'I don't know what you mean,' said Sophy.
'Did you ever think what Edmund is about now?'
'I don't know,' said Sophy.
'I only know that the one thing which is carried with us to the other world is love, Sophy, and love that becomes greater than we can yet imagine. If you would think of Him who redeemed and saved your dear Edmund, and who is his happiness, his exceeding great reward, your heart would warm, and, oh! what hope and peace would come!'
'Edmund was good,' said Sophy, in a tone as if to mark the hopeless gulf between.
'And you are sorry. All human goodness begins from sorrow. It had even to be promised first for baby at his christening, you know. Oh, Sophy, God's blessing can make all these tears come to joy.'
Albinia's own tears were flowing so fast, that she broke off to hide them in her own room, her heart panting with hope, and yet with grief and pity for the piteous disclosure of so dreary a girlhood. After all, childhood, if not the happiest, is the saddest period of life—pains, griefs, petty tyrannies, neglects, and terrors have not the alleviation of the experience that 'this also shall pass away;' time moves with a tardier pace, and in the narrower sphere of interests, there is less to distract the attention from the load of grievances. Hereditary low spirits, a precocious mind, a reserved temper, a motherless home, the loss of her only congenial companion, and the long-enduring effect of her illness upon her health, had all conspired to weigh down the poor girl, and bring on an almost morbid state of gloomy discontent. Her father's second marriage, by enlivening the house, had rendered her peculiarities even more painful to herself and others, and the cultivation of mind that was forced upon her, made her more averse to the trifling and playfulness, which, while she was younger, had sometimes brightened and softened her. And this was the girl whom her father had resolved upon sending to the selfish, inconsiderate, frivolous world of school-girls, just when the first opening had been made, the first real insight gained into her feelings, the first appearance of having touched her heart! Albinia felt baffled, disappointed, almost despairing. His stern decree, once made, was, she knew, well-nigh unalterable; and though resolved to use her utmost influence, she doubted its power after having seen that look of decision. Nay, she tried to think he might be right. There might be those who would manage Sophy better. Eighteen months had been a fair trial, and she had failed. She prayed earnestly for whatever might be best for the child, and for herself, that she might take it patiently and submissively.
Sophy felt the heat of the day a good deal, but towards the evening she revived, and seemed so much cheered and refreshed by her tea, that, as the sound of the church bell came sweetly down in the soft air, Albinia said, 'Sophy, I am going to take advantage of my holiday and go to the evening service. I suppose you had rather not come?'
'I think I will,' returned Sophy, somewhat glumly, but Albinia hailed the answer joyfully, as the first shamefaced effort of a reserved character wishing to make a new beginning, and she took care that no remark, not even a look, should rouse the sullen sensitiveness that could so easily be driven back for ever.
Slowly they crept up the steps on the shady side of the hill, watching how, beyond the long shadow it cast over the town and the meadows, the trees revelled in the sunset light, and windows glittered like great diamonds, where in the ordinary daylight the distance was too great for distinct vision.
The church was cool and quiet, and there was something in Sophy's countenance and reverent attitude that seemed as if she were consecrating a newly-formed resolution; her eye was often raised, as though in spite of herself, to the name of the brother whose short life seemed inseparably interwoven with all the higher aspirations of his home.
In the midst of the Thanksgiving, a sudden movement attracted Albinia, and she saw Sophy resting her head, and looking excessively pale. She put her arm round her, and would have led her out, but could not persuade her to move, and by the time the Blessing was given, the power was gone, and she had almost fainted away, when a tall strong form stooped over her, and Mr. Dusautoy gathered her up in his arms, and bore her off as if she had been a baby, to the open window of his own drawing-room.
'Put me down! The floor, please!' said Sophy, feebly, for all her remaining faculties were absorbed in dislike to the mode of conveyance.
'Yes, flat on the floor,' said Mrs. Dusautoy, rising with full energy, and laying a cushion under Sophy's head, reaching a scent-bottle, and sending her husband for cold water and sal volatile; with readiness that astonished Albinia, unused to illness, and especially to faintings, and remorseful at having taken Sophy out. 'Was it the pain of her arm that had overcome her?'
'No,' said Sophy, 'it was only my back.'
'Indeed! you never told me you had hurt your back;' and Albinia began describing the fall, and declaring there must be a sprain.
'Oh, no,' said Sophy, 'kneeling always does it.'
'Does what, my dear?' said Albinia, sitting on the floor by her, and looking up to Mrs. Dusautoy, exceedingly frightened.
'Makes me feel sick,' said Sophy; 'I thought it would go off, as it always does, it didn't; but it is better now.'
'No, don't get up yet,' said Mrs. Dusautoy, as she was trying to move; 'I would offer you the sofa, it would be more hospitable, but I think the floor is the most comfortable place.'
'Thank you, much,' said Sophy, with an emphasis.
'Do you ever lie down on it when you are tired?' asked the lady, looking anxiously at Sophy.
'I always wish I might.'
Albinia was surprised at the interrogations that followed; she did not understand what Mrs. Dusautoy was aiming at, in the close questioning, which to her amazement did not seem to offend, but rather to be gratifying by the curious divination of all sensations. It made Albinia feel as if she had been carrying on a deliberate system of torture, when she heard of a pain in the back, hardly ever ceasing, aggravated by sitting upright, growing severe with the least fatigue, and unless favoured by day, becoming so bad at night as to take away many hours of sleep.
'Oh! Sophy, Sophy,' she cried, with tears in her eyes, 'how could you go on so? Why did you never tell me?'
'I did not like,' began Sophy, 'I was used to it.'
Oh, that barrier! Albinia was in uncontrollable distress, that the girl should have chosen to undergo so much suffering rather than bestow any confidence. Sophy stole her hand into hers, and said in her odd, short way, 'Never mind, it did not signify.'
'Yes,' said Mrs. Dusautoy, 'those things are just what one does get so much used to, that it seems much easier to bear them than to speak about them.'
'But to let oneself be so driven about,' cried Albinia. 'Oh! Sophy, you will never do so again! If I had ever guessed—'
'Please hush! Never mind!' said Sophy, almost crossly, and getting up from the floor quickly, as though resolved to be well.
'I have never minded long enough,' sighed Albinia. 'What shall I do, Mrs. Dusautoy? What do you think it is?'
This was the last question Mrs. Dusautoy wished to be asked in Sophy's presence. She had little doubt that it was spine complaint like her own, but she had not intended to let her perceive the impression, till after having seen Mrs. Kendal alone. However, Albinia's impetuosity disconcerted all precautions, and Sophy's two great black eyes were rounded with suppressed terror, as if expecting her doom. 'I think that a doctor ought to answer that question,' Mrs. Dusautoy began.
'Yes, yes,' exclaimed Albinia, 'but I never had any faith in old Mr. Bowles, I had rather go to a thorough good man at once.'
'Yes, certainly, by all means.'
'And then to whom! I will write to my Aunt Mary. It seems exactly like you. Do you think it is the spine?'
'I am afraid so. But, my dear,' holding out her hand caressingly to Sophy, 'you need not be frightened—you need not look at me as an example of what you will come to—I am only an example of what comes of never speaking of one's ailments.'
'And of having no mother to find them out!' cried Albinia.
'Indeed,' said Mrs. Dusautoy, anxious to console and encourage, as well as to talk the young step-mother out of her self-reproach, 'I do not think that if I had been my good aunt's own child, she would have been more likely to find out that anything was amiss. It was the fashion to be strong and healthy in that house, and I was never really ill—but I came as a little stunted, dwining cockney, and so I was considered ever after—never quite comfortable, often forgetting myself in enjoyment, paying for it afterwards, but quite used to it. We all thought it was "only Fanny," and part of my London breeding. Yes, we thought so in good faith, even after the largest half of my life had been spent in Yorkshire.'
'And what brought it to a crisis? Did they go on neglecting you?' exclaimed Albinia.
'Why, my dear,' said the little lady, a glow lighting on her cheek, and a smile awakening, 'my uncle took a new curate, whom it was the family custom to call "the good-natured giant," and whose approach put all of us young ladies in a state of great excitement. It was all in character with his good-nature, you know, to think of dragging the poor little shrimp up the hill to church, and I believe he did not know how she would get on without his strong arm; for do you know, when he had the curacy of Lauriston given him, he chose to carry the starveling off with him, instead of any of those fine, handsome prosperous girls. Dear Mary and Bessie! how good they were, and how kind and proud for me! I never could complain of not having sisters.'
'Well, and Mr. Dusautoy made you have advice?'
'Not he! Why, we all believed it cockneyism, you know, and besides, I was so happy and so well, that when we went to Scotland, I fairly walked myself off my legs, and ended the honeymoon laid up in a little inn on Loch Katrine, where John used regularly to knock his head whenever he came into the room. It was a fortnight before I could get to Edinburgh, and the journey made me as bad as ever. So the doctors were called in, and poor John learnt what a crooked stick he had chosen; but they all said that if I had been taken in hand as a child, most likely I should have been a sound woman. The worst of it was, that I was so thoroughly knocked up that I could not bear the motion of a carriage; besides, I suppose the doctors wanted a little amusement out of me, for they would not hear of my going home. So poor John had to go to Lauriston by himself, and those were the longest, dreariest six months I ever spent in my life, though Bessie was so good as to come and take care of me. But at last, when I had nearly made up my mind to defy the whole doctorhood, they gave leave, and between water and steam, John brought me to Lauriston, and ever since that, I don't see that a backbone would have made us a bit happier.'
Sophy had been intently reading Mrs. Dusautoy's face all through the narration, from under her thick black eyelashes, and at the end she drew a sigh of relief, and seemed to catch the smile of glad gratitude and affection. There was a precedent, which afforded incredible food to the tumultuous cravings of a heart that had been sinking in sullen gloom under the consciousness of an unpleasing exterior. The possibility of a 'good-natured giant' was far more present to her mind than the present probability of future suffering and restraint.
Ever rapid and eager, Albinia could think of nothing but immediate measures for Sophy's good, and the satisfaction of her own conscience. She could not bear even to wait for Mr. Kendal's return, but, as her aunts were still in London, she resolved on carrying Sophy to their house on the following day for the best advice. It was already late, and she knelt at the table to dash off two notes to put into the post-office as she went home. One to Mrs. Annesley, to announce her coming with Sophy, baby, and Susan, the other as follows:—
'July 10th, 9 p.m. 'Dearest Edmund,
'I find I have been cruelly neglectful. I have hunted and driven that poor child about till it has brought on spine complaint. The only thing I can do, is to take her to have the best advice without loss of time, so I am going to-morrow to my aunt's. It would take too long to write and ask your leave. You must forgive this, as indeed each word I have to say is, forgive! She is so generous and kind! You know I meant to do my best, but they were right, I was too young.
'Forgive yours, 'A. K.'
The Dusautoys were somewhat taken by surprise, but they knew too well the need of promptitude to dissuade her; and Sophia herself sat aghast at the commotion, excited by the habitual discomfort of which she had thought so little. The vicar, when he found Mrs. Kendal in earnest, offered to go with them and protect them; but Albinia was a veteran in independent railway travelling, and was rather affronted by being treated as a helpless female. Mrs. Dusautoy, better aware of what the journey might be to one at least of the travellers, gave advice, and lent air cushions, and Albinia bade her good night with an almost sobbing 'thank you,' and an entreaty that if Mr. Kendal came home before them, she would tell him all about it.
At home, she instantly sent the stupefied Sophy to bed, astonished the little nurse, ordered down boxes and bags, and spent half the night in packing, glad to be stirring and to tire herself into sleeping, for her remorse and her anticipations were so painful, that, but for fatigue, her bed would have been no resting-place.
Winifred Ferrars was surprised by Mr. Kendal's walking into her garden, with a perturbed countenance, begging her to help him to make out what could be the meaning of a note which he had just received. He was afraid that there was much amiss with the baby, and heartily wished that he had not been persuaded to leave home; but poor Albinia wrote in so much distress, that he could not understand her letter.
More accustomed to Albinia's epistolary habits, Winifred exclaimed at the first glance, 'What can you mean? There is not one word of the little one! It is only Sophy!'
The immediate clearing of his face was not complimentary to poor Sophy, as he said, 'Can you be quite sure? I had begun to hope that Albinia might at least have the comfort of seeing this little fellow healthy; but let me see—she says nursed and—and danced—is it? this poor child—'
'No, no; it is hunted and driven; that's the way she always will make her h's; besides, what nonsense the other would be.'
'This poor child—' repeated Mr. Kendal, 'Going up to London for advice. She would hardly do that with Sophia.'
'Who ever heard of a baby of six months old having a spine complaint?' cried Mrs. Ferrars almost angrily.
'I have lost one in that way,' he replied.
A dead silence ensued, till Winifred, to her great relief, spied the feminine pronoun, but could not fully satisfy Mr. Kendal that the ups and downs were insufficient for the word him; and each scrawl was discussed as though it had been a cuneiform inscription, until he had been nearly argued into believing in the lesser evil. He then was persuaded that the Meadowses had been harassing and frightening Albinia into this startling measure. It was so contrary to his own nature, that he hardly believed that it had actually taken place, and that she must be in London by this time, but at any rate, he must join her there, and know the worst. He would take the whole party to an hotel, if it were too great a liberty to quarter themselves upon Mrs. Annesley.
Winifred was as much surprised as if the chess-king had taken a knight's move, but she encouraged his resolution, assured him of a welcome at what the cousinhood were wont to call the Family Office, and undertook the charge of Gilbert and Lucy. The sorrowful, almost supplicating tone of his wife's letter, would have sufficed to bring him to her, even without his disquietude for his child, whichever of them it might be; and though Albinia's merry blue-eyed boy had brought a renewed spring of hope and life, his crashed spirits trembled at the least alarm.
Thus, though the cheerful Winifred had convinced his reason, his gloomy anticipations revived before he reached London; and with the stern composure of one accustomed to bend to the heaviest blows, he knocked at Mrs. Annesley's door. He was told that Mrs. Kendal was out; but on further inquiry, learnt that Sophy was in the drawing-room, where he found her curled up in the corner of the sofa, reading intently.
She sprang to her feet with a cry of surprise, but did not approach, though he held out his arms, saying in a voice husky with anxiety, 'Is the baby well, Sophia?'
'Yes,' she cried, 'quite well; he is out in the carriage with them.' Then shrinking as he was stooping to kiss her, she reddened, reddening deeply, 'Papa, I did very wrong; I was sly and disobedient, and I might have killed him.'
'Do not let us speak of that now, my dear, I want to hear of—' and again he would have drawn her into his embrace, but she held out her hand, with her repelling gesture, and burst forth in her rude honesty, 'I can't be forgiven only because I am ill. Hear all about it, papa, and then say you forgive me if you can. I always was cross to mamma, because I was determined I would be; and I did not think she had any business with us. The more she was kind, the more I did not like it; and I thought it was mean in Gilbert and Lucy to be fond of her. No! I have not done yet! I grew naughtier and naughtier, till at last I have been false and sly, and—have done this to baby— and I would not have cared then—if—if she would not have been—oh! so good!'
Sophy made no farther resistance to the arm that was thrown round her, as her father said, 'So good, that she has overcome evil with good. My child, how should I not forgive when you are sensible of your mistake, and when she has so freely forgiven?'
Sophy did not speak, but she pressed his arm closer round her, and laid her cheek gratefully on his shoulder. She only wished it could last for ever; but he soon lifted her, that he might look anxiously at her face, while he said, 'And what is all this, my dear! I am afraid you are not well.'
Her energies were recalled; and, squeezing his hand, she said, 'Mind, you will not let them say it was mamma's fault.'
'Who is accusing her, my dear?' What is the matter?'
'It is only my back,' said Sophy; 'there always was a stupid pain there; but grandmamma's Betty said I made a fuss, and that it was all laziness, and I would not let any one say so again, and I never told of it, and it went on till the other night I grew faint at church, and Mrs. Dusautoy put mamma in such a fright, that we all came here yesterday; and there came a doctor this morning, who says my spine is not straight, and that I must lie on my back for a long time; but never mind, papa, it will be very comfortable to lie still and read, and I shall not be cross now,' she added reassuringly, as his grasp pressed her close, with a start of dismay.
'My dear, I am afraid you hardly know what you may have to go through, but I am glad you meet it bravely.'
'But you wont let them say mamma did it?'
'Who should say so?'
'Aunt Maria will, and mamma will go and say so herself,' cried Sophy; 'she will say it was taking walks and carrying baby, and it's not true. I told the doctor how my back ached long before baby came or she either, and he said that most likely the weakness had been left by the fever. So if it is any one's mismanagement, it is Aunt Maria's, and if you wont tell her so, I will.'
'Gently, Sophy, that would hardly be grateful, after the pains that she has taken with you, and the care she meant to give.'
'Her care was all worry,' said Sophy, 'and it will be very lucky if I don't tell her so, if she says her provoking things to mamma. But you wont believe them, papa.'
'Most certainly not.'
'Yes, you must tell her to be happy again,' continued Sophy; 'I cannot bear to see her looking sorrowful! Last night, when she fancied me asleep, she cried—oh! till it made me miserable! And to-day I heard Miss Ferrars say to Mrs. Annesley, that her fine spirits were quite gone. You know it is very silly, for I am the last person in all the world she ought to cry for.'
'She has an infinite treasure of love,' said Mr. Kendal, 'and we have done very little that we should be blessed with it.'
'There, they are come home!' exclaimed Sophy, starting up as sounds were heard on the stairs, and almost at the same moment Albinia was in the room, overflowing with contrition, gladness, and anxiety; but something of sweetness in the first hasty greeting made the trust overcome all the rest; and, understanding his uppermost wish, she stepped back to the staircase, and in another second had put Maurice into his arms, blooming and contented, and with a wide-mouthed smile for his papa. Mr. Kendal held him fondly through all the hospitable welcomes of the aunts, and his own explanations; but to Albinia it was all confusion, and almost annoyance, till she could take him upstairs, and tell her own story.
'I am afraid you have been very much alarmed,' were his first words.
'I have done everything wrong from beginning to end,' said Albinia. 'Oh, Edmund, I am so glad you are come! Now you will see the doctor, and know whether it was as bad as all the rest to bring her to London.'
'My dearest, you must calm yourself, and try to explain. You know I understand nothing yet, except from your resolute little advocate downstairs, and your own note, which I could scarcely make out, except that you were in great trouble.'
'Ah, that note; I wrote it in one of my impetuous fits. Maurice used to say I ran frantic, and grew irrational, and so I did not know what I was saying to you; and I brought that poor patient girl up here in all the heat, and the journey hurt her so much, that I don't know how we shall ever get her home again. Oh, Edmund, I am the worst wife and mother in the world; and I undertook it all with such foolish confidence.'
Mr. Kendal liked her impetuous fits as little as her brother did, and was not so much used to them; but he dealt with her in his quiet, straightforward way. 'You are exaggerating now, Albinia, and I do not wonder at it, for you have had a great deal to startle and to try you. Walking up and down is only heating and agitating you more; sit down here, and let me hear what gave you this alarm.'
The grave affection of his manner restrained her, and his presence soothed the flutter of spirits; though she still devoted herself with a sort of wilfulness to bear all the blame, until he said, 'This is foolish, Albinia; it is of no use to look at anything but the simple truth. This affection of the spine must be constitutional, and if neglect have aggravated the evil, it must date from a much earlier period than since she has been under your charge. If any one be to blame, it is myself, for the apathy that prevented me from placing the poor things under proper care, but I was hardly then aware that Maria's solicitude is always in the wrong place.'
'But everybody declares that it was always visible, and that no one could look at her without seeing that she was crooked.'
'Apres le coup,' said Mr. Kendal. 'I grant you that a person of more experience might perhaps have detected what was amiss sooner than you did, but you have only to regret the ignorance you shared with us all; and you did your utmost according to your judgment.'
'And a cruel utmost it was,' said Albinia; 'it is frightful to think what I inflicted, and she endured in silence, because I had not treated her so that she could bear to speak to me.'
'That is over now,' said Mr. Kendal, 'you have conquered her at last. Pride could not hold out against such sweetness.'
'It is her generosity,' said Albinia; 'I always knew she was the best of them all, if one could but get at her.'
'What have you done to her? I never heard her say half so much as she voluntarily said to me just now.'
'Poor dear! I believe the key of her heart was lost when Edmund died, and so all within was starved,' said Albinia. 'Yes,' as his eyes were suddenly raised and fixed on her, 'I got to that at last. No one has ever understood her, since she lost her brother.'
'She has a certain likeness to him. I knew she was his favourite sister; but such a child as she was—'
'Children have deeper souls than you give them credit for,' said Albinia. 'Yes, Edmund, you and Sophy are very much alike! You had your study, and poor Sophy enclosed herself in a perpetual cocoon of study atmosphere, and so you never found each other out till to-day.'
Perhaps it was the influence of the frantic fit that caused her to make so direct a thrust; but Mr. Kendal was not offended. There was a good deal in the mere absence from habitual scenes and associations; he always left a great deal of reserve behind him at Bayford.
'You may be right, Albinia,' he said; 'I sometimes think that amongst us you are like the old poet's "star confined into a tomb."'
Such a compliment was a pretty reward for her temerity.
Returning to business, she found that her journey was treated as more judicious than she deserved. The consequences had justified her decision. Mr. Kendal knew it was the right thing to be done, and was glad to have been spared the dreadful task of making up his mind to it. He sat down of his own accord to write a note to Winifred, beginning, 'Albinia was right, as she always is,' and though his wife interlined, 'Albinia had no right to be right, for she was inconsiderate, as she always is,' she looked so brilliantly pretty and bright, and was so full of sunny liveliness, that she occasioned one of the very few disputes between her good aunts. Miss Ferrars declared that poor Albinia was quite revived by the return to her old home, and absence of care, while Mrs. Annesley insisted on giving the credit to Mr. Kendal. They were perfectly agreed in unwillingness to part with their guests; and as the doctor wished to see more of his patient, the visit was prolonged, to the enjoyment of all parties.
Sophy had received her sentence so easily, that it was suspected that she did not realize the tedium of confinement, and was relieved by being allowed to be inactive. Until she should go home, she might do whatever did not fatigue her; but most sights, and even the motion of the carriage, were so fatiguing, that she was much more inclined to remain at home and revel in the delightful world of books. The kind, unobtrusive petting; the absence of customary irritations; the quiet high-bred tone of the family, so acted upon her, as to render her something as agreeably new to herself as to other people. The glum mask was cast aside, she responded amiably to kindness and attention, allowed herself to be drawn into conversation, and developed much more intelligence and depth than even Albinia had given her credit for.
One day, when Miss Ferrars was showing Mr. Kendal some illustrations of Indian scenery, a question arose upon the date of the native sovereign to whom the buildings were ascribed. Mr. Kendal could not recollect; but Sophia, looking up, quietly pronounced the date, and gave her reasons for it. Miss Ferrars asked how she could have learnt so much on an out-of-the-way topic.
'I read a book of the History of India, up in the loft,' said Sophy.
'That book!' exclaimed her father; 'I wish you joy! I never could get through it! It is the driest chronicle I ever read—a mere book of reference. What could induce you to read that?'
'I would read anything about India;' and her tone, though low and subdued, betrayed such enthusiasm as could find nothing dry, and this in a girl who had read aloud the reign of Edward III. with stolid indifference!
'Well, I think I can promise you more interesting reading about India when we go home,' said Mr. Kendal.
The colour rose on Sophy's cheek. Books out of papa's study! Could the world offer a greater privilege?' She could scarcely pronounce, 'Thank you.'
'Very faithful to her birth-place,' said Miss Ferrars; 'but she must have been very young when she came home.'
'About five years old, I believe,' said her father. 'You surely can remember nothing of Talloon.'
'I don't know,' said Sophy, mournfully; 'I used—'
'I thought Indian children usually lost their eastern recollections very early,' said Miss Ferrars; 'I never heard of one who could remember the sound of Hindostanee a year after coming home.'
Mr. Kendal, entertained and gratified, turned to his daughter; and, by way of experiment, began a short sentence in Hindostanee; but the first sound brought a glow to her cheeks, and, with a hurried gesture, she murmured, 'Please don't, papa.'
Albinia saw that feelings were here concerned which must not be played on in public; and she hastily plunged into the discussion, and drew it away from Sophy. Following her up-stairs at bed-time, she contrived to win from her an explanation.
Edmund had been seven years old at the time of the return to England. Fondly attached to some of the Hindoo servants, and with unusual intelligence and observation, the gorgeous scenery and oriental habits of his first home had dwelt vividly in his imagination, and he had always considered himself as only taken to England for a time, to return again to India. Thus, he had been fond of romancing of the past and of the future, and had never let his little sister's recollections fade entirely away. His father had likewise thought that it would save future trouble to keep up the boys' knowledge of the language, which would by-and-by be so important to them. Gilbert's health had caused his studies to be often intermitted, but Edmund had constantly received instructions in the Indian languages, and whatever he learnt had been imparted to Sophia. It was piteous to discover how much time the poor forlorn little girl had spent sitting on the floor in the loft, poring over old grammars, and phrase-books, and translations of missionary or government school-books there accumulated—anything that related to India, or that seemed to carry on what she had done with Edmund: and she had acquired just enough to give her a keen appetite for all the higher class of lore, which she knew to reside in the unapproachable study. Those few familiar words from her father had overcome her, because, a trivial greeting in themselves, they had been a kind of password between her and her brother.
Mr. Kendal was greatly touched, and very remorseful for having left such a heart to pine in solitude, while he was absorbed in his own lonely grief; and Albinia ventured to say, 'I believe the greatest pleasure you could give her would be to help her to keep up the language.'
He smiled, but said, 'Of what possible use could it be to her?'
'I was not thinking of future use. It would be of immense present use to her to do anything with you, and I can see that nothing would gratify her so much. Besides, I have been trying to think of all the new things I could set her to do. She must have lessons to fill up the day, and I want to make fresh beginnings, and not go back to the blots and scars of our old misunderstandings.'
'You want me to teach her Sanscrit because you cannot teach her Italian.'
'Exactly so,' said Albinia; 'and the Italian will spring all the better from the venerable root, when we have forgotten how cross we used to be to each other over our relative pronouns.'
'But there is hardly anything which I could let her read in those languages.'
'Very likely not; but you can pick out what there is. Do you remember the fable of the treasure that was to be gained by digging under the apple-tree, and which turned out not to be gold, but the fruit, the consequence of digging? Now, I want you to dig Sophy; a Sanscrit, or a Hindostanee, or a Persian treasure will do equally well as a pretext. If she had announced a taste for the differential calculus, I should have said the same. Only dig her, as Maurice dug me apropos to Homer. I wouldn't bother you, only you see no one else could either do it, or be the same to Sophy.'
'We will see how it is,' said Mr. Kendal.
With which Albinia was obliged to be content; but in the meantime she saw the two making daily progress in intimacy, and Mr. Kendal beginning to take a pride in his daughter's understanding and information, which he ascribed to Albinia, in spite of all her disclaimers. It was as if she had evoked the spirit of his lost son, which had lain hidden under the sullen demeanour of the girl, devoid indeed of many of Edmund's charms, but yet with the same sterling qualities, and with resemblance enough to afford infinite and unexpected joy and compensation.
Mr. Kendal enjoyed his stay in town. He visited libraries, saw pictures, and heard music, with the new zest of having a wife able to enter into his tastes. He met old friends, and did not shrink immoderately from those of his wife; nay, he found them extremely agreeable, and was pleased to see Albinia welcomed. Indeed, his sojourn in her former sphere served to make him wonder that she could be contented with Bayford, and to find her, of the whole party, by far the most ready to return home. Both he himself and Sophy had an unavowed dread of the influence of Willow Lawn; but Albinia had a spring of spirits, independent of place, and though happy, was craving for her duties, anxious to have the journey over, and afraid that London was making her little Maurice pale.
Miss Meadows was the first person whom they saw at Willow Lawn. Two letters had passed, both so conventionally civil, that her state of mind could not be gathered from them, but her first tones proved that coherence was more than ever wanting, and no one attempted to understand anything she said, while she enfolded Sophy in an agitated embrace, and marshalled them to the drawing-room, where the chief of the apologies were spent upon Sophy's new couch, which had been sent down the day before by the luggage-train, and which she and Eweretta had attempted to put together in an impossible way, failing which, they had called in the carpenter, who had made it worse.
It was an untold advantage that she had to take the initiative in excuses. Sophy was so meek with weariness, that she took pretty well all the kind fidgeting that could not be averted from her, and Miss Meadows's discourse chiefly tended to assurances that Mrs. Kendal was right, and grandmamma was nervous—and poor Mr. Bowles—it could not be expected—with hints of the wonderful commotion the sudden flight to London had excited at Bayford. As soon as Mr. Kendal quitted the room, these hints were converted into something between expostulation, condolence, and congratulation.
It was so very fortunate—so very lucky that dear Mr. Kendal had come home with her, for—she had said she would let Mrs. Kendal hear, if only that she might be on her guard—people were so ill-natured— there never was such a place for gossip—not that she heard it from any one but Mrs. Drury, who really now had driven in—not that she believed it, but to ascertain.—For Mrs. Drury had been told—mentioning no names—oh, no! for fear of making mischief—she had been told that Mrs. Kendal had actually been into Mr. Kendal's study, which was always kept locked up, and there she had found something which had distressed her so much that she had gone to Mr. Dusautoy, and by his advice had fled from home to the protection of her brother in Canada.
'Without waiting for Bluebeard's asking for the key! Oh, Maria!' cried Albinia, in a fit of laughter, while Sophia sat up on the sofa in speechless indignation.
'You may laugh, Mrs. Kendal, if you please,' said Maria, with tart dignity; 'I have told you nothing but the truth. I should have thought for my part, but that's of no consequence, it was as well to be on one's guard in a nest of vipers, for Edmund's sake, if not for your own.' And as this last speech convulsed Albinia, and rendered her incapable of reply, Miss Meadows became pathetic. 'I am sure the pains I have taken to trace out and contradict—and so nervous as grandmamma has been—"I'm sure, Mrs. Drury," said I, "that though Edmund Kendal does lock his study door, nobody ever thought anything- -the housemaids go in to clean it—and I've been in myself when the whitewashers were about the house—I'm sure Mrs. Kendal is a most amiable young woman, and you wouldn't raise reports." "No," she said, "but Mrs. Osborn was positive that Mrs. Kendal was nearly an hour shut up alone in the study the night of Sophy's accident—and so sudden," she said, "the carriage being sent for—not a servant knew of it—and then," she said, "it was always the talk among the girls, that Mr. Kendal kept his study a forbidden place."'
'Then,' said Sophia, slowly, as she looked full at her aunt, 'it was the Osborns who dared to say such wicked things.'
'There now, I never meant you to be there. You ought to be gone to bed, child. It is not a thing for you to know anything about.'
'I only want to know whether it was the Osborns who invented these stories,' said Sophy.
'My dear,' exclaimed Albinia, 'what can it signify? They are only a very good joke. I did not think there had been so much imagination in Bayford.' And off she went laughing again.
'They are very wicked,' said Sophy, 'Aunt Maria, I will know if it was Mrs. Osborn who told the story.'
Sophy's will was too potent for Miss Meadows, and the admission was extracted in a burst of other odds and ends, in the midst of which Albinia beheld Sophy cross the room with a deliberate, determined step. Flying after her, she found her in the hall, wrapping herself up.
'Sophy, what is this? What are you about?'
'Let me alone,' said Sophy, straining against her detaining hand, 'I do not know when I shall recover again, and I will go at once to tell the Osborns that I have done with them. I stuck to them because I thought they were my mother's friends; I did not guess that they would make an unworthy use of my friendship, and invent wicked stories of my father and you.'
'Please don't make me laugh, Sophy, for I don't want to affront you. Yes, it is generous feeling; I don't wonder you are angry; but indeed silly nonsense like this is not worth it. It will die away of itself, it must be dead already, now they have seen we have not run away to Canada. Your heroics only make it more ridiculous.'
'I must tell Loo never to come here with her hypocrisy,' repeated Sophy, standing still, but not yielding an inch.
Miss Meadows pursued them at the same moment with broken protestations that they must forget it, she never meant to make mischief, &c., and the confusion was becoming worse confounded when Mr. Kendal emerged from the study, demanding what was the matter, to the great discomfiture of Maria, who began hushing Sophy, and making signs to Albinia that it would be dangerous for him to know anything about it.
But Albinia was already exclaiming, 'Here's a champion wanting to do battle with Louisa Osborn in our cause. Oh, Edmund! our neighbours could find no way of accounting for my taking French leave, but by supposing that I took advantage of being shut in there, while poor little Maurice was squalling so furiously, to rifle your secrets, and detect something so shocking, that away I was fleeing to William in Canada.'
'Obliging,' quietly said Mr. Kendal.
'Now, dear Edmund—I know—for my sake—for everything's sake, remember you are a family man, don't take any notice.'
'I certainly shall take no notice of such folly,' said Mr. Kendal, 'and I wish that no one else should. What are you about, Sophia?'
'Tell mamma to let me go, papa,' she exclaimed, 'I must and will tell Louisa that I hate her baseness and hypocrisy, and then I'll never speak to her again. Why will mamma laugh? It is very wicked of them.'
'Wrong in them, but laughing is the only way to treat it,' said Mr. Kendal. 'Go back to your sofa and forget it. Your aunt and I have heard Bayford reports before.'
Sophy obeyed unwillingly, she was far too much incensed to forget. On her aunt's taking leave, and Mr. Kendal offering his escort up the hill, she rose up again, and would have perpetrated a denunciation by letter, had not Albinia seriously argued with her, and finding ridicule, expediency, and Christian forgiveness all fail of hitting the mark, said, 'I don't know with what face you could attack Louisa, when you helped her to persecute poor Genevieve because you thought she had an instrument of torture in her drawer.'
'It was not I who said that,' said Sophy, blushing.
'You took part with those who did. And poor Genevieve was a much more defenceless victim than papa or myself.'
'I would not do so now.'
'It does not take much individual blackness of heart to work up a fine promising slander. A surmise made in jest is repeated in earnest, and all the other tale-bearers think they are telling simple facts. Depend upon it, the story did not get off from the Osborns by any means as it came back to Aunt Maria.'
'I should like to know.'
'Don't let us make it any worse; and above all, do not let us tell Lucy.'
'Oh, no!' said Sophy, emphatically.
To Albinia's surprise no innuendo from Mrs. or Miss Meadows ever referred to her management having caused Sophy's misfortune, and she secretly attributed this silence to Mr. Kendal's having escorted his sister-in-law to her own house.
Sophy's chief abode became the morning-room, and she seemed very happy and tranquil there—shrinking from visitors, but grateful for the kindness of parents, brother and sister.
Mr. Kendal, finding her really eager to learn of him, began teaching her Persian, and was astonished at her promptness and intelligence. He took increasing pleasure in her company, gave her books to read, and would sometimes tell the others not to stay at home for her sake, as he should be 'about the house.'
He really gave up much time to her, and used to carry her, when the weather served, to a couch in the garden, for she could not bear the motion of wheels, and was forbidden to attempt walking, though she was to be in the air as much as possible, so that Albinia spent more time at home. The charge of Sophy was evidently her business, and after talking the matter over with Mrs. Dusautoy, she resigned, though not without a pang, the offices she had undertaken in the time of her superfluous activity, and limited herself to occasional superintendence, instead of undertaking constant employment in the parish. Though she felt grieved and humiliated, Willow Lawn throve the better for it, and so did her own mind, yes, and even her temper, which was far less often driven by over-haste into quick censure, or unconsidered reply.
Her mistakes about Sophia had been a lesson against one-sided government. At first, running into the other extreme, she was ready to imagine that all the past ill-humour had been the effect of her neglect and cruelty; and Sophy's amiability almost warranted the notion. The poor girl herself had promised 'never to be cross again,' and fancied all temptation was over, since she had 'found out mamma,' and papa was so kind to her. But all on a sudden, down came the cloud again. Nobody could detect any reason. Affronts abounded- -not received with an explosion that would have been combated, laughed at, and disposed of, but treated with silence, and each sinking down to be added to the weight of cruel injuries. There was no complaint; Sophy obeyed all orders with her old form of dismal submission, but everything proposed to her was distasteful, and her answers were in the ancient surly style. If attempts were made to probe the malady, her reserve was impenetrable—nothing was the matter, she wanted nothing, was vexed at nothing. She pursued her usual occupations, but as if they were hardships; she was sullen towards her mamma, snappishly brief with her aunt and sister, and so ungracious and indifferent even with her father, that Albinia trembled lest he might withdraw the attention so improperly received. When this dreary state of things had lasted more than a week, he did tell her that if she were tired of the lessons, it was not worth while to proceed; but that he had hoped for more perseverance.
The fear of losing these, her great pride and pleasure, overcame her. She maintained her grim composure till he had left her, but then fell into a violent fit of crying, in which Albinia found her, and which dissolved the reserve into complaints that every one was very cruel and unkind, and she was the most miserable girl in all the world; papa was going to take away from her the only one thing that made it tolerable!
Reasoning was of no use; to try to show her that it was her own behaviour that had annoyed him, only made her mamma appear equally hard-hearted, and she continued wretched all the rest of the day, refusing consolation, and only so far improved that avowed discontent was better than sullenness. The next morning, she found out that it was not the world that was in league against her, but that she had fallen into the condition which she had thought past for ever. This was worst of all, and her disappointment and dejection lasted not only all that long day, but all the next, making her receive all kindnesses with a broken-down, woebegone manner, and reply to all cheerful encouragements with despair about anything ever making her good. Albinia tried to put her in mind of the Source of all goodness; but any visible acceptance of personal applications of religious teaching had not yet been accomplished.
Gradually all cleared up again, and things went well till for some fresh trivial cause or no cause, the whole process was repeated— sulking, injured innocence, and bitter repentance. This time, Mr. Kendal pronounced, 'This is low spirits, far more than temper,' and he thenceforth dealt with these moods with a tender consideration that Albinia admired, though she thought at times that to treat them more like temper than spirits might be better for Sophy; but it was evident that the poor child herself had at present little if any power either of averting such an access, or of shaking it off. The danger of her father's treatment seemed to be, that the humours would be acquiesced in, like changes in the weather, and that she might be encouraged neither to repent, nor to struggle; while her captivity made her much more liable to the tedium and sinking of heart that predisposed her to them.
There seemed to be nothing to be done but to bear patiently with them while they lasted, to console the victim afterwards, lead her to prayer and resolute efforts, and above all to pray for her, as well as to avoid occasions of bringing them on; but this was not possible, since no one could live without occasional contradiction, and Sophy could sometimes bear a strong remonstrance or great disappointment, when at others a hint, or an almost imperceptible vexation, destroyed her peace for days.
Mr. Kendal bore patiently with her variations, and did his best to amuse away her gloom. It was wonderful how much of his own was gone, and how much more alive he was. He had set himself to attack the five public-houses and seven beer-shops in Tibbs's Alley, and since his eyes had been once opened, it seemed as if the disorders became more flagrant every day. At last, he pounced on a misdemeanour which he took care should come before the magistrates, and he was much annoyed to find the case dismissed for want of evidence. One Sunday he beheld the end of a fray begun during service-time; he caused an information to be laid, and went himself to the petty sessions to represent the case, but the result was a nominal penalty. The Admiral was a seeker of popularity, and though owning that the town was in a shocking state, and making great promises when talked to on general points, yet he could never make up his mind to punish any 'poor fellow,' unless he himself were in a passion, when he would go any length. The other magistrates would not interfere; and all the satisfaction Mr. Kendal obtained was being told how much he was wanted on the bench.
One of the few respectable Tibbs's Alleyites told him that it was of no use to complain, for the publicans boasted of their impunity, snapped their fingers at him, and drank Admiral Osborn's health as their friend. The consequence was, that Mr. Kendal took a magnanimous resolution, ordered a copy of Burn's Justice, and at the September Quarter Sessions actually rode over to Hadminster, and took the oaths.
On the whole, the expectation was more formidable than the reality. However much he disliked applying himself to business, no one understood it better. The value of his good sense, judgment, and acuteness was speedily felt. Mr. Nugent, the chairman, depended on him as his ally, and often as his adviser; and as he was thus made to feel himself of weight and importance, his aversion subsided, and he almost learnt to look forward to a chat with Mr. Nugent; or whether he looked forward to it or not, there could be no doubt that he enjoyed it. Though still shy, grave, silent, and inert, there was a great alteration in him since the time when he had had no friends, no interests, no pursuits beyond his study; and there was every reason to think that, in spite of the many severe shocks to his mauvaise honte, he was a much happier man.
His wife could not regret that his magisterial proceedings led to a coolness with the Osborns, augmented by a vestry-meeting, at which Mr. Dusautoy had begged him to be present. The Admiral and his party surpassed themselves in their virulence against whatever the vicar proposed, until they fairly roused Mr. Kendal's ire, and 'he came out upon them all like a lion;' and with force appearing the greater from being so seldom exerted, he represented Mr. Dusautoy's conduct in appropriate terms, showing full appreciation of his merits, and holding up their own course before them in its true light, till they had nothing to say for themselves. It was the vicar's first visible victory. The increased congregation showed how much way he had made with the poor, and Mr. Kendal taking his part openly, drew over many of the tradespeople, who had begun to feel the influence of his hearty nature and consistent uprightness, and had become used to what had at first appeared innovations. Mr. Dusautoy, in thanking Mr. Kendal, begged him to allow himself to be nominated his churchwarden next Easter, and having consented while his blood was up, there was no danger that, however he might dislike the prospect, he would falter when the time should come.
It was 'a green Yule,' a Christmas like an April day, and even the lengthening days and strengthening cold of January attaining to nothing more than three slight hoar-frosts, each quickly melting into mud, and the last concluding in rain and fog.
'What would Willow Lawn have been without the drainage?' Albinia often thought when she paddled down the wet streets, and saw the fields flooded. The damp had such an effect upon Sophy's throat, temper, and whole nervous system, that her moods had few intervals, and Albinia wrote to the surgeon a detail of her symptoms, asking if she had not better be removed into a more favourable air. But he pronounced that the injury of the transport would outbalance the casual evils of the bad weather, and as the rain and fog mitigated, she improved; but there were others on whom the heavy moist air had a more fatal effect.
One morning, Mr. Kendal saw his wife descending the picturesque rugged stone staircase that led outside the house to the upper stories of the old block of buildings under the hill, nearly opposite to Willow Lawn. She came towards him with tears still in her eyes as she said, 'Poor Mrs. Simkins has just lost her little girl, and I am afraid the two boys are sickening.'
'What do you mean? Is the fever there again?' exclaimed Mr. Kendal in the utmost consternation.
'Did you not know it? Lucy has been very anxious about the child, who was in her class.'
'You have not taken Lucy to a house with a fever!'
'No, I thought it safer not, though she wanted very much to go.'
'But you have been going yourself!'
'It was a low, lingering fever. I had not thought it infectious, and even now I believe it is only one of those that run through an over-crowded family. The only wonder is, that they are ever well in such a place. Dear Edmund, don't be angry; it is what I used to do continually at Fairmead. I never caught anything; and there is plenty of chloride of lime, and all that. I never imagined you would disapprove.'
'It is the very place where the fever began before!' said Mr. Kendal, almost under his breath.
Instead of going into the house, he made her turn into the garden, where little Maurice was being promenaded in the sun. He stretched out from his nurse's arms to go to them, and Albinia was going towards him, but her husband held her fast, and said, 'I beg you will not take the child till you have changed your dress.'
Albinia was quite subdued, alarmed at the effect on him.
'You must go away at once,' he said presently. 'How soon can you be ready? You had better take Lucy and Maurice at once to your brother's. They will excuse the liberty when they know the cause.'
'And pray what is to become of poor Sophy?'
'Never going out, there may be the less risk for her. I will take care of her myself.'
'As if I was going to endure that!' cried Albinia. 'No, no, Edmund, I am not likely to run away from you and Sophy! You may send Lucy off, if you like, but certainly not me, or if you do I shall come back the same evening.'
'I should be much happier if you were gone.'
'Thank you, but what should I be? No, if it were to be caught here, which I don't believe, now the pond is gone, it would be of no use to send me away, after I have been into the house with it.'
Her resolution and Sophy's need prevailed, and most unwillingly Mr. Kendal gave up the point. She was persuaded that he was acting on a panic, the less to be wondered at after all he had suffered. She thought the chief danger was from the effect of his fears, and would fain have persuaded him to remain at Fairmead with Lucy, but she was not prepared to hear him insist on likewise removing Maurice. She had promised not to enter the sick room again, and pleaded that the little boy need never be taken into the street—that the fever was not likely to come across the running stream—that the Fairmead nursery was full enough already.
Mr. Kendal was inexorable. 'I hope you may never see what I have seen,' he said gravely, and Albinia was silenced.
A man who had lost so many children might be allowed to be morbidly jealous of the health of the rest. But it was a cruel stroke to her to be obliged to part with her noble little boy, just when his daily advances in walking and talking made him more charming than ever. Her eyes were full of tears, and she struggled to choke back some pettish rebellious words.
'You do not like to trust him with Susan,' said Mr. Kendal; 'you had better come with him.'
'No,' said Albinia, 'I ought to stay here, and if you judge it right, Maurice must go. I'll go and speak to Susan.'
And away she ran, for she had no power just then to speak in a wifely manner. It was not easy to respect a man in a panic so extremely inconvenient.
He was resolved on an immediate start, and the next few hours were spent in busy preparation, and in watching lest the excited Lucy should frighten her sister. Albinia tried to persuade Mr. Kendal at least to sleep at Fairmead that night, and after watching him drive off, she hurried, dashing away the tears that would gather again and again in her eyes, to hold council with the Dusautoys on the best means of stopping the course of the malady, by depriving it of its victims.
She had a quiet snug evening with Sophy, whom she had so much interested in the destitution of the sick children as to set her to work at some night-gear for them, and she afterwards sat long over the fire trying to read to silence the longing after the little soft cheek that had never yet been laid to rest without her caress, and foreboding that Mr. Kendal would return from his dark solitary drive with his spirits at the lowest ebb.
So late that she had begun to hope that Winifred had obeyed her behest and detained him, she heard his step, and before she could run to meet him, he had already shut himself into the study.
She was at the door in a moment; she feared he had thought her self-willed in the morning, and she was the more bent on rousing him. She knocked—she opened the door. He had thrown himself into his arm-chair, and was bending over the dreary, smouldering, sulky log and white ashes, and his face, as he raised his head, was as if the whole load of care and sorrow had suddenly descended again.
'I am sorry you sat up,' was of course his beginning, conveying anything but welcome; but she knew that this only meant that he was in a state of depression. She took hold of his hand, chilled with holding the reins, told him of the good fire in the morning-room, and fairly drew him up-stairs.
There the lamp burnt brightly, and the red fire cast a merry glow over the shining chintz curtains, and the two chairs drawn so cosily towards the fire, the kettle puffing on the hearth, and Albinia's choice little bed-room set of tea-china ready on the small table. The cheerfulness seemed visibly to diffuse itself over his face, but he still struggled to cherish his gloom, 'Thank you, but I would not have had you take all this trouble, my dear.'
'It would be a great deal more trouble if you caught a bad cold. I meant you to sleep at Fairmead.'
'Yes, they pressed me very kindly, but I could not bear not to come home.'
'And how did Maurice comport himself?'
'He talked to the horse and then went to sleep, and he was not at all shy with his aunt after the first. He watched the children, but had not begun to play with them. Still I think he will be quite happy with Lucy there, and I hope it will not be for long.'
It was a favourable sign that Mr. Kendal communicated all these particulars without being plied with questions, and Albinia went on with the more spirit.
'No, I hope it may not be for long. We have been holding a great council against the enemy, and I do hope that we have really done something. No, you need not be afraid, I have not been there again, but we have been routing out the nucleus, and hope we may starve out the fever for want of victims. You never saw such a swarm as we had to turn out. There were twenty-three people to be considered for.'
'Twenty-three! Have you turned out the whole block?'
'No, I wish we had; but that would have been seventy-five. This is only from those two tenements with one door!'
'I should have thought so; but the lawful inhabitants make up sixteen, and there were seven lodgers.'
Mr. Kendal gave a kind of groan, and asked what she had done; she detailed the measures.
'Twenty-three people in those two houses, and seventy-five in the whole block of building?'
'Too true. And if you could only see the rooms! The windows that wont open; the roofs that open too much; the dirt on the staircases, and, oh! the horrible smells!'
'It shall not go on,' said Mr. Kendal. 'I will look over the place.'
'Not till the fever is out of it,' hastily interposed Albinia.
He made a sign of assent, and went on: 'I will certainly talk to Pettilove, and have the place repaired, if it be at my own expense.'
Albinia lifted up her eyes, not understanding at whose expense it should be.
'The fact is,' continued Mr. Kendal, 'that there has been little to induce me to take interest in the property. Old Mr. Meadows was, as you know, a successful solicitor, and purchased these various town tenements bit by bit, and then settled them very strictly on his grandson. He charged the property with life incomes to his widow and daughters, and to me; but the land is in the hands of trustees until my son's majority, and Pettilove is the only surviving trustee.'
The burning colour mantled in Albinia's face, and almost inaudibly she said, 'I beg your pardon, Edmund; I have done you moat grievous injustice. I thought you would not see—'
'You did not think unjustly, my dear. I ought to have paid more attention to the state of affairs, and have kept Pettilove in order. But I knew nothing of English affairs, and was glad to be spared the unpleasant charge. The consequence of leaving a man like that irresponsible never occurred to me. His whole conscience in the matter is to have a large sum to put into Gilbert's hands when he comes of age. Why, he upholds those dens of iniquity in Tibbs's Alley on that very ground!'
'Poor Gilbert! I am afraid a large sum so collected is not likely to do him much good! and at one-and-twenty—! But that is one notion of faithfulness!'
Albinia was much happier after that conversation. She could better endure to regret her own injustice than to believe her husband the cruel landlord; and it was no small advance that he had afforded her an explanation which once he would have deemed beyond the reach of female capacity.
In spite of the lack of little Maurice's bright presence, which, to Albinia's great delight, his father missed as much as she did, the period of quarantine sped by cheerfully. Sophy had not a single sullen fit the whole time, and Albinia having persuaded Mr. Kendal that it would be a sanatory measure to whitewash the study ceiling, he was absolutely forced to turn out of it and live in the morning-room, with all his books piled up in the dining-room. And on that great occasion Albinia abstracted two fusty, faded, green canvas blinds from the windows, carried them off with a pair of tongs, and pushed them into a bonfire in the garden, persuaded they were the last relics of the old fever. She had the laurels cut, the curtains changed, the windows cleaned, and altogether made the room so much lighter, that when Mr. Kendal again took possession, he did not look at all sure whether he liked it; and though he was courteously grateful, he did not avail himself of the den half so much as when it had more congenial gloom. But then he had the morning-room as a resort, and it was one of Albinia's bargains with herself, that as far as her own influence could prevent it, neither he nor Sophy should ever render it a literal boudoir.
The sense of snugness that the small numbers produced was one great charm, and made Mr. Kendal come unusually far out of his shell. His chief sanatory precaution was to take Albinia out for a drive or walk every day, and these expeditions were greatly enjoyed.
One day, after a visit from her old nurse, Sophy received Albinia with the words,—
'Oh, mamma,' she said, 'old nurse has been telling me such things. I shall never be cross with Aunt Maria again. It is such a sad story, just like one in a book, if she was but that kind of person.'
'Aunt Maria! I remember Mrs. Dusautoy once saying she gave her the idea of happiness shattered, but—'
'Did she?' exclaimed Sophy. 'I never thought Aunt Maria could have done anything but fidget everybody that came near her; but old nurse says a gentleman was once in love with her, and a very handsome young gentleman too. Old Mr. Pringle's nephew it was, a very fine young officer in the army. I want you to ask papa if it is true. Nurse says that he wrote to make an offer for her, very handsomely, but grandpapa did not choose that both his daughters should go quite away; so he locked the letter up, and said no, and never told her, and she thought the captain had been trifling and playing her false, and pined and fretted, till she got into this nervous way, and fairly wore herself out, nurse says, and came to be what she is now, instead of the prettiest young lady in the town! And then, mamma, when grandpapa died, she found the letter in his papers, and one inside for her, that had never been given to her; and by that time there was no hope, for Captain Pringle had gone out with his regiment, and married a rich young lady in the Indies! Oh, mamma! you see she really is deserted, and it is all man's treachery that has broken her heart. I thought people always died or went into convents—I don't mean that Aunt Maria could have done that, but I did not think that way of hers was a broken heart!'
'If she has had such troubles, it should indeed make us try to be very forbearing with her,' said Albinia.
'Will you ask papa about it?' entreated Sophy.
'Yes, certainly; but you must not make sure whether he will think it right to tell us. Poor Aunt Maria; I do think some part of it must be true!'
'But, mamma, is that really like deserted love?'
'My dear, I don't think I ever saw deserted love,' said Albinia, rather amused. 'I suppose troubles of any kind, if not—I mean, I suppose, vexations—make people show their want of spirits in the way most accordant with their natural dispositions, and so your poor aunt has grown querulous and anxious.'
'If she has such a real grand reason for being unhappy, I shall not be cross about it now, except—'
Sophy gave a sigh, and Albinia bade her good night.
Mr. Kendal had never heard the story before, but he remembered many circumstances in corroboration. He knew that Mr. Pringle had a nephew in the army, he recollected that he had made a figure in Maria's letters to India; and that he had subsequently married a lady in the Mauritius, and settled down on her father's estate. He testified also to the bright gay youth of poor Maria, and his surprise at the premature loss of beauty and spirits; and from his knowledge of old Mr. Meadows, he believed him capable of such an act of domestic tyranny. Maria had always been looked upon as a mere child, and if her father did not choose to part with her, he would think it for her good, and his own peace, for her not to be aware of the proposal. He was much struck, for he had not suspected his sister-in-law to be capable of such permanent feeling.
'There was little to help her in driving it away,' said Albinia. 'Few occupations or interests, and very little change, to prevent it from preying on her spirits.'
'True,' said Mr. Kendal; 'a narrow education and limited sphere are sad evils in such cases.'
'Do you think anything can be a cure for disappointment?' asked Sophy, in such a solemn, earnest tone, that Albinia was disposed to laugh; but she knew that this would be a dire offence, and was much surprised that Sophy had so far broken through her reserve, as to mingle in their conversation on such a subject.
'Occupation,' said Mr. Kendal, but speaking rather as if from duty than from conviction. 'There are many sources of happiness, even if shipwreck have been made on one venture. Your aunt had few resources to which to turn her mind. Every pursuit or study is a help stored up against the vacuity which renders every care more corroding.'
'Well!' said Sophy, in her blunt, downright way, 'I think it would take all the spirit out of everything.'
'I hope you will never be tried,' said Mr. Kendal, with a mournful smile, as if he did not choose to confess that she had divined too rightly the probable effect of trouble upon her own temperament.
'I suppose,' said Albinia, 'that the real cure can be but one thing for that, as for any other trouble. I mean, "Thy will be done." I don't suppose anything else would give energy to turn to other duties. But it would be more to the purpose to resolve to be more considerate to poor Maria.'
'I shall never be impatient with her again,' said Sophy.
And though at first the discovery of so romantic a cause for poor Miss Meadows's fretfulness dignified it in Sophy's eyes, yet it did not prove sufficient to make it tolerable when she tormented the window-blinds, teased the fire, was shocked at Sophy's favourite studies, or insisting on her wishing to see Maria Drury. Nay, the bathos often rendered her petty unconscious provocations the more harassing, and Sophy often felt, in an agony of self-reproach, that she ought to have known herself too well to expect to show forbearance with any one when she was under the influence of ill-temper.
In Easter week Mr. Ferrars brought Lucy and Maurice home, and Gilbert came for a short holiday.
Gilbert was pleased when he was called to go over the empty houses with his father, Mr. Ferrars, and a mason.
Back they came, horrified at the dreadful disrepair, at the narrow area into which such numbers were crowded, and still more at the ill odours which Mr. Ferrars and the mason had gallantly investigated, till they detected the absence of drains, as well as convinced themselves that mending roofs, floors, or windows, would be a mere mockery unless the whole were pulled down.
Mr. Ferrars was more than ever thankful to be a country parson, and mused on the retribution that the miasma, fostered by the avarice of the grandfather and the neglect of the father, had brought on the family. Dives cannot always scorn Lazarus without suffering even in this life.
Gilbert, in the glory of castle-building, was talking eagerly of the thorough renovation that should take place, the sweep that should be made of all the old tenements, and the wide healthy streets and model cottages that should give a new aspect to the town.
Mr. Kendal prepared for the encounter with Pettilove, and his son begged to go with him, to which he consented, saying that it was time Gilbert should have an opinion in a matter that affected him so nearly.
Gilbert's opinion of the interview was thus announced on his return: 'If there ever was a brute in the world, it is that Pettilove!'
'Then he wont consent to do anything?'
'No, indeed! Say what my father or I would to him, it was all of not the slightest use. He smiled, and made little intolerable nods, and regretted—but there were the settlements, and his late lamented partner! A parcel of stuff. Not so much as a broken window will he mend! He says he is not authorized!'
'Quite true,' said Mr. Kendal. 'The man is warranted in his proceedings, and thinks them his duty, though I believe he has a satisfaction in the power of thwarting me.'
'I'm sure he has!' cried Gilbert. 'I am sure there was spite in his grin when he pulled out that horrid old parchment, with the lines a yard long, and read us out the abominable old crabbed writing, all about the houses, messuages, and tenements thereupon, and a lot of lawyer's jargon. I'm sure I thought it was left to Peter Pettilove himself. And when I came to understand it, one would have thought it took my father to be the worst enemy we had in the world, bent on cheating us!'
'That is the assumption on which settlements are drawn up, Gilbert,' said his father.
'Can nothing be done, then?' said Albinia.
'Thus much,' said Mr. Kendal. 'Pettilove will not object to our putting the houses somewhat in repair, as, in fact, that will be making a present to Gilbert; but he will not spend a farthing on them of the trust, except to hinder their absolute falling, nor will he make any regulation on the number of lodgers. As to taking them down, that is, as I always supposed, out of the question, though I think the trustees might have stretched a point, being certain of both my wishes and Gilbert's.'
'Don't you think,' said Mr. Ferrars, looking up from his book, 'that a sanatory commission might be got to over-ride Gilbert's guardian?'
'My guardian! do not call him so!' muttered Gilbert.
'I am afraid,' said Mr. Kendal, 'that unless your commission emulated of Albinia and Dusautoy they would have little perception of the evils. Our local authorities are obtuse in such matters.'
'Agitate! agitate!' murmured Mr. Ferrars, going on with his book.
'Well,' said Albinia, 'at least there is one beer-shop less in Tibbs's Alley. And if there are tolerable seasons, I daresay paint, whitewash, and windows to open, may keep the place moderately wholesome till—Are you sixteen yet, Gilbert? Five years.'
'Yes, and then—'
Gilbert came and sat down beside her, and they built a scheme for the almshouses so much wanted. Gilbert was sure the accumulation would easily cover the expense, and Albinia had many an old woman, who it was hoped might live to enjoy the intended paradise there.
'Yes, yes, I promise,' cried Gilbert, warming with the subject, 'the first thing I shall do—'
'No, don't promise,' said Albinia. 'Do it from your heart, or not at all.'
'No, don't promise, Gilbert,' said Sophy.
'Why not, Sophy?' he said good-humouredly.
'Because you are just what you feel at the moment,' said Sophy.
'You don't think I should keep it?'
The grave answer fell like lead, and Albinia told her she was not kind or just to her brother. But she still looked steadily at him, and answered, 'I cannot help it. What is truth, is truth, and Gilbert cares only for what he sees at the moment.'
'What is truth need not always be fully uttered,' said Albinia. 'I hope you may find it untrue.'
But Sophy's words would recur, and weigh on her painfully.
The summer had just begun, when notice was given that a Confirmation would take place in the autumn; and Lucy's name was one of the first sent in to Mr. Dusautoy. His plan was to collect his candidates in weekly classes of a few at a time, and likewise to see as much as he could of them in private.
'Oh! mamma!' exclaimed Lucy, returning from her first class, 'Mr. Dusautoy has given us each a paper, where we are to set down our christening days, and our godfathers and godmothers. And only think, I had not the least notion when I was christened. I could tell nothing but that Mr. Wenlock was my godfather! It made me feel quite foolish not to know my godmothers.'
'We were in no situation to have things done in order,' said Mr. Kendal, gravely. 'If I recollect rightly, one of your godmothers was Captain Lee's pretty young wife, who died a few weeks after.'
'And the other?' said Lucy.
'Your mother, I believe,' he said.
Lucy employed herself in filling up her paper, and exclaimed, 'Now I do not know the date! Can you tell me that, papa?'
'It was the Christmas-day next after your birth,' he said. 'I remember that, for we took you to spend Christmas at the nearest station of troops, and the chaplain christened you.'
Lucy wrote down the particulars, and exclaimed, 'What an old baby I must have been! Six months old! And I wonder when Sophy was christened. I never knew who any of her godfathers and godmothers were. Did you, Sophy?'
'No—' she was looking up at her father.
A sudden flush of colour came over his face, and he left the room in haste.
'Why, Sophy!' exclaimed Lucy, 'one would think you had not been christened at all!'
Even the light Lucy was alarmed at the sound of her own words. The same idea had thrilled across Albinia; but on turning her eyes on Sophy, she saw a countenance flushed, anxious, but full rather of trembling hope than of dismay.
In a few seconds Mr. Kendal came back with a thick red pocket-book in his hand, and produced the certificate of the private baptism of Sophia, daughter of Edmund and Lucy Kendal, at Talloon, March 17th, 1838.
Sophy's face had more disappointment in it than satisfaction.
'I can explain the circumstances to you now,' said her father. 'At Talloon we were almost out of reach of any chaplains, and, as you know, were almost the only English. We always intended to take you to the nearest station, as had been done with Lucy, but your dear mother was never well enough to bear the journey; and when our next little one was born, it was so plain that he could not live, that I sent in haste to beg that the chaplain would come to us. It was then that you were both baptized, and before the week was over, he buried little Henry. It was the first of our troubles. We never again had health or spirits for any festive occasion while we continued in India, and thus the ceremony was never completed. In fact, I take shame to myself for having entirely forgotten that you had never been received into the congregation.'
'Then I have told a falsehood whenever I said the Catechism!' burst out Sophy. Lucy would have laughed, and Albinia could almost have been amused at the turn her displeasure had taken.
'It was not your fault,' said Mr. Kendal, quietly.
He evidently wished the subject to be at an end, excepting that in silence he laid before Albinia's eyes the certificate of the baptism of the twin-brothers, not long after the first arrival in India. He then put the book in his pocket, and began, as usual, to read aloud.
'Oh, don't go, mamma,' said Sophy, when she had been carried to her own room at bed-time, and made ready for the night.
Albinia was only too glad to linger, in the hope to be admitted into some of the recesses of that untransparent nature, and by way of assistance, said, 'I was not at all prepared for this discovery.'
Sophy drew a long sigh, and said, 'If I had never been christened, I should have thought there was some hope for me.'
'That would have been too dreadful. How could you imagine your papa capable—?'
'I thought I had found out why I am so horrid! exclaimed Sophy. 'Oh, if I could only make a fresh beginning! Mamma, do pray give me a Prayer Book.'
Albinia gave it to her, and she hastily turned the pages to the Order for Private Baptism.
'At least I have not made the promises and vows!' she said, as if her stern conscientiousness obtained some relief.
'Not formally made them,' said Albinia; 'but you cannot have a right to the baptismal blessings, except on those conditions.'
'Mamma, then I never had the sign of the cross on my forehead! It does not feel blest!' And then, hastily and low, she muttered,' Oh! is that why I never could bear the cross in all my life!'
'Nay, my poor Sophy, yon must not think of it like a spell. Many bear the cross no better, who have had it marked on their brows.'
'Can it be done now?' cried Sophy, eagerly.
'Certainly; I think it ought to be done. We will see what your father says.'
'Oh, mamma, beg him, pray him!' exclaimed Sophy. 'I know it will make me begin to be good! I can't bear not to be one of those marked and sealed. Oh! and, mamma, you will be my godmother? Can't you? If the gleams of goodness and brightness do find me out, they are always from you.'
'I think I might be, dear child,' said Albinia, 'but Mr. Dusautoy must tell us whether I may. But, indeed, I am afraid to see you reckon too much on this. The essential, the regenerating grace, is yours already, and can save you from yourself, and Confirmation adds the rest—but you must not think of any of these like a charm, which will save you all further trouble with yourself. They do not kill the faults, but they enable you to deal with them. Even baptism itself, you know, has destroyed the guilt of past sin, but does not hinder subsequent temptation.'
Albinia hardly knew how far Sophy attended to this caution, for all she said was to reiterate the entreaty that the omitted ceremony might be supplied.
Mr. Kendal gave a ready consent, as soon as he was told that Sophy so ardently wished for it—so willing, indeed, that Albinia was surprised, until he went on to say, 'No one need be aware of the matter beyond ourselves. Your brother and sister would, I have no doubt, act as sponsors. Nay, if Ferrars would officiate, we need hardly mention it even to Dusautoy. It could take place in your sitting-room.'
'But, Edmund!' began Albinia, aghast, 'would that be the right thing? I hardly think Maurice would consent.'
'You are not imagining anything so preposterous or inexpedient as to wish to bring Sophia forward in church,' said Mr. Kendal; 'even if she were physically capable of it, I should not choose to expose her to anything so painful or undesirable.'
'I am afraid, then,' said Albinia, 'that it will not be done at all. It is not receiving her into the congregation to have this service read before half-a-dozen people in my sitting-room.'
'Better not have it done at all, then,' said Mr. Kendal. 'It is not essential. I will not have her made a spectacle.'
'Will you only consult Mr. Dusautoy?'
'I do not wish Mr. Dusautoy to interfere in my family regulations. I mean, that I have a great respect for him, but as a clergyman, and one wedded to form, he would not take into account the great evil of making a public display, and attracting attention to a girl of her age, station, and disposition. And, in fact,' added Mr. Kendal, with the same scrupulous candour as his daughter always showed, 'for the sake of my own position, and the effect of example, I should not wish this unfortunate omission to be known.'
'I suspect,' said Albinia, 'that the example of repairing it would speak volumes of good.'
'It is mere absurdity to speak of it!' said Mr. Kendal. 'The poor child is not to leave her couch yet for weeks.'
Sophy was told in the morning that the question was under consideration, and Lucy was strictly forbidden to mention the subject.
When next Mr. Kendal came to read with Sophy, she said imploringly, 'Papa, have you thought?'
'Yes,' he said, 'I have done so; but your mamma thinks, and, on examination of the subject, I perceive she is right, that the service has no meaning unless it take place in the church.'
'Yes,' said Sophy; 'but you know I am to be allowed to go about in July.'
'You will hardly be equal to any fatigue even then, I fear, my dear; and you would find this publicity extremely trying and unpleasant.'
'It would not last ten minutes,' said Sophy, 'and I am sure I should not care! I should have something else to think about. Oh! papa, when my forehead aches with surliness, it does feel so unblest, so uncrossed!' and she put her hand over it, 'and all the books and hymns seem not to belong to me. I think I shall be able to keep off the tempers when I have a right in the cross.'
'Ah! my child, I am afraid the tempers are a part of your physical constitution,' he returned, mournfully.
'You mean that I am like you, papa,' said Sophy. 'I think I might at least learn to be really like you, and if I must feel miserable, not to be unkind and sulky! And then I should leave off even the being unhappy about nothing.'
Her eyes brightened, but her father shook his head sadly, and said, 'You would not be like me, my dear, if depression never made you selfish. But,' he added, with an effort, 'you will not suffer so much from low spirits when you are in better health, and able to move about.'
'Oh, no!' exclaimed Sophy; 'I often feel so sick of lying here, that I feel as if I never could be sulky if only I might walk about, and go from one room to another when I please! But papa, you will let me be admitted into the Church when I am able, will you not?'
'It shall be well weighed, Sophy.'
Sophy knew her father too well, and had too much reticence to say any more. He was certainly meditating deeply, and reading too, indeed he would almost have appeared to have a fit of the study, but for little Maurice, a tyrannical little gentleman, who domineered over the entire household, and would have been grievously spoilt, if his mother had not taken all the crossing the stout little will upon herself. He had a gallant pair of legs, and the disposition of a young Centaur, he seemed to divide the world into things that could be ridden on, and that could not; and when he bounced at the study door, with 'Papa! gee! gee!' and lifted up his round, rosy face, and despotic blue eyes, Mr. Kendal's foot was at his service, and the study was brown no longer.
The result of Mr. Kendal's meditations was an invitation to his wife to drive with him to Fairmead.
That was a most enjoyable drive, the weather too hot and sunny, perhaps, for Albinia's preferences, but thoroughly penetrating, and giving energy to, her East-Indian husband, and making the whole country radiant with sunny beauty—the waving hay-fields falling before the mower's scythe, the ranks of hay-makers tossing the fragrant grass, the growing corn softly waving in the summer breeze, the river blue with reflected sky, the hedges glowing with stately fox-gloves, or with blushing wreaths of eglantine. And how cool, fresh, and fair was the beech-avenue at Fairmead.
Yet though Albinia came to it with the fond tenderness of old association, it was not with the regretful clinging of the first visit, when it seemed to her the natural home to which she still really belonged. Nor had she the least thought about producing an impression of her own happiness, and scarcely any whether 'Edmund' would be amused and at ease, though knowing he had a stranger to encounter in the person of Winifred's sister, Mary Reid.
That was not a long day. It was only too short, though Mr. and Mrs. Kendal stayed three hours longer than on the last occasion. Mr. Kendal faced Mary Reid without flinching, and she, having been previously informed that Albinia's husband was the most silent and shy man in existence, began to doubt her sister's veracity. And Albinia, instead of dealing out a shower of fireworks, to hide what, if not gloom, was at least twilight, was now 'temperately bright,' talking naturally of what most concerned her with the sprightliness of her happy temper, but without effort; and gratifying Winifred by a great deal more notice of the new niece and namesake than she had ever bestowed on either of her predecessors in their infant days. Moreover, Lucy's two long visits had made Mrs. Ferrars feel a strong interest in her, and, with a sort of maternal affection, she inquired after the cuttings of the myrtle which she had given her.