And it was for this that she had come back to him through "the Valley of the Shadow of Death," bringing her baby with her.
Some strange feverish power seemed to enter into her and give her a fitful strength. She sat down at her husband's desk and began writing rapidly, and as the thoughts came to her; and when she had finished, she inclosed her letter with the torn fragment, and, after addressing it, sealed it carefully. As she did so she heard footsteps approaching the library, and slipped it hurriedly into the open drawer, and the next moment Sir Hugh entered with a telegram in his hand.
"I have been looking all over the place for you, Fay," he began, hurriedly; "and not a soul seemed to know where you were. Look here; I have just had this telegram from Fitz. He wants me to come up to town at once. I believe we have to start earlier than we intended."
And as Fay seemed to have no answer ready, he went on "I am so vexed about it, my pet, for I meant to have driven you over to Pierrepoint after luncheon; you looked so pale this morning, and I had to arrange about so many things. Well, it can not be helped; Saville is packing my 'Gladstone,' and I have not a moment to lose."
"Do you mean you are going off to Egypt now?" asked Fay, hardly able to articulate—her lips had grown quite white. What if she should be too late after all!
"Egypt indeed! What a child you are, Fay; one can never make you understand things. No, I am going up to London to get what I want, and meet Egerton and Powis, the other fellows who are to join us. I shall sleep at the club to-night, and you may expect me to be down to dinner to-morrow. The next day—" here he hesitated; "well, there is time enough to talk of saying good-bye then."
"Yes, yes, I understand now. Go and get ready; and, Hugh, don't forget to kiss baby."
"All right," he laughed good-humoredly; and then Fay stood quite still, holding the table, till he came back.
"My traps are in the hall; I must say good-bye quickly, darling." How handsome, how well he looked, as he stooped over her with his plaid over his arm.
He need not be fearful of her detaining him; there was no clinging, no agony of weeping this time. She put her two hands round his neck and held him for a moment, as her cold lips touched his, and then stood quite still and waved to him—sadly, quietly—from the window as he drove past, and that was all.
I never will look more into your face Till God says, "Look!" I charge you, seek me not, Nor vex yourself with lamentable thoughts That peradventure I have come to grief. Be sure I'm well, I'm merry, I'm at ease, But such a long way, long way, long way off, I think you'll find me sooner in my grave, And that's my choice—observe.
E. B. BROWNING.
Fay had made up her mind to be lost.
Could any one imagine anything so utterly ignorant and childish, and yet so pathetic? She was going to lay down her wifely rights and steal away, friendless and unprotected, into the great lonely world, so that Hugh might come back to his old home in peace.
With the rash impulse of despair—of a despair that hoped nothing and feared nothing—she was taking the most terrible step that a young creature could take. She was doing evil that good might come; she was giving up herself in complete renunciation and self-sacrifice in obedience to a miserable and mistaken idea. If she had been older; if her simplicity of character had been less childish, and her worldly knowledge greater, she must surely have hesitated before taking a step that must anger as well as grieve her husband. How would Sir Hugh's haughty spirit brook the disgrace of publicity and the nine-days' wonder of the world when they knew that his wife, Lady Redmond—the successor of all the starched and spotless dames who hung in the old guest-chambers—should so forget herself and him as to tarnish his reputation by an act so improper and incredible.
He might forgive his spoiled trip, and all the trouble that awaited him in his empty home; but how will he ever bring himself to forgive that?
But Fay, poor mistaken child, thought of none of these things. She only felt that she must go and take her baby with her. There was no time to be lost, and she must make all her plans very quickly.
Fay's will was a strong one—there was no fear that she would falter in her purpose; but she never remembered afterward how she carried it out, or from whence came the strange feverish energy that supported her. She was working in a dream, in a nightmare, in a horrible impatience to be gone—to be gone—where? But even this question was answered before many hours were over, for she was to make her poor little plans with the utmost precision. In the quiet evening time, as she paced restlessly through the empty rooms, she thought of a place of refuge where she might rest safely for a little. The moment the carriage had turned the corner, and she could see it no longer, she had taken the letter from the drawer and laid it on the table.
Such an innocent, pitiful little letter it was.
"Darling Hugh," it began, "do not be angry with me when you come back to-morrow and find your Wee Wifie has gone. What could I do—how could I stay any longer after reading your own words? Indeed, I think I could have borne anything but this. No, this one thing I could not bear—that you should leave your home and country to free yourself and me.
"'You must go,' you say; 'of course it must be you.' Darling, do you not know me better than that?
"I felt you could not love me, Hugh; but have I ever blamed you in my heart? I was too childish and young for such a man as you. Why did you marry me, dear?—that was a great mistake. But perhaps you saw I liked you.
"I tried so hard to please you, but somehow I always failed. And then the baby came—our baby—and you did not care for him; and then, indeed, I thought my heart would break. I wonder if you know how I have loved you? I was not too young for that, though you thought I was. I never lay down to sleep without praying God to bless my dear husband, and sometimes—was it very childish of me, I wonder?—I put baby's hands together and made believe he was praying too.
"I think if you knew what I suffered, when they thought I was dying, and the angels would not come for me; I think—yes, I do think, Hugh—you would have been sorry for me then.
"Good-bye, my darling—I shall never call you that again, for I am going away forever. You must not trouble about me, for I shall take great care of myself, and after a time I shall not fret so much. I shall take my baby—he can not do without me, and I love him so. When he is older I will send him back to you. He is so like you, dear—a Redmond all over—and his eyes will remind me of you.
"I shall say good-bye to you very quietly. When I try to speak there is a dreadful lump in my throat that seems to choke me; and I feel as though I could blush with shame for being so little and insignificant in your eyes. You are like a king to me, Hugh; so grand, and noble, and proud. Oh, what made you marry me? You did wrong there, darling, did you not?
"Good-bye, good-bye. I shall be quite lost. Do not look for me; only give me a thought now and then—one kind and gentle thought of your Wee Wifie."
She read through the letter dry-eyed, and kissed it, and laid it on the table. It would touch his hands, she thought. Later on she unsealed it, and added a short postscript. "Do not be anxious," it said; "I am going to some kind people who will be good to me and the boy."
She had placed the letter where Hugh would see it at once, and then she went upstairs. She wanted to have her baby in her arms, that its touch might lull the deadly faintness at her heart; and when she felt a little better she sent for Mrs. Heron and Janet.
Sir Hugh had gone off to London, she told them; they had telegraphed for him, and she was to follow him immediately. She would take her luggage with her, of course, for she did not intend to return to the Hall before going down into Devonshire; but they would see Sir Hugh again for a few hours—he would probably run up the following evening to give his final orders.
And would she be long away? asked Mrs. Heron. She thought my lady looked very ill, and required a thorough change.
"Yes," returned Fay, quickly; but she turned away as she spoke. She should most certainly be away all the time Sir Hugh was in Egypt. Janet must set to work at once, for they would have to start early. And then she explained that the cottage at Daintree was very small, and that Sir Hugh had begged her to dispense with Janet's services, and only take nurse.
Janet looked very disappointed when Fay said this, for she adored her gentle little mistress. "I don't know what master is thinking about," she grumbled, in confidence, to Mrs. Heron. "This new nurse has only been here six weeks, and does not know my lady's ways. And who will wait upon her, I should like to know, if I am to be left behind? but it is all of a piece with his selfishness." But she worked with a will for all that, and all the time her boxes were being packed, Fay wandered about with her baby on her arm collecting her little treasures, and dropping them in the boxes as she passed. Now it was a book Hugh had given her, or a picture, or the withered flower he had worn in his button-hole; an odd glove he had left on his dressing-table, and which she clutched with the greediness of a miser; and even a silk handkerchief he had worn round his neck—she put them all in. Such a strange little assortment of odds and ends. Janet thought she was daft.
And she would have none of her evening dresses packed up, or indeed any of her costly ones—she would not require them in the country, she said, quietly; but she would have all her jewels—not those Hugh had given her, or the old family jewels that had been reset for her, but those that had belonged to her mother, and were exceedingly valuable; there was a pearl necklace that was worth five hundred pounds. Hugh had drawn out a large sum of money that he had given in charge to her—he meant to have left it for domestic expenses while he was away. Fay wrote out a receipt, and put it with her letter. It would be no harm to keep it, she thought; Hugh could help himself to her money. There would be enough to keep her and the boy for more than a year, and after that she could sell her necklace. She was rich, but how was she to draw any more money without being traced to her hiding-place?
The last act before the daylight closed was to go to the stables and bid Bonnie Bess good-bye. The groom, who knew that he was to follow in a few days with Bonnie Bess and another horse—for Sir Hugh had been very mindful of his wife's comfort—was rather surprised to see her kissing the mare's glossy neck, as though she could not bear to part with her; when she had left the stables, Nero, who had followed her about all day with a dog's instinctive dread of some impending change, looked up in her face wistfully.
"Do you want to come with me, Nero?" she asked, sadly; "poor fellow, you will fret yourself to death without me. Yes, you shall come with me; we will go to Rowan-Glen together."
For all at once the thought had come to her of a beautiful spot in the Highlands where she and her father had stayed many years ago. If she remained in England, Hugh would find her, and she had a dread of going abroad. Besides, what could she do with baby, for of course she must leave nurse behind; she would have to engage a stranger who did not know she was Lady Redmond. And then she bethought herself that she would call herself by her husband's second name, St. Clair—she would be Mrs. St. Clair.
Yes, she and her father had had a very happy time at Rowan-Glen. They had been to Edinburgh, and to the Western Highlands, and had then made their way to Aberdeen, as Colonel Mordaunt had some old Indian friends there; and, as they had still some weeks to spare, they had come down to the Deeside, and had fallen in love with Rowan-Glen.
But they could not obtain a lodging in one of the cottages, so the Manse opened its hospitable doors to them. The minister, Mr. Duncan, was old, and so was his wife, and they had no children; so, as there was room and to spare, and their income was somewhat scanty, the good old people were quite willing to take in Colonel Mordaunt and his little daughter. Fay had forgotten their existence until now; but she remembered how kind Mrs. Duncan had been to her; and she thought she would go to her, and tell her that she was married, and very unhappy, and then she would let her and baby stop there quietly in the old gray house.
Nobody ever came there, for they were quiet folk, and Mr. Duncan was an invalid; and there was a dear old room, looking out on the old-fashioned garden, where her father had slept, that would just do for her and baby.
Fay had a vague sort of feeling that her strength would not last very long, and that by and by she would want to be cared for as well as baby. Her poor brain was getting confused, and she could not sleep—there was so much to plan before the next day.
Ah, what a night that was. If it had not been for the soft breathing of her infant in the darkness, Fay must have screamed out in her horror, as thoughts of the desolate future came over her; and yet it was easier for her to go away than to stay on at the Hall an unloved wife—a millstone round her husband's neck.
When Janet called her at the proper time, she found her up and dressed and beginning her baby's toilet.
"Here, Janet," she said, with an unsteady laugh, "I don't think I am putting on baby's things very nicely, but I wanted to try, so nurse let me; but he cries so that he confused my head." And then she gave him up and went wandering through the rooms, saying a silent good-bye to everything; and last of all she went into her husband's library.
Ellerton found her there when he summoned her to breakfast. She would come in a minute, she said, quietly; she was only arranging Sir Hugh's papers as he liked to have them. Yes, she knew the carriage would be round directly; but Ellerton need not fear that she would be late. And then, when the old servant had closed the door, she went up to her husband's chair, leaning over it and embracing it with her two arms, while she rested her cheek against the carved ebony back. "This is where he will sit this evening," she said. "Good-bye, God bless you, dear;" and then she left the room.
But she would eat nothing, and only asked for her baby. But just before she got into the carriage she called Mrs. Heron to her, and bade her take care of the aged people at the Pierrepoint almshouses, and see they had their little packets of tea and grocery as usual; and then she shook hands with her and Ellerton.
"Good-bye to you all," faltered the poor child, hurriedly. "You have been good friends to me, all of you. Good-bye—good-bye;" and then she drew her veil over her face, and leaned back in the carriage, while Nero licked her little ungloved hand.
Sir Hugh had sworn to love and cherish her until death, and yet he had brought her to this.
The journey was a very short one; but nurse afterward remembered that Lady Redmond did not appear surprised, when they arrived at Euston, to find that Sir Hugh was not waiting at the station. "What are we to do, my lady?" she asked, rather helplessly, for she was young and a country woman, and the din and bustle were overwhelming to her; but Fay was helping to identify her luggage, and did not answer. She told nurse to go into the waiting-room with baby, and she would come to her presently. And then she had her luggage put on to a cab.
"Nurse," she said, quickly, when she came back a few minutes afterward, "will you give me baby a moment, and go to the refreshment-room—it is just a little way down the station. I should like some sandwiches and sponge-cakes, and perhaps you had better get something for yourself, there is plenty of time;" and the woman obeyed her at once. Her lady looked faint, she thought; most likely she was disappointed that Sir Hugh was not there.
As soon as she had left the waiting-room, Fay went up to the person in charge, and asked her to give a sealed note to her nurse when she came back. "You remember her—the young woman with reddish hair who held baby just now; tell her I have gone to look after the luggage, and ask her to read it." And though the woman thought the request a little strange, she took the sealed packet without demur.
As Fay and Nero went outside the station, the porter who had loaded the cab was standing a little way off, Fay told the cabman hastily to drive off to King's Cross, as she wanted to take the Scotch express; and as the porter came up to claim his gratuity he found the cab driving off, but Fay flung him a shilling. By a strange fatality the cabman who drove them met with an accident that very day, from the consequences of which he died in two or three weeks' time; and this one thing checked all clew. When the inquiries were set afloat, the porter certainly remembered the little lady and baby and the big black dog, but he had not heard her instructions to the cabman.
Fay only took her ticket to York; she dared not go straight to her destination. When she arrived there she would not put up at the station hotel, but had herself driven to a quiet little hotel for the night. It was an unpretending place, kept by very honest folk; but Fay found herself very comfortable. She made some excuse about not bringing her nurse, and the chamber-maid helped her undress baby. She was almost too stupefied with grief and fatigue by this time to do anything but sleep helplessly; but she made the girl promise to call her early, and ordered a fly to the station; and when the morning came she got into it without telling any one where she was going, and took the midday train for Edinburgh. It would be impossible to describe the nurse's feelings when she opened the packet in the waiting-room and read her mistress's note. "Dear nurse," it said, "I am really very sorry to treat you so badly, but I can not help it. I have gone away with baby, and I could not take you. Please go back to Singleton by the next train; you will find your box on the platform, and the porter will help you. Sir Hugh will tell you what to do when he arrives this evening.—Your affectionate mistress, F. Redmond." And inclosed were two months' wages. In spite of her youth, Fay had excellent business capabilities, only her husband had never found them out.
But unfortunately for the bewildered household at Redmond Hall, Sir Hugh never arrived that evening. First came a hazy telegram, informing them of a change of programme, and later on a special messenger came down from him bringing a letter from Sir Hugh—a very affectionate farewell letter.
Fitzclarence had acted on impulse as usual, and he and Sir Hugh had started that very night, leaving Powis and Egerton to follow them.
THE MANSE AT ROWAN-GLEN.
Weary I am, and all so fair, Longing to clasp a hand; For thou art very far, sweet love, From my mountain land.
Dear are the clouds yon giant bens Fold o'er their rugged breasts, Grandly their straggling skirts lift up Over the snow-flecked crests.
Dear are the hill-side glooms and gleams, Their varied purple hue, This opal sky, with distant peak Catching its tender blue.
Dear are the thousand streams that sing Down to the sunny sea, But dearer to my longing heart Were one bright hour with thee.
HELEN MARION BURNSIDE.
It was toward evening, at the close of a lovely September day, that a rough equipage laden with luggage, with a black retriever gamboling joyously beside it, crept rather slowly down the long lovely road by the Deeside leading to Rowan-Glen, one of those rare gems of Highland scenery that are set so ruggedly in the Cairngorm Mountains.
Fay had just sheltered her sleeping baby from the rays of the setting sun; and sat wearily in the jolting carriage, trying to recall all the familiar landmarks that greeted her eyes.
There were the grounds and preserves of Moncrieff, with their lovely fringes of dark pine-trees and silvery birches, and a little further on the wicket gate that led down to the falls or linn of Rowan-Glen.
By and by came a few low cottages built of graystone, and thatched with heather fastened down with a rough network of ropes. One or two of them were covered with honeysuckle and clematis, and had tiny gardens filled with vegetables and flowers, pinks and roses mingling in friendly confusion with gooseberry bushes and cabbages.
A narrow planked passage ran through the cottages, with a door at the other end opening on to a small field, with the usual cow-house, peat and straw stacks, and a little shed inhabited by a few scraggy cocks and hens which, with "ta coo" herself, are the household property of all, even the poorest, of the Highland peasants.
Fay looked eagerly past them, and for a moment forgot her trouble and weariness; for there, in the distance, as they turned the corner, stretched the long irregular range of the Cairngorm Mountains, with the dark shadow of the Forest of Mar at their base; while to the right, far above the lesser and more fertile hills, rose the snowy heads of those stately patriarchs—Ben-muich-dhui and Ben-na-bourd. Oh, those glorious Highland mountains, with their rugged peaks, against which the fretted clouds "get wrecked and go to pieces." What a glory, what a miracle they are! On sunny mornings with their infinity of wondrous color so softly, so harmoniously blended; now changing like an opal with every cloud that sails over them, and now with deep violet shadows haunting their hollows, sunny breaks and necks, and long glowing stretches of heather. Well has Jean Ingelow sung of them:
"... White raiment, the ghostly capes that screen them, Of the storm winds that beat them, their thunder rents and scars, And the paradise of purple, and the golden slopes atween them;"
for surely there could not be a grander or fairer scene on God's earth than this.
A moment later the vehicle stopped before a white gate set in a hedge of tall laurels and arbutus, and the driver got down and came round to the window. "Yonder's t' Manse. Will I carry in the boxes for the leddy?"
"No, no, wait a moment," replied Fay, hurriedly. "I must see if Mrs. Duncan be at home. Will you help me out?" for her limbs were trembling under her, and the weight of the baby was too much for her exhausted strength. She felt as though she could never get to the end of the steep little garden, or reach the stone porch. Yes; it was the same old gray house she remembered, with the small diamond-paned windows twinkling in the sunshine; and as she toiled up the narrow path, with Nero barking delightedly round her, the door opened, and a little old lady with a white hood drawn over her white curls, and a gardening basket on her arm, stepped out into the porch.
Fay gave a little cry when she saw her. "Oh, Mrs. Duncan," she said; and she and the baby together seemed to totter and collapse in the little old lady's arms.
"Gracious heavens!" exclaimed the startled woman; then, as her basket and scissors rolled to the ground, "Jean, lass, where are you? here are two bairns, and one of them looks fit to faint—ay, why, it is never our dear little Miss Mordaunt? Why, my bairn—" But at this moment a red-haired, freckled woman, with a pleasant, weather-beaten face, quietly lifted the mother and child, and carried them into a dusky little parlor; and in another minute Fay found herself lying on a couch, and her baby crying lustily in Jean's arms, while the little old lady was bathing her face with some cold, fragrant water, with the tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Ay, my bonnie woman," she said, "you have given Jean and me a turn; and there's the big doggie, too, that would be after licking your face—and for all he knows you are better now—like a Christian. Run away, Jean, and warm a sup of milk for the bairn, and may be his mother would like a cup of tea and a freshly baked scone. There give me the baby, and I'll hold him while you are gone."
"There's Andrew bringing in a heap of boxes," observed Jean, stolidly; "will he be setting them down in the porch? for we must not wake the minister."
"Ay, ay," returned Mrs. Duncan, in a bewildered tone; but she hardly took in the sense of Jean's speech—she was rocking the baby in her old arms and looking at the pretty, white, sunken face that lay on the chintz cushion. Of course it was little Miss Mordaunt, but what did it mean—what could it all mean?
"Mrs. Duncan," whispered Fay, as she raised herself on her pillow, "I have come to you because I am so unhappy, and I have no other friend. I am married, and this is my baby, and my husband does not want me, and indeed it would have killed me to stop with him, and I have come to you, and he must not find me, and you must take care of baby and me," and here her tears burst out, and she clung round the old lady's neck. "I have money, and I can pay the minister; and I am so fond of you both—do let me stay."
"Whisht, whisht, my dearie," returned Mrs. Duncan, wiping her own eyes and Fay's. "Of course you shall bide with me; would either Donald or I turn out the shorn lamb to face the tempest? Married, my bairn; why, you look only fit for a cot yourself; and with a bairn of your own, too. And to think that any man could ill-use a creature like that," half to herself; but Fay drooped her head as she heard her. Mrs. Duncan thought Hugh was cruel to her, and that she had fled from his ill-treatment, and she dare not contradict this notion.
"You must never speak to me of my husband," continued Fay, with an agitation that still further misled Mrs. Duncan. "I should have died if I had stopped with him; but I ran away, and I knew he would never find me here. I have money enough—ah, plenty—so you will not be put to expense. You may take care of my purse; and I have more—a great deal more;" and Fay held out to the dazzled eyes of the old lady a purse full of bank-notes and glittering gold pieces, which seemed riches itself to her Highland simplicity.
"Ay, and just look at the diamonds and emeralds on your fingers, my dearie; your man must have plenty of this world's goods. What do they call him, my bairn, and where does he live?" But Fay skillfully fenced these questions. She called herself Mrs. St. Clair, she said, and her husband was a landed proprietor, and lived in one of the midland counties in England; and then she turned Mrs. Duncan's attention by asking if she and baby might have the room her father slept in. Then Jean brought in the tea and buttered scones, and the milk for the baby; and while Mrs. Duncan fed him, she told Fay about her own trouble.
For the kind, white-headed minister, whom Fay remembered, was lying now in his last illness; he had had two strokes of paralysis, and the third would carry him off, the doctor said.
"One blessing is, my Donald does not suffer," continued Mrs. Duncan, with a quiver of her lip; "he is quite helpless, poor man, and can not stir himself, and Jean lifts him up as though he were a baby; but he sleeps most of his time, and when he is awake he never troubles—he just talks about the old time, when he brought me first to the Manse; and sometimes he fancies Robbie and Elsie are pulling flowers in the garden—and no doubt they are, the darlings, only it is in the garden of Paradise; and may be there are plenty of roses and lilies there, such as Solomon talked about in the Canticles."
"And who takes the duty for Mr. Duncan?" asked Fay, who was much distressed to hear this account of her kind old friend.
"Well, our nephew, Fergus, rides over from Corrie to take the services for the Sabbath. He is to be wedded to Lilian Graham, down at the farm yonder, and sometimes he puts up at the Manse and sometimes at the farm; and they do say, when my Donald has gone to the land of the leal, that Fergus will come to the Manse; for though he is young he is a powerful preacher, and even Saint Paul bids Timothy to 'let no one despise his youth;' but I am wearying you, my bairn, and Jean has kindled a fire in the pink room, for the nights are chilly, and you and me will be going up, and leaving the big doggie to take care of himself."
But "the big doggie" was of a different opinion; he quite approved of his hostess, but it was against his principles to allow his mistress to go out of his sight. Things were on a different footing now; and, ever since they had left Redmond Hall, Nero considered himself responsible for the safety of his two charges; so he quietly followed them into the pleasant low-ceiled bedroom, with its window looking over the old-fashioned garden and orchard, and laid himself down with his nose between his paws, watching Jean fill the baby's bath, to the edification of the two women.
Jean helped Fay unpack a few necessary articles, and then she went down to warm the porridge for her master's supper; but Mrs. Duncan pinned up her gray stuff gown, and sat down by the fire to undress the baby, while Fay languidly got ready for bed.
It was well that the mother and child had fallen into the hands of these good Samaritans. In spite of her wretchedness and the strange weight that lay so heavy on her young heart, a sort of hazy comfort stole over Fay as she lay between the coarse lavender-scented sheets, and listened to her baby's cooes as he stretched his little limbs in the warm fire-light.
"Ay, he is as fine and hearty as our Robbie was," observed Mrs. Duncan, with a sigh; and so she prattled on, now praising the baby's beauty, and now commenting on the fineness of his cambric shirts, and the value of the lace that trimmed his night-dress, until Fay fell asleep, and thought she was listening to a little brook that had overflowed its banks, and was running down a stony hill-side.
She hardly woke up when Mrs. Duncan placed the baby in her arms, and left them with a murmured benediction, and went down for a gossip with Jean. "And a lovelier sight my old eyes never saw," she said, "than that young creature, who looks only a child herself, with the bonnie boy in her arms, and her golden-brown hair covering them both. 'Deed, Jean, the man must have an evil spirit in him to ill-treat a little angel like that. But we will keep her safe, my woman, as sure as my name is Jeanie Duncan;" and to this Jean agreed. They were both innocent unsophisticated women who knew nothing of the world's ways, and as Mrs. Duncan had said, "they would as soon have turned a shorn lamb away, and left it exposed to the tempest," as shut their door against Fay and her child.
Fay was not able to rise from the bed the next day; indeed for more than a week she was almost as helpless as a baby, and had to submit to a great deal of nursing.
Mrs. Duncan was quite in her element—petting her guest, and ordering Jean about; for she was a brisk, bustling little woman, and far more active than her three-score and ten years warranted.
It was a delight to her motherly nature to dress and undress Fay's bonny boy. She would prose for hours about Robbie and Elsie as she sat beside the homely cradle that had once held her own children, while Fay listened languidly. It was all she could do to lie there and sleep and eat. Perhaps it was bodily exhaustion, but a sort of lull had come to her. She ceased to fret, and only wondered dreamily if Hugh were very pleased to get rid of her, and what he was doing, and who dusted and arranged his papers for him now she was no longer there. But of course Mrs. Heron would see to that.
Jean had plenty of work on her hands, but she never grumbled. There was the baby's washing and extra cooking, and the care of her old master. But in spite of her hard work, she often contrived to find her way to the pink room; for Jean worshiped babies, and it was a proud moment when she could get the boy in her arms and carry him out for a breath of air.
Mrs. Duncan told Fay that she had had great difficulty in making her husband understand the facts of the case. "His brain was just a wee bit clouded to every-day matters," she said; but he knew that he had guests at the Manse, and had charged his wife to show every hospitality.
"There is a deal said about the virtue of hospitality in the Bible," he continued. "There was Abraham and the fatted calf; and the good widows in the apostles' time who washed the feet of strangers; and some have entertained angels unaware; and it shall never be said of us, Jeanie woman, that we turned anybody from the Manse."
Fay went to see the old man when she was strong enough to leave her room, which was not for a fortnight after her arrival.
She found him lying on one side of the big bed with brown moreen hangings that she remembered so well, with his white head pillowed high, and his fine old face turned to the setting sun.
He looked at her with a placid smile as she stood beside him—a small girlish figure, now sadly frail and drooping, with her boy in her arms—and held out his left hand—the right arm was helpless.
"Mother and child," he murmured; "it is always before our eyes, the Divine picture; and old and young, it touches the manhood within us. So you have come to bide a wee with Jeanie and me in the old Manse, my dear young lady; ay, and you are kindly welcome. And folks do say that there is no air so fine as ours, and no milk so pure as our brindled cow gives, and may be it will give you a little color into your cheeks."
"Don't you remember me, Mr. Duncan?" asked Fay, somewhat disappointed to find herself treated like an ordinary visitor. "Don't you remember Fay Mordaunt, the little girl who used to play with you in the orchard? but I am afraid I was older than I looked."
"Elsie used to play with me in the orchard," replied the old man, wistfully; "but Jeanie says she has gone to Heaven with wee Robbie. Nay, I never remember names, except Jeanie—and may be Jean comes handy. And there is one I never forget—the name of my Lord Jesus;" and he bowed his old head reverently.
"Come away, my bairn; Donald will have plenty to say to you another time," said Mrs. Duncan, kindly. "He is a bit drowsy now, and he is apt to wander at such times." But the minister heard her, and a sort of holy smile lit up his rugged face.
"Ay, but He'll not let me wander far; I have always got a grip of His hand, and if my old feet stumble a bit I'm just lifted up. No, I could not forget His name, which is just Love, and nothing else. But perhaps you are right, Jennie, lass, and I am a bit sleepy. Take both the bairns away, and watch over them as though they were lambs of the fold—and so they are lambs of His fold," finished the old man. "And may be the Shepherd found them straying, poor bit creatures, and sent them here for you and me to mind, my woman."
TRACKED AT LAST.
Thus it was granted me To know that he loved me to the depth and height Of such large natures; ever competent, With grand horizons by the sea or land, To love's grand sunrise.
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING.
It was at the close of a lovely September day that Raby Ferrers sat alone in the piazza of a large fashionable boarding-house in W——. This favorite American watering-place was, as usual, thronged by visitors, who came either to seek relief for various ailments from the far-famed hot springs, or to enjoy the salubrious air and splendid scenery that made W—— so notorious.
The piazza was always the favorite lounge at all hours of the day, but especially toward evening. A handsome striped awning, and the natural shade of the splendid tropical plants that twined round the slender pillars, gave a pleasant shade even at noonday. Broad low steps led to the gardens, and deck-chairs and cushioned rocking-chairs were placed invitingly at intervals.
A gay bevy of girls had just taken possession of these coveted seats, and were chattering with the young men who had just followed them out of the hot dining-room; but no one invaded the quiet corner where the English clergyman had established himself, though many a pair of laughing eyes grew a little sad and wistful when they rested on the grave, abstracted face of the blind man.
"He looks so dull," observed one girl—a fair delicate blonde, who was evidently the belle, for she was surrounded by at least half a dozen young men. "I have half a mind to go and speak to him myself, only you would all be watching me."
"Miss Bellagrove can not fail to be the cynosure of all eyes," returned a beardless dapper young man with the unmistakable Yankee accent; but to this remark Miss Bellagrove merely turned a cold shoulder.
"His sister has been away most of the afternoon," she continued, addressing a good-looking young officer who held her fan. "It was so clever of you to find out that she was his sister, Captain Maudsley. I had quite made up my mind they were married; yes, of course, every one must notice the likeness between them, but then they might have been cousins, and she does seem so devoted to him." But here a whispered admonition in her ear made Miss Bellagrove break off her sentence rather abruptly, as at that moment Miss Ferrers's tall figure, in the usual gray gown, was seen crossing one of the little lawns toward the piazza.
"She is wonderfully distinguished looking," was Miss Bellagrove's next remark. "Most Englishwoman are tall, I do believe; don't you think her face beautiful, Captain Maudsley?" but the reply to this made Miss Bellagrove change color very prettily. Raby was profoundly oblivious of the interest he was exciting; he was wondering what had detained Margaret all these hours, and if she would have any news to bring him.
As yet their journey had been fruitless. They had reached New York just as Miss Campion and her companion had quitted it; they had followed on their track—but had always arrived either a day or an hour too late. Now and then they had to wait until a letter from Fern gave them more decided particulars. Occasionally they made a mistake, and found that Miss Campion had changed her plans. Once they were in the same train, and Margaret never found it out until she saw Crystal leave the carriage, and then there was no time to follow her. Margaret shed tears of disappointment, and blamed herself for her own blindness; but Raby never reproached her.
He was growing heart-sick and weary by this time. They had spent six weeks in this search, and were as far from success as ever—no wonder Raby's face looked grave and overcast as he sat alone in the piazza. Even Margaret's protracted absence raised no sanguine expectation in his mind; on the contrary, as his practiced ear recognized her footstep, he breathed a short prayer for patience.
"Dear Raby," she said, softly, as she took a seat beside him and unfastened the clasps of her long cloak; "I have been away a longer time than usual; have you been wanting me?"
"Oh, no," with a faint smile; "Fergusson took care of me at dinner, and I had a pleasant American widow on the other side, who amused me very much—she told me some capital stories about the Canadian settlers; so, on the whole, I did very well. I begin to like Fergusson immensely; he is a little broad, but still very sensible in his views. He comes from Cumberland, he tells me, and has rather a large cure of souls."
"Yes, dear"—but Margaret spoke absently—"but you do not ask me what I have been doing, Raby."
"No"—very slowly; and then, with a touch of sadness: "I begin to think it is better not to ask."
"Poor fellow"—laying her hand on his arm caressingly. "Yes, I understand you are beginning to lose hope. What did I tell you last night—that it is always the darkest the hour before dawn. Do you remember how fond Crystal was of that song? Well, it is true, Raby; I have been stopping away for some purpose this afternoon. Crystal and Miss Campion are here."
"Here!" and at Raby's exclamation more than one head turned in the direction of the brother and sister.
"Yes, in W——. Do not speak so loud, Raby; you are making people look at us. Take my arm, and we will go into the shrubberies; no one will disturb us there." And as she guided him down the steps, and then crossed a secluded lawn, Raby did not speak again until the scent of the flowering shrubs told him they had entered one of the quiet paths leading away from the house.
"Now, tell me, Maggie," he said, quickly; and Margaret obeyed at once.
"I was at the station, as we planned, and saw them arrive; so for once the information was correct. Crystal got out first, and went in search of the luggage. I concealed myself behind a bale of goods—wool-packs, I believe—and she passed me quite closely; I could have touched her with my hand. She looked very well, only thinner, and I think older; it struck me she had grown, too, for she certainly looked taller."
"It is possible; and you really saw her face, Margaret?"
"Yes; she was looking away. She is as beautiful as ever, Raby. No wonder people stare at her so. She is as much like your ideal Esther as she used to be, only there is a grander look about her altogether—less like the girl, and more of the woman."
"Ah, she has suffered so; we have all aged, Maggie. She will think us both changed."
Margaret suppressed a sigh—she was almost thankful that Raby's blind eyes could not see the difference in her. He was quite unconscious that her youthful bloom had faded, and that her fair face had a settled, matured look that seldom comes before middle age; and she was glad that this was so. Neither of them spoke now of the strange blight that had passed over her young life. Margaret had long ceased to weep over it; it was her cross, she said, and she had learned its weight by this time.
"Well, Margaret?" for she had paused for a moment.
"I did not dare to leave my place of concealment until she had passed. I saw Miss Campion join her. She is a pleasant, brisk-looking woman with gray hair, and rather a young face. I followed them out of the station, and heard them order the driver to bring them here."
"Here! To this house, Margaret?"
"Yes—wait a moment—but of course I knew what Mrs. O'Brien would say—that there was no room; so I did not trouble to follow them very closely; in fact, I knew it would be useless; when I did arrive I went straight to Mrs. O'Brien's parlor, and asked if she had managed to accommodate the two ladies.
"'I did not know they were friends of yours, Miss Ferrers,' she said, regretfully. 'But what could I do? There is not a vacant bed in the house, and I knew the hotel would be just as full; so I sent them down to Mrs. Maddox, at the corner house, down yonder—it is only a stone's-throw from here. And, as I told the ladies, they can join us at luncheon and dinner, and make use of the drawing-room. I knew Mrs. Maddox had her two best bedrooms and the front parlor empty.' Of course I thanked Mrs. O'Brien, and said no doubt this would do excellently for our friends; and then I walked past the corner house and found they were carrying in the luggage, and Miss Campion was standing at the door talking to a colored servant."
"You actually passed the house? Oh, Margaret, how imprudent. Supposing Crystal had seen you from the window?"
"Oh, my cloak and veil disguised me; besides, there is a long strip of garden between the house and the road. I could hardly distinguish Crystal, though I could see there was some one in the parlor. And now, what are we to do, Raby? It will never do to risk a meeting at table d'hote; in a crowded room, Crystal might see us, and make her escape before I could manage to intercept her; and yet, how are we to intrude on Miss Campion? it will be dreadfully awkward for us all."
"I must think over it," he answered, quickly. "It is growing dark now, Margaret, is it not?"
"Yes, dear, do you feel chilly—shall we go in?"
"No, I want you to take me further; there is a gate leading to the road, is there not? I should like to go past the house; it will make it seem more real, Maggie, and you shall describe exactly how it is situated."
Margaret complied at once—not for worlds would she have hinted that she was already nearly spent with fatigue and want of food. Cathy, the bright little mulatto chamber-maid, would get her a cup of tea and a sandwich presently. Raby's lover-like wish must be indulged; he wanted to pass the house that held his treasure.
It was bright moonlight by this time, and the piazza had been long deserted. The shadows were dark under the avenue, for the road was thickly planted with trees. Just as they were nearing the corner house—a low, white building, with a veranda running round it—Margaret drew Raby somewhat hastily behind a tall maple, for her keen eyes had caught sight of two figures standing by the gate. As the moon emerged from behind a cloud, she saw Crystal plainly; Miss Campion was beside her with a black veil thrown over her gray hair.
Margaret's whispered "hush!" was a sufficient hint to Raby, and he stood motionless. The next moment the voice that was dearer to him than any other sounded close beside him—at least it seemed so in the clear, resonant atmosphere.
"What a delicious night; how white that patch of moonlighted road looks where the trees do not cast their shadows so heavily. I like this quiet road. I am quite glad the boarding-house was full; I think the cottage is much cozier."
"Cozier, yes," laughed the other; "but that is a speech that ought to have come out of my middle-aged lips. What an odd girl you are, Crystal; you never seem to care for mixing with young people; and yet it is only natural at your age. You are a terrible misanthrope. I do believe you would rather not dine at the table d'hote, only you are ashamed to say so."
"I have no right to inflict my misanthropy on you, dear Miss Campion; as it is, you are far too indulgent to my morose moods."
"Morose fiddlesticks," was the energetic reply. "But, there, I do like young people to enjoy themselves like young people. Why, if I had your youth and good looks; well"—with a change of tone sufficiently explicit—"it is no use trying to make you conceited; and yet that handsome young American—wasn't he a colonel?—tried to make himself as pleasant as he could."
"Did he?" was the somewhat indifferent answer; at which Miss Campion shook her head in an exasperated way.
"Oh, it is no use talking to you," with good-natured impatience. "English or American, old, ugly, or handsome, they are all the same to you; and of course, by the natural laws of contradiction, the absurd creatures are all bent on making you fall in love with them. Now that colonel, Crystal, I can't think what fault you could find with him; he was manly, gentlemanly, and as good-looking as a man ought to be."
"I do not care for good-looking men."
"Or for plain ones, either, my dear. I expect you are romantic, Crystal, and have an ideal of your own."
"And if I answer, yes," returned the girl, quickly, "will you leave off teasing me about all those stupid men? If you knew how I hate it—how I despise them all."
"All but the ideal," observed Miss Campion, archly; but she took the girl's hand in hers, and her shrewd, clever face softened. "You must forgive an impertinent old maid, my dear. Perhaps she had her story too, who knows. And so you have your ideal, my poor, dear child; and the ideal has not made you a happy woman. It never does," in a low voice.
"Dear Miss Campion," returned Crystal, with a blush; "if I am unhappy, it is only through my own fault; no one else is to blame, and—and—it is not as you think. It is true I once knew a good man, who has made every other man seem puny and insignificant beside him; but that is because he was so good and there was no other reason."
"No other reason, except your love for him," observed the elder woman, stroking her hand gently. "I have long suspected this, my dear."
"Oh, you must not talk so," answered Crystal, in a tone of poignant distress; "you do not know; you can not understand. Oh, it is all so sad. I owe him everything. My ideal, oh, yes; whom have I ever seen who could compare with him—so strong, so gentle, so forgiving? Oh, you must never let me talk of him; it breaks my heart."
"Come away, Margaret," whispered Raby, hoarsely, in her ear. "I have no right to hear this; it is betraying my darling's confidence. Take me away, for I can not trust myself another moment; and it is late—too late to speak to her to-night."
"Hush! they are going in; we must wait a moment. Crystal is crying, and that kind creature is comforting her. We did not mean to listen, Raby; but it was not safe to move away from the trees."
"You heard what she said, Margaret—her ideal. Heaven bless her sweet innocence; she is as much a child as ever. Do I look like any woman's ideal now, Margaret. I always think of those lines in 'Aurora Leigh,' when I imagine myself
"'A mere bare blind stone in the blaze of day, A man, upon the outside of the earth, As dark as ten feet under, in the grave,— Why that seemed hard.'
And yet, she really said it; her ideal. Ah, well! A woman's pity sometimes makes her mad. What do you say, Maggie?"
"That you are, and that you ever have been Crystal's ideal." And after that they walked back in silence.
"You and I will go again to-morrow morning," Raby said to her as they parted for the night; and Margaret assented.
Raby had a wakeful night, and slept a little heavily toward morning.
Margaret had already finished her breakfast when he entered the long dining-room, and one of the black waiters guided him to his place. Raby wondered that she did not join him as usual to read his letters to him, and make plans for their visit; but a few minutes later she joined him in walking dress, and sat down beside him.
"Have you finished your breakfast, Raby?" And, as he answered in the affirmative, she continued, with a little thrill of excitement in her sweet voice—"Miss Campion has gone down to the springs—I saw her pass alone. Crystal is writing letters in the parlor—I saw her. Shall we come, my dear brother?"
Need she have put the question. Even Charles, the head-waiter, looked at Mr. Ferrers as he walked down the long room with his head erect. A grand-looking Englishman, he thought, and who would have imagined he was blind. Margaret could hardly keep up with the long, even strides that brought them so quickly to the corner house; at the gate she checked him gently.
"We must be quiet, Raby—very quiet—or she will hear our footsteps. She is sitting with her back to the parlor door—I can see her plainly. Tread on this grassy border."
And as Raby followed her directions implicitly, restraining his impatience with difficulty, they were soon standing in the porch. The door stood open for coolness, and the little square hall, with its Indian matting and rocking-chairs, looked very inviting. Margaret whispered that the parlor-door was open, too, and that they must not startle the girl too much; and then, still guiding him, she led him into the parlor and quietly called Crystal.
"We are here, dear Crystal." And as Crystal turned her head and saw Margaret's sweet, loving face, and Raby standing a little behind her, she sprung from her chair with a half-stifled scream. But before she could speak, or Margaret either, Raby was beside her; and in another moment his arms were round her, and his sightless face bent over her. "Hush, darling, I have you safely now; I will never let you go again," Margaret heard him say as she left the room, quietly closing the door behind her. Her turn would come presently, she said to herself; but now she must leave them together.
Yet, in one respect, Just one, beloved, I am in nowise changed; I love you, loved you, loved you first and last, And love you on forever, now I know I loved you always.
E. B. BROWNING.
Crystal never moved as she heard the sound of the closing door. Only once she tried to cower away from him, but he would not release his hold; and, as his strength and purpose made themselves felt, she stood there dumb and cold, until, suddenly overcome by his tenderness, she laid her head on his breast with a sob that seemed to shake her girlish frame.
"Raby, Raby! oh, I can not bear this." Then in a tone of anguish, "I do not deserve it."
"No," he said, calmly, and trying to soothe her with grave kisses; "you have been a faithless child, and deserve to be punished. How do you propose to make me amends for all the sorrow you have caused me?"
"Oh, if I could only die," she answered, bitterly; "if my death could only do you good. Raby, the trouble of it has nearly killed me; you must not, you must not speak so kindly to me."
"Must I not, my darling; how does a man generally speak to his future wife?" and as she trembled and shrunk from him, he went on in the same quiet voice, "if you are so ready to die for me, you will not surely refuse to live for me. Do you think you owe me nothing for all these years of desertion, Crystal; was there any reason that, because of that unhappy accident—a momentary childish passion, you should break my heart by your desertion?"
"I could not stay," she answered, weeping bitterly; "I could not stay to see the ruin I had made. Oh, Raby, let me go, do not forgive me; I have been your curse, and Margaret's, too!"
"Then come back and be our blessing; come back in your beauty and youth to be eyes to the blind man, and to be his darling and delight. Crystal, I am wiser now—I shall make no more mistakes; indeed, I always loved you, dear; poor Mona was no more to me than any other woman."
"You loved me, Raby?"
"Yes, most truly and deeply; but you were so young, my sweet; and I did not think it right to fetter your inexperienced youth—you were so unconscious of your own rare beauty; you had seen so few men. 'Let her go out into the world,' I said, and test her power and influence. I will not ask her to be my wife yet. How could I know you would never change, Crystal—that your heart was really mine?"
"It has always been yours," she murmured; but, alas! those sweet blushes were lost on her blind lover.
"Yes, I know it now; Margaret has helped me to understand things. I know now, you poor child, that you looked upon Mona as your rival; that you thought I was false to you; that in my ignorance I made you endure tortures. It is I who ought to ask your pardon, love, for all I made you suffer."
"We must both be wiser for the future. Now put your hand in mine, Crystal, and tell me that you are content to take the blind man for your husband, that the thought of a long life beside him does not frighten you; that you really love me well enough to be my wife;" and, as he turned his sightless face toward her, Crystal raised herself and kissed his blind eyes softly. "'She loved much,'" she whispered, "'because much had been forgiven her.' Oh, how true that is; I deserve only to be hated, and you follow me across the world to ask me to be your wife. Your love has conquered, Raby; from this day your will shall be mine."
* * * * *
Miss Campion had passed a long morning at the springs, wandering about the pleasant grounds with an American friend. Crystal would have finished her letter to Fern Trafford long ago, she thought, as she walked quickly down the hot road, and would be waiting for luncheon. She was not a little surprised then when, on reaching the cottage, she heard the sound of voices, and found herself confronting a very tall man in clerical dress, whose head seemed almost to touch the low ceiling, while a sweet-looking woman, in a long gray cloak and Quakerish bonnet, was standing holding Crystal's hand.
"Dear Miss Campion," exclaimed Crystal, with a vivid blush that seemed to give her new beauty, "some English friends of mine have just arrived. Mr. Ferrers and his sister." But Raby's deep voice interrupted her.
"Crystal is not introducing us properly; she does not mention the fact that she is engaged to me; and that my sister is her cousin; so it is necessary for me to explain matters."
"Is this true, child?" asked Miss Campion in a startled voice; and, as though Crystal's face were sufficient answer, she continued archly, "Do you mean that this is 'he,' Crystal—the ideal we were talking about last night in the moonlight?"
"Oh, hush!" returned Crystal, much confused at this, for she knew by this time that there had been silent auditors to that girlish outburst. But Raby's hand pressed hers meaningly.
"I am afraid I must plead guilty to being that 'he,' Miss Campion. I believe, if the truth must be told, that Crystal has been engaged to me from a child. I know she was only nine years old when she made me an offer—at least she informed me in the presence of my father and sister that she meant to belong to me."
"Oh, Margaret, do ask him to be quiet," whispered Crystal; but her glowing, happy face showed no displeasure. Something like tears glistened in Miss Campion's shrewd eyes as she kissed her and shook hands with Mr. Ferrers.
"It is not often the ideal turns up at the right moment," she said, bluntly; "but I am very glad you have come to make Crystal look like other girls. Now, Miss Ferrers, as only lovers can feed on air, I propose that we go in search of luncheon, for the gong has sounded long ago;" and as even Raby allowed that this was sensible advice, they all adjourned to the boarding-house.
The occupants of the piazza were sorely puzzled that evening, and Miss Bellagrove was a trifle cross. Captain Maudsley had been raving about the beauty of the wonderful brunette who was sitting opposite to him at dinner. "She must be an Italian," he had said to Miss Bellagrove, who received his confidence somewhat sulkily; "one never sees those wonderful eyes and that tint of hair out of Italy or Spain. Tanqueville, who is an artist, is wild about her, because he says he has never seen a face with a purer oval. He wants to paint her for his Rebecca at the Well. It is rather hard lines she should be engaged to a blind clergyman," finished Captain Maudsley, rather incautiously. Miss Bellagrove's fair face wore an uneasy expression.
"How do you know they are engaged?" she said, impatiently; "I do not believe they are. Miss Ferrers does not wear any ring."
"Nevertheless, I should not mind betting a few dozens of gloves that they are," replied Captain Maudsley, with a keen, mischievous glance that rather disconcerted Miss Bellagrove. He was quite aware that he was teasing the poor little girl; but then she deserved punishment for flirting with that ass Rogers all last evening. Jack Maudsley was honestly in love with the fair-haired beauty, but he had plenty of pluck and spirit, and would not be fooled if he could help it. Perhaps Miss Bellagrove, in common with the rest of her sex, liked a lover to be a little masterful. It was certain that she was on her best behavior during the rest of the evening, and snubbed Mr. Rogers most decidedly when he invited her to take a turn in the shrubberies.
Crystal attracted a great deal of notice in the boarding-house, but she gave no one any opportunity of addressing her. Raby was always beside her, and she seemed completely engrossed with his attentions. As Miss Campion observed to Margaret, she might as well look for another companion for all the good Crystal was to her.
But one evening Margaret found Crystal sitting alone in a corner of the large drawing-room. Most of the company had gone into the tea-room, but one or two, Raby among them, were lingering in the garden. Raby was talking rather earnestly to Miss Campion.
"Alone, Crystal!" sitting down beside her with a smile. "Do you mean that Raby has actually left you?" But Crystal's face wore no answering smile—she looked a little disturbed.
"I asked him to go and let me think it over. I can not make up my mind, Margaret. Raby wants me to marry him at once, before we go back to England; he will have it that it will be better for me to go back to the Grange as his wife."
"Yes, darling, I know Raby wishes this, and I hope you mean to consent."
"I—I do not know what to say—the idea somehow frightens me. It is all so quick and sudden—next week; will not people think it strange? A quiet English wedding in the dear little Sandycliffe church seems to me so much nicer. But Raby seems to dread the waiting so, Margaret," and here her eyes filled with tears. "I think he does not trust me—that he is afraid I may leave him again; and the idea pains me."
"No, dearest," returned Margaret, soothingly; "I am sure such a thought never entered Raby's head; but he has suffered so, and I think all the trouble, and his blindness, make him nervous; he was saying so last night, and accusing himself of selfishness, but he owned that he could not control a nervous dread that something might happen to separate you both, Crystal," looking at her wistfully. "Is the idea of an immediate marriage so repugnant; if not, I wish you would give way in this."
Crystal looked up, startled by her earnestness, and then she said, with sweet humility, "It is only that I feel so unworthy of all this happiness; but if you and Raby think it best, I will be guided by you. Will you tell him so? but no, there he is alone; I will go to him myself."
Raby heard her coming, and held out his hand with a smile.
"You see I never mistake your footsteps," he said, in the tone he kept for her ear; "I should distinguish them in a crowd. Well, darling?" waiting for the word he knew would follow.
"Margaret has been talking to me, and I see she approves—it shall be next week if you wish it, Raby; that is, if Miss Campion will spare me."
"She will gladly do so, especially as Margaret offers to keep her company for a fortnight; after that we will all go back in the same steamer. Thanks, my darling, for consenting; you have made me very happy. I knew you would not refuse," lifting the little hand to has lips.
"I feel as though I have no power to refuse you anything," was her loving answer; "but I know it is all your thought for me, Raby," pressing closer to him in the empty dusk, for there were no curious eyes upon them—only night-moths wheeling round them. "Are you never afraid of what you are doing; do you not fear that I may disappoint you?"
"No," he answered, calmly, "I fear nothing."
"Not my unhappy temper?" she whispered; and he could feel the slight figure trembling as she put the question.
"No," in the same quiet tones that always soothed her agitation, "for I believe the evil spirit is exorcised by much prayer and fasting; and, darling, even if it should not be so, I should not be afraid then, for I know better how to deal with it and you; no angry spirit could live in my arms, and I would exorcise it thus"—touching her lips. "No, have faith in me, as I have faith in you, and all will be well." And so he comforted her.
There was a great sensation in the boarding-house at W—— when news of the approaching wedding was made known. Captain Maudsley triumphed openly over Miss Bellagrove. "I told you the Italian beauty was engaged to the blind Englishman," he said to her; "but after all, she is only half an Italian—her mother was a Florentine, and her father was English. Fergusson told me all about it—he is to marry them; and old Doctor Egan is to give her away. There is some romantic story belonging to them. I think he has been in love with her from a child. Well, Heaven gives nuts to those who have no teeth," grumbled the young officer, thinking of the bridegroom's blindness.
Crystal remained very quietly in the corner house during the rest of the week. Raby spent most of his time with her. On the eve of her wedding she wrote a little note to Fern, telling her of her intended marriage.
"I am very happy," she wrote; "but there are some kinds of happiness too deep for utterance. When I think of the new life that awaits me to-morrow, an overwhelming sense of unworthiness seems to crush me to the ground; to think that I shall be Raby's wife—that I shall be permitted to dedicate my whole life to his dear service. I have told you a little about him, but you will never know what he is really; I sometimes pray that my love may not be idolatry. When he brings me to the Grange—that dear home of my childhood, you must come to me, and your mother also. Raby says he loves you both for your goodness to me; he has promised that you shall be our first guests.
"Do you know our dear Margaret will not be long with us? She intends to join a community in the East End of London, and to devote herself for the remainder of her life to the service of the poor. I could not help crying a little when she told me this; but she only smiled and said that she was not unhappy. And yet she loved Hugh Redmond. I talked to Raby afterward, and he comforted me a little. He said that though Hugh loved her with the whole strength of his nature, that he could never really have satisfied a woman like Margaret—that in time she must have found out that he was no true mate for her. 'A woman should never be superior to her husband,' he said. 'Margaret's grand intellect and powers of influence would have been wasted if she had become Hugh Redmond's wife. Oh, yes, he would have been good to her—probably he would have worshiped her; but one side of her nature would have been a mystery to him. You must not grieve for her, my child, for she has ceased to grieve for herself; the Divine Providence has withheld from her a woman's natural joys of wifehood and maternity, but a noble work is to be given to her; our Margaret, please God, will be a mother in Israel.' And, indeed, I feel Raby is right, and that Margaret is one of God's dear saints."
It was on a golden September day that Crystal became Raby Ferrers's wife; the company that had grouped themselves in the long drawing-room of the boarding-house owned that they had never seen a grander bride.
The creamy Indian silk fell in graceful folds on the tall supple figure; the beautiful head, with its coils of dark glossy hair, was bent in girlish timidity. Margaret had clasped round her white throat the pearl necklace and diamond cross that had belonged to her mother, and which she was to have worn at her own bridal. "I shall not need it; it is for Raby's wife," she said, as Crystal protested with tears in her eyes; "it must be your only ornament. Oh, if Raby could only see how lovely you look."
But the calm tranquil content on the sightless face silenced even this wish. Crystal ceased to tremble when the deep vibrating voice, vowing to love and cherish her to her life's end, sounded in her ears; but Raby felt the coldness of the hand he held.
When they had received the congratulations of their friends, and Margaret had tenderly embraced her new sister, and they were left alone for a little, Raby drew his young bride closer to him.
"You are not afraid now, my darling?"
"No," she answered, unsteadily; "but it is all so like a dream. A fortnight ago—only a fortnight—I was the most desolate creature in God's earth; and now—"
"And now," echoing her words with a kiss, "you are my wife. Ah, do you remember your childish speech—it used to ring in my ears; 'I am going to belong to Raby all my life long; I will never leave him, never.' Well, it has come true, love; you are mine now."
"Yes," she whispered, leaning her forehead against him, "you will never be able to got rid of me; and oh"—her voice trembling—"the rest of knowing that it will never be my duty to leave you."
He laughed at that, but something glistened in his eyes too. "No, my wild bird; no more flights for you—I have you safely now; you are bound to me by this"—touching the little circlet of gold upon the slender finger. "Now, my darling—my wife of an hour, I want you to make me a promise; I ask it of your love, Crystal. If a shadow—even the very faintest shadow, cross your spirit; if one accusing thought seems to stand between your soul and mine; one doubt or fear that, like the cloud no bigger than a man's hand, might rise and spread into the blackness of tempest, will you come and tell it to me?"
"Oh, Raby, do not ask me."
"But I do ask it, love, and I ask it in my twofold character of priest and husband, and it is the first request your husband makes you. Come, do not hesitate. You have given me yourself; now, with sweet generosity, promise me this, that you will share with me every doubt and fear that disturbs you?"
"Will you not let me try to conquer the feeling alone first, and then come to you?"
"No, I would not undertake the responsibility; I know you too well, darling. Come, I thought you promised something that sounded like obedience just now."
"Ah, you are laughing at me. But this is no light matter, Raby; it means that I am to burden you with all my foolish doubts and fancies—that I am never to keep my wrong feelings to myself."
"Promise!" was his only answer, in a very persuasive voice.
"Yes, I will promise," hiding her face on his shoulder; "but it will be your own fault if I am ever a trouble to you. Oh, Raby, may I always tell you everything; will you help me to be good, and to fight against myself?"
"We will help each other," he answered, stroking her soft hair; "there shall never be a shadow on the one that the other will not share—half the shadow and half the sunshine; and always the Divine goodness over us. That shall be our married life, Crystal."
SIR HUGH'S REPENTANCE.
And by comparison I see The majesty of matron grace, And learn how pure, how fair can be My own wife's face:
Pure with all faithful passion, fair With tender smiles that come and go, And comforting as April air After the snow.
Sir Hugh began to wish that he had never gone to Egypt, or that he had gone with any one but Fitzclarence—he was growing weary of his vagaries and unpunctuality. They had deviated already four times from the proposed route, and the consequence was, he had missed all his letters; and the absence of home news was making him seriously uneasy. He was the only married man; the rest of the party consisted of gay, young bachelors—good enough fellows in their way, but utterly careless. They laughed at Sir Hugh's anxious scruples, and secretly voted that a married man was rather a bore in this kind of thing. What was the use of bothering about letters, they said, so long as the remittances came to hand safely.
Sir Hugh thought of Fay's loving little letters lying neglected at the different postal towns, and sighed; either he was not so indifferent to her as he supposed himself to be, or absence was making his heart tender; but he had never been so full of care and thought for his Wee Wifie as he was then. He wished he had bidden her good-bye. He remembered the last time he had seen her, when he had gone into his study with the telegram in his hand; and then he recalled the strange wistful look she had given him. He could not tell why the fancy should haunt him, but he wished so much that he had seen her again and taken a kinder leave of her. It had not been his fault, he told himself a hundred times over; but still one never knew what might happen. He wished now that he had taken her in his arms and had said God bless her; she was such a child, and he was leaving her for a long time.
Sir Hugh was becoming a wiser man, and was beginning to acknowledge his faults, and, what was better still, to try and make amends for them.
It was too late to undo the effects of Fitzclarence's reckless mode of traveling, but he would do all he could; so in his leisure moments, when the other men were smoking and chatting in their tent, he sat down in a quiet corner and wrote several letters, full of descriptions of their journey, to amuse Fay in her solitude; and one Sunday, when the others had started on an expedition to see some ruin, he wrote the explanation that he had deferred so long. Hugh was an honest, well-meaning man, in spite of his moral weakness; if that letter had only reached the young wife's eyes it would have healed her sore heart and kept her beside him.
For he told her everything; and he told it in such a frank, manly way, that no woman could have lost confidence in him, though she read what Fay was to have read in the first few lines—that he had not married her for love. Hugh owned his unhappy passion for Margaret, and pleaded his great trouble as the excuse for his restlessness. He had gone away, he said, that he might fight a battle with himself, and return home a better man; it would all be different when he came back, for he meant to be a good husband to her, and to live for her and the boy, and to make her happy, and by and by he would be happy too. And he ended his letter as he never ended one yet, by assuring her that he was her loving husband. But, alas, when that tardy explanation reached the cottage at Daintree, Aunt Griselda only wrung her thin white hands and cried, for no one knew what had become of Fay, and Erle was rushing about and sending telegrams in all directions, and Fay, with the shadow always on her sweet face, was sitting in the orchard of the Manse, under the shade of the mossy old apple-trees, and baby Hugh lay on her lap, gurgling to the birds and the white clouds that sailed over their heads. When Sir Hugh had written that letter, he felt as though a very heavy weight were off his mind, and he began to enjoy himself. Not for long, however, for presently they reached Cairo, and there he found a budget awaiting him. Every one seemed to have written to him but Fay; and when he saw that, he began to tear open the letters rather wildly, for he feared she must be ill. But by and by he came to her letter.
He read Erle Huntingdon's first—an indignant letter, evidently written under strong excitement—"Why had he not come home when they had sent for him? He must know that their search had been useless; they had no news of either Fay or the child. Miss Mordaunt was very ill with worry, and her old servant was much alarmed about her. They had written to him over and over again, and directed their letters to every possible place he could not have missed. If he had any affection for his wife and child, and cared to know what had become of them, he had better leave Fitzclarence and the other fellows and return at once," and so on.
Hugh dropped the letter—he was pale to the lips with apprehension—and turned to the others.
They were from Miss Mordaunt, and Mrs. Heron, and Ellerton, and the lawyer, but they only reiterated the same thing—that all efforts had been in vain, and that they could hear nothing of either Lady Redmond or the boy; and then they urged him to come home at once. Lastly, directed by Mrs. Heron, as though by an afterthought, was the letter Fay had left for him upon the study-table; but, in reality, it had been forwarded before the alarm had been given, for the seal was still unbroken. Mrs. Heron, on learning from the messenger that Sir Hugh had started for Egypt, had redirected it, and it had only just been posted when the distracted nurse made her appearance at the Hall and told her story. When Hugh read that poor little letter, his first feeling was intense anger—all his Redmond blood was at fever-heat. She had sinned beyond all mercy; she had compromised his name and his reputation, and he would never forgive her.
He had confided his honor to a child, and she had played with it, and cast it aside; she had dared to leave him and her home, and with his child, too, and to bring the voice of scandal about them; she—Lady Redmond, his wife—wandering like a vagabond at the world's mercy! His feelings were intolerable. He must get back to England; he must find her and hush it up, or his life would be worth nothing to him. Ah, it was well for Fay that she was safely hidden in the old Manse, for, if he had found her while this mood was on him, his anger would have killed her.
When his passion had cooled a little, he went to Fitzclarence and told him abruptly that he must return home at once—affairs of the utmost importance recalled him.
Fitzclarence thought he looked very strange, but something in his manner forbade all questioning. Two hours afterward he was on his way to England.
There is an old proverb, often lightly quoted, and yet full of a wise and solemn meaning, "L'homme propose, et Dieu dispose." Poor, angry Hugh, traveling night and day, and cursing the tardy railways and steamers, was soon to test the truth of the saying.
He had reached Marseilles, and was hurrying to the post-office to telegraph some order to Mrs. Heron, when he suddenly missed his footing, and found himself at the bottom of a steep, dark cellar, with his leg doubled up under him; and when two passers-by who saw the accident tried to move him, they discovered that his leg was broken; and then he heard that he fainted.
And so fate, or rather Providence, took the reins from the weak, passionate hands that were so unfit to hold them, and threw him back, helpless and baffled, on his bed of pain; there to learn, week by week, through weary sickness and still more weary convalescence, the lesson that only suffering could teach him—that it were well to forgive others their sins, even as he hoped his might be forgiven.
And yet he learned another thing, as his anger slowly burned itself out and only profound wretchedness and intolerable suspense remained as to his wife's fate—something that startled him with a sense of sweetness, and yet stung him with infinite pain; when the haunting presence of his lost wife seemed ever with him, and would not let him rest; when his remorse was terrible; and when he would have given up all he had in the world just to hear her say in her low, fond voice, that she forgave him all.
For he knew now that he had wronged her, and that his neglect and coldness had driven her from her home.
The uncertainty of her fate sometimes nearly drove him wild. How could she have laid her plans so accurately that no traces of her or the child could be found? Could evil have befallen them? God help him if a hair of those innocent heads had been touched. In his weakness he could not always control the horrible imaginations that beset him. Often he would wake from some ghastly dream and lie till dawn, unable to shake off his deadly terror. Then all of a sudden he would remember that hasty postscript, "Do not be anxious about me. I am going to some kind people who will be good to me and the boy;" and he would fall asleep again while vainly trying to recall if he had ever heard Fay speak of any friends of her childhood. But though Erle and Miss Mordaunt tried to help him, no name occurred to any of them.
It was an added burden that Erle could not come to him; but there was trouble at Belgrave House, and the shadows were closing round it. Erle could not leave his uncle, but he wrote very kindly to poor conscience-stricken Hugh, and said all he could to comfort him.
It was in those hours of dreary helplessness that Hugh learned to miss his Wee Wifie. In those long summer afternoons, while his foreign nurse nodded drowsily before him, and the hot air crept sluggishly in at the open window, how he longed for the small cool hand that used to be laid so softly on his temples, or put the drink to his parched lips before they could frame their want. He remembered the hours she had sat beside him, fanning the flies from his pillow or bathing his aching head. She had never left him—never seemed tired or impatient, though her face had grown so pale with watching. Others would have spared her; others told him that she was spent and weary, but he had never noticed it. "And, brute that I was," he thought, "I left her alone in her trouble with only strangers and hirelings about her, to fight her way through the very Valley of the Shadow of Death." He took out her letter and smoothed it out—it was a trick of his when he thought no one would see him. He had read it over until he knew every word by heart. Ah! if Heaven would but spare him this once and give him back the strength he had misused, that he might find her, poor child, and bring her home, and comfort her as only he could comfort her. He would love her now, he thought; yes, if she would only bear with him and give him time, he knew from the deep pity and tenderness which he felt that he would love her yet, for the merciful Providence that had laid the erring man low was teaching him lessons that no other discipline could have inculcated.
The cold December wind was whirling through the bare branches of the oaks and beeches in the Redmond avenue when Sir Hugh came home, a changed and saddened man.
Yes, changed outwardly as well as inwardly. Good Mrs. Heron cried when she saw him enter the hall on Saville's arm, looking so thin and worn, and leaning on his stick.
His youth seemed to have passed away; his smooth forehead was already furrowed like that of a middle-aged man, and his fair hair had worn off it slightly, making him look ten years older; and yet there was that in Hugh Redmond's face, if Margaret could have seen it, that would have filled her pure heart with exceeding thankfulness.
For though the pallor caused by suffering was still there, and those who saw him said Sir Hugh was a broken man, yet there was a nobler expression than it had ever worn in happier days. The old fretful lines round the mouth were gone; and, though the eyes looked sadly round at the old familiar faces, as though missing the truest and best, still, there was a chastened gravity about his whole mien that spoke of a new and earnest purpose; of a heart so humbled at last that it had fled to its best refuge, and had found strength in the time of need.
Many years afterward he owned, to one who was ever his closest friend, that a whole life-time of suffering had been compressed into those few short years that had followed his father's death. The whole plan and purpose of his youth had been marred; his heart wasted by a passion that was denied satisfaction; and lastly, just as he was beginning to turn to his neglected wife with a sympathy and interest that promised well for her future happiness, suddenly he found his name outraged and his home forsaken, and the load and terror of an unbearable remorse laid heavily upon him.
That was a strange winter to Hugh Redmond—the strangest and saddest he had ever passed; when he spent long, solitary days in the old Hall; and only Erle—generous, kind-hearted Erle—came now and then to break his solitude.
Ah! he missed her then.
Sometimes, as he wandered disconsolately through the empty rooms, or sat by his lonely fireside in the twilight, the fancy would haunt him that she would come back to him yet—that the door would open, and a little figure come stealing through the darkness and run into his arms with a low, glad cry. And sometimes, when he stood in her room and saw the empty cot over which she used to hang so fondly, a longing would seize him for the boy whom he had never held in his arms.
By and by, when the spring returned, some of his old strength and vigor came back, and he was able to join personally in the search, when a new zest and excitement seemed added to his life; and in the ardor of the chase he learned to forget Margaret and the shadows of a too sorrowful past.
When the sweet face of his Wee Wifie seemed to lure him on with the sad Undine eyes that he remembered so well; when, with the contrariety of man ever eager for the unattainable, he began to long more and more to see her; when his anger revived, and impatience with it. And, though he hardly owned it to himself, both anger and impatience were born of love.
And is there in God's world so drear a place, Where the loud bitter cry is raised in vain; Where tears of penance come too late for grace, As on the uprooted flower the genial rain.
St. Luke's little summer was over, the ripe golden days that October binds in her sheaf, the richest and rarest of the year's harvest, had been followed by chill fogs—dull sullen days—during which flaring gas-lights burned in Mrs. Watkins's shop even at noonday, and Fern's busy fingers, never willingly idle, worked by the light of a lamp long before the muffin boy and milkman made their afternoon rounds in the Elysian Fields.
Anything further removed from the typical idea of the Elysian Fields could scarcely be imagined than on such an afternoon. It was difficult, even for a light-hearted person, to maintain a uniform cheerfulness where damp exuded everywhere, and the moist thick air seemed to close round one in vaporous folds. Somewhere, no doubt, the sun was shining, and might possibly shine again; but it was hard to realize it—hard to maintain outward or inward geniality under such depressing circumstances.
Fern had turned from the window with an involuntary shudder. Then she lighted her lamp, stirred the fire, and sat down to her embroidery. As her needle flew through the canvas her lips seemed to close with an expression of patient sadness. There were sorrowful curves that no one ever saw, for Fern kept all her thoughts to herself.
Never since the night when she had sobbed out her grief on her mother's bosom, when the utterance of her girlish despair and longing had filled that mother's heart with dismay, never since then had Fern spoken of her trouble. "We will never talk of it again," she had said, when the outburst was over; "it will do no good;" and her mother had sorrowfully acquiesced.
Mrs. Trafford knew that only time, that beneficent healer, could deaden her child's pain. Fern's gentle nature was capable of quiet but intense feeling. Nea's faithful and ardent affections were reproduced in her child. It was not only the loss of her girlish dreams over which Fern mourned. Her woman's love had unconsciously rooted itself, and could not be torn up without suffering. An unerring instinct told her that Erle had not always been indifferent to her; that once, not so very long ago, his friendship had been true and deep. Well, she had forgiven his fickleness. No bitterness rankled in her heart against him. He had been very kind to her; he would not wish her to be unhappy.
But she was very brave. She would not look at the future. The cold blankness, the narrow groove, would have chilled her heart. She only took each day as it came, and tried to do her best with it.
With her usual unselfishness she determined that no one else should suffer through her unhappiness. Her mother's brief hours of rest should be unshadowed. It was a pale little sunbeam whose smiles greeted her of an evening; but it was still a sunbeam. The sweet looks and words and loving attention were still always ready. As Nea watched her child her heart would swell with pride and reverence. She recognized the innate strength and power of self-sacrifice that Maurice had left her as his legacy. "Of all my children, Fern is most like her father," Mrs. Trafford would say; "she is stronger than she looks—she would rather die than tell me again that she is unhappy."
But Fern would not have owned that her life was unhappy as long as she had her mother to love her. She was taking herself to task this afternoon as she sat alone—for Fluff had escaped as usual to Mrs. Watkins's—and was blaming herself for her discontent; and then she sung very softly a verse of her favorite hymn—
"He that thou blessest is our good, And unblest good is ill, And all is right that seems most wrong If it be Thy sweet will."
But almost before she had finished the last line, she was startled by her brother's abrupt entrance.
"Percy! oh, I did not hear you," she faltered, and she turned a little pale, and her heart began to beat more quickly. It was foolish of her, but she never heard Percy's step without listening involuntarily for the quick light tread that used to follow it, but that never came now.
"You are alone," he said, quickly, with a keen glance round the room. "Well, it is best because I wanted to speak to you. Have you heard from Miss Davenport lately, Fern?"
"Yes," she stammered, raising her soft eyes to his face with a pitying expression; "I had a letter the other day."
"Well," impatiently, "does she say when they are coming back?"
"In another fortnight—at least they mean to start then;" and there she stopped, and looked at him very piteously. "How I wish mother would come; she will not be very long, and—and I would rather that you heard it from her."
"Do you mean that you have anything special to tell me?" he asked, struck by her manner.
"Oh, I wish you had not asked me," she returned, clasping her hands; "you are so fond of Crystal, and it will make you terribly unhappy; but mother said we ought to tell you, Percy, dear. There was never any hope for you—you know she always told you so; and now Crystal is married."
"Married!" he almost shouted, and his handsome young face seemed to grow sharp and pale. "Married! Pshaw! you are jesting, Fern."
"Dear Percy," she answered, gently, "do you think I would jest with you on such a subject? Indeed—indeed it is true. She was married some ten days ago to Mr. Ferrers, the blind clergyman, who was staying at Belgrave House. He had come there to look for her. He had known her from a child, and they had long loved each other."
"Married!" he repeated, in the same dull, hard voice, and there was something in his face that made Fern throw her arms round his neck.
"Oh, it is hard," she sobbed; "I know how hard it is for you to hear me say this, but it has to be faced. She never deceived you, dear—she never let you hope for a single moment; she was always true to herself and you. Try to bear it, Percy; try to be glad that her unhappiness is over, and that she is married to the man she loves. It is the only thing that will help you."
"Nothing will help me," he returned, in the same muffled voice; but she would not be repulsed. She swept back the dark hair from his forehead and kissed him. Did she not share his sufferings? Could any one sympathize with him as she could? "Oh, if mother were only here," she sighed, feeling her inability to comfort him. "Mother is so sorry for you, she cried about it the other night."
"Yes," he answered, "mothers are like that;" and then was silent again. What was there he could say?—he was in no mood for sympathy. The touch of Fern's soft arms, her little attempt at consolation, were torture to him. His idol was gone in another man's possession. He should never see again the dark southern loveliness that had so inthralled his imagination; and the idea was maddening to him.
In a little while he rose, but no speech seemed possible to him. A wall of ice seemed to be built up across his path, and he could see no outlet. "I can not stay now," he said, and his voice sounded strange to his own ears. "Will you give my love to my mother, Fern?"
"Oh, do not go," she pleaded, and now the tears were running down her face. "Do stay with me, Percy."
"Not now; I will come again," he answered, releasing himself impatiently; but as he mounted his horse, some impulse made him look up and wave his hand. And then he rode out into the gloom.
It was too early to go home; besides, he did not care to face people. The fog seemed lifting a little. His mare was fresh, and she might take her own road, and follow her own pace—a few miles more or less would not matter to him in this mood.
Black care was sitting behind him on the saddle, and had taken the reins from his hands; and a worse gloom than the murky atmosphere was closing round him.
She had told him that his life was before him—that he could carve out his own future; but as he looked back on his past life—on the short tale of his four-and-twenty years—his heart was sick within him.
What a pitiable part he had played. Was it possible that such a woman as Crystal could ever have loved him? Had not his cowardly desertion of his mother only won her silent contempt? and now it was too late to redeem himself in her eyes.
His fate was frowning on him. His position at Belgrave House had long been irksome to him. His grandfather loved him, but not as he loved Erle; and in his heart he was secretly jealous of Erle—if it had been possible he would have supplanted him. Only he himself knew how he had tempted him, and the subterfuges to which he had stooped. He had encouraged Erle's visits to Beulah Place from motives of self-interest, and had been foiled by Erle's engagement to Evelyn Selby.
How he loathed himself as he thought of it all. Oh! if he could only undo the past. Young as he was, ruin seemed staring him in the face. He had squandered his handsome allowance; his debts were heavy. He had heard his grandfather say that of all things he abhorred gambling; and yet he knew he was a gambler. Only the preceding night he had staked a large sum and had lost; and that very morning he had appealed to Erle to save him from the consequences of his own rashness.
As he rode on, his thoughts seemed to grow tangled and confused. His life was a failure; how was he to go on living? All these years he had fed on husks, and the taste was bitter in his mouth. Oh! if he could make a clean breast of it all. And then he repeated drearily that it was too late.
His reins were hanging loosely on his horse's neck. His high-spirited little mare had been following her own will for more than an hour now, and had relapsed into a walk, as Percy roused himself to see where he was. He found himself on a bridge with the river on either side of him. He was miles away from Belgrave House; and for the moment he was perplexed, and drew up to ask a boy who was loitering on the footpath what bridge it was.
There was a steamer passing; and a little lad had clambered on the parapet to see it go by. Either he overbalanced himself or grew giddy, but, to Percy's horror, there was a sharp scream, and the next moment the child had disappeared.
In an instant Percy was off his horse, and, with the agility of a practiced athlete, had swung himself on the parapet. Yes, he could see the eddy where the child had sunk; and in another moment he had dived into the dark water.
"It was a plucky thing to do, sir," observed a navvy who had seen the whole proceeding, and who afterward retailed it to Erle Huntingdon; "I don't know as ever I saw a pluckier thing in my life. Ay, and the poor young gentleman would have done it too, for any one could see he knew what he was about; for he dived in straight after the child; and then, that dratted steamer—you will excuse me, sir, but one's feelings are strong—what must it do but back to pick up the child; and the poor fellow, he must have struck his head against it, for he went down again. Oh, yes, the child was all right, and the young gentleman would have been all right too, but for that nasty blow; it stunned him, you see."
Yes, it had stunned him; the young ill-spent life was over. Did he call upon his God for succor as he went down into his watery grave? Who knows what cry went up to heaven? The old epitaph that was engraved on the tomb of a notorious ill-liver speaks quaintly of hope in such cases,
"Betwixt the saddle and the ground He mercy sought and mercy found."
and Raby quoted them softly to Crystal as she wept over the fate of her unhappy lover.
"His last act was to try and save another; God only knows how far this would go to redeem a faulty past—God only knows. Do not cry so bitterly, darling. Let us trust him to the All Merciful; and, as the good bishop said to the mother of Saint Augustine, 'the child of so many prayers can not be lost.'"
* * * * *
Erle Huntingdon had passed an anxious, uncomfortable day. Percy's confession of his gambling debts had made him seriously uneasy. It was in his power to help him this once, he had said, with unusual sternness, but he would soon be a married man, and then Percy must look to himself; and Percy, nettled at his tone, had answered somewhat shortly, and in spite of Erle's generosity they had not parted friends.