"Oh, how good you are to me," exclaimed Fay, gratefully; "and now beautifully you have bandaged my foot. It feels so much more comfortable. What a sweet old room this is, Miss Ferrers. I do like that cushioned window-seat running round the bay; and oh, what lovely work," raising herself to look at an ecclesiastical carpet that was laid on the ground, perfectly strewn with the most beautiful colors, like a delicate piece of mosaic work. Mr. Ferrers, who had entered the room that moment, smiled at the sound of the enthusiastic young voice.
"What colors," cried Fay, delightedly; "what purples, and crimsons, and violets. They look like clusters of jewels, or stars on a deep-blue ground."
Mr. Ferrers stooped down and touched the carpet with his large white hand.
"It is for our little church, and by all accounts it must be gorgeous. The description makes me fancy it like the robe of office that Aaron wore. It has a border of pomegranates, I know. Ah, color is one of my sister's hobbies. She agrees with Ruskin in connecting brilliant coloring with purity of mind and nobility of thought. I believe if she had her way she would wear those same crimsons and emeralds herself."
Margaret smiled indulgently. "You must not believe my brother, Lady Redmond. I am very simple in my tastes, but I love to see them on others;" and she looked at Fay's ruby dress. She had removed the heavy furred mantle, and she thought Lady Redmond looked move like a lovely child than ever in her little closely fitting gown.
"Where is my cousin, Mr. Ferrers?" she asked, with some surprise, as he placed himself in a carved arm-chair that stood near the couch.
"Mr. Huntingdon has started off for Redmond Hall. He was afraid your husband might have returned and would be feeling anxious. He will come back in the carriage to fetch you; but as it is rather a long way by the road, and the snow is very deep, you must not look for him for another two hours. Margaret, luncheon is ready; I am going to tell Ruth to bring some up for Lady Redmond."
Fay was not sorry to have a little longer rest. She was very comfortable lying in this pleasant sunny room, and she had fallen in love with Miss Ferrers.
When they had left her to partake of the dainty little luncheon brought to her, she thought a great deal about the beautiful face that looked so pale and sad, and yet so kind. Had she known trouble, she wondered; she was quite young, and yet there was no look of youth about her. One would never speak of her as a girl, for example—she was much too grave and staid for that; but what a sweet voice she had, very low and harmonious, and yet so clear.
Fay had forgotten her husband for the moment. Erle would explain everything to him, and of course he could not be vexed. What a tiresome thing that this misunderstanding had arisen. She must coax Hugh to put it right. She liked Miss Ferrers better than any of her neighbors. It made her feel good only to look at her.
She wondered if she could venture to hint about the estrangement, or to say how sorry she was that anything should keep them apart. She had not quite made up her mind about it when the brother and sister returned, and Mr. Ferrers asked her playfully if she meant to take a nap, or whether they should stay and talk to her.
"Oh, I would rather talk, please," with a wistful look at Margaret, who had taken up her work, and placed herself near the window. She wished she would not go so far away; but perhaps she wanted more light. But Mr. Ferrers had taken possession of the arm-chair again and seemed quite at her service, so Fay began chatting to him in her usual fashion.
"I have always admired this old house so," she said, brightly; "but I was afraid I should never see the inside, because—" but here she hesitated and hurried on. "Redmond Hall is grander and larger of course, but this seems more homelike. I liked the hall so when the door opened, and Erle carried me in. It seemed like church, with that great painted window so still and solemn, and full of scented darkness."
Margaret listened silently, but her brother answered rather sadly,
"It is always full of scented darkness to me, Lady Redmond, and a darkness that may be felt; but of course I know what you mean, for the whole house is full of the perfume of Margaret's flowers. Sometimes our friends declare that they can smell them half-way down the road, but that is nonsense. Still flowers are my sister's hobby; she can not live without having them about her."
"A very harmless hobby, Raby!"
"Oh, it is a pretty fancy enough," he answered, smiling. "If you could walk, Lady Redmond, Margaret would show you our winter garden; the gallery upstairs is a perfect conservatory, and we walk up and down there on wet days, and call it our in-door garden."
"What a nice idea, and you live together in this dear old house; how delightful!"
Raby's smile grew perceptibly sadder.
"We were not always alone. What is it Longfellow says?
"'There is no fireside, howsoe'er defended, But has one vacant chair.'
But, as you say, we live together, the old bachelor and old maiden brother and sister."
"Miss Ferrers is not an old maid," returned Fay, indignantly, on whom Margaret's stately presence had made a deep impression. "You ought not to speak so of your sister."
"Do you like the name of unappropriated blessing better, as I heard an unmarried lady called once?" he asked, in an amused voice; "but, no, that would not be true in Margaret's case, for her brother has appropriated her."
A gentle smile passed over Margaret's face. "I shall be here as long as you want me, Raby," and then, as though she would turn the subject, she asked Fay if she read much, and which were her favorite books. But she soon saw her mistake.
"I am afraid I am very stupid," returned Fay, blushing a little, "but I do not care to read very much. Aunt Griselda—she was the aunt with whom I lived until I was married—did not like me to read novels, and heavy books send me to sleep."
"I dare say you are too busy to read," interposed Raby rather hastily; "with such a household as yours to manage, you must be sufficiently employed."
"Oh, but I have not so much to do after all," replied Fay, frankly. "When I married I was terribly afraid that I should never know how to manage properly; the thoughts of accounts especially frightened me, because I knew my sums would not ever come right if I added them up a dozen times."
"Ladies generally hate accounts."
"Oh, but I have none to make up," returned Fay, with a merry Laugh; "Hugh, I mean my husband, attends to them. If I have bills I just give them to him. And Mrs. Heron manages everything else; if there are any orders she goes to Sir Hugh. He says I am so young to be troubled about things, and that I don't understand how to regulate a large household. We lived in such a tiny cottage, you see, and Aunt Griselda never taught me anything about housekeeping."
"Yes, I see," observed Raby rather absently; he was wondering what Margaret would say to all this.
"I never thought things would be quite so easy," went on Fay, gayly. "Now if Hugh, I mean my husband, says two or three gentlemen are coming to dinner, I just tell Mrs. Heron so, and she tells Ellerton, and then everything is all right. Even when things go wrong, as they will sometimes, Sir Hugh does all the scolding; he says I am each a little thing that they might only laugh at me; but I tell him I shall never be taller if I live to be an old woman."
Mr. Ferrers kept his thoughts to himself, but he said kindly, "I dare say you find plenty of little duties for yourself, Lady Redmond."
"Oh, yes, I am always busy," returned Fay, seriously; "Mrs. Heron says that she is sure that I shall grow thin with so much running about, but unless I am driving or riding, or Erle is talking to me, I do believe I am never still for many minutes at a time. Oh, I do work sometimes, only one can not work alone, and I go to the poultry-yards and the stables. Bonnie Bess always has a feed of corn from my hand once a day, and there are all the animals to visit, and the greenhouses and the hot-houses, for I do like a chat with old Morison; and there is Catharine's dear little baby at the lodge, and the children at the Parkers' cottage; and I like to help Janet feed and clean my birds, because the dear little things know me. Oh, yes, the day is not half long enough for all I have to do," finished Fay, contentedly.
"I AM ONLY WEE WIFIE."
This would plant sore trouble In that breast now clear, And with meaning shadows Mar that sun-bright face. See that no earth poison To thy soul come near! Watch! for like a serpent Glides that heart disgrace.
Ask to be found worthy Of God's choicest gift, Not by wealth made reckless, Nor by want unkind; Since on thee dependeth That no secret rift Mar the deep life-music Of her guileless mind.
Raby felt as though he were listening to a child's innocent prattle as Fay chattered on in her light-hearted way. In spite of his deep knowledge of human nature he found himself unaccountably perplexed. Margaret had spoken to him, as they sat together over their luncheon, of the flower-like loveliness of the little bride, and yet he found himself unable to understand Hugh Redmond's choice; his thoughtful, prematurely saddened nature could not conceive how any man of Hugh's age could choose such a child for his life-companion. With all her sweet looks and ways he must grow weary of her in time.
Perhaps her freshness and innocence had bewitched him; there was something quaint and original about her naive remarks. The disappointed man might have found her brightness refreshing—her very contrast to Margaret might have been her attraction in his eyes. Well, Raby supposed that it was all right; no doubt she was an idolized little woman. Hugh seemed to keep her in a glass case; nothing was allowed to trouble her. She will be thoroughly spoiled by this sort of injudicious fondness, thought Raby, perfectly unconscious how far he was from grasping the truth.
It was Margaret who began to feel doubtful; her womanly intuition perceived that there was something wanting; she thought Lady Redmond spoke as though she were often alone.
"I suppose you are never dull?" she asked, gently.
"Oh, no," returned Fay, with another gay little laugh. "Of course we have plenty of callers; just now the snow has kept them away, but then I have had our cousin Erle. Oh, he is such a pleasant companion, he is so good-natured and full of fun. I shall miss him dreadfully when he goes back to London next week."
"You will have to be content with your husband's society," observed Raby, smiling. It was a pity that neither he nor Margaret saw the lovely look on Fay's face that answered this; it would have spoken to them of the underlying depths of tenderness that there was in that young heart.
"Oh, yes," she returned, simply, "but then, you see, Hugh, I mean my husband, is so extremely busy, he never comes in until luncheon has been waiting ever so long, and very often he has to go out again afterward. Sometimes, when I know he has gone to Pierrepoint, I ride over there to meet him. He used to ride and drive with me very often when we first came home," she continued, sorrowfully, "but now he has no time. Oh, he does far too much, every one tells him so; he is so tired in the evening that he is hardly fit for anything, and yet he will sit up so late."
Raby's sightless eyes seemed to turn involuntarily to the window where Margaret sat, her pale face bending still lower over her work. This last speech of Lady Redmond's perplexed him still more. The Hugh who had courted Margaret had been a good-natured idler in his eyes; he had heard him talk about his shooting and fishing with something like enthusiasm; he had been eager to tell the number of heads of grouse he had bagged, or to describe the exact weight of the salmon he had taken last year in Scotland, but Raby had never looked upon him as an active man of business. If this were true, Hugh's wife must spend many lonely hours, but there was no discontented chord in her bright voice.
"I feel dreadfully as though I want to help him," continued Fay. "I can not bear to see him so tired. I asked him to let me go and visit some of the poor people who belong to us—he is building new cottages for them, because he says that they are living in tumble-down places only fit for pigs—but he will not hear of it; he says I am too young, and that he can not allow me to go into such dirty places, and yet he goes himself, though he says it makes him feel quite ill."
Margaret's head drooped still lower, her eyes were full of tears; he had not forgotten then! he had promised to build those cottages when she had begged him to do so. She remembered they had chosen the site together one lovely September evening, and he had told her, laughing, that it should be his marriage-gift to her. They had planned it together, and now he was carrying it out alone; for Fay owned the moment afterward that she did not know where the new cottages were; she must ask Hugh to take her one day to see them, but perhaps he would rather that she waited until they were finished.
Margaret was beginning to feel strangely troubled; a dim but unerring instinct told her that Fay was more petted than beloved. It was evident that Hugh lived his own life separate from her, submerged in his own interests and pursuits, and her heart grew very pitiful over Fay as she realized this. If she could only meet Hugh face to face; if she could only speak to him. She felt instinctively that things were not altogether right with him. Why did he not try to guide and train the childish nature that was so dependent on him? why did he repress all her longings to be useful to him, and to take her share of the duties of life? Surely her extreme youth was no excuse, she was not too young to be his wife. Margaret told herself sadly that here he was in error, that he was not acting up to his responsibilities, to leave this child so much alone.
Fay's frankness and simplicity were touching Margaret's heart; even this one interview proved to her that under the girlish crudities there was something very sweet and true in her nature; the petty vanities and empty frivolous aims of some women were not to be traced in Fay's conversation. Her little ripple of talk was as fresh and wholesome as a clear brook that shows nothing but shining-pebbles under the bright current; the brook might be shallow, but it reflected the sunshine.
Margaret's thoughts had been straying rather sorrowfully, when a speech of Fay's suddenly roused her.
"I do wish we could be friends," she observed, rather piteously. "I am sure my husband must like you both, for he spoke so nicely about you; it is such a pity when people get to misunderstand each other."
"My dear Lady Redmond," returned Raby, kindly, "it is a pity, as you say; and we have no ill feeling to your husband; but, I dare say he is wise if he does not think it possible for us to have much intercourse. Sir Hugh and I do not agree about things," went on Raby after a slight hesitation; "perhaps he will tell you the reason some day; but you may be sure that on this point your husband knows best,"—for he felt himself in a difficulty.
"Of course Hugh is always right," returned Fay with much dignity. "When I said it was a pity, it was only because I like you both so much, and that I know I shall want to see you again."
"You are very good," replied Raby, but there was embarrassment in his tone; it was evident that Hugh's wife knew nothing about his previous engagement to Margaret. It was a grievous error, he told himself, for one day it must come to her ears; why, the whole neighborhood was cognizant of the fact. She would hear it some day from strangers, and then the knowledge that her husband had not been true to her—that he had kept this secret from her—would fill her young heart with bitterness; and as these thoughts passed through his mind, Margaret clasped her hands involuntarily: "The first mistake," she murmured; "the first mistake."
Just then the sound of carriage wheels was distinctly audible on the gravel sweep before the house, and the next moment Erle entered the room.
"I am sorry to have been so long," he said, apologetically, and Fay thought he seemed a little flurried, "but Hugh asked me to go round and put off those people; they all seemed dreadfully sorry to hear of your accident, Fay."
"And Hugh?" with a touch of anxiety in her voice.
"Oh, Hugh seemed rather put out about the whole business. I think he wanted to pitch into me for not taking better care of you. How is the foot, Fay—less painful?"
"Oh, yes, and I have been so comfortable; Mr. and Miss Ferrers have been so good to me. I suppose I ought to go now,"—looking regretfully at Margaret, who had laid aside her work.
"Well, I don't think we ought to lose any more time," observed Erle; "the days are so awfully short, you know, and really these roads are very bad."
"And your husband will be waiting," put in Raby.
"Poor Hugh, of course he will," returned Fay quickly. "Erle, I am afraid you will have to carry me to the carriage, unless you ask George to do so;" but Erle stoutly refused to deliver up his charge, so Fay bade good-bye to her new friends.
"Thank you so much, Miss Ferrers," she said, putting up her face to be kissed. "I shall tell Hugh how good you have been to me. I am so sorry it is good-bye, Mr. Ferrers."
"Then we will not say it at all," he returned, heartily, as his big hand seemed to swallow up Fay's little soft fingers. "I will wish you God-speed instead, Lady Redmond. I dare say your cousin, Mr. Huntingdon, will be good enough to let us know how you are if he ever passes the Grange."
"To be sure I will," was Erle's reply to this, and then he deposited Fay in her corner of the carriage and took his place beside her. Both of them leaned forward for a parting look at the brother and sister as they stood together in the porch.
"What a grand-looking pair they are," observed Erle, as they turned into the road; "don't you think Miss Ferrers is a very handsome woman, Fay? I admire her immensely."
"Oh, yes, she is perfectly lovely," replied Fay, enthusiastically; "she looks so sweet and good; it quite rests one to look at her. But there is something sad about them both. Mr. Ferrers does not look quite happy; once or twice he sighed quite heavily when we were talking. I suppose his being blind troubles him."
"He is a very uncommon sort of man," returned Erle, who had been much struck by the brother and sister. "He made himself very pleasant to me while you were having your foot doctored. By the bye, my Fairy Queen,"—his pet name for her—"Miss Dora gave me a message for you: she says she shall come up and see you to-morrow, as you will be a prisoner."
"That will be nice; but oh, Erle, what a pity we shall have no more delightful walks together. I hope Hugh was not really vexed about our going to the Grange."
"He was just a trifle testy," remarked Erle, quietly suppressing the fact that his cousin had surprised him much by a fit of regular bad temper. "He thinks I am not to be trusted with your ladyship any more;" and he changed the subject by a lively eulogium on the young ladies at the vicarage, one of whom he declared to be almost as handsome as Miss Selby; and he kept up such a flow of conversation on this topic that Fay had no opportunity to put another question.
Sir Hugh was waiting for them at the Hall door, but Fay thought he looked very grave and pale as he came to the carriage to lift her out.
"This is a very foolish business," he said, as he carried her up to her room, his strong arms hardly conscious of her weight; "how did it happen, Fay?" and she knew at once by his tone that he was much displeased.
"Erle ought to have taken better care of you; I told him so," he continued, as he placed her on the couch. "I can not let you go running about the country with him like this; of course the lanes were slippery, he ought to have known that."
"You are vexed with me, Hugh," she said, very gently. "You think that I ought not to have gone to the Grange, but indeed I could not help myself."
"There were other houses," he stammered, not caring to meet her clear look. "I thought that you would have respected my wishes, but I see I am mistaken."
"Oh, Hugh," returned the poor child, quite heart-broken at this stern rebuke; "indeed, indeed, I never meant to disobey you, but my foot was so painful, and I felt so faint, and Erle was so peremptory with me."
"Well, well, you need not cry about it," observed her husband impatiently; "you are such a child, Fay, one can never say a word to you; I have a right to be displeased, if my wife goes against my wishes."
"I am very sorry," she answered, meekly, trying to keep back those troublesome tears; "please do not be so angry, Hugh, you know I care for nothing but to please you, and—and I don't feel quite well, and your voice is so loud."
"Very well, then, I will take myself off," in rather a huffy tone, but he relented at the sight of her pale little face, and some of his bad humor evaporated. "The fact is, you are such a child that you don't know how to take care of yourself," he continued, sitting down by her, and letting her rest comfortably against him. "You will do yourself a mischief some day, Fay. I shall get Doctor Martin to come up and see your foot, and then, perhaps, he will give you a lecture."
"Oh, no," she returned, charmed at this change of tone, for his anger had frightened her; "there is no need for that, dear, it is only a sprained ankle, and Miss Ferrers has bandaged it so beautifully, a day or two's rest will put it all right."
"But all the same, I should like to have Doctor Martin's opinion," he answered, quickly. "I am afraid you must have found it very awkward, Fay, being cast on the compassion of strangers."
"Oh, no, indeed," was the eager answer; "they were so good and kind to me, Hugh; they welcomed me just as though I were an old friend. I was a little faint at first, my foot hurt me so; but when I opened my eyes, I found myself in such a lovely old room, on such an easy couch, and Miss Ferrers gave me some wine, and actually bathed my foot and bound it up herself."
"What sort of a room was it, Wee Wifie?"
Fay thought there was something odd in her husband's voice, but she had her head on his shoulder, and could not see his face, the winter dusk was creeping over the room, and only the fire-light illumined it. Hugh felt himself safe to put that question, but he could not quite control his voice.
"Oh, it was Miss Ferrers's morning-room, she told me so, and it had a bay window with a cushioned seat overlooking the garden. Oh, how lovely Miss Ferrers is, Hugh. I have never seen any one like her, never. I am sure she is as sweet and good as an angel, only I wish she did not look so sad: there were tears in her eyes once when we were talking; let me see, what were we talking about? oh, about those cottages you are building, she did look so interested—did you speak, dear?"
"No—go on," he said, huskily; but if only Fay could have seen his face.
"I feel I should love her so if I could only see more of her. I could not help kissing her when I came away, but she did not seem at all surprised. Mr. Ferrers wished me God-speed in such a nice way, too. Oh, they are dear people; I do wish you would let me know them, Hugh."
"My dear child, it is impossible," but Hugh spoke fast and nervously; "have I not already explained to you that there can be no intimacy between Redmond Hall and the Grange. When old friends quarrel as we have, it is a fatal blow to all friendship."
"You were old friends, then?" in some surprise, for he had never said as much to her before.
"Yes," he returned, reluctantly, for he had not meant to admit this fact.
"But quarrels can be made up, Hugh; if it be only a misunderstanding, surely it could be put right." But he silenced her somewhat haughtily.
"This is my affair, Fay—it is not like you to go against my wishes in this way; what can a child like you know about it? I should have thought a wife would have been willing to be guided by her husband, but you seem to think you know best."
"Oh, no, Hugh"—very much ashamed at this—"I am quite sure you are always right; only"—hesitating a little as though she feared to offend him—"I should like you to tell me what the quarrel was about."
For a moment Sir Hugh remained absolutely dumb with surprise; it was as though a dove had flown in his face; he had never known Fay persistent before. If only she had asserted herself from the beginning of their married life, she would have gained more influence over her husband; if she had entrenched herself in her wifely dignity, and refused to be treated like a child, kept in the dark about everything, and petted, or civilly snubbed according to her husband's moods, she would have won his confidence by this time.
Sir Hugh was quite conscious that he had been guilty of a grievous error in not telling Fay about Margaret before she became his wife; he wished he had done so from the bottom of his heart; but procrastination made the duty a far more difficult one; he felt it would be so awkward to tell her now, he could not tell how she might take it: it might make her unhappy, poor little thing; it would be a pity to dim her brightness.
He was sheltering his moral weakness under these plausible excuses, but somehow they failed to satisfy his conscience. He knew he had done a mean thing to marry Fay when his heart was solely and entirely Margaret's; what sort of blessing could attach to such a union?
But when Fay begged him to tell her the cause of his estrangement from the Ferrers, he positively shrunk from, the painful ordeal—he was not fit for it, he told himself, his nerves were disorganized, and Fay looked far from well; some day he would tell her, but not now; and the old sharpness was in his voice as he answered her.
"I can not tell you; you should not tease me so, Fay. I think you might have a little faith in your husband."
"Very well, dear, I will not ask," she replied, gently; but the tears sprung to her eyes in the darkness. She would not think him hard if she could help it; of course she was young—ah, terribly young—and Hugh was so much older and wiser. The "Polite Match-Maker" had told her that husbands and wives were to have no secrets from each other; but she supposed that when the wife was so much younger it made a difference—perhaps when she got older, and knew more about things, Hugh would tell her more. She longed to grow older—it would be years before she would be twenty; why? she was only seventeen last month.
Hugh thought his Wee Wifie was tired, and tried to coax her to go to sleep; he brought her another cushion, and attended to the fire, and then went away to leave her to her nap. Fay would rather have had him stay and talk to her, but she was too unselfish to say so; she lay in her pretty room watching the fire-light play on the walls, and thinking first of her husband and then of Margaret. She longed with a vague wistfulness that she were more like that lovely Miss Ferrers, and then, perhaps, Hugh would care to talk to her. Were the creeping shadows bringing her strange thoughts? Fay could not have told any one why there were tears on her cheeks; was the consciousness beginning to dawn upon her that she was not close enough to her husband's heart?—that she was his pet, but not his friend—that other wives whom she knew were not kept outside in the cold?
"I am not too young to understand, if Hugh would only think so," she said to herself plaintively. "How could I be, when I love him so?"
When Sir Hugh returned to the room an hour later, he was sorry to see Fay look so flushed and weary. "We shall have you ill after all this," he said, reproachfully; "why have you not been a good child and gone to sleep as I told you?"
"Because I was troubling too much. Oh, Hugh!" clasping him round the neck, and her little hands felt hot and dry, "are you sure that you are not angry with me, and that you really love me?"
"Of course I am not angry with you," in a jesting tone. "What an absurd idea, Wee Wifie."
"I like you to call me that," she answered, thoughtfully, drawing down one of his hands and laying her cheek on it; and Hugh thought as Margaret had, what a baby face it was. "I mean to grow older, Hugh, and wiser too if I can; but you must be patient with me, dear. I know I can not be all you want just at present—I am only Wee Wifie now."
"Well, I do not wish to change her," replied Sir Hugh, with a touch of real tenderness in his voice, and then very gently he unloosed the clinging arms. Somehow Fay's voice and look haunted him as he went down-stairs. "She is a dear little thing," he said to himself, as he sat in his library sorting his papers; "I wish I were a better husband to her," and then he wondered what Margaret had thought of his Wee Wifie.
ERLE'S VISIT TO THE GRANGE.
He gazed—he saw—he knew the face Of beauty and the form of grace.
Fay was not very well the next day, and Sir Hugh insisted on sending for Dr. Martin; Fay was much surprised when the kind old doctor lectured her quite seriously on her imprudence; and put a veto on any more skating and riding for the present. The sprained ankle was a trifle, but all the same he told her grimly she must consider herself a prisoner for a few days—a very hard sentence to Fay, whose nimble little feet had never been still for long, and who had certainly never known a day's illness in her healthy young life; but, with her usual docility, she promised obedience. Sir Hugh was unusually busy just then. Some vexatious lawsuit in which the Redmonds had been involved for a year or two, and in which both Sir Wilfred and his son had taken great interest, was just drawing to a conclusion, and he was obliged to go up to town for a few hours almost daily, and but for Erle's society, Fay would have been sadly moped; but with his usual good-humor, Erle gave up his out-of-door pursuits to devote himself to her amusement.
He was always contriving odd surprises for her; the mystified servants often heard Fay's merry laugh ringing like a peal of silvery bells, and thought that there could be very little the matter with their young mistress; sometimes these sounds were supplemented by others that were still more extraordinary.
One day Erle brought up the stable puppies—three black-faced, snub-nosed, roundabout creatures in which Fay had taken a kindly interest since the hour of their birth—and to her intense delight deposited them on her lap, where they tumbled and rolled over each other with their paws in the air, protesting in puppy fashion against this invasion of their liberties.
Another time there was an extraordinary clucking to be heard outside the door, and the next moment Erle entered with a hen under each arm, and very red in the face from suppressed laughter.
"I thought you would be pining after your favorites, Speckles and Tufty," he observed, with a chuckle; "so, as you could not visit the poultry-yard, my Fairy Queen, I have brought Dame Partlet and her sister to visit you," and he deposited the much-injured fowls on the rug.
It was unfortunate that Sir Hugh should have come in that moment; his disgusted look as he opened the door nearly sent Fay into hysterics; Speckles was clucking wildly under the sofa—Tufty taking excited flights across the room.
"How can you be so ridiculous," observed Sir Hugh, with a frown; "Fay, do you think Dr. Martin would approve of all this excitement;" but even he was obliged to check a smile at Erle's agonizing attempts to catch Speckles.
Fay began to wonder what he would do next; Erle gravely assured her that if he could have induced Bonnie Bess to walk upstairs, which she would not do under any pretense, preferring to waltz on her hind-legs in the hall, he would have regaled her with a sight of her favorite; but after the baby from the lodge, a half-frozen hedgehog, some white rats kept by the stable-boy, and old Tom, the veteran cat with half a tail, had all been decoyed into the boudoir, Erle found himself at the end of his resources.
But he used to go down to the vicarage with a very long face, and the result was that every afternoon, there were fresh, girlish faces gathering round Fay's couch. Dora Spooner would come with one of her sisters or a Romney girl to help Erle amuse the invalid.
There were delightful little tea-parties every afternoon. Janet, who waited on them, thought her mistress never seemed happier. Fay was treated as though she were a little queen; Dora and Agnes Romney vied with each other in attentions; perhaps Erle's pleasant face and bright voice were powerful inducements in their way; the girls never seemed to think it a trouble to plow their way through the snowy lanes—they came in with glowing faces to narrate their little experiences.
"Yes, it is very uncomfortable walking; but we could not leave you alone, Lady Redmond. Mr. Huntingdon begged us so hard to come," Dora would say, and the hazel eyes looked at Erle rather mischievously.
Erle was up to his old tricks again. Fay used to take him to task when their visitors had gone.
"You are too fond of young ladies," she would say to him, severely. "You will make poor Dora think you are in love with her if you pay her so much attention. Those are your London manners, I suppose, when you are with that young person who has the go in her, or with the other one with the pretty smile, of whom you say so little and think so much."
"Come, now; I do call that hard on a fellow," returned Erle, in an injured voice.
"You see I take an interest in you, my poor boy," continued Fay, with quite a matronly air. "I can not allow you to make yourself so captivating to our country girls. What will Dora think if you go down to the vicarage every morning with that plausible little story that no one believes? I am not dull one bit. I am laughing from morning to night, and Mrs. Heron comes up and scolds me. No; Dora will believe that you admire hazel eyes and long lashes. Poor girl, she knows nothing about that young person with the go in her."
"Oh, do shut up, Fay," interrupted Erle quite crossly at this. "Why do you always speak of Miss Selby in this absurd fashion? She is worth a dozen Dora Spooners. Why, the girls who were here this afternoon could not hold a candle to her."
"Oh, indeed!" was Fay's response to this, as she lay and looked at Erle, with aggravating calmness.
"Why do you want to make out that girls are such duffers?" he went on in a still more ruffled tone, as though her shrewdness had hit very near the truth; "they have too much sense to think a fellow is in love with them because he has a little fun with them; you married women are so censorious," he finished, walking off in a huff; but the next moment he came back with a droll look on his face.
"Mrs. Spooner wants me to dine there to-morrow; there is to be a little dance; some of the Gowers are coming. Do you think you can spare me, Fay?"
"Oh, go away; you are all alike!" returned Fay, impatiently; "you have only to blame yourself if Mr. Spooner asks your intentions. I do not think Mr. Huntingdon would approve of Dora one bit; she is not so very handsome, she will not hold a candle to you know whom, and she has no money—a vicar with a large family can not afford a dowry to his daughter." But, as Erle had very rudely marched out of the room, she finished this little bit of worldly wisdom to empty walls.
Erle had been over to the Grange. He had mooted the question one evening when he and Sir Hugh were keeping Fay company; and, to Fay's great surprise, her husband had made no objection. "I suppose it would be right for you to call and thank them, Erle," he had said, as though he were prepared for the suggestion; "and perhaps, Fay"—hesitating slightly—"it might be as well for you to write a little note and say something civil after all their attention." And Fay thanked him for the permission with a radiant face, as though he had done her a personal favor, and the next day wrote the prettiest and most grateful little note, which Erle promised to deliver.
"You will be sure to keep the girls until I get back," had been his parting request when he came to fetch the dogs.
It was not exactly the sort of afternoon that Erle would have selected for a country walk—a thaw had set in, and the lanes were perfect quagmires of half-melted snow and slash, in which the dogs paddled and splashed their way with a perfect indifference to the state of their glossy coats; any amount of slush being better than enforced inaction.
"I shall have to leave you outside, my fine fellows," observed Erle, as Nero took a header into a heap of dirty-looking snow, in which he rolled delightedly. "I am afraid I shall hardly be presentable myself out these are the joys of country life, I suppose."
But he was not at all sorry when he found himself at the Grange, and a pleasant-looking, gray-haired woman had ushered him into a room where Mr. Ferrers and his sister were sitting. It was a far larger room than the one where Fay had had her foot doctored that day, and was evidently Mr. Ferrers's peculiar sanctum—two of the walls were lined from the floor to the ceiling with well-filled book-shelves, an ordinary writing-table occupied the center of the room; instead of the bay-window, a glass door afforded egress to the garden, and side windows on either side of the fire-place commanded a view of the yew-tree walk; a Scotch deerhound was stretched on the rug in front of the blazing fire, and two pet canaries were fluttering about a stand of ferns.
Miss Ferrers had evidently been writing from her brother's dictation, for several letters were lying ready for the post. As Erle had crossed the hall he had distinctly heard the sound of her clear, musical voice, as she read aloud: but the book was already laid aside, and she had risen to welcome him.
Erle fancied she looked paler than on the previous occasion, and he wondered what Mr. Ferrers would have said if he had seen those dark lines under her eyes; perhaps she never told him when she was tired—women liked to be martyrs sometimes.
He was received very cordially; and Miss Ferrers seemed rather touched at the contents of her little note.
"It was good of Lady Redmond to write," she said to Erle with a smile; "but she makes far too much of my little services."
"Oh, that is just her way," returned Erle, candidly. "She is such a grateful little soul. Most people take all one's attentions as a matter of course; but Fay is not like that."
"Oh, no, she is very sweet," observed Margaret, thoughtfully; somehow she had yearned to see that pretty, bright face again.
"She is the finest little creature that ever lived," returned Erle, with boyish enthusiasm; "it is wonderful how little she thinks about herself. And she is about the prettiest girl one can see anywhere; and she is clever, too, though you would not believe it to hear her; for she always wants to make out that she can do nothing."
Mr. Ferrers smiled at this. "Lady Redmond did seem bent on proving that fact to us."
"Of course, did I not tell you so? but don't you believe her, Mr. Ferrers. Why, even Hugh, critical as he is, owns Fay is the best horsewoman in these parts. I should like to see her and Bonnie Bess in the Row; she would make a sensation there. And it is quite a treat to see her drive her ponies; she knows how to handle a horse's mouth. Why, those tiny hands of hers could hold in a couple of thorough-breds. Oh, she is a good sort; the Spooner girls swear by her."
Miss Ferrers looked kindly at the young man; she liked to hear him vaunting his cousin's excellencies after this unsophisticated fashion. She had taken rather a fancy to this boyish, outspoken young fellow; and her brother shared this liking. She was about to put a question to him, when he suddenly started up with an exclamation, and the next moment he had crossed the room and was standing before a picture, with a very puzzled expression on his face. It was the portrait of a girl, and evidently painted by a good artist. Of course it was she, Erle told himself after another quick look; in spite of the smiling mouth, he could not mistake her. There was the small, finely shaped head, set so beautifully on the long neck; the coils of black hair; the dark, dreamy eyes, which always seemed to hold a shadow in them.
"I beg your pardon; but I had no idea you knew Miss Davenport," he said at last, looking at Margaret as he spoke. But it was Mr. Ferrers who answered.
"Davenport? We know no one of that name, do we, Margaret? What does Mr. Huntingdon mean? Is it some picture?"
"Yes, dear, Crystal's picture. Mr. Huntingdon seems to recognize it."
"Crystal? why, that is her name, too. I have heard Miss Trafford use it a dozen times. As though there could be two faces like that"—pointing to the canvas. "She looks younger, yes, and happier, in the picture; but then, of course, one has never seen her smiling like that. But it is Miss Davenport—ay, and to the life too."
"You must be mistaken," observed Mr. Ferrers in a voice so agitated that Erle regarded him with astonishment. He was strangely pale, and the hand that was grasping the chair back was visibly trembling. "That is the portrait of our young cousin, Crystal Ferrers."
"Yes, our adopted child," added Miss Ferrers, "who left our home nearly eighteen months ago."
Erle looked more puzzled than ever. "I can not understand it," he said, in a most perplexed voice. "If she be your cousin, Crystal Ferrers, why does she call herself Crystal Davenport? There can be no question of identity; that is the face of the Miss Davenport I know—the young governess who lives with the Traffords; that is the very ring she wears, too"—with another quick glance at the hand that was holding a sheaf of white lilies. But here Mr. Ferrers interrupted him.
"Will you describe that ring, Mr. Huntingdon?"
"Willingly—it is of Indian workmanship, I fancy, and has a curiously wrought gold setting, with an emerald very deeply sunk into the center."
"Yes, yes; it must be she," murmured Raby, and then for the moment he seemed able to say no more; only Margaret watched him, with tears in her eyes.
Erle's interest and curiosity were strongly excited. There must be some strange mystery at the bottom of this he thought. He had always been sure that Miss Davenport had some history. She was wonderfully handsome; but with all his predilection for pretty faces he had never quite taken to her; he had regarded her with involuntary distrust.
He looked at Mr. Ferrers as he stood evidently absorbed in thought. What a grand-looking man he was, he said to himself, if he would only hold his head up, and push back the mass of dull brown hair that lay so heavily on his forehead.
There was something sad in that spectacle of sightless strength; and to those who first saw him, Raby Ferrers always seemed like some patient giant oppressed and bowed down, both physically and mentally, but grand in a certain sublime resignation that endured because he was too proud to complain.
"It must be so," he observed at last. "Margaret, I see light at last. Mr. Huntingdon"—turning to his guest—"I have been very rude, very uncourteous, but your words have given me a shock; you have touched accidentally on a deep trouble. Now, will you be good and kind enough to sit down and tell me all you can about Miss Davenport, as you call her."
"Certainly, if you wish it, Mr. Ferrers." And, with very few interruptions from either the brother or sister, Erle gave a full and graphic description of Crystal's present home and surroundings—all the more willingly that his listeners seemed to hang breathlessly on his words.
He described eloquently that shabby room over Mrs. Watkins's, that was yet so pleasant and home-like; the mother with her worn, beautiful face, who moved like a duchess about her poor rooms, and was only the head teacher in a girls' school. He dismissed the subject of the gentle, fair-haired Fern in a few forcible words; but he spoke of little Florence, and then of Percy, and of the curious way in which all their lives were involved.
Only once Mr. Ferrers stopped him. "And Miss Davenport teaches, you say?"
"Yes, both she and Miss Trafford have morning engagements. I think Miss Martingale, where Mrs. Trafford is, has recommended both the young ladies. There are not many gentle people living there; the Elysian Fields and Beulah Place are not exactly aristocratic neighborhoods. But Miss Trafford goes to the vicarage; there are young children there; and by good luck the senior curate, Mr. Norton, wanted some help with his two little boys. Miss Davenport is a Latin scholar, and they took her on the Traffords' recommendation."
"And only her mornings are occupied? Excuse these seemingly trifling questions, Mr. Huntingdon"—with a sad smile—"but you are speaking of one who is very dear to us both."
"I will tell you all I know," returned Erle, in his kind-hearted way; "but I am only a visitor at Mrs. Trafford's. I think, at least I am sure, that they do a good deal of needle-work in their spare time—embroidery for shops; they are very poor, you see. There is always work about; sometimes they are making their gowns. They are never ashamed of anything they do, they are such thorough gentlewomen. I do not think you could find a prouder woman than Mrs. Trafford anywhere, and yet she is frank, and generous to a fault."
"They must be charming people," observed Margaret, thoughtfully. "Crystal has told us all this in her letters, Raby. Mr. Huntingdon's account most fully indorses hers."
"Yes," he returned, quietly, "she is in good hands; our prayers have been answered, Maggie. But now dear, if we have heard all that Mr. Huntingdon can tell us about our poor child, will you leave me with him a little, for I want to take him into our confidence; when he knows all, he may be willing to help us." And Margaret rose without a word; but her beautiful eyes rested on Erle a moment, wistfully, as though to bid him to be patient.
And then, as the twilight crept over the room; while the girls were laughing and chatting round Fay's couch, and wondering—Dora especially—what could have happened to detain Mr. Huntingdon so late; and while the blazing pine knots threw a ruddy glow over Raby's pale face, Erle sat listening to one of the saddest stories he had ever heard.
And when it was finished they had a long talk together, and Erle told Raby about Percy's hopeless passion, and of the impatience and loathing with which Crystal seemed to turn from her handsome young lover.
"He makes his way with other girls, but not with her," went on Erle; "and yet he is clever and fascinating, and will be rich, too, some day. It seems strange, does it not. Mr. Ferrers?"
"Not to me," returned Raby, quietly; but there was a smile on his face as he spoke. "Crystal will never care for your friend, Mr. Huntingdon; it is no use, his persecuting her with his attentions."
"If I could only get Percy to believe it; but he seems absolutely crazy on that point. Miss Davenport—Miss Ferrers, I mean—is not quite the style I admire; but she is superbly handsome, one must own that."
"Yes," replied Raby, with a sigh; "I always said her face would do for Vashti's. She has Italian blood in her veins; her mother was a Florentine. Oh, here comes Margaret," as the door opened and she reappeared. "Maggie, what do you think? Mr. Huntingdon has invited me to Belgrave House."
"My uncle is very hospitable, Miss Ferrers," observed Erle, with a smile at her surprise; "Percy and I can always ask our friends. He is old, and has his own rooms; so we never interfere with him. Mr. Ferrers would find himself very comfortable with us, and I would take great care of him."
"You are very good"—but rather doubtfully. "You will not go to London without me, Raby?"
"I think it will be better, Maggie. Mr. Huntingdon has promised to take me over to Beulah Place; we shall go there one evening. Oh, yes, it is all arranged. Please God, I shall bring her home with me," and there was a strange, beautiful smile on his face as he spoke.
AMONG THE SHADOWS.
When no more the shattered senses round the throne of reason dwell, Thinking every sight a specter, every sound a passing bell; When the mortal desolation falleth on the soul like rain, And the wild hell-phantoms dance and revel in the human brain.
PHILIP STANHOPE WORSELY.
It was nearly dinner-time when Erle reached Redmond Hall; Sir Hugh had not returned from London, Ellerton told him; he had telegraphed that he might be detained all night—my lady was in the damask drawing-room, and the young ladies had left an hour ago. Erle listened to all this, and then rushed up to his room to make himself presentable; and the dogs slunk off, evidently on the same errand.
He had to dine in solitary state by himself, while Fay ate her chicken in the big drawing-room, where the old-fashioned mirrors always reflected the tiny figure.
Fay was looking very pretty to-night, but just a trifle sad at the thought that Hugh might not be home. She had put on his favorite gown, too, to do honor to her first appearance in the drawing-room; it was a lovely gown, and she looked a perfect fairy queen in it, as Erle told her when he came into the room; but somehow Erle's praise was rather flat to-night. Fay was longing for her husband; and she had only dressed to please his eyes. She played with her wedding-ring rather restlessly while Erle talked his nonsense, and then she remembered that he must be amused.
"The girls were so dreadfully disappointed," she said, trying to rouse herself; "they were very good and kind, and stayed with me until six, and then Dora said they must go; she kept looking at the door, and fancying she heard Nero bark; and then the younger one, Connie—no, not Connie, it was Addie—asked so many questions about you—where you lived, and if I had ever been to Belgrave House? trying to find out things, you know; and, Erle—I don't believe you are listening a bit," with a stamp of her little foot.
"I don't believe I was," returned Erle, frankly. "Don't be vexed, my Fairy Queen, I can't bother about the girls to-night. I want to tell you about my visit to the Grange—it is no secret, Mr. Ferrers says, and I thought you would be interested, it is such a strange affair altogether."
Well, it was not such a dull evening after all: neither of them could tell how the time had passed when Ellerton came in to say the last train had been due for some time, and, as Sir Hugh had not returned, would my lady have the house shut up; could it actually be past eleven, and Erle and she still talking about this wonderful story.
Fay's cheeks were quite pink when she bade Erle goodnight; her eyes shining like stars. Oh, these dear people, she thought, how strange and sad it all was, and yet how interesting; she had made Erle describe this Crystal over and over again. She must be an odd girl, she thought—so passionate and so undisciplined, and to think she was living with the other one, with the fair hair and the pretty smile; but when she had said this there had been no answering smile on Erle's face.
"Yes," he had returned, seriously, "I have often wondered to see them such friends; they are so utterly dissimilar. Fern—Miss Trafford, I mean—is gentle and yielding—more like you, Fay; and Miss Ferrers—as I suppose I ought to call her—is so high-spirited and proud. I often wonder how Percy dares to make love to her, but he seems to dare anything."
Well, Fay thought about it all when she went to bed; she had got used to her big shadowy room by this time; she lay wide awake watching the fire-light flicker and dance on the walls; how odd that people who loved each other so much should misunderstand each other so strangely; of course Crystal loved this grand-looking Raby, and yet of her own accord she was hiding from him; and Fay thrilled with pity and affectionate sympathy, as she pondered over the sad story. She tried to tell Hugh when he returned the next day, but he was too busy or else unwilling to listen to her.
"Yes, I know all about it—I never cared very much for the girl," he said, hastily; and then, as Fay looked intensely surprised, he added rather irritably:
"I told you we were old friends once, and of course I saw Miss Crystal when I visited at the Grange; she was never my taste—handsome, of course, but one could see she had a bit of the devil in her—she had a temper of her own if you like; and Mr. Ferrers spoiled her; he was terribly infatuated—I dare say he is still—men will be fools sometimes. There, don't keep me talking, Fay; of course every one in Sandycliffe and Singleton knows the story. I am not so sure that it was not wise of the girl to run away, after all."
"Hugh must have been very intimate with them all," thought Fay when she was left alone. "How I wish he were not always too busy to talk to me. Erle says he is sure he is killing himself rushing about as he does, and he does look terribly ill. I wish he would see Dr. Martin, but of course my asking him to do so would only make him angry. It is very wrong of me, I am afraid; but I can not help longing to know why Hugh has quarreled with them so. I don't like to vex him, but it seems to me as though I have a right to know all that concerns my husband"— and Fay's throat swelled and her eyes grew a little dim. "Perhaps when something happens he will think me older and talk to me more," she said; and though she was alone a rosy flush came over her face.
Fay was very sorry when the time came for Erle to go back to Belgrave House; she would miss him sadly she knew. They had resumed their old walks and drives, and Fay paid visits to Bonnie Bess in her stable, and taught the pretty creature to follow her over the place like a dog.
Erle was sorry to go too; he had grown very much attached to his new cousin. Mr. Ferrers was to join him a little later at Belgrave House, and he promised to write and give her full particulars of their visit to Beulah Place. In his heart he had a secret longing to feel Fern's hand in his again, and to see her bright welcoming smile. "I have been here a whole month," he grumbled; "no wonder Hugh is tired of me by this time."
Fay was rather surprised then to receive a letter from him two or three days afterward telling her that Mr. Ferrers's visit was indefinitely postponed.
"Everything has gone wrong," he wrote; "and the fates, those mischievous cross-grained old women with the one eye between them, are dead against us.
"I went over to Beulah Place the first evening just to reconnoiter, and was much disgusted to hear that Miss Davenport—Miss Ferrers, I mean, only I stick to the old name from habit—was nursing one of her pupils with the measles. The little rascal—it is a boy—had refused to be nursed by any one else; and there she is in the curate's house kept in durance vile; and, to make matters worse, there is some talk of her going out of town with them.
"I wrote off to the Grange at once, and Miss Ferrers answered me. Her brother would defer his visit for the present, she said, until Miss Davenport was back in her old quarters. He was much disappointed, of course, at this delay; but he was satisfied to know that she was in good hands, and he was used to disappointments. I did feel so sorry for the poor old fellow when I read that." And the rest of the letter was filled with lively descriptions of a ball where he had met Miss Selby, and danced with her half the night.
Fay shook her head over this part of Erle's letter. He was an incorrigible flirt, she was afraid; but she missed him very much. The old Hall seemed very quiet without Erle's springy footsteps and merry whistle, and somehow Fay was a little quieter too.
For a change was passing over Hugh's Wee Wifie in those early spring days.
With the new hope there came a new and tender expression on her sweet face.
She grew less child-like and more womanly, and day by day there grew a certain modest dignity that became her well. Hugh was very gentle with her, and careful to guard her from all imprudence; but life was very difficult to him just then, and he could not always restrain his growing irritability.
He was ill, and yet unwilling to own anything was amiss. He scoffed at the idea that his nerves were disorganized; and with the utmost recklessness seemed bent on ruining his fine constitution.
His restlessness and inward struggles were making him thin and haggard; still any fatigue was better than inaction, he thought. Often, after a long day spent in riding over the Redmond and Wyngate estates, he would set out again, often fasting, to walk across plowed lands and through miry lanes to visit some sick laborer, and then sit up half the night in his solitary study.
Years afterward he owned that he never looked back on this part of his life without an inward shudder.
What would have become of him, he said, if the hand of Providence had not laid him low before he had succeeded in ruining himself, body and soul?
No one but Hugh knew how often he had yielded to the temptation to drown his inward miseries in pernicious drugs; how in those solitary vigils, while his innocent child-wife was sleeping peacefully like an infant, his half-maddened brain conjured up delirious fancies that seemed to people the dark library with haunting faces.
But he never meant to harm himself really; he would say in his sober daylight reflections he was only so very wretched. Margaret's influence had always kept him pure, and he was not the man to find pleasure in any dissipation.
No, he would not harm himself; but he wanted more to do. If he could represent his county, for example; but he had lost his seat last election to his neighbor Colonel Dacre! If he could travel; if Fay would only spare him! And then he shook his head as he thought of his unborn child.
"You look so ill, Hugh," Fay would say with tears in her eyes when he came up to wish her good-bye, "I wish you would stay with me a little."
But Hugh would only give a forced laugh, and say that his "Wee Wifie was becoming more fanciful than ever, and that he should not know what to do with her if she went on like this;" and then, kissing her hastily, and unloosening the little hands from his neck, he would go out of the room pretending to whistle.
But one evening, when they were together in the library, he fell asleep while she was talking to him, and looked so strange and flushed that Fay got frightened and tried to wake him.
"Come, Hugh," she said, softly, "it is eleven o'clock, and I can not leave you like this, and I am so tired and sleepy, dear;" and she knelt down and put her hand under his head, and stroked back the hair from his hot forehead. But Hugh only muttered something inaudibly, and turned his face away.
And Fay, watching him anxiously, felt her heart sink with some undefined fear, and presently rang for his valet.
"Saville," she said, as the man entered the room, "I do not know what is the matter with Sir Hugh to-night, he sleeps so heavily and looks so strange. If it were not so late, and I were sure that he would not mind it, I would send for Doctor Martin."
"Nonsense," exclaimed her husband, drowsily, for this threat of sending for the doctor had roused him effectually, and he managed to sit up and look at them.
"Why, what a white shaking child you look, you are not fit to be up so late, Fay; why don't you take more care of yourself."
"I was so frightened, dear," she whispered; "I could not bear to leave you. I am sure you are ill, Hugh; do let Saville help you to bed."
"Oh, is that Saville? I thought—I thought—well, never mind. There is nothing the matter with me, Saville, is there?"
"No, Sir Hugh; only it is late, and I expect you are tired, as my lady said."
"But she said I was ill"—very querulously; "I have never had a day's illness in my life, have I, Saville? Mrs. Heron will know; ask Mrs. Heron—well, I think I may as well go to bed and have my sleep out."
And the next day he reiterated the same thing, that there was nothing the matter with him, nothing; only they had not called him at the usual time, and he had slept late; but he had no appetite, and did not care to rise.
It was foolish to have tired himself out so, he owned. But if Fay were good and would not scold him, she might sit with him and read something amusing. But he did not tell her, or Saville either, that he had tried to dress himself and had fallen back half fainting on the bed, or of the strange horrible feelings that were creeping over him, and that made him dread to be alone. Only Fay was very disappointed that he did not seem to hear anything she read; or remember a word of it. It was the shooting pain in his head, he told her; and then he laughed in a way that was hardly mirthful, and said he would try to sleep.
But that night he never closed his eyes, and yet the next day he would not allow Fay to send for the doctor, though she begged piteously for permission. Doctors were old women, he said, and Dr. Martin especially. It was only the pain in his head that kept him awake and made him so feverish; but toward the evening his eyes began to shine beautifully, and he grew quite lively and talkative.
He said he was much better, if only his head and hands were not burning like live coals; and that he meant if it were fine to drive Fay out in the pony-carriage to-morrow, and they would go and call on Margaret.
Fay stared, as well she might. Did Hugh mean Miss Ferrers? she asked, timidly.
And Hugh, speaking thickly, like a drunken man, said, "Yes, certainly! and why not?" and he would ask Margaret to go with him to Shepherd's Corner to-morrow, and see Tim Hartlebury, who was lying dying or dead, he did not know which; but apropos to the Sudbury politics, and the old Tory member, Lord Lyndhurst of Lyndhurst, at whom the Radical party, with the publican of the Green Drake at their head, had shied rotten eggs, would Lady Redmond assure him that the Grange was not infested with serpents. The old hydra-headed reptile had lived there in his father's time, and there was a young brood left, he heard, that were nourished on Margaret's roses. No, he repeated, if there were serpents at the Grange they would not drive there, for he was afraid of Raby, and he hated parsons, for even blind ones could see sometimes, and they might tell tales—lies—he said, beating wildly on the bedclothes; lies, every one of them, and would they please take away his Wee Wifie, for he was tired of her. And Fay, trembling very much, called out to Saville to come quickly, for Sir Hugh was talking so funnily, she could not make out what he meant. And Saville, as he stood and held his master's hands, thought his talk so very fanny that he summoned Mrs. Heron and Ellerton at once, while the groom saddled one of the horses and galloped off for Dr. Martin; and when Dr. Martin arrived, and had seen his patient, the mystery was soon cleared.
Sir Hugh had brain fever; and that night Ellerton and Saville had to hold him down in his bed to prevent him throwing himself from the window. He very nearly did it once in the cunning of his madness, when they left him unguarded for a moment; and after that they had to strap him down.
They had taken his Wee Wifie from him almost by force; she had clung to him so—her poor mad Hugh, as she called him. But Mrs. Heron took the distracted young creature in her motherly arms when Dr. Martin brought her downstairs, and soothed her as though she were a child. Fay put her head down on the housekeeper's shoulder and cried until she could cry no longer. "Will he die—will my darling die?" was all she could say at first; and then she would ask piteously to go back to him.
No one ventured to let her cross the threshold. After this there were two hospital nurses sent down from London, and Dr. Conway, a well-known physician in town, met Dr. Martin in consultation. Saville and Ellerton were always in the sick-room when wanted. Everything that money could procure, or faithful attendance could give, was lavished on the patient, but for a long time there was no improvement.
If his violence had not banished Fay from the room his miserable ravings would.
The nurses were too much accustomed to such scenes to take much notice of their patient's wild talk; but the trusty old servants, who knew their master's secret, shuddered as they heard him, for his talk was always of Margaret. He never even mentioned his Wee Wifie.
"Oh, for Margaret!" he cried, to give him water to quench his thirst; for he was in torment, and no one could give him drink. Oh, for Margaret's cool hand—for Maggie—for his own love, Margaret; and so on and so on, through the long hours of that fevered dream.
How that one idea beset him!
She was a star, and he went seeking her through space till he got lost and entangled in the Milky Way, and revolved madly through the infinite.
She was in Paradise, standing on the topmost stair of the golden ladder, stretching out her hands and calling to him to come to her before the door was shut; and ever as he tried to climb, the fiends came swarming from their pits of darkness, and dragged him down with endless fallings and precipitous crashings, while his Wee Wifie laughed mockingly from the distance.
"Oh, for Margaret, Margaret, Margaret!" and so on through the day and through the night, until they thought it must have killed him.
Those were terrible days at Redmond Hall. The very servants went carefully about the house with hushed voices, looking after their young mistress with pitying eyes, as she wandered like a lost spirit from one room to another, generally followed by the faithful Janet. Erle came down once, but Fay grew so hysterical at the sight of her old favorite that Mrs. Heron was quite frightened, and begged him to go away; and, as he could do no good, he acquiesced very sensibly in this piece of advice.
Mrs. Heron was growing quite unhappy about my lady. Nothing she could say would make Fay cease from those aimless wanderings; she could not eat, she could not rest, and her fits of weeping seemed only to exhaust her.
Nothing did her any good until Dr. Martin came to her one day, and, taking the thin little hand in his, gave her his faithful promise that, if the fever abated, and she were strong enough, she should help to nurse him by and by, but it would depend upon herself, he said, meaningly; and Fay promised to eat and sleep that she might be fit to nurse Hugh.
She meant to be good and keep her promise; but one evening the longing to see her husband was too strong for her.
Saville had just gone down-stairs for something and had left the dressing-room door ajar. Fay, gliding down the corridor in her white dress, caught sight of the half-opened door, and the temptation was too strong for her; the next moment she was in the dimly lighted room, with her finger on the handle of the closed door.
It yielded to her touch at once, and Fay's hungry eyes tried to pierce through the semi-darkness.
It was the oriel chamber, and Sir Hugh lay on the very bed where, Mrs. Heron had solemnly assured Fay, many a Redmond had breathed his first and last breath. It had been found impossible to move him, but Fay did not remember this as she stood with beating heart, not daring to move a step.
It was very quiet and still—one of the strange nurses was sitting by the bed with her face toward the patient; she had not heard Fay's stealthy entrance; the next moment Fay choked back a sob that threatened to rise in her throat, for she had caught sight at last of the white changed face that lay on the pillow; and then, regardless of everything but her love and longing, she glided quickly to the bed, and kissing the wide staring eyes, laid the shaven head tenderly upon her bosom.
"Oh, my lady!" exclaimed the nurse, in a terrified voice, "this is very wrong—very wrong indeed."
"Hush—I am his wife—I have a right to be here. You know me, do you not, my darling Hugh?"
Poor Fay! she had her punishment then; for Hugh did not know her in the least, and seemed to shrink from her with horror; he begged her to send Margaret to him—his dear Margaret, and not stand there like some white horrible statue dressed up in grave-clothes.
"You had better go, my lady, you are only exciting him," observed the nurse, quietly; and Fay wrung her hands and hurried from the room. Saville found her crouching against the dressing-room door, with her face hidden in her hands, and fetched Mrs. Heron at once to coax her away; but Fay hardly seemed to understand their meaning; her face had a white, strained look upon it as Mrs. Heron put her arm round her and led her tenderly to her room.
In the cruel fire of sorrow Cast thy heart, do not faint or wail, Let thy heart be firm and steady, Do not let thy spirit quail; But wait till the trial be over And take thy heart again; For as gold is tried by fire, A heart must be tried by pain.
ADELAIDE ANNE PROCTER.
"Oh, my lady, what will Doctor Martin say?" exclaimed Mrs. Heron, as she almost lifted her young mistress on to the couch, and stood over her rubbing her cold hands. It was a warm April evening, but Fay was shivering and her teeth chattering as though with cold.
"What does it matter what he says?" returned Fay; the girl's lips were white, and there was still a scared look in her eyes. "Is that why they would not let me see him—because they have cut off his hair and made him look so unlike himself, and because he talks so strangely?"
"Yes, my lady, and for your own good, and because—" but Fay interrupted her excitedly.
"My good? as though anything could do me good while my darling husband suffers so cruelly. Oh, Mrs. Heron, would you believe it? he did not know me; he looked as though he were afraid of me, his own wife: he told me to go away and not touch him, and to send Margaret. Oh," with a sort of restless despair in her voice, "who is this Margaret of whom he always speaks?"
Mrs. Heron's comely face paled a little with surprise—as she told Ellerton afterward, she felt at that moment as though a feather would have knocked her down. "My heart was in my mouth," she observed, feelingly, "when I heard the pretty creature say those words, 'who is this Margaret of whom he always speaks?' Oh, I was all in a tremble when I heard her, and then all at once I remembered Miss Joyce, and it came to me as a sort of inspiration."
"Do you know who he means?" continued Fay, languidly.
"Indeed, my lady, there is no telling," returned the good housekeeper, cautiously; "it is often the case with people in fever that they forget all about the present, and just go back to past days; and so it may be Sir Hugh thinks about the little sister who died when he was a lad at school, and of whom he was so fond."
"Sir Hugh never told me he had had a sister," replied Fay, roused to some animation at this. "Was her name Margaret?"
"Yes, to be sure." But Mrs. Heron forbore to mention that the child had always been called by her second name Joyce. "Ay, she was a pretty little dear, and Master Hugh—I mean Sir Hugh—doated on her; she had the whooping-cough very badly, and Miss Joy—I mean Miss Margaret was always delicate, and it just carried her off."
"And my husband was fond of her?" was the musing reply, "and yet it seems strange that he should go back all those years and think of his baby sister."
"I don't think Doctor Martin would say it was strange if you were to ask him, my lady," was the diplomatic answer. "We might mention it to-morrow, and see what he says. You may depend upon it that folk travel backward in their mind when the fever gets hold of their brain. Most likely he is thinking a deal of his mother and Miss Margaret, for he was always an affectionate lad was Master Hugh."
"Dear Margaret! that was what he called her."
"Ay, no doubt, precious little lamb. I can see her now, with her curly head and white frock, as she pelted Master Hugh with rose-leaves on the lawn. Now, my lady, you are only fit for bed, and there is not a morsel of color in your face, and Ellerton says you hardly touched dinner. Now I am going to bring you up a glass of wine and a sandwich, and you will let Janet help you undress."
Fay was too weary to resist. What did it matter, she thought again; but with her usual sweet courtesy she thanked Mrs. Heron, and tried to swallow a few mouthfuls, though they seemed to choke her, but she was glad when they left her alone. Sleep? how was she to sleep, with this nightmare of horror oppressing her? Again, the poor shaven head was lying in her bosom. She was kissing the wide staring eyes. Why had he pushed her from him? "Oh, Hugh, you ought to have known me," she sobbed, as she tossed wearily in the darkness. Janet, who was sleeping in the adjoining room, heard her once and came to her bedside.
"Were you calling me, my lady?" she asked.
"No, Janet," answered the poor child. "I am only crying because I am so unhappy."
"Better go to sleep, my lady," was Janet's sympathizing reply; "things seem always worse in the dark; most likely we shall hear the master is better to-morrow. Saville says he has a deal of strength in him and will cheat the doctors yet;" and somehow this homely consolation soothed Fay, and by and by she slept the unbroken sleep of youth.
Dr. Martin listened to Mrs. Heron's account with a very grave face the next morning, but he chose to make light of the whole affair to Fay.
"You hardly deserve to be told that this escapade of yours, Lady Redmond, has done our patient no harm," he observed, in a half-joking voice. "Sir Hugh is quieter to-day—much quieter. I should not be surprised if there be decided improvement in a few hours, but," as Fay's eyes filled with tears of thankfulness, "it was a very risky thing to do, and as you deserve to be punished for it, I must insist that these ponies of yours, who are eating their heads off with idleness, shall be put in harness at once, and you will please take a long drive that will not bring you within sight of Redmond Hall for the next two hours."
Fay laughed at the doctor's grim face, but she was ready to promise him obedience if Hugh were better; she was quite willing to take the drive; she rang and ordered the ponies at once, and took the reins in her own hands. The fresh spring sunshine was delicious; the soft breezes seemed laden with messages of hope. Dr. Martin was right when he ordered that drive. Fay's little pale face looked less miserable as she restrained her ponies' frolics. She found herself listening to the birds and noticing the young spring foliage with her old interest as they drove through the leafy lanes. Fay had just turned her ponies' heads toward the winding road that led straight to the shore, when the frisky little animals shied playfully at a lady in a gray cloak who was standing by the hedge looking at a nest of young linnets. As she turned Fay saw that it was Miss Ferrers, and involuntarily checked her ponies, and at the same moment Miss Ferrers stepped into the road.
"Oh, Lady Redmond," she said, and Fay wondered why she was so pale. Had she been ill too? "This is a most unexpected pleasure. May I—may I"—hesitating for a moment, "ask you to stop and speak to me?"
"Certainly," returned Fay; and with quick impulse she handed the reins to the groom, and sprung into the road. "Take the ponies up and down, Ford; I shall not be long. I was just going down on the beach for a breath of sea-air," she continued, turning to Margaret, "and I am so glad I have met you, because we can go together," for she thought Hugh would certainly not mind her exchanging a few courteous words with Miss Ferrers when they met face to face; besides Miss Ferrers had asked to speak to her.
"I wanted to know—but of course I see by your face—that Sir Hugh is better," began Margaret, but her dry lips would hardly fashion the words.
"Oh, yes," returned Fay, eagerly. "Doctor Martin says he is quieter, much quieter, this morning, and he hopes to find decided improvement in a few hours; oh, Miss Ferrers, it has been such a terrible time, I do not know how I have lived through it."
"It must have been dreadful for you, and you are looking ill yourself, Lady Redmond," with a pitying glance at the small white face that looked smaller and thinner since she saw it last.
"I do not know how I have been," returned Fay, simply. "I seemed to have no feeling, the time passed somehow, it was always meal-time, and one could not eat, and then night came, but it was not always possible to sleep. I was always wandering about, and it did not seem easy to pray, and then they came and told me it was wrong to grieve so, but how could I help it?"
"Was there no one to come to you, to be with you, I mean?" but Fay shook her head.
"I did not want them. Aunt Griselda would have come, but I would not let them send for her, she would only have troubled me. Erle—Erle Huntingdon I mean—came down, but I did not want to see him; it only made me cry, so he went away, and since then I have been alone."
"Poor child," returned Margaret, softly. Yes, she was not too young to suffer; she and Raby had not done full justice to her. The childish face had lost its baby roundness; the beautiful eyes were dim with weeping; the strained white look of endurance that one sees on older faces was on hers: and, with a sudden impulse that she could not control, Margaret stooped and kissed her. "Oh, I am so sorry for you, what you must have suffered," she said, in a voice that seemed full of tears.
Fay responded to the caress most warmly. "Oh, you are always so kind; one feels you understand without telling. I thought you would be sorry for me. Do you know I did something dreadfully wrong yesterday; they have never let me see him—they have shut me out of my husband's room—but last evening Saville left the door ajar, and I went in."
"You went in; oh, Lady Redmond!" and Margaret shuddered as though the sea breezes chilled her.
"Yes, and he did not know me; fancy a husband not knowing his wife. They had cut off his beautiful hair, and be looked so strange, and his eyes were so bright and large, and then, when I kissed him, he pushed me away. Miss Ferrers"—with a quick remembrance of the housekeeper's words—"you were old friends, at least Hugh said so; do you remember his ever speaking of a little sister who died?"
"Oh, yes," returned Margaret, quickly; "little Joyce; he was very fond of her as a boy, she was a lovely little creature."
"Joyce, but her name was Margaret, Mrs. Heron says."
"To be sure, I remember now, Margaret Joyce; it is engraved so on the tombstone, but they never called her Margaret, it was always Joyce."
"How strange," replied Fay, in a puzzled tone; they were standing on a little strip of beach now, and the waves were coming in with a lazy splash and ripple; there was no one in sight, and only a little boat with sails rocking in the distance; how calm and still and peaceful it looked. "Little Joyce," she repeated, dreamily, while the soft sea breeze fanned the little tendrils of hair from her temples; "but it was dear Margaret for whom he was asking."
There was a quick gasp strangled before it rose to a sob—for one moment Margaret thought she was in danger of swooning—the sky seemed whirling, the sea was all round her, the sand was nothing but a giddy circle of purple and rose, and blinding yellow; then it passed, there was firm ground under her feet, the mist cleared before her eyes, and Fay was holding her by the arm.
"Were you giddy? how white you looked. Shall we sit down a little? your hand is trembling still."
"It was nothing, I have not been strong lately; yes, we will sit, the air will do us both good. What were you saying, Lady Redmond?" as though the words were not burned into her memory: "Dear Margaret!" Why, the very angels must have wept to hear him!
"Whom could he mean?" continued Fay, with nervous reiteration. "I don't believe Mrs. Heron was right when she said that he was thinking of his baby sister; he would have called her Joyce. Margaret; there is no one that I know who has that name except yourself; but," looking at her doubtfully, "though you were old friends, it was not likely that he meant you."
A deep flush rose to Margaret's face, a quick petition for help and wisdom to guide her at this critical moment rose from her heart.
"He used to call me Margaret, in the old days," she said, in a very low voice. "That need not surprise you, Lady Redmond, as we were such old friends; his mother called me Margaret too."
"You knew his mother."
"Yes, when I was a child, Sir Hugh and I were playfellows; has he not told you that; ah, well, it is sad when old friends get estranged. Lady Redmond, I see you have a question on your lips, may I ask you not to put it. I think that it would not be acting honorably to your husband if you should hear anything from our lips; he can not tell you himself now, but it will not hurt you to wait."
"No," replied Fay, slowly, "no, it would not hurt me to wait, as you say, but then you see Hugh may refuse to tell me, as he did before."
"Will you ask him again, and see if he refuse? will you tell him that Margaret Ferrers begs him most earnestly to tell you why Redmond Hall and the Grange are estranged? tell him, that no consideration for us need seal his lips any longer, that he has always been free to speak, that we will willingly take our share of blame; will you tell him this?"
"Oh, yes," returned Fay, in a relieved voice; "and he will be sure to tell me now; no doubt he was afraid of paining you in some way. Hugh is so kind-hearted, he hates to make any one uncomfortable. I will not try to find out any more by myself; I will be good and patient until he gets well."
"That is spoken like a brave wife," replied Margaret, with a faint smile. "By one who loves her husband more than herself."
"As I love Hugh," was the soft response; "dear Miss Ferrers, I must go now; the ponies will be growing restless, and I am a long way from home."
"Yes, I must not keep you. God bless you, Lady Redmond. Will you forgive me if I stop here, for I have been walking from Pierrepoint, and need rest," but Margaret did not add that her strength had forsaken her, and that she dared not move from her place for fear her limbs should refuse to carry her; she would wait a little until strength came back, and she could meet Raby with her usual calmness.
"Yes, you look very tired," was Fay's unconscious answer; "but you will soon get rested with this lovely air." And then she kissed her affectionately, and went up the beach with her old elastic step, and Margaret watched her sadly until she was out of sight.
"She is sweet and good, but he does not love her yet," she said to herself; "but it will come, it must come in time."
Fay drove happily home, and was met at the lodge gates by the good news that Sir Hugh had had an hour or two's refreshing sleep, and that Dr. Conway, as well as Dr. Martin, were quite satisfied with the progress he had made.
"Oh, could it be quite true?" Fay asked, when she reached the Hall.
Yes, it was quite true the fever had abated. Sir Hugh's wonderful strength and vitality had triumphed at last, and the doctors soon announced that he was out of danger.
There were still days of weary waiting for Fay before it was pronounced safe for her to enter her husband's sickroom; but at last the day came, and one sweet spring evening, Hugh waking up from a brief doze, felt tears falling on his forehead, and saw Fay leaning over him. He was too weak even to put out his hand, but a faint smile came to his lips. "My Wee Wifie," Fay heard him say, but the next moment the smile had died away into sadness.
"LET ME SEE MARGARET."
Be with me, love, when weak and worn, My life chord vibrates to and fro; When with the flood-tide's backward flow, My soul stands waiting to be gone.
And let me, with my failing hand, Hold fast to that I love so well, Till thine clasps but an empty shell, Amid the drift-weed on the sand.
Be with me that my closing eyes In that last hour may seek thy face, Thine image so can none displace, But soar with me through yonder skies.
HELEN MARION BURNSIDE
"But they were not out of the wood yet," as Mrs. Heron observed to Ellerton.
When, he had reached a certain point Sir Hugh failed to make any further progress.
The London physician, Dr. Conway, frankly owned that Sir Hugh's case completely baffled his medical skill and experience.
Just when they had least expected it the fever had abated, and he had begun to amend, and now he as steadily refused to get well.
Day after day he lay in an extremity of weakness that was pitiable to witness; and ever, as time went on, seemed sinking slowly from sheer inanition and exhaustion. After all there must be some strange mischief at work, he said; but Dr. Martin was of a different opinion.
He had seen enough of his patient by this time to be sure that there was sickness of heart as well as of brain, and that it needed some other healing power than theirs before the man could throw off the load of oppression that was retarding his recovery and, gathering up his wasted energies, take up his life again.
But now he seemed very far from recovery.
Day after day he lay with that far-off look on his face that it made Fay weep to see, for she thought that he must surely die.
Hugh thought so too.
Hour by hour he felt himself drifting nearer to the dark valley which, to his tired eyes and heart, seemed only like some still haven of repose. Only to sleep, he said, to sleep—to rest—and with his white lips he murmured, "and may God have mercy on my soul." And ever he longed and prayed that he might see Margaret again.
And one night he dreamed of her.
He dreamed that he was dying—as he surely believed he was—and that Margaret came to his bedside and looked at him. He could see her distinctly; the pale, beautiful face, the folds of her dress, the wave of her dead-brown hair. And when he awoke and saw only the spring sunshine filling the room, and quivering light under his eyelids, and knew that the fresh day was dawning brightly to all but him, he could not suppress the groan that rose to his lips, "Margaret, Margaret."
Fay was sitting by him, but the curtain concealed her; she had been curled up for hours in the big arm-chair that stood at the head of the bed. It was her habit to rise early and go to her husband's room and send the nurse to rest; indeed, Dr. Martin had to use all his authority to induce her to take needful exercise, for Fay begrudged every moment spent out of the sick-room.
She was looking out at the avenue and listening to the soft soughing of the spring breezes in the tree-tops, and thinking of the summer days that were to bring her a marvelous gift; but at the sound of Hugh's agonized voice her day-dream vanished. "Margaret, Margaret," he had said, and then almost with a sob, "my one and only love, Margaret."
No! she was not asleep, the words were ringing in her ears. Hugh, her Hugh, had spoken them, "My one and only love, Margaret."
He must take back those words, that was her first thought. Oh, no, he could not mean them; it would not be possible to go on living if she thought he meant them; but he was ill, and she must not agitate him, she must speak to him very quietly for fear the fever had returned, and his poor head was confused again.
"You have been dreaming," she said, gently—oh, so gently. "What is it you want, my dearest."
And Hugh, folding his wasted hands together as though he were praying, looked up to her with unutterable longing in his eyes, and panted out "Margaret."
"Margaret," she repeated, slowly; "what Margaret do you mean, Hugh?"
"Margaret Ferrers," he whispered. "Oh, Fay, dear Fay, if I have wronged you, forgive me. In the old times before I knew you, Margaret and I were engaged—she had promised to be my wife, and then she took back her promise. Child, I meant to tell you, I always meant to tell you, but I did not like to grieve you by what was over and gone; but I am dying—God knows I can not live in this weakness—let me see Margaret once, and bid her goodbye before I go."
Ah, there was no doubt now! slowly, but surely, the color faded out of the sweet face.
If he had raised that helpless arm of his, and felled her to the ground, she could not have felt so stunned and bruised and giddy as she stood there, winding and unwinding the fringe of the quilt between her cold fingers, with that strange filmy look in her eyes.
She understood it now. The arrow so feebly winged had sped to the depths of that innocent heart, and what she would not have believed if an angel had told it her, she had heard from her husband's lips.