'
'Why not?' continued Albinia, in her bright, tender voice. 'Why, because I must love you with all my heart. You are your own dear papa's child, and this little man's sister. Yes, and you are yourself, my poor, sad, lonely child, who does not know how to bring out the thoughts that prey on her, and who thinks it very hard to have a stranger instead of her own mother. I know I should have felt so.'
'But I have behaved so ill to you,' cried Sophy, as if bent on repelling the proffered affection. 'I would not like you, and I did not like you. Never! and I have gone against you every way I could.'
'And now I love you because you are sorry for it.'
'I'm not'—Sophy had begun, but the words turned into 'Am I?'
'I think you are,' and with the sweetest of tearful smiles, she put an arm round the no longer resisting Sophy, and laying her cheek against the little brother's, she kissed first one and then the other.
'I can't think why you are so,' said Sophy, still struggling against the undeserved love, though far more feebly. 'I shall never deserve it.'
'See if you don't, when we pull together instead of contrary ways.'
'But,' cried Sophy, with a sudden start from her, as if remembering a mortal offence, 'you drained the pond!'
'I own I earnestly wished it to be drained; but had you any reason for regretting it, my dear?'
'Ah! you did not know,' said Sophy. 'He and I used to be always there.'
'Why, will you make me say it?' cried Sophy. 'Edmund! I mean Edmund! We always called it his pond. He made the little quay for his boats—he used to catch the minnows there. I could go and stand by it, and think he was coming out to play; and now you have had it dried up, and his dear little minnows are all dead,' and she burst into a passion of tears, that made Maurice cry till Albinia hastily carried him off and returned.
'My dear, I am sorry it seemed so unkind. I do not think we could have let the pond stay, for it was making the house unhealthy; but if we had talked over it together, it need not have appeared so very cruel and spiteful.'
'I don't believe you are spiteful,' said Sophy, 'though I sometimes think so.'
The filial compliment was highly gratifying.
'And now, Sophy,' she said, 'that I have told you why we were obliged to have the pond drained, will you tell me what you wanted with baby at Mrs. Osborn's?'
'I will tell,' said Sophy, 'but you wont like it.'
'I like anything better than concealment.'
'Mrs. Osborn said she never saw him. She said you kept him close, and that nobody was good enough to touch him; so I promised I would bring him over, and I kept my word. I know it was wrong—and—I did not think you would ever forgive me.'
'But how could you do it?'
'Mrs. Osborn and all used to be so kind to us when there was nobody else. I wont cast them off because we are too fine and grand for them.'
'I never thought of that. I only was afraid of your getting into silly ways, and your papa did not wish us to be intimate there. And now you see he was right, for good friends would not have led you to such disobedience—and by stealth, too, what I should have thought you would most have hated.'
Albinia had been far from intending these last words to have been taken as they were. Sophy hid her face, and cried piteously with an utter self-abandonment of grief, that Albinia could scarcely understand; but at last she extracted some broken words. 'False! shabby! yes—Oh! I have been false! Oh! Edmund! Edmund! Edmund! the only thing I thought I still was! I thought I was true! Oh, by stealth! Why couldn't I die when I tried, when Edmund did?'
'And has life been a blank ever since?'
'Off and on,' said Sophy. 'Well, why not? I am sure papa is melancholy enough. I don't like people that are always making fun, I can't see any sense in it.'
'Some sorts of merriment are sad, and hollow, and wrong, indeed,' said Albinia, 'but not all, I hope. You know there is so much love and mercy all round us, that it is unthankful not to have a cheerful spirit. I wish I could give you one, Sophy.'
Sophy shook her head. 'I can't understand about mercy and love, when Edmund was all I cared for.'
'But, Sophy, if life is so sad and hard to you, don't you see the mercy that took Edmund away to perfect joy? Remember, not cutting you off from him, but keeping him safe for you.'
'No, no,' cried Sophy, 'I have never been good since he went. I have got worse and worse, but I did think I was true still, that that one thing was left me—but now—' The sense of having acted a deception seemed to produce grief under which the stubborn pride was melting away, and it was most affecting to see the child weeping over the lost jewel of truth, which she seemed to feel the last link with the remarkable boy whose impress had been left so strongly on all connected with him.
'My dear, the truth is in you still, or you could not grieve thus over your failure,' said Albinia. 'I know you erred, because it did not occur to you that it was not acting openly by me; but oh! Sophy, there is something that would bring you nearer to Edmund than hard truth in your own strength.'