'Ah!' said Albinia, 'I never honoured gardening so much.'
'I know you would never respect it in me.'
'As you know, I love a walk with an object, and never could abide breaking my back, pottering over a pink with a stem that wont support it, and a calyx that wont hold it.'
'And Lucy converted you when I could not!'
'If you had known my longing for some wholesome occupation for her, such as could hurt neither herself nor any one else, and the pleasure of seeing her engrossed by anything innocent, making it so easy to gratify her. Why, a new geranium is a constant fund of ecstasy, and I do not believe she was ever so grateful to her father in her life as when he gave her a forcing-frame. Anything is a blessing that makes people contented at home, and takes them out of themselves.'
'Lucy is a very nice, pleasant inmate; her ready obligingness and facility of adapting herself make her very agreeable.'
'Yes,' said Albinia, 'she is the "very woman," taking her complexion from things around, and so she will go smoothly through the world, and be always preferred to my poor turbid, deep-souled Sophy.'
'Are you going to be very angry with me?'
'Ah! you do not know Sophy! Poor, dear child! I do so long that she could have—if it were but one day, one hour, of real, free, glowing happiness! I think it would sweeten and open her heart wonderfully just to have known it! If I could but see any chance of it, but I am afraid her health will always be against her, and oh! that dreadful sense of depression! Do you know, Winifred, I do think love would be the best chance. Now, don't laugh; I do assure you there is no reason Sophy should not be very handsome.'
'Quite as handsome as the owl's children, my dear.'
'Well, the owls are the only young birds fit to be seen. But I tell you, Sophy's profile is as regular as her father's, and animation makes her eyes beautiful, and she has grown immensely since she has been lying down, so that she will come out without that disproportioned look. If her eyebrows were rather less marked, and her complexion—but that will clear.'
'Yes, we will make her a beauty when we are about it.'
'And, after all, affection is the great charm, and if she were attached, it would, be so intensely—and happiness would develop so much that is glorious, only hidden down so deep.'
'I hope you may find her a male Albinia,' said Winifred, a little wickedly, 'but take care. It might be kill or cure, and I fancy when sunshine is attracted by shadow, it is more often as it was in your case than vice versa.'
'Take care!' repeated Albinia, affronted. 'You don't fancy I am going beyond a vague wish, do you?'
'And rather a premature one. How old is Sophy?'
'Towards fourteen, but years older in thought and in suffering.'
Albinia did not hear the result of the conference with her brother till she had resumed her seat in the carriage, after having been surprised by Mr. Kendal handing in three tall theological tomes. They both had much to think over as they drove home in the lengthening shadows. Albinia was greatly concerned that Winifred's health had become affected, and that her ordinary home duties were beyond her strength. Albinia had formerly thought Fairmead parsonage did not give her enough to do, but now she saw the gap that she had left; and she had fallen into a maze of musings over schemes for helping Winifred, before Mr. Kendal spoke, telling her that he had resolved that Sophia's admission into the Church should take place as soon as she was equal to the exertion.
Albinia asked if she should speak to Mr. Dusautoy, but the manliness of Mr. Kendal's character revolted from putting off a confession upon his wife; so he went to church the next morning, and saw the vicar afterwards.
Mr. Dusautoy's first thought was gratitude for the effort that the resolution must have cost both Mr. Kendal and his daughter; his next, how to make the occasion as little trying to their feelings as was consistent with his duty and theirs. He saw Sophy, and tried to draw her out, but, though far from sullen, she did not reply freely. However, he was satisfied, and he wished her, likewise, to consider herself under preparation for Confirmation in the autumn. She did all that he wished quietly and earnestly, but without much remark, her confidence only came forth when her feelings were strongly stirred, and it was remarkable that throughout this time of preparation there was not the remotest shadow of ill-temper.
Mr. Kendal insisted that her London doctor should come to see her at the year's end. The improvement had not been all that had been hoped, but it was decided that though several hours of each day must still be spent on her back, she might move about, join the meals, and do whatever she could without over-fatigue. It seemed a great release, but it was a shock to find how very little she could do at first, now that she had lost the habit of exertion, and of disregard of her discomforts. She had quite shot up to more than the ordinary woman's height, and was much taller than her sister—but this hardly gave the advantage Albinia had hoped, for she had a weak, overgrown look, and could not help stooping. A number of people in a room, or even the sitting upright during a morning call, seemed quite to overcome and exhaust her: but still the return to ordinary life was such great enjoyment, that she endured all with good temper.
But now the church-going was possible, a fit of exceeding dread came upon her. Albinia found her with the tears silently rolling down her cheeks, almost as if she were unconscious of them.
'Oh, mamma, I can never do it! I know what I am. I can't let them say I will keep all the commandments always! It will not be true!'
'It will be true that you have the steadfast purpose, my dear.'
'How can it be steadfast when I know I can't?'
It was the old story, and all had to be argued through again how the obligation was already incurred at her baptism, and how it was needful that she should be sworn to her own side of the great covenant—how the power would be given, and the grace supplied, but that the will and purpose to obey was required—and then Sophy recurred to that blessing of the cross for which she longed so earnestly, and which again Albinia feared she was regarding in the light of a talisman.
Mr. Ferrars was to be her godfather. Mr. Kendal had wished Aunt Winifred, as Lucy called her, to be the godmother, but Sophy had begged earnestly for Mrs. Dusautoy, whose kindness had made a great impression.
There was not much liking between Mrs. Ferrars and Sophy. Perhaps Sophy had been fretted and angered by her quick, decided ways, and rather disgusted by the enthusiasm of her brother and sister about Fairmead; and she was not gratified by hearing that Winifred was to accompany her husband in order to try the experiment of a short absence from cares and children.
Albinia, on the contrary, was highly pleased to have Winifred to nurse, and desirous of showing off Sophy's reformation. Winifred arrived late in the day, with an invalid look, and a great inclination to pine for her baby. She was so much tired, that Albinia took her upstairs very soon, and put her to bed, sitting with her almost all the evening, hoping that downstairs all was going on well.
The next morning, too, went off very well. Mr. Ferrars sought a private talk with his old godchild, and though Sophy scarcely answered, she liked his kind, frank, affectionate manner, and showed such feeling as he wished, so that he fully credited all that his sister thought of her.
Otherwise, Sophy was kept quiet, to gave her strength and collect her thoughts.
At seven o'clock in the evening, there was not a formidable congregation. Miss Meadows, who had been informed as late as could save offence, had treated it as a freak of Mrs. Kendal, resented the injunction of secrecy, and would neither be present herself, nor let her mother come out. Genevieve, three old men, and a child or two, were the whole number present. The daily service at Bayford was an offering made in faith by the vicar, for as yet there was very little attendance. 'But,' said Mr. Dusautoy, 'it is the worship of God, not an entertainment to please man—it is all nonsense to talk of its answering or not answering.'
Mr. Kendal was in a state of far greater suffering from shame than his daughter, as indeed he deserved, but he endured it with a gallant, almost touching resignation. He was the only witness of her baptism, and it seemed like a confession, when he had to reply to the questions, by whom, and with what words this child had been baptized, when she stood beside him overtopping her little godmother. She stood with tightly-locked hands, and ebbing colour, which came back in a flood when Mr. Dusautoy took her by the hand, and said, 'We receive this child into the congregation,' and when he traced the cross on her brow, she stood tremblingly, her lips squeezed close together, and after she returned to her place no one saw her face.
Albinia, with her brother and Lucy, were at home by the short cut before the carriage could return. She met Sophy at the hall-door, kissed her, and said, 'Now, my dear, you had better lie down, and be quite quiet;' then followed Winifred into the drawing-room, and took her shawl and bonnet from her, lingering for a happy twilight conversation. Lucy came down, and went to water her flowers, and by-and-by tea was brought, the gentlemen came in from their walk, and Mr. Kendal asked whether Sophy was tired. Albinia went up to see. She found her on her couch in the morning room, and told her that tea was ready. There was something not promising in the voice that replied; and she said,
'No, don't move, my dear, I will bring it to you; you are tired.'
'No—I'll go down, thank you.' It was the gruff voice!
'Indeed you had much better not, my dear. It is only an hour to bed-time, and you would only tire yourself for nothing.'
'You are tired, Sophy,' said her father. 'You had better lie down while you have your tea.'
'No, thank you,' growled Sophy, as though hurt by being told to lie down before company.
Her father put a sofa-cushion behind her, but though she mumbled some acknowledgment, it was so surly, that Mrs. Ferrars looked up in surprise, and she would not lean back till fatigue gained the ascendancy. Mr. Kendal asking her, got little in reply but such a grunt, that Mrs. Ferrars longed to shake her, but her father fetched a footstool, and put it under her feet, and grew a little abstracted in his talk, as if watching her, and his eye had something of the old habitual melancholy.
So it went on. The night's rest did not carry off the temper. Sophy was monosyllabic, displeased if not attended to, but receiving attention like an affront, wanting nothing, but offended if it were not offered. Albinia was exceedingly grieved. She had some suspicion that Sophy might have been hurt by her going to Mrs. Ferrars instead of to her on their return from church, and made an attempt at an apology, but this was snubbed like an additional affront, and she could only bide the time, and be greatly disappointed at such an exhibition before the guests.
Winifred looked on, forbearing to hurt Albinia's feelings by remarks, but in private compensating by little outbreaks with her husband, teasing him about his hopeful goddaughter, laughing at Albinia's infatuation, and railing at Mr. Kendal's endurance of the ill-humour, which she declared he promoted.
Maurice, as usual, was provoking. He had no notion of giving up his godchild, he said, and he had no doubt that Edmund Kendal could manage his own child his own way.
'Because of his great success in that line.'
'He is not what he was. He uses his sense and principle now, and when they are fairly brought to bear, I know no one whom I would more entirely trust.'
'Well! it will be great good luck if I do not fall foul of Miss Sophy one of these days, if no one else will!'
Winifred was slightly irritable herself from weakness, and on the last morning of her stay she could bear the sight no longer. Sophy had twice been surly to Lucy's good offices, had given Albinia a look like thunder, and answered her father with a sulky displeasure that made Mrs. Ferrars exclaim, as soon as he had left the room, 'I should never allow a child of mine to peak to her father in that manner!'
Sophy swelled. She did not think Mrs. Ferrars had any right to interfere between her and her father. Her silence provoked Winifred to continue, 'I wonder if you have any compunction for having spoilt all your—all Mrs. Kendal's enjoyment of our visit.'
'I am not of consequence enough to spoil any one's pleasure.'
That was the last effort. Albinia came into the room, with little Maurice holding her hand, and flourishing a whip. He trotted up to the sofa, and began instantly to 'whip sister Sophy;' serve her right, if I had but the whip, thought Mrs. Ferrars, as his mother hurried to snatch him off. Leaning over Sophy's averted face, she saw a tear under her eyelashes, but took no notice.
Three seconds after, Sophy reared herself up, and with a rigid face and slow step walked out of the room.
'Have you said anything to her?' asked Albinia.
'I could not help it,' said Winifred, narrating what had past. 'Have I done wrong?'
'Edmund cannot bear to have anything harsh said to her in these moods, especially about her behaviour to himself. He thinks she cannot help it—but it may be well that she should know how it appears to other people, for I cannot bear to see his patient kindness spurned. Only, you know, she values it in her heart. I am afraid we shall have a terrible agony now.'
Albinia was right. It was the worst agony poor Sophy had ever undergone. She had been all this time ignorant that it was a cross fit, only imagining herself cruelly neglected and cast aside for the sake of Mrs. Ferrars; but the wakening time had either arrived, or had been brought by that reproach, and she beheld her conduct in the most abhorrent light. After having desired to be pledged to her share of the covenant, and earnestly longed to bear the cross, to be sworn in as soldier and servant, to have put her neck under the yoke of her old master ere the cross had dried upon her brow, to have been meanly jealous, ungrateful, disrespectful, vindictive!! oh! misery, misery! hopeless misery! She would take no word of comfort when Albinia tried to persuade her that it had been partly the reaction of a mind wrought up to an occasion very simple in its externals, and of a body fatigued by exertion; and then in warm-hearted candour professed that she herself had been thoughtless in neglecting Sophy for Winifred. Still less comfort would she take in her father's free forgiveness, and his sad entreaties that she would not treat these fits of low spirits as a crime, for they were not her fault, but that of her constitution.
'Then one can't help being hateful and wicked! Nothing is of any use! I had rather you had told me I was mad!' said poor Sophy.
She was so spent and exhausted with weeping, that she could not come down—indeed, between grief and nervousness she would not eat; and Albinia found Mr. Kendal mournfully persuading her, when a stern command would have done more good. Albinia spoke it: 'Sophy, you have put your father to a great deal of pain already; if you are really grieving over it, you will not hurt him more by making yourself ill.'
The strong will came into action on the right side, and Sophy sat up, took what was offered, but what was she that they should care for her, when she had spoilt mamma's pleasure? Better go and be happy with Mrs. Ferrars.
Sophy's next visitor came up with a manly tread, and she almost feared that she had made herself ill enough for the doctor; but it was Mr. Ferrars, with a kind face of pitying sympathy.
'May I come to wish my godchild good-bye?' he said.
Sophy did not speak, and he looked compassionately at the prone dejection of the whole figure, and the pale, sallow face, so piteously mournful. He took her hand, and began to tell her of the godfather's present, that he had brought her—a little book of devotions intended for the time when she should be confirmed. Sophy uttered a feeble 'thank you,' but a hopeless one.
'Ah! you are feeling as if nothing would do you any good,' said Mr. Ferrars.
'Papa says so!' she answered.
'Not quite,' said Mr. Ferrars. 'He knows that your low spirits are the effect of temperament and health, and that you are not able to prevent yourself from feeling unhappy and aggrieved. And perhaps you reckoned on too much sensible effect from Church ordinances. Now joy, help, all these blessings are seldom revealed to our consciousness, but are matters of faith; and you must be content to work on in faith in the dark, before you feel comfort. I cannot but hope that if you will struggle, even when you are hurt and annoyed, to avoid the expression of vexation, the morbid temper will wear out, and you will both be tempted and suffer less, as you grow older. And, Sophy—forgive me for asking—do you pray in this unhappy state?'
'I cannot. It is not true.'
'Make it true. Take some verse of a Psalm. Shall I mark you some? Repeat them, even if you seem to yourself not to feel them. There is a holy power that will work on you at last; and when you can truly pray, the dark hour will pass.'
'Mark them,' said Sophy.
There was some space, while she gave him the book, and he showed her the verses. Then he rose to go.
'I wish I had not spoilt the visit,' she said, wistfully, at last.
'We shall see you again, and we shall know each other better,' he said, kindly. 'You are my godchild now, Sophy, and you know that I must remember you constantly in prayer.'
'Yes,' she faintly said.
'And will you promise me to try my remedy? I think it will soften your heart to the graces of the Blessed Comforter. And even if all seems gloom within, look out, see others happy, try to rejoice with them, and peace will come in! Now, goodbye, my dear godchild, and the God of Peace bless you, and give you rest.
Mr. Dusautoy had given notice of the day of the Confirmation, when Mr. Kendal called his wife.
'I wonder,' he said, 'my dear, whether Sophia can spare you to take a walk with me before church.'
Sophy, who was well aware that a walk with him was the greatest and rarest treat to his wife, gave gracious permission, and in a few minutes they were walking by the bright canal-side, under the calm evening sunshine and deep blue sky of early autumn.
Mr. Kendal said not a word, and Albinia, leaning on his arm, listened, as it were, to the stillness, or rather to the sounds that marked it—the gurgling of the little streams let off into the water-courses in the meadows; the occasional plunge of the rat from the banks, the sounds from the town, softened by distance, and the far-off cawings of the rooks, which she could just see wheeling about as little black specks over the plantations of Woodside, or watching the swallows assembling for departure sitting in long ranks, like an ornament along the roof of a neighbouring barn.
Long, long it was before Mr. Kendal broke silence, but when at length he did speak, his words amazed her extremely.
'Albinia, poor Sophia's admission into the Church has not been the only neglect. I have never been confirmed. I intend to speak to Dusautoy this evening, but I thought you would wish to know it first.'
'Thank you. I suppose you went out to India too young.'
'Poor Maria says truly that no one thought of these things in our day, at least so far as we were concerned. I must explain to you, Albinia, how it is that I see things very differently now from the light in which I once viewed them. I was sent home from India, at six years old, to correspondents and relations to whom I was a burthen. I was placed at a private school, where the treatment was of the harsh style so common in those days. The boys always had more tasks than they could accomplish, and were kept employed by being always in arrears with their lessons. This pressed less heavily upon me than on most; but though I seldom incurred punishment, there was a sort of hard distrust of me, I believe because the master could not easily overwhelm me with work, so as to have me in his power. I know I was often unjustly treated, and I never was popular.'
'Yes, I can imagine you extremely miserable.'
'You can understand my resolution that my boys should not be sent to England to be homeless, and how I judged all schools by my own experience. I stayed there too late, till I was beyond both tormentors and masters, and was left to an unlimited appetite for books, chiefly poetry. Our religious instruction was a nullity, and I am only surprised that the results were not worse. India was not likely to supply what education had omitted. Looking back on old journals and the like, I am astonished to see how unsettled my notions were—my sublimity, which was really ignorant childishness, and yet my perfect unconsciousness of my want of Christianity.'
'I dare say you cannot believe it was yourself, any more than I can. What brought other thoughts!'
'Practical obligations made me somewhat less dreamy, and my dear boy, Edmund, did much for me, but all so insensibly, that I can remember no marked change. I do not know whether you will understand me, when I say that I had attained to somewhat of what I should call personal religion, such as we often find apart from the Church.'
'But, Edmund, you always were a Churchman.'
'I was; but I viewed the Church merely as an establishment—human, not divine. I had learnt faith from Holy Scripture, from my boy, from the infants who passed away so quickly, and I better understood how to direct the devotional tendencies that I had never been without, but the sacramental system had never dawned on my comprehension, nor the real meaning of Christian fellowship. Thence my isolation.'
'You had never fairly seen the Church.'
'Never. It might have made a great difference to me if Dusautoy had been here at the time of my trouble. When he did come, I had sunk into a state whence I could not rouse myself to understand his principles. I can hardly describe how intolerable my life had become. I was almost resolved on returning to India. I believe I should have done so if you had not come to my rescue.'
'What would you have done with the children?'
'To say the truth I had idolized their brother to such an exclusive degree, that I could not turn to the others when he was taken from me. I deserved to lose him; and since I have seen this unfortunate strain of melancholy developed in poor Sophia, who so much resembles him, I have been the more reconciled to his having been removed. I never understood what the others might be until you drew them out.'
Albinia paused, afraid to press his reserve too far; and the next thing she said was, 'I think I understand your distinction between personal religion and sacramental truth. It explains what has often puzzled me about good devout people who did not belong to the Church. The Visible Church cannot save without this individual personal religion but without having recourse to the Church, there is—' she could not find the word.
'There is a loss of external aid,' he said; 'nay, of much more. There is no certainty of receiving the benefits linked by Divine Power to her ordinances. Faith, in fact, while acknowledging the great Object of Faith, refuses or neglects to exercise herself upon the very subjects which He has set before her; and, in effect, would accept Him on her terms, not on His own.'
'It was not refusal on your part,' said Albinia.
'No, it was rather indifference and imaginary superiority. But I have read and thought much of late, and see more clearly. If I thought of this rite of Confirmation at all, it was only as a means of impressing young minds. I now see every evidence that it is the completion of Baptismal grace, and without, like poor Sophia, expecting that effects would ever have been perceptible, I think that had I known how to seek after the Spirit of Counsel and Ghostly Strength, I might have given way less to the infirmities of my character, and have been less wilfully insensible to obvious duties.'
'Then you have made up your mind?'
'Yes. I shall speak to Mr. Dusautoy at once.'
'And,' she said, feeling for his sensitive shyness, 'no one else need know it—at least—'
'I should not wish to conceal it from the children,' he answered, with his scrupulous candour. He was supine when thought more ill of than he deserved, but he always defended himself from undeserved credit.
'Whom do you think I have for a candidate?' said Mr. Dusautoy that evening.
'Another now! I thought you were talking to Mr. Kendal about the onslaught on the Pringle pew.'
'What do you think of my churchwarden himself?'
'You don't mean that he has never been confirmed!'
'So he tells me. He went out to India young, and was never in the way of such things. Well, it will be a great example.'
'Take care what you do. He will never endure having it talked of.'
'I think he has made up his mind, and is above all nonsense. I am sure it is well that I need not examine him. I should soon get beyond my depth.'
'And what good did his depth ever do to him,' indignantly cried Mrs. Dusautoy, 'till that dear good wife of his took him in hand? Don't you remember what a log he was when first we came—how I used to say he gave you subscriptions to get rid of you.'
'Well, well, Fanny, what's the use of recollecting all our foolish first impressions. I always told you he was the most able man in the parish.'
'Fanny' laughed merrily at this piece of sagacity, as she said 'Ay, the most able and the least practicable; and the best of it is, that his wife has not the most distant idea that she has been the making of him. She nearly quarrelled with me for hinting it. She would have it that "Edmund" had it all in him, and had only recovered his health and spirits.'
And, indeed, it was no wonder she was happy. This step taken of free will by Mr. Kendal, was an evidence not only of a powerful reasoning intellect bowed to an act of simple faith but of a victory over the false shame that had always been a part of his nature. Nor did it apparently cost him as much as his consent to Sophy's admission into the Church; the first effort had been the greatest, and he was now too much taken up with deep thoughts of devotion to be sensitive as to the eyes and remarks of the world. The very resolution to bend in faithful obedience to a rite usually belonging to early youth and not obviously enforced to human reason, nor made an express condition of salvation, was as a pledge that he would strive to walk for the future in the path of self-denying obedience. Who that saw the manly well-knit form kneeling among the slight youthful ones around, and the thoughtful, sorrow-marked brow bowed down beneath the Apostolic hand, could doubt that such faith and such humble obedience would surely be endowed with a full measure of the Spirit of Ghostly Might, to lead him on in his battle with himself? Those young ones needed the 'sevenfold veil between them and the fires of youth,' but surely the freshening and renewing came most blessedly to the man weary already with sin and woe, and tired out alike with himself and the world, because he had lived to himself alone.
Old Mr. Pringle never stirred beyond his parlour, and was invisible to every one, except his housekeeper and doctor, but his tall, square, curtained pew was jealously locked up, and was a grievance to the vicar, who having been foiled in several attempts, was meditating a fresh one, if, as he told his wife, he could bring his churchwarden up to the scratch, when one Sunday morning the congregation was electrified by the sound of a creak and a shake, and beheld a stout hale sunburnt gentleman, fighting with the disused door, and finally gaining the victory by strength of hand, admitting himself and a boy among the dust and the cobwebs.
Had Mr. Pringle, or rather his housekeeper, made a virtue of necessity? and if so, who could it be?
Albinia hailed the event as a fertile source of conjecture which might stave off dangerous subjects in the Sunday call, but there was no opportunity for any discussion, for Maria was popping about, settling and unsettling everything and everybody, in a state of greater confusion than ever, inextricably entangling her inquiries for Sophy with her explanations about the rheumatism which had kept grandmamma from church, and jumping up to pull down the Venetian blind, which descended awry, and went up worse. The lines got into such a hopeless complication, that Albinia came to help her, while Mr. Kendal stood dutifully by the fire, in the sentry-like manner in which he always passed that hour, bending now and then to listen and respond to some meek remark of old Mrs. Meadows, and now and then originating one. As to assisting Maria in any pother, he well knew that would be a vain act of chivalry, and he generally contrived to be insensible to her turmoils.
'Who could that have been in old Pringle's seat?' he presently began, appropriating Albinia's cherished morsel of gossip; but he was not allowed to enjoy it, for Miss Meadows broke out,
'Oh, Edmund! this blind, I beg your pardon, but if you would help—'
He was obliged to move to the window, and nervously clutching his arm, she whispered, 'You'll excuse it, I know, but don't mention it— not a word to mamma.' Mr. Kendal looked at Albinia to gather what could be this dreadful subject, but the next words made it no longer doubtful. 'Ah, you were away, there's no use in explaining—but not a word of Sam Pringle. It would only make her uneasy—' she gasped in a floundering whisper, stopping suddenly short, for at that moment the stranger and his son were entering the garden, so near them, that they might have seen the three pairs of eyes levelled on them, through the wide open end of the unfortunate blind, which was now in the shape of a fan.
Albinia's cheeks glowed with sympathy, and she longed for the power of helping her, marvelling how a being so nervously restless and devoid of self-command could pass through a scene likely to be so trying. The bell sounded, and the loud hearty tones of a manly voice were heard. Albinia looked to see whether her help were needed, but Miss Meadows's whole face was brightened, and moving across the room with unusually even steps, she leant on the arm of her mother's chair, saying, 'Mamma, it is Captain Pringle. You remember Samuel Pringle? He settled in the Mauritius, you know, and he was at church this morning with his little boy.'
There was something piteous in the searching look of inquiry that Mrs. Meadows cast at her daughter's face, but Maria had put it aside with an attempt at a smile, as 'Captain Pringle' was announced.
He trod hard, and spoke loud, and his curly grizzled hair was thrown back from a bronzed open face, full of broad heartiness, as he walked in with outstretched hand, exclaiming, 'Well, and how do you do?' shaking with all his might the hand that Maria held out. 'And how are you, Mrs. Meadows? You see I could not help coming back to see old friends.'
'Old friends are always welcome, sir,' said the old lady, warmly. 'My son, Mr. Kendal, sir—Mrs. Kendal,' she added, with a becoming old-fashioned movement of introduction.
'Very glad to meet you,' said the captain, extending to each such a hearty shake of the hand, that Albinia suspected he was taking her on trust for Maria's sister.
'Your little boy?' asked Mrs. Meadows.
'Ay—Arthur, come and make the most of yourself, my man,' said he, thumping the shy boy on the back to give him courage. 'I've brought him home for his schooling—quite time, you see, though what on earth I'm to do without him—'
The boy looked miserable at the words. 'Ay, ay,' continued his father, 'you'll do well enough. I'm not afraid for you, master, but that you'll be happy as your father was before you, when once you have fellows to play with you. Here is Mr. Kendal will tell you so.'
It was an unfortunate appeal, but Mr. Kendal made the best of it, saying that his boy was very happy at his tutor's.
'A private tutor, eh?' said the rough captain, 'I'd not thought of that—neither home nor school. I had rather do it thoroughly, and trust to numbers to choose friends from, and be licked into shape.'
Poor little Arthur looked as if the process would be severe; and by way of consolation, Mrs. Meadows suggested, a piece of cake. Maria moved to ring the bell. It was the first time she had stirred since the visitor came in, and he getting up at the same time, that she might not trouble herself, their eyes met. 'I'm very glad to see you again,' he exclaimed, catching hold of her hand for another shake; 'but, bless me! you are sadly altered! I'm sorry to see you looking so ill.'
'We all grow old, you know,' said Maria, endeavouring to smile, but half strangled by a tear, and looking at that moment as she might have done long ago. 'You find many changes.'
'I hope you find Mr. Pringle pretty well,' said Albinia, thinking this might be a relief, and accordingly, the kind-hearted captain began, ruefully to describe the sad alterations that time had wrought. Then he explained that he had had little correspondence with home, and had only landed three days since, so that he was ignorant of all Bayford tidings, and began asking after a multitude of old friends and acquaintance.
The Kendals thought all would go on the better in their absence, and escaped from the record of deaths and marriages, each observing to the other as they left the house, that there could be little doubt that nurse's story was true, but both amazed by the effect on Maria, who had never been seen before to sit so long quiet in her chair. Was his wife alive? Albinia thought not, but could not be certain. His presence was evidently happiness to Miss Meadows, but would this last? Would this renewal soothe her, or only make her more restless and unhappy?
Albinia found that Sophy's imagination bad been quicker than her own. Lucy had brought home the great news of the stranger, and she had leapt at once to the conclusion that it must be the hero of nurse's story, but she had had the resolution to keep the secret from her sister, who was found reproaching her with making mysteries. When Lucy heard that it was Captain Pringle, she was quite provoked.
'Only Mr. Pringle's nephew?' she said, disdainfully. 'What was the use of making a fuss? I thought it was some one interesting!'
Sophy was able to walk to church in the evening, but was made to go in to rest at the vicarage before returning home. While this was being discussed before the porch, Albinia felt a pressure on her arm, and looking round, saw Maria Meadows.
'Can you spare me a few moments?' she said; and Albinia turned aside with her to the flagged terrace path between the churchyard and vicarage garden, in the light of a half-moon.
'You were so kind this morning,' began Maria, 'that I thought—you see it is very awkward—not that I have any idea—but if you would speak to Edmund—I know he is not in the habit—morning visits and—'
'Do you wish him to call? He had been thinking of it.'
Maria would have been unbounded in her gratitude, but catching herself up, she disclaimed all personal interest—only she said Edmund knew nothing of anything that had passed—if he did, he would see they would feel—
'I think,' said Albinia, kindly, 'that we do know that you had some troubles on that score. Old nurse said something to Sophy, but no other creature knows it.'
'Ah!' exclaimed Maria, 'that is what comes of trusting any one. I was so ill when I found out how it had been, that I could not keep it from nurse, but from mamma I did—my poor father being just gone and all—I could not have had her know how much I felt it—the discovery I mean—and it is what I wish her never to do. But oh! Mrs. Kendal, think what it was to find out that when I had been thinking he had been only trifling with me all those years, to find that he had been so unkindly treated. There was his own dear letter to me never unsealed; and there was another to my father saying in a proud-spirited way that he did not know what he had done to be so served, and he wished I might find happiness, for I would never find one that loved me as well. I who had turned against him in my heart!'
'It was cruel indeed! And you kept it from your mother!' said Albinia, beginning to honour her.
'My poor father was just gone, you know, and I could not be grieving her with what was passed and over, and letting her know that my father had broken my heart, as indeed I think he did, though he meant it all for the best. But oh! I thought it hard when Lucy had married the handsomest man in the country, and gone out to India, without a word against it, that I might not please myself, because I was papa's favourite.'
'It was very hard not to be made aware of his intentions.'
'Yea,' said Maria; 'for it gave me such a bitter, restless feeling against him—though I ought to have known him better than to think he would give one minute's pain he could help; and then when I knew the truth, the bitterness all went to poor papa's memory, and yet perhaps he never meant to be unkind either.'
Albinia said some kind words, and Maria went on:
'But what I wanted to say was this—Please don't let mamma suspect one bit about it; and next, if Edmund would not mind showing him a little attention. Do you think he would, my dear? I do so wish that he should not think we were hurt by his marriage, and you see, two lone women can do nothing to make it agreeable; besides that, it would not be proper.'
'Is his wife living?'
'My dear, I could not make up my tongue to ask—the poor dear boy there and all—but it is all the same. I hope she is, for I would not see him unhappy, and you don't imagine I have any folly in my head—oh, no! for I know what a fright the fret and the wear of this have made me; and besides, I never could leave mamma. So I trust his wife is living to make him happy, and I shall be more at peace now I have seen him again, since he turned his horse at Bobble's Leigh, and said I should soon hear from him again.'
'Indeed I think you will be happier. There is something very soothing in taking up old feelings and laying them to rest. I hope even now there is less pain than pleasure.'
'I can't help it,' said Maria. 'I do hope it is not wrong; but his very voice has got the old tone in it, as if it were the old lullaby that my poor heart has been beating for all these years.'
Who would have thought of Maria speaking poetically? But her words did indeed seem to be the truth. In spite of the embarrassment of her situation and the flutter of her feelings, she was in a state of composure unexampled. Albinia had just gratified her greatly by a few words on Captain Pringle's evident good-nature, when a tread came behind them.
'Ha! you here?' exclaimed the loud honest voice.
'We were taking a turn in the moonlight,' said Albinia. 'A beautiful night.'
'Beautiful! Arthur and I have been a bit of the way home with old Goldsmith. There's an evergreen, to be sure; and now—are you bound homewards, Maria?'
Maria clung to Albinia's arm. Perhaps in the days of the last parting, she had been less careful to be with a chaperon.
'Ah! I forgot,' said the captain; 'your way lies the other side of the hill. I had very nearly walked into Willow Lawn this morning, only luckily I bethought me of asking.'
'I hope you will yet walk into Willow Lawn,' said Albinia.
'Ah! thank you; I should like to see the old place. I dare say it may be transmogrified now, but I think I could find my way blindfold about the old garden. I say, Maria, do you remember that jolly tea-party on the lawn, when the frog made one too many?'
'That I do—' Maria could not utter more, and Albinia said she was afraid he would miss a great deal.
'I reckoned on that when I came home. Changes everywhere; but after the one great change,' he added, mournfully, 'the others tell less. One has the less heart to care for an old tree or an old path.'
Albinia felt sure he could mean only one great change, but they were now at Mrs. Meadows's door, and Maria wished them good night, giving a most grateful squeeze of the hand to Mrs. Kendal.
'Where are you bound now?' asked the captain.
'Back to the vicarage, to take up my husband and the girls,' said Albinia, 'but good night. I am not afraid.'
The captain, however, chose to continue a squire of dames, and walked at her side, presently giving utterance to a sound of commiseration. 'Ah! well, poor Maria, I never thought to see her so altered. Why, she had the prettiest bloom—I dare say you remember—but, I beg your pardon, somehow I thought you were her elder sister.'
'Mr. Kendal's first wife was,' said Albinia, pitying the poor man; but Captain Pringle was not a man for awkwardness, and the short whistle with which he received her answer set her off laughing.
'I beg your pardon,' he said, recovering himself; 'but you see I am all astray, like a man buried and dug up again, so no wonder I make strange blunders; and my poor uncle is grown so childish, that he does not know one person from another, and began by telling me Maria Meadows had married and gone out to India. I had not had a letter these seven years, so I thought it was high time to bring my boy home, and renew old times, though how I am ever to go back without him—'
'Is be your only one?'
'Yes. I lost his mother when he was six years old, and we have been all the world to each other since, till I began to think I was spoiling him outright, and it was time he should see what Old England was made of.'
Albinia had something like a discovery to impart now; but she hated the sense of speculating on the poor man's intentions. He talked so much, that he saved her trouble in replying, and presently resumed the subject of Maria's looks.
'She has had a harassed life, I fear,' said Albinia.
'Eh! old Meadows was a terrible old tyrant, I believe; but she was his pet. I thought he refused her nothing—but there's no trusting such a Turk! Oh! ah! I dare say,' as if replying to something within. And then having come to the vicarage wicket, Albinia took leave of him and ran indoors, answering the astonished queries as to how she had been employed, 'Walking home with Aunt Maria and Captain Pringle !'
It was rather a relief at such a juncture that Lucy's curious eyes should be removed. Mr. Ferrars came to talk his wife's state over with his sister. Her children were too much for Winifred, and he wished to borrow Lucy for a few weeks, till a governess could be found for them.
It struck Albinia that this would be an excellent thing for Genevieve Durant, and she at once contrived to ask her to tea, and privately propound the plan.
Genevieve faltered much of thanks, and said that Madame was very good; but the next morning a note was brought in, which caused a sudden change of countenance:
'My dear Madame,
'I was so overwhelmed with your kindness last night, and so unwilling to appear ungrateful, that perhaps I left you under a false impression. I entreat you not to enter on the subject with my grandmamma or my aunt. They would grieve to prevent what they would think for my advantage, and would, I am but too sure, make any sacrifice on my account; but they are no longer young, and though my aunt does not perceive it, I know that the real work of the school depends on me, and that she could not support the fatigue if left unassisted. They need their little Genevieve, likewise, to amuse them in their evenings; and, forgive me, madame, I could not, without ingratitude, forsake them now. Thus, though with the utmost sense of your kindness, I must beg of you to pardon me, and not to think me ungrateful if I decline the situation so kindly offered to me by Mr. Ferrars, thanking you ten thousand times for your too partial recommendation, and entreating you to pardon
'Your most grateful and humble servant, GENEVIEVE CELESTE DURANT.'
'There!' said Albinia, tossing the note to her brother, who was the only person present excepting Gilbert.
'Poor Albinia,' he said, 'it is hard to be disappointed in a bit of patronage.'
'I never meant it as patronage,' said Albinia, slightly hurt. 'I thought it would help you, and rescue her from that school. There will she spend the best years of her life in giving a second-rate education to third-rate girls, not one of whose parents can appreciate her, till she will grow as wizened and as wooden as Mademoiselle herself.'
'Happily,' said Mr. Ferrars, 'there are worse things than being spent in one's duty. She may be doing an important work in her sphere.'
'So does a horse in a mill,' exclaimed Albinia; 'but you would not put a hunter there. Yes, yes, I know, education, and these girls wanting right teaching; but she, poor child, has been but half educated herself, and has not time to improve herself. If she does good, it is by force of sheer goodness, for they all look down upon her, as much as vulgarity can upon refinement.'
'I told her so,', exclaimed Gilbert; 'I told her it was the only way to teach them what she was worth.'
'What did you know of the matter?' asked Albinia; and the colour mounted in the boy's face as he muttered, 'She was overcome when she came down, she said you had been so kind, and we were obliged to walk up and down before she could compose herself, for she did not want the old ladies to know anything about it.'
'And did she not wish to go?'
'No, though I did the best I could. I told her what a jolly place it was, and that the children would be a perfect holiday to her. And I showed her it would not be like going away, for she might come over here whenever she pleased; and when I have my horse, I would come and bring her word of the old ladies once a week.'
'Inducements, indeed!' said Mr. Ferrars. 'And she could not be incited by any of these?'
'No,' said Gilbert, 'she would not hear of leaving the old women. She was only afraid it would vex Mrs. Kendal, and she could not bear not to take the advice of so kind a friend, she said. You are not going to be angry with her,' he added.
'No,' said Albinia, 'one cannot but honour her motives, though I think she is mistaken; and I am sorry for her; but she knows better than to be afraid of me.'
With which assurance Gilbert quitted the room, and the next moment, hearing the front door, she exclaimed, 'I do believe he is gone to tell her how I took the announcement.'
Maurice gave a significant 'Hem!' to which his sister replied, 'Nonsense!'
'Very romantic consolations and confidences.'
'Not at all. They have been used to each other all their lives, and he used to be the only person who knew how to behave to her, so no wonder they are great friends. As to anything else, she is nineteen, and he not sixteen.'
'One great use of going to school is to save lads from that silly pastime. I advise you to look to these moonlight escortings!'
'One would think you were an old dowager, Maurice. I suppose Colonel Bury may not escort Miss Mary.'
'Ah, Albinia, you are a very naughty child still.'
'Of course, when you are here to keep me in order, I wish I never were so at other times when it is not so safe.'
Mr. Kendal was kind and civil to Captain Pringle, and though the boisterous manner seemed to affect him like a thunderstorm, Maria imagined they were delighted with one another.
Maria was strangely serene and happy; her querulous, nervous manner smoothed away, as if rest had come to her at last; and even if the renewed intercourse were only to result in a friendship, there was hope that the troubled spirit had found repose now that misunderstandings were over, and the sore sense of ill-usage appeased.
Yet Albinia was startled when one day Mr. Kendal summoned her, saying, 'It is all over, she has refused him!'
'Impossible; she could only have left half her sentence unsaid.'
'Too certain. She will not leave her mother.'
'Is that all?'
'Of course it is. He told me the whole affair, and certainly Mr. Meadows was greatly to blame. He let Maria give this man every encouragement, believing his property larger, and his expectations more secure than was the case; and when the proposal was made, having discovered his mistake, he sent a peremptory refusal, giving him reason to suppose her a party to the rejection. Captain Pringle sailed in anger; but it appears that his return has revived his former feelings, and that he has found out that poor Maria was a greater sufferer than himself.'
'Why does he come to you?'
'To consult me. He wishes me to persuade poor old Mrs. Meadows to go out to the Mauritius, which is clearly impossible, but Maria must not be sacrificed again. Would the Drurys make her comfortable? Or could she not live alone with her maid?'
'She might live here.'
'Albinia! Think a little.'
'I can think of nothing else. Let her have the morning room, and Sophy's little room, and Lucy and I would do our best for her.'
'No, that is out of the question. I would not impose such charge upon you on any consideration!'
Albinia's face became humble and remorseful. 'Yes,' she said, 'perhaps I am too impatient and flighty.'
'That was not what I meant,' he said; 'but I do not think it right that a person with no claims of relationship should be made a burthen on you.'
'No claims, Edmund,' said she, softly. 'In whose place have you put me?'
He was silent: then said, 'No, it must not be, my kind Albinia. She is a very good old lady, but Sophy and she would clash, and I cannot expose the child to such a trial.'
'I dare say you are right,' pensively said Albinia, perceiving that her plan had been inconsiderate, and that it would require the wisdom, tact, and gentleness of a model woman to deal with such discordant elements. 'What are you going to do?' as he took up his hat. 'Are you going to see Maria? May I come with you?'
'If you please; but do not mention this notion. There is no necessity for such a tax on you; and such arrangement should never be rashly made.'
He asked whether Miss Meadows could see him, and awaited her alone in the dining-room, somewhat to the surprise of his wife; but either he felt that there was a long arrear of kindness owing, or feared to trust Albinia's impulsive generosity.
Meantime Albinia found the poor old lady in much uneasiness and distress. Her daughter fancied it right to keep her in ignorance of the crisis; but Maria was not the woman to conceal her feelings, and her nervous misery had revealed all that she most wished to hide. Too timid to take her confidence by storm, her mother had only exchanged surmises and observations with Betty, and was in a troubled condition of affectionate curiosity and anxiety. Albinia was a welcome visitor since it was a great relief to hear what had really taken place and to know that Mr. Kendal was with Maria.
'Ah! that is kind,' she said; 'but he must tell her not to think of me. I am an old woman, good for nothing but to be put out of the way, and she has gone through quite enough! You will not let her give it up! Tell her I have not many more years to live, and anything is good enough for me.'
'That would hardly comfort her,' said Albinia, affectionately; 'but indeed, dear grandmamma, I hope we shall convince her that we can do something to supply her place.'
'Ah! my dear, you are very kind, but nobody can be like a daughter! But don't tell Maria so—poor dear love—she may never have another chance. Such a beautiful place out there, and Mr. Pringle's property must come to him at last! Bless me, what will Sarah Drury say? And such a good attentive man—besides, she never would hear of any one else—her poor papa never knew—Oh! she must have him! it is all nonsense to think of me! I only wish I was dead out of the way!'
There was a strong mixture of unselfish love, and fear of solitude; of the triumph of marrying a daughter, and dread of separation; of affection, and of implanted worldliness; touching Albinia at one moment, and paining her at another; but she soothed and caressed the old lady, and was a willing listener to what was meant for a history of the former transaction; but as it started from old Mr. Pringle's grandfather, it had only proceeded as far as the wedding of the Captain's father and mother, when it was broken off by Mr. Kendal's entrance.
'Oh! my dear Mr. Kendal, and what does poor Maria say? It is so kind in you. I hope you have taken her in hand, and told her it is quite another thing now, and her poor dear papa would think so. She must not let this opportunity pass, for she may never have another. Did you tell her so?'
'I told her that, under the circumstances, she has no alternative but to accept Captain Pringle.'
'Oh! thank you. And does she?'
'She has given me leave to send him to her.'
'I am so much obliged. I knew that nobody but you could settle it for her, poor dear girl; she is so young and inexperienced, and one is so much at a loss without a gentleman. But this is very kind; I did not expect it in you, Mr. Kendal. And will you see Mr. Pettilove, and do all that is proper about settlements, as her poor dear papa would have done. Poor Pettilove, he was once very much in love with Maria!'
In this mood of triumph and felicity, the old lady was left to herself and her daughter. Albinia, on the way home, begged to hear how Mr. Kendal had managed Maria; and found that he had simply told her, in an authoritative tone, that after all that had passed, she had no choice but to accept Captain Pringle, and that he had added a promise, equally vague and reassuring, of being a son to Mrs. Meadows. Such injunctions from such a quarter had infused new life into Maria; and in the course of the afternoon, Albinia met the Captain with the mother and daughter, one on each arm, Maria in recovered bloom and brilliancy, and Mrs. Meadows's rheumatism forgotten in the glory of exhibiting her daughter engaged.
For form's sake, secrecy had been mentioned; but the world of Bayford had known of the engagement a fortnight before took place. Sophy had been questioned upon it by Mary Wolfe two hours ere she was officially informed, and was sore with the recollection of her own ungracious professions of ignorance.
'So it is true,' she said. 'I don't mind, since Arthur is not a girl.'
Mr. Kendal laughed so heartily, that Sophy looked to Albinia for explanation; but even on the repetition of her words, she failed to perceive anything ridiculous in them.
'Why, mamma,' she said, impressively, 'if you had been like Aunt Maria, I should—' she paused and panted for sufficient strength of phrase—'I should have run away and begged! Papa laughs, but I am sure he remembers when grandmamma and Aunt Maria wanted to come and live here!'
He looked as if he remembered it only too well.
'Well, papa,' pursued Sophy, 'we heard the maids saying that they knew it would not do, for all Mr. Kendal was so still and steady, for Miss Meadows would worret the life out of a lead pincushion.'
'Hem!' said Mr. Kendal. 'Albinia, do you think after all we are doing Captain Pringle any kindness?'
'He is the best judge.'
'Nay, he may think himself bound in honour and compassion—he may be returning to an old ideal.'
'People like Captain Pringle are not apt to have ideals,' said Albinia; 'nor do I think Maria will be so trying. Do you remember that creeper of Lucy's, all tendrils and catching leaves, which used to lie sprawling about, entangling everything till she gave it a prop, when it instantly found its proper development, and offered no further molestation?'
All was not, however, smooth water as yet. The Captain invaded Mr. Kendal the next morning in despair at Maria having recurred to the impossibility of leaving her mother, and wanting him to wait till he could reside in England. This could not be till his son was grown up, and ten years were a serious delay. Mr. Kendal suspected her of a latent hope that the Captain would end by remaining at home; but he was a man sense and determination, who would have thought it unjustifiable weakness to sacrifice his son's interests and his own usefulness. He would promise, that if all were alive and well, he would bring Maria back in ten or twelve years' time; but he would not sooner relinquish his duties, and he was very reluctant to become engaged on such terms.
'No one less silly than poor Maria would have thought of such a proposal,' was Mr. Kendal's comment afterwards to his wife. 'Twelve years! No one would be able to live with her by that time!'
'I cannot help respecting the unselfishness,' said Albinia.
'One sided unselfishness,' quoth Mr. Kendal. 'I am sick of the whole business, I wish I had never interfered. I cannot get an hour to myself.'
He might be excused for the complaint on that day of negotiations and counter-negotiations, which gave no one any rest, especially after Mrs. Drury arrived with all the rights of a relation, set on making it evident, that whoever was to be charged with Mrs. Meadows, it was not herself; and enforcing that nothing could be more comfortable than that Lucy Kendal should set up housekeeping with her dear grandmamma. Every one gave advice, and nobody took it; Mrs. Meadows cried, Maria grew hysterical, the Captain took up his hat and walked out of the house; and Albinia thought it would be very good in him ever to venture into it again.
The next morning Mr. Kendal ordered his horse early, and hastened his breakfast; told Albinia not to wait dinner for him, and rode off by one gate, without looking behind him, as the other opened to admit Captain Pringle. She marvelled whither he had fled, and thought herself fortunate in having only two fruitless discussions in his absence. Not till eight o'clock did he make his appearance, and then it was in an unhearing, unseeing mood, so that nothing could be extracted, except that he did not want any dinner; and it was not till late in the evening that he abruptly announced, 'Lucy is coming home on Wednesday. Colonel Bury will bring her to Woodside.'
What? have you heard from Maurice?'
'No; I have been at Fairmead.'
You! To-day! How was Winifred?'
'How does she like the governess?'
'I did not hear.'
Gradually something oozed out about Lucy having been happy and valuable, and after Sophy had gone to bed, he inquired how the courtship was going on?
'Worse than ever,' Albinia said.
'I suppose it must end in this?'
'If there is no more satisfactory arrangement, I suppose we must receive Mrs. Meadows.'
If Albinia could but have heard what a scolding her brother was undergoing from his vivacious wife!
'As if poor Albinia had not enough on her hands! Of all inmates in the world! When Mr. Kendal himself did not like it! Well! Maurice would certainly have advised Sinbad to request the honour of taking the Old Man of the Sea for a promenade a cheval. There was an end of Albinia. There would never be any room in her house, and she would never be able to come from home. And after having seen her worked to death, he to advise—'
'I did not advise, I only listened. What he came for was to silence his conscience and his wife by saying, "Your brother thinks it out of the question." Now to this my conscience would not consent.'
'More shame for it, then!'
'I could not say I thought these two people's happiness should be sacrificed, or the poor old woman left desolate. Albinia has spirits and energy for a worse infliction, and Edmund Kendal himself is the better for every shock to his secluded habits. If it is a step I would never dare advise, still less would I dare dissuade.'
'Well! I thought Mr. Kendal at least had more sense.'
'Ay, nothing is so provoking as to see others more unselfish than ourselves.'
'All I have to say,' concluded Mrs. Ferrars, walking off, 'is, I wish there was a law against people going and marrying two wives.'
Albinia was in no haste to profit by her husband's consent to her proposal. The more she revolved it, the more she foresaw the discomfort for all parties. She made every effort to devise the 'more satisfactory arrangement,' but nothing would occur. The Drurys would not help, and the poor old lady could not be left alone. Her maid Betty, who had become necessary to her comfort, was not a trustworthy person, and could not be relied on, either for honesty, or for not leaving her mistress too long alone; and when the notion was broached of boarding Mrs. Meadows with some family in the place, the conviction arose, that when she had grandchildren, there was no reason for leaving her to strangers.
Finally, the proposal was made, and as instantly rejected by Maria. It was very kind, but her mother could never be happy at Willow Lawn, never; and the tone betrayed some injury at such a thing being thought possible. But just as the Kendals had begun to rejoice at having cleared their conscience at so slight a cost, Captain Pringle and Miss Meadows made their appearance, and Maria presently requested that Mrs. Kendal would allow her to say a few words.
'I am afraid you thought me very rude and ungrateful,' she began, 'but the truth was, I did not think dear mamma would ever bear to live here, my poor dear sister and all; but since that, I have been talking it over with the dear Captain—thinks that since you are so kind, and dear Edmund—more than I could ever have dared to expect— that I could not do better than just to sound mamma.'
There was still another vicissitude. Mrs. Meadows would not hear of being thrust on any one, and was certain that Maria had extorted an invitation; she would never be a burden upon any one; young people liked company and amusement, and she was an old woman in every one's way; she wished she were in her coffin with poor dear Mr. Meadows, who would have settled it all. Maria fell back into the depths of despair, and all was lugubrious, till Mr. Kendal, in the most tender and gentle manner, expressed his hopes that Mrs. Meadows would consider the matter, telling her that his wife and children would esteem it a great privilege to attend on her, and that he should be very grateful if she would allow them to try to supply Maria's place. And Albinia, in her coaxing tone, described the arrangement; how the old furniture should stand in the sitting-room, and how Lucy would attend to her carpet-work, and what nice walks the sunny garden would afford, and how pleasant it would be not to have the long hill between them, till grandmamma forgot all her scruples in the fascination of that sweet face and caressing manner, she owned that poor old Willow Lawn always was like home, and finally promised to come. Before the evening was over the wedding-day was fixed.
What Sophy briefly termed 'the fuss about Aunt Maria,' had been so tedious, that it almost dispelled all poetical ideas of courtship. If Captain Pringle had been drowned at sea, and Aunt Maria pined herself into her grave, it would have been much more proper and affecting.
Sophy heard of the arrangement without remark, and quietly listened to Albinia's explanation that she was not to be sent up to the attics, but was to inhabit the spare room, which was large enough to serve her for a sitting-room. But in the evening Mr. Kendal happened in her absence to take up the book which she had been reading, and did not perceive at once on her entrance that she wanted it. When he did so, he yielded it with a few kind words of apology, but this vexation had been sufficient to bring down the thunder-cloud which had been lowering since the morning. There were no signs of clearance the next day; but Albinia had too much upon her hands to watch the symptoms, and was busy making measurements for the furniture in the morning-room when Mr. Kendal came in.
'I have been thinking,' he said, 'that it is a pity to disturb this room. I dare say Mrs. Meadows would prefer that below-stairs. It used to be her parlour, where she always sat when I first knew the house.'
'The dining-room? How could we spare that?'
'No, the study.'
Albinia remained transfixed.
'We could put the books here and in the dining-room,' he continued, 'until next spring, when, as your brother said, we can build a new wing on the drawing-room side.'
'And what is to become of you?' she continued.
'Perhaps you will admit me here,' he said, smiling, for he was pleased with himself. 'Turn me out when I am in the way.'
'Oh! Edmund, how delightful! See, we shall put your high desk under the window, and your chair in your own corner. This will be the pleasantest place in the house, with you and your books! Dear Winifred! she did me one of her greatest services when she made me keep this room habitable!'
'And I think Sophy will not object to give up her present little room for my dressing-room. Shall you, my dear?' said he, anxious to judge of her temper by her reply.
'I don't care,' she said; 'I don't want any difference made to please me; I think that weak.'
'Sophy!' began Albinia, indignantly, but Mr. Kendal stopped her, and made her come down, to consider of the proposal in the study.
That study, once an oppressive rival to the bride, now not merely vanquished, but absolutely abandoned by its former captive!
'Don't say anything to her,' said Mr. Kendal, as they went downstairs. 'Of course her spirits are one consideration, but were it otherwise, I could not see you give up your private room.'
'It is very kind in you, but indeed I can spare mine better than you can,' said Albinia. 'I am afraid you will never feel out of the whirl.'
'Yours would be a loss to us all,' said Mr. Kendal. 'The more inmates there are in a house, the more needful to have them well assorted.'
'Just so; and that makes me afraid—'
'Of me? No, Albinia, I will try not to be a check on your spirits.'
'You! Oh! I meant that we should disturb you.'
'You never disturb me, Albinia; and it is not what it was when the children's voices were untrained and unsubdued.'
'I can't say much for Master Maurice's voice.'
He smiled, he had never yet found those joyous notes de trop, and he continued, 'Your room is of value and use to us all; mine has been of little benefit to me, and none to any one else. I wish I could as easily leave behind me all the habits I have fostered there.'
'Edmund, it is too good! When poor Sophy recovers her senses she will feel it, for I believe that morning room would have been a great loss to her.'
'It was too much to ask in her present state. I should have come to the same conclusion without her showing how much this plan cost her, for nothing can be plainer than that while she continues subject to these attacks, she must have some retreat.'
'Yet,' ventured Albinia, 'if you think solitude did you no good, do you think letting these fits have their swing is good for Sophy?'
'I cannot drive her about! They must not be harshly treated,' he answered quickly. 'Resistance can only come from within; compulsion is worse than useless. Poor child, it is piteous to watch that state of dull misery! On other grounds, I am convinced this is the best plan. The communication with the offices will prevent that maid from being always on the stairs. Mrs. Meadows will have her own visitors more easily, and will get out of doors sooner, and I think she will be better pleased.'
'Yes, it will be a much better plan for every one but Mr. Kendal himself,' said Albinia; 'and if he can be happy with us, we shall be all the happier. So this was the old sitting-room!' 'Yes, I knew them first here,' he said. 'It used to be cheerful then, and I dare say you can make it the same again. We must dismantle it before Mrs. Meadows or Maria come to see it, or it will remind them of nothing but the days when I was recovering, and anything but grateful for their attention. Yes,' he added, 'poor Mrs. Meadows bore most gently and tenderly with a long course of moroseness. I am glad to have it in my power to make any sort of amends, though it is chiefly through you.'
Albinia might well be very happy! It was her moment of triumph, and whatever might be her fears for the future, and uneasiness at Sophy's discontent, nothing could take away the pleasure of finding herself deliberately preferred to the study.
Sophy did not fail to make another protest, and when told that 'it was not solely on her account,' the shame of having fancied herself so important, rendered her ill-humour still more painful and deplorable. It was vain to consult her about the arrangements, she would not care about anything, except that by some remarkable effect of her perverse condition, she had been seized with a penchant for maize colour and blue for the bridesmaids, and was deeply offended when Albinia represented that they would look like a procession of macaws, and her aunt declared that Sophy herself would be the most sacrificed by such colours. She made herself so grim that Maria broke up the consultation by saying good-humouredly, 'Yes, we will settle it when Lucy comes home.'
'Yes,' muttered Sophy, 'Lucy is ready for any sort of nonsense.'
Mr. and Mrs. Kendal went to Woodside to meet Lucy, hoping that solitude would be beneficial. Albinia grieved at the manifestations of these, her sullen fits, if only because they made Lucy feel herself superior. In truth, Lucy was superior in temper, amiability, and all the qualities that smooth the course of life, and it was very pleasant to greet her pretty bright face, so full of animation.
'Dear grandmamma going to live with us? Oh, how nice! I can always take care of her when you are busy, mamma.'
That accommodating spirit was absolute refreshment, and long before Albinia reached home the task of keeping the household contented seemed many degrees easier.
A grand wedding was 'expected,' so all the Bayford flys were bespoken three deep, a cake was ordered from Gunter, and so many invitations sent out, that Albinia speculated how all were to come alive out of the little dining-room.
And Mr. Kendal the presiding gentleman!
He had hardly seemed aware of his impending fate till the last evening, when, as the family were separating at night, he sighed disconsolately, and said, 'I am as bad as you are, Sophy.'
It awoke her first comfortable smile.
Experience had, however, shown him that such occasions might be survived, and he was less to be pitied than his daughter, who felt as if she and her great brown face would be the mark of all beholders. Poor Sophy! all scenes were to her like daguerreotypes in a bad light, she saw nothing but herself distorted!
And yet she was glad that the period of anticipation had consumed itself and its own horrors, and found herself not insensible to the excitement of the occasion. Lucy was joyous beyond description, looking very pretty, and solicitously decorating her sister, while both bestowed the utmost rapture on their step-mother's appearance.
Having learnt at last what Bayford esteemed a compliment, she had commissioned her London aunts to send her what she called 'an unexceptionable garment,' and so well did they fulfil their orders, that not only did her little son scream, 'Mamma, pretty, pretty!' and Gilbert stand transfixed with admiration, but it called forth Mr. Kendal's first personal remark, 'Albinia, you look remarkably well;' and Mrs. Meadows reckoned among the honours done to her Maria, that Mrs. Kendal wore a beautiful silk dress, and a lace bonnet, sent down on purpose from London!
Maria Meadows made a very nice bride, leaning on her brother-in-law, and not more agitated than became her well. The haggard restless look had long been gone, repose had taken away the lean sharpness of countenance, the really pretty features had fair play, and she was astonishingly like her niece Lucy, and did not look much older. Her bridegroom was so beaming and benignant, that it might fairly be hoped that even if force of habit should bring back fretfulness, he had a stock of happiness sufficient for both. The chairs were jammed so tight round the table, that it was by a desperate struggle that people took their seats, and Mr. Dusautoy's conversation was a series of apologies for being unable to keep his elbows out of his neighbours' way while carving, and poor Sophy, whose back was not two feet from the fire, was soon obliged to retreat. She had gained the door before any one perceived her, and then her brother and sister both followed; Albinia was obliged to leave her to their care, being in the innermost recesses, where moving was impossible.
There was not much the matter, she only wanted rest, and Gilbert undertook to see her safely home.
'I shall be heartily glad to get away,' he said. 'There is no breathing in there, and they'll begin talking the most intolerable nonsense presently. Besides, I want to be at home to take baby down to the gate to halloo at the four white horses from the King's Head. Come along, Sophy.'
'Mind you don't make her walk too fast,' said the careful Lucy, 'and take care how you take off your muslin, Sophy, you had better go to the nursery for help.'
Gilbert did not seem inclined to hurry his sister as they came near Madame Belmarche's. He lingered, and presently said, 'Should you be too tired to come in here for a moment? it was an intolerable shame that none of them were asked.'
'Mamma did beg for Genevieve, but there was so little room, and the Drurys did not like it. Mrs. Drury said it would only be giving her a taste for things above her station.'
'Then Mrs. Drury should never come out of the scullery. I am sure she looks as if her station was to black the kettles!' cried Gilbert, with some domestic confusion in his indignation. 'Didn't she look like a housekeeper with her mistress's things on by mistake?'
'She did not look like mamma, certainly,' said Sophy. 'Mamma looked no more aware that she had on those pretty things than if she had been in her old grey—'
'Mamma—yes—Mrs. Drury might try seventy years to look like mamma, or Genevieve either! Put Genevieve into satin or into brown holland, you couldn't help her looking ten times more the lady than Mrs. Drury ever will! But come in, I have got a bit of the cake for them here, and they will like to see you all figged out, as they have missed all the rest of the show. Aunt Maria might have cared for her old mistress!'
Sophy wished to be amiable, and refrained from objecting.
It was a holiday in honour of cette chere eleve of five-and-twenty years since, and the present pupils were from their several homes watching for the first apparition of the four greys from the King's Head, with the eight white satin rosettes at their eight ears.
Madame Belmarche and her daughter were discovered in the parlour, cooking with a stew pan over the fire a concoction which Sophy guessed to be a conserve of the rose-leaves yearly begged of the pupils, which were chiefly useful as serving to be boiled up at any leisure moment, to make a cosmetic for Mademoiselle's complexion. She had diligently used it these forty-five years, but the effect was not encouraging, as brown, wrinkled, with her frizzled front awry, with not stainless white apron, and a long pewter spoon, she turned round to confront the visitors in their wedding finery.
But what Frenchwoman ever was disconcerted? Away went the spoon, forward she sprang, both hands outstretched, and her little black eyes twinkling with pleasure. 'Ah! but this is goodness itself,' said she, in the English wherein she flattered herself no French idiom appeared. 'You are come to let us participate in your rejoicing. Let me but summon Genevieve, the poor child is at every free moment trying to perfectionnate her music in the school-room.'
Madame Belmarche had arisen to receive the guests with her dignified courtesy and heartfelt felicitations, which were not over when Genevieve tripped in, all freshness and grace, with her neat little collar, and the dainty black apron that so prettily marked her slender waist. One moment, and she had arranged a resting-place for Sophy, and as she understood Gilbert's errand, quickly produced from a corner-cupboard a plate, on which he handed it to the two other ladies, who meanwhile paid their compliments in the most perfect style.
The history of the morning was discussed, and Madame Belmarche described her sister's wedding, and the curiosity which she had shared with the bride for the first sight of 'le futur,' when the two sisters had been brought from their convent for the marriage.
'But how could she get to like him?' cried Sophy.
'My sister was too well brought up a young girl to acknowledge a preference,' replied Madame Belmarche. 'Ah! my dear, you are English; you do not understand these things.'
'No,' said Sophy, 'I can't understand how people can marry without loving. How miserable they must be!'
'On the contrary, my dear, especially if one continued to live with one's mother. It is far better to earn the friendship and esteem of a husband than to see his love grow cold.'
'And was your sister happy?' asked Sophy, abruptly.
'Ah, my dear, never were husband and wife more attached. My brother-in-law joined the army of the Prince de Conde, and never was seen after the day of Valmy; and my sister pined away and died of grief. My daughter and granddaughter go to the Catholic burying-ground at Hadminster on her fete day, to dress her grave with immortelles.'
Now Sophy knew why the strip of garden grew so many of the grey-leaved, woolly-stemmed, little yellow-and-white everlasting flowers. Good madame began to regret having saddened her on this day of joy.
'Oh! no,' said Sophy, 'I like sad things best.'
'Mais, non, my child, that is not the way to go through life,' said the old lady, affectionately. 'Look at me; how could I have lived had I not always turned to the bright side? Do not think of sorrow, it, is always near enough.'
This conversation had made an impression on Sophy, who took the first opportunity of expressing her indignation at the system of mariages de convenance.
'And, mamma, she said if people began with love, it always grew cold. Now, has not papa loved you better and better every day?'
Albinia could not be displeased, though it made her blush, and she could not answer such a home push. 'We don't quite mean the same things,' she said evasively. 'Madame is thinking of passion independent of esteem or confidence. But, Sophy, this is enough even for a wedding-day. Let us leave it off with our finery, and resume daily life.'
'Only tell me one thing, mamma.'
She paused and brought it out with an effort. It had evidently occupied her for a long time. 'Mamma, must not every one with feeling be in love once in their life?'
'Well done, reserve!' thought Albinia—'but she is only a child, after all; not a blush, only those great eyes seeming ready to devour my answer. What ought it to be? Whatever it is, she will brood on it till her time comes. I must begin, or I shall grow nervous: "Dear Sophy, these are not things good to think upon. There is quite enough to occupy a Christian woman's heart and soul without that—no need for her feelings to shrivel up for want of exercise. No, I don't believe in the passion once in the life being a fate, and pray don't you, my Sophy, or you may make yourself very silly, or very unhappy, or both."'
Sophy drew up her head, and her brown skin glowed. Albinia feared that she had said the wrong thing, and affronted her, but it was all working in the dark.
At any rate the sullenness was dissipated, and there were no tokens of a recurrence. Sophy set herself to find ways of making amends for the past, and as soon as she had begun to do little services for grandmamma, she seemed to have forgotten her gloomy anticipations, even while some of them were partly realized. For as it would be more than justice to human nature to say that Mrs. Meadows's residence at Willow Lawn was a perfect success, so it would be less than justice to call it a failure.
To put the darker side first. Grandmamma's interest in life was to know the proceedings of the whole household, and comment on each. Now Albinia could endure housewifely advice, some espionage on her servants, and even counsel about her child; but she could not away with the anxiety that would never leave Sophy alone, tried to force her sociability, and regretted all extra studies, unable to perceive the delicate treatment her disposition needed. And Sophy, in the intolerance of early girlhood, was wretched at hearing poor grandmamma's petty views, and narrow, ignorant prejudices. She might resolve to be filial and agreeable, but too often found herself just achieving a moody, disgusted silence, or else bursting out with some true but unbecoming reproof.
On the whole, all did well. Mrs. Meadows was happy; she enjoyed the animation of the larger party, liked their cheerful faces, grew fond of Maurice, and daily more dependent on Lucy and Mrs. Kendal. Probably she had never before had so much of her own way, and her gentle placid nature was left to rest, instead of being constantly worried. Her son-in-law was kind and gracious, though few words passed between them, and he gave her a sense of protection. Indeed, his patience and good-humour were exemplary; he never complained even when he was driven from the dining-room by the table-cloth, to find Maurice rioting in the morning-room, and a music lesson in the drawing-room, or still worse, when he heard the Drurys everywhere; and he probably would have submitted quietly for the rest of his life, had not Albinia insisted on bringing forward the plan of building.
When Captain and Mrs. Pringle returned to Bayford to take leave, they found grandmamma so thoroughly at home, that Maria could find no words to express her gratitude. Maria herself could hardly have been recognised, she had grown so like her husband in look and manner! If her sentences did not always come to their legitimate development, they no longer seemed blown away by a frosty wind, but pushed aside by fresh kindly impulses, and her pride in the Captain, and the rest in his support, had set her at peace with all the world and with herself. A comfortable, comely, happy matron was she, and even her few weeks beyond the precincts of Bayford had done something to enlarge her mind.
It was as if her education had newly begun. The fixed aim, and the union with a practical man, had opened her faculties, not deficient in themselves, but contracted and nipped by the circumstances which she had not known how to turn to good account. Such a fresh stage in middle life comes to some few, like the midsummer shoot to repair the foliage that has suffered a spring blight; but it cannot be reckoned on, and Mrs. Pringle would have been a more effective and self-possessed woman, a better companion to her husband, and with more root in herself, had Maria Meadows learnt to tune her nerves and her temper in the overthrow of her early hopes.
Maurice Ferrars was a born architect, with such a love of brick and mortar, that it was meritorious in him not to have overbuilt Fairmead parsonage. With the sense of giving him an agreeable holiday, his sister wrote to him in February that Gilbert's little attic was at his service if he would come and give his counsel as to the building project.
Mr. Kendal disliked the trouble and disturbance as much as Maurice loved it; but he quite approved and submitted, provided they asked him no questions; he gave them free leave to ruin him, and set out to take Sophy for a drive, leaving the brother and sister to their calculations. Of ruin, there was not much danger, Mr. Kendal had a handsome income, and had always lived within it; and Albinia's fortune had not appeared to her a reason for increased expense, so there was a sufficient sum in hand to enable Mr. Ferrars to plan with freedom.
A new drawing-room, looking southwards, with bedrooms over it, was the matter of necessity; and Albinia wished for a bay-window, and would like to indulge Lucy by a conservatory, filling up the angle to the east with glass doors opening into the drawing-room and hall. Maurice drew, and she admired, and thought all so delightful, that she began to be taken with scruples as to luxury.
'No,' said Maurice, 'these are not mere luxuries. You have full means, and it is a duty to keep your household fairly comfortable and at ease. Crowded as you are with rather incongruous elements, you are bound to give them space enough not to clash.'
'They don't clash, except poor Sophy. Gilbert and Lucy are elements of union, with more plaster of Paris than stone in their nature.'
'Pray, has Kendal made up his mind what to do with Gilbert?'
'I have heard nothing lately; I hope he is grown too old for India.'
'Gilbert is rather too well off for his good,' said Mr. Ferrars; 'the benefit of a profession is not evident enough.'
'I know what I wish! If he could but be Mr. Dusautoy's curate, in five or six years' time, what glorious things we might do with the parish!'
'Eh! is that his wish?'
'I have sometimes hoped that his mind is taking that turn. He is ready to help in anything for the poor people. Once he told me he never wished to look beyond Bayford for happiness or occupation; but I did not like to draw him out, because of his father's plans. Why, what have you drawn? The alms-houses?'
'I could do no other when I was improving Gilbert's house for him.'
'That would be the real improvement! How pretty! I will keep them for him.'
The second post came in, bringing a letter from Gilbert to his father, and Albinia was so much surprised, that her brother asked whether Gilbert were one of the boys who only write to their father with a reason.