"Yes," he returned, with a sigh, "I shall have plenty to show you, Fay, but now let me help you off with those furs, and lift you out."
Fay shook herself free of the heavy wraps, and then sprung lightly to the ground; and with her head erect like a little queen, stepped over the threshold of her new home with her hand still in her husband's.
The circle of men and women gathered in the great hall, with the housekeeper and gray-haired butler at their head, thrilled with a vague surprise and wonder at the sight of the childish figure beside their master.
"Good evening to you all," said Hugh, trying to speak cheerfully, though there was a huskiness in his pleasant voice that was foreign to it. "You see I have brought home your new mistress at last, Ellerton. Mrs. Heron," shaking hands with her, "you must give Lady Redmond a hearty welcome."
"Yes, indeed, Sir Hugh," and the stately housekeeper folded her plump hands and looked complacently at the pretty face before her. "A thousand welcomes both to you and her ladyship, Sir Hugh, and a long life and a happy one to you both."
But the housekeeper, as she ended her little speech with an elaborate courtesy, was marveling in her kindly heart what on earth had possessed her master to bring this lovely child to be the mistress of Redmond Hall.
"Thank you, very much," returned Fay, timidly, and her sweet face flushed as she spoke. "I trust we shall soon become good friends. I know how you all love my dear husband, and I hope in time that you will be able to love me too for his sake."
"There can be no doubt of that, I should think, Mrs. Heron," returned Sir Hugh, moved in spite of himself; and at his tone the shy fingers closed more tightly round his. Those who were standing by never forgot Fay's look, when the girl-wife raised her beautiful eyes to her husband's face.
"And now," continued Sir Hugh, "you are very tired, Fay, but our good Mrs. Heron will show you your rooms, that you may rest and refresh yourself after your long journey. This is your maid, I believe," turning to a fresh, bright-looking girl behind him; then, as Fay obediently left him, "What time will dinner be served, Ellerton?"
"At a quarter to eight, Sir Hugh."
"Very well; I hope there are lights and a fire in the study."
"Yes, Sir Hugh, and in the damask drawing-room as well." But his master did not seem to hear him, as he walked slowly across the hall on his way to his dressing-room.
IN THE BLUE NESTIE.
....This perhaps was love— To have its hands too full of gifts to give For putting out a hand to take a gift, To have so much, the perfect mood of love Includes, in strict conclusion, being loved; As Eden dew went up and fell again, Enough for watering Eden, obviously She had not thought about his love at all. The cataracts of her soul had poured themselves, And risen self-crown'd in rainbow; would she ask Who crown'd her?—it sufficed that she was crown'd.
E. B. BROWNING.
Redmond Hall was a curious old house; it had been built originally in Gothic style, but an aspiring Redmond, who was ignorant of the laws of architecture and not possessed with the spirit of uniformity, had thrown out windows and added wings that savored strongly of the Tudor style, while here and there a buttress or arch was decidedly Norman in its tendency.
To a connoisseur this medley of architecture was a great eye-sore, but to the world in general the very irregularity of the gray old pile added to its picturesque entirety, and somehow the effect was very pleasing.
The various owners of the Hall, holding all modern innovations in abhorrence, had preserved its antiquity as far as possible by restoring the old carvings and frescoes that were its chief ornaments. The entrance-hall was of noble dimensions, with a painted ceiling, and a great fire-place surrounded by oaken carvings of fruit and flowers, the work of Gibbon, with the Redmond motto, "Fideles ad urnam," in the center.
The walls were adorned with stags' antlers, and other trophies of the chase, while implements of warfare, from the bow and arrow to the modern revolver, were arranged in geometrical circles round the battered suits of armor.
The dwelling-rooms of the house, with the exception of the drawing-room and billiard-room, were long and low, with the same painted ceilings and heavy oak carvings; and some of the windows, especially in the library and morning-room, were furnished with such deep embrasures, as to form small withdrawing rooms in themselves, and leave the further end of the apartment in twilight obscurity even on the brightest summer's day.
Many people were of opinion that the old Hall needed complete renovation, but Sir Wilfred had cared little for such things. In his father's time a few of the rooms had been modernized and refurnished, the damask drawing-room for example, a handsome billiard-room added, and two or three bedrooms fitted up according to nineteenth century taste.
But Sir Wilfred had preferred the old rooms in the quaint embrasures, where many a fair Redmond dame had worked with her daughters at the tapestry that hung in the green bedroom, which represented the death of Saul and the history of Gideon.
In these rooms was furniture belonging to many a different age. Carpets and chair-cushions worked in tent stitch and cross stitch and old-fashioned harpsichord; gaudy white and gold furniture of the Louis Quatorze time, mixed with the spindle-legged tables of the Queen Anne epoch.
At the back of the Hall lay a broad stone terrace reaching from one end of the house to the other.
On one side were the stables and kennels, and on the other a walled sunny garden, with fruit trees and a clipped yew-hedge, and a sun-dial, on which a stately race of peacocks loved to plume themselves.
Beyond, divided by the yew-hedge, was the herb-garden, where in the olden time many a notable house-mother, with her chintz skirts hustled through her pocket-holes, gathered simples for her medicines, and sweet-smelling lavender and rosemary for her presses of home-spun linen.
These gardens were walled and entered by a curiously wrought iron door, said to be Flemish work; and below the terrace lay a smooth, gently sloping lawn, that stretched to the edge of a large sheet of water, called by courtesy the lake—the whole shut in by the background of the Redmond wood.
Here through the sunny afternoon slept purple shadows, falling aslant the yellow water-lilies, and here underneath the willows and silvery birches, in what was called "The Lover's Walk," had Hugh dreamed many a day-dream, whose beginning and whose end was Margaret.
Poor Hugh! he little thought as he paced that walk that the day should come when his wife should walk there beside him, and look at him with eyes that were not Margaret's.
When Fay, escorted by Mrs. Heron and followed by Janet, had ascended the broad oaken staircase, and passed through the long gallery, the housekeeper paused in a recess with four red-baized doors.
"Sir Hugh's dressing-room, my lady," she explained, blandly, "and the next door belongs to Sir Hugh's bathroom, and this," pointing solemnly to the central door, "is the oriel room."
"What," faltered Lady Redmond, rather fearing from Mrs. Heron's manner that this room might be the subject of some ghost story.
"The oriel room," repeated the housekeeper still more impressively, "where the Redmond ladies have always slept. In this room both Sir Wilfred and Sir Hugh were born, and Sir Marmaduke and his sons Percy and Herewald were laid in state after the battle."
It was well that Fay did not understand the latter end of the housekeeper's speech, but she shuddered notwithstanding with vague discomfort when the door was opened, and all the glories of the oriel room were displayed before her. It was so large and grand that a queen might have slept in it and have been content, but to Fay's eyes it was only a great gloomy room, so full of hidden corners and recesses, that the blazing fire-light and the wax-candles only seemed to give a faint circle of light, beyond which lurked weird shadows, hiding in the deep embrasures of the windows, or beaming against the painted ceiling.
The cabinets and wardrobe, and grotesque tables and chairs, all of black oak, and, above all, the great oak bedstead with its curiously twisted pillars and heavy silk damask curtains—each projected separate shadows and filled Fay's mind with dismay, while from the paneled walls the childish figure was reflected in dim old mirrors.
"Oh, dear," sighed the little bride, "I shall never dare to be by myself in this room. Janet, you must never leave me; look how those shadows move."
"It is not quite canny, my lady," replied Janet, glancing behind her at her mistress's word, "but I think I can mend matters a little;" and so saying, she touched the logs so smartly that they spluttered and emitted showers of sparks, till the whole room gleamed warm and ruddy with reflected brightness.
"That is better, Janet," cried Fay, delightedly; "but where are you going, Mrs. Heron?" for the housekeeper was making mysterious signs that her lady should follow her to a curtained recess; "indeed," she continued, wearily, "I am very tired, and would rather see nothing more."
"Don't be too sure of that, my lady," returned Mrs. Heron, smiling, and her tone made Fay follow her at once. But the next moment she uttered a little scream of delight, for there, hidden away behind the ruby curtains, was a tiny room—"a wee blue-lined nestie" fitted up as a boudoir or morning-room. The bow-window promised plenty of light, a cheerful modern paper covered the wall, with one or two choice landscapes; the snowy rug; the soft luxurious couch and low easy-chairs, covered with delicate blue cretonne; the writing-tables, and book-case, were all so suggestive of use and comfort. Two love-birds nestled like green blossoms in their gilded cage, and a white Persian kitten was purring before the fire.
"Oh, the dear room!" exclaimed Fay, in a perfect ecstasy, and then oblivious of her dignity, her fatigue, and the presence of the stately housekeeper, Lady Redmond sat down on the soft white rug, and lifted the kitten on her lap.
"I had a Persian kitten once," she observed, innocently; "but I took her down to the cowslip meadow and lost her. We called her the White Witch, she was so pretty and so full of mischief. I made myself quite ill crying over her loss, we were so afraid she was killed," and here Fay buried her face in the little creature's fur, as she rocked herself to and fro in the fire-light.
Mrs. Heron and Janet exchanged looks. Janet was smiling, but the housekeeper's face wore a puzzled expression; her new mistress bewildered her.
The worthy soul could make nothing of these sudden changes; first a tiny woman rustling in silks, and holding her head like a little queen, with a plaintive voice speaking sweet words of welcome; then a pale, tired lady peering into corners and averse to shadows; and now, nothing but a pretty child rocking herself to and fro with a kitten in her arms. No wonder Mrs. Heron shook her head rather gravely as she left the room.
"What on earth will my master do with a child like that?" she thought; "she will not be more of a companion to him than that kitten—but there, he knows his own business best, and she is a pretty creature." But all the same, Mrs. Heron still shook her head at intervals, for all the household knew that Margaret Ferrers, the sister of the blind vicar of Sandycliffe, was to have come to the Hall as its mistress; and the housekeeper's faithful eyes had already noticed the cloud on her master's brow.
"'Marry in haste and repent at leisure,' that is what many a man has done to his cost," she soliloquized, as she bustled about her comfortable room. "Well, she is a bonny child, and he's bound to make her happy; she will be like a bit of sunshine in the old Hall if he does not damp her cheerfulness with his gloomy moods."
A little while afterward, Ellerton met his little mistress wandering about the Hall, and ushered her into the damask drawing-room. Fay was looking for her husband.
She had escaped from Janet, and had been seeking him some time, opening doors and stumbling into endless passages, but always making her way back somehow to the focus of light—the big hall; and feeling drearily as though she were some forlorn princess shut up in an enchanted castle, who could not find her prince.
She wanted to feel his arms round her, and sob out all her strangeness; and now an ogre in the shape of the gray-haired butler had shut her up in a great, brilliantly lighted room, where the tiny, white woman saw herself reflected in the long mirrors.
Fay, standing dejected and pale in the center of the room, felt like Beauty in the Beast's palace, and was dreaming out the story in her odd childish way, when the door was flung suddenly open, and the prince, in the person of Sir Hugh, made his appearance.
She ran toward him with a little cry; but something in his look checked her, and she stood hesitating and coloring as he came up to her and offered his arm.
"Ellerton has announced dinner," he said, quietly; "draw your scarf round you, for the Hall is cold. You look very nice, dear," he continued, kindly, looking at the dainty little bit of loveliness beside him with critically approving eyes; "you should always wear white in the evening, Fay;" and then, as they entered the dining-room, he placed her at the head of the table.
Poor child, it seemed all very solemn and stately, with Ellerton and two other footmen to wait on them; to be divided from her husband by silver epergnes and choice flowers, to have to peep between the ferns and flowers for a sight of the golden-brown beard. No wonder her little talk died away, and she stammered in her replies, and then blushed and felt discomposed. She thought she was playing her part very awkwardly, and was ashamed of herself for Hugh's sake, never dreaming that the very servants who waited on her were wondering at the radiant young creature. Everything comes to an end in this world, and so did this ordeal; for after what seemed to her endless courses, the door closed on the retiring servants, and she and her husband were left alone together; and when Sir Hugh woke up from a brief musing fit he found Fay at his end of the table watching him.
"Why! what brings you here, Wee Wifie?" he asked, smiling; "have you finished your grapes—am I keeping you waiting?"
"Oh! I am in no hurry," she returned, calmly. "I am going to enjoy my grapes here; it is so dull at the other end of the table;" and she chattered merrily to him, while Hugh drank his coffee, and then coaxed him up into the "blue nestie."
Hugh took all her thanks very graciously. He was pleased that her innocent tastes should be gratified; he never imagined for a moment that she thought he had chosen all the pretty knickknacks round them.
He had said everything suitable to a lady's boudoir was to be provided, and the people had done it very well. He had given them carte blanche, and it was certainly a very pretty little room; and then he watched Fay presiding over her tea-table, and listened placidly to her ecstasy over the lovely old china cups, and the dear little antiquated silver cream-jug, and the tiny spoons; and for a little while her brightness infected him. But presently, when she came and nestled against him and told him how happy she was, and how dearly she meant to love her new home, the old look of pain came back on his face; and telling her that he knew his Wee Wifie was tired and must go to bed, he kissed her twice, and then putting her hurriedly from him, went down-stairs.
And when he got into his library and saw the lamp lighted, and the fire burning brightly, he gave a sigh of relief at finding himself alone, and threw himself down in his easy-chair.
And that night, long after Fay had prayed that she might be worthy of Hugh's love, and make him happy, and had fallen asleep in the old oak bed with a child's utter weariness, did Hugh sit with his aching head buried on his arms, thinking how he should bear it, and what he would do with his life!
And so the home life began, which was far more tolerable to Sir Hugh than his Continental wanderings had been; when he rode over his estate and Fay's—the Wyngate lands adjoining, from morning until late afternoon, planning, building, restoring, or went into Pierrepoint on magisterial business; happy if at night he was so weary with exercise that rest was a pleasure and his little wife's manipulations sweet. All the surrounding gentry for miles round came to call at the Hall, and were loud in their praises of the sweet-faced bride; but the Ferrers were not among them—all those winter months Sir Hugh never saw Margaret. No, though the Grange and the Hall were but two miles apart, they never met; though many a time Sir Hugh had to turn his horse into some miry lane, or across a plowed field, to escape her as she went to and fro among the wayside cottages.
Neither did they meet at the various entertainments—dinner-parties and dances that were given in honor of the bride. That winter Margaret declined all invitations; her brother needed her—and she had never cared much for gayety—this was her only excuse. But Sir Hugh knew why he never met her—her high sense of honor kept them apart—neither of them had lived down their pain; in the future it might be possible for her to be his friend, and the friend of his wife; but now it could hardly be; and yet Margaret was longing, craving intensely to see the lovely young creature of whom every one was speaking, and whom already she loved by report.
Strange to say, no one spoke about the Ferrers to Fay; people were too well acquainted with the story of Sir Hugh's engagement to Margaret to venture on a hint. Once Fay asked a lady with whom she was driving, who lived in that quaint old house on the Sandycliffe road? and was told briefly that the blind vicar, Mr. Ferrers, lived there with his sister.
Fay would have put some more questions, but Mrs. Sinclair turned the subject rather quickly; but Fay recurred to it that evening.
"Why have not the Ferrers called on us, Hugh?" she asked, suddenly, when she was keeping him company in the library.
Sir Hugh started, and then jumped up to replenish the fire.
"Who told you about them?" he asked, as he tried to break a refractory coal.
"Mrs. Sinclair. I was driving with her this afternoon, and I asked her who lived in that red brick house with the curious gables, on the Sandycliffe road, and she said it was the blind vicar, Mr. Ferrers, and his sister; don't you like them, Hugh? everyone else has called, and it seems rather strange that they should have taken no notice."
"Well, you see, it is a little awkward," returned her husband, still wrestling with the coal, while Fay watched the process with interest; "they used to be friends of mine, but we have had a misunderstanding, and now, of course, there is a coolness."
"And they are nice people."
"Very nice people; he is a very clever man, but we do not agree—that is all;" and then Hugh disposed of the coal and took up his paper, and Fay did not like to disturb him with any more questions. It seemed a great pity, she thought, it was such a lovely house; and if Mr. Ferrers were a nice clever man—and then she wondered what his sister was like; and as she sat at Hugh's feet basking in the fire-light she had no idea that Hugh's forehead was clouded and puckered with pain. Fay's innocent questions had raised a storm in his breast. Would she speak of them again? was there any danger that people would gossip to her? One day he might be obliged to tell her himself, but not now, she seemed so happy, so perfectly contented, and she was such a child.
Yes, Hugh's Wee Wifie was very happy.
At first, to be sure, her position was a little difficult and irksome. The number of servants bewildered her; she wished Mrs. Heron would not interlard her conversation with so many "my ladys," and that, Hugh would ride with her oftener instead of that tiresome groom.
But by and by she got used to her new dignity, and would drive her gray ponies through the country roads, stopping to speak to any old villager she knew; or she would mount Bonnie Bess at the hour she thought Hugh would be returning from Pierrepoint, and gallop through the lanes to meet him and rein up at his side, startling him from his abstraction with that ringing laugh of hers.
She was seldom idle, and never dull.
When Sir Hugh had shooting parties, she always carried the luncheon to the sportsmen, driving through the wood in her pony-carriage; when her husband began to return his neighbors' hospitality, she surprised him by making a perfect little hostess, and never seemed too shy to chat in her pretty, modest manner to his guests. All Sir Hugh's masculine friends fell in love with her, and the ladies petted and made much of her.
Fay was very grateful to them for their kindness, but she liked best to be alone in the old Hall.
She had a hundred sources of amusement; she would follow Mrs. Heron from room to room, listening to her stories of many a dead Redmond; or coax her to show the old treasures of tapestry and lace; or she would wander through the gardens and woods with her favorite Nero and Sir Hugh's noble St. Bernard, Pierre.
She made acquaintance with every man, woman, and child about the place, and all the animals besides; when the spring came she knew all the calves and lambs by name, all the broods of chickens and ducklings; she visited the stables and the poultry-yards till every helper and boy about the premises knew her bright face well, and were ready to vow that a sweeter-spoken creature never lived than the young Lady Redmond.
And she would prattle to Hugh all through the long dinner, beguiling him by her quaint bright stories; and when he went into the library—she never could coax him after that first evening into her "blue nestie"—she would follow him and sit herself at his feet with her work or book, perfectly content if he sometimes stroked her hair, or with a sudden feeling of compunction stooped over her and kissed her brow, for he was always very gentle with her, and Fay adored him from the depths of her innocent heart.
THAT ROOM OF MRS. WATKINS'S.
Soft hair on which light drops a diadem.
With hands so flower-like, soft and fair, She caught at life with words as sweet As first spring violets.
No, it was not a bad room, that room of Mrs. Watkins's, seen just now in the November dusk, with its bright fire and neat hearth, with the kettle gossiping deliciously to itself; there was at once something comfortable and homelike about it; especially as the red curtains were drawn across the two windows that look down into High Street, and the great carts that had been rumbling underneath them since daybreak had given place to the jolting of lighter vehicles which passed and repassed at intervals.
The room was large, though a little low, and was plainly but comfortably furnished; an old-fashioned crimson couch stood in one corner; some stained book-shelves contained a few well-bound books; and one or two simple engravings in cheap frames adorned the wall. In spite of the simplicity of the whole there were evidences of refined taste—there were growing ferns in tall baskets; some red leaves and autumn berries arranged in old china vases; a beautiful head of Clytie, though it was only in plaster of Paris, on the mantel-piece. The pretty tea service on the round table was only white china, hand-painted; and some more red leaves with dark chrysanthemums were tastefully arranged in a low wicker-basket in the center.
One glance would have convinced even a stranger that this room was inhabited by people of cultured taste and small means; and it was so pleasant, so home-like, so warm with ruddy fire-light, that grander rooms would have looked comfortless in comparison. There were only two people in it on this November evening—a girl lying back in a rocking-chair, with her eyes fixed thoughtfully on the dancing flames, and a child of ten, though looking two or three years younger, sitting on a stool before the fire, with a black kitten asleep on her lap, and her arms clasped round her knees.
An odd, weird sort of child, with a head running over with little dark curls, and large wondering eyes—not an ordinary child, and certainly not a pretty one, and looking, at the present moment, with her wrinkled eyebrows and huddled-up figure, like a little old witch in a fairy tale.
"I am that tired," observed the child, apparently apostrophising the kettle, "that not all the monkeys in the Zooelogical Gardens could make me laugh; no, not if they had the old father baboon as their head. I wish I were a jaguar!"
"Why, Fluff?" exclaimed a pleasant voice from the rocking-chair. "Why, Fluff?"
"I wish I were a jaguar," repeated the child, defiantly; "not a bison, because of its hump, nor a camel either. Why, those great spotted cats had their balls to amuse them, and polished ivory bones as well; and the brown bear climbed his pole, and eat buns; no one's mother left it in the dark before the fire, with no one to tell it tales, and only a kettle to talk to a person;" and Fluff curled herself up on her stool with an affronted air.
The elder girl made no answer, but only stooped down and smilingly lifted the child and kitten on her lap—she was very small and light for her age—whereupon Fluff left off sighing, and rubbed her curly head against her sister's shoulder with a contented air.
The sisters were certainly very unlike, Fluff being very small and dark, while Fern was tall and fair; without being exactly gifted with her mother's beauty, she had a charming face, soft gray eyes, and hair of that golden-brown that one sees so often in English girls.
There were few people who did not think Fern Trafford decidedly pretty; her features were not exactly regular, but her coloring was lovely, and there was a joyousness and brightness about her that attracted old and young; every one loved Fern, and spoke well of her, she was so simple, so unselfish, so altogether charming, as they said.
Fern never complained of the narrowness of her life, never fretted because their poverty excluded her from the pleasures girls of her age generally enjoyed. From her childhood she had known no other life. There were times when she remembered that she had gone to bed hungry, times when her mother's face looked pinched and miserable—when her father was dying, and they thought Baby Florence would die too. Somehow Fern never cared to think of those days.
Fern was devoted to her mother, she clave to her with innocent love and loyalty. Percy's defection had been the bitterest trouble of her life. The girl nearly broke her heart when Percy left them. She grew thin and pale and large-eyed, as girls will when they are fretting and growing at the same time. Nea's motherly heart was touched with compassion for her child. She wished, if possible, to suffer alone; if it were in her power she would prevent the faintest shadow touching that bright young life.
So she spoke to her in her calm, sensible way, for Nea was always gentle with her children, and Fern was very dear to her—she had her father's eyes, and Maurice's pure upright nature seemed transmitted to his young daughter.
"Fern," she said, one evening when they were sitting together in the twilight, "you must not add to my burdens; it makes me still more unhappy to see you fretting; I miss my little daughter's brightness that used to be such a comfort to me."
"Am I a comfort to you, mother?" asked Fern, wistfully, and something in those earnest gray eyes thrilled the widow's heart with fresh pangs of memory.
"You are my one bit of sunshine," she answered, fondly, taking the girl's face between her hands and kissing it almost passionately. "Keep bright for your poor mother's sake, Fern."
Fern never forgot this little speech. She understood, then, that her mission was to be her mother's comforter; and with the utmost sweetness and unselfishness she put aside her own longings for her brother, and strove to make up for his loss. So Fern bloomed in her poor home like some lovely flower in a cottage garden, growing up to womanhood in those rooms over Mrs. Watkins's.
Fern had long since finished her education, and now gave morning lessons to the vicar's little daughters. In her leisure hours she made her simple gowns and Fluff's frocks, and taught the child the little she could be persuaded to learn, for Fluff was a spoiled child and very backward for her age; and one or two people, Mrs. Watkins among them, had given it as their opinion that little Florence was not all there, rather odd and uncanny in fact.
Fern was quite contented with her life. She was fond of teaching and very fond of her little pupils. Her pleasures were few and simple; a walk with Crystal or Fluff to look at the shops, perhaps an omnibus journey and an hour or two's ramble in the Park or Kensington Garden, a cozy chat with her mother in the evening, sometimes, on grand occasions, a shilling seat at the Monday or Saturday Popular.
Fern loved pretty things, but she seemed quite satisfied to look at them through plate glass; a new dress, a few flowers, or a new book were events in her life. She would sing over her work as she sat sewing by the window; the gay young voice made people look up, but they seldom caught a glimpse of the golden-brown head behind the curtain. Fern had her dreams, like other girls; something, she hardly knew what, would happen to her some day. There was always a prince in the fairy stories that she told Fluff, but she never described him. "What is he like?" Fluff would ask with childish impatience, but Fern would only blush and smile, and say she did not know. If, sometimes, a handsome boyish face, not dark like Percy, but with a fair, budding mustache and laughing eyes, seemed to rise out of the mist and look at her with odd wistfulness, Fern never spoke of it; a sort of golden haze pervaded it. Sometimes those eyes were eloquent, and seemed appealing to her; a strange meaning pervaded the silence; in that poor room blossomed all sorts of sweet fancies and wonderful dreams as Fern's needle flew through the stuff.
As Fluff rubbed her rough head confidingly against her shoulder, Fern gave a musical little laugh that was delicious to hear. "You absurd child," she said, in an amused tone, "I really must tell Mr. Erle not to take you again to the Zooelogical Gardens; you talk of nothing but bears and jaguars. So you want a story, you are positively insatiable, Fluff; how am I to think of one with my wits all wool-gathering and gone a-wandering like Bopeep's sheep? It must be an old one. Which is it to be? 'The Chocolate House,' or 'Princess Dove and the Palace of the Hundred Boys.'"
"Humph," returned Fluff, musingly; "well, I hardly know. 'The Chocolate House' is very nice, with its pathway paved with white and pink sugar plums, and its barley-sugar chairs; and don't you remember that, when Hans was hungry, he broke a little brown bit off the roof; but after all, I think I like 'Princess Dove and the Palace of the Hundred Boys' best. Let us go on where you left off."
"Where we left off?" repeated Fern, in her clear voice. "Yes, I recollect. Well, when Prince Happy-Thought—"
"Merrydew," corrected the child.
"Ah—true—well, when it came to Prince Merrydew's turn to throw up the golden ball, it went right over the moon and came down the other side, so Princess Dove proclaimed him victor, and gave him the sapphire crown; and the hundred boys—and—where was I, Fluff?"
"In the emerald meadow, where the ruby flowers grew," returned Fluff. "Go on, Fern."
"So Princess Dove put on the crown, and it was so heavy that poor Prince Merrydew's head began to ache, and the wicked old fairy Do-nothing, who was looking on, hobbled on her golden crutches to the turquois pavilion, and—hush! I hear footsteps. Jump off my lap, Fluffy, dear, and let me light the candles." And she had scarcely done so before there was a quick tap at the door, and the next moment two young men entered the room.
Fluff ran to them at once with a pleased exclamation.
"Why, it is Percy and Mr. Erle; oh, dear, how glad I am."
"How do you do, Toddlekins," observed her brother, stooping to kiss the child's cheek, and patting her kindly on the head; "how are you, you dark-eyed witch," but as he spoke, his eyes glanced anxiously round the room.
"We never expected to see you to-night, Percy, dear," observed Fern, as she greeted him affectionately, and then gave her hand with a slight blush to the young man who was following him. "Mother will be so sorry to miss you; she was obliged to go out again. One of the girls at Miss Martingale's is ill, and Miss Theresa seems fidgety about her, so mother said she would sit with the invalid for an hour or two."
"I suppose Miss Davenport is out too"—walking to the fire-place to warm his hands.
"Yes, dear; there is a children's party at the Nortons'; it is little Nora's birthday, and nothing would satisfy the child until Crystal promised to go and play with them. It is only an early affair, and she will be back soon, so Fluff and I are waiting tea for her."
"You look very snug here, Miss Trafford," observed the other young man, whom Fluff had called Mr. Erle. By tacit consent his other name was never uttered in that house; it would have been too painful to Mrs. Trafford to hear him addressed as Mr. Huntingdon.
The young men were complete contrasts to each other. Percy Trafford was tall and slight, he had his mother's fine profile and regular features, and was a singularly handsome young man; his face would have been almost perfect, except for the weak, irresolute mouth, hardly hidden by the dark mustache and a somewhat heavily molded chin that expressed sullenness and perhaps ill-governed passions.
The bright-faced boy, Nea's first-born and darling, had sadly deteriorated during the years that he had lived under his grandfather's roof. His selfishness had taken deeper root; he had become idle and self-indulgent; his one thought was how to amuse himself best. In his heart he had no love for the old man, who had given him the shelter of his roof, and loaded him with kindness; but all the same he was secretly jealous of his cousin Erle, who, as he told himself, bitterly, had supplanted him.
Percy's conscience reproached him at times for his desertion of his widowed mother. He knew that it was a shabby thing for him to be living in luxury, while she worked for her daily bread; but after all, he thought it was more her fault than his. She would have none of his gifts; she would not bend her proud spirit to seek a reconciliation with her father, though Percy felt sure that the old man had long ago repented of his harshness; and yet, when he had hinted this to his mother, she had absolutely refused to listen to him.
"It is too late, Percy. I have no father now," she had returned, in her firm, sad voice, and her face had looked like marble as she spoke.
Percy was rather in awe of his grandfather. Mr. Huntingdon had grown harder and more tyrannical as the years passed on. Neither of the young men ventured to oppose his iron will. He was fond of his grandson, proud of his good looks and aristocratic air, and not disposed to quarrel with him because he was a little wild. "Young men would be young men," was a favorite saying of his; he had used it before in the case of Lord Ronald Gower.
But his nephew, Erle, was really dearer to the old man's heart. But then every one liked Erle Huntingdon, he was so sweet-tempered and full of life, so honest and frank, and so thoroughly unselfish.
He was somewhat short, at least beside Percy, and his pleasant, boyish face had no special claims to good looks. He had the ruddy, youthful air of a young David, and there was something of the innocence of the sheep-fold about him.
All women liked Erle Huntingdon. He was so gentle and chivalrous in his manner to them; he never seemed to think of himself when he was talking to them; and his bonhomie and gay good-humor made him a charming companion.
Erle never understood himself how caressing his manners could be at times. He liked all women, old and young, but only one had really touched his heart. It was strange, then, that more than one hoped that she had found favor in his eyes. Erle's sunshiny nature made him a universal favorite, but it may be doubted whether any of his friends really read him correctly. Now and then an older man told him he wanted ballast, and warned him not to carry that easy good nature too far or it might lead him into mischief; but the spoiled child of fortune only shook his head with a laugh.
But in reality Erle Huntingdon's character wanted back-bone; his will, not a strong one, was likely to be dominated by a stronger. With all his pleasantness and natural good qualities he was vacillating and weak; if any pressure or difficulty should come into his life, it would be likely for him to be weighed in the balance and found wanting.
At present his life had been smooth and uneventful; he had yet to test the hollowness of human happiness, to learn that the highest sort of life is not merely to be cradled in luxury and to fare sumptuously every day. The purple and fine linen are good enough in their way, and the myrrh and the aloes and the cassia, but what does the wise man say—"Rejoice, oh, young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment ... for childhood and youth are vanity."
Erle knew that a new interest had lately come into his life; that a certain shabby room, that was yet more homelike to him than any room in Belgrave House, was always before his eyes: that a girl in a brown dress, with sweet, wistful eyes, was never absent from his memory.
Neither Fern nor he owned the truth to themselves; they were ignorant as yet that they were commencing the first chapter of their life-idyl. Fern had a vague sense that the room was brighter when Erle was there looking at her with those kindly glances. She never owned to herself that he was her prince, and that she had found favor in his eyes. She was far too humble for that; but she knew the days were somehow glorified and transfigured when she had seen him, and Erle knew that no face was so lovely to him as this girl's face, no voice half so sweet in his ears, and yet people were beginning to connect his name with Miss Selby, Lady Maltravers' beautiful niece.
He was thinking of Miss Selby now as he looked across at Fern. She had taken up her work again, and Percy had thrown himself into the rocking-chair beside her with a discontented expression on his face. He was telling himself that Miss Selby was handsome, of course strikingly handsome; but somehow she lacked this girl's sweet graciousness. Just then Fern raised her eyes, and a quick, sensitive color came into her face as she encountered his fixed glance.
"Ah, do you know, Miss Trafford," he said quickly, to put her at her ease, "I have promised to spend Christmas with my cousin, Sir Hugh Redmond. I am rather anxious to see his wife. Report says she is a very pretty girl."
"I did not know Sir Hugh Redmond was your cousin," returned Fern, without raising her eyes from her work.
"Yes, on my mother's side, but I have not been to Redmond Hall for an age. Old Hugh had rather a disappointment last year; he was engaged to another lady, and she jilted him—at least that is the popular edition of the story; but anyhow the poor old fellow seemed rather badly hit."
"And he has married so soon!" in an incredulous tone.
"Of course, caught at the rebound like many other fellows. Don't you know how the old adage runs, Miss Trafford:
"'Shall I wasting with despaire Die because a woman's faire? If she be not faire for me, What care I how faire she be?'
that is the right sort of spirit, eh, Percy."
"How should I know?" returned Percy, morosely—he was evidently out of humor about something; and then, as though he feared to bring on himself one of Erle's jesting; remarks, he roused himself with an effort. "Well, Toddlekins, how's Flibbertigibbet; come and sit on my knee, and I will tell you the story of Mr. Harlequin Puss-in-boots."
"My name is not Toddlekins," returned Fluff indignantly, "and I don't care about Flibbertigibbet or Puss-in-boots; your stories are stupid, Percy, they never have any end." And then, with the capriciousness of a spoiled child, she sidled up to her chief favorite, Erle, and put her hands confidingly in his.
"When are you going to take me again to the Zooelogical Gardens, Mr. Erle?" she said, in a coaxing voice; "Fern wants to go, too, don't you, dear?" but her sister shook her head at her with a faint smile, and went on with her work.
"I don't see my way clear yet awhile, Pussy," replied Erle, as he smoothed Fluff's curls, and here he and Percy exchanged meaning looks; for during his grandfather's absence from town Erle had paid frequent visits to Beulah Place, and on one occasion had actually carried off the child for a day at the Zooelogical Gardens in spite of Fern's demur that she hardly knew what her mother would say.
"But surely you can do as you like, Mr. Erle," persisted the chill, earnestly. "Percy tells us that you are so rich, and ride such beautiful horses in the park, and that you have nothing to do but just enjoy yourself; why can't you take Fern and me to the Zooelogical Gardens?"
"Oh, Fluff, Fluff!" remonstrated her sister, in a distressed tone, "what will Mr. Erle think of you?"
Erle looked embarrassed at the child's speech, but Percy laughed, and the next minute he rose.
"Do you mind if I leave you for a few minutes, Fern? I have a little business that will take me about a quarter of an hour—oh, I will be back in time," as Erle seemed inclined to remonstrate; "you may depend upon it that I will not make you late for dinner, as la Belle Evelyn is to be there," and with a nod at his sister he left the room.
Fern looked a little troubled. "I hope he has not gone to meet—" and then she flushed up and did not finish her sentence; but Erle understood her in a moment.
"Miss Davenport would not be pleased, I suppose—oh, yes, of course he has gone to meet her. What a pity your mother is not here, Miss Trafford; she would have kept him in order?"
"Crystal will be so angry," replied Fern, anxiously, and dropping her voice so that Fluff should not overhear her; but the child, disappointed that her request had been refused, had betaken herself to the furthest corner of the room with her kitten, to whom she was whispering her displeasure. "She never likes Percy to meet her or show her any attention; I have told him so over and over again, but he will not listen to me."
"I am afraid he is rather smitten with your friend, Miss Davenport—she is wonderfully handsome, certainly. Yes, one can not be surprised at Percy's infatuation—you are the gainer in one way, Miss Trafford, for Percy never came half so often until Miss Davenport lived with you."
"That makes it all the more wrong," returned Fern, firmly; "it was Percy's duty to come and see mother, and yet he stayed away for months at a time. Crystal has never encouraged him—she never will. I know in her heart she does not like Percy, and yet he will persist in harassing her."
"Faint heart ne'er won fair lady," returned Erle, lightly; and then, as he saw the tears in Fern's eyes, his manner changed. "You must not trouble yourself about it," he said, kindly; "it will be Percy's own fault if he gets badly bitten: even I, a complete stranger to Miss Davenport—for I believe I have not seen her more than three times—can quite indorse what you say; her manner is most repelling to Percy. He must be bewitched, I think."
"I wish he were different," she replied, with a sigh; "I know he makes mother often very unhappy, though she never says so. He seems to find fault with us for our poverty, and says hard things to mother because she will work for us all."
"Yes, I know, and yet Percy is not a bad-hearted fellow," replied Erle, in a sympathizing tone; "he is terribly sore, I know, because your mother refuses his help; he has told me over and over again that with his handsome allowance he could keep her in comfort, and that he knows that his grandfather would not object. It makes him bitter—it does indeed, Miss Trafford, to have his gifts refused."
"How can we help it?" returned Fern, in a choking voice. "Percy ought to know that we can not use any of Mr. Huntingdon's money: neither my mother nor I would ever touch a penny of it. Don't you know," struggling with her tears, "that my poor father died broken-hearted, and he might have saved him?"
"Yes, I know," replied Erle, looking kindly at the weeping girl, "and I for one can not say you are wrong. My uncle has dealt very harshly and I fear cruelly by his own flesh and blood—my poor mother often cried as she told me so; but she always said that it was not for us to blame him who lived under his roof and profited by his generosity. He was a benefactor to us in our trouble—for we were poor, too." But here Erle checked himself abruptly, for he did not care to tell Fern that his father had been a gambler, and had squandered all his wife's property; but he remembered almost as vividly as though it were yesterday, when he was playing in their miserable lodgings at Naples, after his father's death—how a grave, stern-faced man came into the room and sat down beside his mother; and one speech had reached his ears.
"Never mind all that, Beatrice, you are happier as his widow than his wife. Forget the past, and come home with me, and your boy shall be mine."
Erle certainly loved his uncle, and it always pained him to remember his wrong-doing. In his boyish generosity he had once ventured to intercede for the disinherited daughter, and had even gone so far as to implore that his uncle would never put him in Percy's place; but the burst of anger with which his words were received cowed him effectually.
"A Trafford shall never inherit my property," Mr. Huntingdon had said, with a frown so black that the boy positively quailed under it; "I would leave it all to a hospital first—never presume to speak to me of this again. Percy does not require any pity; when he leaves Oxford he will read for the Bar. We have arranged all that; he will have a handsome allowance; and with his capacity—for his tutor tells me he is a clever fellow—he will soon carve his way to fortune;" and after this, Erle certainly held his peace.
I do remember it. 'Twas such a face As Guido would have loved to look upon.
She was as tender As infancy and grace.
Fern looked a little surprised at Erle's speech. "I did not know you had been poor, too," she returned, drying her eyes, and taking up her work again.
"Yes, but I was very young, and knew little about it; my poor mother was the one to suffer. Well, she wanted for nothing when my uncle took us to Belgrave House; he was very good to her until she died; and," with a slight hesitation in his voice, "he is good to me."
"Yes, and you are right to be fond of him," returned Fern, frankly. "Sometimes I think it is not quite kind of me to speak to you of Percy and our troubles, because it seems to cast a reflection on one you love and"—but Erle interrupted her.
"I hope you will never withhold your confidence, Miss Trafford; I should not feel that you treated me as a friend if you did not allow me to share some of your troubles. Percy and I are like brothers, and Percy's mother and sister—" but here he paused and a flush crossed his face. How could he tell this girl that she should be as a sister to him, when he knew that even to be alone with her for a few minutes made his heart beat with strange thrills of happiness? His sister, never!
Fern felt a little confused at the sudden pause. She wished in a vague sort of way that he would finish his sentence and tell her what he meant; the silence was becoming awkward.
Fern worked on desperately, but her cheeks were burning. Both of them felt relieved when they heard footsteps approaching—Erle especially, for some dim instinct told him that in another minute he should have betrayed himself.
Both of them rose simultaneously as the door opened; and at the same moment Fluff, hugging herself among the sofa cushions, whispered into the kitten's ear:
"They don't know that I heard every word. One of these days I shall go and see grandpapa, and ask him why we may not come and live with him as well as Percy. Erle would like it, I know; he is so fond of Fern."
Erle certainly looked a little amused as his friend entered the room accompanied by a tall, dark girl, very plainly dressed. But his expression changed as he noticed Percy's moody looks, and the air of extreme haughtiness observable in the manner of his companion.
Miss Davenport was evidently very much annoyed; she shook hands with Erle, without deigning to look at him, and walked straight to the fire-place.
Fern followed her. "I am so glad you have come home so early, Crystal; Fluff and I have waited tea for you, but we hardly expected you yet."
"I am sorry you waited for me," returned the girl, who called herself Crystal Davenport, in a constrained voice; "Mrs. Norton gave me some tea, because she said I must be tired playing with the children."
"Come, we must be going, Erle," interrupted Percy, sharply, "or we shall be late for dinner. Good-bye, Fern; tell my mother I am sorry to miss her. Good-evening, Miss Davenport;" but he hesitated, as though he dared not venture to offer his hand.
"Good-night, Mr. Trafford," she returned, indifferently; but she did not turn her long neck as she spoke. And Erle contented himself with a bow.
"What is it, Crystal, dear?" asked Fern, anxiously, as the two young men left the room; but Crystal only lifted her eyebrows and glanced at Fluff, whose curly head was distinctly visible; so Fern said cheerfully, "Very well, we have our tea, and then it will be Fluff's bed-time;" and then without another word busied herself with her simple preparations.
But it was not a festive meal. In spite of all her cheery efforts Crystal sat quite silent, with a cloud on her handsome face, and Fluff had turned sulky at the mention of her bed-time. So Fern fell to thinking of Erle's look as he bade her good-night—how kind he had been to her that evening. Yes, she was glad they were friends, and that he cared to hear about their troubles. He was so unselfish, so different to other young men—Fern did not know a single young man except Erle, so her knowledge was not very reliable; and then, with an odd transition of thought, she wondered who Miss Selby could be, and why Percy called her la Belle Evelyn, and looked at Erle so mischievously.
But presently, when Fluff had gone off grumbling with her kitten, and all the pretty tea-things had been washed and put away in the big corner cupboard, and the kettle was silent, and only a cricket chirped on the hearth, Fern sat down beside Crystal, and put her arm affectionately round her. "Now, you can tell me what has been troubling you, darling," she said, in a coaxing voice.
It seemed a pity that there was no one to see the two faces so close together; an artist would have sketched them as Night and Morning. Fern's soft English fairness made a splendid foil to Crystal's olive complexion and dark southern coloring. The girl was superbly handsome, in spite of the bitter lines round the mouth and the hard, defiant curve of the lips. As Fern spoke her dark eyes flashed angrily.
"He has been speaking to me again," she said, in an agitated voice. "He has dared to follow me and persecute me; and he calls it love—love!" with immeasurable contempt in her tone; "and when I tell him that it is ungenerous and wrong, he complains that I have robbed him of all peace. Fern, I know he is your brother, and that I ought not to speak against him; but how am I to help hating him?"
"Oh, no!" with a shudder, for Fern's gentle nature was not capable of Crystal's passion; "you must not hate poor Percy—he can not help loving you."
"A poor sort of love," returned Crystal, scornfully; "a love that partakes too much of the owner's selfishness to be to my taste. Fern, how can he be your mother's son? he has not a grain of her noble, frank nature, and from all accounts he does not take after your father."
"But he is very clever, Crystal, and Mr. Erle says he is really kind-hearted," returned Fern, in a troubled tone; "people admire and like him, and there are many and many girls, Mr. Erle says, would be ready to listen to him. He is very handsome, even you must allow that, and it is not the poor boy's fault if he has lost his heart to you."
Crystal smiled at this sisterly defense, but the next moment she said, tenderly:
"You are such a little angel of goodness yourself, Fern, that you never think people are to blame—you would always excuse them if you could; you have so little knowledge of the world, and have led such a recluse life that you hardly know how rigid society really is; but I should have thought that even you would have thought it wrong for your brother to come here so often in your mother's absence and bring his friend with him; it is taking advantage of two defenseless girls to intrude himself and Mr. Erle on us in this way."
"But Percy never knows when mother is out," replied Fern, in a puzzled tone.
Crystal was silent; she held a different opinion, but after all she need not put these ideas into Fern's innocent mind. It was her own conviction that Percy in some way was always aware of his mother's absence. At first he had come alone, and now he always brought Erle with him, and she wanted to say a word that might put Fern on her guard; but at the present moment she was too full of her own grievance.
"You know, Fern," she continued, in a very grave voice, "if this goes on and your brother refuses to hear reason, I shall be obliged to seek another home, where I shall be free from his unmanly persecution; yes"—as Fern uttered an incredulous exclamation—"though I love you all so dearly, and have grown to look upon this as a home, I shall be forced to go a second time into the world."
"But Percy must hear reason," returned Fern, tearfully. "I will ask mother to talk to him, and I know Mr. Erle has given him hints. We can not part with you, Crystal. I have never had a companion of my own age before, and mother is so often out."
"Well, well," observed Crystal, soothingly, "I have told him the truth to-night, and perhaps he will believe it; but there! we will not talk about your brother any more. And so he left you alone with Mr. Erle, Fern?"
"Oh, yes, but we were not long alone," returned the girl, innocently.
"You and Mr. Erle seem good friends."
"Yes, I suppose so," rather shyly; "he was very kind to me this evening."
"Did he tell you anything about the beautiful Miss Selby who is to dine with her aunt, Lady Maltravers, at Belgrave House to-night? a cousin of Mr. Erle's, Lady Denison, is to act hostess."
"No," returned Fern, rather faintly, but she was conscious of a sharp pain as Crystal spoke.
"And yet he meets her very often. Ah, well, young men do not tell all their little secrets. Of course Mr. Erle's life is very different from ours; we are working bees, Fern, and he is a butterfly of fashion. When he comes here he makes himself very bright and pleasant, but we know nothing of his real life."
"No, of course not." But a sort of chill passed over Fern as Crystal spoke. Why did she say these sort of things so often to her? did she think it wrong for her and Mr. Erle to be friends? was she warning her, and against what? Well, it was true she knew nothing of his life excepting what he chose to tell her. He had never mentioned this Miss Selby, though, according to Percy's account, he met her very often. Few ladies dined at Belgrave House, but to-night she was to be there. For the first time Fern's gentle nature felt jarred and out of tune. The bright little fire had burned hollow; there was a faint clinging mist from the fog outside; the cricket had ceased to chirp. Fern glanced round her disconsolately; how poor and shabby it must look to him, she thought, after the rooms at Belgrave House.
But the next moment she started up in a conscience-stricken way. "There is mother's step, Crystal, and we have neglected the fire; poor mother, and she will be so tired and cold." And Fern drove back her rebellious thoughts, bravely, and seized the bellows and manipulated the fire, while Crystal drew up the old easy-chair, and placed a footstool. Mrs. Trafford smiled as she saw these preparations for her comfort; her pale face relaxed from its gravity as Fern waited upon her, taking off her bonnet, and smoothing the beautiful gray hair with eager loving fingers.
"Thank you, dearest," she said, drawing down the girl's face to hers; "and now tell me what you have both been doing."
"Percy and Mr. Erle have been here," was Fern's answer, as she took her place at her mother's feet; "and Percy left his love for you, and was so sorry to miss you."
Mrs. Trafford made no comment on this piece of information, but she glanced quickly at Crystal; perhaps something in the girl's face warned her, for she at once changed the subject, to her daughter's surprise, and, without asking any questions, began telling them about the invalid.
But after they had chatted for a few minutes, Crystal rose, and, saying that she was very tired, bade them both good-night.
Mrs. Trafford looked after the girl anxiously, and then her glance fell on her daughter. Fern was looking into the fire, dreamily, and there was a sort of wistfulness in her eyes; when her mother touched her gently she started.
"My little sunbeam does not look quite so bright tonight," she said, tenderly. "I am afraid you have been tiring yourself, Fern, trying to finish Florence's frock."
"Oh, no," returned the girl, quickly, and then a frank blush came to her face as she met her mother's clear searching look. "Well, I will confess, as Fluff says"—laughing a little unsteadily; "I am afraid I was just a little bit discontented."
"You discontented, my pet?" in an incredulous voice, for Fern's sweet unselfishness and bright content made the sunshine of their humble home. There seemed no chord of fretfulness in the girl's nature; her pure health and buoyant spirits found no cause for complaint. Nea lived her youth again in her child, and she often thanked Heaven even in her desolate moments for this one blessing that had never disappointed her.
Fern pressed a little closer to her mother, and wrapped her arms round her. "But it is true, mother, I had quite a naughty fit. Crystal talked about Percy and Mr. Erle; it was not so much what she said as what she implied that troubled me, but she seemed to think that our life was so different to theirs—that we were poor people, and that they had nothing in common with us, and that it was better not to be friends. Somehow, it made me feel all at once how shabby and commonplace one's life really was."
Mrs. Trafford sighed, but there was no reproach in her voice. "Yes, dear; I understand, it is quite natural, and I should have felt the same at your age. I wish, for your sake, my darling, that things were different; but Crystal is very wise and right in trying to make you understand the barrier between Erle Huntingdon and us."
"But, mother," with a burning face, "we are gentlefolk; surely it does not matter so much that we are poor."
"The world would not indorse that, Fern," replied her mother, gently; "it is apt to turn a cold shoulder to genteel poverty. The hardest lot in life, in my opinion, is the life of a poor gentlewoman."
"But Mr. Erle does not look down upon us," persisted Fern, "or he would not come so often. He always says that no room in Belgrave House is so home-like as this room, and that he is happier here than in the houses of his grand friends."
A troubled look came to the mother's face, and involuntarily she pressed her child closer to her, as though to defend her from some threatened danger, and her voice was not quite so clear as usual as she answered:
"It is Erle's nature to say pleasant things. He is a gentlemanly, kind-hearted fellow, and I am sure that we all like him very much; but I should not care for my little daughter to see too much of him. Erle Huntingdon is not the friend I would choose for you, Fern."
"But, mother"—opening her eyes widely at this—"if we like him, why should we not be friends?"
Mrs. Trafford hesitated; she hardly liked to disturb Fern's mind, and yet she wished to put her on her guard.
"You see, Fern," she answered, with assumed lightness, "we are poor people—very poor people; we have to work for our bread, and to be content with simple fare; but my young cousin Erle is rich—he will be his uncle's heir one day, and, no doubt, he will marry some rich, handsome girl. All the world is before him; he has only to look round him and choose, like the prince in a fairy story. You may be sure there is some gay young princess waiting for him somewhere. Are you cold, my darling?" for Fern shivered a little.
"We have let the fire get rather low," returned Fern, jumping up to replenish it; but somehow her voice was not quite under her control, and her hand was a little unsteady. "Oh, yes, her mother and Crystal were right; these foolish dreams of hers could never come true; she would have to see her prince ride away some day in quest of some dark-haired princess. And yet, in the fairy stories, the real princess was often poor, and wore a shabby dress, and had golden hair, and—" but here Fern banished these thoughts resolutely, and came back to her footstool a little pale and drooping.
Mrs. Trafford's keen eyes noted everything, but she wisely forebore to continue the subject. Fern was so docile and humble, she thought so little of herself, that her mother hoped that her words would take effect. She had already given her son a hint that his friend's visits were rather too frequent; she must speak to him seriously on the subject, and appeal to his love for his sister.
She changed the subject now by asking Fern what was the matter with Crystal.
"Percy has been speaking to her again, mother; he went to meet her, when she was coming back from the Nortons', and Crystal is very, very angry with him."
Mrs. Trafford's face darkened—she looked exceedingly displeased. Was this how Percy protected his sister? leaving her alone with Erle Huntingdon while he carried out his own selfish purposes. This was worse than she had imagined; but Fern misunderstood the reason of her mother's vexation.
"It is very wrong of Percy to worry Crystal in this way, but, poor boy, I do believe he is honestly in love with her. I do wish she would care for him, it would make him so different."
"Crystal will never care for any one; at least"—checking herself as though she had stated a fact erroneously—"she will never care for Percy. I have told him so, and begged him not to persecute her with his attentions, as, if he persisted, she had made up her mind to seek another home. Percy was dreadfully angry when I told him this, and refused to believe me; and then he turned round on me, and accused me of want of prudence in taking a stranger under our roof, and asked me how I knew that she was a fit companion for his sister?"
"As though Crystal were not the dearest and best in the world," returned Fern, indignantly. "Never mind, mother, he only wanted to make you uncomfortable. He is too fond of Crystal to doubt her for a moment. I hope you told him that you were acquainted with her whole history?"
"Yes; and I informed him at the same time that you were ignorant of it, though Crystal meant to tell you herself one day. I told him that, to put his mind at rest, I could satisfy him that Crystal came of good parentage; that she had influential friends and protectors if she chose to appeal to them; that though she was apparently a lonely waif, she had in reality good friends and a most comfortable home."
"Then, I suppose, she has alienated them by that confounded temper of hers," he said, with a sneer; "but I could see he was surprised and not altogether pleased; but I wished him to know that she was not without protectors if he drove her from our roof."
"Percy is very selfish," sighed Fern. "Crystal was getting a little happier; she was beginning to look less miserable, and to take more interest in things, but this evening she has the old restless look."
"That is because she will not take my advice," returned her mother quickly. "Crystal is a dear girl, and I am very fond of her, but I think most of her troubles come from her own undisciplined nature; she is the object of the tenderest love, the most divine forgiveness; there are kind hearts waiting for her if she would only generously respond to them. She has told me her story under the seal of secrecy, as you know well, or she would long ago have been in her right place. My heart bleeds for the friends who love her so, and are seeking her so vainly. No"—rising as if to close the subject—"I am very sorry for Crystal, but I do not pity her as you do. I have known what it is to sin, but I have not been too proud to acknowledge my error. Crystal acknowledges hers with bitter tears and most true penitence, but she will not be forgiven. 'Let me expiate my sin a little longer,' that is all she says."
"Yes, I know," whispered Fern, "she is always telling me that she does not deserve to be happy; is that true, mother?"
"My child, do any of us deserve it? Happiness is a free gift like the sunshine that rises alike 'on the evil and the good.' Do you remember your father's dying words?—'I believe in the forgiveness of sins;' ah, it is all forgiven up there—in heaven one has a Father;" and with trembling lips Nea turned away. Her punishment had been great, she told herself: she had deserted her earthly father, and now her son had deserted her. "One sows the wind to reap the whirlwind," she thought, as she mused bitterly over her boy's weakness.
ERLE ARRIVES AT REDMOND HALL.
She hath a natural wise sincerity, A simple truthfulness, and these have lent her A dignity as nameless as the center.
LOWELL. What thou bidd'st Unargued I obey; so God ordains: God is thy law; thou mine, to know no more Is woman's happiest knowledge, and her praise.
Lady Redmond sat in her "blue nestie;" but this bright winter's morning she was not alone. A better companion than her white kitten, or her favorite Nero, or even her faithful friend Pierre the St. Bernard, occupied the other velvet rocking-chair.
Outside the snow lay deep and unbroken on the terrace, the little lake was a sheet of blue ice, and the sunshine broke on its crisp surface in sparkles of light.
The avenue itself looked like the glade of some enchanted forest, with snow and icicles pendent from every bough; while above stretched the pure blue winter's sky, blue-gray, shadowless, tenderly indicative of softness without warmth and color without radiance.
Fay in her dark ruby dress looked almost as brilliant as the morning itself as she sat by the fire talking to her husband's cousin Erle Huntingdon, who had come down to while away an idle week or two at the old Hall.
He had been there for ten days now, and he and Fay had become very intimate. Erle had been much struck by the singular beauty of Hugh's child-wife, and he very soon felt almost a brotherly fondness for the gentle little creature, with her soft vivacity and innocent mirth.
It had been a very pleasant ten days to both of them, to Fay especially, who led rather a lonely life.
Erle was such a pleasant companion; he was never too tired or too busy to talk to her. He was so good-natured, so frank and affectionate, so eager to wait on her and do her any little service, that Fay wondered what she would do without him.
Hugh smiled at them indulgently. It always pleased him to see his Wee Wifie happy and amused; but he thought they were like two children together, and secretly marveled at the scraps of conversation that reached his ears. He thought it was a good thing that Fay should have a companion for her rides and drives when he was too busy to go with her himself, and somehow Hugh was always too busy now.
So Fay and Erle scoured the country together, and when Frost came they skated for hours on the little lake.
Sir Hugh stood and watched them once, and they came skimming across the ice to meet him, hand in hand, Fay looking like a bright-eyed bird in her furs.
It was delicious, Fay said, and would not Hugh join them? but her husband shook his head. When other people came to skate too, and Fay poured out tea for her friends in the damask drawing-room, he always kept near her, as in duty bound; but he took no active part in the festivities, and people wondered why Sir Hugh seemed so grave and unlike himself, and then they glanced at Fay's happy face and seemed mystified.
Erle in his heart was mystified too. He had always liked his cousin and had looked up to him, thinking him a fine fellow; but he noticed a great change in him when he came down to the old Hall to pay his respects to the little bride. He thought Hugh looked moody and ill; that he was often irritable about trifles. He had never noticed that sharp tone in his voice before. His cheerfulness, too, seemed forced, and he had grown strangely unsociable in his habits. Of course he was very busy, with his own estate and his wife's to look after; but he wondered why Fay did not accompany him when he rode to some distant farm, and why he shut himself up so much in his study. The old Hugh, he remembered, had been the most genial of companions, with a hearty laugh and a fund of humor; but he had never heard him laugh once in all these ten days.
Erle felt vaguely troubled in his kind-hearted way when he watched Hugh and his little wife together. Hugh's manners did not satisfy Erle's chivalrous enthusiasm. He thought he treated Fay too much like a child. He was gentle with her, he humored her, and petted her; but he never asked her opinion, or seemed to take pleasure in her society.
"Why on earth has he married her?" he said once to himself as he paced his comfortable room rather indignantly. "He is not a bit in love with her—one sees that in a moment, and yet the poor little thing adores him. It makes one feel miserable to see her gazing at him as though she were worshiping him; and he hardly looks at her, and yet she is the prettiest little creature I have seen for a long time. How Percy would rave about her if he saw her; but I forgot, Percy's idol is a dark-eyed goddess."
"All the same," went on Erle, restlessly; "no man has any right to treat his wife as a child. Hugh never seems to want to know what Fay wishes about anything. He settles everything off-hand, and expects her to be satisfied with what he has done; and she is such a dear, gentle thing that she never objects. It is 'Yes, dear Hugh,' or 'certainly, if you wish it, Hugh,' from morning to night; somehow that sickens a fellow. I dare say she is a little childish and crude in her ideas; that aunt of hers must be a duffer to have brought her up like a little nun; but she is sensible in her way. Hugh had no idea that she was reading the paper for an hour yesterday, that she might talk to him about that case in which he is so interested, or he would hardly have snubbed her as he did, by telling her she knew nothing about it. She looked so disappointed, poor little thing, there were tears in her eyes; but Hugh never saw them, he never does see if she is a little tired or dull, and I don't call that treating a wife well."
Erle was working himself up into quite a virtuous fit of indignation on Fay's behalf; but presently he became secretly anxious. Before the end of his visit he grew afraid that more was amiss with Hugh than he at first guessed. He had often stayed with him before, and Hugh had visited them at Belgrave House, but he had never noticed any sign of self-indulgence.
He thought Hugh was beginning to take more wine than was good for him. He complained of sleeping badly, and had recourse to narcotics. He was reckless of his health too, and worked often far into the night, and when Erle remonstrated with him, he only said he could not sleep, and he might as well occupy himself.
But in reality he never guessed, except in a vague way, the real reason for this change in his cousin. He would have been shocked and startled if he had known the strange morbid fever that was robbing Hugh of all rest.
He was hungering and thirsting for the sight of a face that he said to himself he had better never look on again; his very nearness to Margaret kept him restless, and made his life intolerable.
What a fool he had been to marry, he told himself; to let that child bind him down to this sort of life. If he could only break away for a time—if he could travel and try what change would do for him; but this quiet existence was maddening.
He was trying his fine constitution terribly, and he knew it. He would tire himself out riding over his estate, and then sit up over his letters and accounts half the night, till his brain seemed stupefied, and yet he had no wish for sleep.
Erle told him he looked haggard and ill, but Sir Hugh only laughed at him; there was nothing the matter, he said, carelessly; he was tough, like all the Redmonds, and he had never been ill in his life. If he only slept better he should be all right, but want of sleep plays the very deuce with a man, and so on.
"If I were you, I should not touch spirits or narcotics," observed Erle, quietly; "your nerves are a little out of order. You should take things more easily, and not sit up so late; one can form the habit of sleep." But Hugh only scoffed at the notion of nerves, and during his long visit Erle saw little improvement.
He was thankful, and yet puzzled, to see that Fay did not notice the sad change in her husband. Now and then she would say to him rather timidly, as though she feared a rebuff, "You are not quite well to-day, are you, Hugh? Your hand is so hot and dry; do stay quietly with me this morning, and I will read you to sleep;" but Hugh only laughed at her anxious face.
"Run away, my pet, for I am busy," he would answer. "If you want a companion, here is this idle fellow, Erle, who never did a stroke of work in his life, I believe;" and Fay would go away reluctantly.
Erle had already grown very confidential with Fay. In her gentle way she took him to task for his desultory life. Erle owned his faults very frankly; it was quite true, he said, that he had not distinguished himself at the university, and had been chiefly known there as a boating man; but he had been extremely popular in his college. "It is all very well," he grumbled, as he sat in Fay's boudoir that morning, talking to her in his usual idle fashion. "What is a fellow to do with his life; perhaps you can tell me that? Uncle ought to have let me make the grand tour, and then I could have enlarged my mind. Ah, yes! every fellow wants change," as Fay smiled at this; "what does a little salmon-fishing in Norway signify; or a month at the Norfolk Broads?—that is all I had last year. Uncle talks of the Engadine and the Austrian Tyrol next summer, but he travels en grand seigneur, and that is such a bore."
Erle was perfectly willing to describe his life at Belgrave House to Fay. She was a shrewd little person in her way, and her quaint remarks were very refreshing. He even thought that he would confide in her after a fashion, and hint at a certain difficulty and complication that had come into his life; he was rather desirous of knowing her opinion; but he began in such a roundabout fashion that Fay was quite perplexed. She understood at last that he was talking about two girls, who both seemed to influence him, and for whom he had special liking; but for a long time she could not find out which was the chief favorite.
She grew impatient at last in her pretty, imperious way, and put a stop to his unsatisfactory rambling style of talk, by asking him a few downright questions.
"You are terribly vague," she said, wrinkling her forehead in a wise way, and folding her little white hands on her lap; they looked absurdly dimpled and babyish in spite of the brilliant diamond and emerald rings that loaded them. "How is a person to understand all that rigmarole? Perhaps I am stupid, but you talk so fast, you silly boy, and now tell me exactly what this Miss Selby is like; I think you said her name was Evelyn."
"Oh! I am not good at descriptions," returned Erle, pulling Nero's long glossy ears. "She is an awfully jolly girl, plenty of go in her, lights up well of an evening, and knows exactly what to say to a fellow—keeps him alive, you know; the sort of girl who will dance like a bird half the night, and get up early the next morning and have an hour's canter in the park before breakfast."
"Ah," in a mystified tone, "she seems a very active young person; but you have not made me see her; is she tall or short, Erle?"
"Well, she is not the tall, scraggy sort, neither is she a diminutive creature, like your ladyship. Miss Selby is medium height, and has a good figure."
"Yes, and her face?" demanded Fay, with a baby frown; "you are very bad at description, Erle, very bad indeed."
"Well, she is not dark," returned Erle, desperately, "not a brunette, I mean; and she is not fair, like the other one, she has brown hair—yes, I am sure it is brown—and good features. Well, I suppose people call her exceedingly handsome, and she dresses well, and holds herself well, and is altogether a pleasant sort of young woman."
Fay's lips curled disdainfully. "I do not think I admire your description much, sir. Plenty of go in her; well, who cares for that? and lights up well of an evening, as though she were a ball-room decoration; I think she seems a frivolous sort of creature."
"Oh, no," replied Erle, eagerly, for this would not do at all. Fay's little satire fell very short of the truth. "You have not hit it off exactly; Lady Maltravers is frivolous, if you like—a mild edition of the renowned Mrs. Skewton, thinks of nothing but diamonds, and settlements, and all the vanities for which your worldly woman sells her soul. It is a great wonder that, with such an example before her eyes, Miss Selby is not as bad herself; but she is a wonderfully sensible girl, and never talks that sort of nonsense; why, she goes to early service, and looks after some poor people: not that she ever mentions these facts, for she is not a goody-goody sort at all."
"Oh, no, she has too much go in her," returned Fay, calmly. "I was quite right when I said that she was an active young person; and now about the other one, Erle?"
"Well," Erle began again, but this time he utterly broke down; for how was he to describe this girl with her beautiful frank mouth, and her soft smiling eyes; he had never found out their color at all; would Fay understand if he told her of the sprightliness and sweetness that, in his opinion, made Fern so peculiarly attractive to him. But, to his astonishment, Fay grasped the whole situation in a moment.
"Oh, you need not tell me, you poor boy," she said, with a knowing nod of her head; "so it is not the young lady with the go in her, though she does dance like a bird; it is this other one with the fair hair and the pretty smile."
"How do you know, you little witch?" returned Erle, staring at her with an honest boyish blush on his face; "do you know that Miss Trafford is poor; that she makes her own gowns, and teaches the vicar's little girls; and that Miss Selby, of whom you speak so rudely, is niece to a countess?"
"Well, what of that?" responded Fay, scornfully; "if your lady-love be poor, Erle, you are rich enough for both;" but he interrupted her with an alarmed air.
"That is the worst of chattering to a woman," he said, in a lofty way. "If you give them an inch, they take an ell; who said I was in love with either of them? Do you know my uncle has spoken to me about Miss Selby: he says she is a fine girl and after his own heart; and he has given me a strong hint that an engagement with her will be greatly for my interest." But Fay turned a deaf ear to all this.
"And the fair-haired girl with the pretty smile; if you marry her, Erle?"
"In that case, my uncle would refuse to have anything more to do with me. No doubt he would disinherit me as he did his own daughter; and Percy would be his heir. Ah, it is all very well talking, Fay," and here Erle looked at her rather gloomily. "I have never learned to work, and I should make a pretty mess of my life; it would be poor Mrs. Trafford's experience over again." And he shook his head when Fay suggested that Hugh should let him have one of his farms. He knew nothing about farming; a little Latin and Greek, a smattering of French and German, were his chief acquirements. "I should have to turn boatman, or starve. No, no, Fay; I must not swamp my own prospects for a mere sentimental idea; and after all, Miss Selby is very nice."
Fay was very angry with him when he said this, for she had taken a curious fancy to this Fern Trafford, but Erle would not listen to her; he got up and shook himself, and walked to the window, and then very gravely proposed a game of snow-balling in the avenue.
Fay thought he was serious, and expressed herself much shocked at the idea. Hugh would not like it, she was sure; one of the gardeners might see them. As it was, Hugh had told her that he was afraid the servants were not sufficiently in awe of her ever since they saw her playing hide and seek in the hall with Nero.
She confessed that she was very fond of it though, and had snow-balled Nero last year in the Daintree garden, and Aunt Griselda had not been shocked at all.
"Don't you sometimes wish you were back at Daintree?" asked Erle, turning round from the window and contemplating the pretty flushed face rather curiously.
"Oh, no," she returned, quickly; "how can you ask me such a question, Erle. I could not imagine life without Hugh. Does it not seem strange?" she continued, seriously; "I have only been married about five months, and yet I find it impossible to imagine myself back at the cottage without Hugh."
"Do you know," observed Erle, carelessly, as he sauntered back to the fire-place, "that I have been here ten days, and must begin to think of my return? If there be one thing I hate, it is to outstay my welcome. I should be afraid of boring you both if I stayed much longer. Well, what now?" breaking off in some surprise.
"Ah, Erle!" exclaimed Fay, sorrowfully, the smiles and the dimples disappearing in a moment, "you are surely not going away yet. What shall I do without you?" continued the poor child. "Who will ride and drive and skate with me when you are gone?"
"Why, your husband, to be sure," returned Erle, lightly; but he was watching her as he spoke. "You have not forgotten your husband, you naughty woman."
Fay never knew why a sudden sharp pang shot through her at Erle's careless remark.
It had never occurred to her simple mind to question her husband's right to keep so entirely aloof from her, and to give her such fragments of his time. But now, as Erle spoke, a dim unconscious feeling came over her that another was usurping his rightful place; that it was her husband who ought to be riding and driving with her, and not his young cousin, but in her wifely loyalty she stifled the feeling, and spoke firmly, though with crimsoned cheeks, like the brave little woman she really was.
"Why, you extremely foolish boy," she said, "don't you know that Hugh has something better to do with his time than to waste it on me? You see," she continued, with much dignity, "he has my estate to look after as well as his own, and it is a large one, and he has no reliable bailiff."
"Dear, dear," replied Erle, with much solemnity.
"And he has to ride over to Pierrepoint on magisterial business ever so often," and here Fay stammered slightly over the long word, but recovered herself in an instant; "and he visits the infirmary, and looks after any of his people who are ill there."
Here Erle again said, "Dear, dear;" but his provoking smile died away after a glance at her face.
"And," continued Fay, her mouth quivering a little, "you must see how proud I am of being his wife, and must not think that I am sorry that he is able to spend so little of his time with me, for I would not have him neglect his duty for the world; no, no, he is far too good and noble and useful to waste his time on me;" and Fay's face wore such a sweet tremulous smile as she spoke, that Erle whispered under his breath, "You are a darling," and went out silently, and perhaps for the first time in his life forgot to hum as he put on his fur-lined coat.
And Fay, standing alone in her little room, whispered softly, "No, no, my bonny Hugh, your Wee Wifie loves you far too well to keep you all to herself;" but during the remainder of the day she was a little quieter than usual; and Erle missed the gentle fun that rippled into such a stream of girlish talk. He had no idea that every now and then his words came back to her with a little throb of pain, "You have your husband, Fay."
Yes, she had her husband; but would the time ever come to the girl-wife when she should know she had him, but that she could not hold him, when she should learn that he had given her everything but his heart, and cry out against him in that bitter waking that all was worthless to her but that?
Blessing she is; God made her so; And deeds of week-day holiness Fall from her noiseless as the snow; Nor hath she ever chanced to know That aught were easier than to bless.
And through the windows of her eyes We often saw her saintly soul, Serene, and sad, and sorrowful, Go sorrowing for lost Paradise.
A few days after that Fay met with a slight accident.
The snow had been falling very heavily all night, and when Fay went to the window the next morning, she looked out on a white world, and not a vestige of the blue ice could be seen for the drifts that lay heaped on the little lake.
She called Hugh to look out with her. "What a pity," she said, sorrowfully; "for we had asked the Romney girls and the Spooners to come up and skate this afternoon. Erle is so fond of young ladies, and he admires Dora Spooner immensely, and now I suppose there will be no skating."
"Of course the men could sweep the snow away fast enough," returned Hugh, with a hasty glance at the glorious prospect outside; there were tiny bird tracks on the white surface, some brown sparrows and a robin were hopping across the snow. Not a breath stirred the laden branches, though they drooped under their snowy festoons. "I dare say the ice would be right enough for a little while, but the air feels milder, and there is danger of a thaw."
"Never mind, we will see how it is to-morrow, and Erle shall take me for a walk instead. I suppose," a little plaintively, "you will be too busy to come too?"
"Oh, yes, far too busy," Hugh assured her, as he seated himself at the breakfast-table and commenced opening his letters. Fay read hers—a few notes—and then sat silent behind her silver urn until Erle sauntered lazily into the room, and then she brightened up and began to talk.
"I think I will send off a note to the vicarage, and ask Dora and the others to come all the same, and we will have a nice walk this morning—that is, if you do not mind, Hugh," looking at the handsome abstracted face bent over the paper; but she had to repeat her question before it reached Hugh's ear.
"Oh, no! it does not matter to me," he answered, indifferently. "Ask whom you like, Fay. The Spooners and Romneys, did you say? Oh! by all means, if you want them;" but it may be doubted whether he ever heard her thanks as he buried himself in his paper again.
The dogs were delighted at the prospect of a walk, when Fay consulted them; so a merry party started down the avenue—Fay in her furs and little sealskin hat, which made her look more a child than ever, and Erle in that wonderful coat of his, lined with sable, and the two big dogs racing on before them, and plowing with their noses in the deep cold snow.
They had walked about two miles, and were thoroughly enjoying themselves, when all at once Fay slipped.
How it happened neither of them had any idea. Fay was sure-footed, she skimmed over the frozen snow as lightly as a bird. Erle never had to offer her any assistance—he would as soon have thought of helping a robin. It must have been orange-peel, as Fay suggested—only neither of them saw any—but all the same, just as Erle was walking calmly along, striking carelessly at the branches with his dandy cane, and Fay chattering and laughing in her usual fashion, all at once she slipped, and her foot seemed to double up under her, and she sunk down comfortably on the snow, only with rather a pale face.
It was very awkward and embarrassing, a most unfortunate circumstance, as they were two miles from Redmond Hall, and there was Fay protesting that she did not think she could stand, much less walk; and when Erle knelt down to examine the dainty little foot, and touched it lightly, Fay turned still paler, and uttered a little cry, but the next moment she laughed.
"I am afraid I have sprained my ankle. It was very silly and awkward of me, and I can not think how it happened. No, it is not so very painful, unless I try to move. What are we to do, Erle?"
"That is just what I don't know," he returned, disconsolately, looking down the lane, while the two dogs gazed wistfully into his face, as though they were quite aware of the dilemma, and felt very sorry for their little mistress. "I suppose you could not ride on Pierre's back, you are hardly small enough for that; and with all my good will I am afraid I should not succeed in carrying you two miles—these furs are heavy, Fay—and yet how am I to leave you sitting in the snow while I go in search of help. I suppose," with another look, that only landed him in plowed fields, "there is not a house near, and yet this is one of the Sandycliffe lanes."
"I don't think we are far from the Grange—that curious old red-brick house we passed the other day. This lane leads to the Sandycliffe road, and I expect we are not a quarter of a mile from the village."
"All right," responded Erie, cheerfully; "I can carry you as far as that easily."
"Oh! but we must not go to the Grange," returned Fay, in rather a regretful voice. She was suffering a good deal of pain with her foot, her boot hurt her so, but she would not make a fuss. "The Ferrers are the only people who have not called on us, and Hugh would not like me to go there."
"Nonsense," replied Erie, impatiently; "what does that matter in a case like this. I suppose you think that good Samaritan ought to have left his card first before he helped that poor traveler?"
Fay tried to laugh, but it was rather an effort. "You do not understand," she said, gently; "Hugh used to know the Ferrers, and he says they are very nice people; he is the blind vicar of Sandycliffe, and his sister lives with him. I do not know whether they are old or young; but Hugh said that he had had a misunderstanding with them, and that it would be very awkward to renew the acquaintance; he does not wish me to visit them."
"Perhaps not. I dare say the Samaritan and the unfortunate traveler were not on visiting terms afterward, but under the present agreeable circumstances we must certainly avail ourselves of the first shelter that offers itself. Hugh would quite approve of my advice, and in his absence must allow me to judge for you;" and there was a slight peremptoriness in Erle's voice, to which Fay yielded, for she offered no resistance when he lifted her from the ground with his old playful smile.
Fay was very small and light, but her furs were heavy; still, Erle was strong and wiry, and he carried her easily enough—he actually had breath to joke too—while the two dogs bounded before him barking joyously, and actually turning in at the Grange gates of their own accord—at least Pierre did, and Nero followed him.
Erle looked up curiously at the old red-brick house, with its picturesque gables and mullioned windows, and then, as he deposited Fay on the stone seat inside the porch, and was just raising his hand to the knocker, the door opened, and a very tall man in clerical dress appeared suddenly on the threshold. Erle's hand fell to his side, and he and Fay exchanged puzzled glances; it must be Mr. Ferrers, they thought, and of course he did not know any one was there. He stood with his face turned to the wintery sunshine, and his grand massive-looking head bowed a little. The next moment Pierre jumped up and licked his hands, and tried to put his huge paws on his shoulder, whining with delight. Mr. Ferrers started slightly. "Why, Pierre, my fine fellow, I ought to know that rough greeting of yours by this time; it is a long time since you have called at the Grange; whom have you brought with you, Pierre?" stroking the dog's noble head.
Erle came forward at once. "My cousin, Lady Redmond, has met with rather an awkward accident in one of the lanes—she has sprained her ankle, and is in great pain; may I lift her on that comfortable oak-settle by the hall fire while I go in search of help. I am Sir Hugh's cousin, Erle Huntingdon."
"Lady Redmond," ejaculated Mr. Ferrers; and Fay wondered at the sudden shadow that passed over her host's fine face. "Oh, yes, bring her in, Mr. Huntingdon, but we must find a softer couch than the oak-settle. Margaret—where are you, Margaret?" and the next moment a clear, pleasant voice answered, "I am here, Raby;" and a tall, graceful-looking woman, with dead-brown hair and calm beautiful face, crossed the long hall. Fay seemed to see her coming through a sort of haze, and she put out her hands involuntarily; Margaret's voice changed as she took them. "Ah, poor child, she is faint. Will you bring her into my morning-room, Mr. Huntingdon, there is an easy couch there, and a nice fire;" and Margaret led the way to a pleasant room with an old-fashioned bay window overlooking the sunny lawn and yew-tree walk; and then took off the little sealskin hat with hands that trembled slightly, and laid the pretty head with its softly ruffled hair on the cushions, and then put some wine to Fay's lips. Fay roused herself and drank some obediently, and a little color came back to her face. "It is my foot, the boot hurts it so," she said, faintly.
"Yes, because it is so swelled," returned Miss Ferrers, in a sympathizing voice. "Mr. Huntingdon, if you will ring the bell I will ask my maid for some hot water. I think that will relieve Lady Redmond; and if you will kindly join my brother, you will find him outside. Ruth and I will soon make your cousin more comfortable;" and Erle at once took the hint.
The dainty little boot was sadly mangled before they could get it off, and Miss Ferrers uttered a pitying exclamation at the sight of the inflamed and swelled ankle. The hot fomentation was deliciously soothing, and Miss Ferrers's manipulations so soft and skillful that Fay was not sorry that her little protest was made without success.
"Don't you think your maid could do this? I do not like to trouble you so much," she said once, in a deprecating voice.
"It is no trouble," returned Margaret, fixing her beautiful eyes for a moment on Fay's pale face; "I like to do it for you, Lady Redmond." Yes, she liked to do it; it gave her a strange pleasure to minister to her innocent rival, Hugh's wife. As Fay's little white foot rested in her hand, all at once a scene arouse before her mind—an upper chamber, where a mild majestic Figure rose from among His wondering disciples and "girded Himself with a towel."
Ineffable condescension, divine humility, uniting for all ages the law of service and kindly ministration; bidding men to do likewise, and to wash the feet of sinners.
Margaret had stolen many a look at the pale little face resting on the cushions. What a baby face it was, she thought, and yet wonderfully pretty too; and then, as she bent over her work again, a quick throbbing pain that was almost agony, and that made her look as pale as Fay, seemed to stifle her. Hugh, her Hugh; ah, heavens! what was she thinking? another woman's husband could be nothing to her!
"Men are all alike," she thought, sadly; "even the best of them forget. Well, he is content with her now—with this little piece of innocent baby-faced loveliness. Yes," interrupting herself, sternly, "and I ought to thank God on my knees that he is content—my own Hugh, whom I love better than myself;" and she looked so gently and kindly at Fay that the little thing was quite pleased and grateful.