But this was not all. After luncheon Mr. Huntingdon had called Erle into his study, and had shown him a letter that he had just received from some anonymous correspondent. Some unknown friend and well-wisher had thought it advisable to warn Mr. Huntingdon of his grandson's reckless doings. Erle looked dreadfully shocked as he read it; and the expression of concentrated anger on Mr. Huntingdon's face frightened him still more.
"Perhaps it is not true," he stammered, and then the remembrance of his conversation with Percy silenced him.
"True," returned Mr. Huntingdon, in his hard rasping voice; "do you not see that the writer says he can prove every word? And this is my grandson, whom I have taken out of poverty. Well, well, I might have known the son of Maurice Trafford would never be worth anything."
Strangely unjust words to be spoken of Nea's idolized Maurice, whose pure soul would have revolted against his boy's sins. Erle felt the cruelty of the speech; but he dare not contradict his uncle. What were the Traffords to him now?
There was to be a large gentlemen's dinner-party at Belgrave House that evening. Some East Indian director was to be feted, and several city magnates were to honor it by their presence. Erle wondered that Percy did not make his appearance, for he was always punctual on such occasions; but Mr. Huntingdon did not seem to notice his absence. The guests thought their host looked grayer and more bowed than usual, and that his step was feebler. He was getting an old man now, they said to themselves; and it would not be long before there would be a new master at Belgrave House. Any one could see he was breaking fast, and would not last long. Well, he had done well for himself; and his heir was to be envied, for he would be a rich man, and scarcely needed the splendid dowry that Evelyn Selby would bring him.
The banquet was just drawing to its close when there were signs of some disturbance in the household. The butler whispered to Erle, who immediately left the room, and a few minutes later a message was brought to Mr. Huntingdon.
Something had happened—something dreadful had happened, they told him, and he must come with them at once; and he had shuddered and turned pale.
He was growing old, and his nerves were not as strong as they used to be, and he supported himself with some difficulty as he bowed to his guests with old-fashioned politeness, and, excusing himself, begged his old friend Sir Frederick Drummond to take his place. But as the door closed behind him, and he found himself surrounded by frightened servants, he tottered and his face grew gray.
"You will kill me among you," he muttered. "Where is my nephew? Will none of you fools tell me what is the matter?"
"He's in there," returned the butler, who was looking very scared, and pointing to the library; and the next moment Erle came out with a face as white as death.
"Oh! uncle, uncle, don't go in till they have told you. Percy is there, and—" but Mr. Huntingdon only motioned him aside with his old peremptoriness, and then closed the door upon them.
He knew what he should find there—he knew it when they whispered into his ear that something had happened; and then he walked feebly across the room to the couch, where something lay with strange rigid lines under a satin coverlid that had been flung over it; and as he drew it down and looked at the face of his dead grandson, he knew that the hand of death had struck him also, that he would never get over this—never!
NEA AND HER FATHER MEET AGAIN.
Whence art thou sent from us? Whither thy goal? How art thou rent from us Thou that were whole? As with severing of eyelids and eyes, as with sundering of body and soul. Who shall raise thee From the house of the dead? Or what man shall praise thee, That thy praise may be said? Alas thy beauty! alas thy body! alas thy head! What wilt thou leave me Now this thing is done? A man wilt thou give me, A son for a son, For the light of my eyes, the desire of my life, the desirable one.
ALGERNON C. SWINBURNE.
Erle had followed him into the room, but Mr. Huntingdon took no notice of him. If he could, he would have spoken to him and implored him to leave him, but his tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of his mouth. He wished to be alone with his grandson, to hide from every one, if he could, that he was stricken down at last.
He had loved him, but not as he had loved Erle—the Benjamin of his old age; his son of consolation. He had been stern with him, and had never sought to win his confidence; and now the blood of the unhappy boy seemed crying to him from the ground. And it was for this that he had taken him from his mother, that he should lie there in the prime of his youth with all the measure of his sins filled to the brim. How had he died—but he dared not ask, and no one told him. Erle had indeed said something about a child; but he had not understood any more than he understood that they had sent to tell the mother. Erle's voice, broken with emotion, had certainly vibrated in his ears, but no sense of the words had reached him. If he had known that that mother was already on her way to claim the dead body of her son, he would have hidden himself and his gray hairs.
What a beautiful face it was, he thought; all that had marred it in life was softened now; the sneers, the hard bitter lines, were smoothed away, and something like a smile rested on the young lips. Ah, surely he was at rest now! Some stray hairs clung damply to his temples, and Mr. Huntingdon stooped over him and put them aside with almost a woman's tenderness, and then he sat down on the chair beside him and bowed his gray head in his hands.
He was struck down at last! If his idolized Erle had lain there in Percy's place he could have borne it better. But Nea's boy! What if she should come and require him at his hands! "Come home with your own Nea, father"—had he ever ceased to hear those words?
Had he ever forgotten her standing there in the snow with her baby hidden under her shawl, and her sweet thin face raised to his? Had he ever ceased to love her and yearn for her when his anger was most bitter against her? Surely the demons must have leagued together to keep possession of his soul, or he would never have so hardened himself against her! He had taken her boy from her; he had tempted his youthful weakness with the sight of his wealth, and then he had left him to his own devices. He had not taught him to "wash his hands in innocency, or to take heed to the things that were right." Day and night that boy's dead face, with its likeness to his mother would haunt his memory. Oh, Heaven! that he were indeed childless, that none of these things might have come upon him.
"Uncle Rolf, will you not come away with me?" implored Erle; "the house is quite quiet now, and all the people have gone;" but Mr. Huntingdon only shook his head—he had no strength to rise from his chair, and he could not tell Erle this. The poor boy was terribly alarmed at his uncle's looks; he did not seem to understand anything he said; and what if Mrs. Trafford should take it in her head to come—if only he could get his uncle away.
But even as he framed the wish the door opened noiselessly, and Mr. Huntingdon raised his eyes. A tall woman with gray hair like his, and a pale, beautiful face with an expression on it that almost froze his blood, looked at him for a moment, then silently passed up the room, and with her dress brushing him as he sat there motionless, paused beside the couch. And it was thus that Nea and her father met again. But she did not notice him; there was only one object for her eyes—the still, mute figure of her boy. Silently, and still with that awful look of woe on her face, she drew the dark head into her arms, and laid the dead cheek against her breast; and as she felt the irresponsive weight, the chilled touch, her dried-up misery gave way, and the tears streamed from her eyes.
She was calling him her darling—her only boy.
She had forgotten his cowardly desertion of her; the faults and follies of his youth. Living, he had been little to her, but she claimed the dead as her own. She had forgotten all; she was the young mother again, as she smoothed the dark hair with her thin fingers and pressed the cold face closer to her bosom, as though she could warm the deadly chill of death.
"Nea," exclaimed a feeble voice in her ear. "Nea, he was my boy too." And looking up, she saw the tall bowed figure of her father, and two wrinkled hands stretched out to her. Ah, she was back in the present again. She laid her boy down on the pillow, and drew the quilt tenderly over him; but all the beauty and softness seemed to die out of her face, as she turned to her father.
"My boy," she answered, "not yours; for you never loved him as I did. You tempted him from me, and made him despise his mother; but he is mine now; God took him from you who were ruining him soul and body, to give him back to me."
"Nea," returned the old man with a groan, "I have sinned—I know it now. I have blighted your life; I have been a hard cruel father; but in the presence of the dead there should be peace."
"My life," she moaned; "my life. Ah, if that were all I could have forgiven it long ago; but it was Maurice—Maurice whom you left to die of a broken heart, though I prayed you to come with me. It was my husband whom you killed; and now, but for you my boy would be living."
"Nea, Nea," he wailed again; "my only child, Nea;" but as she turned, moved by the concentrated agony of his voice, he fell with his face downward on the couch, across the feet of his dead grandson.
* * * * *
The doctors who were summoned said that a paralytic seizure had long been impending; he might linger for a few weeks, but it was impossible to say whether he would ever recover full consciousness again.
Erle heard them sadly; he had been very fond of the old man in spite of the tyrannical sway that had ruled him from boyhood. His uncle had been his generous benefactor, and he could not hear of his danger without emotion.
Mrs. Trafford had not left the house from the moment of her father's alarming seizure; she had taken quiet possession of the sick-room, and had only left it to follow her boy to the grave. Fern was there too, but Erle did not speak to her; the crape veil hid her face, and he could only see the gleam of her fair hair shining in the wintery sunlight. The two women had stood together, Fern holding her mother's hand; and when the service was over, Mrs. Trafford had gone back to Belgrave House, and some kindly neighbor had taken the girl home. Erle would gladly have spoken some word of sympathy, but Mrs. Trafford gave him no opportunity. Neither of them knew how sadly and wistfully the poor girl looked after them. Erle's changed looks, his paleness and depression made Fern's heart still heavier; she had not known that he had loved Percy so. She had no idea that it was the sight of her own slim young figure moving between the graves that made Erle look so sad. She was dearer to him than ever, he told himself, as they drove away from the cemetery; and he hated himself as he said it.
He had not seen Evelyn since Percy's death. She was staying at some country house with her aunt, Lady Maltravers, where he was to have joined them; but of course this was impossible under the circumstances; and though he did not like to own to himself that her absence was a relief, he took the opportunity of begging her not to hurry back to London on his account, as his time was so fully occupied with necessary business and watching his poor uncle that he would not be free to come to her.
Evelyn sighed as she read the letter; it sounded a little cold to her. If she were in Erle's place she would have wanted him to come at once. Was it not her right, as his promised wife, to be beside him and try to comfort him? How could she have the heart for these hollow gayeties, knowing that he was sad and troubled? If it had been left to her, she would not have postponed their marriage; she would have gone to church quietly with him, and then have returned with him to Belgrave House to nurse the invalid; but her aunt had seemed shocked at the notion, and Erle had never asked her to do so.
Evelyn was as much in love as ever, but her engagement had not satisfied her; every one told her what a perfect lover Erle was—so devoted, so generous. Indeed, he was perfection in her eyes, but still something was lacking. Outwardly she could find no fault with him, but there were times when she feared that she did not make him happy; and yet, if she ever told him so, he would overwhelm her with kind affectionate speeches.
Yes, he was fond of her; but why was he so changed and quiet when they were alone together? What had become of the frank sunshiny look, the merry laugh, the careless indolence that had always belonged to Erle? She never seemed to hear his laugh now; his light-hearted jokes, and queer provoking speeches, were things of the past. He was older, graver; and sometimes she fancied there was a careworn look on his face. He was always very indignant if she hinted at this—he always refuted such accusations with his old eagerness; but nevertheless Evelyn often felt oppressed by a sense of distance, as though the real Erle were eluding her. The feeling was strong upon her when she read that letter; and the weeks of separation that followed were scarcely happy ones.
And still worse, their first meeting was utterly disappointing. He had come to the station to welcome them, and seen after their luggage, and had questioned about their journey; his manner had been perfectly kind, but there had been no eager glow of welcome in his eyes. Lady Maltravers said he looked ill and wearied, and Evelyn felt wretched. But it was the few minutes during which her aunt had left them together that disappointed her most; he had not taken the seat by her at once, but had stood looking moodily into the fire; and though at her first word he had tried to rouse himself, the effort was painfully evident. "He is not happy; there is something on his mind," thought the poor girl, watching him. "There is something that has come between us, and that he fears to tell me."
Just then he looked up, and their eyes met.
"I am afraid I am awfully stupid this evening, Eva," he said, apologetically; "but I was up late with Uncle Rolf last night."
"Yes," she answered, gently; "I know you have had a terrible time; how I longed to be with you and help you. I did not enjoy myself at all. Poor Mr. Huntingdon; but as you told Aunt Adela, he is not really worse."
"No, he is just the same; perhaps a trifle more conscious and weaker; that is all."
"And there is no hope?"
"None; all the doctors agree in saying that. His health has been breaking for years, and the sudden shock was too much for him. No; it is no use deceiving ourselves; no change can happen but the worst."
"Poor Mrs. Trafford."
"Ah, you would say so if you could see her; Percy's death has utterly broken her down; but she is very brave, and will not spare herself. We think Uncle Rolf knows her, and likes to have her near him; he always seems restless and uneasy if she leaves the room. But indeed the difficulty is to induce her to take needful rest."
"You are looking ill yourself, dear Erle," she returned, tenderly; but at that moment Lady Maltravers re-entered, and Erle looked at his watch.
"I must go now," he said, hastily; and though Evelyn followed him out into the corridor there were no fond lingering words. "Good-bye, Eva; take care of yourself," he said, kissing her; and then he went away, and Evelyn went back into the room with a heavy heart. He had been very kind, but he had not once said that he was glad to see her back; and again she told herself that something had come between them.
But there was no opportunity for coming to any understanding, for the shadows were closing round Belgrave House, and the Angel of Death was standing before the threshold.
Ah! the end was drawing near now. Mr. Huntingdon was dying.
He had never recovered consciousness, or seemed to recognize the faces round him; not even his favorite Erle, or the daughter who fed and soothed him like an infant; and yet in a dim sort of way he seemed conscious of her presence. He would wail after her if she left him, and his withered hands would grope upon the coverlet in a feeble, restless way, but never once did he articulate her name.
He was dying fast, they told Erle, when he had returned home that night; and he had gone up at once to the sickroom and had not left it again.
Mrs. Trafford was sitting by the bed as usual. She was rubbing the cold wrinkled hands, and speaking to him in a low voice; she turned her white, haggard face to Erle as he entered, and motioned him to be quiet, and then again her eyes were fixed on the face of the dying man. Oh! if he would only speak to her one word, if she could only make him understand that she forgave him now!
"I have sinned," he had said to her, "but in the presence of the dead there should be peace;" but she had answered him with bitterness; and then he had fallen across the feet of his dead grandson, with his gray head stricken to the dust with late repentance. And yet he was her father! She stooped over him now and wiped the death dews from his brow; and at that moment another scene rose unbidden to her mind.
She was kneeling beside her husband; she was holding him in her arms, and he was panting out his life on her bosom.
"Nea," she heard him say again in his weak, gasping voice, "do not be hard on your father. We have done wrong, and I am dying; but, thank God, I believe in the forgiveness of sins;" and then he had asked her to kiss him; and as her lips touched his he died.
"Father," she whispered, as she thought of Maurice. "Father!"
The fast glazing eyes turned to her a moment and seemed to brighten into consciousness.
"He is looking at you—he knows you, Mrs. Trafford."
Ah, he knows her at last; what is it he is saying?
"Come home with your own Nea, father—with your own Nea; your only child, Nea;" and as she bends over him to soothe him, the old man's head drops heavily on her shoulder. Mr. Huntingdon was dead.
Look deeper still. If thou canst feel Within thy inmost soul, That thou hast kept a portion back While I have stalked a whole. Let no false pity spare the blow, But in true mercy tell me so.
Is there within thy heart a need That mine can not fulfill? One chord that any other hand Could better wake, or still? Speak now—lest at some future day My whole life wither and decay.
ADELAIDE ANNE PROCTER.
Evelyn Selby stood at the window, one afternoon about three weeks after Mr. Huntingdon's death, looking out on the snowy gardens of the square, where two rosy-faced lads were pelting each other with snow-balls.
She was watching them, seemingly absorbed in their merry play; but every now and then her eyes glanced wistfully toward the entrance of the square with the sober expectancy of one who has waited long, and is patient; but weary.
Erle had once owned to Fay, in a fit of enthusiasm, that Evelyn Selby was as good as she was beautiful; and it was true. Placed side by side with Fern Trafford, and deprived of all extraneous ornament of dress and fashion; most people would have owned that the young patrician bore the palm. Fern's sweet face would have suffered eclipse beside her rival's radiant bloom and graceful carriage; and yet a little of the bloom had been dimmed of late, and the brown eyes had lost their brightness.
As a well-known figure crossed the square, she turned from the window with a sigh of relief; "at last," she murmured, as she sat down and made a pretense of busying herself with some fancy work; but it lay unheeded on her lap as Erle entered and sat down beside her.
"I am afraid I am very late this afternoon, Eva," he said, taking her hand. "Mrs. Trafford wanted to speak to me, and so I went up to her room; we had so much business to settle. She has given me a great deal of trouble, poor woman; but I think I shall have my way at last."
"You mean about the money?"
"Yes; I think she will be induced to let me set aside a yearly sum for her maintenance. She says it is only for her children's sake if she accept it; but I fear the truth is that she feels her strength has gone, and that she can not work for them any longer."
"And she will not take the half?"
"No; not even a quarter; though I tell her that so much wealth will be a heavy burden to me. Eight hundred a year—that is all she will accept, and it is to be settled on her children. Eight hundred; it is a mere pittance."
"Yes; but she and her daughters will live very comfortably on that; think how poor they have been; indeed, dear, I think you may be satisfied that you have done the right thing; and after all, your uncle wished you to have the money."
"I do not care about it," with a stifled sigh. "We shall be awfully rich, Eva; but I suppose women like that sort of thing. I shall be able to buy you that diamond pendant now that you so admired."
"No, no; I do not want it; you give me too many presents. Tell me, Erle, does Miss Trafford come to see her mother, now she is ill?"
"Yes, of course; but I never see her," he answered so quickly that Evelyn looked at him in surprise. "I have not spoken to her once since Uncle Rolf's death—the lawyers keep me so busy; and I never go into the sick-room unless I am specially invited."
"But poor Mrs. Trafford is better now."
"Yes; and Doctor Connor says that it will be better for her to be anywhere than at Belgrave House. We want to persuade her to go down to Hastings for the rest of the winter. When I see Miss Trafford, I mean to speak to her about it; but"—interrupting himself hurriedly—"never mind all that now; you told me in your letter that you wanted to speak to me particularly. What is it, Eva?" looking at her very kindly.
"Yes; I have long wanted to speak to you," she returned, dropping her eyes, and he could see that she was much agitated. "Erle, you must not misunderstand me; I am finding no fault with you. You are always good to me—no one could be kinder; but you are not treating me with perfect frankness."
"What do you mean?" he asked, astonished at this, for no suspicion of her meaning dawned upon him. "You have no fault to find with me. Surely want of frankness is a fault?"
"Yes, but I think it is only your thought for me. You are so anxious that everything should be made smooth and bright for me, that you do not give me your full confidence, Erle"—pressing closer to him, and looking up in his face with her clear, loving eyes. "Do you think that I can love you so and not notice how changed you have been of late—how pale and care-worn? though you have tried to hide from me that you were unhappy."
He pulled his mustache nervously, but he could not answer her.
"How often I have watched for you," she continued, "when your poor uncle's illness has detained you, and have seen you cross the square with your head bent and such a sad look on your face; and yet, when we meet, you have nothing for me but pleasant words, as though my presence had dispelled the cloud."
"And why not, Eva? do you think your bright face would not charm away any melancholy mood?" But she turned away as though not noticing the little compliment. He was always making these pretty speeches to her, but just now they jarred on her. It was truth—his whole confidence—that she wanted; and no amount of soft words could satisfy her.
"You are always good to me—always," she went on; "but you do not tell me all that is in your heart. When no one is speaking to you, I often see such a tired, harassed look on your face, and yet you will never tell me what is troubling you, dear; when we come together—when you make me your wife, will our life be always unclouded; am I to share none of your cares and perplexities then?"
He was silent; how was he to answer her?
"It would not be a true marriage," she continued, in a low, vehement tone, "if you did not think me worthy to share your thoughts. Erle, you are not treating me well; why do you not tell me frankly what makes you so unlike yourself. Can you look me in the face and tell me that you are perfectly happy and satisfied?"
"I am very fond of you; what makes you talk like this, Eva?" but his eyelids drooped uneasily, How was he to meet those candid eyes and tell her that he was happy—surely the lie would choke him—when he knew that he was utterly miserable.
"Erle," she said in a low voice, and her face became very pale, "you do not look at me, and somehow your manner frightens me; you are fond of me, you say—a few months ago you asked me to be your wife; can you take my hand now and tell me, as I understood you to tell me then, that I am dearer to you than any one else in the world?"
"You have no right to put such a question," he returned, angrily. "You have no right to doubt me. I have not deserved this, Eva."
"No right!" and now her face grew paler. "I think I have the right, Erle. You do not wish to answer the question; that is because some one has come between us. It is true, then, that there is some one dearer to you than I am?"
He hid his face in his hands. No, he could not lie to her. Was not Fay's miserable exile a warning to him against marriage without confidence. He would have spared her if he could, but her love was too keen-eyed. He could not take her hand and perjure his soul with a lie; he loved her, but he could not tell her that she was the dearest thing in the world to him.
It all came out presently. He never knew how he told it, but the sad little story of his love for Fern Trafford got itself told at last. Poor Erle, he whose heart was so pitiful that he forbore to tread on the insect in his path, now found himself compelled to hurt—perhaps wound fatally—the girl who had given him her heart.
Evelyn heard him silently to the end. The small white hands were crushed together in her lap, and her face grew white and set as she listened; but when he had finished, and sat there looking so downcast, so ashamed, so unlike himself, her clear, unfaltering voice made him raise his eyes in astonishment. "I thank you for this confidence; if—if—" and here her lips quivered, "we had been married, and you had told me then, I think it would have broken my heart; but now—it is better now."
"And you can forgive me, dear; you can be sorry for me? Oh, Eva! if you will only trust me, all may yet be well. I shall be happier now you know the truth."
"There is nothing to forgive," she answered, quickly; "it is no fault of yours, my poor Erle, and you were always good to me—no," as he tried to interrupt her, "we will not talk of it any more to-day; my head aches, and of course it has upset me. I want to think over what you have said. It seems"—and here she caught her breath—"as though I can hardly believe it. Will you go away now, dear, and come to me to-morrow? To-morrow we shall see how far we can trust each other."
"I must go away if you send me," he answered, humbly; and then he got up and walked to the door. He had never felt more wretched in his life. She had not reproached him, but all the color and life had gone out of her face. She had spoken so mildly, so gently to him. Would she forgive him, and would everything be as though this had never happened? "Oh, Erle, will you not wish me good-bye?" and then for a moment the poor girl felt as though her heart were breaking. Was she nothing to him after all?
At her words Erle quickly retraced his steps. "Forgive me, Eva," he said, and there were tears in his eyes; "I am not myself, you know; all this takes it out of a man." And then he stooped over her as though to take her in his arms.
For an instant she shrunk from him; then she lifted up her face and kissed him. "Good-bye, Erle," she said, "good-bye, my darling. No one will ever love you as I have loved you." And then, as he looked at her wistfully, she released herself and quietly left the room, and no one saw Evelyn Selby again that night.
* * * * *
The following afternoon Fern stood by the window, looking out on the white, snowy road sparkling with wintery sunlight. Her little black bonnet lay on the table beside her, and the carriage that had brought her from Belgrave House had just driven away from the door. Erle had given special orders that it was to be at Miss Trafford's service, and every morning the handsome bays and powdered footman drew a youthful crowd round the side door of Mrs. Watkins's. Sometimes Fern entered the carriage alone, but very often her little sister was with her. Fluff reveled in those drives; her quaint remarks and ejaculations often brought a smile to Fern's sad lips.
Those visits to Belgrave House were very trying to the girl. Mrs. Trafford used to sigh as she watched her changing color and absent looks. A door closing in the distance, the sound of a footstep in the corridor, made her falter and turn pale. But she need not have feared; Erle never once crossed her path. She would hear his voice sometimes, but they never once came face to face. Only one day Fern saw a shadow cross the hall window as she got into the carriage, and felt with a beating heart that Erle was watching her.
That very morning her mother had been speaking to her of Erle's generosity; indeed the subject could not be avoided. "He wanted me to take half his fortune," Mrs. Trafford had said, with some emotion; "he is bitterly disappointed at the smallness of the sum I named; do you think I am right to take anything, Fern? My darling, it is for your sake, and because I have no more strength for work, and I feel I can no longer endure privation for my children."
"I think you are right, mother; it would not be kind to refuse," Fern returned, quietly; and then she tried to feel some interest in the plans Mrs. Trafford was making for the future. They would go down to Hastings for the rest of the winter—Fern had never seen the sea—and then they would look out for some pretty cottage in the country where they could keep poultry and bees, and perhaps a cow, and Fern and she could teach in the village school, and make themselves very busy; and the mother's pale face twitched as she drew this little picture, for there was no responsive light in the soft gray eyes, and the frank, beautiful mouth was silent.
"Yes, mother," she at last answered, throwing her arms round her mother's neck; "and I will spend my whole life in taking care of you."
She was thinking over this conversation now, as she looked out at the snow, when her attention was attracted by a private brougham, with a coronet on the panel, that stopped before Mrs. Watkins's, and the next moment a tall girl, very quietly dressed, entered the house.
Fern's heart beat quickly. Was it possible that it could be Miss Selby? But before she could ask herself the question, there was a light tap at the door, and the girl had entered, and was holding out both her hands to Fern.
"Miss Trafford, will you forgive this intrusion? But I feel as though we knew each other without any introduction. I am Evelyn Selby; I dare say you have heard my name from"—with a pause—"Mr. Huntingdon."
"Oh, yes, I have heard of you," returned Fern, with a sudden blush. This was Erle's future wife, then—this girl with the tall graceful figure and pale high-bred face that, in spite of its unusual paleness, looked very beautiful in Fern's eyes. Ah, no wonder he loved her! Those clear brown eyes were very candid and true. There could be no comparison between them—none!
She had little idea that Evelyn was saying to herself, "What a sweet face! Erle never told me how lovely she was. Oh, my darling, how could you help it? but you shall not be unhappy any longer!"
"Of course I knew who it was," went on Fern, gently; "you are the Miss Selby whom Mr. Erle is to marry. It is very kind of you to come and see me."
Oh, the bitter flush that passed over Evelyn's face; but she only smiled faintly. "Do you know, it is you who have to do me a kindness. It is such a lovely afternoon, and you are alone. I want you to put on that bonnet again and have a drive with me; the park is delicious, and we could have our talk all the same. No, you must not refuse," as Fern colored and hesitated at this unexpected request; "do me this little favor—it is the first I have ever asked you." And Fern yielded.
That drive seemed like a dream to Fern. The setting sun was shining between the bare trees in the park, and giving rosy flushes to the snow. Now and then a golden aisle seemed to open; there was a gleam of blue ice in the distance. Miss Selby talked very quietly, chiefly of Mr. Huntingdon's death and Mrs. Trafford's sudden failure of strength. But as the sunset tints faded and the gray light of evening began to veil everything, and the gas-lights twinkled, and the horses' feet rang out on the frozen road, Evelyn leaned back wearily in her place and relapsed into silence. Either the task she had set herself was harder than she thought, or her courage was failing; but the brave lips were quivering sadly in the dusk.
But as the carriage stopped, she suddenly roused herself. "Ah, are we here?" she said, with a little shiver; "I did not think we should be home so soon." Then turning to the perplexed Fern, she took her hand gently. "You must have some tea with me, and then the brougham shall take you back;" and, without listening to her frightened remonstrance, she conducted her through a large, brilliantly lighted hall and down a narrow corridor, while one of the servants preceded them and threw open a door of a small room, bright with fire-light and lamp-light, where a pretty tea-table was already set.
Fern did not hear the whispered order that Miss Selby gave to the servant, and both question and reply were equally lost on her. "Do not say I have any one with me," she said, as the man was about to leave the room; and then she coaxed Fern to take off her bonnet, and poured her out some tea, and told her that she looked pale and tired. "But you must have a long rest; and, as Aunt Adela is out, you need not be afraid that you will have to talk to strangers. This is my private sanctum, and only my special friends come here."
"I ought to be going home," replied Fern, uneasily; for the thought had suddenly occurred to her that Erle might come and find her there, and then what would he think. As this doubt crossed her mind, she saw Miss Selby knit her brow with a sudden expression of pain; and the next moment those light ringing footsteps, that Fern often heard in her dreams, sounded in the corridor.
Fern put down her cup and rose; "I must go now," she said, unsteadily. But as she stretched out her hand for her bonnet, Erle was already in the room, and was looking from one pale face to the other in undisguised amazement.
"Miss Trafford!" he exclaimed, as though he could not believe his eyes; but Evelyn quietly went up to him and laid her hand on his arm.
"Yes, I have brought her. I asked her to drive with me, and she never guessed the reason; I could not have persuaded her to come if she had. Dear Erle, I know your sense of honor, and that you would never free yourself; but now I give you back this"—drawing the diamond ring from her finger; "it is Miss Trafford's, not mine. I can not keep another woman's property."
"Eva," he remonstrated, following her to the door, for she seemed about to leave them; "I will not accept this sacrifice; I refuse to be set free," but she only smiled at him.
"Go to her, Erle," she whispered, "she is worthy even of you; I would not marry you now even if she refused you, but"—with a look of irrepressible tenderness—"she will not refuse you;" and before he could answer her she was gone.
And Fern, looking at them through a sudden mist, tried to follow Evelyn, but either she stumbled or her strength forsook her. But all at once she found herself in Erle's arms, and pressed closely to him.
"Did you hear her, my darling?" he said, as the fair head drooped on his shoulder; "she has given us to each other—she has set me free to love you. Oh, Fern, I tried so hard to do my duty to her; she was good and true, and I was fond of her—I think she is the noblest woman on God's earth—but it was you I loved, and she found out I was miserable, and now she refuses to marry me; and—and—will you not say one word to me, my dearest?"
How was she to speak to him when her heart was breaking with happiness—when her tears were falling so fast that Erle had to kiss them away. Could it be true that he was really beside her; that out of the mist and gloom her prince had come to her; that the words she had pined to hear from his lips were now caressing her ear.
But Evelyn went up to her room.
It is not ordained in this life that saints and martyrs should walk the earth with a visible halo round their heads; yet, when such women as Margaret Ferrers and Evelyn Selby go on their weary way silently and uncomplaining, surely their guardian angel carries an unseen nimbus with which to crown them in another world.
AUNT JEANIE'S GUEST.
The cooing babe a veil supplied, And if she listened none might know, Or if she sighed; Or if forecasting grief and care, Unconscious solace then she drew, And lulled her babe, and unaware Lulled sorrow too.
All the winter Fay remained quietly at the old Manse, tenderly watched over by her kind old friend and faithful Jean.
For many weeks, indeed months, her want of strength and weary listlessness caused Mrs. Duncan great anxiety. She used to shake her head and talk vaguely to Jean of young folk who had gone into a waste with naught but fretting, and had been in their graves before their friends realized that they were ill; to which Jean would reply, "'Deed and it is the truth, mistress; and I am thinking it is time that Mrs. St. Clair had her few 'broth.'" For all Jean's sympathy found expression in deeds, not words.
Jean seldom dealt largely in soft words; she was somewhat brisk and sharp of tongue—a bit biting, like her moorland breezes in winter time. In spite of her reverential tenderness for Fay, she would chide her quite roughly for what she called her fretting ways. She almost snatched the baby away from her one day when Fay was crying over him.
"Ah, my bonny man," she said, indignantly, "would your mither rain tears down on your sweet face, and make you sair-hearted before your time? Whisht, then, my bairn, and Jean will catch the sunshine for you;" and Jean danced him vigorously before the window, while Fay penitently dried her eyes.
"Oh, Jean, give him back to me. I did not mean to make him cry; the tears will come sometimes, and I can not keep them back. I will try to be good—I will, indeed."
But baby Hugh had no wish to go back to his mother; he was crowing and pulling Jean's flaxen hair, and would not heed Fay's sad little blandishments.
"The bairns are like auld folks," remarked Jean, triumphant at her success, and eager to point a moral; "they can not bide what is not bright. There is a time for everything, as Solomon says, 'a time to mourn and a time to dance;' but there is never a time for a bairn to be sair-hearted; neither nature nor Solomon would hold with that, as Master Fergus would say. Ech, sirs! but he is a fine preacher, is Master Fergus."
Fay took Jean's reproof very humbly. She shed no more tears when her baby was in her arms. It was touching to see how she strove to banish her grief, that the baby smiles might not be dimmed. Jean would nod her head with grim approval over her pile of finely ironed things as she heard Fay singing in a low sweet voice, and the baby's delighted coos answering her. A lump used to come in Jean's throat, and a suspicious moisture to her keen blue eyes, as she would open the door in the twilight and see the child-mother kneeling down beside the old-fashioned cradle, singing him to sleep. "He likes the songs about the angels best," Fay would say, looking up wistfully in Jean's face. "I sing him all my pretty songs, only not the sad ones. I am sure he loves me to do it."
"May be the bairn does not know his mither apart from the women angels," muttered Jean, in a gruff aside, as she laid down her pile of dainty linen. Jean knew more than any one else; she could have told her mistress, if she chose, that it was odd that all Mrs. St. Clair's linen was marked "F. Redmond." But she kept her own counsel.
Jean would not have lifted a finger to restore Fay to her husband. The blunt Scotch handmaiden could not abide men—"a puir-hearted, feckless lot," as she was wont to say. Of course the old master and Mr. Fergus were exceptions to this. Jean worshiped her master; and though she held the doctrine of original sin, would never have owned that Mr. Fergus had a fault. But to the rest of mankind she was suspiciously uncharitable. "To think he drove her from him—the puir bit lammie," she would say; "and yet the law can't have the hanging of him. Redmond, indeed! but he won't own to any such name. It is lucky the old mistress is not ower sharp-sighted—but there, such an idea would never get into her head."
Fay's secret was quite safe with Jean, and, as the weeks and months went on, a feeling of utter security came over her. She hardly knew how time passed. There were hours when she did not always feel unhappy. The truth was, she was for a long time utterly benumbed by pain; a total collapse of mind and body had ensued on her flight from her home. She had suffered too much for her age and strength. Sir Hugh's alarming illness, and her suspense and terror, had been followed by the shock of hearing from his own lips of his love and engagement to Margaret; and, before she could rally her forces to bear this new blow, her baby had been born.
Fay used to wonder sometimes at her own languid indifference. "Am I really able to live without Hugh?" she would say to herself. "I thought it must have killed me long ago, knowing that he does not love me; but somehow I do not feel able to think of it all; and when I go to bed I fall asleep."
Fay was mercifully unconscious of her own heart-break, though the look in her eyes often made Mrs. Duncan weep. When she grew a little stronger her old restlessness returned, and she went beyond the garden and the orchard. She never wandered about the village, people seemed to stare at her so; but her favorite haunt was the falls. There was a steep little path by a wicket-gate that led to a covered rustic bench, where Fay could see the falls above her shooting down like a silver streak from under the single graceful arch of the road-way; not falling sheer down, but broken by many a ledge and bowlder of black rock, where in summer-time the spray beat on the long delicate fronds of ferns.
Fay remembered how she used to stroll through the under-wood and gather the slender blue and white harebells that came peeping out of the green moss, or hunted for the waxy blossoms of the bell-heather; how lovely the place had looked then, with the rowans or witchens, as they called them—the mountain ash of the south, drooping over the water, laden heavily with clusters of coral-like berries, sometimes tinging the snowy foam with a faint rose-tint, and fringed in the background with larch and silver birch; the whole mass of luxuriant foliage nearly shutting out the little strip of sky which gleamed pearly blue through a delicate network of leaves.
It was an enchanting spot in summer or autumn, but even in winter Fay loved it; its solitude and peacefulness fascinated her. But one day she found its solitude invaded. She had been some months at the Manse, but she had not once spoken to the young minister during his brief visits. She had kept to her room with a nervous shrinking from strangers; but she had watched him sometimes, between the services, pacing up and down the garden as though he were thinking deeply.
He was a tall, broad-shouldered young man, with a plain, strong-featured face as rugged as his own mountains; but his keen gray eyes could look soft enough at times, as pretty Lilian Graham knew well; for the willful little beauty had been unable to say no to him as she did her other lovers. It was not easy to bid Fergus Duncan go about his business when he had made up his mind to bide, and as the young minister had decidedly made up his mind that Lilian Graham should be his promised wife, he got his way in that; and Lilian grew so proud and fond of him that she never found out how completely he ruled her, and how seldom she had her own will.
Fay heard with some dismay that Mr. Fergus was coming to live at the Manse after Christmas; she would have to see him at meals, and in the evening, and would have no excuse for retiring into her room. Now, if any visitor came to the Manse, Lilian Graham, or one of her sisters—for there were seven strapping lasses at the farm, and not one of them wed yet, as Mrs. Duncan would say—Fay would take refuge in the kitchen, or sit in the minister's room—anything to avoid the curious eyes and questioning that would have awaited her in the parlor; but now if Mr. Fergus lived there, Lilian Graham would be always there too.
Mr. Fergus was rather curious about Aunt Jeanie's mysterious guest. He had caught sight of Mrs. St. Clair once or twice at the window, and had been much struck with her appearance of youth; and his remark, after first seeing her in the little kirk, had been, "Why, Aunt Jeanie, Mrs. St. Clair looks quite a child; how could any one calling himself a man ill-use a little creature like that;" for Mrs. Duncan had carefully infused into her nephew's ear a little fabled account of Fay's escape from her husband, to which he listened with Scotch caution and a good deal of incredulity. "Depend upon it, there are faults on both sides," he returned, obstinately. "We do not deal in villains now-a-days. You are so soft, Aunt Jeanie; you always believe what people tell you. I should like to have a talk with Mrs. St. Clair; indeed, I think it my duty as a minister to remonstrate with a young wife when she has left her husband."
"Oh, you will frighten the bit lassie, Fergus, if you speak and look so stern," replied his aunt in an alarmed voice. "You see you are only a lad yourself, and may be Lilian wouldn't care to have you so ready with your havers with a pretty young thing like Mrs. St. Clair. Better leave her to Jean and me." But she might as well have spoken to the wind, for the young minister had made up his mind that it was his duty to shepherd this stray lamb.
He had already spoken out his mind to Lilian; the poor little girl had been much overpowered by the sight of Fay in the kirk. Fay's beauty had made a deep impression on her; and the knowledge that her betrothed would be in daily contact with this dainty piece of loveliness was decidedly unpalatable to her feelings.
Lilian was quite aware of her own charms; her dimples and sweet youthful bloom had already brought many a lover to her feet; but she was a sensible little creature in spite of her vanity, and she knew that she could not compare with Mrs. St. Clair any more than painted delf could compare with porcelain.
So first she pouted and gave herself airs when her lover came to the farm, and then, when he coaxed her, she burst into a flood of honest tears, and bewailed herself because Fergus was to live up at the Manse, when no one knew who Mrs. St. Clair might be, for all she had a face like a picture.
"Oh, oh, I see now," returned Fergus, with just the gleam of a smile lighting up his rugged face; "it is just a piece of jealousy, Lilian, because Mrs. St. Clair—to whom I have never spoken, mind you—happens to be a prettier girl than yourself"—which was wicked and impolitic of Fergus.
"But you will be speaking to her, and at every meal-time too, and all the evenings when Mrs. Duncan is up in the minister's room; and it is not what I call fair, Fergus, with me down at the farm, and you always up in arms if I venture to give more than a good-day to the lads."
"Well, you see you belong to me, Lilian, and I am a careful man and look after my belongings. Mrs. St. Clair is one of my flock now, and I must take her in hand. Whisht, lassie," as Lilian averted her face and would not look at him, "have you such a mean opinion of me that you think I am not to be trusted to look at any woman but yourself, and I a minister with a cure of souls; that is a poor look-out for our wedded life." And here Fergus whispered something that brought the dimples into play again; and after a little more judicious coaxing, Lilian was made to understand that ministers were not just like other men, and must be suffered to go their "ain gait."
And the upshot of this conversation was that Fay found herself confronted at the wooden gate one day by a tall, broad-shouldered young man, who she knew was the young minister. Of course he was going to see the falls, and she was about to pass him with a slight bow, when he stopped her and offered his hand. "I think we know each other, Mrs. St. Clair, without any introduction. I am Fergus Duncan, and I have long wanted to be acquainted with Aunt Jeanie's guest;" and then he held open the gate and escorted her back to the Manse.
Fay could not find fault with the young man's bluntness; she had no right to hold herself aloof from Mrs. Duncan's nephew. He must know how she had avoided him all these months, but he seemed too good-humored to resent it. He talked to her very pleasantly about the weather and the falls and his uncle's health, and Fay answered him with her usual gentleness.
They parted in the porch mutually pleased with each other; but the young man drew a long breath when he found himself alone.
"Ech, sirs! as Jean says, but this is the bonniest lass I have ever set eyes on. Poor little Lilian! no wonder she felt herself a bit upset. Come, I must get to the bottom of this; Aunt Jeanie is too soft for anything. Why, the sables she wore were worth a fortune; and when she took off her gloves her diamond and emerald rings fairly blinded one."
Fergus arrived at the Manse with all his traps about a fortnight after this; and when the first few days were over, Fay discovered that she had no reason to dislike Mr. Fergus's company.
He was always kind and good-natured, and took a great deal of notice of the baby. Indeed, he never seemed more content than when baby Hugh was on his knee, pulling his coarse reddish hair, and gurgling gleefully over this new game. Fay began to like him very much when she had seen him with her boy; and after that he found little trouble in drawing her into conversation.
His first victory was inducing her to make friends with Lilian. Fay, who shrunk painfully from strangers, acceded very nervously to this request. But when Lilian came, her shy, pretty manners won Fay's heart, and the two became very fond of each other.
Fergus used to have long puzzled talks with Aunt Jeanie about her protege. "What is to be done about Mrs. St. Clair when Lilian and I are married?" he would ask; "the Manse can not hold us all."
"Eh, lad, that is what Jean and me often say; but then the summer is not here yet, and may be we can find a cottage in Rowan-Glen, and there is Mrs. Dacre over at Corrie that would house them for a bit. Mrs. St. Clair was speaking to me about it yesterday. 'Where do they mean to live when they are married?' she says, quite sensible-like. 'Is there anywhere else I can go to make room for them?' And then she cried, poor bairn, and said she would like to stay in Rowan-Glen."
"Mrs. St. Clair," observed Fergus one day, looking up from his writing, "don't you think people will be talking if you stay away from your husband any longer?" for he had once before said a word to her on the subject, only Fay had been hysterical and had begged him not to go on.
"Oh," she said, turning very pale, and dropping her work, "why will you speak to me of my husband, Mr. Fergus?"
"Because I think you ought to go back to him," he replied, in a quiet, business-like tone; "it is a wife's duty to forgive—and how do you know that your husband has not bitterly repented driving you away from him. Would you harden your heart against a repentant man?"
"My husband does not want me," she returned, and a spasm crossed her face. "Should I have left him if he wanted to keep me? 'One of us must go,' that is what he said."
"Are you sure you understood him?" asked Fergus, but he felt at the moment as though it would relieve his feelings to knock that fellow down; "a man can say a thing when he is angry which he would be sorry to mean in his cooler moments."
"I saw it written," was the low answer; then, with an effort to silence him, "Mr. Fergus, you do not know my husband—you can not judge between us. I was right to leave him; I could not do otherwise."
"Was his name St. Clair?" he asked, somewhat abruptly; and as Fay reddened under his scrutinizing glance, he continued, rather sternly, "please do not say 'Yes' if it be untrue; you do not look as though you could deceive any one."
"My husband's name is St. Clair," replied Fay, with as much displeasure as she could assume. "I am not obliged to tell you or any one else that it is only his second name. I have reasons why I wish to keep the other to myself."
"Thank you, Mrs. St. Clair," answered Fergus, moved to admiration by this frankness and show of spirit; "believe me, it is through no feeling of idle curiosity I put this question, but because I want to help you."
"Yes, I know you are very good," replied Fay, more gently.
"If you would only trust us, and give us your confidence," he continued, earnestly. "Aunt Jeanie is not a woman of the world, but she has plenty of common sense; and forgive me if I say you are very young, and may need guidance. You can not hide from us that you are very unhappy, and that the husband you have left is still dear to you—" But Fay could hear no more; she rose with a low sob and left the room, and Fergus's little homily on wifely forbearance was not finished.
It was so each time that he reopened the subject. Fay would listen up to a certain point, and seem touched by the young minister's kindness and sympathy, but he could not induce her to open her heart to him. She was unhappy—yes, she allowed that; she had no wish to leave her husband, but circumstances had been too strong for her, and nothing would induce her to admit that she had done wrong.
"Who would have thought that little creature had so much tenacity and will," Fergus said to himself, with a sort of vexed admiration, after one of these conversations; "why, Lilian is a big woman compared to Mrs. St. Clair, and yet my lassie has not a tithe of her spirit. Well, I'll bide my time; but it will not be my fault if I fail to have a grip of her yet."
But the spring sunshine touched the ragged tops of Ben-muich-dhui and Ben-na-hourd before Fergus got his "grip."
He was taking his porridge one morning, with an English paper lying beside his plate, when he suddenly started, and seemed all at once very much absorbed in what he was reading. A few minutes afterward, when Fay was stooping over her boy, who lay on the carpet beside her, sprawling in the sunshine, he raised his eyes, and looked at her keenly from under his bent brows; but he said nothing, and shortly afterward went off to his study; and when he was alone, he spread out the paper before him, and again studied it intently.
A paragraph in the second column had attracted his attention—
"A reward of two hundred pounds is offered to any person who can give such information of Lady Redmond and her child as may lead to them being restored to their friends. All communications to be forwarded to Messrs. Green and Richardson, Lincoln's Inn."
And just above—
"Fay, your husband entreats you to return to your home, or at least relieve his anxiety with respect to you and the child. Only come back, and all will be well.
"And Hugh is the baby's name. Ay, my lady, I think I have the grip of you at last," muttered Fergus, as he drew the inkstand nearer to him.
The next morning, Messrs. Green and Richardson received a letter marked "private," in which the writer begged to be furnished without delay with full particulars of the appearance of the missing Lady Redmond, and her age and the age of the child; and the letter was signed, "Fergus Duncan, the Manse, Rowan-Glen."
UNDER THE ROWANS.
My wife, my life. O we will walk this world, Yoked in all exercise of noble end, And so thro' those dark gates across the wild That no man knows. Indeed I love thee: come,
* * * * *
Lay thy sweet hands in mine and trust to me.
Fergus was not kept long in suspense; his letter was answered by return of post. Messrs. Green and Richardson had been evidently struck with the concise, businesslike note they had received, and they took great pains in furnishing him with full particulars, and begged that, if he had any special intelligence to impart, he would write direct to their client, Sir Hugh Redmond, Redmond Hall, Singleton.
After studying Messrs. Green and Richardson's letter with most careful attention, Fergus came to the conclusion that it would be as well to write to Sir Hugh Redmond. He was very careful to post this letter himself, and, though he confided in no one, thinking a secret is seldom safe with a woman, he could not hide from Lilian and Aunt Jeanie that he was "a bit fashed" about something.
"For it is not like our Fergus," observed the old lady, tenderly, "to be stalking about the rooms and passages like a sair-hearted ghost."
Sir Hugh was sitting over his solitary breakfast, with Pierre beside him, when, in listlessly turning over his pile of letters, the Scotch postmark on one arrested his attention, and he opened it with some eagerness. It was headed, "The Manse, Rowan-Glen," and was evidently written by a stranger; yes, he had never heard the name Fergus Duncan.
"DEAR SIR," it commenced, "two or three days ago I saw your advertisement in the 'Standard,' and wrote at once to your solicitors, Messrs. Green and Richardson, begging them to furnish me with the necessary particulars for identifying the person of Lady Redmond. The answer I received from them yesterday has decided me to act on their advice, and correspond personally with yourself. My aunt, Mrs. Duncan, has had a young married lady and her child staying with her all the winter. She calls herself Mrs. St. Clair, though I may as well tell you that she has owned to me that this is only her husband's second name"—here Hugh started, and a sudden flush crossed his face.
"She arrived quite unexpectedly last September. She had been at the Manse as a child, with her father, Colonel Mordaunt;" here Hugh dropped the letter and hid his face in his hands. "My God, I have not deserved this goodness," rose to his lips; and then he hastily finished the sentence, "and she begged my aunt to shelter her and the child, as she had been obliged to leave her husband; and as she appeared very ill and unhappy, my aunt could not do otherwise.
"The particulars I have gleaned from Messrs. Green and Richardson's letter have certainly led me to the conclusion that Mrs. St. Clair is really Lady Redmond. Mrs. St. Clair is certainly not nineteen, and her baby is eleven months old; she is very small in person—indeed, in stature almost a child; and every item in the lawyer's letter is fully corroborated.
"We have not been able to gain any information from Mrs. St. Clair herself; she declines to explain why she has left her home, and only appears agitated when questions are put to her. Her fixed idea seems to be that her husband does not want her. Her health has suffered much from ceaseless fretting, but she is better now, and the child thrives in our mountain air.
"As the sight of your handwriting would only excite Mrs. St. Clair's suspicions, it would be as well to put your answer under cover, or telegraph your reply. I need not tell you that you will be welcome at the Manse, if you should think it well to come to Rowan-Glen—I remain, dear sir, yours faithfully,
A few hours later a telegram reached the Manse.
"I am on my way; shall be at the Manse to-morrow afternoon. No doubt of identity; unmarried name Mordaunt.
"Aunt Jeanie must be taken into counsel now," was Fergus's first thought as he read the telegram; his second was, "better sleep on it first; women are dreadful hands at keeping a secret. She would be fondling her with tears in her dear old eyes all the evening, and Mrs. St. Clair is none so innocent, in spite of Jean and Lilian calling her a woman-angel. Ay, but she is a bonnie lassie, though, and brave-hearted as well," and the young minister's eyes grew misty as he shut himself up in the study to keep himself safe from the temptation of telling Aunt Jeanie.
He had a sore wrestle for it, though; but he prided himself on his wisdom, when, after breakfast the next morning, he led the old lady into the study, and, after bidding her prepare for a shock, informed her that Mrs. St. Clair's husband, Sir Hugh Redmond, would be down that very afternoon.
He might well call Aunt Jeanie soft, to see her white curls shake tremulously, and the tears running down her faded cheeks.
"Eh, my lad—eh, Fergus," she sobbed, "Mrs. St. Clair's husband—the father of her bairn. Oh, whatever will Jean say? she will be for running away and hiding them both—she can not bide the thought of that man."
"Aunt Jeanie," broke in Fergus in his most masterful voice, "I hope you will not be so foolish as to tell Jean; remember I have trusted this to you because I know you are wise and sensible, and will help me. We have made ourselves responsible for this poor child, and shall have to account to Sir Hugh if we let her give us the slip. I have said all along that no doubt there were faults on both sides, only you women will take each other's parts. Now, I am off to the farm to see Lilian. Just tell Jean that I am expecting a friend, and she had better choose a fine plump pair of chicks for supper; she will be for guessing it is Lothian or Dan Ambleby, or one of the old lot, and she will be so busy with her scones and pasties that one will hardly venture to cross the kitchen." And then, begging her to be careful that Mrs. St. Clair might not guess anything from her manner, Fergus strode off to the farm to share his triumph and perplexities with Lilian.
It was well for Aunt Jeanie that Fay was extremely busy that day, finishing a frock for her baby; so she sat in her own room all the morning at the window overlooking the orchard, and baby Hugh, as usual, crawled at her feet.
He was a beautiful boy now, with the fresh, fair complexion of the Redmonds, with rough golden curls running over his head, and large, solemn gray eyes. Fay had taught him to say "dada," and would cover him with passionate kisses when the baby lips fashioned the words. "Yes, my little boy shall go home to his father some day, when he can run about and speak quite plain," she would tell him; and at the thought of that day, when she should give him up to Hugh, she would bury her face in the fat creasy neck, and wet it with tears. "How would she ever live without her little child?" she thought; but she knew, for all that, that she would give him up.
When Fergus returned to luncheon, he found Aunt Jeanie had worked herself almost into a fever—her pretty old face was flushed and tremulous, her eyes were dim when Fay came into the room carrying her boy.
"He is far too heavy for you, Mrs. St. Clair," exclaimed Fergus, hastening to relieve her. "I know mothers' arms are generally strong, but still this big fellow is no light weight. What are you going to do with yourself this afternoon? Aunt Jeanie always takes a nap in Uncle Donald's room, but I suppose you have not come to the age for napping."
"No," returned Fay with a smile; "but Jean has finished her preparation for the strange gentleman, and she wants to take baby down to Logill; Mrs. Mackay has promised her some eggs. It will do the boy good, will it not, Mrs. Duncan?" turning to the old lady; "and as I have been working all the morning, and it is such a lovely afternoon, I think I will go down to the falls."
"That is an excellent idea," returned Fergus with alacrity before his aunt could answer. He had to put down the carver to rub his hands, he was so pleased with the way things were turning out—Mrs. St. Clair safely at the falls, where they knew exactly where to find her; Jean, with the boy and her basket of eggs comfortably occupied all the afternoon; and Aunt Jeanie obliged to stay with Uncle Donald. Why, he would have the coast clear and no mistake. Sir Hugh would have no difficulty in making his explanations with the Manse parlor empty of its womankind.
He had received a second telegram, and knew that the expected visitor might be looked for in an hour's time; but it was long before that that he saw Jean with the boy in one arm, and the basket on the other, strike out bravely down the Innery Road, from which a cross lane led in the direction of the village where the accommodating Mrs. Mackay lived.
A few minutes later Mrs. St. Clair passed the parlor window. It was a lovely May day, and she wore a dainty spring dress—a creamy silky fabric—and a little brown velvet hat, which particularly suited her. As she saw Fergus, she looked up and smiled, and then called Nero to order as he scampered amongst the flower beds.
"Ay, my lady, I have my grip of you now," he observed, with a gleam in his eyes, as he turned away.
About twenty minutes later he heard the click of the gate, and saw a tall, fair-bearded man, in a tweed traveling suit, walking up the steep little path, and casting anxious glances at the windows. Mrs. Duncan saw him too.
"Ay, but he is a goodly man," she said, half aloud. "I like a man to walk as though all the world belongs to him;" and for the first time a doubt crossed her mind, whether Fay's childishness may not have been to blame; for Hugh Redmond's handsome face and frank, careless manner always found favor in women's eyes.
Fergus felt himself impressed by Sir Hugh's lordly bearing; he felt an awkward, raw-boned Scotchman beside this grand-looking aristocratic man. As he went out into the porch, Sir Hugh put out his hand, and said, in a quick, agitated voice, "Mr. Duncan, you have made me your debtor for life, but we will talk of that presently. Will you take me to my wife, please?"
"Certainly, but Mrs. St. Clair—Lady Redmond, I mean—has gone down to the Rowans—the falls over yonder; shall we walk there at once, or will you come in and rest a little?" moved by the pale harassed look of the face before him. "You have had a long journey, Sir Hugh, and perhaps you would like to get rid of the dust."
"No, I can not rest until I have seen my wife; you will understand my feelings, I am sure, Mr. Duncan;" and Fergus took down his hat from the peg, and said gravely that he could well understand them. "It is only a step," he continued, "and I will just walk with you to the gate. The Rowans is Lady Redmond's favorite haunt; she thinks there is no place to compare with the falls. You will find no difficulty if you follow the little path"—but with that rare intuition that belongs to a sympathetic character, Fergus said no more. He could see that Sir Hugh was much agitated at the thought of the impending meeting; and directly they reached the wicket-gate leading to the falls, he pointed to the path, and retraced his steps to the Manse.
Hugh gave a sigh of relief as he found himself alone. His hand shook a little as he unlatched the gate. As he passed the covered rustic seat he noticed a few sprays of withered heather that had been lying there since last year. Perhaps Fay had gathered them.
He hesitated a moment—should he wait for her here or seek her further? A trifle decided him. Among the raspberry bushes that tangled the underwood was a little bunch of wild flowers caught on a bramble. The floral message seemed to lure him onward, and he followed the narrow, winding path. By and by he came to a little green nook of a place as full of moss and sunshine as a nest; there was a great pool near it, where some silver trout were leaping and flashing in the light. The whole spot seemed to come before him strangely. Had he seen it in a dream?
He crept along cautiously. He fancied he had caught a white gleam between the trees that was neither sunshine nor water. He groped his way through the underwood, putting the branches back that they might not crackle, and then all at once he stood still; for he saw a little runlet of a stream making dimples of eddies round a fallen tree, and a great silver birch sweeping over it; and there, in her soft spring dress, with the ripples of golden-brown hair shining under her hat, was his lost Wee Wifie. She had floated a rowan-branch on the stream and was watching it idly, and Nero, sitting up on his haunches beside his little mistress, was watching it too.
Hugh's heart beat faster as he looked at her. He had not admired her much in the old days, and yet how beautiful she was. Either his taste had changed or these sad months had altered her; but a fairer and a sweeter face he owned to himself that he had never seen, and all his man's heart went out to her in in a deep and pitiful love. Just then there was a crackling in the bushes and Nero growled, and Fay, looking up startled, saw her husband standing opposite to her.
In life there are often strange meetings and partings; moments that seem to hold the condensed joy or pain of years. One grows a little stony—a little colorless. There are flushes perhaps, a weight and oppression of unshed tears, and a falter of questions never answered; but it is not until afterward that full consciousness comes, that one knows that the concentrated essence of bitterness or pleasure has been experienced, the memory of which will last to our dying days. It was so with Fay when she looked up from her mossy log and saw Hugh with his fair-bearded face standing under the dark larches. She did not faint or cry out, but she clasped her little hands, and said piteously, "Oh, Hugh, do not be angry with me. I tried so hard to be lost," and then stood and shivered in the long grass.
"You tried so hard to be lost," he said, in a choked voice. "Child, child, do you know what you have done; you have nearly broken my heart as well as your own. I have been very angry, Fay, but I have forgotten it now; but you must come back to me, darling, for I can not live without my Wee Wifie any more;" and as she hid her face in her trembling hands, not daring to look at him, he suddenly lifted the little creature in his arms; and as Fay felt herself drawn to his breast, she knew that she was no longer an unloved wife.
* * * * *
She was calmer now. At his words and touch she had broken into an agony of weeping that had terrified him; but he had soothed her with fond words and kisses, and presently she was sitting beside him with her shy, sweet face radiant with happiness, and her hands clasped firmly in his. He had been telling her about his accident, and his sad solitary winter, and of the heart-sickness that he had suffered.
"Oh, my darling, will you ever forgive me?" she whispered. "It was for your sake I went. How could I know that you would miss me so—that you really wanted me? it nearly killed me to leave you; and I do not think I should have lived long if you had not found me."
"My child," he said, very gravely and gently, "we have both done wrong, and must forgive each other; but my sin is the heavier. I was older and I knew the world, and I ought to have remembered that my child-wife did not know it too. If you had not been so young you would never have left me, but now my Wee Wifie will never desert me again."
"No, never. Oh," pressing nearer to him with a shudder, "to think how you have suffered. I could not have borne it if I had known."
"Yes," he said, lightly, for her great, beautiful eyes were wide with trouble at the recollection, and he wanted to see her smile, "it has changed me into a middle-aged man. Look how my hair has worn off my forehead, and there are actually gray hairs in my beard. People will say we look like father and daughter when they see us together."
"Oh," she returned, shyly, for it was not quite easy to look at him—Hugh was so different somehow—"I shall not mind what people say. Now I have my own husband back, it will not matter a bit to me how gray and old you are." Then, as Hugh laughed and kissed her, she said in a very low voice, "Do you really mean that you can be content with me, Hugh; that I shall not disappoint you any more?"
"Content," he answered, fondly, "that is a poor word. Have I ever really deserved you, sweetheart; but I mean to make up for that. You are very generous, Fay; you do not speak of Margaret—ah, I thought so," as her head drooped against his shoulder—"she is in your mind, but you will not venture to speak of her."
"I am so afraid you must regret her, Hugh."
And Hugh, with a shade of sadness on his fine face, answered, slowly:
"If I regret her, it is as I regret my lost youth. She belongs to my old life; now I only reverence and cherish her memory. Darling, we must understand each other very clearly on this point, for all our unhappiness springs from that. We must have no secrets, no reservations in our future life; you must never fear to speak to me of Margaret. She was very dear to me once, and in some sense she is dear to me still, but not now, thank God, so precious in my eyes as the wife He has given me." Then, as she put her arms round his neck and thanked him with innocent, wifely kisses, he suddenly pressed her to him passionately, and asked her to forgive him, for he could never forgive himself.
Then, as the evening shadows crept into the green nest, Fay proposed timidly that they should go back to the Manse, for she wanted to show Hugh their boy; and Hugh consented at once. And hand in hand they went through the tangled underwood and past the shimmering falls; and as Hugh looked down on his little wife and saw the new sweet womanliness that had grown on her with her motherhood, and the meek purity of her fair young face, he felt a proud happiness thrilling within him, and knew that it was God-given, and that its blessing would last him throughout his whole life.
KNITTING UP THE THREADS.
Day unto day her dainty hands Make life's soil'd temples clean, And there's a wake of glory where Her spirit pure hath been. At midnight through that shadow land Her living face doth gleam, The dying kiss her shadow, and The dead smile in her dream.
A little later, Jean, honest woman, suffered an electric shock. She was brushing out baby Hugh's curls, that had been disordered by the walk, when she thought she heard Mrs. St. Clair's footsteps, only it was over-quick like, as she remarked later, "like a bairn running up the stairs," but she fairly shook with surprise when the door opened, and a rosy, dimpled, smiling creature stood before her.
"Give me the baby, Jean, quick—no, never mind his sash, he looks beautiful. My husband has come, and he wants to see him. Yes, my boy! Father has come"—nearly smothering him with kisses, which baby Hugh returned by mischievous grabs at her hair.
"Ech, sirs," began Jean, turning very red; but before she could give vent to her surprise, a big, grand-looking man suddenly entered the old-fashioned room, and took mother and child in his arms before her very eyes.
Jean vanished precipitately, and Mrs. Duncan found her an hour afterward, basting the fowls with a skewer, while the iron ladle lay at her feet, and with a stony, impassive expression on her face which always meant strong disapproval with Jean.
"Well, Jean," remarked her mistress cheerily, while her white curls bobbed with excitement, "have you heard the news, my woman? That pretty creature has got her husband, and he is as fine a man as one could ever set eyes on, and that is all a mistake about his not wanting her—a parcel of childish rubbish.
"Hoots, lass," as Jean remained glum and silent, and only picked up the iron spoon with a toss of her head, "you do not look overpleased, and yet we are bidden to rejoice with them that do rejoice. Why, he is a baronet, Jean, and as rich as Croesus, and she is Lady Redmond, bless her dear heart! Why, I went into the nursery just now, and it was just a lovely sight, as I told Fergus. The bairn had been pulling at her hair, and down it came, a tumbling golden-brown mass over her shoulders like the pictures of a woman-angel, and she just laughed in her sonsie way, and tried to gather it up, only Sir Hugh stopped her. 'Let it be, Fay, you look beautiful so,' he says, worshiping her with his eyes. Oh, it was good to hear him; and then he looks up and sees me, and such a smile comes to his face. Oh, we understood each other." But to all this Jean apparently turned a deaf ear, only when her mistress had finished, but not a moment before, she answered, crossly, how was the tea-supper to be ready for the gentry if folks hindered her with their clavers, at which hint Mrs. Duncan, judging which way the wind blew, prudently withdrew.
But the moment the door closed on her mistress, Jean sat down, and throwing her rough apron over her head, had a good cry.
"Woman-angel indeed," she sobbed, "and how am I to bide without her and the bairn, and they the verra light of the house—as the saying is?"
But Jean's grief did not hinder her long. The fowls were done to a turn, and the rashers of ham grilled to a delicate brown; the tea-supper, always an institution at the Manse, looked a most inviting meal, with piles of oat-cake, freshly baked scones, and other bread stuff, the best silver tea-pot hooded in its satin cozy, and the kettle singing on its brass tripod.
Sir Hugh looked on at the preparations with the zest of a hungry traveler as he sat in the old minister's arm-chair talking to Fergus; but every moment his eyes turned expectantly to the door. The young Scotchman smiled as he patted Nero, for he knew their guest was only giving him scant attention.
"I hope Aunt Jeanie is content with 'the brutal husband' now," he thought, with a chuckle of amusement. "I wonder what my lady is doing all this time."
My lady had been extremely busy. First she had put up the hair that baby Hugh's naughty little fingers had pulled down; then she had gone in quest of a certain dress that reposed at the top of one of the trunks. Janet had insisted on packing it, but she had never found an opportunity of wearing it. It was one of those dainty, bewildering combinations of Indian muslin and embroidery and lace, that are so costly and seductive; and when Fay put it on, with a soft spray of primroses, she certainly looked what Fergus called her, "Titania, queen of all the fairies."
Both the men absolutely started when this brilliant little vision appeared in the homely Manse parlor. Fergus clapped his big hands softly together and said "Ech, sirs!" under his breath; but Sir Hugh, as he placed a chair for her, whispered in Fay's ear, "I am afraid I have fallen in love with my own wife"—and it was delicious to hear Fay's low laugh in answer.
What a happy evening that was; and when, some two or three hours later, Fay stood in the moonlight watching Hugh go down the road on his way to the inn, for there was no room for him in the Manse, the parting words were ringing in her ears, "Good-night, my dear one, and dream of me."
Ah, they were happy tears that Jean's woman-angel shed by her boy's cot that night; what prayers, what vows for the future went up from that pure young heart, that at last tasted the joy of knowing itself beloved. As for Hugh, a waking dream seemed to banish sleep from his eyes. He could see it all again—the green sunshiny hollow, and the shining pool—a little listless figure standing under the silver birch. A tremulous voice breaks the silence—"oh, Hugh, I tried so hard to be lost, do not be angry with me"—No, no, he will not go back to that. Stay, he is in the Manse parlor—the door opens—there is Titania in her spring dress, all smiles and blushes; his Wee Wifie is transformed into the queen of all the fairies. "God bless her, and make me worthy of her love," he thinks, humbly, as he recalls her sweet looks and words; and with that brief prayer he slept.
Fay would willingly have remained for a few days with her friends at the Manse; she wanted to show Hugh all her favorite haunts, and to make him better acquainted with the good Samaritans who had so generously sheltered her; but Hugh was anxious to have his wife to himself and to get over the awkwardness of the return home. He would bring her back in the autumn he promised her; and with that Fay consoled poor Jean.
As for Fergus, he had reason to bless Aunt Jeanie's hospitality; for Sir Hugh overwhelmed the inhabitants of the Manse with liberal tokens of his gratitude—Aunt Jeanie, Fergus, Jean, even pretty Lilian Graham, reaped the effects of English munificence. Fay had carte blanche to buy anything or everything she thought suitable. Silk dresses, furs, books, and a telescope—long the ambition of the young minister—all found their way to the Manse; not to mention the princely gift that made the young couple's path smooth for many a year to come. Want of generosity had never been a Redmond failing. Hugh's greatest pleasure was to reward the people who had sheltered his lost darling.
It was a painful moment for Hugh's proud nature when he first crossed the threshold of his old Hall, with Fay looking shy and downcast beside him, but Fay's simplicity and childishness broke the brief awkwardness; for the moment she saw Mrs. Heron's comely face she threw her arms round her neck with a little sob, and there was not a dry eye among the assembled servants when she said in her clear young voice—"Oh, how glad I am to be amongst you all again. Was it not good of my husband to bring me back? You must all help me to make up to him for what he has suffered."
"It was too much for the master," observed Ellerton afterward, "he just turned and bolted when my lady said that—a man does not care to make a fool of himself before his servants; he would have stood by her if he could, but his feelings were too much for him, and you see he knew that he was to blame."
But Fay would allow nothing of the kind, when she followed him into the library, and saw him sitting with his face hidden on his folded arms, and the evening sunshine streaming on his bowed figure.
Fay stood looking at him for a moment, and then she quietly drew his head to her shoulder—much as though he were baby Hugh, and wanted her motherly consolation.
"My darling husband," she whispered, "I know it is all my fault, but you have forgiven me—you must not let me make you unhappy."
"Oh," he said, bitterly, "to think I have brought my wife to this that she should need to apologize to her own servants. But then they all know you are an angel."
But she would not let him talk like this. What were his faults to her—was he not her husband? If he had ill-used her, would she not still have clung to him? "Dear, it is only because of your goodness and generosity that I am here now," she said, kissing his hand; "you need not have looked for me, you know;" and then she made him smile by telling him of Ellerton's quaint speeches; and after that he let himself be consoled.
Years afterward he told her, that the days that followed their return home were their real honey-moon, and she believed him; for they were never apart.
Bonnie Bess hailed her mistress with delight, and Fay resumed her old rides and drives; only her husband was always with her. Hugh found out, too, that her clear intelligence enabled her to enter into all his work, and after that he never carried out a plan without consulting her; so that Fay called herself the busiest and happiest little woman in the world.
* * * * *
And what of Margaret?
In one of the most crowded courts of the East End of London there is a sister who is known by the name of "Our Sister," though many patient, high-souled women belonging to the same fraternity work there too.
But "Our Sister" is, par excellence, the favorite, from the crippled little road-sweeper who was run over in Whitechapel Road to the old Irishwoman who sold oranges by day, and indulged in free fights with others of her sex at night. "And the heavens be her bed, for she is a darlint and an angel," old Biddy would say; and it would be "tread on the tail of my coat"—for it was an Irish quarter—if any man or boy jostled "Our Sister" ever so lightly.
"Our Sister" used to smile at the fond credulity and blind worship of these poor creatures. She was quite unconscious that her pale, beautiful face, bending over them in sickness, was often mistaken for the face of an angel. "Will there be more like you up yonder?" exclaimed one poor girl, a Magdalene dying, thank God, at the foot of the Cross; "if so, I'll be fine and glad to go."
"What do they do without you up there, honey?" asked another, an old negro woman whose life had been as black as her skin; "they will be wanting you bery much, I'm thinking;" and little Tim, dying of his broken bones, whispered as "Our Sister" kissed him, "I am wishing you could die first, Sister, and then it would be first-rate, seeing you along with the gentry at the Gate;" for, to Tim's ignorant mind, the gentry of heaven were somewhat formidable. "And what must I say to them, plase your honor? when they come up and says 'Good-morning, Tim;' but if Sister were along of them she would say, 'It is only Tim, and he never learned manners nohow.'"
Raby would come down sometimes, bringing his wife with him, and talk to Margaret about her work.
"You are very happy, dear," he said one day to her; "I have often listened to your voice, and somehow it sounds satisfied."
"Yes," she returned, quietly, "quite satisfied. Does that sound strange, Raby? Oh, how little we know what is good for us. Once I thought Hugh's love was everything, but I see now I was wrong. I suppose I should have been like other women if I had married him; but I should not have tasted the joy I know now. Oh, how I love my children—dirty, degraded, sinful as they are; how I love to spend myself in their service. God has been good to us, and given us both what He knew we wanted," and Raby's low "Amen" was sufficient answer.
There was one who would willingly have shared Margaret's work, and that was Evelyn Selby; but her place was in the world's battle-field, and she kept to her post bravely.
Fern, in her perfect happiness, often thought tenderly of the girl to whose noble generosity she owed it all; but for some years she and Evelyn saw little of each other. Fern often heard of her visits to the cottage where her mother and Fluff lived. She and Mrs. Trafford had become great friends. When Evelyn could snatch an hour from her numerous engagements, she liked to visit the orphanage where Mrs. Trafford worked. Some strange unspoken sympathy had grown up between the girl and the elder woman.