"Oh! I don't pretend to be Erle's mentor," he returned, a little sulkily; for he thought he saw her drift to keep him from talking of his own feelings. "I never interfere with other fellows."
"Yes, but Fern is your sister," in a reproachful voice; "and I do think you are to blame in this. Why do you not tell him that he must leave your sister alone, and keep to Miss Selby. Your grandfather would be very angry if he knew of these visits to Beulah Place, and then Mr. Erle would get into trouble."
"I can't help that," was the indifferent answer. "Erle must take his chance with the rest of us; he knows as well as I do the risk he runs." And in spite of her pre-occupation, Crystal noticed a curious change in Percy's tone.
"Do you mean that he would get into serious trouble? is that what you would imply? I do not think you are doing your duty, Mr. Trafford, if you do not warn him of Mr. Huntingdon's displeasure. Mr. Erle is weak, he is easily gulled, but he has good principles; you could soon induce him to break off his visits."
"I don't see that I need trouble myself about another fellow's love affair; I have too much on my own mind. Of course you look impatient, Miss Davenport, it is a crime to speak of my own feelings; but how can you expect me to take interest in another fellow when I am so utterly miserable myself."
"Mr. Trafford," she said, trying to control her impatience, "I wish you would let me speak to you for once, as though I were your friend," she would have substituted the word sister, but she feared to provoke one of his outbursts of indignant pleading.
"You know you may say what you like to me," he returned, moved by the gentleness of her speech, for she had never been so gracious to him before. "You have more influence over me than any one else in the world. If you could make me a better man, Miss Davenport."
"I would give much to do it," she answered, in a low voice that thrilled him strangely. "Mr. Trafford, will you be angry with me if I speak to you very frankly, and earnestly—as earnestly," here she paused, "as though we were bidding each other good-bye, to-night, for a long time."
"If you will call me Percy," he replied, with sudden vehemence, "you shall say what you like to me."
"Very well," she answered, with a faint smile at his boyish insistance, "it shall be Percy then—no, do not interrupt me," as he seemed about to speak. "I am very troubled and unhappy about Mr. Erle's visits; they are doing harm to Fern, and I must tell you, once for all, that you are not doing your duty either to your sister or cousin."
"Erle again," he muttered, moodily.
"Yes, because the matter lies very close to my heart, for I dearly love your sister. Mr. Trafford—Percy, I mean—you have youth, health, talents—the whole world lies before you; why do you envy your cousin, because he is likely to be a richer man than you?"
"He has robbed me of my rightful inheritance," was the moody answer.
"It could never be yours," she returned, quickly; "a Trafford will never be Mr. Huntingdon's heir."
"I would change my name."
"That would avail you little," with a touch of her old scorn, for the speech displeased her. "Mr. Huntingdon would never leave his money to the son of the man whom he hated, and of the daughter whose disobedience embittered his life. Mr. Erle has to answer for no sins but his own."
"He had better be careful though," was the quick response.
"What, have you done him mischief already? Why—why are you not more generous to the poor boy? Why do you encourage these visits that you know will anger Mr. Huntingdon? Why do you tempt him from his duty? Percy, I implore you to be true to yourself and him. Look into your own heart and see if you are acting an honorable part."
"You are always hard on me," he returned, sullenly. "Who has been blackening my name to you?"
"No one, no one," she answered, quickly; "but you are a reckless talker, and I have gathered much from my own observation. You have told me more than once that you are in debt; sometimes I fear you gamble. Oh!" as a dark flush mounted to his forehead, "I should be grieved to think that this is true."
"You would hate me all the more, I suppose," in a defiant voice.
"Indeed I do not hate you, my poor boy; but you make me very angry sometimes. Do you know me so little as to think I could ever bring myself to love a gambler, or one who tried to rob another of his inheritance—one who was so afraid of poverty that he deserted his mother for the loaves and fishes of the man who was her worst enemy?"
"The old story," in a despairing voice; "will you never give me even the benefit of an excuse—will you never allow me to defend myself?"
"I am not your judge," was the cold reply; and then, as she saw the misery of his face, she relented. "Indeed, it is not too late to retrieve the past. If you have debts, if you are in trouble, own it frankly to your grandfather."
"And be turned out of the house a beggar?"
"What of that," she replied, cheerfully; "you have a profession; every one says how clever you are—what a splendid barrister you will make. You can take pupils; success and money will come to you in time."
"Too late," he muttered; "I can not free myself." Then, with a sudden change of look and tone, "Crystal, if I do this—if I leave Belgrave House, will you give me a hope of winning you in the future?"
She shook her head; "I can not give you that hope."
"Why not?" he demanded, fiercely.
"Because I belong to another," she answered, slowly, and there came a wonderful light in her eyes; "and for his sake I will live as I am to my life's end."
They had reached Beulah Place by this time, and Mrs. Watkins's shop was in sight. There were few passers-by, so no one noticed why Percy suddenly stood still and seized his companion's hands.
"You love another man? You dare to tell me this?"
"I tell you this for your own good, and that you may never speak to me again as you have done. You must not be angry with me for telling you the truth; and now will you ring the bell, for there is no need to go through the shop?"
"I am not coming in," he said, hoarsely. "I can not trust myself."
"Then we will say good-bye here," was the quiet answer, and she pressed his hands kindly. "Forgive me if I have made you unhappy, but indeed it is your fault, and I thought it better to tell you the truth. Good-bye, my poor boy;" but though her voice was full of gentleness and pity, he scarcely heard it. He had wrung her hands, almost throwing them from him, and had turned away without a word.
Crystal looked after him rather wistfully; her heart felt strangely soft to him to-night. "Was it wrong to tell him, I wonder?" she said to herself, as she quickly retraced her steps. "He is terribly reckless, one never knows how he may take things. It was good of him to listen to me so patiently; and now he has gone away sore and angry."
Crystal was walking very fast now, as though she had suddenly remembered some errand. As an empty hansom passed her she hailed it. "Will you drive me to Victoria Station," she said to the man in a business-like tone; "I want to meet the 6:30 train from Singleton. I think there is time."
"None too much," was the somewhat gruff answer, "but my horse is fresh;" and Crystal drew into a corner and tried to curb her impatience by watching the passers-by; but her fear of being too late kept her restless and miserable.
As they drove into Victoria Station a handsome barouche, with a pair of fine bays, attracted Crystal's attention. The footman had got down and was making inquiries of a porter. "Singleton train just due," Crystal heard the man say, as she handed the cabman his fare; and as she quickly passed through the station, the train slowly drew up at the platform.
Only just in time! Crystal pressed eagerly forward, scanning the occupants of all the carriages until she came to the last.
There were two passengers in this compartment; a young lady, with a good-natured freckled face, was speaking to a very tall man who was standing in the center of the carriage. "You must let me help you out," Crystal heard her say in a pleasant countrified voice, "and wait with you until your friends find you;" and then came the answer in the deep tones Crystal knew so well.
"Thank you, you are very kind. My unfortunate infirmity gains new friends for me everywhere; so after all, you see, even blindness has its alleviations, Miss Merriman."
"Oh, I will be sure to tell papa what you say; it will be such a comfort to him. Now, will you put your hand on my shoulder—it is a deep step—take care;" but as Raby tried to follow this instruction, a little gloved hand, that certainly did not belong to Miss Merriman, gently guided him and placed him in safety.
Miss Merriman nodded and smiled her thanks.
"There, you are all right now. What is the matter Mr. Ferrers?"
"I thought some one touched me," he returned, with a puzzled look, "and you were on my other side, so I suppose it was some kind stranger."
"Yes, a young lady," as Crystal moved away rather suddenly. "Ah! there is a footman; he seems in search of some one. I will ask him if he be looking for you," and Miss Merriman darted away.
Raby stood quietly waiting, but he little knew that the girl whom he had come to London to seek was standing a few yards from him, trying to see him through the tears that blinded her.
Many people turned to look after the tall, striking-looking man in clerical dress. The felt hat just shaded the pale, massively cut features. He looked older, Crystal thought, and a little sadder, but the mouth was as beautiful as ever.
Once he looked up as hasty footsteps brushed him, as though he would move aside, but a girlish figure interposed between him and the loaded truck, and again the little hand guided him to safety.
"It is all right—the man says he is waiting for Mr. Ferrers," observed Miss Merriman briskly at this moment. "What horrid things those trucks are; I was afraid one would have knocked you, only the young lady led you away."
"What! a young lady?" asked Raby, quickly.
"Oh, only a tall young lady in brown, who seemed to notice you wanted help. She has gone now—probably a passenger for the down-train."
"I think all young ladies are good to me," returned Raby, with grave courtesy, holding out his hand. "I know I have met with a very kind fellow-passenger;" and then, as he took the footman's arm and entered the carriage, Miss Merriman saw the tall young lady in brown walk quickly out of the station, and as she passed her there were tears running down her cheeks.
FLUFF GOES TO SEE GRANDPAPA.
Thou, like a little curious fly That fusses through the air, Dost pry and pry With thy keen inquisitive eye.
And with many questions, ever Rippling like a restless river, Puzzling many an older brain Dost thou hour by hour increase thy store Of marvelous lore. Thus a squirrel, darting deftly, Up and down autumnal trees, Sees its hoard of chestnuts growing swiftly In a heap upon the leaf-strewn leas.
"And now, I look almost as smart as the Princess Dove herself."
"I really think you do, Fluff, though you remember her dress was a curious embroidery of rainbows and dew-drops sewn all over with peacocks' eyes; but I assure you I like your white frock much better; and the new hat is very pretty."
"If I were to be lost—really and truly lost, you know—would the funny old town-crier tell a long story about me as he did about the dog when we were down by the sea last summer?"
"Of course he would, and mother and I would stand and listen to him and try not to laugh. 'Lost, stolen, or strayed, a little witch-girl in a clean white frock, rather too much starched; a frilled cape that crackles when she moves, and a pretty broad-brimmed hat.' Well, Fluffy, what does that mysterious look mean? you are very rude to interrupt the old crier," and Fern tried to frown, while Fluff nodded her head sagaciously.
"It would not be stolen or lost, it would be strayed like the sheep in the turnip-field, when the shepherd turned them all out because they had no business there. Supposing I strayed on purpose, Fern, you must send a crier covered all over with gold lace to find me."
"Indeed! have you lost your senses, Fluff?"
"Never mind the senses; I saw them all five in china in Mrs. Watkins's left hand corner-cupboard, china images she called them, and I thought them so pretty. Give me the fourpence half-penny for buns, Fern—one Bath, two plain, and a half-penny to the sweeper that takes me best over the crossing."
"Oh, Fluff, Fluff, do be careful, and mind you do not go too far; come back soon, like a good child."
"Of course I am good on my birthday. What did they do to Ananias and Sapphira, Fern?"
"Dear me, what an odd question, Fluffy!"
"Never mind that; in the Sunday-school the teacher always answers the children's questions directly; she is a very nice teacher though she has red hair, but she can not help that."
"Oh, indeed! so I must tell you about Ananias and Sapphira. What is the matter? how pale you look, my pet. Well, they fell down dead because they had told a lie."
Fluff shifted her pence uneasily.
"That was the lie they told about the land and money that they wanted to keep themselves. I think they were greedy people; one Bath, two plain, and a half-penny for the sweeper. Here is the fourpence, Fern; I don't think I shall be hungry until tea-time. Now, good-bye, I must go."
"Why, Fluff, what nonsense! here, Fluff;" but Fluff was scuttling down-stairs as fast as she could go, and Fern was only in time to see her little feet whisking through the shop door.
"I don't believe there is such another child in the United Kingdom," she said to herself, laughing. "She is terribly young for her age, but so amusing; how dull it will be without her this afternoon, and poor Crystal so far away, I wish mother had not let her go, or that she were safe home again;" and Fern sighed as she looked round the empty room.
Now it so happened that Fluff had coaxed her mother to let her take a walk alone on her birthday; this was the treat she had selected for the occasion.
She was to wear her best frock and her new hat that Crystal had trimmed for her as a parting present; and she had promised to be very careful, and not go too far. The four-pence was to be expended in buns—so she and her mother had arranged, but Fluff had secretly intended to put it to another purpose, until her conscientious scruples had obliged her to leave it at home instead of paying the omnibus fare that was to save her poor little legs; they would get sorely tired before they reached their destination.
Fluff ran down several streets, till she was out of breath, and then she fell into a little trot; but first she gave the half-penny to a ragged boy, and begged him earnestly never to tell stories; and after that she asked him the way to Belgravia. Not getting a lucid answer from him, as he only told her that he had been a cripple from his birth and had sold lucifers ever since, which, being brimstone, was bad for the rheumatics, Fluff told him that she would have repeated the whole story of Ananias and Sapphira to him, only she had no time, and then she resumed her walk with much dignity.
And the method of it was this—if method it could be called which had, in its sidelong movements, the similitude of a crab. First she went into every baker's shop she passed, and, shaking her head sorrowfully at the fresh currant-buns on the counters, asked in a confidential whisper the quickest and shortest way to Belgravia; and when they wished to know what part, or asked her business, in a kindly way, she pursed up her mouth and said that was not the question, and would they please confine themselves to facts, or some such speech, in her odd abrupt way.
And she looked such a little lady as she spoke, and held her little head up so proudly, that most of them answered her with civility; and one big baker's boy, just starting on his afternoon round, said he would see her past the dangerous crossing in the next street, and put her a little on her way. Fluff said she was very much obliged to him, and trotted confidingly by his side, adapting her conversation to her hearer as she thought best, for she enlarged in a rambling way on the Miracle of the Loaves, and told him what her teacher said on the subject of the fishes; and then she became confidential, and explained to him that she bore an innocent partiality for the moist peely bits of soft crusts that one could pare off a loaf without showing a sad deficiency, and how she always liked to take in the bread at Mrs. Watkins's for the purpose; and lastly, she told him in a weary little voice that she was going to see grandpapa, who lived in a big house in Belgravia, but that she was getting very tired, for she had a bone in her leg—two bones, she thought—and might she sit please on the top of his little cart to rest her poor legs when he went into the next house?
The baker's boy was a good-natured fellow, but, as he expressed it afterward, he thought her the rummiest little lady he had ever met; indeed, he confided his suspicions to a grocer's lad that she "was a bit cracky;" but he let her sit on his cart for all that, and trundled her the length of two or three streets; and further revived her drooping spirits by a dab of hot brown bread, scooped skillfully out of the side of a loaf which, as he said, would never show.
After that they got facetious, and admired a Punch and Judy show together, and parted with deep regret, when a policeman desired them to move on.
Fluff began to feel rather lonely after this. It was getting late, she was afraid, and those little legs of hers ached dreadfully; but she fell in at the park gates with a playful flower-girl, who ran a race with her, basket and all, and then stood and jeered in broad Irish because she was beaten, while Fluff sat down, sulky and exhausted, on a bench under the trees.
It was nearly tea-time now, she thought; in another hour or so Fern would be sending the old crier after her. She wondered how she was to get back. She was very thirsty, and felt half inclined to cry; and then it struck her that the large splendid-looking building opposite might be Belgrave House, and she ran up to a workman just passing and asked him.
"No," he said, eying her wondering, "that was not Belgrave House, it was in the next square;" and when she heard that she clapped her hands joyfully, and went and drank out of a little iron bowl in company with a sweep. She asked him if she might drink first, and he said, "Oh, laws, yes! you ain't near so smutty as me," which speech Fluff took as a compliment. But she had fallen down twice, and her nice white frock had got unsightly patches of green on it.
But she felt as though her troubles were over when she stood in front of Belgrave House, its many windows shining like gold.
What a grand place it was—finer than the Crystal Ball Palace where Princess Dove and Prince Merrydew lived; and, oh dear, what joy, the door was open!
The footman had just run out to the pillar box, and another footman was fast asleep in a chair that looked like a baby's cradle turned upside down.
Fluff ran up the steps and looked in.
There was a beautiful scent of flowers as she crept timidly into the hall, such sleepy warm flowers Fluff thought, only they made her head drowsy; and there was a great staircase with carved balustrades and dark slippery stairs, and the doors were all shut, and there was not a sound in the whole house, except the singing of some birds. Fluff began to feel giddy.
But it was babyish to feel frightened in her own grandpapa's house, so she took courage, and passing the sleepy footman on tiptoe, crept softly up the stairs, holding very tightly to the balustrades, for she felt as though she were slipping every step, and presently she came to a sunny landing-place with a conservatory, where some canaries were singing. Here she saw a half-open door, and pushed it open, and then she thought she was in fairy-land.
It was such a large beautiful room, with marble ladies standing in the corners, with wonderful green plants growing in gilded baskets, and satin couches, and lace draperies, and lovely china; and in an arm-chair a gentleman asleep, for he had his eyes shut.
Fluff stole in and peeped at him; no, he was not asleep, for his eyes opened, and yet he did not seem to see her, perhaps he was thinking. His face looked very nice and kind, and with the unerring instinct of childhood she laid her hand on his knee.
"If you please, sir, will you tell me where I can find grandpapa?"
The gentleman raised his eyes—as Fluff told her mother afterward, "he looked at me without seeing me;" and then his hand closed quietly over the child's. Nothing ever seemed to startle Raby Ferrers in that strange dreamy life of his.
"Who are you, my child, and who is your grandpapa?"
"My grandpapa's name is Mr. Huntingdon, and he lives in this house—Belgrave House it is called, and I am Florence Trafford, but they call me Fluff at home."
The name roused him effectually; ah, he was startled now. "Florence Trafford, did you say; do you mean that you live at Beulah Place in the Elysian Fields."
"Yes, at Mrs. Watkins's—mother, and Fern, and I, and Crystal too, only she went away this morning."
"Away—what do you mean?" and Fluff's poor little hands were held so tightly that they were quite red and sore afterward.
"Oh, she has gone to America with that horrid Miss Campion; yes, and she is horrid to take our dear Criss-crass away. Fern cried so this morning, and Crystal cried too, but she had to go, she said, so it was no use making a fuss about it; and she does not mean to come back for a long time. What is the matter?" peering curiously in his face, "does your head ache?"—for Raby had uttered a low groan, and had dropped Fluff's hands, and he was pushing back the heavy dead-brown hair as though he were suddenly oppressed.
Fluff did not wait for his answer; she chattered on very much at her ease.
"Mother and Fern only think I am taking a walk, but I always meant to come and see grandpapa on my birthday. I should think he ought to be very glad to see me; and if he is not," here her lip quivered a little, "I should tell him he is very naughty to live in this beautiful house while poor mother is so poor, and goes out teaching." But, as she spoke, the door had opened softly, and a tall gray-haired man, with a thin erect figure, walked slowly into the room, leaning on Erle's arm, while Percy followed him.
Fluff gave a little exclamation at the sight of the two young men, and then ran toward Mr. Huntingdon, her broad-brimmed hat falling on her neck, and her dark eyes all aglow with excitement.
"I have come to see you, grandpapa," she said, holding out her hand with the air of a little princess; and then, as he did not take it, she continued rather piteously, "please, dear grandpapa, don't be angry with me, for I have come all this way of my own accord, and I am so tired and hungry."
If a thunder-bolt had fallen in the midst of that stately room it could not have created a greater sensation.
Erle flushed and looked uncomfortable, a dark frown crossed her brother's face; Mr. Huntingdon's was inscrutable as usual, only a gray tint seemed to spread over his features, and there was a slight trembling in the hand that held Erle's arm.
Fluff looked from one to the other, and then she touched Erle coaxingly.
"Do ask grandpapa to be kind to me, Mr. Erle," she pleaded. "Percy is always cross, but you have been so good to me and Fern." But a stern voice interrupted her.
"Do you know this child, Erle? she seems to recognize you."
"Yes, sir," stammered Erle, losing color now as fast as he had gained it; his embarrassment was not lessened by the look on Percy's face. "I have seen her when I have been with Percy. She is Florence Trafford, Mrs. Trafford's youngest child, and I expect what she says is quite true, and that she has come of her own accord, though I have no idea how she found her way here."
"How should you, Mr. Erle," returned Fluff, nestling up to her favorite, "when I never told you a word about it, or any of them either? Why, bless me, the stupidest of all those stupid owls in the Zooelogical Gardens, that we laughed at so much, knew more about it than you did. Oh, you need not frown, Percy, you do not come half so often to see poor mother as Mr. Erle does, and he is far kinder to Fern."
"I think you had better hold you tongue, Fluff," replied her brother; but he evidently enjoyed the sight of Erle's discomfiture. "I don't see why you are to be troubled with this sort of scene," he continued, addressing Mr. Huntingdon, who was eying Fluff gloomily all this time. "If you wish it I will ring for Roger to take her home."
"No, no, let her be for a moment," he replied, quickly; and Fluff, who had looked terrified at Percy's proposition, came closer and rubbed her curls delightedly against his coat-sleeve.
"That's right, grandpapa. I have not spoken to you yet, have I? and I have so much to say. I was that little baby you know whom mother carried through the snow that night. Yes," as Mr. Huntingdon shuddered, "I heard mother tell Fern all about it one night when they thought I was asleep—only I got sleepy and lost half; but I said to myself, 'I shall go and tell grandpapa that poor mother is very miserable and unhappy, and that he must come and take care of her.'"
"There, there, you have said your lesson very prettily," observed Mr. Huntingdon with a sneer. "Children are apt parrots;" but Erle saw that his sneer was forced, and that he sat down like an old man, and he said, earnestly:
"Oh, sir, do not think so badly of your daughter. She has not sent the child on this errand. I would stake my life on it."
"And how long have you taken upon yourself to defend my daughter, Mrs. Trafford?" asked his uncle coldly. Erle almost repented of his generous impulse when he heard that hard relentless voice. They had not noticed their visitor, and Raby, at the other end of the great room, lost much of what was passing, he was so absorbed with his own bitter disappointment. As Erle was silent a moment, Mr. Huntingdon repeated his question.
"Since he knew I had a pretty sister," replied Percy, carelessly.
Erle turned round and their eyes met, but Percy's fell before that glance of utter contempt; Mr. Huntingdon intercepted the look between the young men.
"I was not speaking to you, Percy," he observed, curtly; "I should have thought it was your place to take your mother's part, but you chose to be silent. Well, it is no affair of mine. Erle, will you be good enough to answer me a question or two, and then I will trouble you to send the child home. How often have you visited at my daughter's house?"
"I can hardly answer that question, sir; I have been several times."
"Did Percy take you?"
"In the first instance, yes; but I have been there alone too," for Erle's truthful nature scorned subterfuge. The crisis he had dreaded had come on him at last; but Percy should not see that he was afraid. He might be weak and vacillating, but he was a gentleman, and a lie was abhorrent to him. Percy's innuendo might work deadly mischief, but all the same he would not shelter himself behind a falsehood.
Mr. Huntingdon's hard look involuntarily softened. This show of manliness on his nephew's part pleased him.
"Of course you went there, knowing that I should disapprove of such visits. Tell me, is this Fern of whom my grandson speaks so very attractive?"
"She is very pretty."
"That is all I want to know. Now, will you order the carriage to take the child home? No, stop, I think Roger had better fetch a cab." But at this point Fluff began to cry.
"Oh, I am so tired and hungry," she sobbed, "and all those dreadful bones in my legs, and the crier not come yet. What is the good of a grandpapa if he has no cakes and things, and on my birthday too!"
Mr. Huntingdon smiled grimly.
"Very well, order the child some refreshment, Erle. After all, she is but a starved bit of a thing; see she has what children like best. Percy, come with me a moment, I want to speak to you."
"Oh, thank you, grandpapa," exclaimed Fluff, cheering up at this; and as the door closed on Mr. Huntingdon, Erle knelt down by the child, and wiped the tears from the tired dirty little face that had brought such trouble to him.
And the heart of Fluff was glad within her, for they brought her fruit and cakes and sweet wine on a gold salver, so that she feasted like a king's daughter or like the Princess Dove herself; and Erle sat by and watched her all the time, though he looked rather grave and unhappy, Fluff thought.
Both of them were rather startled when Mr. Ferrers groped his way toward them. He had been hidden by the curtain, and Erle had not noticed him.
"Mr. Erle, if you will allow me, I should like to take the child home."
"Of course," rousing himself, and looking a little bewildered, "we were both to have gone this evening. I had ordered the brougham, but I am afraid now that I must ask you to excuse me. There are circumstances—and," here Erle paused and bit his lips.
"There is no need for you to go," returned Raby, sorrowfully; "the bird has flown. This child," putting his hand lightly on Fluff's curly head, "told me before you came in that Crystal had gone to America—she started this morning."
"To America?" exclaimed Erle, in an incredulous voice.
"Yes, but she has told me no particulars. It is hard, very hard, is it not. I find one does not get used to disappointment. It is a heavy blow to my faith. I thought that to-night we should certainly have met."
"I am awfully sorry, Mr. Ferrers, I am indeed. I wish I could have come with you."
"You could not help me. I will take the child home, and talk to those kind friends who have sheltered Crystal; at least I shall hear about her, and know her future movements."
"I think I hear the cab, Mr. Ferrers, and Fluff is fast asleep."
"We will not wake her, poor little thing," returned Raby, lifting her up as he spoke. Fluff grunted contentedly as her head dropped on his broad shoulder. Erle watched them as Roger guided them to the cab. How he longed to accompany them. The next moment he turned with a start, as his uncle's slow footstep paused beside him.
"Erle," he said, "look at this," and he held out a costly ring, a half hoop of diamonds. "I have heard all I wish from Percy. His sense of honor is none of the finest, but he is useful to me. You and I need not heat ourselves in a perfectly useless discussion. Miss Selby has a right to expect this ring. You are treating her very shabbily, Erle. Come to me to-morrow and tell me you have placed it on her finger."
"And if I refuse?" Erle's pale lips could hardly frame the question.
Mr. Huntingdon smiled ironically.
"I do not think you will refuse, Erle. You are too much a gentleman to treat a woman badly. All the world is saying you and Miss Selby are engaged. You can hardly allow a girl to be talked about."
"But if I prefer another?" stammered Erle.
"Tut, tut, boy, you will soon get over your fancy," returned Mr. Huntingdon, impatiently. "Most young men have half a dozen flirtations before they settle down. I suppose I need not tell you that I strictly prohibit any visits to Mrs. Trafford for the future. If you infringe this rule it will be at your own risk;" and then he continued more earnestly—"Erle, I am determined that you shall not disappoint me. You are my adopted son, and I trust my future heir. I have a right to count on your obedience. Come to me to-morrow, and tell me you and Miss Selby are engaged, and all will be well between us." Then, pressing his shoulder gently, and in a voice no one had heard from him since his daughter's loss—"I am an old man, and my life has not been a happy one. Do not let me feel that you have disappointed me too."
"I WANT HIM SO."
No shade has come between Thee and the sun; Like some long childish dream Thy life has run; But now the stream has reached A dark deep sea, And sorrow, dim and crowned, Is waiting thee.
ADELAIDE ANNE PROCTER.
Fluff woke up before they reached their destination, very much refreshed by her brief nap. When the cab stopped before the side door of Mrs. Watkins's, and she caught sight of Fern standing on the threshold, as though she had been waiting there some time, she gave a little cry, and literally jumped into her sister's arms.
"Oh, Fluff, Fluff! what does this mean?" exclaimed poor Fern, who had passed a most miserable afternoon, picturing Fluff being borne in a policeman's arms to the nearest hospital; but Fluff silenced her by an embrace so vehement that it nearly produced strangulation.
"It is all right, Fern, so don't scold me. Grandpapa was not so very angry—at least, only just at first; but he sent me in the beautifulest supper, such nice things on a big gold plate—really gold, you know, like Princess Dove's; and Mr. Erle was there, and Percy—and oh! I forgot the poor man in the cab, who is blind—quite blind, but he is very nice too."
"Will you let me explain about your little sister, Miss Trafford," said Raby in his pleasant voice; and Fern, turning in some surprise, saw a very tall man in clerical dress standing beside her, as she afterward expressed it to her mother, "with the very nicest face she had ever seen."
"I do not know if you have ever heard my name; I am Mr. Ferrers, and your friend Miss Davenport, as she calls herself, is my sister's cousin."
"Oh, yes, I know," and Fern's voice grew pitiful all at once; "and you have come just as Crystal has left us; did Florence tell you? Oh, I am so sorry, so very sorry."
"Yes, the child told me; but there is much that I want to ask you. May I come in? The cab will wait for me." And then, as Fern guided him up the narrow staircase, she told him that her mother was out—an evening class had detained her; and she had been thankful that this had been the case, and that she should have been spared the anxiety about Fluff. Mrs. Watkins's boy was scouring the neighborhood, making inquiries of every one he met; and she had just made up her mind to send for her mother when the cab drove up.
"And she really found her way to Belgrave House?" asked Fern, in a voice between laughing and crying; "oh, what will mother say," and she listened with eagerness to Mr. Ferrers's account of how the child had accosted him, and of her meeting with Mr. Huntingdon.
Raby himself had been much mystified—he had known nothing of his host's past history; he had thought that the child was only paying an impromptu visit until she mentioned her name. Erle had told him that Mrs. Trafford was Mr. Huntingdon's daughter, and that he had never seen her since her marriage. This clew guided him to the meaning of the sternness in Mr. Huntingdon's voice; but he had hardly understood in what way Erle was implicated, or why the child should receive so little notice from her brother. When Raby had finished his account, which was annotated in a rambling and far from lucid manner by Fluff, Fern sent the child away to change her frock and make herself tidy, and whispered in her ear that she might stay with Mrs. Watkins for a little; and when Fluff had left them she began to speak of Crystal, and to answer the many questions he put to her without stint or reserve; she even told him that Crystal had left them on account of Percy's mad infatuation.
"It was very wrong of Percy to take advantage of her unprotected situation, and I am sure she went to put a stop to it, and because it was so awkward for us. Crystal is not like other girls—she does not care for admiration; people turn round and look after her in the street because she is so beautiful, but she never seems to notice it."
"No; you are right," he returned, with evident emotion.
As Fern spoke, a scene rose to his memory—a fresh young voice behind his chair seemed to whisper in his ear, "Oh, king, live forever!" and there she stood, his dark-eyed Esther, in her girlish loveliness, her white neck and arms gleaming through lace, a ruby pendant on the slender round throat, the small head looking so queenly with its coils of smooth black hair; and he had turned coldly from her, and she never knew that his was the soul of a lover. "No; you are right," he answered, gently; "she was as guileless and innocent as a child."
Fern looked at him wistfully; all her heart seemed to go out to this sad, noble-looking man. Crystal had not said too much in his praise; but he looked older than she had imagined—for pain and the knowledge of his shorn and wasted powers had aged him, and there was certainly no youth in his aspect.
"Oh," she said, eagerly, for she longed to say something that would comfort him, "I think sometimes that there is no one so good as Crystal—we have all grown to love her so. She has such high-spirited, troublesome pupils; but she is so patient with them when they are ill, she nurses them, and she has more influence over them than the mother; and she is always so kind and thoughtful, and no one ever sees her cross. She is angry with Percy sometimes; but then he deserves it; and she will not take any pleasure, but all she thinks about is to do little kindnesses for people; and though she is so unhappy that she has grown quite thin with fretting, she tries not to let us see it."
"Has she told you all about herself?" he asked, in a very low voice.
"Yes, and it is that that makes her so unhappy. Oh, she told me all about it, and I thought she would never, never stop crying—it preys upon her mind, and her remorse will not let her be happy: she seems to dread even forgiveness. 'I go back to him, when I have blighted his life and darkened his days?' oh! you should have heard the despair in her voice when she said that, Mr. Ferrers," and here Fern's sweet tones trembled. "Mother and I sometimes think that it will kill her in time, unless she has help and comfort."
"Do not fear, Miss Trafford, she shall have both soon; it will not be long before I find her."
"But she is in America—at least, she is on her way there."
"There are other steamers than the one in which she has crossed," returned Raby, with a smile. "I suppose she means to write to you?"
"Oh, yes, she will write from every place—she has promised me long letters, and of course Mrs. Norton will hear from Miss Campion; do you really mean to follow her, Mr. Ferrers?"
"Yes; and to the world's end if it be necessary. I have a strong will, and even blindness will not hinder me. Tell me how did she seem last night; did she leave cheerfully?"
"Well, no, Crystal puzzled us all night," returned Fern, quickly; "she went out to bid good-bye to her pupils, and Percy waylaid her, as usual, but she got rid of him somehow; but she was out a long time, and she would not give us any reason; but when she came back her eyes were swelled, and she had a dreadful headache, and yet she said Percy had nothing to do with it."
A sudden, wild idea flashed into Raby's mind. "How was she dressed, Miss Trafford—I mean what colored gown did she wear?"
Fern seemed surprised at the question. "Oh, her old brown gown—she was all in brown, I think;" but she did not understand why Mr. Ferrers seemed so strangely agitated at her answer.
"The tall young lady in brown, who seemed to notice you wanted help;" he remembered those words of Miss Merriman. Good Heavens! it must have been she; it must have been her little hand that guided him so gently; oh, his miserable blindness. Of course she had seen this Percy Trafford, and he had told her all about the guest they expected, and she had come to the station just to see him once again.
But he would not speak of this to Fern; his darling's secret should be kept by him; he would hide these sweet proofs of her love and devotion in his own breast. Fern wondered why the miserable, harassed look left his face. He looked quite young—a different man—as he bade her good-bye; his shoulders were no longer stooping, his head was erect.
"Good-bye, Miss Trafford," he said. "I shall come and see you and your mother again before I leave. I shall go back to Sandycliffe next week, and set my house in order, and talk to my sister. I do not doubt for a moment that she will offer to accompany me. I shall not come back until I bring Crystal with me." And Fern quite believed him. There were restless sleepers that night in Belgrave House. Raby was revolving his plans and wondering what Margaret would say; and on the other side of the wall Erle tossed, wakeful and wretched, knowing that his fate was sealed, and that Evelyn Selby and not Fern Trafford was to be his future wife. And now, as he lay in the darkness, he told himself that in spite of her goodness and beauty he could never love her as he loved Fern. He knew it at the moment he asked her to marry him, and when she put her hand in his and told him frankly that he had long won her heart.
"You are too much a gentleman to treat a woman badly," Mr. Huntingdon had said to him, well knowing the softness and generosity of Erle's nature; and yet, was he not treating Fern badly?
He had thought over it all until his head was dizzy; but his conscience had told him that his sin against Fern had been light in comparison with that against Evelyn. What were those few evenings in Beulah Place compared to the hours he had passed in Evelyn's society?
He had been in Lady Maltravers's train for months; he had suffered her to treat him as a son of the house. He had ridden with Evelyn in the Row; she had been his favorite partner in the ball-room. When they had gone to the opera Erle had been their escort. It was perfectly true, as Mr. Huntingdon said, that she had a right to expect an offer from him; their names had long been coupled together, and Erle's weakness and love of pretty faces had drawn the net round him. And there were other considerations that had moved him—his dread of poverty; the luxurious habits that had become a second nature; and above all, reluctance to disappoint the old man who, in his own way, had been good to him. Erle knew that in spite of his hardness and severity, his uncle clung to him as the Benjamin of his old age.
No, he could not help himself, he thought bitterly. And yet how dreary the prospect seemed. He had given up the first young love of his life, and now the barren splendors of Belgrave House seemed to oppress him—the walls closed round him like the walls of a prison.
And yet other men would envy him, and wonder at his luck. Evelyn had many admirers—many a one nobly born and nobly gifted would grudge him his prize; though he knew, and hated himself for the knowledge, that they envied him in vain.
Erle found it difficult to play his part well; but his young fiancee was too unsuspecting in her happiness to guess at her lover's secret trouble. His slight gravity spoke well for him, she thought; most likely a greater sense of responsibility oppressed him. She was too much in love herself to notice how often he lapsed into silence.
Every one thought him a most devoted lover; he was always at his post—always ready to escort them to picture-galleries and flower-shows, or to stand sentinel at the back of Lady Maltravers's box. His uncle's generosity enabled him to load his betrothed with gifts. Evelyn used to remonstrate with him for his lavishness, not knowing that Mr. Huntingdon had prompted the gift.
"Of course I love you to bring me things," she would say, looking up in his face with her clear, candid eyes; "but indeed, dear Erle, I do not need so many proofs of your affection."
"I feel as though I should never do enough for you, Eva," he answered, hurriedly; "you must not refuse to let me give you things. I am always thinking how I am to please you;" and as he clasped the diamond bracelet on the slender wrist he suddenly remembered what a pretty hand Fern had, so white and dimpled, and a vivid longing came over him, turning him nearly sick with pain, to see that sweet face again, and to hear from those frank, beautiful lips that she was glad to see him; but he never yielded to the temptation.
On the contrary, he had put all such visits out of his power; for he had written to Mrs. Trafford within a few days of his engagement, telling her that his uncle had interdicted them, and that he dared not risk his displeasure, deeply as he regretted such a break in their intercourse; and he told her that he and Miss Selby were engaged, and would probably be married in the autumn; and then he sent his kind remembrances to her daughter.
Mrs. Trafford thought it a very manly and straightforward letter. He had not acted so very badly after all, she thought; her father's strong will had evidently coerced him, and she knew how strong that will could be. He had meant no harm; he had only said pleasant things because it was his nature to say them; if only it had not gone very deep with Fern.
"I have had a letter from Mr. Erle, my darling," she said, quietly, as she noticed the girl had turned a shade paler, as though she had recognized the handwriting; but she had not spoken, only bent lower over her work.
"Yes, mother," in a very low voice; "and I suppose he has told you the news."
"What news, my pet?"
"That he and Miss Selby are engaged. Oh, yes, I knew it directly I saw the letter. It is good of him to tell us so soon. I am glad; you must tell him we are glad, mother."
"Will that be the truth, Fern?" looking at her doubtfully.
"One ought to be glad when one's friends are happy," was the unsteady answer. "If he loves her, of course he must want to marry her. Crystal says that she is very handsome and looks so nice. You must write a very pretty letter to him, mother, and say all sorts of kind things. And it is for us to be glad that he has got his wish, for I think he has not looked quite happy lately." And Fern folded up her work in her old business-like manner, and then went about the room, putting little touches here and there; and if she were a little pale, the dusk soon hid it. Mrs. Trafford had no fault to find with her daughter that evening; nevertheless she did not feel easy; she thought girlish pride was bidding her conceal the wound, and that in reality her child was unhappy.
If any one had asked Fern what were her feelings when she saw that letter in her mother's hands she would have answered most truly that she did not know. When a long-dreaded trouble that one knows to be inevitable at last reaches one, the mind seems to collapse and become utterly blank; there is a painless void, into which the mental vision refuses to look. Presently—there is plenty of time; life is overlong for suffering—we will sit down for a little while by the side of the abyss which has just swallowed up our dearest hopes.
Numbness, which was in reality death in life, blunted Fern's feelings as she worked, and talked, and fulfilled her little duties. When she went up to her room and looked at Crystal's empty bed, she thought the room had never looked so desolate. She undressed slowly, with long pauses, during which she tried to find out what had happened to her; but no real consciousness came until she laid her head on the pillow and tried to sleep, and then found her thoughts active. And the darkness seemed to take her into its black arms, and there seemed no rest anywhere. They were all over—those beautiful dreams that had glorified her life. No bright-faced young prince would ride out of the mist and carry her away; there would be no more kind looks full of deep, wonderful meanings for her to remember over her work; in the morning she would not wake and say, "Perhaps he will come to-day;" no footstep would make her heart beat more quickly; that springy tread would never sound on the stairs again. He was gone out of her life, this friend of hers, with his merry laugh and his boyish ways, and that pleasant sympathy that was always ready for her.
Fern had never imagined that such sad possibilities could wither up the sweet bloom of youthful promise; she had never felt really miserable except when her father died, and then she had been only a child. She wondered in a dreary, incredulous way if this was all life meant to bring her—every day a little teaching, a little work, quiet evenings with her mother, long streets that seem to lead nowhere; no meadows, no flowers, no pretty things except in the shop windows; would she still live over Mrs. Watkins's when she was an old woman?
"Oh, how empty and mean it all seems," she moaned, tossing restlessly on her hot pillow.
"Are you awake still, my darling?" asked her mother, tenderly. Some instinctive sympathy had led her to her child's door, and she had heard that impatient little speech. "What is the matter, dearest; you will tell your mother, will you not?"
"Oh, mother, why have you come? I never meant you to know." But here she broke down, and clasped her mother's neck convulsively. "I am glad—I will be glad that he is so happy; but oh, mother, I want him so—I want him so." And then Mrs. Trafford knew that the wound was deep—very deep indeed.
A GLIMPSE OF THE DARK VALLEY.
Not alone unkindness Rends a woman's heart; Oft through subtler piercings Wives and mothers die.
Though the cord of silver Never feel a strain; Though the golden language Cease not where ye dwell, Yet remaineth something Which, with its own pain, Breaks the finer bosom Whence true love doth well.
O this life, how pleasant To be loved and love, Yet should love's hope wither Then to die were well.
PHILIP STANHOPE WORSLEY.
Every one noticed at the Hall that Lady Redmond was sadly altered in those days—every one but one, and that was her husband.
Had Sir Hugh's indifference made him blind? for he completely ignored the idea of any change in her. She was pale and thin—very thin, they told him. Hugh said he supposed it was only natural; and when they spoke of her broken rest and failing appetite, he said that was natural, too.
They must take better care of her, and not let her do so much. That was his sole remark; and then, when she came into the room a few minutes afterward to bathe his aching head and read him to sleep, or to sit fanning the teasing flies from him for the hour together, Hugh never seemed to notice the languid step or the pale, tired face, out of which the lovely color had faded.
His Wee Wifie was such a dear, quiet little nurse, he said, and with that scant meed of praise Fay was supposed to be satisfied.
But she knew now that all his gentle looks and words were given her out of sheer pity, or in colder kindness, and shrunk from his caresses as much as she had once sought them; and often, as she spoke to him, the shamed, conscious color rose suddenly to her fair face, and broken breaths so impeded her utterance that her only safety was in silence. Scarcely more than a child in years, yet Fay bore her martyrdom nobly. Unloved, unhelped, she girded on her heavy cross and carried it from day to day with a resignation and courage that was truly womanly; and hiding all her wrongs and her sorrows from him, only strove with her meek, young ways to win him yet.
But as time went on her love and her suffering increased, and the distance widened miserably between them.
Sometimes when her trouble was very heavy upon her—when Hugh had been more than usually restless, and had spoken irritably and sharply to her—she would break down utterly and nestle her face against his in a moment's forgetfulness, and cry softly.
Then Hugh would wonder at her, and stroke her hair, and tell her that she had grown nervous by staying at home so much; and then he would lecture her a little in a grand, marital way about taking more care of herself, until she dried her eyes and asked him to forgive her for being so foolish; and so the pent-up pain that was within her found no outlet at all.
"Oh, if he will not love me—if he will not try to love me, I must die," cried the poor child to herself; and then she would creep away, with a heart-broken look on her face, and sob herself to sleep.
Ah, that was a bitter time to Fay; but she bore it patiently, not knowing that the days that were to follow should be still more full of bitterness than this.
Sir Hugh was getting better now—from the hour he had seen Margaret there had been no relapse; but he was struggling through his convalescence with a restless impatience that was very trying to all who came in contact with him.
He was longing for more freedom and change of air. He should never grow strong until he went away, he told Fay; and then she understood that he meant to leave her. But the knowledge gave her no fresh pain. She had suffered so much that even he could not hurt her more, she thought. She only said to him once in her shy way, "You will be at home in time, Hugh; you will not leave me to go through it all alone?" And he had promised faithfully that he would come back in plenty of time.
And the next morning she found him dressed earlier than usual and standing by the window in the library, and exclaimed at the improvement; and Hugh, moving still languidly, bade her see how well he could walk. "I have been three times round the room and once down the corridor," he said, with a smile at his own boasting. "Tomorrow I shall go out in the garden, and the next day I shall have a drive."
And a week after that, as they were standing together on the terrace, looking toward the lake and the water-lilies, Hugh, leaning on the coping, with a brighter look than usual on his wan face, spoke cheerfully about the arrangements for the next day's journey.
He was far from well, she told him, sadly, and she hoped Saville would take great care of him; and he must still follow Dr. Martin's prescriptions, and that was all she said that night.
But the next day, when the servants were putting the portmanteaus on the carriage, and Hugh went into the blue room to bid her good-bye, all Fay's courage forsook her, and she said, piteously, "Oh, Hugh, are you really going to leave me? Oh, Hugh, Hugh!" And, as the sense of her loneliness rushed over her, she clung to him in a perfect anguish of weeping. Sir Hugh's brow grew dark; he hated scenes, and especially such scenes as these. In his weakness he felt unable to cope with them, or to understand them.
"Fay," he said, remonstrating with her, "this is very foolish," and Fay knew by his voice how vexed he was; but she was past minding it now. In her young way she was tasting the bitterness of death. "My dear," he continued, as he unloosened her hand from their passionate grasp, and held them firmly in his, "do you know what a silly child you are?" and then be relented at his own words, she was such a child. "I told you before that I should never be well until I went away, but you evidently did not believe me. Now I can not leave you like this, for if you cry so you will make yourself ill; therefore, if you will not let me go quietly, I can not go at all."
"No, no," she sobbed; "don't be so angry with me, Hugh, for I can not bear it."
"Well, will you promise me to be a brave little woman and not fret after me when I am gone?" he went on more gently. "It is only six weeks, you know, Fay, and I have promised to be back in time."
"Yes, yes, I know you will," she answered, "and I will be good—indeed I will, Hugh; only tell me you are not angry with me before you go, and call me your Wee Wifie as you used when you first brought me home;" and she held up her wet face to him as though she were a child wanting to be kissed and forgiven.
"You foolish birdie," he said, laughing, but he kissed her more fondly than he had done yet. "There, you will take care of yourself, my own Wee Wifie, will you not, and write long letters to me, and tell me how you are getting on."
"Yes, Hugh," she replied, quietly; and then he put her down from his arms. She had taken the flower from his button-hole, and stood fondling it long after he had driven off.
"Had you not better lie down, my lady?" Mrs. Heron said to her a little while afterward, when she found her still standing in the middle of the room; and she took hold of her gently, for she did not like the look in my lady's eyes at all; and then she laid her down on the couch, and never left her until she had fallen asleep, like a child, for very trouble.
And then she went down and spoke put her mind to Janet; and the substance of her speech might be gathered from the concluding sentence.
"And I am sorry to say it, Janet, of any one to whom I am beholden for the bread I eat, and whom I have known since he was a baby; but, in spite of his bonny looks and pleasant ways, Sir Hugh is terribly selfish; and I call it a sin and a shame for any man to leave a sweet young creature like that at such a time. What can he expect if she goes on fretting herself to death in this way?"
Fay could not tell why she felt so strangely weak the next, day when she woke up, and Mrs. Heron could not tell, either. She did not fret; she did not even seem unhappy; she was too tired for anything of that sort, she said to herself; but day after day she lay alone in her little room with closed eyes and listless hands; while Nero lay at her feet wondering why his little mistress was so lazy, and why she wasted these lovely summer mornings in-doors instead of running races with him and Pierre.
No, she was not ill, she assured them, when Mr. Heron and the faithful Janet came to look after her, and to coax her with all kinds of dainties; she was only so tired, and would they not talk to her, for she felt as though she could never sleep enough; and would some one tell Sir Hugh so when they wrote to him, for he would get no long letters from her now—she had tried to write, but her hand was too weak to hold the pen. But for all that she would not own she was ill; it was only the heat that made her so lazy, she said again and again. No, they must only tell Sir Hugh that she was very tired.
But when a few more days had passed, Mrs. Heron thought she had been tired long enough, and sent for Dr. Martin.
He looked very grave when he saw her, and Fay smiled to herself, for she said, "The time is very near now, and then he thinks that I shall die."
But Margaret's reproachful speech came back to her—"Would you wish to die without winning your husband's love?" and to the alarm of the good housekeeper she suddenly became hysterical and begged her to send for Sir Hugh.
But her piteous request was forgotten for a time, for before night her life was in danger.
Hour after hour the desolate young creature looked death in the face and found him terrible, and called out in her agony that she was afraid to die unless Hugh would hold her hand; and for many a long day after that Fay did not see her baby boy, for the least excitement would kill her, the doctor said, and her only chance was perfect quiet.
And the urgent letters that were sent did not reach Sir Hugh for a long time, for he was wandering about Switzerland. He had carelessly altered his route, and had forgotten to tell Fay so.
But on his homeward route, which was not until the six weeks were past, he found a budget awaiting him at Interlachen.
Hugh was deeply shocked when he heard of his wife's danger, and blamed himself for his selfishness in leaving her.
The trip had refreshed him, but the idea of returning home was still irksome to him. He had enjoyed his freedom from domestic restraint; and he had planned a longer route, that should end in the Pyramids, when Fay was well and strong again. It would not matter then; but he was a brute, he confessed, to have left her just at that time. Then he added in self-extenuation that he was not quite himself.
And one lovely summer morning, when Fay lay like a broken lily on her pillow, and looked languidly out upon the world and life, they brought her baby to her and laid it in her weak arms; and Fay gazed wonderingly into a dimpled, tiny face and blue-gray eyes that seemed to her the counterpart of Hugh's eyes; and then, as she felt the soft breathing of the warm, nestling thing against her shoulder, and saw the crumpled hand on her breast, a new, strange flood of happiness came into her starved heart.
"Hugh's little boy," she whispered, and a tender look shone in her eyes; and then she added, "he will love me for my baby's sake."
And she was very happy in her belief.
As long as they would let her, she lay cradling her boy in her feeble arms and whispering to him about his father: and when night came she would lie awake happily trying to hear baby's soft breathing in the bassinet beside her, and if he woke and cried, she would ask the nurse to lay him beside her.
"He will not cry when he is with his mother," she would say, with maternal pride. "He is always so good with me; indeed, I never knew such a good baby," which was not wonderful, considering her experience had been confined to Catharine's baby at the lodge. And if the nurse humored her, Fay would cover the little downy head with noiseless kisses, and tell him not to cry, for father was coming home to love them and take care of them both.
"You will love me now; yes, I know you will, Hugh," she would murmur softly when baby was slumbering peacefully in his blankets again, and nurse had begged Lady Redmond not to think any more about Master Baby, but to go to sleep. And as she obediently closed her eyes, the happy tears would steal through her eyelids.
Poor innocent child! when she had first discovered that Hugh did not love her, her despair had nearly cost her her life; but no sooner was her baby brought to her than hope revived, for from the depths of her sanguine heart she believed that by her boy's help she should win his love; not knowing in her ignorance that Hugh might possibly care nothing for the son though he desired the heir, and the baby charms that had been so potent with her should possess no magic for him.
"IT IS ALL OVER, BABY."
Sleep and rest, sleep and rest, Father will come to thee soon, Rest, rest on mother's breast, Father will come to thee soon; Father will come to his babe in the nest, Silver sails all out of the west Under the silver moon: Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.
It was on a hot thundery July afternoon that Sir Hugh entered Redmond Hall, weary and heated and dusty, and thoroughly ashamed of himself.
There are some men who hate to be reminded of their own shortcomings—who are too proud and impatient to endure self-humiliation, and who would rather go through fire and water than own themselves in the wrong. Sir Hugh was one of these. Despite his moral weakness, he was a Redmond all over, and had a spice of the arrogance that had belonged to them in the old feudal days, when they had ruled their vassals most tyrannically. And especially did he hate to be reminded by word or deed that his conduct had not been faultless; his conscience made him uncomfortable enough, for he was really kind-hearted in spite of his selfishness; so it did not improve matters when Mrs. Heron met him in the hall, and, quite forgetting her usually stately manners, suddenly burst out, while her tearful eyes gave emphasis to her words:
"Oh, Sir Hugh, I am grateful and thankful to see you again, for we thought my lady would have died in her trouble, for, bless her dear heart, she fretted herself cruelly when you left her, and more's the pity!"
The housekeeper had meant no reproach to her master, but Sir Hugh's uneasy conscience took alarm.
"Thank you, Mrs. Heron," he said, with icy politeness, "I am deeply indebted to you for reminding me of my shortcomings. Ellerton, be good enough to tell Lady Redmond's nurse that I am here, and that I wish to see my wife at once;" and he passed on in a very bad humor indeed, leaving Mrs. Heron thoroughly crest-fallen by her master's unexpected sarcasm.
Ellerton was an old servant, and he ventured to remonstrate before carrying out this order.
"Will you not get rid of a little of the dust of your journey, Sir Hugh, and have some refreshment before you go up to my lady?"
"You have my orders, Ellerton," returned his master, curtly; and he ascended the staircase with the frown still heavy on his face.
He did not like to feel so ashamed of himself, and this was his mode of showing it.
Fay lay on a couch in her bedroom looking very lovely, in her white tea-gown trimmed with lace, with her brown hair hanging in long plaits, and a little rose-leaf color tinting her cheeks. She was listening with a beating heart for the well-known footsteps; as they sounded at last in the corridor and she heard his voice speaking to Ellerton, she sat up, flushed and trembling, and under the soft shawl something that lay hidden stirred uneasily as she moved.
"You must not excite yourself, my lady," observed the nurse, anxiously; but she might as well have spoken to the wind, for Fay seemed to have forgotten her presence.
"Oh, Hugh, my darling husband!" she exclaimed, as the door opened; and the tender rose flush deepened in her cheeks as she stretched out her hand to him with her old smile.
Hugh stooped over the couch and kissed her, and then sat down with rather a dissatisfied expression on his face; he thought they had made a fuss to frighten him, and bring him home—she did not look so very ill after all.
"I could not come to meet you, love," she said, with a little clasp of his hand, and she kissed it in her old way and laid it against her face.
"My dear Fay," he remonstrated, and bit his lip. "Nurse, you can trust your patient in my care. I will ring for you in a little while." Then, as the door closed behind her, he said in a vexed tone, "Fay, why will you be so childish? you know that I object to demonstration before the servants, and have told you so, and yet you never seem to remember; do try to be a little more dignified, my dear, and wait until we are alone." And this to her who had come back to him through "The Valley of the Shadow of Death," bringing his boy with her!
Fay became very white, and drew her hand away. "You do not seem to remember how very ill I have been," she faltered. And their the baby's blind wandering touches over her breast soothed her.
Hugh grew a little remorseful.
"My dear, I assure you I have not forgotten it: I was very grieved to hear it, and to know that you should have been alone in your trouble; but was it my fault, Fay? Did you keep your promise to me not to fret yourself ill when I Was gone?"
"I kept my promise," she replied, quietly; "the fretting and the mischief were done before. We will not talk about my illness; it is too bad even to think of it. Have you nothing else to say to me, Hugh? do you not wish to see our boy?"
Hugh started, conscience-stricken—he had forgotten his child altogether; and then he laughed off his confusion.
"Our boy! what an important Wee Wifie. Yes, show him to me by all means. Do you mean you have got him under that shawl?"
"Yes; is he not good?" returned Fay, proudly; she had forgotten Hugh's coldness now, as she drew back the flimsy covering and showed him the tiny fair face within her arms. "There, is he not a beauty? Nurse says she has never seen a finer baby boy for his size. He is small now, but he will grow; he has such long feet and hands that, she assures me, he will be a tall man. Mrs. Heron says he is a thorough Redmond. Look at his hair like floss silk, only finer; and he has your forehead, dear, and your eyes. Oh, he will be just like his father, the darling!"
"Will he?" returned Hugh, dubiously, and he touched him rather awkwardly—he had never noticed a baby closely before, and he was not much impressed with his son's appearance; there was such a redness, he thought, and no features to be called features, and he had such a ridiculous button of a mouth. "Do you really call him a fine baby, Fay?"
"Fine! I should think so; the smallness does not matter a bit. You will be a big man some time, my beauty, for you are the very image of your father."
"Heaven forbid!" ejaculated Hugh; he was quite appalled at the notion of any likeness between this absurd specimen of humanity and himself; but happily the little mother did not hear him, for she was adjusting the long robe to her liking.
"There, you must take him, Hugh; I want to see him once more in your arms—my two treasures together;" and she held the baby to him.
Hugh did not see how the weak arms trembled under their load, as he retreated a few steps in most genuine alarm.
"I take him! My dear, I never held a baby in my life; I should be afraid of dropping him; no, let him stop with his mother. Women understand these sort of things. There, now, I thought so, he is going to cry;" and Hugh's discomfited look was not lost on Fay, as the baby's shrill voice spoke well for his strength of lungs.
"Oh, hush, hush," she said, nearly crying herself, and rocking the baby to and fro feebly. "You spoke so loudly, Hugh, you frightened him; he never cries so when we are alone."
"You will be alone directly if you do not send him away," was her husband's impatient answer; "it is not pleasant for a man to be deafened when he is tired after a long journey. Why, I do believe you are going to cry too, Fay; what is the good of a nurse if you exhaust yourself like this?" And he pulled the bell-rope angrily.
"Oh, please don't send my baby away," she implored, in quite a piteous voice; "he is always with me now, and so good and quiet, only you startled him so."
"Nonsense," he returned, decidedly; "your illness has made you fanciful; surely I must know best what is good for my wife. Nurse, why do you allow Lady Redmond to wear herself out with a crying child? it can not be right in her weak state."
Fay gave up her baby without a word; she was too gentle to remonstrate, but if he could have read her thoughts. "He does not care for his child at all," she was saying bitterly to herself; and then she was very quiet, and shielded her face with one hand. Sir Hugh was rather uncomfortable; he knew he had been out of temper, and that he was disappointing Fay, but he never guessed the stab that he had inflicted when he had refused to take their boy in his arms.
"Well, Fay," he said, in rather a deprecating manner, "I meant to have had a little talk with you, now that noisy fellow is gone; but you seem sleepy, dear; shall I leave you to rest now, and come up again after dinner?"
Fay uncovered her eyes and looked at him rather oddly, he thought, but she made no answer. Hugh rose and looked at his watch, and repeated his question.
"No," she said, very slowly; "do not trouble to come up again, Hugh. I can not talk to you to-night; I shall be better quiet."
"There, I told you so," he cried, triumphantly. "I knew that little rascal had tired you."
"My baby never tires me," she answered, wearily, and closed her eyes. Oh, if she could only close them forever! But then she remembered how terrible death had seemed to her in her illness—a pit of infinite pain.
Hugh looked at her a little puzzled; his Wee Wifie was very much altered, he thought; and then he kissed her two or three times with some affection, and went to his dressing-room.
But when she heard him go down-stairs she rang for the nurse to bring back her baby directly. The woman did not like her excited look, or the fierce way she almost snatched him to her bosom.
"You had much better try and get a little sleep, my lady," she said, kindly; but Fay only shook her head. It was not bed-time yet, she said, but she would like to be quiet with her baby for a little. And when nurse had gone to have a chat with Janet, she tottered from the couch, and knelt down beside it, and laid her helpless arms about her baby's neck, and wetted the white robe with her tears.
"It is all over, baby," she moaned; "he does not care for you or for me either—he only wants Margaret; but you must love your mother, baby, and grow up and comfort her, for she has no one but you to love her in the whole wide world."
Lady Redmond had a serious relapse after this, and it was two or three weeks before she was carried to the couch again.
* * * * *
Hugh had not learned his lesson yet. Neither his wife's illness nor his own had taught him wisdom; he was as restless and unreasonable as ever.
He grew very impatient over Fay's prolonged weakness, which he insisted was due in a great measure to her own fault. If she had not excited herself so much on the night of his return, she would never have had that relapse. It was a very tiresome affair altogether; for his own health was not thoroughly re-established, and a London physician had recommended him a few months' travel; it was just what he wanted, and now his trip to Cairo and the Pyramids must be indefinitely postponed.
He rather obstinately chose to believe that there was a want of will in the matter, and that Fay could throw off her weakness if she liked. Still he was very kind to her in his uncertain way—perhaps because the doctors said he must humor her, or she would fade away from them yet. So he told her that she would never get strong while she lay moping herself to death in that little painted bird-cage, as he called the blue room; And when she answered listlessly that she could not walk—which he was at first slow to believe—he used to carry her down to one of the sunniest rooms in the old Hall—into either the morning-room or library—and place her comfortably on her couch with her work and book before he started out for his ride.
It was a new thing to have those strong arms performing gentle offices for her. Fay used to thank him gratefully with one of her meek, beautiful looks, but she seldom said anything—his kindness had come too late to the poor child, who felt that her heart was slowly breaking with its hopeless love. For who would be content with the mirage when they are thirsting for the pure water? Or who would be satisfied with the meted grain and the measured ounce when they have given their all in all?
Those looks used to haunt Hugh as he rode through the Singleton lanes; he used to puzzle over them in an odd ruminative fashion.
He remembered once that he had been in at the death of a doe—where, or in what country he could not remember; but she had been overtaken with her fawn, and one of the huntsmen had dispatched her with his knife.
Hugh had stood by and shuddered at the dumb look of anguish in the wild deer-eyes, as with a sobbing breath the poor creature breathed its last, its helpless fawn licking its red wounds. Hugh had not been able to forget that look for a long time; and now it recurred to his memory, and he could not tell why Fay's eyes reminded him so much of the dying doe's—it was an absurd morbid idea. And then he touched his black mare a little smartly, and tried to efface the recollection by a rousing gallop. But, do what he would, he could not get it out of his mind that his Wee Wifie was sadly altered; she was not the same Fay whose little tripping feet had raced Nero and Pierre along the galleries with that ringing laugh. This was a tired Fay who rarely spoke and never laughed—who seemed to care for nothing but her baby.
Hugh used to tell her so sometimes, with an inexplicable feeling of jealousy that rather surprised him; but Fay did not understand him.
"What does it matter for whom I care?" she would say to herself. "I must love my own baby." And then she would think bitterly that Hugh seemed to like her better now that she had ceased to vex him with her childish demonstrations. "I am getting very dignified," she thought, "and very quiet; and I think this pleases him. Do old people feel like this, I wonder, when all their life is ended, and they have such feeble, aching limbs? Ah, no; I do not believe they suffer at all. But now I seem as though I can never rest for my longing that Hugh may love me, and tell me so before I die." And so she would press on in her sad plaintive little way.
No wonder Sir Hugh marveled at her, so silent of tongue, so grave of look—such an altered Wee Wifie; but all the conclusion at which he arrived was that the baby had been too much for her, and that, when the summer heat was over, she would grow strong again. And Fay never contradicted him.
And by and by, when the days grew a little cooler, Fay began to creep about the garden a little, and call herself well. Hugh drove her out once or twice in her pony-carriage; but she saw he did not like it, and begged him to let her go alone—such reluctant courtesies gave her no pleasure. But presently Erle came for a brief visit, and was her ready escort, and after that she really began to mend.
She loves with love that can not tire, And when, ah, woe! she loves alone Through passionate duty love flames higher As grass grows taller round a stone.
Never! 'tis certain that no hope is—none? No hope for me, and yet for thee no fear, The hardest part of my hard task is done; Thy calm assures me that I am not dear.
Erle was quite shocked at Fay's changed appearance, but he said very little about it. He had an instinctive feeling that the shadow had deepened, and that Fay was sick at heart; but he only showed his sympathy by an added kindness, and an almost reverential tenderness, and Fay was deeply grateful for his delicacy, for she knew now that, though she had been blind, others had had their eyes open; and she had a morbid fear that every one traced her husband's restlessness and dissatisfaction with his life to the right cause, and knew that she was an unloved wife. Fay was very proud by nature, though no one would have guessed it from her exceeding gentleness; and this knowledge added largely to her pain. But she hid it—she hid it heroically, and no one knew till too late how the young creature had suffered in her silence.
Erle and she were better friends than ever; but they did not resume their old confidential talks. Erle had grown strangely reticent about his own affairs, and spoke little of his fiancee and his approaching marriage. He knew in his heart that Fay had read him truly, and knew that his warmest affections had been given to Fern, and he had an uneasy consciousness that she condemned his conduct.
Fay never told him so; she congratulated him very prettily, and made one of her old mischievous speeches about "the young lady with the go in her"—but somehow it seemed to fall flat; and she asked him a few questions, as in duty bound, about his prospects, and how often he saw Miss Selby, and if he would bring her down to Redmond Hall, one day; "for I mean to be very fond of your wife, Erle, whoever she may be," she continued; "and I hear from the Trelawneys that Miss Selby—but I must call her Evelyn now—is very nice indeed, and that you are to be congratulated."
"She is far too good for me," returned Erle, with a touch of real feeling, for his fiancee's unselfish devotion was a daily reproach to him. Could any girl be sweeter or more loving, he thought.
Fay sighed as she watched him. Erle had changed too, she said to herself; he was nicer, but he had lost his old careless merriment; he looked graver, and a little thin, and there was not always a happy look in his eyes. Fay sometimes feared that the other girl with the fair hair had not been forgotten; she wanted to tell him that she hoped Evelyn knew all about her, but she lacked the courage, and somehow it was not so easy to talk to Erle this time.
But there was one subject on which he dilated without reserve, and that was on Mr. Ferrers's search for Crystal. He was in New York now, he told Fay, with his sister, and he was waiting for further intelligence before he followed Miss Davenport. "Miss Trafford corresponds with him," he continued, with an effort; "but it seems the travelers have little time for writing." But he wondered, as he talked about the Ferrers, why Fay changed color so often—he had heard it was a sign of delicacy.
"I am tiring you," he said, hastily; "you are looking quite pale; you want a change sadly yourself, my Fairy Queen." And Hugh, entering the room at that moment, caught at the word and came up quickly to the couch.
"Don't you feel so well to-day, pet?" he asked, kindly; "why are you talking about a change?"
"It was only Erle's nonsense, dear," she said, hurriedly. She never could speak to him without a painful blush, and it always deepened if he looked at her long, as he did now.
"I never saw you look better than you do to-day," returned her husband; "she is quite rosy, is she not, Erle? But you are right, and a change will do her and the boy good. I was thinking how you would like to go down to Devonshire, Fay, while I am away?"
"Away?" she said, very quietly; "where are you going, Hugh?"—but there was no surprise in her face.
"Oh, you can not forget," returned Hugh, impatiently, "unless that baby puts everything out of your head. Do you not remember that I told you that Fitzclarence was coming down this week to arrange about our trip to Cairo."
"No," she replied, "you never said anything about it, Hugh;" which was the truth, for he had never taken the trouble to inform her, though Mrs. Heron had had orders to prepare a room for the expected guest.
"Well, well," rather irritably, "I meant to tell you, but one's memory is treacherous sometimes. He will be down here about Wednesday or Thursday, for in another week we hope to start."
"Indeed," returned Fay, in a tired voice, pulling off her baby's shoe; but, to Erle's astonishment, she manifested no emotion. As for Sir Hugh, he was relieved to find his Wee Wifie was becoming such a reasonable woman. Why, he could talk to her quite comfortably without fear of a scene.
"What will you do with yourself, dear," he continued, briskly. "Don't you think it would be the best thing to go down to Daintree and show your baby to Aunt Griselda?"
"Just as you like," was the indifferent answer. But Erle interrupted her.
"How long do you mean to absent yourself from the bosom of your family, Hugh?"
"Oh, two or three months; we can not follow out the route Fitzclarence proposed under that time—about ten or eleven weeks, I should say."
"Three months? Well, all I can say is, marriage is not the fettered state we bachelors imagine it to be. I had no idea one could get leave of absence for half that time. I hope my wife will be as accommodating as Fay."
There was a concealed sarcasm in Erle's careless speech that jarred upon Hugh, and he answered, angrily:
"I wish you would not talk such nonsense, Erle. Fay has the sense to know that my health requires complete change, and I shall not be the man I was without it. I ought to have had three months last time, only her illness recalled me. But now I can leave her more happily."
"And you expect to do the trip in eleven weeks with Fitzclarence as the leader of the expedition. Fitzclarence, so renowned for his punctuality—so celebrated for never altering a given route at a minute's notice."
Erle was going too far, and Sir Hugh answered him with decided impatience.
"I did not know Fitzclarence was a friend of yours, Erle; but I never listen to the idle gossip one picks up at one's club. I am perfectly satisfied with his arrangements, and so are the other men—we have two other fellows going with us. Fay, my dear, I should like you to write at once to your aunt, and ask her if she can have you and the boy. The cottage is rather small; do you think you could do without Janet, and only take nurse?"
"Oh, yes," replied Fay, in the same constrained voice; but Erle saw that she had become very pale. But just then Ellerton entered and told his master that some one was waiting to speak to him on business; so the subject was dropped.
Erle looked rather wistfully at Fay when they were left alone together. "I am afraid you will be very lonely when Hugh goes away," he said, kindly. "Why need you go to Daintree; you will be dreadfully dull there with only your aunt. I do not see why you should not come to Belgrave house first, while Mrs. Montague is there. She is a very pleasant woman, Fay; and you could do just as you like, and you would see Evelyn, and I am sure you two would soon be great friends. Do come, Fay; and you can go to Daintree afterward."
Fay shook her head with a faint, dissenting smile; but she was touched by his kind thought for her.
"No, Erle," she said, decidedly, "it would not do at all. Hugh would not like it. He wishes me to go to Aunt Griselda."
"What does it matter to him where you go, so long as he is enjoying himself," burst from Erle's impatient lips; her meekness really provoked him. But he regretted the rash speech as soon as it was uttered, especially when a soft little hand touched his.
"Hush! Erle," she said, gently, "you should not speak like that; not to me at least. Do you not know that I have no greater pleasure in the world than to obey my husband's wishes. No," she continued, and her eyes grew misty, "I have no other happiness but that—no other happiness but that."
"But Fay," interrupted Erle, eagerly, "what possible objection could Hugh have to your staying at our house while Mrs. Montague is there? We would wait on you, and watch over you, as though you were a queen."
"Yes, yes! I know that—you are always so kind to me, Erle; but it would never do for me to come to Belgrave House. Hugh does not like Mr. Huntingdon."
"Very few people do," muttered Erle; "but he has always been a good friend to my mother and to me."
"Yes, I know; and he is your uncle, so of course you make allowances for him. But Hugh has told me the story of poor Nea Huntingdon; and, somehow, I feel as though I could never visit at Belgrave House until you are master there."
Erle smiled. "When that day comes, Mrs. Trafford shall reap a golden harvest after all her hard work. You do not know how I long to help her, and make life easier for them all. Think of such women living in a place like the Elysian Fields—over that shop too; and yet, if I were to take up their cause now, I should only forfeit my own chances, and do no good. So you mean to be obdurate, my Fairy Queen, and not come to us."
"No, dear," she said, quietly, "I could not come." But she never told him that one of her reasons was that she might possibly meet the Ferrers there, if they were coming back from America; and she felt just now as though she could not have borne such an encounter.
Erle had to go up to London the next day, but the Hon. Algernon Fitzclarence took his place the following evening, and after that Fay had a miserable time; for all day long Hugh and his guest were planning the route for their trip, or talking over previous tours.
Either Fay's knowledge of geography was very limited or her head got confused; but as she listened to them, she felt as though Egypt were thousands of miles away, and as though Hugh would certainly get lost in those trackless deserts, and die of thirst like the poor travelers of whom she had read. It was cruel to leave her for such dangers, she thought. And sometimes she got so nervous that she would make an excuse and leave the room, that she might not hear any more. And then she would wander about the grounds in an aimless way, trying to throw off the oppression that was growing greater as the days went on. It was not that she did not want her husband to leave her. Her loneliness could not be greater if he went away—so she believed in her wretchedness; but she was so terrified for him. And she had taken a dislike to the Hon. Algernon Fitzclarence. He might be a great traveler, as Hugh told her, and a very amusing companion, but his manners were not to her taste. Fay's innocence instinctively took alarm at the covert admiration conveyed in her guest's looks and words. He was too much a man of the world to pay her open compliments; and indeed her gentle dignity repelled him; but he made her understand that he thought his hostess very charming.
Hugh noticed nothing; he was rather pleased than otherwise that a fastidious man like Fitzclarence should admire his little wife. Fay was certainly very pretty, even in her husband's eyes, and she was so much improved—not half so childish. But it was a relief to Fay when the Hon. Algernon departed. Hugh was to join him in town for a day or two to procure his outfit, and then come back to the Hall to bid Fay good-bye. It was on the second day after their guest had left Redmond Hall that Fay went into her husband's study to dust and arrange his papers as usual.
It was a duty she had taken upon herself from the first. Sir Hugh had a masculine horror of what he called servants' interference—he never allowed them to touch the papers on his writing-table or bureau; and his strictures on the feminine duster were so severe that no one but Mrs. Heron ever ventured even to remove the overflowing wastepaper baskets.
But when Fay came to the Hall she assumed the duty as her right, and took a great pride and pleasure in her task; and Hugh's first marital praise was bestowed on the clever little fingers that tidied without disarranging his cherished papers, and after that the work became her daily pleasure. But this morning there was an unusual amount of disorder and confusion. Sir Hugh had sat up late the previous night sorting and destroying his letters; and not only the baskets but the floor was heaped with a profusion of torn paper. Fay felt weak and tired, and she went about her work slowly; but she would not ring for a servant to help her; it would be a long time before she tidied Hugh's papers again, she thought. And then her attention was attracted by an unfinished letter lying at the bottom of the debris which she first believed had been thrown away by mistake—but on a closer inspection she found it was torn across. But it was in her husband's handwriting. Fay never knew why the temptation came to her to read that letter. A sentence had caught her eye, and an intense wish suddenly seized her to read the whole and know what it meant. Afterward she owned that her fault had been a great one; but she was to pay dearly for her girlish curiosity.
It was a mere fragment, and was apparently the concluding portion of a long explanatory letter.
"—And now I have told you all frankly, and however much you may condemn me, at least you will be sorry for me.
"For, indeed, I have done all that a man can do, or at least the best that is in me, and have only been beaten and humiliated at every turn. I can do no more. My illness has exhausted me, and taken away all strength of resistance; and though it may seem cowardly to you, I am forced to run away, for my present life is unendurable. Just put yourself in my place, and think what I must suffer.
"So you must not blame me, dear, if I have come to the conclusion that the same place can not hold us both—at least, not for a time. One or other of us must leave; and of course it must be I. The misery of it is too great for my endurance, until I can learn to forget the past; and, as I have told you before, Margaret"—the word lightly scratched through and "I" substituted, only Fay never noticed this—"I think it right to go; and time and absence will help us both. She is so good and gentle; if she knew all, she would own that this is my duty; but—" here the letter was torn across, and Fay read no more. But as she stood there her fingers stiffened over the paper, and an icy chill seemed to rob her of all feeling. She thought that letter was written to Margaret, and now her despair had reached its climax.
Poor, unhappy Wee Wifie; it was a most fatal mistake. That letter had been written by Hugh one night when he could not sleep, and it was addressed to his wife. He had come to the conclusion that he had lived the life of a hypocrite long enough, and that it would be wiser and more honest if he unburdened himself of his unhappy secret and told Fay why he thought it better to go way. He had tried to speak to her once, but she did not seem to understand, and he had grown irritable and impatient; it would be easier to make excuses for himself on paper. He could tell her truly that he was very fond of her, and that he wanted to make her happy. "I mean to make you a good husband," he had said in a previous portion; "one of these days, if you are patient with me, you shall be the happiest little woman in the world."
Hugh never finished this letter; something happened to distract his attention, and he never found an opportunity of completing it. The night before he had read it over, and the beginning had not pleased him. "I will write another when I am away," he said to himself; "I am afraid she will feel herself hurt if she reads this, poor little thing. I have not been sufficiently considerate." Unfortunately, Fay had come to a different conclusion. She thought the letter had been written to Margaret, and that the "she" who was mentioned was Hugh's wife. Yes, it was his wife of whom Hugh spoke, when he said the same place could not hold them both, and for "place" the unhappy girl substituted "house." Hugh could not remain in the same house with her. "She was good and gentle; if she knew all"—ah! and she did know all—"she would own that it was his duty; his present life was unendurable," and therefore—therefore he was going to Egypt with that dreadful man who would lead him into danger. "One or other of us must leave, and of course it must be I."
"No, no, my bonny Hugh," she said at last, with a dim smile, as she lifted up her eyes to his portrait; "if one must be sacrificed it shall not be you—no, my dearest, it shall not be you." And then, in her childish ignorance, she made up her mind that Hugh should not go to Egypt.
"You are very unhappy, darling," she went on, pressing the letter in her hands; "you are terribly unhappy because you can not love me and care for your boy; but you shall not be troubled with us any longer; and, indeed, I could not stop—" and here a flush of shame came to her sweet face—"knowing what I know now. No, baby and I will go, and you shall not leave your beautiful home and get lost in those horrible deserts; you shall stay here and learn to forget all your troubles, and presently you will be happy; and it is I who will go, my dearest."